Early neutering or spaying a dog or cat: What to know about research into potential health risks
Neutering: do dogs & cats miss their testicles after neutering?
This blog started as not an intellectually rigorous investigation on neutering your pet. I coined the term “phantom balls” to determine if your dog or cat miss his testicles after he is neutered? For most men reading this blog, the thought of neutering/ castration is well, “Ouch!” We empathize as we own those similar body parts namely balls/ testicles.
However, as the research into neutering and spaying piled up, the blog evolved to explain why you should NOT spay or neuter your puppy or kitten ‘early.’
The conventional wisdom is that early neutering or spaying is the solution to the pet population control issue, behavioural problems in pets and has health benefits.
We’ll evaluate the conventional wisdom on early neutering and spaying. Then, delve into whether your dog/ cat miss their balls. We’ll also provide health suggestions for if your pet was neutered or spayed early.
What to know about neutering your dog or cat? Neutering 101.
Neutering is a process where “both testicles and their associated structures are removed.”
Typically, we’ve seen the neutering process done from anywhere around 4 months pre-puberty to up to 1 year.
Neutering or castration involves the following steps generally.
The human takes the male pet in for a physical vet check. Sometimes there are blood tests to make sure there are no health issues. The checks and tests ensure there are no problems such as undescended testicles and liver and kidneys are functioning well.
Then surgery is booked. Before surgery, the human should make sure not to feed your dog/ cat for a certain number of hours and that the pet has an empty pee tank.
Then surgery happens next and recovery for your pet. Note that we decided not to go into too much information on the process itself as we do not want people to try this at home. Please do not try home surgery for your pet.
How much does low cost spay/neuter cost in British Columbia, Canada?
There are a lot of great options available for low-to-no cost neutering or spaying in Canada.
For example, Paws for Hope provides SPAYAID BC. This program partners with vets so that you the client pay $50. The clinic provides a 33% discount and Paws for Hope covers the remaining. See information here from them https://www.pawsforhope.org/what-we-do/spayaid-bc/.
In addition, the BC SPCA provides a Low-Income spay/neuter program, which is “available for cats, and on occasion, dogs and rabbits as well.”
The BC SPCA provides this service regardless of your income level. They discount the surgeries based on your income level or provide rebates. Here is a bit more information from them.
For other provinces like Ontario, I’d reach out to the SPCA to see if they have programs to help with the cost of neutering or spaying.
Why are male dogs and cats neutered?
In North America, the conventional wisdom is that neutering reduces population growth, prevents certain diseases and may positively affect a pet’s behaviour. It is considered “responsible pet ownership”, when you neuter or spay your dog or cat early.
“Neutering male dogs helps keep them from developing testicular cancer, Brown says. Neutered male dogs are also generally less aggressive and less likely to stray from home. This helps keep them safe because they are less likely to get into fights or be hit by a car.”
There is truth to certain aspects of the statement. Neutering was aimed at reducing population growth and in turn euthanasia. Other aspects about dog behaviour may be assumed while some health risks have been omitted.
Is Phantom balls for neutered dogs and cats a thing?
According to Wikipedia, “A phantom limb is the sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still attached. Approximately 80 to 100% of individuals with an amputation experience phantom sensations in their amputated limb.”1
In addition, “these sensations are relatively common in amputees and usually resolve within two to three years without treatment.”1
Although not a limb, there are reports of phantom sensations in the loss of genitals.
In the case of phantom genitals, the only research we have is on humans and the focus is on phantom penises after transgender surgery.
Basically, if you’ve read this far, you and I are probably the only ones wondering if our pets miss their nuts.
In the case of humans, where limbs are lost due to a stressful event, there is research pointing to depression among amputees.
Why aren’t we talking phantom organs re: spaying for dogs & cats?
The process of spaying is no less important. Spaying is the process of removing your dog or cat’s ovaries and usually her uterus. However, the focus on dog’s or cat’s balls is because it is an externality with some evidence of phantom sensations. There does not seem to be evidence of internal organ removals having a sensory phantom impact.
Although, we did not set out to review the literature on spaying, there are some important issues that we found that affect female dogs.
