Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rethinking Spay and Neuter

Rethinking Spay and Neuter
By Geneva Coats, R.N.
Secretary, California Federation of Dog Clubs

Pet sterilization has become widely regarded as a routine procedure that is purely beneficial. Most breeders today sell companion puppies under contracts requiring spay or neuter as a condition of sale.(6) Ingrained in recent popular culture is the notion that pet overpopulation is a serious concern, and that to prevent the deaths of animals in shelters all pets should be sterilized. To bolster the campaign for pet sterilization, we have further been informed that a sterilized pet is happier, healthier and longer-lived than one who remains intact.

Should we believe these widely circulated ideas that “everybody knows?” What are the facts?


In the mid-twentieth century, there was an abundance of pets; many were available “free to good home” via newspaper ads. Few pets were sterilized, and many people unwisely allowed their dogs to roam the neighborhood. Consequently, there were many unplanned litters produced by family pets.

According to “Maddie’s Fund” president Richard Avanzino, in the 1970s, our country’s animal control agencies were killing, on average, about 115 dogs and cats annually for every 1000 human residents. This amounted to about 24 million shelter deaths every year.(2) Avanzino is also the former executive director of the San Francisco SPCA, and is regarded by many as the founder of the modern no-kill movement in the US.

"The Problem" of too many pets and not enough homes to go around was ingrained into the public psyche. To deal with “The Problem” of massive shelter killings, a huge public awareness campaign was initiated. The importance of spaying and neutering pets was emphasized. Vets began to routinely urge their clients to sterilize their pets as an integral part of being a “responsible owner”. Planned breeding became a politically incorrect activity. A popular slogan that persists today is “Don’t breed or buy, while shelter dogs die.”

The crusade for spaying and neutering pets has been very successful. A 2009-2010 national pet owners’ survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reveals that the vast majority of owned pets...75% of dogs and 87% of cats... are spayed or neutered.

In recent years, according to Avanzino, annual shelter death numbers have dramatically declined to about 12 per thousand human residents, or about 3.6 million deaths each year. This amounts to a staggering 85% reduction in killing since the 1970s.(2) We have reached a nationwide pet shelter death rate that averages just 1.2% per population. This can effectively be considered a “no kill” rate.

In most areas, feral cats and kittens account for the majority of shelter numbers.(9) Several areas of the country have actual shortages of adoptable dogs, particularly purebreds and puppies, and must import from other regions to fill the need. Dogs are being smuggled into the US by the thousands. Some rescue groups are even importing from other countries….Mexico, Brazil, the Caribbean, Taiwan and Romania, to name some of the most popular points of origin. The conservative estimate is that 300,000 dogs are imported into the US each year to meet the demand for pets.(3)

According to shelter expert Nathan Winograd, every year in this country, approximately 3 million adoptable pets die in shelters.* At the same time, each year around 17 million US households are looking for a new pet. That is 17 million households above and beyond those who already will adopt a shelter or rescue pet. There are nearly six times as many homes opening up every year as the number of adoptable pets killed in shelters!(8) It seems the greatest challenge these days is to find ways to match up the adoptable pets with the homes that are waiting for them. Breed rescues fill this niche admirably, but are privately funded and desperately in need of assistance in order to effectively perform this service. Perhaps some of the public funds budgeted for shelters to kill animals could be better spent helping rescue groups who are proactive in matching adoptable pets to suitable homes.


Now that we have addressed the issue of pet overpopulation, let’s examine the claim that sterilization surgery promotes better health. While there are some benefits to sterilization, there are some drawbacks as well.

