When should I spay or neuter my pet?

The answer used to be easy, six months for dogs, six months for cats.   No thought required.   Then the shelters, concerned with the number of unwanted pets, began to promote spaying and neutering at younger ages.  Their problem was real, but they didn’t make this decision based on medical evidence.   Problems are now emerging.

What do we know?

For many years we have known that spaying a female dog or cat before the first heat cycle almost eliminates their life long risk of mammary tumors (breast cancer).   In dogs 50% of tumors are malignant.  In cats 90% are malignant.  But by spaying dogs before the first heat cycle the risk drops to less than ½ of 1/10 of 1% (0.05%).   Spaying after the first heat cycle but before the second also reduces the risk, but not by as much.  The first heat cycle generally occurs around 7 months for small dogs, and a little later in large breed dogs.   We are forced to euthanize dogs and cats for mammary tumors several times per year. Pets not receiving regular examinations often have advanced cancer on presentation, making treatment more expensive and sometimes too late.

We know from human and dog studies that pregnancy, as a young adult, carries less lifetime risk for mammary tumors than delayed pregnancy, so delaying spaying for a dog intended for breeding is not necessarily bad. However you will have to find homes for all of those puppies.

It is also well established that dogs and cats cycling in and out of heat over and over again, but not getting bred, start to develop changes to the uterus (endometriosis) that often lead to a severe life threatening uterine infection. This can generally be cured by surgery, but is much more expensive and far riskier than a routine spay as a young adult. If caught late, you may face over $1000 of medical bills. It can be fatal, especially if you procrastinate on seeking veterinary care. We see this condition a few times a year at Urbana Veterinary Clinic. It is 100% avoidable by spaying.

These facts are the origin of the 6 month recommendations. But the early spay neuter ‘experiment’ has taught us new lessons. The findings are still being refined, and research is ongoing.

In a recent study of 759 golden retrievers at the UC Davis veterinary school were evaluated for orthopedic and cancer risks.   Neutering before one year of age was associated with an increased lifetime risk of hip dysplasia (also affected by genetics, diet and exercise), cruciate ligament tears (a knee injury requiring expensive surgery) and the cancer lymphosarcoma.  However neutering after one year of age was associated with an increased risk of mast cell tumors and hemangiosarcoma (malignant blood vessel cancer) in female dogs.1

There is also a 2002 study2 (one of Dr. Cole’s classmates was the lead author) that found Rottweilers spayed or neutered before one year of age had an increased risk of the malignant bone tumor osteosarcoma compared to dogs that were not spayed or neutered, and dogs spayed and neutered later in life.   This study did not look at other breeds.

There is even a study3 showing that cats neutered before 4 months of age have an increased risk of the rare orthopedic disease Legg Calve Perthes disease.  This disease is life changing, surgery is necessary to use the leg again.

What does this mean?
  • Cats should be spayed and neutered around 6 months of age.
  • Female dogs should be spayed between 6-12 months of age.
  • We consider her size, breed and any known family history of disease to determine the best time, as well as the risk of unwanted pregnancy.
  • Generally small dogs should be spayed around 6 months of age, large dogs maybe a little older.
  • Male dogs should be neutered between 6-12 months of age.
  • Large breed dogs should be neutered at a year of age unless they are in danger of causing an unwanted pregnancy or developing aggression problems.
  • Spaying or neutering a dog or cat less then 6 months of age is no longer recommended.
  • It is very unwise to spay or neuter them before 16 weeks of age.
  • These recommendations will continue to evolve as new evidence is collected.
  1. Vet Practice News Vol 25 No 4, pp 1 and 8
  2. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, Nov 2002, 11; 1434
  3. April 2010 Central Veterinary Conference, Baltimore proceedings. Gayle H Jaeger, DVM, MspVM, DACVS

Top 10 reasons to spay or neuter your pet

10. The younger the pet at the time of surgery, the more straightforward the procedure and the quicker the recovery, allowing patients to go home the same day. Newer anesthetic choices make for safe procedure and more rapid recovery, for both young and old pets.
9. Breeding costs even more money than having your pet spayed or neutered.
8. Breeding is much more work for you and your pet.
7. For females, spaying eliminates heat cycles and the spotting that comes with them (dogs).
6. Fewer visits from neighborhood dogs/cats because pheromones are no longer present.
5. Males show reduced aggression, anxiety, and roaming, thus reducing the chance of being hit by cars, getting in fights, or becoming lost.
4. Reduces urine marking.
3. Decreased infection rate because there will be one less organ to harbor disease.
2. Decreased risk of cancer (mammary for females, testicular or prostatic for males).
#1 Reason— Your pet won’t be contributing to the pet overpopulation problem!!

How to help children deal with pet loss?

The death of a family pet is often a child’s first experience with loss. Children experience grief also, though their age and development levels influence their grief reactions. They express grief differently than adults due to shortened attention spans and varying intellectual levels of understanding death and loss.

Children ages 1-2:

Their world is experienced through their senses. At this age, they do not understand death. Instead, they respond to their caregiver’s emotions and behaviors. They may express grief as irritability, changes in sleep and eating patterns and quietness. Possible interventions include comforting the child and maintaining normal routines.

