To spay or neuter? Health Questions and New Procedures

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Photo by Silvia Timmermann

Thank You to Linda Stebbins, New Mexico for sharing an article featured today that started the train of thought that inspired the writing of this blog about spaying and neutering.

To spay or not to spay is a question most Gordon Setter breeders consider once our prized brood bitch has raised her last litter for us. For many years we have operated under the theory that spaying a bitch helped to prevent or reduce the incidence of mammary tumors along with pyometra, and so spaying seemed like the only right thing to do to ensure her health, leaving little question as to what our choice would be.

On April 10, 2013 this article – Early Neutering: We’ll Call This Myth Busted…”   by Dr. Karen Becker was published at Healthy Pets. In the article Dr. Becker refers to a statement released by The Royal Veterinary college that scientific evidence is lacking to support early spaying as having the effect of decreasing the incidence of mammary tumors.

The Royal Veterinary College reviewers concluded that:

“Due to the limited evidence available and the risk of bias in the published results, the evidence that neutering reduces the risk of mammary neoplasia, and the evidence that age at neutering has an effect, are judged to be weak and are not a sound basis for firm recommendations.”

In short, the idea that spaying reduces the risk of breast cancer is a theory rather than a fact..

To breeders like me, this means that spaying may not be protecting my bitch from mammary tumors as I believed. What does often occur in bitches after spaying (and dogs after neutering) is the development of urinary incontinence that gets progressively worse as they age. I have lived through this with more than one bitch, and it is so difficult. Generally she would reach a point where she was constantly wet, smelly and uncomfortable, all of which made it difficult to keep her in the house, living with our family as a free running matriarch – a position she had well-earned. The treatment option for urinary incontinence is typically a synthetic estrogen compound, and as we know, these have been linked to a wide range of serious health problems in women including strokes, heart attacks and cancers. Personally I don’t want to take synthetic estrogen so I have an issue with giving it to my dogs soley to prevent soiling.

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Photo by Silvia Timmermann

And then, there are other disorders and diseases that may be linked to spaying and neutering for us to consider:

Shortened lifespan – a 2009 published study of female Rottweilers revealed that removing the ovaries of the female Rottweiler before 5 years of age reduced their longevity by approximately 4 years. Females who kept their ovaries till at least age 6 were 4 times more likely to reach an exceptional age.

Atypical Cushing’s Disease – Dr. Becker’s opinion is that early spaying and neutering plays a role in the development of this disease.

Cardiac Tumors – A 1982-1985 Veterinary Medical  Database search revealed that the risk of tumors of the heart were 4 times greater for a spayed female than that of intact females, and the spayed bitch risk was 5 times that of an intact female for the most common type of cardiac tumor, hemangiosarcoma. Neutered males had a slightly higher risk also.

Bone Cancer – another Rottweiler study indicated that for those spayed/neutered before 1 year of age the risk of developing bone cancer was 1 in 4. Using the Veterinary Medial Database from 1980 to 1984 a study shows that the risk of bone cancer in large-breed, purebred dogs increased two-fold for those who were neutered or spayed.

Abnormal bone growth and development – in the 1990’s studies regarding spay/neuter under 1 year of age showed significantly taller growth patterns in the neutered dogs which is believed to be caused by the removal of estrogen producing organs in both male and female which in turn can cause growth plates to remain open. This can cause abnormal growth patterns and bone structure, irregular body proportions, cartilage and joint issues.

Hip Dysplasia – dogs sterilized at an early age were more prone to hip dysplasia in a study conducted at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Golden Retriever Study – University of California Davis study involving several hundred Goldens revealed that the rates were significantly higher for the incidence of Hip Dysplasia, CCL tears, lymphosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma and mast cell tumors in both male and female neutered/spayed dogs when compared to their intact counter parts.

Urinary Incontinence is increased in both the male and female when spaying or neutering is performed.

The AKC’s Canine Health Foundation issued a report citing a higher incidence of adverse reactions to vaccines in spayed or neutered dogs.

Illegal in Scandinavia, Surgical Sterilization is Still Routine in America This is an article published by Dr. Becker concerns the development of a modified spay procedure by Dr. Michelle Kutzler that preserves the ovaries in the bitch. Now, this sounds like a good option, keep the ovaries, retain estrogen increasing the probability of avoiding urinary incontinence and the other possible health related issues of a typical spay. (Options for males are also suggested.)

Dr. Michelle Anne Kutzler DVM PhD, Diplomate American College of Theriogenologists (ACT)

The mission of the ACT is to promote animal well-being, reproductive health, responsible breeding and genetic practices, and efficient management of breeding-age animals in agriculture, veterinary practice, zoos, preserves, and ecosystems. In particular, the ACT envisions development of focus areas in theriogenology to incorporate the following in theriogenology/reproductive medicine:

1. Population control for domestic and non-domestic animals including feral animals, free-ranging and captive wildlife.

2. Genomics in livestock and companion animal practice.

  • Dr. Kutzler believes that traditional spays result in endocrine imbalance and increased risk of disease. A 2009 Rottweiler longevity study expanded her understanding that certain dog breeds benefit from maintaining their ovaries until later in life, especially the larger breeds.
  • Dr Kutzler began ovary-sparing spay procedures in 2011 and created an online video of the procedure for veterinarians to learn from. In her modified spay the ovaries are left in place, thereby preserving production of sex hormones.
  • Female dogs who retain their ovaries still have estrous cycles, but without the messy discharge.
  • Dr. Kutzler also discusses non-surgical intratesticular injections that accomplish sterilization in male dogs while preserving testosterone production.
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Photo by Silvia Timmermann

