Below are two helpful articles discussing the issues of spaying and neutering.
Neutering: This Common Procedure Can Boost Cancer and Joint Problems As Much As Five-Fold
Many people think Golden Retrievers are just hairier versions of Labrador Retrievers, and it’s true the two breeds have many things in common. For example, they’re about the same size, have similar easygoing temperaments, and both breeds make excellent sporting and service dogs.
However, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis and published in the journal PLOS ONE,1 suggests that the two breeds differ in one important area – their health. The UC Davis study results indicate that spayed or neutered Goldens are more likely than Labs to develop joint disorders and cancer. The UC Davis researchers further confirmed what previous studies have shown — intact dogs of both breeds have lower rates of joint disorders and cancer than desexed dogs.
According to Veterinary Practice News:
“The researchers did not take a stand on spaying and neutering, which is done to an estimated 83 percent of all U.S. dogs to control the pet population and prevent unwanted behaviors. Instead, they stated that the study served to measure the long-term health effects of sterilization and to educate breeders and dog owners who are deciding when, and if, to spay or neuter their animals.”2
As earlier studies indicate, the age at which some dogs are sterilized seems to play a role in the development of future disorders. For example, there is a connection between desexing before six months of age and the appearance of joint disorders.
Only about five percent of intact Goldens and Labs of both genders wind up with joint disorders, according to the UC Davis researchers. But in dogs sterilized before they’re six months old, the rates jumped to 10 percent of Labs and 20 to 25 percent of Goldens.
“The removal of hormone-producing organs during the first year of a dog’s life leaves the animal vulnerable to the delayed closure of long-bone growth plates,” said Dr. Benjamin Hart of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Latest UC Davis Study Points to Desexing as a More Serious Problem for Goldens Than Labs
While both early neutered/spayed Labradors and Golden Retrievers had a significantly increased incidence of joint disorders, the latest UC Davis data points to much more pronounced rates of both joint disorders and cancers in Goldens neutered at a variety of ages.
The study was based on 13 years of health records for over 1,000 Goldens and 1,500 Labrador Retrievers. The dogs were neutered and non-neutered, male and female, and between the ages of one and eight.
The researchers compared the two breeds for development of three joint disorders including hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) tears, and elbow dysplasia, and four types of cancer: lymphosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, mast cell tumors, and mammary cancer. Also noted was the age at neutering – before 6 months, between 6 and 11 months, between 12 and 24 months, or between 2 and 9 years of age.
Joint Disorder and Cancer Rate Results
With regard to joint disorders, as stated above, the researchers found that intact dogs of both genders and breeds experienced one or more joint disorders at a rate of five percent. But in dogs neutered or spayed before six months of age, the rate doubled to 10 percent in Labrador Retrievers, and in Goldens, it increased a startling four to five times (20 to 25 percent) that of intact dogs.
Male Goldens had the greatest increase in hip dysplasia and CCL tears, while male Labs experienced bigger increases in elbow dysplasia and also CCL tears.
When it comes to cancer, intact male and female Labs, and intact female Goldens developed one or more cancers at a rate of three to five percent. Interestingly, 11 percent of intact male Goldens got cancer, and unexpectedly, neutering didn’t seem to have much effect on cancer rates in males.
Spaying female Labradors increased the incidence of cancer only slightly, but in female Goldens, neutering at any age over six months increased the risk of cancer three to four times over the level of intact females.
“The striking effect of neutering in female Golden Retrievers, compared to male and female Labradors and male Goldens, suggests that in female Goldens the sex hormones have a protective effect against cancers throughout most of the dog’s life,” according to Hart.3
Mixed Reception to Study Results
As expected, the latest UC Davis study results have received a mixed response from veterinary and animal welfare organizations. “Understandably, we see plenty of push back, along with lots of compliments like ‘thank goodness someone is finally doing something about the issue, especially the very early neutering,’” said Hart.4
Spaying and neutering is considered by many to be the one and only solution to the problem of pet overpopulation. (Interestingly, in many countries in Europe, they’ve found better solutions.) It’s also much more convenient for most pet owners to spay/neuter than to leave dogs intact or opt for sterilization procedures that preserve hormone-producing organs.