Children ages 2-6:

For children at these ages, death is like sleeping. Death is temporarily and perhaps reversible, not final, and the deceased pet can come back to life. Children may ask and repeat many questions (When will he be back? Where did he go? What will he eat in the ground?). They may also believe that the pet’s death was somehow their fault. Possible interventions include symbolic play, drawing/stories, and allowing the child to express their feeling and talk about the event. It is also important for the adults to display appropriate expression of feelings, which will create a sense of safety about experiencing emotions and expressing them appropriately.

Children ages 6-12:

Children in this age range begin to understand death as final. They may be curious of the physical and biological aspects of the deceased. In the earlier years of this developmental phase, children may believe death is something that occurs to only the old, and only to others. Soon an understanding will occur that death can happen to anyone as well as themselves. Fear of death may occur. Acting out behaviors at home and at school may be exhibited. Social development is occurring so children may imitate how others around them respond to death or may hide their feelings in attempt to not appear “different”. It is important for parents to continue to model appropriate behaviors and be honest and factual with children. Possible interventions include answering questions and encouragement to express their feelings openly.

Teenage children:

Young adults are able to think abstractly about death. They understand it is the end of a physical life. At this age, teenagers are searching for identity and attempting to find a balance between independence and dependence of their caregiver. They may struggle with needing support and not wanting it. It is important to help them find personal ways to express their grief, such as writing, drawing and talking. It is important to allow them to grieve and talk about their feelings.

Additional Tips for Helping Children through Pet Illness and Death
  • Be as honest as possible. Avoid using the phrase “put to sleep”. This can be frightening and confusing to young children, who may associate the word “sleep” with going to bed.
  • As a parent, it’s natural to want to protect your child from any pain, including the pain associated with grief. Some Parents think that a way to do this is to lie about the death of a pet. Fabricating reasons why a pet is no longer in the home leads to many other emotional effects, such as abandonment issues, a continued sense of hope for their return, and unresolved grief due to a loss not being recognized. Instead, be honest with your children about a pet’s death.
  • Recognize that pet death is a significant loss for children and should not be minimized as unimportant. It is an important time for parents and other adults to teach children how to express grief in emotionally healthy ways, free of shame or embarrassment.
  • Discover what the individual child is thinking. Be open and receptive to any questions/concerns that your child may have.
  • Be aware that children often mistakenly believe that they are somehow responsible for the pet’s death. Talk openly with children about this.
  • Involve children as much as possible in decisions surrounding the pet’s illness and death. During euthanasia, it can be helpful for the child to have a choice of being present or not. If a child does not want to be present, viewing their pet’s body afterwards for final goodbyes can help create a sense of closure and finality.
  • Understand that the emotional responses to a pet’s death vary according to the child’s relationship with the pet. Don’t assume the child’s reaction will be the same as the adult’s.
  • Parents are encouraged to involve their children in a goodbye ceremony and in memorializing the pet. Some ideas are making a clay paw print, cut a hair clipping, creating a shadow box, or holding a funeral service or memorial celebration.
  • Don’t encourage replacement of pets, but rather share memories and stories of the deceased pet.

Making hard decisions

Assessing Your Pet’s Quality of Life

“How will I know when it’s time to euthanize?”

The decision to euthanize your pet is probably the most difficult decision you will ever make regarding your pet’s care. When a pet’s death is inevitable, euthanasia may provide a compassionate end while giving you control over where, when and how your pet will die. Given your special relationship, your pet may let you know when it’s time to say goodbye.

Quality of Life is the degree of well-being felt by the animal. What makes life worth living for your pet? It can be difficult to switch gears from fighting the disease to ensuring quality of life.

How to define quality of life from the pet’s point of view:
  • Does the pet eat and drink normally?
  • Can the pet go out to the bathroom without assistance?
  • Can the pet move around comfortably without assistance?
  • Is the pet still interested in activities (play, exercise, etc.)
  • Does the pet seem withdrawn?

Keep a record of your pet’s unique characteristics (fetching, playing with other pets, barking at the mailman, etc.). Decide early on which/how many traits can decline before too much quality is lost from the animal’s daily life. This record may also be used to reflect on how changes in the pet’s life affect your daily life as well.

Keep a good day/bad day calendar. Decide what a good day would be life, and also what a bad day would be. Mark the calendar with a 🙂or a :(. Next, decide how many bad days in a row your pet can have before the pet’s quality of life needs to be considered.

Other Important decisions associated with Euthanasia
  • Decide whether or not to be present during your pet’s euthanasia
  • Determine how you will care for your pet’s body (cremation or home burial)

Also keep in mind that quality of life for you and your family is equally important. It can be physically, emotionally and financially stressful to take care of your sick or injured pet. It is normal to feel guilty when you take your needs into consideration. It is important to be honest with yourself about feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, or resentful in relation to taking care of your pet.

The difference between pain and suffering

Pain is a physical and emotional sensation that can be difficult to assess. Keep in mind that a pet’s reaction to pain is dependent upon the individual personality and the degree of pain the pet is experiencing. The following is a list of signs that the pet is in pain:

  • Trembling/shaking
  • Panting
  • Whining or lack of barking/noise
  • Restlessness
  • Hesitant to be touched in painful area
  • Unusual displays of aggressive behavior

Suffering is more than physical attributes, and involves the ability to enjoy living life. The following is a list of signs that the pet is suffering:

  • The pet is unable to eat/drink by itself
  • The pet is unable to go out to the bathroom by itself
  • The pet is unable to stand/walk comfortably by itself
  • The pet is no longer playful and seems withdraw