Is early neutering/castration for dogs & cats the right thing?
If you read quite a few blogs and articles online, you’d be led to believe the following.
Usually that means neutering before 6 months or anywhere up to a year. Cats and dogs are considered as pre-puberty or at puberty at these ages.
Is there no behavioural or medical benefit to waiting to neuter your dog or cat?
Health Benefits: Neutering of dog or cat prevents certain diseases. True/ False?
True to an extent but also False by omission. Neutering may reduce the incidence of testicular cancer but worsen the incidence of other forms of cancer e.g. prostate cancer. The health improvements from neutering seem to affect the reproductive system.
Based on a communique from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), “For canine patients, due to the varied incidence and severity of disease processes, there is no single recommendation that would be appropriate for all dogs.”2
Basically, early neutering is now linked to a wide variety of serious diseases. Vets will need to inform and weigh the options with pet owners making these decisions.
A study on Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, found that breed, gender and age for neutering or spaying were all factors, which could increase the likelihood and type of cancer(s), joint disorders, and age-related cognition.3
“When aggregated data for all dogs across multiple breeds are analyzed, neutering increases the overall risk of hemangiosarcoma, lymphoma, mast cell tumors, and osteosarcoma in both sexes although females exhibit a greater risk when neutered than seen for neutered males across all these cancers.”4
Other health issues now linked to early neutering include:
- Orthopedic disease – “In one large study across many dog breeds, neutered males were at risk for hip dysplasia and neutered females for cruciate ligament damage with dogs of large and giant breeds at the greatest risk.”4 In addition, “In an all breed analysis, neutered males had elevated risk for intervertebral disk disease (IVDD)”4
- Hypothyroidism – where your dog’s thyroid does not make enough thyroxine that controls metabolism. Signs include hair loss, flaky skin, and weight gain. “Neutered males and spayed females also have a higher risk, but vets are unsure why.”5
- Atopic dermatitis – where your dog is itching scratching, has hair loss and excessive chewing of paws or body.
- Age-related cognition
In the case of cats, the AVMA states that it “recommends cats not intended for breeding be gonadectomized by five months of age.”
The document put forth to the public did not have enough information. It did mention more research is needed and as that becomes available, “the recommended age for sterilization of cats should be revisited.”
As such, there ARE SIGNIFICANT health benefits to DELAYING neutering until the dog is mature as in the AVMA’s words there is no one size fits all for dogs. Maturity can considered as post puberty i.e. after 1 year or older.
Behavioural Benefits: Neutering prevents dog aggression, marking, unwanted behavior. True/ False?
Research seems to indicate that this is true ONLY in the case of unwanted marking. “Only 2 behaviours, indoor urine marking and howling when left alone, were significantly more likely in dogs”6 that were intact.
This makes sense as male dogs are marking with urine to indicate that a male dog lives in an area to female dogs while fending off other male dogs.
However, a research paper indicated that in the case of aggression, male dogs showed more aggression after castration. “Higher scores in both fear and aggression may indicate dogs that are either experiencing more acute fear or coping with similar levels of fear in a more overt and impulsive way.”6
Basically, intact dogs were more likely to be calmer, less barky and able to cope with situations in a “less excitable and less prone to fear”6 manner.
These findings contradict the conventional wisdom on neutering and aggression of dogs. Neutering does not make a dog calmer. However, it will likely reduce wandering males looking for females and thus reduce traffic accidents or puppy litters.
Population Control Benefits: Neutering has reduced dog & cat euthanasia. True/ False?
True but also not a complete picture based on US statistics. “83 percent of owned dogs and 91 percent of owned cats are now spayed or neutered in the United States, compared with only about 10 percent in the 1970s.”7
There has been a reduction in animals that enter US shelters from about 7.2 million in 2011 to about 6.5 million annually. There has been an overall decrease in the number of euthanized companion animals possibly due to the efficacy of sterilization.
However, as sterilization has been in place since the 1970s, other factors seem to account for the still high intake of companion animals into shelters.
