During a gun dog's lifetime, an owner makes countless decisions regarding the health and well-being of his or her canine partner. Perhaps the most difficult of these decisions involves whether to neuter an up-and-coming animal. Neutering is a challenge because to maximize benefits it must be done relatively early in a dog's life, and, once the equipment is gone, it's gone forever. Currently, there are mixed opinions on the wisdom of "fixing" a dog that might not be broken.
Neutering, or "fixing," is a general term that refers to the surgical extraction of a dog's reproductive organs. When referring to a female dog, the term "spay" is often used. Conventional veterinary judgment has long maintained that the benefits of neutering outweigh the risks. For example, early spaying reduces or eliminates the hazards of potentially life-threatening reproductive-tract diseases of females. Because the uterus and ovaries are gone, ovarian cysts and tumors, uterine cancer and pyometra (a serious uterine infection) cannot occur in spayed females.
Traditionally, male dogs have been neutered between 6-12 months of age, although some veterinarians believe that a standard of 9-12 months is better. Dogs neutered well before the onset of puberty tend to have issues with bone development, body mass and some secondary sex traits. Neutering at the right age not only eliminates the possibly of testicular diseases, including cancer, but it dramatically reduces prostate gland enlargement and infection.
Contemporary research indicates that although neutering confers benefits, it's not as cut-and-dried as once thought. A recent breed-specific study from the University of California, Davis examined neutering, age at neutering and its impact on the development of particular diseases. Researchers reviewed the health records of 759 golden retrievers for two joint disorders and three cancers; the dogs were intact or neutered at different ages—some young, others older. According to UC-Davis, "The study revealed that, for all five diseases analyzed, the disease rates were significantly higher in both males and females that were neutered early or late compared with intact (non-neutered) dogs." One important finding was a much higher incidence of hip dysplasia among males neutered early.
No Easy Answers
When it comes to neutering, there isn't one answer to fit every dog, and the mass of available data makes a yes/no decision even more complex. All neutering decisions should include an evaluation of a dog's quality as breeding stock, its age, the health significance and incidence of certain diseases, the predisposition of the breed toward those diseases, and a dog's high or low-risk lifestyle.
Many hunters shy away from neutering due to deeply ingrained falsehoods—females won't be "normal" if they don't go through two heat periods before spaying; neutered dogs lose their nose and drive to hunt; castration turns males into "girl" dogs. There's no reliable evidence that neutering reduces hunting skills, drive, stamina or scenting ability in either sex. What spaying does eliminate are inconvenient heat cycles and the flightiness and distractibility that often accompanies them. Likewise, castration at the right age can diminish such male behaviors as urine marking, some types of aggression and dominance mounting. Contrary to popular belief, neutering does not make dogs fat. Like their owners, dogs gain weight because they eat too much and exercise too little.
The majority of veterinarians still advise neutering all nonbreeding dogs. Some recommend very early neutering, although data suggests that if breed and sex are considered this approach might not be appropriate given the higher incidence of afflictions like cruciate ligament injury, hip dsysplasia and potential developmental abnormalities. Other vets look at a roster of factors (like the examples above) that could influence the outcome of neutering, then opt for a safer age-range for surgery: females spayed after 6 months but before the first heat; males castrated between 9-12 months.
For many hunting dogs, spaying and castration remain viable options. Under all circumstances, neutering decisions should be fact-based and made in consultation with an up-to-date, knowledgeable veterinary professional.
Breeds And Bloodlines
"My dog is too good to neuter," is a commonly stated belief, particularly with female dogs whose owners are usually in the driver's seat in terms of breeding. In some cases it's a valid reason; permanently removing a well-bred, high-performance animal from the gene pool is a serious matter. That said, no matter how much we cherish them, reality is that the majority of working gun dogs don't have the specific quality characteristics that should be passed on for the betterment of breeds. In addition, most owners don't have the extensive detailed knowledge of bloodlines necessary to perpetuate and enhance desirable traits.