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.New Neuter Rules Recommended for Cats and Dogs

Research challenges old assumptions of spaying and neutering timelines

music in the park san jose

East Bay animal shelters are in for quite the rewiring if county dog fixing standards catch up to the new vet-recommended age guidelines for neutering. But it may also relieve some of the pressure on owners struggling to get a neuter appointment. Following the new age of neutering guidelines may also save a dog from serious future medical conditions. 

In the pandemic, the U.S. saw a surge in pet adoptions—loving companions were all the rage when no one left their homes. A Forbes Advisor survey found that 78% of pet owners acquired a pet during the pandemic. Now, post-pandemic, shelters are overpacked with pandemic dogs whose owners could no longer accommodate having a dog and a normal work schedule. Just as worrisome is the disproportionately higher number of pets than vets, making it harder for owners to schedule veterinary appointments even for the most practical of procedures. 

According to Mars Veterinary Health, the country has a veterinarian shortage and would need more than 30 years’ worth of veterinary school graduates to fill that 10-year industry need for licensed veterinarians. At multiple East Bay clinics, there is up to a six-week wait for a spay or neuter appointment, leaving many owners with unfixed, quickly maturing adult dogs.

​​The general rule for neutering is to leave cats intact until they’re four months old and dogs until they’re six to nine months old. That three-month range for neutering dogs is based on the rates at which different dog breeds mature. Though they often live shorter lives, larger breeds, like Great Danes and Golden Retrievers, generally mature later than their smaller relatives and weigh more—often with more muscle, making them heavier on their joints and increasing their risk of joint disorders. Veterinary professionals now say that the three-month range may not be large enough.

When the first of the more than a dozen studies began in 2013, Lynette A. Hart (PhD from Rutgers University) and her co-authors didn’t know the breed they were starting with would become a perfect example of the complexities of neutering timing. 

“We started with the Golden Retriever, which just by accident was the one that’s kind of the worst-affected [by neutering],” said Hart. “Such a compatible breed working in service work—but they have so many cancers that Bonnie Bergin, the inventor of the breed, said she isn’t going to [breed] them anymore.”

The 2013 paper, “Neutering Dogs: Effects on Joint Disorders and Cancers in Golden Retrievers,” explains the process of analyzing the medical records of 759 intact and fixed Golden Retriever patients and finding the effects of neutering age. The females took the brunt of the risks of neutering and are advised to stay intact—i.e., forgo the surgery. 

Neutering early (before six months) increases the risk of tearing the knee ligament (CCL), and neutering late increases the risk of a fast-growing blood vessel cancer (HSA) and a cancerous tumor (MCT). Males are recommended for neutering after 12 months.

The records of 39 other dog breeds and three different weight classes of mixed breeds have been similarly analyzed over the last 11 years and, apart from female Golden Retrievers, male Doberman Pinschers are also recommended to be left intact.

The males of six breeds are recommended to be fixed only after two years of age: Bernese Mountain Dogs, Boxers, German Shepherds, Irish Wolfhounds, Mastiffs and Standard Poodles. For the other sex, six breeds are also recommended for spaying (female castration) only after two years of age: Boxers, Cocker Spaniels, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, Shetland Sheepdogs and Shih Tzus.

Thankfully, East Bay dog owners don’t have to worry about jumping through more hoops if they choose to start following these new guidelines. Boarding house Happy Hound will still dogsit and/or train unfixed pets, and they are still welcome at East Bay SPCA’s training classes. What’s most important is a dog’s comfort, and the trainers put their trust in owners to determine that. 

“We always tell owners to advocate for their animals,” said Kate Witzke, the East Bay SPCA’s behavior and training manager. The training depends on the personality and genetic history of the dog, which is why owners are the best advocates for their pets.

The effect of fixing is also dependent on the dog. Witzke said that solving hormonal-attributed behavioral problems with fixing “varies widely [and] greatly depends on the behavior you’re looking at.” Behavioral modification training is still typically necessary to reduce and lose the behavior.

Kristen Beitzel, the vice president of medical services at East Bay SPCA, said approximately a fifth of clients coming through the clinic are interested in leaving their pets intact. 

“We provide education around the pros and cons of fixing without passing judgment,” said Beitzel. “We let them make their own decisions. If they want to breed their animal, we will go into the responsibilities of breeding: the testing you should be doing, the raising. Here we will help people go down the responsible breeding path rather than backyard breeding [one].” 

If owners aren’t interested in breeding but still don’t want to fix their pets, they still have a place at Beitzel’s clinic and Witzke’s training program.

Kristy Lai, a manager at Happy Hound—a daycare, boarding and training facility in Oakland—has a process for how intact new dogs are incorporated into the programs. “We try them out in playgroup, and if it’s safe and they don’t have any behavioral issues, such as excessive humping or following a certain dog, [which] create issues for safety, then they’re fine and welcome to be in playgroup,” Lai explained.

If there is a problem behavior, the trainers won’t give up. “We give them a few chances, we give them a timeout to see if the behavior corrects itself,” said Lai. “If we find it doesn’t, then we have that conversation with the parents.” 

Even then, the dog isn’t left out on the street; Happy Hound has an enhanced care program that is specifically designed for dogs unable to join the other pups. Lai approximates that 75% of males have gone into the enhanced care program, where dogs are given their own room and are taken out every two hours. Females are typically okay in playgroup, unless they are in heat, in which case they also get their own rooms—owners are told to bring their dog’s period diapers.

Cats haven’t been found to have any similar effects from neutering. Since the statewide concern for cats is population overgrowth, early neutering is to avoid even that first kitten season for a newly matured cat. Dogs are more sensitive to reproductive procedures. 

For more resources on reproductive surgeries, associated behavioral problems and solutions, East Bay SPCA provides free tips and guidelines on their website: eastbayspca.org

Jordan Cooper
Jordan Cooper is a Bay Area-based journalist who covers science and culture while she studies at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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