Friday, 2 May 2008

Canine neutering: why and when?

Growing up in a household with all sorts of four-legged friends, I assumed all families did what ours did and neutered their pets promptly at the earliest age it was appropriate and safe to do so. We had no interest in breeding our pets, and saw no reason to increase the burden on charities to rehome animals we could not look after.

Then, of course, there's the preventative aspect. Dogs Trust never puts a healthy dog down, and everyone here believes prevention is better than 'cure'. For that reason, ever dog that passes through our doors is neutered.

There are people who disagree with this principle, so I've decided to take a look at the whats and wherefores so that our supporters can understand why we take this view. For some people the problem is not so much why as when, so I'll be looking at the conflicting advice on age.

Why neuter?

Well, as I've said, it's a crucial preventative measure against more strays. But there's also a behavioural aspect. Bitches will go into season regularly, and during that time will have side effects such as blood spotting - not to mention being sniffed out from miles away and chased by males dogs. Some suffer from uncomfortable phantom pregnancies, and young male dogs might suddenly ignore their training and exhibit territory marking, aggressive or inappropriate behaviours.

If you're not planning to let your dog breed, why let them go through all the natural urges? You're already making the choice for your dog as to whether he or she breeds, so it's also your responsibility to decide whether he or she is able to. Doggy contraception is delivered painfully and expensively by injection - a one-off operation is far less suffering for your pooch.

In addition, certain medical conditions are avoided by neutering. According to estimates, up to half of all 'entire' (non-neutered) bitches fall prey to pyometra, a potentially fatal womb infection. Neutering completely removes the risk and offers protection against mammary cancer if performed before a bitch's second season. Male dogs are completely protected from testicular cancer, and the likelihood of hormonally influenced tumours such as anal adenomas is reduced.

Let's not forget that pregnancies are also potentially life-threatening.

So why would anyone disagree with neutering?

Well, some people say it's not 'fair'. It's all a matter of how you look at it. We want to completely protect the rights of a dog to exhibit normal behaviours. However, being brought into sexual maturity but not allowed to act on the instincts that come with it could be considered substantially more unfair than avoiding the situation altogether.

There is some, mostly anecdotal, evidence to suggest neutering increases the likelihood of urinary incontinence in bitches. However, practices such as tail docking have also been associated with incontinence; how many of those dogs were also docked? We would welcome scientific research that could shed light on any possible links, but still believe that neutering clearly solves more problems than it is said to create.

Any other side effects? Well, possible weight gain, which is easily controlled with diet and exercise, and changes to the coat. Some dogs become fluffier, but they've never complained to us about their new look!

The fact is, if there were any evidence to suggest neutering could harm a dog, Dogs Trust would never do it.

When should your dog be neutered?

This is a controversial subject, and the best advice would be to talk it over with your vet.

Early age neutering can be beneficial because the operation is easier, safer and requires less recovery time. Many vets recommend waiting until six months; on the whole, neutering your dog before they come of age sexually is kinder, as they won't miss what they've never had.

Some practices offer neutering from as early as twelve weeks, others prefer to wait as long as ten months. Remember that it is an offence for a bitch to be mated before she is a year old, but she could come into season at ten months. If you cannot keep her 'safe', and you don't intend to breed her at all anyway, bear that in mind when you're deciding when to neuter your dog.

Last year 16,000 dogs passed through our Rehoming Centres. There are an estimated 100,000 stray dogs in this country, and we want to see every one with a loving home whilst at the same time reducing the scale of the problem. Neutering is a vital tool in that for us - could it be right for you, too?
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