Pet Connection: When’s the right time to alter pet?

If you got a puppy during the holidays, you’re probably starting to wonder when you should have your young pal spayed (removal of ovaries and uterus) or neutered (removal of testes).

The answer to that used to be straightforward: Most veterinarians recommended that the surgery take place when the pet was 6 to 9 months old. Spaying and neutering has benefits for pets, owners and society.

In general, altered pets live healthier, longer lives. They are less likely to roam because they don’t have hormones urging them to seek out a mate, and females don’t need to be confined during twice-yearly heat cycles. And widespread spay/neuter efforts have greatly reduced the numbers of homeless animals in shelters.

All of those benefits are important, but we’ve discovered that they must be balanced with the needs of individual dogs, and that can be a challenge. The issue of when to spay or neuter a pet is complicated, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. New research tells us that for some dogs, at least, waiting until they reach physical maturity is a better option than pre- or early adolescent spay/neuter surgery.

Depending on the age at which it’s performed, several studies have shown that spay/neuter surgery is linked to increases in the incidence of certain diseases or conditions in dogs, including osteosarcoma (bone cancer), hemangiosarcoma (heart tumor), hypothyroidism and canine cruciate ligament (CCL) injuries, as well as prostate cancer in male dogs and urinary incontinence in females.

For instance, giant breeds are more at risk for osteosarcoma. Breeds at higher risk for CCL tears include Akitas, German shepherds, golden and Labrador retrievers, Newfoundlands, poodles and Saint Bernards. The science tells us that in certain breeds it’s beneficial to let bones mature before spaying and neutering. Don’t get us wrong. We believe spaying and neutering is the right thing to do for family pets.

The benefits more than outweigh the risks. The decision you need to make, in conjunction with your veterinarian, is when to schedule it for your particular pet. Here are some factors to consider:

•  Ask your veterinarian about the health risks faced by your breed and whether any of these issues are affected by the age at which a dog is spayed or neutered. Several recent studies have addressed these topics.

•  Consider alternative methods of altering your dog, such as ovariectomy (removal of only the ovaries) or injectable neutering with Zeuterin. An ovariectomy is less invasive, and the Zeuterin procedure allows dogs to retain some of their testosterone, which can offer certain protective health benefits, according to some studies.

•  Make your decision based on the most current research and your dog’s breed and lifestyle. For instance, if your dog will be a canine athlete, later neutering may improve his muscle tone and decrease the risk of CCL ruptures.

•  Put risk into perspective. Altering at a young age may have only a slight effect on the incidence of disease, and the increase in incidence will be breed-related. If the risk increases from 1 in 20,000 to 2 in 20,000, you are still better off spaying or neutering your dog. Cat owners, your decision is easy. Spaying or neutering before 5 or 6 months of age is still best, no matter what the breed or mix.

The buzz

Labrador retrievers have fetched the title of the nation’s most popular dog breed for the 23rd year in a row, according to American Kennel Club registration statistics. That makes them the longest-running holder of the top spot since the AKC’s founding in 1884. Labs are popular for their classic canine good looks, friendliness, energy and versatility. When they aren’t retrieving a bird, stick or ball, they may be found working as guide dogs, assistance dogs, detection dogs or search-and-rescue dogs. They come in three colors – black, yellow and chocolate – and weigh 55 to 80 pounds.

– Kim Campbell Thornton