The benefits of neutering – greater than the risks?

We’re seeing more and more material on the internet at the moment, suggesting that “neutering is bad for dogs’ health”. Increasingly, people are opting out of neutering their dogs – and even, to a lesser extent, cats and rabbits – on the grounds that it is “bad for them” in some way. Well, in this blog we’re going to take a look at the evidence, to explain why we still recommend neutering in most cases!

What is neutering?

Neutering can be defined as permanently removing both fertility and the capacity to make sex hormones (testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone). In males, the procedure is castration (removal of the testicles), and in females spaying (removing the ovaries and, often, uterus or womb).

Why not neuter?

It is true, there are some health concerns around neutering – neutering does seem to increase SOME health risks in some animals. The major concerns are:
● Obesity. This is a real one – neutered animals need fewer calories, so are more likely to put on weight! However, it’s easily solved – feed them a little bit less!
● Osteosarcoma (a form of bone cancer). Some studies show an increase in the risk from about 6 in 10,000 to 12 in 10,000 (so still a very rare cancer for most dogs). However, the risk seems to be when dogs are neutered before they have finished growing, something we don’t routinely do anyway.
● Haemangiosarcoma (a form of blood vessel tumour). There are a couple of studies showing a slight increase in the risk in Golden Retrievers – but there are some that show no relationship, so we’re treating this one with a BIG pinch of salt for the moment. Even if it’s true, though, the increase in risk is tiny.
● Altered behaviour. This can be a double edged sword – while neutered dogs are MUCH less likely to go wandering, and neutered cats and rabbits fight less, there is some evidence that castration, in particular, may increase fearfulness in dogs.
● You can’t change your mind… The procedure is irreversible, so you can’t change your mind later that you’d like a litter! However, this also means you don’t need to take any further action – once done, it’s done.

OK, so what are the advantages?

This is a MUCH longer list!
● Contraception – there are many thousands of unwanted puppies, tens of thousands of unwanted kittens and, if given a chance, we’d all be waist deep in baby rabbits. By preventing these animals being conceived in the first place, we are helping to control the pet population problem – and preventing a life of loneliness and suffering.
● Behavioural advantages – no more roaming by entire dogs, no more messy seasons from bitches, or noisy ones from queens. Also, we can avoid the problem of entire male cats spraying foul-smelling urine around the house, or going out to fight and getting injured. In rabbits, fighting by entire bucks and does is a major problem – they will even kill each other, and sometimes make a spirited attempt on us! Once neutered, these problems fade away.
● Health advantages – there are a wide range of conditions that entire dogs, cats and rabbits are prone to, that can be minimised or eliminated by neutering. In particular, we think of prostate diseases (benign prostatic hypertrophy, prostatitis and painful prostatic abscesses), peri-anal tumours and testicular cancer in male dogs. In female dogs, the big killers are womb infections (pyometra) and mammary (breast) cancers. Pyometra is eliminated by neutering, and mammary tumours are dramatically reduced. In cats, the risk of a pyometra is a little lower than dogs, but again is eliminated by neutering. The bigger threat, though, is that entire cats are at a much higher risk of contracting incurable diseases (such as Feline AIDS). 80% of entire female rabbits will develop womb cancer – and this is usually fatal once diagnosed. Neutering eliminates this risk, as well as the risks of uterine infection and bleeding.

What’s the bottom line?

On average, neutered animals live longer, healthier and happier lives than entire ones. In dogs, figures suggest a 14% longer lifespan for males and a whopping 26% longer in females.

Of course, most of the detailed evidence comes from studies in dogs. A new one has been published recently, that backs up the preliminary data on lifespan – i.e. that across the board, neutered dogs do live longer.

Want to know more? This is a growing area of research, so if you want to catch up with the latest thinking in the area, do pop in and talk to one of our vets!

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