In the words of the ASPCA, “Pet problems are the most common reason that owners rehome their pet, accounting for 47% of rehomed dogs and 42% of rehomed cats. Pet problems were defined as problematic behaviors, aggressive behaviors, grew larger than expected, or health problems owner couldn’t handle.”8
There is a Catch-22 here that due to neutering the euthanasia rates dropped but it may have caused other health and behavioural problems resulting in animals being left at shelters.
These ARE NOT arguments against neutering in the shelter environment. There are too many animals and a lot of good people trying to stem the tide against annual euthanasia.
These are helpful suggestions for what to consider when you have a companion pet.
Are there alternatives to keeping your cat or dog’s balls yet being responsible?
There are several alternatives to neutering or spaying available including:
- Vasectomy – this is the process of making male dogs infertile where the sperm does not enter the urethra.
- Nonsurgical sterilization – an injection to the male cat or dog’s testes to stop sperm production.
- Tubal ligation – this is the process of cutting or blocking the fallopian tubes ensuring that ovaries do not meet sperm ever.
- This has been used in humans and according to John Hopkins medicine, “about 1 out of 200 women may still become pregnant after the procedure.” However, the benefits are not desexing the animal and the animal can still have access to its hormones.
- Ovary sparing hysterectomy – the uterus and part of the fallopian tubes are removed from the female dog or cat so it cannot produce but can have hormones.
All of these procedures are approved sterilization procedures by the AVMA. See here https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/petcare/spaying-and-neutering
When should you spay or neuter your dog?
If you do want to spay or neuter, we recommend that you wait till post-puberty usually after 1 year old. Discuss with your vet the pros and cons of waiting till your pet is fully grown before neutering of spaying.
Is there anything you can do if your pet was spayed or neutered early?
To help counter the effects of early neutering or spaying, a few products have been introduced recently.
The principle is to rebalance hormones after hormonal imbalances are caused by removing the sex hormones .
According to these products, by taking away the main source of sex hormones when you spay and neuter, pressure is put on the adrenal glands, to produce these hormones.
Here are 2 products we’ve used:
- Dr Karen Becker has a product called Canine Hormone Support, meant to “balance your dog’s hormones and counter the hormonal effects of spaying and neutering, as well as potentially dangerous estrogen-mimicking chemicals.” You can read more about it here and buy online.
- For female dogs that are having urinary incontinence due to early spaying, Olie Naturals Lignan Works Hormonal Support reduces the estrogen responsive urinary peeing. The research on lignans shows that it decreases urinary incontinence in postmenopausal women.
And finally in case you are looking for a cosmetic change to your dog’s looks. You can replace your dog’s balls with Neuticles – a silicone testicular implant that Kim Kardashian got for her dog Rocky.
You’d be nuts to not grab this by the balls. 😉
- Elective spaying and neutering of pets. Gonadectomy resources for veterinarians https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/elective-spaying-and-neutering-pets
- Long-Term Health Effects of Neutering Dogs: Comparison of Labrador Retrievers with Golden Retrievers by Benjamin L. Hart, Lynette A. Hart, 2 Abigail P. Thigpen, 2 and Neil H. Willits https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4096726/
- A Review of the Impact of Neuter Status on Expression of Inherited Conditions in Dogs by Anita M. Oberbauer, Janelle M. Belanger and Thomas R. Famula https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2019.00397/full
- Hypothyroidism in Dogs https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/hypothyroidism-in-dogs
- Behavioural risks in male dogs with minimal lifetime exposure to gonadal hormones may complicate population-control benefits of desexing. by Paul D. McGreevy, Bethany Wilson, Melissa J. Starling, and James A. Serpell https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5931473/
- Pet Statistics https://www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics
- Dog Population & Dog Sheltering Trends in the United States of America Andrew Rowan1 and Tamara Kartal
- New Strides in Spaying and Neutering BY DOUGLAS QUENQUA https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/02/new-strides-in-spaying-and-neutering/
- Phantom Penis: Historical Dimensions by Nicholas J. Wade & Stanley Finger https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09647040903363006
- Psychological effects of amputation: A review of studies from India by Anamika Sahu, Rajesh Sagar, Siddharth Sarkar, and Sushma Sagar https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5248418/
- Spaying and Neutering AVMA