For the vast majority of American dog owners, the question is a no-brainer: unless you breed dogs or participate in dog shows—or don’t mind being persona non grata at the dog park—you have your dog “fixed.” About 80 percent of U.S. dogs have been altered—relieved of their sex hormone-producing organs, a.k.a. gonads (testicles for males, ovaries for females), through a surgical procedure known as a gonadectomy (castration for the boys, spaying for the girls).
Of course, the primary objective of surgical sterilization is to prevent unwanted litters, and in that regard, the procedure is extremely effective. It became standard practice in the U.S. in the 1970s and has had a huge impact on the numbers of puppies roaming the streets or filling shelters. Animal welfare organizations continue to endorse it as the best and only way to get—and keep—shelter numbers down, even as many advocates also push for more research into alternative methods of contraception.
Shelters also promote—and practice— early sterilization, says Joyce Briggs, president of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs (ACC&D), an advocacy group that promotes non-surgical methods. While veterinarians have traditionally recommended altering a dog between the ages of six and nine months (HSUS now recommends four months), that’s a bit late for a puppy who’s ready to be adopted at eight weeks.
Plus, most shelters and rescue groups would rather send an animal home already neutered or spayed than ask the adopters to have the procedure done at a later date (in many areas, shelters can’t legally place intact dogs). “Pediatric spay/neuter is a critical component of shelter dog placement,” says Briggs. After all, she says, the goal is to get dogs out of the shelter, and to ensure they can’t produce litters that could add to future shelter populations.
The procedure also reduces a dog’s chances of being relinquished to a shelter later, regardless of whether the dog started out as a shelter pet or not. Statistics are clear on this one: intact dogs of both sexes are surrendered to shelters roughly twice as often as those who have been sterilized.
While here in the U.S., this is generally accepted as the right thing to do, it’s not seen that way everywhere. In other parts of the world, it ranges from generally accepted to culturally taboo. In many European countries, neutering and spaying are less common than in the U.S., but not entirely unheard-of (with the exception of Norway, where it’s illegal unless done explicitly for the animal’s health). In other places, including much of Latin America, neutering is considered both physically and socially emasculating (for both dog and owner, apparently) and therefore anathema.
Forest vs. Trees
But while there’s little argument that spay/neuter programs benefit the general dog population, there’s growing debate over the merits for owned dogs, says Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist and science advisor to the ASPCA. Because surgical sterilization is so effective at preventing unwanted breeding, the animal welfare community, as well as veterinarians and other advocates, “might have oversold some of it,” he says, by stressing its health and longevity benefits for individual dogs as well.
In reality, he says, the health effects are a mixed bag: some research shows clear benefits, other shows disadvantages, at least for certain subsets of dogs. As a result, many vets and other experts are stepping away from the standard advice— to alter every animal as quickly as is safe and practical—in favor of a more case-by-case (or dog-by-dog) approach.
Crunching The Numbers
Looking at studies and statistics is not for the faint of heart (or the math-challenged). But to calculate the odds most accurately, you’ve got to separate what the experts call relative and absolute risk.