The decision about whether to have your pet neutered or not is likely to be one of the biggest that you make as a pet owner. There is no doubt that neutering your pet can have really great benefits to their health and you will also be doing your bit to help the growing crisis of the thousands of pets already in rescue centres around the country, because there aren’t enough homes to go around. However, for many different reasons, not all pet owners (especially dog owners) will want to have their pets neutered and as long as these unneutered pets are managed responsibly, this decision is fine. This article will describe the pros and cons of neutering and hopefully give you all the information you need to make your decision.
What is neutering?
Neutering is the general term used to describe the surgical removal of the sex organs in animals to prevent them from breeding. Neutering or de-sexing are terms that can be used for both male and female animals.
Spaying: When we spay a female animal, we perform an ovario-hysterectomy , which is the surgical removal of the ovaries and uterus. The surgery involves a small abdominal incision in the dog, rabbit and guinea pig just below the umbilicus, or a small flank incision in the cat (unless the owner specifically requests an abdominal spay).
Castration: When we castrate a male dog, cat, guinea pig or rabbit we remove the testes to prevent reproduction. The surgery involves a small incision just in front of the testicles in the dog, guinea pig and rabbit or a small incision into each side of the scrotum in the cat. Sometimes male animals have a problem called cryptorchidism, in which one of the testicles has not descended properly, in these cases they may require abdominal surgery to remove the retained testicle.
The reasons for neutering
There are many reasons to recommend that dogs, cats and rabbits are neutered; it benefits their health and helps reduce pet overpopulation. So many animals end up in rescue centers, or are even put to sleep, because there are just not enough homes available for them. Each year, approximately 150,000 stray or abandoned animals are taken in by animal welfare organisations in the UK, such as the RSPCA, Dogs Trust, and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, who try to find homes for them.
The health benefits of neutering
- Prevents “heat” or oestrus (also known as being in season)
- Prevents unwanted litters
- Prevents hormone fluctuations that cause false pregnancy
- Prevents Pyometra, a serious and potentially fatal womb infection
- Prevents mammary (breast) cancer.
- Prevents uterine and ovarian cancer.
- Prevents the urge to escape and find a mate during heat.
- Prevents unsociable behaviour during heat (Think PMS!)
- Prevents genetic problems, deformities and bad temperaments being passed on.
- Prevents urine spraying and marking behaviour that sometimes occurs in entire female rabbits (does).
- Neutered female cats cats are less at risk of diseases such as Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukaemia (FeLV), which are highly infectious and incurable diseases.
- Enables some animals to live in mixed-sex groups without fighting and/or pregnancy
- Lowers the risk of serious conditions such as benign prostatic hyperplasia, prostatitis and hormone-related (testosterone) diseases such as perianal adenoma in dogs.
- Eliminates the risk of testicular cancer, a common cancer in entire dogs.
- Removes sexual urges and the need to escape or roam to find a mate. Entire male cats can have huge territories and are more likely to get into fights.
- Reduces certain types of aggression in male dogs
- Prevents genetic problems, deformities and bad temperaments being passed on.
- Neutered animals are less likely to mark their territory with strong smelling urine.
- Neutered male cats cats are less at risk of diseases such as Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukaemia (FeLV), which are highly infectious and incurable diseases.
- Neutered male rabbits and guinea pigs are less likely to show aggression towards other males
- Enables some animals to live in mixed-sex groups without fighting and/or pregnancy
Problems that can occur in un-neutered animals
Pyometra: This is an infection of the uterus (womb) in female animals. The uterus fills with pus, and toxins quickly spread throughout the body causing the animal to feel very unwell. If this condition is not treated quickly it can be fatal.
Mammary (breast) Cancer: Mammary cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal mammary gland cells. If left untreated, certain types of breast cancer can metastasize (spread) to other mammary glands and organs throughout the body. While any pet can develop mammary tumors, these masses occur most often in older female dogs and cats that have not been spayed.
Ovarian Cysts: The symptoms of ovarian cysts will depend on the type of cyst but can include; swelling of the vulva, due to the high amounts of estrogen in the body, vulvar discharges that may contain blood and occur outside the regular bleeding in the heat cycle, hair loss, irregular heat cycles or lack of heat cycles, extended heat cycles, abdominal swelling due to pus or fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity.
False Pregnancies: False pregnancy is a term used to denote a common condition in a non-pregnant female animal that is showing symptoms of pregnancy or nursing without producing babies. Symptoms usually occur after her oestrus (heat) is over and is thought to be caused by a hormonal imbalance. Symptoms can include; behavioral changes, mothering activity, nesting and self-nursing, restlessness, abdominal enlargement, enlargement of mammary glands, vomiting, depression, loss of appetite (anorexia), fur plucking (rabbits).
Prostate problems (dogs): Enlarged prostate occurs in more than 80% of un-neutered male dogs past the age of five. Some dogs with an enlarged prostate have difficulty with urination or bowel movements.
