Long-Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay / Neuter in Dogs

0

The health risks and benefits of spay and neutering dogs has always been a heavily encouraged and generally accepted practice as long as I can remember. However, through my personal experience and continuing education, I have acquired knowledge that encouraged me to question this traditional standard of spaying/neutering your dog as soon as possible. In fact, I’ve met animal rescue groups and breeders that encourage doing it as early as 6-8 weeks!

Don’t get me wrong, I strongly encourage the spaying and neutering of pets unless there is a specific reason not to (such as planned breeding, sports, etc.). However, I recommend delaying the process until your pet’s growth plates are fully closed and developed. This is typically between 12-24 months of age depending on the breed, size, and structure of your dog. Sure, it can be more challenging. Dealing with a female dog in heat and minimizing territorial marking in male dogs can be a pain. However, it can certainly minimize many costly health issues in the long-run.

I’ve included an research paper that originally appeared on the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA) website published by Laura J. Sanborn, M.S. that provides some outstanding data regarding the long-term health risks and benefits associated with spaying and neutering in dogs.


Long-Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay / Neuter in Dogs
Laura J. Sanborn, M.S.
May 14, 2007

Precis
At some point, most of us with an interest in dogs will have to consider whether or not to spay / neuter our pet. Tradition holds that the benefits of doing so at an early age outweigh the risks. Often, tradition holds sway in the decision-making process even after countervailing evidence has accumulated.

Ms Sanborn has reviewed the veterinary medical literature in an exhaustive and scholarly treatise, attempting to unravel the complexities of the subject. More than 50 peer-reviewed papers were examined to assess the health impacts of spay / neuter in female and male dogs, respectively. One cannot ignore the findings of increased risk from osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, hypothyroidism, and other less frequently occurring diseases associated with neutering male dogs. It would be irresponsible of the veterinary profession and the pet owning community to fail to weigh the relative costs and benefits of neutering on the animal’s health and well-being. The decision for females may be more complex, further emphasizing the need for individualized veterinary medical decisions, not standard operating procedures for all patients.

No sweeping generalizations are implied in this review. Rather, the author asks us to consider all the health and disease information available as individual animals are evaluated. Then, the best decisions should be made accounting for gender, age, breed, and even the specific conditions under which the long-term care, housing and training of the animal will occur.

This important review will help veterinary medical care providers as well as pet owners make informed decisions. Who could ask for more?

Larry S. Katz, PhD
Associate Professor and Chair
Animal Sciences
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, NJ 08901

INTRODUCTION

Dog owners in America are frequently advised to spay/neuter their dogs for health reasons. A number of health benefits are cited, yet evidence is usually not cited to support the alleged health benefits.

When discussing the health impacts of spay/neuter, health risks are often not mentioned. At times, some risks are mentioned, but the most severe risks usually are not.

This article is an attempt to summarize the long-term health risks and benefits associated with spay/neuter in dogs that can be found in the veterinary medical literature. This article will not discuss the impact of spay/neuter on population control, or the impact of spay/neuter on behavior.

Nearly all of the health risks and benefits summarized in this article are findings from retrospective epidemiological research studies of dogs, which examine potential associations by looking backwards in time. A few are from prospective research studies, which examine potential associations by looking forward in time.

SUMMARY

An objective reading of the veterinary medical literature reveals a complex situation with respect to the longterm health risks and benefits associated with spay/neuter in dogs. The evidence shows that spay/neuter correlates with both positive AND adverse health effects in dogs. It also suggests how much we really do not yet understand about this subject.

On balance, it appears that no compelling case can be made for neutering most male dogs, especially immature male dogs, in order to prevent future health problems. The number of health problems associated with neutering may exceed the associated health benefits in most cases.

On the positive side, neutering male dogs

  • eliminates the small risk (probably <1%) of dying from testicular cancer
  • reduces the risk of non-cancerous prostate disorders
  • reduces the risk of perianal fistulas
  • may possibly reduce the risk of diabetes (data inconclusive)

On the negative side, neutering male dogs

  • if done before 1 year of age, significantly increases the risk of osteosarcoma (bone cancer); this is a common cancer in medium/large and larger breeds with a poor prognosis.
  • increases the risk of cardiac hemangiosarcoma by a factor of 1.6
  • triples the risk of hypothyroidism
  • increases the risk of progressive geriatric cognitive impairment
  • triples the risk of obesity, a common health problem in dogs with many associated health problems
  • quadruples the small risk (<0.6%) of prostate cancer
  • doubles the small risk (<1%) of urinary tract cancers
  • increases the risk of orthopedic disorders
  • increases the risk of adverse reactions to vaccinations

For female dogs, the situation is more complex. The number of health benefits associated with spaying may exceed the associated health problems in some (not all) cases. On balance, whether spaying improves the odds of overall good health or degrades them probably depends on the age of the female dog and the relative risk of various diseases in the different breeds.

