Pediatric Neutering and the Performance Dog

INTRODUCTORY DISCLAIMER: I am not a veterinarian and I do not play one on TV. I am not an expert in canine sports medicine, either. What follows in this post is Just My Opinion based on some amateur Internet research, personal observations, and kicking around the dog sports world for a couple of years. Here be anecdata, beware all ye who navigate these seas.

Having said that, here’s my opinion: pediatric neutering sucks, especially for performance dogs. Pongu was neutered at almost exactly 16 weeks old, down to the day, and as we start transitioning out of Rally and obedience into the agility phase of his career, I find myself wishing more than ever that he’d been allowed to develop normally. He wasn’t, and I am concerned that it’s going to cause us some problems down the road as we move into a more athletically challenging sport.

I’m well aware of the many, many reasons that shelters and rescues choose to enforce a mandatory across-the-board policy that all dogs must be spayed or neutered before adoption. I don’t really have a huge problem with that. I’ve seen more than my share of irresponsible pet owners who really, truly needed to have the choice taken out of their hands, because there was no way they could be relied upon to successfully manage intact dogs in their households. It’s often the least responsible people who get the most adamant that they can handle it, too; I feel like it’s got to be some kind of Dunning-Kruger variant in effect there. I am, accordingly, totally sympathetic to the position of rescue volunteers and shelter workers who argue that the best option is for people to have no option.

But!

While Pongu’s pediatric neutering is pretty far down the list of his handicaps in dog sports (as far as Pongu the Insane is concerned, his mental problems drastically outweigh his physical limitations), it sure doesn’t help. If I were looking to adopt a sport dog in the future, I’d steer far away from rescues and shelters that enforced mandatory pediatric speuters, and that’s a near-universally held view in the dog sports world. As far as dog sports competitors are concerned, pediatric speutering is frequently a dealbreaker, and that’s not great, because it means that some of the best homes in the world are closed off to dogs in organizations that have those policies.

The argument I want to make here is twofold: (1) To the extent that our mutual goal here is to get dogs into the best possible homes, it might not be a bad idea for shelters and rescues to be a little more flexible when dealing with adopters who are knowledgeable, responsible, and have legitimate, carefully considered reasons for wanting to delay speutering until their dogs are fully mature; and (2) to the extent that shelters and rescues want to adhere absolutely to their policies and not make any exceptions, they would be well advised to consider the opposing point of view and the research substantiating that position, so that they can articulate to those prospective adopters why they feel that the benefits outweigh those drawbacks. In other words, if you’re going to say “no,” best make it an informed and reasonable “no,” so that those prospective adopters don’t go away feeling like the shelters and rescues are just being ignorant and intractable.

There’s really no reasonable dispute that pediatric neutering causes dogs to develop differently than animals that are left intact until after reaching sexual maturity. Regardless of breed or mix, you can spot pediatric neuters at a glance. They’re abnormally leggy and gangly, the males tend to have “bitchy” appearances and more finely boned features, and their muscle development is impaired, particularly in males. (As an interesting historical sidenote, castrati — 17th and 18th-century male opera singers who were castrated before puberty to preserve their singing voices — were also widely recorded as having similar alterations to their physical development. They, too, tended to be unusually tall and leggy.)

Tall and leggy and kiiiiind of a giant nerd: that’s my Pongu!

There’s likewise no dispute that speutering has a number of effects on dogs’ health, although here it’s a bit of a mixed bag and the correlation/causation distinctions are sometimes unclear. A 2007 survey of over 50 peer-reviewed veterinary studies found that rates of osteosarcoma were significantly higher among speutered dogs, particularly pediatric speuters (which is not surprising, considering that one of the developmental effects of pediatric speutering is significantly elongated bones), and also found higher rates of hemangiosarcoma and hypothyroidism, among other serious issues. However, speutering also had some positive health effects: it reduced certain behavioral issues, reduced the risk of perianal fistulas among susceptible breeds (a point of particular interest to me, since GSDs are my favored breed and they are notoriously prone to perianal fistulas), and eliminated the risk of pyometra, a potentially lethal problem for intact bitches.

