Article © 2002 Darlene Arden. First published
in DOG world, March 2002.
Early Spay / Neuter
How young is too young?
Jack's vet refused to neuter him before he
was six months old, despite his having been ready at three
months. Jack no longer goes to that vet. Photo by Rebecca
Just about every breeder has sold a puppy on a spay/neuter
contract, only to find out later that the contract hasn't
been honored. Meanwhile, although animal shelters across America
extract promises from puppy and kitten adopters that they
will bring the pet back to be neutered, in some states fewer
than half of those promises are ever kept. What can be done?
Increasingly, the answer is early spay/neuter. The technique
has been around for a couple of decades, and recent research
has shown it to be a really good choice.
Referred to as pediatric, juvenile or prepubertal neutering
(to avoid the implication that "early" means it
is being done too soon), the procedure is performed on animals
as young as six to eight weeks old, and up to six months.
(Many veterinarians use two pounds as the lower limit, rather
than any specific age.)
Generally, five to six months has been the conventional age
for neutering, but it was arrived at using purely anecdotal
information. "A search of the veterinary literature failed
to turn up any studies or research to determine the best age
to neuter dogs and cats," says Lila Miller, DVM, the
ASPCA's senior director of animal sciences and veterinary
advisor. "In addition, although many veterinarians express
reluctance to perform pediatric neutering because of the lack
of formal studies about the long-term effects, no studies
have been performed to determine the long-term safety of performing
the surgery at six to seven months of age, either.
Aztec the Occicat photo
"What is not commonly known is that
in the 1900s it was recommended to neuter animals before
puberty, and in some cases, soon after weaning,"
Miller continues. "Texts from the 1950s also recommended
doing it at five months of age or before puberty, using
Nembutal or ether anesthesia. Pediatric neutering is not
a new concept!"
Making Sure It's Done
Veterinarians have been performing pediatric spay/neuters for animal shelters since the 1980s. The practice can help reduce the number of unwanted animals who are euthanized every year. Also, the shelter doesn't have to attempt to track down every adopter to ensure compliance with spay/neuter agreements, and the owner saves a trip to the veterinarian to have the procedure done.
The Homeless Pet Placement League in Houston, Texas, began
doing pediatric spay/neuter in the fall of 1991. An innovative
policy at the time, the shelter is satisfied with the results, "We're not seeing any long-term problems that we know
of," says Debby Ryan, member of the Board of Directors
and past president. "My organization has a contract with
the low-cost clinic in town, SNAP [Spay/Neuter Assistance
Program]." SNAP also takes a huge trailer, outfitted
as a mobile surgery clinic, into low-income neighborhoods
four days a week to for free spay/neuter operations. The clinic's
minimum is three months old or three pounds.
Breeders are experiencing similar compliance problems with
spay/neuter agreements--and, increasingly, are turning to
the same solution. Responsible breeders don't want dogs bred
if they have hereditary conformational defects and genetic
medical conditions, and pediatric spay/neuter can guarantee
Betty Jane Reece-Weaver of Mountain Home, Idaho, breeds German
Shorthaired Pointers. Her serious involvement with dogs began
in her native Canada. She decided to try early spay/neuter
after an unfortunate experience. "Even though I tried
really hard to place the pups from the first litter in great
homes, sadly, a couple of puppies ended up with people who
had sat in my kitchen and lied to me," Reece-Weaver recalls.
"One was to have been shown and then perhaps bred if
all clearances were obtained. The owners never showed the
dog--heck, they never even kept its vaccinations up to date--and
then contacted me to lift the Non-Breeding Agreement [the
Canadian Kennel Club's equivalent of a Limited Registration,
except you can enter shows under such an agreement]. This
dog was likely bred, although I never lifted the agreement.
"Another was a Group First winner and was co-owned with someone in another breed," Reece-Weaver continues. "She came back for boarding in hideous condition, and they didn't seem to care. She's now fat and happy, living the life of leisure on a farm with a wonderful, loving family. Luckily, I moved and found a vet who also bred dogs and was doing the early neutering. After much thought I decided I would rather have any pup bred safe from any 'accidents,' if it was going to be a champion only. And I am much more difficult to get a dog from, intact or otherwise."
Ethel, a shelter rescue, is the proud owner of Robin and Steve Dale.
Papillon breeder and AKC judge Arlene Czech has been spaying
and neutering her pet-quality puppies for several years. "After
the Papillon won Westminster [in 1999], we breeders were deluged
with requests for 'breeding' stock," says Czech. "There
was no concern on their part about the quality of the dog.
I even had requests for a breeding pair!" Some breeders
will hold back papers until there is a note from the veterinarian
stating that the puppy has been spayed or neutered, but sometimes
puppy buyers care more about breeding the dog than they do
about having official AKC registration papers.
