Atypical Cushing’s disease. It’s my professional opinion that early spaying and neutering plays a role in the development of atypical Cushing's disease as well. Typical Cushing’s means the middle layer of the adrenal gland is over-secreting cortisol. Atypical Cushing’s involves the outer and innermost layers of the adrenal glands and occurs when other types of hormones are over-produced, usually estrogen and progesterone.
When a dog is spayed or neutered before puberty, the endocrine, glandular and hormonal systems have not yet fully developed. A complete removal of the gonads, resulting in stopping production of all the body’s sex hormones (which is what happens during castration or the traditional spay), can force the adrenal glands to produce sex hormones because they’re the only remaining tissue in the body that can secrete them.
Over time, the adrenal glands become taxed from doing their own work plus the work of the missing gonads. It’s very difficult for these tiny little glands to keep up with the body’s demand for sex hormones. This is the condition of atypical Cushing’s. Hormone disruption is a central feature in Cushing’s disease. Any substance or procedure that affects the body’s hormonal balance should be absolutely evaluated as a potential root cause.
Cardiac tumors. A Veterinary Medical Database search of the years 1982 to 1985 revealed that in dogs with tumors of the heart, the relative risk for spayed females was over four times that of intact females. For the most common type of cardiac tumor, hemangiosarcoma, spayed females had a greater than five times risk vs. their intact counterparts. Neutered males had a slightly higher risk than intact males as well.
Bone cancer. In another Rottweiler study published 10 years ago for both males and females spayed or neutered before one year of age, there was a one in four lifetime risk of developing bone cancer. Desexed Rotties were significantly more likely to acquire the disease than intact dogs. In another study using the Veterinary Medical Database for 1980 to 1984, the risk of bone cancer in large-breed, purebred dogs increased two-fold for those dogs that were also desexed.
Abnormal bone growth and development. Studies done in the 1990s concluded dogs spayed or neutered under one year of age grew significantly taller than non-sterilized dogs or those dogs spayed or neutered after puberty. The earlier the spay or neuter procedure, the taller the dog. Research published in 2000 may explain why: it appears that the removal of estrogen-producing organs in immature dogs – both females and males – can cause growth plates to remain open. These animals continue to grow and wind up with abnormal growth patterns and bone structure. This results in irregular body proportions, possible cartilage issues, and joint conformation issues.
Higher rate of CCL ruptures. A study conducted at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center on cranial cruciate ligament injuries concluded that spayed and neutered dogs had a significantly higher incidence of rupture than their intact counterparts. While large-breed dogs had more CCL injuries, sterilized or desexed dogs of all breeds and sizes had an increased rupture rate.
Hip dysplasia. In a retrospective cohort study conducted at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, results showed that both male and female dogs sterilized at an early age were more prone to hip dysplasia.
Breed-specific effects of spay/neuter. A recent study conducted at the University of California Davis involving several hundred Golden Retrievers revealed that for the incidence of hip dysplasia, CCL tears, lymphosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, and mast cell tumors, the rates were significantly higher in both males and females that were neutered or spayed compared with intact dogs.
Other health concerns. Early spaying or neutering is commonly associated with urinary incontinence in female dogs and has been linked to increased incidence of urethral sphincter incontinence in males.
Spayed or neutered Golden Retrievers are much more likely to develop hypothyroidism.
A cohort study of shelter dogs conducted by the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University concluded that infectious diseases were more common in dogs that were spayed and neutered at under 24 weeks of age.
The AKC’s Canine Health Foundation issued a report pointing to higher incidence of adverse reactions to vaccines in spayed and neutered dogs as well.
Among the reports and studies pointing to health concerns associated with early spaying and neutering, we also find mention of increased incidence of behavior problems, including noise phobias, fear behavior, aggression, and undesirable sexual behaviors.
Veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada are trained only to spay and neuter, which is unfortunate since there are less invasive alternatives, such as tubal ligation, hysterectomy, and vasectomy. These techniques are quick and easy and certainly effective. In fact, commonly, once the technique is mastered, they’re faster, less risky and potentially less costly than a full spay or neuter.
But unfortunately, nobody knows how to do them in this country. The reason they’re hard to come by is because U.S. veterinary schools simply don’t teach these alternative procedures. They’ve never had a reason to. And until pet owners start demanding sterilization options beyond spaying and neutering, the status quo will remain.
As author Ted Kerasote and I have discussed on numerous occasions, in many European countries, there are intact free-roaming dogs running about under voice control of their owners. When female dogs go into heat, owners simply manage the situation by removing them from group social events until their heat cycle is complete. They’re kept at home, sequestered away from males. They’re walked on a leash.
Ted tells the story of a British veterinarian he interviewed who said most of the requests he gets to neuter dogs come from U.S. and Canadian citizens who are living in London. Rather than immediately complying with the request, the veterinarian talks with the pet owner about the actual necessity to desex the dog. For example, if the dog is always on a leash and always under the owner’s control, then how exactly would the dog become pregnant (or mate with a female) if it’s constantly with the owner and never off leash? The veterinarian says that he rarely has a British pet owner request a spay or neuter procedure.
Most Americans can’t even comprehend that it’s possible to keep intact pet dogs and not have millions of litters of unwanted puppies. That’s because we’ve been conditioned to believe that a responsible pet owner means spaying and neutering your dog. I was taught to believe the same thing -- that keeping an intact pet was considered irresponsible even if the owner is meticulously careful about not allowing the pet to breed.
Of course, our dependence on spaying and neutering as the only form of birth control is the result of generations of irresponsible pet owners and millions of unwanted dogs and cats that are killed annually in our animal shelters.
It is a vicious cycle, and it’s a very frustrating cycle to witness. Irresponsible people need to have sterilized pets. No one’s going to argue that point. Unfortunately, spaying and neutering responsible people’s pets doesn’t make irresponsible people any more responsible. They remain the root cause of the overpopulation crisis in this country.
My problem with the spaying and neutering issue is it’s the only current solution to the overpopulation problem. We’re not just halting the animal’s ability to reproduce, we are also removing incredibly valuable sex hormone-secreting tissues like the ovaries and the testes. These organs serve a purpose.
We’re slowly waking up to the fact that in our rush to spay or neuter every possible animal we can get our hands on – the younger, the better – we are creating health problems, sometimes life-threatening health problems, that are non-existent or significantly less prevalent in intact pets.
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