Traditionally, dogs have been spayed or neutered at about 6 to 12 months of age, just before the onset of sexual maturity. The reasoning behind this was that it was usually effective at altering the dog before they became sexually active, and the puppy had adequate time to develop physically and was better able to tolerate anesthesia and surgery. However, in recent years altering male dogs at an earlier age has become more common as rescue agencies and shelters have sought to ensure that young dogs are neutered prior to adoption.
Are there any ramifications to neutering dogs earlier in life, and not waiting until the traditional 6 to 12 months of age? There has been some controversy around the issue of early neutering. For more information, read on.
Why Neuter at 6 to 12 Months of Age?
Neutering of dogs that are not being used for a breeding program usually takes place at around 6 to 12 months of age. Most dogs do not sexually mature until after 6 months of age, so this is usually successful in preventing unwanted behaviors associated with reproductive maturity, and preventing pregnancies. Also, at 6 months of age, puppies are usually thought to be better able to tolerate anesthesia, surgical procedure, and recovery. Dogs at this age have usually received their vaccinations and exposure to a hospital setting does not put them at undue risk of contagious disease.
Why Neuter Earlier?
The controversy arises however as to whether it is appropriate for dogs to be altered at a young age, often as young as 6 weeks of age, or whether early castration leads to health problems in dogs that receive the procedure. Several studies and experts in the field of veterinary medicine have suggested that early neutering of dogs is associated with several cancers, conditions, and diseases in dogs.
Some of the health conditions associated with neutering, and specifically to early neutering, of dogs include:
■ Cardiac tumors
■ Bone cancer
■ There can be problems with the development of long bones in taller animals, as growth plates do not close if the animals are neutered significantly earlier than puberty. Also, mineral deposits in the bones are affected by the cessation of hormones associated with early neuter. This is associated with orthopedic conditions, due to longer bones, and disproportionate limbs. Conditions such as hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament disorder may be more prevalent.
■ Other metabolic disorders such as hyperthyroidism and impaired immune systems, making animals more susceptible to infections and allergies, have been associated with early neutering.
■ Behavior problems may also be associated with early altering of dogs, due to lack of maturity before the life-changing event of sterilization takes place. Problems with anxiety, sexual behaviors, and aggression may be more common in animals that are altered at an early age.
Choosing the Right Time
Exactly when a dog reaches sexual maturity varies between individuals and breeds. Some giant breed dogs do not reach maturity until 2 years of age. For these individuals, early neutering may have a larger impact than a dog that would have reached maturity at 6 months of age.
Many experts have suggested that the previously thought risks of performing surgery at an early age have not been experienced, and puppies that are sterilized at an early age tolerate anesthesia well and recover without any undue complications.
Most veterinarians agree that waiting until just before sexual maturity to neuter your dog is optimal for your dog’s health, however, the decision of when to neuter your dog may need to take into account the likelihood that if the dog reaches puberty and is unaltered, they will have access to a mating opportunity and contribute to the unwanted pet population. Depending on the pet owner's situation and resources, the benefits of waiting for neutering versus the benefits of early sterilization need to be weighed.