Years ago, it was commonly believed that many dog behavior problems would be prevented or eliminated by neutering. When two colleagues I worked with neutered their dogs in the hopes of addressing some of their dogs' undesirable behaviors, only to find that the results were not what they expected, we began to question the validity of these beliefs. This was just the first time we questioned presumptions about spaying and neutering, but it's only been in the last few years, that there has been any scientific research on this topic.
We in New England have accepted routine spaying and neutering for a variety of reasons including preventing unwanted litters of puppies (absolutely correct) and to prophylactically avoid future cancers (after all, if you remove the dog's testicles, he can't get testicular cancer).
In the past few years, there's been a growing inclination to perform pediatric surgery on puppies as young as eight weeks of age, under the belief that such early surgery is easier than waiting until the dog is older.
Another reason for neutering has been a belief that neutered dogs and spayed females make better pets - that they're calmer and less prone to behaviors such as hyperactivity, excitability and aggression. Recent studies have shown that with the exception of preventing unplanned puppies many, if not most of the long-held beliefs are not correct - and that pediatric surgery is especially problematic.
In fact, research findings indicate that these surgeries performed on very young puppies actually have increased risks later in the dog's life. (I'll write about some specific findings next week).
The most recent study, published in the Feb. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) has the catchy title "Evaluation of the risk and age of onset cancer and behavioral disorders in gonadectomized Vizslas." ("Gonadectomized" means "neutered"). Supported by the Vizsla Club of America Welfare Foundation, the research included 2,505 dogs.
This most recent study supports previous research that demonstrate a higher incidence of several cancers as well as cruciate ligament tears in neutered and spayed dogs as compared to intact dogs. Even more striking to me as a dog trainer are the findings in this latest study regarding behavioral issues. The researchers found that there is a higher incidence of timidity, excitability, submissive urination, aggression, hyperactivity, fear biting, separation anxiety, and fear of noises in Vizslas that were spayed/neutered before six months of age. If spayed or neutered after six months, there was no increased risk of these behaviors, however, thunder storm phobias were higher in neutered dogs than in non-neutered dogs regardless of the age of neutering,. (Incidentally, I had a Vizsla who was spayed at four years of age, and developed a thunder phobia later in life).
These studies provide a great deal of food for thought for our dogs' futures. I have one neutered and one intact male.
Since I can't change the fact that Kochi is neutered, I'm not going to worry about the "what if's"-and neither should you if you have a surgically altered pet. On the other hand, at the very least, I think we need to reevaluate the effects of these surgeries on the overall health and well-being of our dogs, especially when performed on very young puppies.
Before anyone writes me an angry letter about the unwanted puppies that will result if we stop spaying and neutering, please recognize that I'm not recommending such a drastic change. I do believe, however, that dog owners should have information to weigh the long-term risks versus the benefits of neutering our dogs.
This information may lead to finding other approaches to sterilization that may not include such health risks to our beloved pets. There is much more to be learned from these studies - more next week.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn® near Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.