Another study that focused specifically on Golden Retrievers found significantly higher rates of hip dysplasia and lymphosarcoma among pediatric neuters and, interestingly, a spike in hemangiosarcoma rates among females that were spayed as adults, but not among intact females or females that had been given pediatric spays. Of particular interest for performance people, this study found a much higher rate of cranial cruciate ligament tears among pediatric speuters than all other dogs; it is hypothesized that this finding might be linked to the effect of neutering on the dog’s growth plates.

Yet another 2007 survey of veterinary studies observed the higher incidences of osteosarcoma and CCL tears among pediatric speuters, and suggested that the increased rates of those problems was likely connected to the elongated bones that pediatric speuters develop. The same study observed higher rates of urinary tract infections among female dogs that were spayed before puberty, and suggested that this might be caused by the fact that female puppies spayed before reaching sexual maturity never develop adult genitalia.

However, the JAVMA survey also noted that speutering of pets may be a realistic necessity for many shelters and rescues dealing with the pet-owning public, because compliance rates for people who sign contracts promising to spay or neuter their adopted pets are dismally low (less than 60%, according to that source, which seems reasonable as an average of what I’ve seen across different regions. In the Philadelphia area, I’d expect that number to be significantly higher; however, in the Southern rural areas where most of my fosters originate… well… let’s just say I’m not surprised if some of those homes would drag the nationwide average down to way below 60%).

So what does all this mean?

It means, if you’re into performance sports, that your pediatric speuter is going to develop into a substantially different form than one who’s left intact until after puberty. Your dog may have an increased risk of hip dysplasia and is significantly more likely to get injured over the course of his or her career. Your dog will have longer legs and finer bones. He or she will have trouble building and maintaining as much muscle as a normally developed dog would.

If we’re talking about challenging, high-level sports, these are not trivial considerations. I’m not yet at a point where I can make any reasonable prediction as to whether Pongu’s gangly proportions would affect his top speed on an agility course (and honestly I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to determine that, given that my dog is a nutjob and his assorted anxiety problems slow him down much more than his janky legs ever could), but it surely wouldn’t surprise me to find out that they do.

I don’t have serious competitive aspirations for Pongu in agility. I can’t; it wouldn’t be realistic for him. We’re mostly just out there to have fun and learn how to play this sport together. Also, he’s crazy, so it’s not like having one more problem on our giant mountain of Issues makes a huge difference.

But I still don’t want to see him get hurt. Additionally, it’s very likely that I will have serious aspirations for my next dog, and in that case, pediatric speutering would be an absolute dealbreaker for me. I’m not doing anything that would ding my Imaginary Future Dog’s chances at having a long, happy, injury-free career. And the scientific evidence pretty clearly supports my own observations and anecdata that pediatric speutering would very much hurt those chances.

For a pet home, this might very well not matter. There are still some potential health risks, but they’re mostly in the realm of “might” and “maybe”: increased risks for some things, decreased risks of others, no ironclad guarantees either way. Plus, the shelter/rescue does have a strong and legitimate interest in ensuring that the dog doesn’t breed, and that someday-in-the-future speutering doesn’t get lost in the swirl of kids and jobs and family commitments that can sometimes knock a pet dog pretty far down the priority ladder.

But for a sport home? Nope. The difference in physical development is guaranteed, and that alone makes it a total no-go.

And, frankly, it’s more than a little annoying to me when I get the simplistic Speutering 101 “herpty derp it will solve all your behavioral problems and have zero health drawbacks! In fact pediatric neutering is better because they heal faster!” canned explanation from rescue and shelter volunteers on this subject.

I’ve been in rescue for years, and I’ve been in dog sports for years, and I kind of want to just grab their shoulders and yell “DUDE. STOP. Not your target audience for that spiel.”

There are people who need to hear the spay/neuter message. It’s an important message; I am in no way claiming otherwise. There are many, many communities and audiences who still need to be sold on that one.

But there are many others where that message is ten to fifteen years behind the times.

This is a subject on which a diversity of opinions exists. That’s a good thing. We’re all in different places in our lives and we all have different goals and priorities. But I do think, on pediatric speutering particularly, it’s important to recognize that the diversity of opinions among informed and educated dog people exists for a really good reason: because there is no one clear-cut right answer for everybody. There are, in fact, a lot of awfully legitimate reasons that someone might not want to neuter their future sport dog at 16 weeks old.

