Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My Dog's Nuts

No, Remy is not crazy. Rather, he was an adult, intact male dog. Until today, that is. Now he's an adult, neutered male dog. TMI? Perhaps. But I thought I'd take this moment to ponder the whole neutering thing and talk about the rather interesting medical and social aspects of waiting until a dog is an adult before having him neutered.

Despite my being an advocate for spay/neuter all of my adult life, I found myself feeling ambivalent about the whole neutering thing with Remy. I think this is mostly because I hate the thought of putting my dog through any sort of medical danger or pain. And somehow it seems different than our previous dogs because Remy's 21 months old.

Historical Context: We've always dutifully neutered our pups at about six months of age. This is what the veterinarians and pretty much every social organization devoted to dog care, rescue or overpopulation prevention advises. If you neuter at six months, they say, the dog is still too young to have much going on in the way of hormones, they don't develop as many hormone-related behaviors, the wee gonads are easier to remove and your dog will be healthier and live a longer life.

All goodness, right?  Not exactly.

When we got Remy, his breeder, who is a U.C. Davis-trained veterinarian, requested that we wait until Remy was at least 16-18 months of age (full adult size) before we neutered him. Waiting even longer is better, she said. The influence of the sex hormones would help with his bone growth, which would in turn help him avoid problems like hip dysplasia and ligament tears. Apparently the sex hormones in dog puberty play a critical role in signaling the bone growth plates to stop growing. Dogs neutered before they reach their full bone growth don't get the same chemical signals and they tend to have longer legs and higher rates of joint and other musculoskeletal disorders as a result. Our first Griff, Baxter, definitely had longer legs than most Griffs I had seen in dog shows. And he suffered from lower back and hip joint pain in his senior years. Anything we could do to help prevent that in Remy was OK with us. See below* for more research on this point.

I didn't mind waiting. In fact, I thought it was an interesting opportunity to see what an adult, intact male Griff is really like. I'll be honest here -- based on what I'd heard as "common knowledge," intact male dogs are always marking in your house and riding your leg and getting into fights and other such things. They are aggressive and sometimes dangerous and it's best to prevent those behaviors before they start.

But is this really true? Or are we largely basing or societal assessment of male dogs on a few ill-behaved, poorly trained, aggressive dogs whose owners kept them intact for all the wrong reasons? After all, I don't see the dogs at Westminster tearing each other apart. And the intact cafe dogs in Paris seem to get along pretty well with each other.

What I found out:
Some intact male dogs are perfectly nice, friendly dogs who don't mark your house, don't ride your leg and don't pick fights with other dogs. Remy was one of those dogs. But often that didn't matter. See Social Observation #2 below.

Social Observation #1 (aka, What I learned from walking around with an intact male dog): There is a stigma about having an intact male dog in the U.S., particularly here in the PC, leftie, dog-loving Pacific Northwest. People cast glances. They comment. Despite neutering being a rarity in places like Europe, the U.S. has done an excellent job of reducing shelter populations and euthanasia of unwanted dogs (though there is much more to be done) by putting the PR out there about spaying/neutering your pets. This has translated into a culture where just about everyone has their dog neutered before it reaches adulthood. You just don't see dogs with testicles walking around much here.

Ever since Remy passed the 6-month mark, people have asked me (sometimes repeatedly) "So when are you going to neuter him?" Many of these people are my friends and family (and if you are one of those people and you are reading this, please know I mean no offense. I probably would have asked this same question a couple of years ago.) But after a while, and after having to answer this question a few too many times, I rather began to resent it. (Even though I fully admit to being one of those spay/neuter promoters myself...I'm entitled to a little cognitive dissonance, aren't I?)

Is it society's job to police the neutering of dogs?
Well, yes, sort of. No one argues that the "ounce of prevention" early neutering has had on reducing the number of unwanted animals and preventing the far-too-prevalent euthanasia taking place in shelters across the country is a good thing. Of note, Best Friends Animal Society estimates the number of cats and dogs that are still euthanized daily in U.S. animal shelters at more than 9,000. That is frightening.

