I signed another sympathy card last week for the family of a wonderful female golden retriever that died from mammary adenocarcinoma (breast cancer). This type of cancer would most certainly have been prevented if she had been spayed at an appropriate age earlier in her life. Every time this happens it reinforces my belief in spaying and neutering. I routinely inform our clients that it is not a matter of "if" but a matter of "when" and "what" hormone dependent disease we will deal with in their pets' later years if they are not spayed or neutered. The lifespan of spayed and neutered pets statistically are a year longer due to the list of diseases that can no longer afflict your pet.
Technically, the words neutering, spaying, and castration, all mean the same thing (to remove all or part of the animal's reproductive organs) and can be used interchangeably regardless of the sex of the pet. However, neutering and castration usually refers to males, while spaying (not "spading") typically refers to females. Often the term "fixing" is used which is also appropriate. For those sympathetic to their pet's feelings, we think it best to refer to this subject as the great Far Side comic does as "tutoring".
Spaying involves abdominal surgery where the ovaries and uterus are removed (ovariohysterectomy). Castration is removal of the testicles through a skin incision just in front of the scrotum. These procedures obviously prevent pets from reproducing and adding to the overpopulation of unwanted pets in our country. Most shelters and rescue organinzations require you to spay/neuter as part of their adoption agreement.
There is a list of other equally important reasons to spay/neuter your pet. Secondary behavior traits related to the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone are dramatically decreased. Behaviors such as roaming, urine marking, fighting, and aggression, in both males and females are diminished with these decreased hormone levels. This is especially true of male cats who will certainly mark (spray urine) in the home if left unneutered. In fact, I cannot think of one male cat in our practice that is not neutered for this very reason. These secondary traits start to develop shortly after they become sexually mature which may be 6-18 months of age depending on the species and breed of your pet.
The medical reasons to spay/neuter are much more concrete and obvious to us. Castration will help prevent prostate diseases and cancers, testicular diseases and cancers, and several soft tissue tumors that are testosterone dependent. We can virtually predict one of these illnesses will eventually develop in geriatric intact male dogs. Prostate problems typically show up with straining to urinate or defecate, blood in the urine, and abdominal pain, much like in humans. Diagnosis is made with urinalysis, radiographs (x-rays), and ultrasound. Biopsy may be needed to definitively diagnose the type of prostate disease.
In unspayed females the situation is similar. In addition to the regular twice a year "heat" cycles, intact female dogs are prone to mammary tumors, ovarian and uterine cancers, and pyometra, a type of uterine infection. Pyometra occurs when during a normal heat cycle, bacteria enters the open cervix into the uterus and incubates into a pus filled uterus that enlarges to 10 times its normal size. This is life threatening and requires emergency surgery and spaying under much more adverse circumstances.
If (when) these diseases do develop in an intact male or female we can try mastectomy/lumpectomy in the cases of tumors, and refer for chemo and radiation, but we also will need to remove the hormone "feeding" the disease by guess what--spaying or neutering them. Spay us now or spay us later (and much more dangerous and expensive). Most of the time these treatments help manage the disease but don't necessarily cure the problem.
The majority of our clients already are planning on spaying and neutering with no persuasion from us. Occasionally we do still get the reluctant "man" (you know who you are) in the house who gets squeamish about doing such a thing to their "little guy", or the macho "no way are you cutting my stud" response. Most of the time they come around to understanding it is better for their health and behavior. And if you have heard, it is true; there are prosthetic testicles (Neuticles) which can be implanted to keep the "look" for that truly superficial owner. (We don't perform this procedure). On the other hand, I have noticed that some of our women clients are all too willing and seemingly overeager to engage in "tutoring" leading to some interesting office visits where I politely step out and "let them discuss".
There is a window of time in which there is an appropriate age to spay/neuter that will achieve the benefits of behavior and health without doing harm to a pets overall well-being. If done too late, the behavior issues may not be reversible, too soon and you may affect their health. For cats, 6 months of age is a safe and common time to do this. In dogs, it depends on the breed and size of the dog. For small breeds, around 30 pounds or less, 6 months is fine. For 30-60 pounds maybe 7 months. For 60- 90 pounds 8 months etc. Some of the male giant breeds we may wait until 18 months.
Early spay/neutering is becoming more common and this is where i cringe a little. It is being done on 8-16 week old puppies and kittens, usually associated with shelter or rescue organizations. I know their perspective is the overpopulations of unwanted pets. My concerns are more with the individual and their health. There are serious reasons for not performing these procedures too early that may be getting lost in the shuffle. As animals develop from puppies and kittens, they use the hormones estrogen and testosterone for many parts of their growth including muscle, bone, hair and urinary development. If you remove these hormones too early their growth and development may be adversely affected. Poor muscling, improper long bone growth, poor hair coat are some of the issues you may see later in life. This has been documented in many different species including humans (who were brutalized hundreds of years ago).
One analogy I like to use is with cattle. Ask anyone who raises cattle for beef, why they castrate calves so young. A castrated calf (called a "steer") grows up with softer flesh and with more fat (marbling) for human consumption. A bull's meat would be extremely tough and undesirable. The same holds true for pigs that are also neutered at a very young age. I want our pets to have strong and fully developed muscles, excellent coats, and less hip and leg issues. Those in rescue work will debate this issue because they are worried about irresponsible pet owners.
I have also noticed it is not the clients who adopt from organizations that we have to worry about. The hoops you have to jump through to adopt a pet these days take a serious owner. It seems you need letters of recommendation, a resume', a past veterinary history check, a home inspection (including yard, attic, garage), an FBI background check, a credit history, and a colonoscopy. Then if you are lucky enough to be approved you can pay your fee to adopt. If you last this long then spaying/neutering is a given.
By the way, it is not best to have your female dog go through one heat before spaying. Also, these procedures don't "calm" your pet down. They are maturing at this age and would naturally "calm down". They don't get lazy and change their personality, though they will develop less anxiety and other secondary behavior issues. It is not appropriate to have one litter to "show the kids" the "miracle of life". This just adds to pet overpopulation and is more work and expense than you can ever imagine. Watch a video.
We do believe it is important to decrease the potential for weight gain after these procedures. Our suggestion is to immediately put your pet on low-cal food after spaying/neutering. These foods are not deficient in anything; they just have lower calories which will help prevent weight gain.
I would rather not sign any more sympathy cards for these types of cases. There are enough other diseases we deal with that aren't preventable. It is truly a case of spay us now or spay us later.