I don’t have a right or wrong answer for you when it comes to the question of whether you should spay or neuter your Gordon Setter, but I do expect we will all take every precaution to prevent an accidental breeding should we choose to keep our Gordon Setters intact. This article is meant to provide you with information to help you make the decision that is right for you and your dog. As always, I advise you to discuss options with your veterinarian about the risks and the advantages of any procedure. The reference material and detailed information relating to this article were obtained at the links shown below. Simply point at the title and click to go there – sort of acts like a flying carpet for your cursor!

Pyometra – Understanding the Danger and the Frequency

Sally Gift, Mesa AZ

7 thoughts on “To spay or neuter? Health Questions and New Procedures”

  1. Thanks for the article. I can speak first-hand to the harmful effects of synthetic estrogen on a spayed female: our girl became almost manic in her behavior after we started her on the synthetic estrogen and the day after that we stopped the medication, her normal behavior resumed. I do not think that I would ever use the synthetic hormones again. We had no choice regarding the spay, as this female had a closed pyometria infection. We lived with her mild incontinence.

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  2. I must admit that I virtually never engage in topical blogs and social media but as a veterinary specialist it is had for me to look away and not comment. Most of the on-line resources that you are using are marginal at best. We might as well just rely on Dr. Google??? This is why you should have a well trained veterinarian who can help you with these decisions. There is some very marginal and some very incorrect information presented here to a readership that is not completely informed and medically naive. It may seem to be a controversial topic to many but be very careful you don’t jump out of the plane without a parachute!! I can assure you that there is not much sadder than being called in to operate a septic 10 or 12 year old bitch in the middle of the night with a closed pyometra; a preventable situation. In every situation with our pets we need to fairly evaluate risks and benefits. FInd a knowledgeable veterinarian or specialist that can help provide you with the all the information to make the best decisions for your pet’s health and well being.

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    1. Mary, Thank you so much for your comments, we do appreciate hearing from those “in the know” like you! I don’t know how we would get by if not for people like yourself who do so much to save and heal the the animals we love.

      The final paragraphs of this article describe a Modified Spay Procedure that Preserves the Ovaries and I thought it offered encouragement via a spay procedure that would accomplish the avoidance of pyrometra and, as it leaves the ovaries intact would avoid many of the other side effects of spaying. I understand that this spay procedure is not common, nor is it taught (to my knowledge) at vet schools today. I’m wondering if you would share your thoughts with us on whether you think this could be a possible solution?

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    2. Dr. Kutzler graduated from veterinary school in 1993 and spent four years in a mixed-animal private practice in Minnesota. She became a diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists in 1999 (theriogenologists are experts in animal reproduction), and received a Ph.D. in physiology from Cornell University in 2002. Dr. Kutzler is currently working in the Department of Animal Science at Oregon State University and has published scientific papers on a variety of animal reproduction topics. Dr. Kutzler developed the video to teach the spay procedure that retains the ovaries and the natural estrogen they produce. Removal of the uterus addresses the risk of pyometra.

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    3. Thank You Dr. McLoughlin! I am more opinionated than that.
      You must remember that the quoted doctors work at the university
      or research level and do not see the majority of older dogs that are
      unspayed. I saw one yesterday as a matter of fact.
      I have been in private practice for over 25 years and I can tell you
      that the only dogs we see with mammary tumors are bitches that are
      unspayed, were spayed late in life or were unspayed/never bred.
      (as in women, pregnancy and nursing gives some protection against
      breast cancer, as does early hysterectomy). I have yet to see an
      aged, unspayed bitch that does not end up with a pyometra. Now
      you have a much older, very SICK dog that you have to put through
      surgery which greatly increases the complication rate. We see
      2-3 of these a month. Always as emergencies and with a great
      increase in surgical difficulty and risk which of course increases
      the cost as well. So if you are trying to save money by not
      spaying, your in for a surprise!!
      As far as the hysterectomy procedure, leaving the ovaries, do you
      think we’ll start to see a lot more ovarian cancer in dogs?? You
      bet-cha! so why leave them. Estrogen incontinence is easily
      treated in 99% of the cases we see with a drug called phenylpropamolamine (PPA/Proin for short). Its very safe,
      inexpensive and relatively side effect free. We have a huge
      number of dogs on this medication.

      Gordon Setter Owner/Breeder/Handler
      Dr. Susan Adams-Conley, DVM, President
      Bellingham Animal Hospital, P.C.

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  3. Thank you, Linda, for an excellent article that should be spread far and wide. Given all the information we have now, why would anyone choose to mutilate their dog by removing perfectly healthy and necessary organs? It’s barbaric and destroys their health and longevity. I would no more sterilize my dogs than I would my children, if I had any. The US is the only country that routinely spays/neuters its dogs. Why? Thank you again for shedding light on this very important issue.

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