But this is our dog, Remy. He is a beautiful example of his breed. We had talks with his breeder about him potentially being a show dog. And the whole point of being a show dog is to get a championship status and then put the dog out to stud to further enhance the genetics of the breed. Somehow we just couldn't come to grips with having Remy be a show dog or a stud dog. While I still promote adoption of dogs from shelters and rescues, I have no problem with the responsible breeding of pure-bred dogs. We just weren't sure that was something we wanted to get involved with.

Social Observation #2 (aka What I didn't expect...):
Many (and I mean more than half) of the neutered dogs we encounter on the street, at the beach, in the park, etc. behave differently toward an intact male dog than they do toward other neutered dogs. Unfortunately, this different behavior too-often manifests itself as aggression. I stopped counting the number of times Remy has been confronted with growling, teeth-baring, fight-picking aggression from what seemed like perfectly normal, neutered dogs that approached him and smelled his nether-parts. It's wagging and sniffing for starters and within three seconds it all changes.

When Remy was a pup, this wasn't a problem. He just groveled, went into duck-and-cover mode on his back and all was well. But when he got to about 12 months old, things changed. The level of aggression from other dogs went up considerably (at this point we stopped taking him to dog parks, due to dogs ganging up on him and attacking him). And, at this point, Remy decided he was a big boy and he wasn't going to take it anymore.

The strange social thing that happens among the HUMANS accompanying these aggressive, neutered dogs is an assumption that if a dog gets into a fight, it's the intact male who started it. Even if it's not.

Unfortunately, the "is this a friendly dog or not?" thing started coloring our walks with Remy on leash and at the beach. Every time we encountered another dog, we weren't sure if it was going to be "wags and friends" or "hackles and teeth." We didn't want this to become such a pattern that Remy would become wary of other dogs or leash-aggressive. And we really didn't want OUR fear of this to rub off on Remy and make this happen.

So why neuter Remy?
 This is a decision I've been grappling with. The research out there, from what I've seen (and I've looked at a lot) doesn't show much in the way of statistically significant health benefits in neutering a male dog. Prostate and testicular cancers are pretty rare in dogs, from what I've read. (I have heard of enlarged prostate in intact males, though, and there are some health benefits in spaying females, such as a reduction in mammary cancers, which are more prevalent.)

"Behavior" is the main reason cited by most credible sources as a reason to neuter male dogs. I knew that, I just didn't expect that it would be the behavior of other dogs toward Remy that would compel me to want him to be accepted in our local dog society.

Honestly, that is one of the biggest reasons we decided to have Remy neutered. We want to take him on walks, to the beach, out on the hiking trail without worrying that he will be assaulted by other dogs. We also don't want him catching wind of a female dog in heat and adding to the aforementioned dog overpopulation problem. We have no desire to breed him, and there are no major health risks identified to date associated with neutering a dog after it has reached adult bone maturity. His breeder was OK with it.

But will it make a difference in his behavior now that he's already an adult?
Our breeder and the research suggests it will:
"There is an erroneous feeling that neutering males before puberty is necessary to prevent some problem behaviors, such as urine marking in the home or aggression toward the owners," said Dr. Benjamin L. Hart, a distinguished professor emeritus at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Research done at their center and cited in their paper* shows that neutering males in adulthood, after the onset of problem behavior, is as effective in changing the behavior as neutering before puberty is in preventing the problems.  -- JAVMA News
Ok, Remy doesn't have these particular problems, but I've heard enough from others who had their adult dogs neutered to believe that this will make a difference in how other dogs behave around Remy and it will make a difference in how he reacts to other dogs.

We decided to go through with it.