Testicular cancer (dogs): About 7% of un-neutered males develop a testicular tumor. Fortunately it seldom spreads. Although castration has a complete cure rate of approximately 90%, neutering prevents it entirely. If your dog has one or both testicles tucked up inside his body (called cryptorchidism) he is far more likely to develop a testicular tumor compared to a dog with descended testicles; this condition can also be passed on to offspring so a cryptorchid dog should definitely be neutered.
Behavioural problems and injuries: Roaming is the main problem for both un-neutered males and females as they are likely to want to try and find a mate. This can lead to road traffic accidents, fighting with others and injury. Dogs often have problems with recall and focusing on their owner if they are being led by their hormones. Some animals will also demonstrate hormone-related aggression.
“It changes the pet’s personality”
The only behaviour changes are likely to be positive ones. Neutered animals often make better companions and are more affectionate. Pets are less likely to roam, which means less chance of getting lost or hit by a car, they are also less likely to mark territory or get in fights.
“Neutered pets become fat and lazy”
While it is true that a neutered animal needs fewer calories in the diet, it is ultimately overfeeding and/or a lack of exercise by the owners that causes obesity in animals. Make time for walks and play, and ask your veterinary nurse about reducing calories once your pet has been neutered.
“My pets are brother and sister so they won’t mate”
The fact that they are related to each other will make no difference to your pets, they will still mate and produce offspring.
“My pet is a pedigree and shouldn’t be neutered”
Your pet is a companion, not a financial investment or status symbol. Unless you are showing your pet and plan to breed, you should consider having it neutered. Remember that one in four animals handed in to animal shelters are pedigrees.
“I don’t want my male pet to feel deprived or less masculine”
You shouldn’t confuse human sexuality with an animal’s hormonal instincts. Neutering won’t cause any negative emotional reaction in your male pet. In addition, it greatly reduces the risk of prostate and testicular diseases in dogs and the possibility of FIV & FeLV and fight related wounds and abscesses in male cats.
“It’s too expensive to have my pet neutered”
The surgery is a one-time cost and a small price to pay for the health of your pet and the prevention of life threatening illnesses, not to mention preventing more homeless animals. Our pet health club offers a 20% discount on neutering and there are also several animal charities that may provide assistance with the cost of neutering.
“Having a litter is good for her and it will be a great experience for the family”
Motherhood will not make your pet healthier or happier (and some animals make terrible mothers!). In fact, early spaying greatly reduces the likelihood of mammary cancer, and eliminates potentially life threatening infections of the uterus and ovaries.
If you are thinking about letting your pet have a litter, is important that you think things through properly and ensure that you make the health and welfare of your pet and its offspring an absolutely priority. Breeding because you think a male and female will produce cute offspring or because you think you will make some money is very irresponsible. Care must to be taken to ensure you can find good homes for the whole litter, that you will not be allowing genetic/hereditary problems to be passed on to the offspring and that you can afford to look after the mother and her offspring properly.
Before you let your pet get pregnant, think about the following things
- Have you ensured that your pet is healthy, vaccinated and is not going to be passing on genetic or hereditary problems to the offspring? Have you had the appropriate health screening tests carried out such as checking for hip dysplasia and eye problems in dogs (further information can be found on The Kennel Club website), viruses in cats and dental misalignment problems in rabbits?
- Is your pet’s temperament good? Do they have any fear or aggression issues?
- Is your pet fully grown and mature enough to have a litter? Usually between 18 months and 3 years old, but this is dependent on species and size, so ask your vet if you are not sure.
- Can you find an appropriate mate? It is vitally important and you ensure that the mate is healthy and has also had the appropriate vaccinations and health tests. Just letting your female pet out to get mated by any roaming male suitor is highly irresponsible, she may end up with disease or illness (particularly in the case of cats) that can not only make her sick, but could be passed on to her offspring.
- If your pet has difficulties giving birth you may end up paying for a very expensive caesarian operation. This could result in complicated surgery for the mother and you may end up with no babies or, worse, the mother could die too! (Pregnancy complications are not usually covered by pet insurance)
- If the mother cannot or will not feed her litter are you prepared to hand-rear them and to give them food every 2 hours for 24 hours a day until they are weaned?
- Food and care of the litter may be expensive until they go to new homes. Can you afford the cost of feeding, worming and possibly vaccinating them all? If the mother and/or her offspring become unwell can you afford the veterinary treatment that they will need? From 4th April 2016 all puppies will also need to be microchipped and registered before they go to a new home (this will apply to all litters, whether planned or accidental).
- Do you know how to look after your pet during pregnancy and raise, habituate and socialise the offspring properly, before they go to their new homes?
- Can you find good homes for all of the litter? What will you do if you can’t find homes for them or if they are returned to you because their new owners cannot keep them? Are you comfortable with the fact that you could be adding to the many thousands of animals in rescue centres that cannot find homes?