Sterilization will naturally serve to prevent any unwanted litters. In bitches, spaying will greatly reduce the risk of breast cancer, pyometra, perianal fistula and cancers of the reproductive organs.(5)

Spay surgery itself carries a somewhat high rate (around 20%) of complications such as infection, hemorrhage and even death.(5) Spaying significantly increases the rate of urinary incontinence in bitches….about 20-30% of all spayed bitches will eventually develop this problem. This is believed to be most likely caused by the lack of estrogen that results from being spayed.(1)

Sterilization of males may reduce some unwanted sexual behaviors, but there are few other proven benefits to neutering a male dog. Testicular cancer is prevented, but the actual risk of that cancer is extremely low (<1%) among intact dogs. Contrary to popular belief, studies show that the risk of prostate cancer is actually HIGHER in neutered dogs than in their intact counterparts.(5)

Other studies prove significant health risks associated with sterilization, particularly when done at an early age. The most problematic is a delayed closure of the bony growth plates. This results in an abnormal, “weedy” skeletal development that increases the incidence of orthopedic problems like hip dysplasia and patellar luxation. Working and performance dogs, if neutered before maturity, risk the inability to perform the jobs they were bred for.(10)

But by far the most startling news to surface this year is the result of a study that shows that keeping ovaries to the age of six years or later is associated with a greater than 30% increase of lifespan in female Rottweilers.(4) Similar studies in humans reinforce this finding.(7)(11)

A 30% longer lifespan means that you could have many additional years with your bitch simple by delaying spay surgery until middle-age or later.

Behavioral studies show that sterilization increases fearfulness, noise phobias and aggression. Other well-documented adverse health effects of de-sexing include increased risk of bone cancer, hemangiosarcoma, hypothyroidism, and cognitive dysfunction in older pets. Sterilization confers an increased susceptibility to infectious disease, and also a higher incidence of adverse reactions to vaccines.(10)

So there is no need to feel obligated to sterilize for health or welfare reasons. But, what about the need to protect the puppies that we sell from unethical breeders?


Many breeders are justifiably very concerned about the possibility of their dogs being subjected to neglect or abuse by falling into disreputable hands. To help prevent such situations, it has become commonplace for breeders to include spay/neuter requirements in their pet sales contract, and/or to sell the dog on a limited registration. Another common stipulation, particularly for a show/breeding dog, is requiring that the dog be returned to the seller in the event the buyer no longer wishes to keep him.(6)

Such contracts are highly effective when selling a puppy to someone who is honest and ethical. However, contracts are easily skirted by the unscrupulous, particularly if the buyer lives in a different region. Someone intent on breeding may do so regardless of contract language, and sell the puppies without any registration. And without personal knowledge of the living conditions at your puppy’s new home, it is impossible to predict what sort of care and attention he or she will receive. Even some show breeders may have very different ideas than the seller of what constitutes proper care. There is no substitute for a home check to follow up that initial puppy application!

Bottom line, the best insurance for a happy future for your puppies is making sure that you get to know the buyer personally. If something about the buyer or his attitude doesn’t seem right, then it’s probably best to cancel the sale. If you wish to sell puppies on spay-neuter agreements you might also consider advising the buyer to wait until the puppy reaches maturity before having sterilization surgery performed. Another idea is to ask your vet if vasectomy would be a viable alternative to castration for your male. This would preserve sex hormones and possibly prevent some of the adverse health effects of castration.


Sterilization of all dogs sold as companions may have some unintended adverse effects. The nature of purebred breeding for the show ring involves intense selection that severely narrows the gene pool in many, if not most, breeds. Some breeds started with just a small pool of founders. Through the years, overuse of only a few popular sires further reduced the genetic variety available in the breed. When troublesome health problems surface and become widespread, where can we turn for “new blood”?

The show-bred population of a breed may have become too small as a result of intense inbreeding or the genetic bottleneck created by overuse of popular sires; or the breed gene pool may have become genetically depleted because of unwise selection for specific, sometimes unhealthy physical traits favored in the show ring. As a result, dogs from the “pet” population may actually be the salvation of the breed gene pool.

Trying to guess which dogs are the "best" to keep intact for showing and breeding can be hit-or-miss. Imagine the scenario where a successful show dog eventually develops a heritable health issue, while his brother is much healthier...but brother was neutered long ago, thereby eliminating those good genes forever. What about that Champion's non-show quality sister, who just happens to have good health, great mothering instincts and/or the ability produce exceptional offspring? If sold as a spayed companion, her genes are effectively lost.