"This isn't for everyone, and even I am still researching
the effects of it, but if you have spent any time walking
through the local shelter or reading the classified ads, you
have to realize that something needs to be done to stop irresponsible
breeding," says Reece-Weaver. "People will buy a
dog and a bitch, then start having litter after litter, placing
them with no screening of the buyers other than whether the
check will clear. Some just don't know about health testing,
screening buyers, taking pups back if they can't be kept any
longer by their families--sadly, some just see the dollar
Zak takes a moment to pause.
Photo by Stuart Band
Czech also had no problems spaying her pups at five months of age. "My vet will do it if the puppy is in good health," she says. Reece-Weaver started out with a veterinarian who would spay/neuter pups at eight weeks of age, but her current vet likes to wait just a few weeks more. "The ones I've had done have been around 10 to 12 weeks, and I like that age," says Reece-Weaver.
"Strangely, more people are concerned about having to
wait to get the pup than about the alteration," she continues.
"Many have heard the pup must go to his new home no later
than eight weeks or he won't bond with them. This is simply
not true, and research is showing that another couple of weeks
is beneficial to the pup's development. The simple fact is,
I don't rush my pups out the door--yes, it's more work for
me, but I get a chance to start them on training (crating,
obedience, housebreaking, walking on a leash, and bird work).
I also get a better feel for the temperament and can better
fit the individual into their new family's lifestyle."
"I am strongly in favor of breeders who want to walk
the talk," says veterinarian Toodie Connor, a noted Tibetan
Terrier breeder and owner of Animal Care Center just outside
of Seattle, Washington. Connor believes early spay/neuter
is the only way to ensure dogs won't be bred; papers, such
as contracts or Limited Registration forms, simply aren't
enough. "I believe that responsible breeders keep their
puppies until they are twelve weeks old, and they can be spayed
or neutered at that age," says Connor.
As a veterinarian, Connor has spayed hamsters, so she has no qualms about spaying or neutering young puppies, "They heal faster; they act as if they've never had anything done to them."
Seals of Approval
Pediatric spay/neuter has been endorsed by the American Veterinarian
Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association,
the American Kennel Club, the Cat Fanciers' Association, many
state veterinary medical associations, and a host of other
associations. The Association of Veterinarians for Animal
Rights and the University of California at Davis School of
Veterinary Medicine have co-produced a video, Early-Age Spay/Neuter,
A Practical Guide for Veterinarians, demonstrating the procedure
on both kittens and puppies, and reassuring veterinarians
of its safety.
Red and Blue, photo Julie
"In our third-year surgery lectures, I discuss the advantages and safety of early spay/neuter," says Clare R. Gregory, DVM, DACVS, a professor in the Department of Surgical and Radiological Sciences at UC-Davis. "In our experience at UC-Davis, the procedure is as safe as the procedures in older animals."
"Pediatric spay/neuter is safe and is less stressful
on the patient than waiting until the animal is older,
[when he or she also] loses the benefits of avoiding accidental
pregnancy or mammary gland cancer, pyometras, false pregnancies,
prostate disease and behavioral problems," says Miller.
What About the Risks?
"The major concern is the perioperative management of
the pups and kittens," says Gregory. "Body temperatures
and blood glucose levels have to be kept at adequate levels.
Logistically, the young animals require more attention in
the hospital than older animals. Overall, however, we have
found that these procedures can be performed safely and successfully."
If Connor has any reservations at all about the procedure,
it's the use of anesthesia in these youngsters. "Because
they're so small, you don't have any margin for error,"
"Leading anesthesiologists and veterinarians familiar
with the procedures have advocated using whatever anesthetic
protocols practitioners are familiar with and simply reducing
the dosage for the weight of the patient," says Miller.
"No special drugs or protocols must be used. Careful
attention to dosing and monitoring is the key to safe anesthesia,
as in any other surgical procedure. Younger patients recover
from the anesthesia much faster than older animals. Pediatric
patients will be up and eating within 20 minutes after the
completion of surgery, as opposed to several hours for conventional
age patients. They also recover from the surgery and resume
normal activities much faster."
"The main risks are from hypothermia and hypoglycemia.
These risks are easily minimized, Miller continues. "Patients
should be fed a small meal in the morning before surgery and
fasted only a couple of hours to prevent hypoglycemia. Minimal
shaving of hair, avoiding the use of alcohol during surgery
prep, using heating pads during surgery and providing warmth
during recovery eliminates the risk of hypothermia."
