Additional research continues to fuel the flames over the controversy of the customary practice of early spay/neuter of dogs and cats in the United States. Focusing solely on dogs, the medical validity of this practice is coming under increased scrutiny by veterinarians and scientists. For many, many years, spay/neuter has been heavily promoted by veterinarians and animal welfare advocates as a protective measure to prevent certain medical conditions including certain cancers in addition to preventing unplanned, unwanted pregnancies.
Research is now revealing that early spay/neuter seemingly increases the incidence of some forms of cancer, and may increase in the incidence of metabolic diseases/disorders, at least in certain breeds. For example, the AVMA reporting on research conducted in 2013 noted, “[t]he UC-Davis study on Golden Retrievers is part of a growing body of evidence indicating elective gonadectomy can adversely impact an animal’s health.” Owners, veterinarians, and legislators (enacting laws requiring early spay/neuter) should consider this new evidence to determine whether and when such procedures should be performed and if it continues to make sense that these procedures are required at an early age.
Veterinarians, concerned about the health of their patients, and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies that has led to pet overpopulation and the unfortunate euthanasia of unwanted pets, have to consider the needs of their patients, clients and public policies when advising their clients of their options.
As the oath of veterinary medicine states:
“Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.”
As importantly, veterinarians are required to provide, at the very least, the standard of care applicable to the region in which they practice. If the results of spay/neuter research becomes more prevalent and scientifically confirmed, then the timing and/or type of neutering recommendations may change, and veterinarians should provide their clients with the recommended options, even if this means fewer dogs will be neutered early, or if ever.
This may be difficult for veterinarians who work for animal shelters, particularly when those shelters advocate or require very early spay/neutering. Veterinarians must keep in mind that they remain responsible to their State Board of Veterinary Medicine for the standard of practice they perform, even when working for someone dictating what that practice is.
Therefore, all veterinarians performing routine spay/neuters should keep the following tips in mind:
- Attend relevant continuing education programs and keep current about new research findings;
- Provide various options to your clients, discussing the pros and cons of early/spay neuter, as well as the owner’s responsibility to prevent unwanted pet pregnancies;
- Keep in mind that in Europe, spay/neuter has been considered by some to be unethical, but also know that the control of unaltered pets in some European countries is strictly controlled;
- Some shelters, rescues, and municipalities require spay/neuter of certain pets;
- Owners may face increased licensing fees if their pets are not spayed/neutered;
- Some diseases/disorders are decreased or eliminated by spaying/neutering; but
- Other diseases/disorders may be increased by spaying/neutering, particularly if performed early.
The bottom line is that there are no entirely optimal solutions-any decision may have benefits or risks to the health and welfare of any particular pet. Veterinarians are not strangers to such circumstances. They are well-equipped to deal with changing standards and seemingly conflicting recommendations for the care of animals.