The nuances of when to neuter
For veterinarians, advising puppy owners when to neuter used to be a standard, straightforward affair: “We recommend neutering your pet at 6 months of age to help prevent unplanned puppies.” We would then high-five The Price is Right’s Bob Barker for following through on his daily pleas to help control the pet population.
That’s not to say our practice recommendations were or are the only ones out there. Some shelters that are filled with unwanted pets understandably neuter at any age before the pet is adopted. More and more these days, though, I have clients with a set age in mind from their breeder, groomer, uncle or palm reader. I’ve heard so many different ages that I’m sometimes tempted to take these random digits and go play the lotto.
But even if we put these personal and organizational preferences aside, the question of when to neuter has certainly become more complex as a result of scientific research, and our approach to discussing neutering with pet owners needs to follow suit. For example, although we know neutering eliminates the risk of testicular and mammary cancers, a 2013 study found a slightly higher incidence of other cancers in neutered pets versus those left intact as well as a correlation between neutering at an early age and joint disorders, including cranial cruciate ligament tears.
Are veterinarians discussing these risks with owners? Are veterinarians who profit from cruciate surgery motivated to inform owners of the potential for costly surgery down the road? Moreover, although incontinence is important to owners, how often do veterinarians discuss its connection to neutering?
With this research in mind, neutering recommendations become more complicated. For example, consider a large breed female puppy at a veterinary practice for the first time. There is good literature to support spaying at 6 months to seriously minimize the risk of mammary neoplasia. However, a veterinarian could also recommend spaying at or past 1 year of age to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disease.
Another factor to keep in mind here is that possible complications increase with a large breed female dog the older she becomes. Veterinarians would be justified in charging more for such a procedure, but in the era of price shopping, would these practitioners lose business to those who spay for a fixed amount and/or don’t offer an informed consultation?
From recommendation to conversation
Research like the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study will help shed more light on these issues, but it will be years before we get enough data to draw evidence-based conclusions.
Regardless, I believe we now live in an era in which a standard, one-recommendation-fits-all answer for when to neuter doesn’t suffice. Now we need conversations between the veterinarian and the pet owner about what we do and don’t know so those pet owners can make more informed decisions.