Ever heard the term “prepubertal gonadectomy?” This mouthful of terminology was brought to you by veterinarians who theorized it would be easier to spay and neuter puppies and kittens before they reached sexual maturity. It seems that waiting until puberty –– the traditional approach –– has a downside they sought to circumvent by getting the deed out of the way early on. If it’s performed sooner, these veterinarians reasoned, surgical gonadectomy (aka, spaying and neutering) might just be faster, easier, safer, and cheaper. What’s more, they were dead sure that sterilizing these pets earlier meant they’d never add to the pet overpopulation problem by procreating.
If we waited until puberty (at about six months of age) to sterilize all puppies and kittens, they correctly reasoned, some pets would doubtless slip through the cracks, thereby compounding the crisis we’ve worked so hard to combat since the near-dawn of US pet keeping.
It’s better to spay a bird in the hand, isn’t it? (You know what I mean.)
Lots of veterinarians seem to agree. In fact, US shelter veterinarians seem united in their advocacy of prepubertal gonadectomy (also referred to as “prepuberal gonadectomy”) as an effective weapon in the war against pet overpopulation. In fact, even the leading veterinary organization, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) agrees it’s a worthy approach:
“The AVMA supports the concept of early (prepubertal, 8 to 16 weeks of age) spay/neuter in dogs and cats in an effort to reduce the number of unwanted animals of these species. Just as for other veterinary medical and surgical procedures, veterinarians should use their best medical judgment in deciding at what age spay/neuter should be performed on individual animals.”
But is it safe?
There’s the rub. While the AVMA pointedly supports the procedure specifically within the context of the goal of preventing pet overpopulation, it deftly skirts the issue of safety altogether, stopping well short of advocating its application in all instances.
And that’s exactly how most practicing small animal veterinarians feel about it: “Go ahead and use it in a shelter setting but I’m not about to start spaying and neutering eight week-old puppies and kittens. Not in my OR.”
Nonetheless, prepubertal gonadectomy in the US has increased dramatically in popularity over the past twenty years. Although the anesthetic and surgical procedures appear to be safe in the short-term, the truth is that we have only limited research to go on. More work is needed to establish the long-term effects on health and behavior.
According to a 2001 paper on the subject, “Early-age neutering does not stunt growth in dogs or cats (a once-held belief), but may alter metabolic rates in cats. The anesthetic and surgical procedures are apparently safe for young puppies and kittens; morbidity is lower and recovery is faster than in adult animals. To date, adverse side effects are apparently no greater in animals neutered at early ages (7 weeks) than in those neutered at the conventional age (7 months).”
Pretty impressive support. Here are some more papers:
Short-term results and complications of prepubertal gonadectomy in cats and dogs: In this 1997 study of 775 cats and 1,213 dogs, “prepubertal gonadectomy did not increase morbidity or mortality on a short-term basis, compared with gonadectomy performed on animals at the traditional age. These procedures may be performed safely in prepubertal animals, provided that appropriate attention is given to anesthetic and surgical techniques.”
Early Spay-Neuter Clinical Considerations: After listing the many considerations due a prepuberal patient, this 2002 article concludes that, “No significant short-term or long-term effects have been reported. Prepuberal gonadectomy is most useful for humane organizations and conscientious breeders wishing to preclude reproduction of pet dogs and cats while placing animals at a young enough age to optimize socialization and training.”
Despite general praise for the basic safety of early spays and neuters, pet owners and veterinarians throughout the world continue to question the optimal age for these procedures. Turns out we have very little to go on when it comes to working out the long-term risks for very early spays and neuters.
In fact, recent research has raised questions about traditional age sterilization. And plenty of really smart veterinarians even wonder whether spays and neuters in dogs should even be performed as elective surgeries at all.
So what’s my opinion?
For my part, I won’t hesitate to offer my clients the following bullet points by way of summarizing this fraught issue:
For as-yet-to-be-homed kittens whose forever homes might just look like someone’s porch (if they’re very lucky), I’m happy to spay and neuter them as early as eight weeks.
For kittens lucky enough to have a place to call home, I suggest my clients wait until the traditional age for spay and neuter (5-7 months).
The jury is still out on the ideal timing of spays and neuters for dogs, so when it comes to owned and forever homed dogs, there’s a separate discussion to be had (and there’s nowhere near enough room here to have it).
For female shelter pups? I’d prefer to see a traditional-aged spay but I’d settle for prepubertal spays in communities that have been found to carry a high risk of reproductive non-compliance.
For male shelter pups, Zeuterin appears to be a lower risk alternative to traditional prepuberal castration. I’d like to see more shelters go this way.