And what about the very future of the dog fancy? Many people (myself included) have bought an intact dog as a pet, and only later sparked an interest in showing and breeding. Developing new breeders is critical to the survival of our sport, but if we sell all companions on spay/neuter agreements, we will lose many fanciers before they have the chance to discover the joy of dog breeding and showing!

Sadly, mandatory sterilization laws are sweeping the nation and may further compromise the future of the dog fancy. AKC registrations continue to decline and the push to legally and/or contractually require spay and neuter of most every dog will only worsen that situation. Regardless, there is a huge demand in society for healthy pets; a demand which the responsible breeders could not come close to meeting even if they wanted to...and sometimes, they do not want to. The choice we have as a society is how that demand will be filled.

Many believe that only show hobbyists should be allowed to keep intact dogs and breed on a limited basis. However, the attempt to legally force well-regulated and inspected commercial breeders and the casual small home breeders out of the picture leaves only the unregulated, less visible "underground" producers and smugglers to fill the need for pets. Perhaps it is time to re-think our preconceived notions about who should and shouldn't possess intact dogs!

As a dog owner, one must weigh the risks of sterilization against the benefits in order to make that very personal decision. Popular culture and many veterinarians downplay or even ignore the risks involved with spay/neuter because of their own belief in the need to reduce dog breeding in general. Many people still believe that overpopulation remains a pressing concern and that sterilization always promotes better health. Some even believe that breeding a female is abusive. It seems the animal rights groups have done an excellent job of brainwashing the public on these matters!

As breeders, we may be wise to re-examine the routine request to have all our companion puppies spayed or neutered. The future availability of pets, the perpetuation of the dog fancy, the health of the individual dogs and the gene pools of the breeds that we love may all depend on keeping a few more dogs intact!

*An adoptable pet is one that does not have insurmountable health or temperament issues.
Per California’s Hayden law: The California Legislature Defines No-Kill Terms
 ■California Law, SB 1785 Statutes of 1998, also known as "The Hayden Law" has defined no-kill terms. What is Adoptable? 1834.4. (a)
"No adoptable animal should be euthanized if it can be adopted into a suitable home. Adoptable animals include only those animals eight weeks of age or older that, at or subsequent to the time the animal is impounded or otherwise taken into possession, have manifested no sign of a behavioral or temperamental defect that could pose a health or safety risk or otherwise make the animal unsuitable for placement as a pet, and have manifested no sign of disease, injury, or congenital or hereditary condition that adversely affects the health of the animal or that is likely to adversely affect the animal's health in the future."
Adoptable dogs may be old, deaf, blind, disfigured or disabled.

1Bovsun, Mara;
"Puddle Jumping; Canine Urinary Incontinence";
AKC Gazette April 2009

2Fry, Mike,
"Reflections from the No Kill Conference in Washington DC":

3James, Susan Donaldson (ABC News)
"300,000 Imported Puppies Prompt Rabies Concerns"
October 24, 2007

4Nolen, R. Scott
"Rottweiler Study Links Ovaries With Exceptional Longevity"
JAVMA March 2010

5Sanborn, Laura J., MS
"Long-Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay/Neuter in Dogs"; May 14,2007

6Thoms, Joy
"The Importance of Spay-Neuter Contracts"
The Orient Express, Nov, 2009

7Waters, David J., DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVS
"A Healthier Respect for Ovaries"

8 Winograd, Nathan J.
"Debunking Pet Overpopulation"
June 29, 2009

9 Winograd, Nathan, “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America” Almaden Books, 2nd edition, Feb 25, 2009.

10 Zink, Christine, DVM, PhD, DACVP
"Early Spay-Neuter Considerations for the Canine Athlete"; 2005

11 “Retaining ovaries may be a key to prolonged life in women and dogs”; DVM Newsmagazine; Dec 5, 2009.


