The Debate Over Early Age
Spaying and Neutering
By Darrin Lewellen, DVM
Early age sterilization of pets is a recent topic of debate in the veterinary world. Spaying refers to the sterilization of a female pet. The surgery is called an ovariohysterectomy, in which the ovaries and uterus are removed. Neutering refers to the sterilization of a male pet. The surgery is called an orchectomy, in which the testicles are removed. Most veterinarians routinely perform these surgeries. The age of the patient at time of surgery is what has come under debate. Many veterinarians perform spays or neuters at what is considered the traditional age, between 6 - 8 months old. Others spay or neuter at what is considered an early age, between 6 - 14 weeks old. Recent studies by C. V. Spain, DVM and colleagues at Tufts University have shed some light on the debate, and have produced interesting results showing both advantages and disadvantages to an early age spay or neuter.
Most pets undergoing surgery for sterilization at an early age are puppies and kittens available for adoption by humane organizations and animal shelters. Early age sterilization is one part of a comprehensive approach to reducing the enormous problem of pet overpopulation. With early age spaying and neutering, puppies and kittens can be adopted at a young enough age to optimize socialization and training without risk of unwanted breeding later on. Many people believe that early age sterilization surgery has more inherent risk than a traditional age one. This is not true. Pediatric spay-neuter surgeries are quick with minimal bleeding, anesthetic recovery is rapid, and minimal significant short-term or long-term effects have been reported.
Dr. Spain’s study of the long-term outcome of early age spaying and neutering of cats shows the benefits are overwhelming. Male cats that underwent early neutering were compared to male cats that were neutered at an older age. Among male cats that underwent early age neutering, the occurrence of abscesses, aggression toward veterinarians, sexual behaviors, and urine spraying were decreased, whereas only hiding was increased. Among male and female cats that underwent early age sterilization, asthma, gingivitis, and hyperactivity were decreased. Only shyness towards new people was increased. The same type of study was performed for dogs that underwent early age spay or neuter. Among female dogs, early age spaying was associated with increased rate of urinary tract infection and increased rate of urinary incontinence. Among male and female dogs with early age sterilization, obesity, separation anxiety, escaping behaviors, inappropriate elimination when frightened, and being returned to a shelter for any reason were decreased; hip dysplasia, noise phobias, and sexual behaviors were increased. These studies suggest that early age spaying and neutering of cats and early age neutering of male dogs are safe, and many veterinarians should consider performing these surgeries before the traditional age. However, with the increased chance of urinary tract disease in early age spayed dogs, shelters and veterinarians should consider spaying female dogs no sooner than three months of age.
Early age sterilization is one part of a comprehensive approach to reducing the enormous problem of pet overpopulation.
Beyond the debate over early sterilization, spaying and neutering are a very important part of responsible pet ownership. Spaying and neutering your pets prevent unwanted sexual behaviors, like urine spraying or marking, messy canine heat cycles, and noisy feline heat cycles. Sterilization can prevent testicular cancer in male pets, ovarian and uterine cancers, and uterine infections in female pets all of which are life-threatening illnesses. Spaying and neutering also lower the chances of other diseases like mammary or prostate cancer and prostate infection. Sterilized pets are less likely to escape from home and become injured. In the larger picture, spaying and neutering help to control pet overpopulation, keep our communities free of stray animals, and decrease the numbers of animals who suffer or are euthanized because they are unwanted. Please be responsible. Make sure your pet is spayed or neutered.References
1. C. Victor Spain, DVM, PhD; et al. ³Long-Term Risks and Benefits of Early-Age Gonadectomy in Cats,² Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 224: 372-379.
2. C. Victor Spain, DVM, PhD; et al. ³Long-Term Risks and Benefits of Early-Age Gonadectomy in Dogs,² Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 224: 380-387
Dr. Darrin Lewellen is an associate veterinarian at Smith Veterinary Hospital in Santa Fe. His areas of interest include canine, feline, and exotic medicine and surgery. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and came to Santa Fe by way of Austin, TX.
In many ways, our prevailing ways of thinking about animals should make us skeptical of our claim that it is our rationality that distinguishes us from them.