I wish I’d known enough to understand exactly what I was agreeing to back then. It wouldn’t have changed anything — that shelter has an ironclad, non-negotiable policy on speutering before adoption, and there is no way that I would not have adopted Pongu, because that little goober was destined to be My Dog — but I do wish that I had known what it meant to neuter a dog at four months old. I think it’s important to know, and that it’s a real disservice to both dogs and owners that this complicated issue so often gets reduced to its most simplistic dimensions.

Should my dog have been fixed? Absolutely. There is nothing about him that warrants breeding, and as a first-time owner I didn’t need to try wrangling an intact dog in a city condo. (Next time around? Sure. First time? No thanks. I know some of my limitations.)

But should it have been done when he was four months old?

Not if I’d had my choice.

12 thoughts on “Pediatric Neutering and the Performance Dog

  1. And I’m hoping the happy medium shelters and vets reach is not to stop the spay and neuter entirely, but perhaps to allow sport homes to request ovary sparing spays, vasectomy or Zeutering, or whatever new advances in technique happen. Heck, I’d be happy if the default desexing wasn’t to take out everything they can, but that’s probably asking too much. So having other options on the table for people who ask could be huge.

    Duncan’s a shelter find. He was neutered before I ever saw him. He did a great job. Then he tore his left CCL. I will always wonder what might have been.

    Keeper had an ovary sparing spay- the very first my vet ever performed. She’s only two, but I continue to hope that it was the best choice for her and for me. Almost all the hormones, none of the mess of heat or risk of pyometra.

  2. Bosco wasn’t neutered until just before I adopted him at 5 years old (best guess). He is a heavier set Aussie and people always comment on how big he is. After reading this I wonder if it’s because people are used to only seeing dogs who have been neutered early and therefore have the longer lighter bones.

  3. What would you think of a shelter policy that allows for intact juvenile dogs to be adopted to sport homes, on the condition that the adopter prove they’ve been involved in dog sports with a previous pet? Do you think that’d be an adequate filter?

    • Maybe. I think the better policy would be to evaluate each home on a case-by-case basis, weighting demonstrated involvement in dog sports as a significant but not decisive factor.

      I don’t think it’s reasonable to make bright-line rules in many things where dog health and care are concerned, because there are so many gray areas where things get Complicated. What about someone who’s seriously trained for a long time in dog sports, but never made it to trialing because the dog wasn’t able to compete (for example, if you owned a tripod dog in a region where your only trial options were AKC sports that don’t allow tripods) or the handler had really bad ring nerves or they just lived in a geographically isolated area and there weren’t any trials around?

      What if it’s a first-time owner who isn’t sure that they want to compete but does have a serious interest in trying? Do you let that person in or screen them out?

      What if it’s a dog sports person who is just not that responsible or realistic about their dog’s health? Not every sports handler is automatically a great, responsible owner. I’d say the percentages are considerably *higher,* but not to the point where I’d be comfortable just taking that for granted. And there are people who can talk a good game because they’ve been hanging around Internet forums a long time and they’ve learned what to say, but scratch a little deeper and the lack of actual accomplishments becomes clear.

      There’s just too much ambiguity for me to feel like the right answer is ever going to be as simple as allowing Exception X for Group Y. And the other thing is, most shelter workers and rescue volunteers have zero experience in dog sports and no real ability to evaluate the accuracy of what people tell them.

      So I think the better call is just “be flexible wherever you can.” Unfortunately this results in having no clear solution to a complicated problem, but welp, that’s why it’s complicated.

  4. What I don’t understand is why tubal ligations (or vasectomies) are not more common. They leave the sex organs intact, but eliminate any chance for breeding. They are, compared to removing the entire kit-and-kaboodle, tiny operations, and aside from the need for the laparoscope, they are quick and fairly inexpensive too.

    • My impression (which may well be inaccurate, and I would greatly welcome the input of an actual vet or tech here) is that “regular” spays and neuters are so widely accepted, commonly taught in school, and practiced in the real world that they’re what most vets are most comfortable doing.

      Learning a new procedure always entails a certain amount of making mistakes (or, at the very least, being slower/less efficient) as you develop the skills needed to competently execute the task. It’s human nature to be a little resistant to doing that, especially if it seems like the practice you already know “works just fine” (which, in many contexts, it does).

