Spay & Neuter Initiative

Have you ever heard of a surgery called a spay? This surgery and the name of it seems to confuse a lot of people, and we all chuckle when people come in seeking to get their pet "spaded."  Interestingly, the origin of the word spay dates to days long gone by, and it means to cut with a sword.  Nowadays, we don't use very long swords, but we definitely do cut during a spay; specifically, we are cutting into the pet's abdomen and removing both ovaries and the entire uterus. While neutering actually means to remove the ability of individuals to reproduce, that word typically is what is used to describe the surgery to remove the testicles of male pets, also called castration.

For the past 20 years or so, efforts have been made in the United States to reduce pet overpopulation by encouraging spay and neuter procedures for dogs and cats.  We have all become used to that concept, and most people do not think twice about their young dog or cat needing to get this surgery at around 5 months of age or even earlier if the pet is obtained at a shelter or through a rescue group.  Initially, veterinarians did not really recognize that there were any significant differences in the long term health of pets that were "fixed" at a young age, but recently several studies have concluded that potentially significant health problems are at an increased risk in this group of pets that are neutered or spayed early.

If you think about it in terms of your own life, it seems so logical.  When you are growing up, things move along at pretty regular rates punctuated by a few "growth spurts" but one thing propels growth like nothing else and we are not talking about drinking milk.  Puberty is that awkward moment in time when things really change.  Remember back to junior high and all of the strange things that happen to your body when you least expect it.  One day you are a little kid and the next you are a young adolescent, growing fast, getting hair in weird places and teeming with hormones making you feel things that you never even thought possible.

Now back to your dog or cat. Early spay or neuter equals no puberty.  Yes, some potential good things come from that like male dogs not wanting to hump everything in sight or mark their territory (on the side of your sofa) or acting like Rocky and wanting to dominate every other dog in sight. But taking away puberty obviously makes growth different and in some ways wrong.

Recent studies indicate that in certain breeds the incidence of hip dysplasia, torn knee ligaments and even some cancers are increased in the group of dogs that are fixed prior to 6 months of age. For many breeds, these risks probably don't matter, but there are likely many other conditions that eventually will be proven to be impacted by the lack of normal growth that accompanies early altering.

Due to these facts now being known, our team of doctors has adopted new recommendations for the ideal timing of spays and neuters in dogs.  For male dogs, we recommend neutering at 1 year of age or older.  Dogs are fully grown by 1 year of age, so we maximize the health of this group of dogs by allowing full normal growth. Hopefully we can prevent many of these dogs from developing unwanted male characteristics like mounting, urine marking, dominance, aggression and roaming by not waiting too long for these behaviors to develop.  Some families may find that with specific dogs, waiting to neuter them may not be preferable; the early emergence of these behaviors that tend to become learned traits may lead us as a team to elect a compromise on the timing of altering for specific individuals.

For female dogs we have a bit of a conundrum.  The vast majority of female dogs "go into heat" (puberty and their first menstrual cycle) at 9 months of age.  Astoundingly, going through one single heat cycle in dogs will increase their risk of breast cancer from virtually nothing to an 8% risk.  The second heat cycle which happens about 6 months later increases that risk to 25%! Breast cancer in dogs is a malignant process in approximately half of those affected, so we really don't want to knowingly increase the risk of a potentially life threatening disease.  Thus, in female dogs, we recommend spaying at exactly 8 months of age to harness as much as possible of the normal growth as we can while not increasing the risks of bigger issues. 

Due to the high incidence of unwanted characteristics that develop with both male and female cats that go through puberty and the overall lack of studies that show huge health impacts from early spay and neuter with this species, we are still recommending for cats to be spayed or neutered by 5 months of age.

When adopting a pet from a rescue group or a shelter, understand that the motivations for those groups are to save as many pets from unnecessary euthanasia as possible, which means averting unwanted pregnancies that can lead to more homeless pets.  Therefore, most pets from these sources will be spayed or neutered as early as possible without the adoptive family having a say in the matter.  We encourage you to respect the contract or agreement that you entered into with these entities, even if it means that you give up the ability to adhere to our newest guidelines on the timing of spay or neuter.  As much as we would like to avoid some of these problems that become more likely, almost all of them are treatable conditions if they arise.

We want you to understand that your health care team at Alicia Pet Care Center is continuing to be on the cutting edge of veterinary medicine, and while it’s much easier for us sometimes to just do what is convenient for us or what might be a simpler conversation with our clients, we feel very passionately about providing the best care possible for your pets.  We will stay on top of this situation as it unfolds over time and likely there will be additional studies in the future that will clarify our stance on this issue even further.  We will always keep our protocols in line with what will provide your pet with the longest and healthiest life possible.  We take our motto very seriously: "We're taking care of your babies!"

For more information, feel free to read some riveting scientific studies below:

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