  1. This is an excellent well thought out and presented topic - may I share it on my blog - giving you full credit?

  2. This is a wonderful article. It needs to be seen and read by as many as possible. May I please share in with my blog readers? Of course the credit will be yours.

  3. Thanks for your work, Geneva!

    The figures used by Avanzino (Note 2), while highlighting a remarkable improvement in shelter killing, inadvertently mask the astounding composition of this improvement. The 85% reduction in shelter killing of dogs and cats -- 24 million vs. 3.6 million -- is composed of an 89.6% decrease in the rate of shelter deaths, offset by 43.5% increase in the population. The math is as follows :

    (1 - 0.896) * (1 + 0.435) -1 = 0.851 or 85% (there's some rounding in Avanzino's numbers)

    A couple of comments . . . (1) This presentation assumes a direct relationship between the number of shelter deaths and population. After all, the "rate" really measures the population's propensity to kill shelter animals. In a sense, the population has become more humane over the last thirty years. (2) The reduction of the rate of shelter deaths is astounding – it’s HUGE. One might guess that the humane education of the population has worked, and worked well. While we all decry even one unnecessary shelter death, one has to question why the prescription for continued improvement is not simply more of the same, instead of the enactment of increasingly coercive laws as pushed by organizations like the HSUS and ASPCA. (3) A missing piece of information is the number of dogs and cats in the U. S. 3.6 million out of a dog and cat population of 360 million is a a lot less troubling than 3.6 million out of a population of 36 million. (The NPPMA statistics, as reported on the HSUS Web site, indicate that there are 171.1 million owned dogs and cats in the U. S. (77.5 million dogs and 93.6 million cats), but this statistic ignores those animals without owners. Just how large is the total dog and cat population in the U. S.?)

    Just some thoughts . . . .

    Chuck Bridges
    Vice President
    USSPCO, a California SPCA
    Toll Free (866) 972-8373 or (866) 9-SAVEPETS

  4. The total population of owned pets is huge in comparison to the numbers in shelters. With 17 million new homes opening up yearly (above and beyond the 4 million pets who are adopted from shelters or rescues) there is absolutely no excuse to kill any adoptable dogs in this nation.
    People will have pets and they need to come from somewhere.
    I would personally even question the law in our state requiring sterilization of pets upon release from shelters and rescue. I don't believe that such laws are prudent. Particularly when sterilization is done on very young animals. We the people have the right to make our own intelliegent choices! Education does work, as noted by Chuck.
    Breeding is not a crime! We need breeders to keep pets in our future!

  5. My thinking is that maintaining a good breeding population is far more important than the number that die in shelters. I'm sorry that somehow the circumstances surrounding the ending of a life have become more important to some people than the beginning and the time that the animal has a life. A single good afternoon for a happy puppy is endless ecstasy and experience.

    The use of shelter killings as a pivotal issue is like taking hostages and killing them. It's often exactly that thing, way too often.

    Our human rights are also more important than the number of dogs or other animals that are killed by so-called humane societies.

  6. I would like to post this on my website with full credit to the author and a link back. I'd like to include Chuck Bridge's comments, too. How do I go about obtaining permission?

  7. Yes, this article may be reprinted in an unedited form, and please do include a link back to this page. Thank you for asking!

  8. Thank you. I will do just that. Very much appreciated.

  9. I would be interested to see if there is a comparable study in Australia. HOWEVER.. as a long term foster carer, vet nurse, animal rescue worker, and avid campaigner, it is a long way from a solution. I dont care how many dogs and cats live in how many homes... that's all well and good for them.. but as long as there are backyard breeders pumping out animals of heaven knows what temperament or health status, and as long as there are animals in shelters with no future, I will continue my campaign for desexing of animals. End of story.

