Shirley Zindler
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To Spay or Not to Spay

 I recently read an article about a study from UC Davis, showing an increase in some cancers and joint problems in Golden Retrievers that are spayed or neutered as opposed to intact. As a shelter worker, this is so concerning. There are endless studies showing many health and behavioral benefits to spaying and neutering. It’s critical to look at the overall benefits to neutering before deciding to keep a dog intact based only on a limited study of one breed. As a shelter worker I have seen Intact dogs who are relentless in their pursuit of a mate. Digging out, jumping fences, chewing through walls, I've seen it all. Unaltered dogs roam more, get hit by cars more, fight more, bite more, and cause more human injuries and even fatalities. Intact females are prone to mammary tumors and pyometra and intact males can get testicular and perianal tumors. According to one veterinary study, 80% of unaltered males will develop prostate disease. Urine marking is a common problem in unaltered dogs.  

My champion Borzoi was un-spayed because she was a show dog. She developed a pyometra at 6 years of age, had to have emergency surgery at great expense and was ill with a nasty pseudomonas bacterial infection for a long time afterwards. She didn’t fully recover her former health for nearly a year. She also got along wonderfully with our spayed female dog except when she was in season. Twice yearly, they had to be separated as they were prone to fight. After she was spayed, they never had another issue.  Another un-spayed show bitch that I owned was so snappy and difficult for several months at a time around her seasons that I actually considered euthanasia. Thankfully I decided to spay her to see if it would help. It ended her show career but she was a delightful happy girl after that and lived to a ripe old age as a beloved pet.  

The article mentioned that neutered dogs are more likely to be overweight causing stress on the joints. While it is true that intact dogs may burn more calories fretting and looking for a mate, this is a feeding issue, not a neutering issue. All dogs should be kept trim and fed properly for their needs regardless of altering status. Excess weight is also a cancer risk. Ethical breeders are going to neuter dogs with joint problems and keep those with good joints for breeding which may result in a skewed study.

I would be interested in knowing more about the way the study was conducted. As shelter workers, we often see dogs surrendered to the shelter to be euthanized when they become sick or infirm with issues including cancer and hip dysplasia. Often these dogs are unaltered. The level of responsibility that goes along with extensive veterinary care often includes neutering, so of course neutered dogs will see the vet more for other issues as well. Unaltered dogs are commonly surrendered to shelters for behavior problems such as roaming, barking, urine marking etc. Many of these issues can be improved on by neutering. The article mentioned the fact that service dogs were affected. Unaltered dogs are not suitable for service work as they become distracted by potential mates. Could the work they do assisting people be a factor in causing stress on the joints?

The number one cause of preventable, premature death in companion animals in this country is euthanasia due to overpopulation. If people decline to alter their pets, this number will certainly climb. I have the greatest respect for those highly dedicated and ethical breeders out there, but for the rest of us there are endless, well-documented veterinary studies showing many health and behavioral reasons to neuter our pets.

For more information on the study see Joanna Lou's post.



Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.

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Submitted by Herman Michaels | February 20 2013 |

One factor to consider is the benefit of letting a dog mature a bit before spay or neuter. It may be better in some instances to wait until a dog reaches 8 or 12 months before such procedures.

Submitted by Shirley Zindler | February 23 2013 |

Age of spay/neuter is another area that has many pros and cons. The most obvious argument against waiting is that many of these animals will have an accidental pregnancy by this age. 6-12 months is when most dogs will have their first season and many get pregnant in spite of the owners best efforts. Previous studies have also shone a large increase in mammary tumors for dogs allowed to pass through a heat cycle before altering.

For shelter pets adopted out as puppies, its critical that they be altered before leaving the shelter. For most other dogs, its important to review all factors related to breed, potential health issues and ability to prevent unwanted pregnancy before deciding age to spay or neuter.

Submitted by Jane Brackman | February 22 2013 |

A word of caution - this study included Golden Retrievers. Goldens suffer from an extraordinary high rate of cancer. Lots of variables are involved in canine health. For instance, little breeds are much more likely to die of heart disease or metabolic disorders, like pancreatitis or diabetes, than cancer. In general their cancer rates, (neutered or not) are less than 15%. It's an interesting study, but too early to draw conclusions. Without exception, the highest killer of dogs in the US is euthanasia of unwanted shelter dogs. Read more about mortality and purebred dogs at my blog http://doctorbarkman.blogspot.com/2012/04/dog-science-causes-of-death-in...

Submitted by Shirley Zindler | February 23 2013 |


Thank you for sharing your informative blog. Very interesting. I would be curious to see what percentage of the dogs in your study were spayed or neutered.

Submitted by Anonymous | February 23 2013 |

Then I have to ask a very serious question here. Why does Sonoma County Animal Care and Control continue to release dogs back to their owners without the county spaying/neutering them? We did a quick study for one of the Supervisors on this issue and it was roughly 75% of the "Strays" that were picked up by Animal Control Officers like yourself and then returned to owners were not spayed or neutered by the County. This includes dogs labeled as "Dangerous Dogs". One record, I have in my possession right now. And you actually picked up this dog the second time.

Here is the Sonoma County Ordinance:

Sec. 5-170. - Mandatory spay and neutering for all dogs at large.

Submitted by shirley zindler | March 1 2013 |

Dog owners are usually cited for neutering if their dog is at-large. However, if the dog is "papered" then the law doesn't require it. Also, the owner is required to take responsibility for doing the surgery. For instance, if a dog comes in on a Thursday, and the owner wants to claim it on a Friday, but we cant schedule surgery until Monday, that dog would have to stay in the shelter till then. Not best for the dog. Also, in many cases we cite them for neutering and the courts throw it out.

Submitted by Pamela | February 24 2013 |

Spaying and neutering are not the only ways to keep pet populations down. Vasectomy, hysterectomy, and tying the fallopian tubes could also sterilize pets while keeping sex hormones intact for health reasons.

It's time for vets and animal advocates to look at all the options.

Submitted by shirley zindler | March 1 2013 |

Vasectomy doesn't help with behavioral issues and a spay is a hysterectomy (granted, including ovaries). In many cases its the sex hormones themselves causing many of the problems. I do agree that its important to view all options to keep our pets safe and healthy.

Submitted by Anonymous | February 27 2013 |

Their was a test that proved female Rottweilers also lived longer when intact.
I do have a intact male Rotty,who has very little pursuit of a mate.
I lived near a female that would come in heat even and he barely cared.
Yet he still keeps lean,unlike the neutered dogs I had.
His behavior is very close in many regards to a later neutered Newfoundland mix male I had.
He hasn't bred,and I don't really see a reason to neuter him. Their seems to be health benefits and downfalls to neutering,it's really not that necessary unless you plan to let your dog run loose.
I had a early neutered female mutt that roamed,got in fights,and killed small animals. She also died early from cancer.
I think it's more about the dog then anything.

Submitted by shirley zindler | March 1 2013 |

Its very true that some individual dogs and people do a great job with intact pets, but I see the other side on a daily basis. Of course no one should let their dogs roam but many intact dogs are relentless at digging, climbing, jumping etc to escape. All of my dogs have been kept in good weight regardless of spay status. The intent isn't to criticize responsible people for their choices, only to show that there are still many good reasons to spay and neuter.

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