On the positive side, spaying female dogs

  • if done before 2.5 years of age, greatly reduces the risk of mammary tumors, the most common malignant tumors in female dogs
  • nearly eliminates the risk of pyometra, which otherwise would affect about 23% of intact female dogs; pyometra kills about 1% of intact female dogs
  • reduces the risk of perianal fistulas
  • removes the very small risk (≤0.5%) from uterine, cervical, and ovarian tumors

On the negative side, spaying female dogs

  • if done before 1 year of age, significantly increases the risk of osteosarcoma (bone cancer); this is a common cancer in larger breeds with a poor prognosis
  • increases the risk of splenic hemangiosarcoma by a factor of 2.2 and cardiac hemangiosarcoma by a factor of >5; this is a common cancer and major cause of death in some breeds
  • triples the risk of hypothyroidism
  • increases the risk of obesity by a factor of 1.6-2, a common health problem in dogs with many associated health problems
  • causes urinary “spay incontinence” in 4-20% of female dogs
  • increases the risk of persistent or recurring urinary tract infections by a factor of 3-4
  • increases the risk of recessed vulva, vaginal dermatitis, and vaginitis, especially for female dogs spayed before puberty
  • doubles the small risk (<1%) of urinary tract tumors
  • increases the risk of orthopedic disorders
  • increases the risk of adverse reactions to vaccinations

One thing is clear – much of the spay/neuter information that is available to the public is unbalanced and contains claims that are exaggerated or unsupported by evidence. Rather than helping to educate pet owners, much of it has contributed to common misunderstandings about the health risks and benefits associated of spay/neuter in dogs.

The traditional spay/neuter age of six months as well as the modern practice of pediatric spay/neuter appear to predispose dogs to health risks that could otherwise be avoided by waiting until the dog is physically mature, or perhaps in the case of many male dogs, foregoing it altogether unless medically necessary.

The balance of long-term health risks and benefits of spay/neuter will vary from one dog to the next. Breed, age, and gender are variables that must be taken into consideration in conjunction with non-medical factors for each individual dog. Across-the-board recommendations for all pet dogs do not appear to be supportable from findings in the veterinary medical literature.

FINDINGS FROM STUDIES

This section summarizes the diseases or conditions that have been studied with respect to spay/neuter in dogs.

Complications from Spay/Neuter Surgery

All surgery incurs some risk of complications, including adverse reactions to anesthesia, hemorrhage, inflammation, infection, etc. Complications include only immediate and near term impacts that are clearly linked to the surgery, not to longer term impacts that can only be assessed by research studies.

At one veterinary teaching hospital where complications were tracked, the rates of intraoperative, postoperative and total complications were 6.3%, 14.1% and 20.6%, respectively as a result of spaying female dogs1. Other studies found a rate of total complications from spaying of 17.7%2 and 23%3. A study of Canadian veterinary private practitioners found complication rates of 22% and 19% for spaying female dogs and neutering male dogs, respectively4.

Serious complications such as infections, abscesses, rupture of the surgical wound, and chewed out sutures were reported at a 1- 4% frequency, with spay and castration surgeries accounting for 90% and 10% of these complications, respectively.

The death rate due to complications from spay/neuter is low, at around 0.1%2.

Prostate Cancer

Much of the spay/neuter information available to the public asserts that neutering will reduce or eliminate the risk that male dogs develop prostate cancer. This would not be an unreasonable assumption, given that prostate cancer in humans is linked to testosterone. But the evidence in dogs does not support this claim. In fact, the strongest evidence suggests just the opposite.

There have been several conflicting epidemiological studies over the years that found either an increased risk or a decreased risk of prostate cancer in neutered dogs. These studies did not utilize control populations, rendering these results at best difficult to interpret. This may partially explain the conflicting results.

More recently, two retrospective studies were conducted that did utilize control populations. One of these studies involved a dog population in Europe5 and the other involved a dog population in America6. Both studies found that neutered male dogs have a four times higher risk of prostate cancer than intact dogs. Based on their results, the researchers suggest a cause-and-effect relationship: “this suggests that castration does not initiate the development of prostatic carcinoma in the dog, but does favor tumor progression”5 and also “Our study found that most canine prostate cancers are of ductal/urothelial origin….The relatively low incidence of prostate cancer in intact dogs may suggest that testicular hormones are in fact protective against ductal/urothelial prostatic carcinoma, or may have indirect effects on cancer development by changing the environment in the prostate.”6

This needs to be put in perspective. Unlike the situation in humans, prostate cancer is uncommon in dogs. Given an incidence of prostate cancer in dogs of less than 0.6% from necropsy studies7, it is difficult to see that the risk of prostate cancer should factor heavily into most neutering decisions. There is evidence for an increased risk of prostate cancer in at least one breed (Bouviers)5, though very little data so far to guide us in regards to other breeds.

Testicular Cancer

Since the testicles are removed with neutering, castration removes any risk of testicular cancer (assuming the castration is done before cancer develops). This needs to be compared to the risk of testicular cancer in intact dogs. Testicular tumors are not uncommon in older intact dogs, with a reported incidence of 7%8. However, the prognosis for treating testicular tumors is very good owing to a low rate of metastasis9, so testicular cancer is an uncommon cause of death in intact dogs. For example, in a Purdue University breed health survey of Golden Retrievers10, deaths due to testicular cancer were sufficiently infrequent that they did not appear on list of significant causes of “Years of Potential Life Lost for Veterinary Confirmed Cause of Death” even though 40% of GR males were intact. Furthermore, the GRs who were treated for testicular tumors had a 90.9% cure rate. This agrees well with other work that found 6-14% rates of metastasis for testicular tumors in dogs11. The high cure rate of testicular tumors combined with their frequency suggests that fewer than 1% of intact male dogs will die of testicular cancer.

In summary, though it may be the most common reason why many advocate neutering young male dogs, the risk from life threatening testicular cancer is sufficiently low that neutering most male dogs to prevent it is difficult to justify.

An exception might be bilateral or unilateral cryptorchids, as testicles that are retained in the abdomen are 13.6 times more likely to develop tumors than descended testicles12 and it is also more difficult to detect tumors in undescended testicles by routine physical examination.

Share.