Last week, more research came out about the health impacts of Spay/Neuter.
The newest paper specifically studies Vizslas -- and the health impacts of spay/neuter, and particularly juvenile spay/neuter on this breed of dogs.
You can read the paper in its entirety here, or the Reader's Digest Version with great commentary here. In a nutshell, the paper showed the following correlations:
-- 3.5x higher incidences of Mast Cell cancer in male & female dogs, regardless of age of neuter.
-- 9x greater incidence of Hamangiosarcoma in neutered females, regardless of age of dog at the time of neuter.
- 4.3x higher incidence in Lymphoma in both neutered males and females, indpendent of age at the time of neuter.
- 6.5x higher incidence of all cancers combined in neutered femal3, 3.6x higher incidence of all cancers in neutered males. Typically, the younger the age at which the dog was altered, the young the age at which the dog was diagnosed with cancer.
Also, the study notes that dogs altered before the age of 6 months had a higher-likelihood of developing a variety of behavioral issues including: separation anxiety, fear of noises, timidity and fear biting. Altering after 6 months did not appear to create increased risk.
This study adds to the growing list of research on the negative health impacts of spay/neuter in large-breed dogs. The studies have specifically found similar results plus increased incidence of hip dysplasia and Cranial Cruciate Ligament Tears in Golden Retrievers, and osteosarcoma (bone cancer) in Rottweilers. It also follows similar issues found in previous behavioral studies on the impacts of spay/neuter.
The results have been very consistent, and show that not only is spay/neuter more likely to cause negative health impacts long-term, but that juvenile spay/neuter (before 6 months) heightens the risk.
When Science gets in the way
For several decades, rescues and shelters have been reliant on spay/neuter to decrease the number of unwanted pets as a way of controlling animal populations, and thus the number of animals that end up in animals shelters. By decreasing total populations, the goal is to minimize the number of animals killed in shelters.
However, if we are to really consider ourselves "animal welfare" professionals, we need to understand what science is telling us and to consider the trade-offs of the short-term and long-term impacts on our decisions on the pets we are responsible for.
Unfortuantely, in this case, it appears that the long-term health impact of spay neuter, particularly juvenile spay/neuter, is at odds with the short term goal of slowing pet population growth and minimizing the number of animals killed in our shelters every year.
The two are seemingly at odds with each other. Certainly I've read the arguments that in spite of the potential health impacts of spay/neuter, the greater good of decreasing the number of pets killed at very young ages in shelters outweighs the pet-longevity issues that may exist by spaying/neutering early. I can certainly see this point, and in many cases completely agree.
However, just because that is the case today, doesn't mean that we have to accept the status quo as the only solution and not be actively seeking out more viable alternatives. It seems clear that there is room for some middle ground here -- and I think it's up to the animal welfare community to acknowledge the issues and actively seek out that middle ground.
There are a lot of different stakeholders to this -- and I think everyone has a role in trying to do what is best for the animals that are in our care. First and foremost, it means acknowledging that the science exists. We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand - that's how you get to let other people address the issue for you. And it's more than just the science that shows correlations -- but it makes biological sense that removal of growth hormone-producing gonads (especially at a very young age) would lead to long term growth and development issues. This completely passes the sniff tests, and we should take it seriously.
Where do we go from here?
It's a complex problem to be sure, and there are a lot of people with a vested interest in coming to the table with their part of the solution.
-- For the breeding community, I've seen a fair amount of talk about calling for the end of spay/neuter. Obviously this is self-serving to their needs. This community MUST acknowledge the sheltering realities that exist and that some form of population control is currently necessary in order to help maintain the drops in shelter euthanasia that have taken place over the last 2 decades.
-- For the lawmaking community, stop making laws mandating spay/neuter. It was never a good idea, but especially in light of the current research, there are many good experts in the field that are in disagreement with what the right solutions are. Please leave spay/neuter to the veterinary community so they may make judgment calls based on the best science available. Mandating spay/neuter does not do that. I've seen many a law that is requiring sterilization at very young ages and it seems evident that this is not in the best interests of the pets we claim to be protecting.
-- For the science community, we now have 3 studies that examine the impacts on dogs. All three have been on large-breed dogs. We need more research to also include small dogs, and cats, to determine if the risks are as severe with those as well. The more we understand about the scale and scope of the problem the better.
-- For the veterinary community, let's begin teaching other methods of sterilization. Zeuterin certainly seems to have its proponents and is one solution. But an even simpler one may be to begin performing vasectomies and tubal ligations instead of neuters & spays so that growth hormones can remain in place. However, most vets do not currently perform these proceedures. That needs to change and quickly.
-- For the shelter/rescue community, maybe we need to start waiting to alter puppies until they are older? Do we really need to alter 2 month old puppies? Would we be better off waiting until they were at least 6 months of age? The same purpose would be served, but for every month you wait, the less of an increase in many of the health risks you have -- especially for large breed and giant puppies. It certainly seems like there is a happy medium here.
This is a gnarly and complex issue -- and definitely a lot that is still unknown. But if all parties are willing to come together to acknowledge the risks, on all sides, I think a viable solution is out there. But it must first start with acknowledgment and open communication.