The Quirky Healthcare Politics of Canine Sterilization

Dr. Patty Khuly

We all know spaying and neutering is the right thing to do for our dogs, don’t we? Aside from preventing unwanted litters to offset the pet overpopulation problem, US veterinarians recommend the surgical sterilization of dogs to…

  • abolish heat cycles in females while diminishing unwanted behaviors in males,
  • eliminate the dangers associated with whelping along with the possibility of pyometra (potentially fatal uterine infections),
  • dispense with the risk of ovarian, uterine, or testicular cancers,
  • eradicate the risk of benign prostatic hyperplasia and subsequent prostate infections,
  • minimize the menace of mammary tumors in females,
  • and play down the prospect of perineal hernias in males.

Despite all these benefits, sterilization isn’t universally well-received the world around. In many European countries, it’s actually frowned upon unless a medical condition necessitates it. In fact, Germany has elected to outlaw surgical sterilization, citing animal welfare concerns as its chief rationale.

Subjecting dogs to sterilization because we’re too ignorant or irresponsible to keep them apart seems downright cruel to those who live in cultures where common sense is enough to keep the problem of pet overpopulation at bay. After all, surgical sterilization is … well … surgical. Which is to say, it’s an irreversible and arguably extreme solution to a very simple problem.

But what about all the wonderful health benefits of sterilization? Why wouldn’t we want to get rid of all the health risks gonads pose? I mean, why not do what’s in the interest of pet overpopulation if it’s what’s best for our dogs, too?

Trouble is, as the trend towards individualized care for pets accelerates, research into what’s ideal for each unique animal is starting to reveal more details about the pros, cons, and ideal timing of sterilization. And, as it turns out, each new study seems increasingly willing to call into question the spay-and-neuter-at puberty paradigm.

Indeed, in direct subversion of our culture’s current conventional wisdom, it’s become increasingly clear that spaying and neutering isn’t always best for all dogs in all households –– not if you’re looking beyond population control towards what’s best for your individual dog given his specific behavior concerns and unique healthcare risks.

This rethinking of the American spay/neuter mantra was brought to you courtesy of a growing cache of literature exploring the rise of certain canine conditions in recent years. Higher rates of obesity, cruciate ligament disease, certain cancers (lymphosarcoma, osteosarcoma, and mast cell tumors, in particular) as well as specific behavior concerns have all been correlated with sterilization.

In learning that some problems and pathologies may be more prevalent among spayed and neutered dogs than in their intact counterparts, some of us have felt compelled to openly question the status quo on sterilization. After all, the risks and expenses of surgical sterilization are not insignificant. Could it be that those oddball Europeans had it right all along?

To openly ask the question within the US, however, is to court political strife. This is true even within scientific communities, where we’d expect rationality to reign supreme. It seems the fact of millions of animals killed in this country every year argues so passionately in favor of wholesale sterilization that any contradicting argument pales by comparison.

Yet it’s undeniably depressing –– to me, anyway –– to acknowledge that what might be healthier for our pets holds little water with the veterinary and shelter communities, much less with the unversed masses. And when to ask for further research into the matter or to advance alternatives (such as tubal ligation, vasectomy, and neutering via zinc gluconate injection) attracts more scorn than it does an interest in novel solutions, I get to feeling especially glum.

Nonetheless, I take heart in the knowledge that it’s still early days for the concept of alternatives to surgical sterilization. After all, we’ve been living and laboring under this current paradigm for more than half a century and old habits are known to die hard in the veterinary community.

But what’s more heartening still is the certain knowledge that what underlies the undeniably quirky politics of sterilization isn’t intransigence for its own selfish ends, but rather an unwillingness to sacrifice any more animal lives in the service of human vanity than our culture currently does.

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