I don't want to think the human social stigma of having an intact male dog in a largely neutered-dog society had anything to do with it, because that's MY issue, not Remy's. But I do hope that neutering him will help him be better accepted by his peers. He'll be able to run free at the beach, go on hikes and sit under the table at any of Portland's progressive, dog-friendly restaurant patios without getting into a rumble. At least that's the hope. And knowing he'll be less likely to try to escape the yard and that there won't be any scruffy-faced, mixed breed puppies running around our neighborhood with Remy's genes in them is a relief as well.

I am glad we waited to neuter him until he reached maturity, though.

Not long after we got the neutering advice from our breeder, the U. C. Davis veterinary school published a now-much-publicized study on Golden Retrievers that has called into question the practice of early neutering. The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, showed a correlation between early neutering and a higher incidence of musculoskeletal disorders and certain cancers. Specifically:
Of males castrated early—defined in this study as before 1 year of age—10 percent had hip dysplasia, double the occurrence among sexually intact males. Cranial cruciate ligament tears were not diagnosed in any of the sexually intact males or females, but in the early age–neutered males and females, prevalences were 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Lymphosarcoma was diagnosed in almost 10 percent of males castrated early, three times the rate in sexually intact males. -- JAVMA News
I'm not a statistician, but those numbers were enough to give our veterinarian (and, apparently, many others) pause and the study has sparked some interesting debate on the risks and benefits of early spay and neuter vs. neutering later or not neutering at all.

For shelter dogs with an unknown future, early neutering probably makes sense. But for family dogs who have people who will love and cherish and watch over them, waiting until the dog reaches bone maturity just makes sense. Why take the risk?  You may catch a few sideways glances from folks who see your intact male at a year-and-a-half old, but if it's best for the dog, who cares? And for all those folks who ask: "When are you going to neuter him?" it's a teaching opportunity.


Anonymous said...

I have witnessed similar scenarios with unneutered dogs. Not that the intact dog becomes aggressive but that other dogs become aggressive toward the intact dog, with males at least. The only time my neutered female becomes actively aggressive is with a female in heat. It has happened about 3 times and she never seeks out a fight otherwise.

It bothers me a great deal (infuriates me) when a vet gives a bias synopsis of pros and cons of early neutering. The cruciate issue is huge and for every increase chance of a cancer in intact dogs there is an equal increase in some other cancer from early neutering.

The social rationale for neutering is huge but can still be done after maturity. The perceived betterment of society should not come at the expense of the health of individual animals.

Lichen Craig said...

I could so relate to this article. I am a vet tech, and also a proponent of early spay and neutering and reduction of shelter dog populations. HOWEVER, more research now is pointing to the value of waiting on spay and neutering, particularly in large dogs with big/long bones. The biggest reason for me, in addition to those you cite in your article, is that waiting reduces the chance of osteosarcoma - bone cancer. I have personally seen too many large dogs die of it, after having legs removed to prolong life for a few months. It's a horrible disease, it doesn't kill kindly, and the animal goes through a lot of suffering. Additionally, it shows up around age 7, not in old dogs. Currently, I have a greyhound who showed it age 8 and 1 month, and he is now running around with three legs; but osteosarcoma pretty much is a death sentence. He won't be with me long. I also have a little female border collie - my vet suggested we wait to spay her until she is a year old, minimum. I did not argue! Having an intact female hasn't been too bad - she's in heat now (11 months old) and so we stay home and I watch her closely in the yard. But so far, no males hanging around. I have adopted several retired racing greyhounds through the years, all males. They are not neutered until retired, and although they had been neutered by the time they came to me, there are a few differences, behaviorally. In a few cases, the dog always marked in the house if I didn't watch closely. All were gentle with other male dogs... but then they are greyhounds, the gentlest breed on earth. I am ethically torn, as you are. I always wonder - humans deal with consequences, both physically and mentally, when they lose reproductive hormones too early in life (I know this first hand, personally). Why would our canine friends not suffer the same? Who can know what it does to a dog emotionally in the long term, to be spayed or neutered? The question of unwanted animals in this country is a real and serious one. But now shelters are routinely spaying animals as young as a few weeks old, and I can't help but think there is something horribly, ethically, wrong about this.