Questioning whether to spay or neuter can get one in extremely hot water from animal rescue groups, reputable breeders and kennel clubs. It seems that anyone calling this into question is automatically labelled as a foe of preventing overpopulation and that spaying and neutering is the only solution to pet overpopulation. Of course, the health benefits of spaying and neutering are held up as reasons to get the surgery performed, but arguably the main reason is so that the dog cannot produce offspring.
It has long been held that spaying and neutering are the best things you can do for a dog, with many health benefits and very few drawbacks. To a degree, this is true – many unspayed bitches that have not had a litter develop cancers and other nasty things. Some dogs have developed testicular cancer and prostate troubles. Despite these more-or-less well known facts, there are studies that indicate that neutering and spaying may not be the Holy Grail of responsible dog ownership.
Look at Long-Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay / Neuter in Dogs (PDF File). There are a lot of startling risks associated with neutering at ages traditionally held to be “best” (6 months or earlier). Spaying is a different dish of kibble; malignant mammary tumors and pyometra are a significant affliction of unspayed bitches. But there are a lot of other health risks to spaying and neutering that are completely glossed over by the majority of people and organizations that promote the surgeries.
Understand, I have great respect for the people who take the time and effort and spend a lot of money to rescue. I am also a big supporter of the whole, “Don’t breed your dog if you’re not going to do it right. And by ‘right’ I mean doing everything in your power to ensure that your puppies have the best genetics, temperament and environment possible for them to have.” And I accept that a lot of people are morons, who put their personal feelings – “Oh, my Pookie is the best dog ever and there should be more Pookies in the world!” – ahead of their responsibility to their dog, the puppies they produce, and dogs in general.
Spaying and neutering is the one thing that ensures that, whatever else, a dog will never be able to reproduce. And that is important, because once a dog can be said to be legally owned by someone, it’s out of the rescuer’s ability to control whether the new owner breeds it or not. So, especially in our oops-I-did-it-again society, this might still be the best option for rescue dogs. Vasectomy and tubal ligation are another possibility for sterilizing dogs and letting them keep the hormones. Bitches will still go through heats and dogs are still getting the full benefit of testosterone, which may mean that they will have higher aggression levels. Then again, it is never guaranteed that neutering will solve aggression problems or any other problems – training is a better overall solution. Vasectomy and tubal ligation have yet to become accepted as a valid alternative.
What about movements to make spaying and neutering mandatory for dogs and dog owners? Save Our Dogs is a blog devoted to fighting Bill 1634 in California, aimed at establishing a mandatory spay and neuter of dogs over 6 months of age. Among their other points against this bill, they mention health. The California Veterinary Medical Association withdrew support of the bill after massive opposition from members and the veterinary community because, in part, they did not believe that the bill was in the best interests of pet animals.
One problem I see with the automatic promotion of spay and neuter is that it doesn’t solve the underlying problem: ignorance and society-supported selfishness. The assumption seems to be that anyone who wants to keep their dogs and/or bitches intact is automatically planning to breed them. And it is true that this is often the case – many people who do not have their dogs spayed or neutered are making the choice to breed, either deliberately or causing an “accident” through studied carelessness. However, whether or not a dog or bitch is intact is not the problem; the problem is people breeding unhealthy dogs for the wrong reasons, then refusing to take responsiblity for the puppies and keeping them out of irresponsible hands or rescues.
Sweden is a good example of a society where most dogs and bitches are not altered. Despite the fact that they don’t surgically prevent dogs from breeding, there is not an overpopulation problem like there is in North America. In fact, most Western European countries seem to view dogs differently than North America does. In France, dogs are a common sight in restaurants and shops and other places that they are not generally allowed in here in Canada.
One can only surmise that the incredible concept of responsibility has leaked through the heads of Europe’s people until they actually control their dogs from running loose and breeding indiscriminately. Obviously, if dogs are routinely allowed access to places like stores and restaurants, they must be well behaved. Good behaviour in dogs only happens when people are expected to behave well. Responsible management of dogs, then, is only going to happen when their owners are expected to behave responsibly by their society. If horrible social consequences befell people who allowed their dog to breed without thought to health or the care of the puppies, you can bet that there would be a lot fewer litters.
In North America, it seems that any behaviour by dogs is automatically seen as the fault of the dog. Overpopulation is seen as a dog problem, not a people problem. The result is the call to do something about the dogs. Spay them, neuter them, euthanize them, train them, do something about them. Not the people who choose to breed them, abandon them, neglect them, abuse them.
It would take a huge upheaval in North American society for attitudes towards dogs to change so that overpopulation is quickly made a thing of the past. Until then, perhaps spaying and neutering is the only weapon that people can use to ensure that the dogs they are trying to find homes for cannot be used to bring about another generation of unwanted, unhealthy animals into the world. But, for people who are dedicated to breeding (or not) responsibly, the alternatives should not be automatically condemned.