      Another possible contributing factor, although I think this one is much much smaller, is that our dogs are increasingly being asked to live in close and congested quarters. This tends to move the needle toward preferring full-on speuters, because a lot of doggy day cares, dog parks, etc. will not accept intact animals or animals that appear to be intact (such as male dogs that have had vasectomies).

      It is definitely true that intact male dogs tend to spark fights in crowded dog parks — usually not because they’re the aggressors, but because neutered male dogs react aggressively to them. I’ve seen that happen many, many times. As a result, all our local dog parks prohibit intact dogs over a year old, and partial speuters don’t count because the hormones are what the other dogs are reacting to. If you’re an average urban pet owner and the dog park is your only option for regular off-leash exercise, that can be a strong factor in getting your dog castrated rather than getting a vasectomy.

  5. “And, frankly, it’s more than a little annoying to me when I get the simplistic Speutering 101 “herpty derp it will solve all your behavioral problems and have zero health drawbacks! In fact pediatric neutering is better because they heal faster!” canned explanation from rescue and shelter volunteers on this subject.

    There are people who need to hear the spay/neuter message. It’s an important message; I am in no way claiming otherwise. There are many, many communities and audiences who still need to be sold on that one.”

    If you’re saying that some people and communities still need to hear the canned response as stated above, I can’t agree. Why? Because it’s a lie, and lying to people to force them to make the decision YOU (you meaning the shelter, vet, etc.) deem correct for THEIR dog is not okay. S/n DOES have health drawbacks, and even if we aren’t sure on just what or how high the risk is, owners deserve to make an informed decision. That doesn’t mean shelters can’t or shouldn’t do pediatric altering- during the time the animal is in their care they are responsible, so they get to make the choices. But I’m hearing far too many people, including vets, who think that the new information we’re learning about the consequences shouldn’t be shared with owners because they’ll ‘make the wrong choice.’ I really can’t get behind that, and it shames me that so many people see no problem with it. The majority of owned pets are in fact spayed or neutered- over 80%! People have in fact gotten the message. Outright misleading them is not cool, fair, or acceptable, and most importantly- it hurts dogs.

    • What I meant is pretty much what I said: there are people who still need to hear the message that spay/neuter is important.

      There are still people who don’t want to do it because they genuinely believe that all female dogs need to bear a litter before spaying for their health or psychological fulfillment. There are people who don’t want to neuter their male dogs because they think it’ll make their dogs “less of a man” (not in any rational or reality-based sense, but because they identify so strongly with their dog’s macho-ness that it’s perceived as an attack on their own masculinity to have a neutered dog). There are people who honestly believe that there is no pet overpopulation problem in the United States and therefore no harm in letting their dogs “do what’s natural.” And there are a LOT of people who can’t or won’t come up with $25 for a low-cost S/N because it is just not a priority for them.

      These aren’t mainstream beliefs anymore, I’m glad to say. But they certainly do persist in some parts of the country. Neither information nor cultural beliefs spread to all places and populations at the same rates; there are still pockets that are running 30-40 years behind the times relative to what’s become mainstream in most of the U.S.

      • But spay/neuter is not actually the root cause of ‘overpopulation’ (which I do actually do not believe exists, but that’s another debate.) Uncontrolled breeding is. Those are actually two separate issues, and the rescue community’s insistence otherwise results in situations like a sport home being denied a dog because they want to delay neutering. If the dog in question is in a kill shelter, that’s a dog who could be well be killed because of that insistence. The choice to delay or avoid spaying and neutering is treated as irresponsible, without ever knowing the reasons behind that choice.

        Sport homes are not the only homes with a vested interest in keeping dogs as healthy as possible. Can we give the message that spay/neuter is important without also claiming that it has zero health drawbacks? Many in the rescue and even veterinary community would say at this stage that we can’t…because then people might actually use that information to make a different choice than they would. That is what I’m objecting to. We can say avoiding *breeding* is important and give options (along with information on the benefits and drawbacks of each), and stop acting as if every home with an intact dog *will* breed that dog. Some won’t listen…just as a portion have never listened before. But being dishonest isn’t going to change that anyway.

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