  10. Allyonapally, this is not "A" study, but VOLUMES of studies that prove that animals who keep all their original parts are healthier than those who don't. End of story.
    And solution to what? There is no "pet overpopulation"...that's bunk.
    And enough with the "backyard breeder" rhetoric...gee, I HOPE puppies are raised in a nice back yard. Sounds idyllic!
    Animals will ALWAYS be in shelters because sometimes circumstances will bring them there...getting lost, death or disability of an owner, owner losing a job or even their home, etc. And Guess what, lots of the pets entering shelters are already de-sexed.
    And it is the JOB of the shelter to proactively look to find homes for their charges. The fact that they CHOOSE to instead kill them reveals the true status of the mindset prevalent in shelter management (or should that be mismanagement?)

  11. The sad truth is that responsible owners are responsible and the irresponsible ones will let their dog roam aimlessly and knock up another irresponsible owner's dog and the next thing you know there's a little of pups that no one knows what to do with. Also, the idiots of the dog-fighting world aren't going to get their dogs spayed or neutered cuz that's against the grain of what they do. Only thing I believe is that if I'm not going to breed my dog (which I wouldn't because I'm for rescue pups!) he's going to be sterilized. Animals are instinctual and how torturous would it be for a male dog to have the "desire" and not be able to act on it. Just my thought. :)

  12. I really wish that the people who compile these "statistics" would come and talk to someone like me. I worked at an under-funded shelter that took in anything that walked in the door. We serviced at least 3 counties in rural PA. There was a no-kill shelter a few counties south of us that had a 2 month waiting list to take in any animals. There was not a single day that I worked there that we did NOT euthanize an animal. I wish we could have seen a day like that. We routinely had 20 or more surrenders in a day, and usually adoptions in the single digits. The dog wardens brought in several stray dogs a week, and the stray/feral cat population in the area is very high. So for an article like this to say that pet overpopulation is a myth and that we need to stop promoting spay/neuter, to me, living in the "real" world, is an outrageous claim.

  13. @ anonymous - My intact dog lives with intact bitches, is separated from them when they are in heat, and appears to be holding up very well, on the whole. If he's not happy, he's doing a very good job of hiding his misery.

    Are you saying that it is better to cripple their whole hormonal system for life, 24/7, than for them to suffer a little stress for a couple of weeks a year - which is really all that we're talking about?

    That is not only an unacceptable trade off to my mind, but an actively *irresponsible* one. If you don't want to breed, the easiest way to go is to have male dogs. And keep them home, please - there are leash and confinement laws almost everywhere, and no excuse for *any* dog, intact or not to be loose and roaming.

    Bitches are easy to manage if you don't keep a dog, so if you are determined to keep a bitch, just don't take any dogs in. Don't walk them around the neighbourhood when they are in heat - it won't hurt them to do their thing in their yard for a week or 10 days.

    It's not only better for the dogs to be intact, it's also easier on the owner's wallet, and even if you do have both genders, it's not rocket science to separate them for the short period necessary a couple of times a year.

    Discrete breeds were developed and maintained for thousands of years before surgical sterilization was possible. Are we not as smart and capable as our ancestors?

  14. Hi Rachel, you certainly cannot dispute the numbers based on anecdotal experience in one area. Did you know that shelters in the New England states import dogs from the midwest and from Puerto Rico? If your shelter directors were looking at the big picture, they could be relocating the dogs they are now killing. THAT would be living in the "real" world while solving problems at the same time. A much more productive system!

  15. Also, Rachel, the feral cats can be quite easily neutered and released. No need to kill them. Please pass some progressive sheltering ideas on to your superiors. Maybe the nearby no-kill shelters can give you some pointers. And no, a closed admission shelter is NOT keeping in the spirit of the no-kill philosophy. Unless they are private and your KILL shelter is public, taxpayer supported? Still, your shelter has not excuse to kill. It kills by choice; because it's are too lazy and defeatist in attitude to be an effective animal advocate.
    And your "shelter"....isn't a "shelter", it's a killing place. No wonder people don't go there first when thinking of adding a new pet to the family.

  16. If one were to spay or castrate a human being at an age just before they become fertile, this would be around ages 10 or 11. Anyone with half a brain will abhor this practice if only for the fact that obviously, that person will neither reach their full potential physically (size, strength, endurance etc.) nor socially. Furthermore, that person will develop medical problems later in life.

