Is vasectomy a reasonable alternative to traditional castration for dogs?

Medical articles
doberman on a metal table getting an IV at the vet

I’ve been blogging and writing columns for pet health publications for nearly a decade now. Which means a sizable amount of mail comes my way on the subject of individual pet concerns.

Of all these missives (I’m probably up to ten unique queries a day), the most popular question outstrips all other subjects by a lot. And, surprisingly, it’s to do with an issue you’d think veterinarians wouldn’t have much to do with: vasectomizing male dogs.

Yes, the single most commonly queried issue has to do with how to source a vasectomy for dogs. Apparently, it’s near impossible to find veterinarians willing to tackle this simple procedure. Whether we’re talking California, New York, Miami, or the sum total of all the progressive places in between, vasectomy is currently not considered an alternative to traditional castration of dogs. Not by the vast majority of veterinarians, anyway.

Which is endlessly frustrating to pet owners who have read my articles advancing vasectomy as a safe and effective approach to sterilizing their male dogs.

Yes, I’ll confess: I brought all these questions upon myself after I started thinking about vasectomies for dogs (about seven or eight years ago now). Since some of my own human friends and family were undertaking it at the time and the veterinary community was just starting to admit to itself that castration of male dogs might not necessarily be ideal for every single patient (see this article for background), I couldn’t help wondering whether simply rendering a dog sterile and not removing the entirety of his gonadal apparatus might not be a rational substitute.

After all, if population control is the primary imperative behind castration, why not just do a smaller snip-snip and leave those “balls” alone?

Based on these musings, I decided to ask a few board-certified veterinary surgeons to weigh in: How hard is a vasectomy to perform? Is this a really fiddly procedure with a steep learning curve? What can go wrong? Have you done one? Would you?

In the end, they all assured me there’s no surgical reason why we don’t routinely perform what amounts to an easier, quicker, less invasive procedure than traditional castration. Indeed, the only issues that hold any of us back from performing vasectomies on a routine basis include the following:

#1 Behavior Issues

Castration alters a dog’s behavior along with his ability to pass on his genetic material. Removing the entirety of the testicular tissue permanently eliminates the vast majority of his testosterone production. And since testosterone influences unwanted behaviors like aggression, roaming, marking, and humping, those who don’t have their testes out risk higher rates of these troubles.

But here’s the thing: Plenty of dogs never show any signs of behavior problems that might be influenced by testosterone. May we be throwing the baby out with the bath water?

#2 Medical Concerns

High levels of testosterone are associated with all kinds of ailments. Though preventing reproduction and unwanted behaviors rank higher on our list of issues, medical issues come in third. Indeed, removing the testes means there’s no testicular cancer to worry about, fewer perineal hernias, low rates of perianal adenomas, and no benign prostatic enlargement to fuss over.

Despite these advantages, the truth is that castration can always be undertaken in the event these diseases do occur. While some of these problems can be expensive, they’re typically treatable and/or reversible upon castration (even very late in life).

Moreover, we’re starting to find that certain diseases might be more prevalent in castrated males. Some studies strongly suggest that cruciate ligament disease and the rate of certain cancers are elevated in castrated males.

#3 History and Politics

What can I say? We’re people, so politics and history will inevitably play a role. After all, castration is the way we’ve been doing things for hundreds of years now. And it’s understandably difficult to get everyone thinking about a new way of doing things when dogs are still being killed in shelters at rates that would doubtless make you cry if you allowed your thoughts to stray there.

#4 Teaching the Technique

To a large extent, vasectomization isn’t on the average veterinarian’s radar screen because we weren’t taught anything about it in school.

By design, those at the forefront of clinical change in our profession have traditionally been those who teach in university settings. They influence all of us through the papers they write and the students they teach. But these professors have little incentive to teach vasectomies or even ponder their significance. They don’t live and work in the real world, after all.

#5 Fashion

Sometimes we make serious decisions about our own healthcare that have more to do with what physicians are collectively thinking about than with anything else. (Not to open a can of worms but male circumcision is a great example.) It only makes sense that veterinarians would do the same. Which is probably why, despite the rationality of canine vasectomization as a procedure, it’ll take some time for the concept to come into vogue. We’re just not chattering enough about it… yet.