Should you have your cat neutered?
We do generally recommend that cats are neutered, unless you have a registered pedigree cat that you are planning to breed from. This is because the vast majority of cats cannot be ‘chaperoned’ in the same way that dogs are and, when they are let outside, they are generally left to their own devices; making pregnancy in females highly likely and also increasing the risk of disease transmission through sexual activity and wounds, as well as injuries from territorial fighting. So unless you can prevent this by keeping your cat indoors and well mentally stimulated, or by cat-proofing your garden to prevent your cat getting out and other cats getting in, then neutering is usually the best option for your cat.
Should you have your rabbit or guinea pig neutered?
Whether to neuter your rabbit or guinea pig will very much depend on their housing circumstances and group dynamics. Female rabbits can often become territorial and aggressive from 4-6 months of age, they may have repeated false pregnancies, and may growl at, bite and scratch their owners as well as other rabbits. Spaying reduces (and sometimes eliminates) these problems. Male rabbits can be territorial, aggressive and spray urine. Neutered males of both species are often much happier and relaxed, they can also live with a spayed female or even another neutered male. Since rabbits and guinea pigs should be kept in groups of 2 or more, neutering of one or all is usually the best option.
Should you have your dog neutered?
It is up to you as the responsible owner to decide whether or not to have your dog or bitch neutered. At Castle Vets we generally do not recommend that male or female dogs are neutered until they have finished growing and have reached maturity, which is usually between 8 months and 2 years old, depending on the breed (bigger breeds take longer to fully mature). However, we also understand that some young and hormonal dogs can be a real handful, so we are happy to neuter at a younger age if you request it.
We have discussed the risks of not neutering above, but here are some of the benefits seen in dogs that have delayed neutering until they have reached maturity, or have not been neutered at all
- Fewer fear-related behavioural problems, especially in male dogs (1)
- Lower risk of Hip Dysplasia and Cruciate Ligament damage in larger breeds (2)
- Lower risk of some cancer types such as hemangiosarcoma and lymphosarcoma (3,4)
- Lower risk of hypothyroidism (4)
- Lower risk of obesity (although frankly this has more to do with what and how much is fed by the owner)
Being a responsible owner of an unneutered dog
- Male dogs: If you own a dog and do not want to get him neutered, you need to make sure that you can prevent him roaming the neighbourhood and running away every time a bitch comes into season locally. It is as much your responsibility as the owner of a bitch in season, to prevent an unwanted mating. You also need to ensure that he has had proper socialisation, training and behaves well around other entire and neutered male dogs. If you can do this then you may not need to neuter your dog.
- Bitches: If you own a bitch and do not want her neutered, you need to be sure that you can prevent her from being mated and becoming pregnant potentially twice a year and that you can cope with her seasonal bleed twice yearly as well (which can be very messy in some bitches). You will need to be careful about where and when you take her for walks during her season; she will still need exercise, but will be very attractive to any unneutered male dogs in the area. You also must never leave a bitch in season unattended outside, even in your own back garden, unless you are 100% sure that she cannot get out and other dogs cannot get in (you would be surprised at the length some male dogs will go to for a bitch in heat!)
Canine behavioural problems that neutering cannot solve
There are some canine problems that are often misinterpreted as being caused by the dog’s sex hormones and unfortunately neutering will not solve these problems. In some cases your vet may be able to give your dog an injection of a hormone suppressing drug that will mimic the effects of neutering and enable you to see if neutering will have any effect on the behaviour.
- Over excitability and unruly behaviour: This problem is commonly due to adolescence and/or a lack of training and these dogs often respond really well to reward-based training and appropriate mental and physical stimulation. Increasing the amount of daily exercise and, if possible, giving them more opportunity to exercise off-lead can make a huge difference to these dogs.
- Predatory hunting, herding or chasing behaviours: This is down to the breed/type of dog and what it has been bred to do rather than a hormonal issue. These problems often need the input of a qualified behaviourist to help you and your dog.
- Fearful, unconfident dogs: Anecdotal evidence from many qualified animal behaviourists suggest that neutering these dogs may actually make the situation worse. Seek out advice from an appropriately qualified canine behaviourist to help you if your dog is fearful.
- Bitches that show signs of aggression or reactivity when not in season: Spaying unlikely to improve the behaviour and there is a small risk that spaying could make the behaviour worse. We advise that you speak to an appropriately qualified canine behaviourist to help you if your dog is showing signs of aggression.
1. Association Pet Behaviour Counsellors
2. Slauterbeck, et al Canine Ovariohysterectomy and Orchiectomy Increases the Prevalence of ACL Injury
3. Gretel Torres de la Riva, et al Neutering Dogs: Effects on Joint Disorders and Cancers in Golden Retrievers
4. Laura J. Sanborn, Long-Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay / Neuter in Dogs
I hope you find this article useful and informative. Please contact your veterinary practice if you wish to discuss neutering your pet.