    It goes without saying, to me, that the same thing is true for animals. I have had pets (cats, a dog, birds, ferrets, mice) for 30 years now and I refuse to give in to pressure to spay/neuter, especially at an early age. I keep them safe so they don't become pregnant, as long as I don't want them to. I've noticed that cats and dogs become different after they have raised a litter, more loving towards human children as well. I feel a female animal, in principle, should be given the chance to experience having a litter at least once, after she has reached her full size and maturity around age 2 so as not to overtax her body, for reasons of having a fuller life, maybe ridiculous but since I don't cause any strays I see no problem.

  17. So refreshing to read an article supported by the facts!

    We too have shared it with our readers.


  18. I'm very glad I saw this article. I was ready to buy into the 'spay for health' reasons for our new Cavalier puppy. She's almost 6 months and I was already dreading having to have her spayed but thought that she would be healthier for it.
    I'm not looking forward to the messy heat cycle (we have an intact beagle who is 9 - so I know all about that! -- she had a littermate that died when being spayed so I was too afraid to spay her!) but I am happy to hear that her health will not be compromised as much as people try to say.

  19. I'm a cat person, but this issue is equally applicable to cats and dogs. Some may not think the following is important, but I just want to mention an experience I had.

    Some years ago I had two neutered male cats, and a young, as yet un-neutered female. One day the female came of age and went into heat. Both males instantly went for her - but of course could not perform. You have never seen three more frustrated creatures! I myself became distraught at the sight of it. I couldn't understand why the males were even interested, and called my vet. "Well, they still have hormones," she said.

    I know when people talk about the "health benefits" of spaying/neutering (many of which benefits you point out are false), they are not thinking of this particular issue, but I don't think we should just ignore it. These animals are sexual beings. It does NOT make them "happy" to be deprived of expressing it.

    1. You won't believe it, but I have the same problem with my castrated male cat and my intact... bitch!!!!! The cat has become aggressive after neutering. So they live in different parts of the house with doors closed. However, whenever my beagle bitch is on heat, the cat does everything he can to open the doors, and break in the rooms where the bitch is, this is totally crazy!!!!

  20. 3.6 million animals destroyed is this cunt's idea of kill rate?

    1. Actually, the number of animals euthanized in shelters last year (2011) was 2.6 million. Most of these were feral cats (unadoptable) or the aged, injured or ill. We are already almost at no-kill levels nationwide, according to the people at Maddie's Fund who track such information.

      To shed some perspective on the foul language included in this comment, a similar nasty note was sent to me by email from a Scott Strader in Pennsylvania. Seems that Scott has also been arrested as part of a cocaine ring in Philadelphia.

      "Strader was charged with seven counts of possession with the intent to deliver cocaine, criminal conspiracy, dealing in the proceeds of unlawful activity and criminal use of a communication facility, and two counts of corrupt organizations."

      Consider the source.

  21. It is very possible to have a un-altered dog as a pet,I`ve have a NOT "fixed" male Rottweiler for over 4 years,he's about five now. He's never breed,is very healthy and active,and is definitely not more miserable then the past two dogs that where neutered. If I feel like I need to neuter a dog again I`ll wait at-least two years for them to develop properly.
    Cat overpopulation seems to be more of a problem,I`ve seen plenty of strays,and for that their is also much more cat rescues and shelters where I live. Long ago when I actually looked to adopt a dog in a shelter,I couldn't find one. Their was only one shelter close enough,and half the dogs where not even for adoption which was like out of 12. No purebreds or puppies. I got a dog from the classifieds instead,who is a Newfoundland mix and is now about 12 years old.
    I got two cats from rescues though.

  22. We live by a field and I often see pets just being dumped there. It really breaks my heart. I'm taking my dog to the veterinary in Barrie this week to get spayed! I don't want to see any more animals go without family.

  23. This is really well written i am very very impressed. I question taking my dog to a spay neuter clinic in Toronto?