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Articles by Dr. Tesluk

TIME TO SPAY OR NEUTER STILL DEBATABLE
 

Dr. Stephen Tesluk, DVM

 

As we get into the final quarter of the year, the owners of many puppies and kittens are starting to think about having their pets spayed or neutered.  By far, the most routine question I get about these procedures concerns the appropriate age to have a cat or dog “fixed.”  Most veterinarians develop a short reply to this question that reflects their philosophy on the matter, but as is the case with many “routine” questions, there are many answers out there, and the subject is fraught with controversy. 

            For many years, most veterinarians preferred to wait until at least six months of age before spaying female dogs and cats, and many would delay neutering males until closer to physical maturity – nine to twelve months or older.  Justification for waiting until these ages involved the animals’ increased ability to tolerate antiquated anesthetic protocols, and many veterinarians felt that the early influence of hormones between puberty and physical maturity were important in the physical development of dogs and cats.

            As the number of pets in the country increased, the problem of pet overpopulation became a major issue, and the new field of “shelter medicine” emerged.  Veterinarians and others working in the shelters realized that many people who adopted pets from animal shelters were not getting them neutered – and that the progeny of these adopted animals were coming back to the shelters in huge numbers, overwhelming their resources and requiring euthanasia in vast numbers.

            With improvements in anesthetic protocols, shelters started to adopt early spay and neuter programs – they realized that if puppies and kittens were fixed early, at 2 or 3 months of age, that many would be already neutered when they were adopted from the shelter, and these animals would not contribute to the shelter’s burden in the following years.

            As early spay and neuter programs have became routine at shelters, many veterinarians in private practice have adopted shelter protocols.  Reasons for this shift in private practice range from economic – shelters refer more new owners to clinics that support shelter protocols – to genuine belief that early spay and neuter programs increase the likelihood that owners will have the procedure done before unwanted litters occur.

            Some veterinarians feel that the surgical procedures involved are easier to do on very young animals.  Veterinarians who recommend early spay and neuter can quote various studies that state there is no difference in the outcome between early spays and neuter procedures verse the more traditionally timed procedures.

            For other veterinarians, there are concerns that come up when considering spaying and neutering pets between the ages 2 and 4 months.  It is universally accepted that puppies and kittens in this age group have an increased risk of hypoglycemia and hypothermia under anesthesia.  It can be argued that this risk can be managed with minor changes in the anesthetic protocol, but the risk is real.

            Any anesthetic procedure is a stressful event for the patient, and stress can lower an animal’s immune defenses, increasing its risk of contracting infectious diseases – a consequence of early spay and neutering that may lead to increased disease in shelter animals.

            Some studies suggest that early neutering of large breed male dogs causes delayed closure of the growth plates in their limbs, resulting in poor conformation.  Even more concerning is a recent study that shows and increased risk of bone cancer in male large breed dogs that are neutered early.

            Other potential consequences of early spay and neutering may include other orthopedic problems, increased risk of urinary obstruction from underdeveloped urethras, and increased risk of urinary incontinence in females, although epidemiological studies have yet to find any positive relationship between early spay/neutering and increased risk of these problems.

            For me, it really boils down to this simple fact: I want what is best for each of my patients on an individual basis.  This means that my recommendations are based solely on my patient’s welfare, and are not clouded by the problem of pet overpopulation.

            Unless otherwise indicated by medical or behavioral problems, I recommend spaying female dogs and cats between the ages of 5 and 6 months, neutering male cats and small to medium sized dogs between the ages of 7 to 9 months, and neutering large and giant breed dogs between the ages of 9 and 12 months. 

            As new information becomes available, I may well change my recommendations, but I will always base any recommendation I make on the best interest of the individual patient.




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