However, evidence is mounting that at least in some large breed dogs, indiscriminate spaying and neutering is destroying their health and shortening their lives. So clearly we need to rethink how and when we sterilize this segment of the canine population.
Hopefully, research into the effects of spaying and neutering dogs will continue, and will eventually include smaller breeds. Studies so far have looked only at large breeds, including Rottweilers, Goldens, and Vizslas.
My Recommendation for Dog Owners
As I explained in an earlier video and article, over the years, I’ve changed my view on spaying and neutering dogs, based not just on research like the UC Davis study, but also on the health challenges faced by so many of my canine patients after I spayed or neutered them.
My current approach is to work with each individual pet owner to make decisions that will provide the most health benefits for the dog. Whenever possible, I prefer to leave dogs intact. However, this approach requires a highly responsible pet guardian who is fully committed to and capable of preventing the dog from mating (unless the owner is a responsible breeder and that’s the goal).
My second choice is to sterilize without desexing. This means performing a procedure that will prevent pregnancy while sparing the testes or ovaries so that they continue to produce hormones essential for the dog’s health and well-being. This typically involves a vasectomy for male dogs, and either a tubal ligation or modified spay for females. The modified spay removes the uterus while preserving the hormone-producing ovaries.
I typically save full spays and neuters for older dogs who’ve developed a condition that is best resolved by the surgery, for example, pyometra (a uterine disease in female dogs), or moderate to severe benign prostatic hyperplasia (an enlarged prostate in male dogs). Generally speaking, mature intact dogs have had the benefit of a lifetime of sex hormone production, so the endocrine imbalances we see with spayed or neutered puppies don’t occur when dogs are desexed in their later years.
My Standard Disclaimer Regarding the Problem of Homeless Pets and Spaying/Neutering
I feel compelled to say this each time I discuss my views on desexing dogs…
Please understand I’m not advocating the adoption of intact shelter animals to people who may or may not be responsible pet owners. Shelter veterinarians don’t have the time or resources available to build a relationship with every adoptive family, so all the animals in their care must be sterilized prior to adoption to prevent more litters of unwanted pets.
Would I prefer that shelter vets sterilize rather than desex homeless pets, so that those animals, too, retain their sex hormones? Yes I would. But for the time being, the U.S. shelter system isn’t set up for that, nor are DVMs in this country routinely trained in how to perform anything other than full spays and neuters. And of course many prospective pet owners aren’t interested in any procedure short of a full spay or neuter.
So while I totally agree with the need to sterilize shelter pets, for the long-term health of those pets, I don’t necessarily agree with the method of sterilization being used.
By Dr. Becker
Neutering Dogs: Effects on Joint Disorders and Cancers in Golden Retrievers
In contrast to European countries, the overwhelming majority of dogs in the U.S. are neutered (including spaying), usually done before one year of age. Given the importance of gonadal hormones in growth and development, this cultural contrast invites an analysis of the multiple organ systems that may be adversely affected by neutering. Using a single breed-specific dataset, the objective was to examine the variables of gender and age at the time of neutering versus leaving dogs gonadally intact, on all diseases occurring with sufficient frequency for statistical analyses. Given its popularity and vulnerability to various cancers and joint disorders, the Golden Retriever was chosen for this study. Veterinary hospital records of 759 client-owned, intact and neutered female and male dogs, 1–8 years old, were examined for diagnoses of hip dysplasia (HD), cranial cruciate ligament tear (CCL), lymphosarcoma (LSA), hemangiosarcoma (HSA), and mast cell tumor (MCT). Patients were classified as intact, or neutered early (<12 mo) or late (≥12 mo). Statistical analyses involved survival analyses and incidence rate comparisons. Outcomes at the 5 percent level of significance are reported. Of early-neutered males, 10 percent were diagnosed with HD, double the occurrence in intact males. There were no cases of CCL diagnosed in intact males or females, but in early-neutered males and females the occurrences were 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Almost 10 percent of early-neutered males were diagnosed with LSA, 3 times more than intact males. The percentage of HSA cases in late-neutered females (about 8 percent) was 4 times more than intact and early-neutered females. There were no cases of MCT in intact females, but the occurrence was nearly 6 percent in late-neutered females. The results have health implications for Golden Retriever companion and service dogs, and for oncologists using dogs as models of cancers that occur in humans.