"Studies have been conducted and published that indicate the procedure is safe, and there is no increase in complications short-term from the actual anesthesia or surgery," says Miller. In the long term, there is, so far, no evidence of any adverse physical side effects associated with pediatric surgery. "The growth plates close later, resulting in bones that are a little longer, rather than stunted growth--which is the common misconception," says Miller. "There is no known significance to this increase in bone length. Other concerns about obesity, perivulvular dermatitis and urinary incontinence have been found to be groundless. They may be found in animals regardless of the age at neutering or their sexual status," she adds.
Lewis, the Shih Tzu, is appropriately attired for
a Winter walk. Photo by Ronni Warren Ashcroft.
"Most veterinarians who perform pediatric neutering
admit that they prefer it to conventional age neutering, once
they become comfortable performing it," Miller continues.
"It is not microsurgery, and requires no special skills
or equipment beyond good surgical technique and anesthesia.
The patients are handled more easily, bleeding and fat are
minimal, and the patients can go home the same day. It merely
requires an open mind and a willingness to change and try
something new. Many veterinarians say they do not perform
the procedures because it is not necessary, or their clients
are not asking for it, but that denies the responsibility
of the veterinarian to participate in solving the pet overpopulation
problem. It is a social problem, not a shelter one."
"I would tell people that if their private veterinarian is not willing to do it, they need to find someone else who is," says Ryan. Most shelters and humane organizations can help you find a local veterinarian who performs pediatric spays and neuters. Your local humane society is the first place to call.
Are There Behavior Problems?
There have been some interesting theories put forth about behavioral consequences of pediatric spay/neuter. One is that females who were in utero between two males have more testosterone at birth and are more likely to become aggressive toward their owners after pediatric spaying. But according to Karen Overall, VMD, DACVB, who is head of the Behavior Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, there's really no support for that hypothesis. While there is some evidence that it's true for rats, the theory just doesn't hold up when applied to dogs.
There has also been some concern that there were early signs
of aggression in female dogs who were already overly assertive
before they were spayed. In a study done in 1990 at the Veterinary
College of Edinburgh University, researchers Valery O'Farrell
and Erica Peachey hypothesized that pediatric spaying would
increase the likelihood of expressing undesirable androgynous
traits, since removing the ovaries would leave comparatively
more testosterone in the body--thus creating conditions the
opposite of those that arise when males are neutered. They
compared the behavior of 150 spayed females with a control
group (matched by breed and age) of 150 unspayed females.
In their study, spayed females showed a significant increase
in dominance-related aggression following surgery, especially
if they were under one year of age and had exhibited aggressive
behavior prior to spaying.
However, other studies have found no difference in behavior
between groups of spayed and unspayed females. Anecdotally,
breeders who use the procedure are finding no problems. Reece-Weaver,
for example, has had no aggression problems with bitches who
were spayed early. "I've not heard of any problems that
were being associated with the early alteration or any concerns
with temperament at all," she says.
John Wright, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist and psychology professor at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, believes there is "a lack of well-controlled, clear research addressing the greater pieces of the puzzle." Wright is in the third and final year of a three-year study funded by The Pet Care Trust and Mercer University to look at how puppies behave in the first three years following adoption and to try to discover whether pediatric neutering (six to 13 weeks) has a different outcome in terms of behavior and health, compared to traditional age (six months) neutering.
Together with co-investigators from the MSPCA (Massachusetts
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), Wright
is looking at differences in elimination, feeding, separation-related
behaviors, veterinary medical issues and aggression. The study
uses a split-litter design: Half the puppies from each litter
studied were spayed or neutered early, before placement, and
half were neutered at the traditional time. The adopters agreed
to participate in a study about what puppies do in their first
few years of life, but were unaware of the pediatric neutering
aspect of the study.
The adopters were interviewed one month after adoption, and
again six months after adoption. After the second interview,
the adopters with puppies who hadn't yet been neutered were
called and a free spay/neuter was scheduled. There was another
assessment one year after adoption, then again at two years
and at three years. Wright and his colleagues are now putting
together the sdata and studying it.
So far they have found that behavior problems can come up
at different times and in different frequencies, but overall,
there were fewer behavior problems in both groups than had
been expected. "Conventional wisdom" holds that
up to 33 percent of shelter-adopted puppies are going to have
behavior problems, but the statistics simply haven't borne
that out. In the first month following adoption, behavior
problems (mostly involving biting and elimination) have shown
up, but many were specific to puppyhood and were resolved
by the time the puppy was six months of age. And what about
the pediatric spay/neuter group? "The insult of the surgery
seemed to be influencing behaviors in only a few cases,"
He is quick to point out that these are preliminary results
in his own study, and that he and his colleagues continue
to study the research findings. However, the preliminary news
is good. In fact, all things considered, the good news about
pediatric spay/neuter is that it's all good news.