Mr. Wilson was rightfully proud of his recently acquired English setter pup. Countless hours of research and time on the phone with many breeders and (mostly) satisfied clients had led him to choose this beautiful little orange belton firebrand.
He wanted only the best for his new hunting partner, as he was looking forward to at least 12-13 years in the grouse coverts and woodcock bogs with her. Today was to be little Aspen's first visit to Doc Newby, the freshly minted vet recently hired at the local animal hospital.
The visit was pleasant, and little Aspen passed her exam with flying colors. Appointments were made for vaccinations and dewormings, heartworm preventative and flea and tick repellent were discussed, as well as feeding protocols, and Mr. Wilson proudly accepted the many "Aww" and "Oh, how cute" remarks of admiring staff and clients. Then Dr. Newby, with a serious look on her face, broached a new subject for discussion — spaying.
As Aspen was "already four months old," Dr. Newby suggested that Mr. Wilson make the surgical appointment for ovariohysterectomy (spay) sooner rather than later, preferably within the next month.
"Isn't that a little young, Doc?" queried Mr. Wilson. "My last setter was never spayed. In fact, she had a few litters of pups, and hunted well until she was 12, and occasionally until we had to put her down when she was 14." This last statement drew scowls of disapproval from the young vet and her tech.
The details of the above story are fictional, but the scenario plays out daily in vet practices across the United States. There is a prevailing agenda of early spay and neuter in U.S. veterinary practices today, with the recommended age of sterilization dropping rapidly.
Curiously, this is not the case in most European, Scandinavian and other developed countries, where pups are routinely allowed to keep their reproductive organs. I recently saw, in my practice, a male mixed breed pup that, at 6 weeks of age, had already been neutered! Indeed, the various animal shelters, rescues, humane societies, etc. are the prime motivators behind this trend.
Their approach to veterinary medicine is from more of a "herd health" angle, with population control as the prime objective. In my 38 years of practice, I have witnessed the passing of the spay/neuter baton from individual practitioners to humane society clinics and contract vets, removing the decision of when, or even if, the animal is neutered from the owner and his or her private vet.
Fortunately, most hunting dogs are purebred and purchased from breeders without connections to animal welfare organizations. But still, vet schools are turning out graduates with a seeming lust for removing our dogs' genitals, so many of us are faced with Mr. Wilson's dilemma: to spay/neuter, or not. And, if so, when?
I have long been of the opinion that early spay/neutering is detrimental to animals' health, but being one lone voice in a sea of many, and lacking funds for research, I just kept my opinions to myself and shared them with my clients. Recently, however, there have been numerous studies examining the advisability of this practice.
Outstanding among these studies is one completed at University of California, Davis, College of Veterinary Medicine, in 2013. It was a retrospective study of hundreds of golden retrievers' medical records available to Cal-Davis researchers. For those interested in the details, here is the link:
For those less inclined, allow me to break it down for you. The study included 759 intact and neutered male and female golden retrievers. The definition of early sterilization was any animal spayed/neutered prior to 1 year of age. Maladies studied included orthopedic diseases (hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament tear), and cancer (lymphosarcoma, mastocytoma, and hemangiosarcoma).
There were statistically very significant increases in all conditions within the early spay/neuter population, with sexually intact dogs having the least problem in all but one category. So, what difference does it make? Well, lymphosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma are consistently fatal, and mastocytoma can be.
Hip dysplasia is a crippling joint malady that inevitably progresses into arthritis of said joint, often foreshortening the hunting careers of our dogs. Rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament of the dog's knee (known as the ACL in humans) is an extremely common injury in dogs in general, and in canine athletes especially, a category in which our hunting dogs certainly belong.
While repairable, it will set you back about $5,000 for proper repair, plus at least one hunting season lost, plus there is a high probability that the other knee will go as well. I'd call that significant!
At the ripe old age of 63, after many years of conventional practice, I have undertaken the study of canine and equine acupuncture and traditional Chinese herbal medicine, to complement my conventional medical training. The head professor and founder of the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine in Reddick, FL, Dr. Huisheng Xie, lectured to us that in Chinese medicine, an animal should be at least one year of age before neutering, preferably older. This wisdom is at least 3,000 years old; I am still a twinkle in my dad's eye compared to that!
Are there detractors? Of course. Early spay/neuter, like any ingrained tradition, has deep roots, lots of funding, and supporters who are willing to defy facts to further their agenda or preserve their beliefs. On the other hand, there are colleagues of mine who are willing to consider evidence that may require a verdict different from their former beliefs. This is called learning.
One colleague and friend of mine is an accomplished and admired veterinary surgeon, doing mostly orthopedic surgery, in the Atlanta area. I discussed this subject with him recently, and he cited the U Cal Davis report. When I asked him when he neutered his Brittanys (he hunts, too), he answered emphatically, "I don't plan to."
There are other studies, some of which are cited in the link, showing that there are other medical maladies that occur with significantly higher frequency in early neutered dogs. What about things that are prevented by early spay/neuter? Like prostate cancer? Uh, sorry, actually more prevalent in neutered male dogs.
Mammary cancer? Again, no statistically significant evidence that spaying at any age reduces the incidence. Unwanted pregnancy? Dang, you've got me there! However, a leash, a good fence and a watchful eye should take care of that.
So, reader and fellow hunter, lover of fine hunting dogs, what do you do? First, I implore you to do the research. I have tried to steer you in the right direction, but I don't know everything. Spend some time learning as much as you can.
Don't want to bother? Well, how much time do you spend researching that new 28 gauge o/u you've been lusting over? (I hope not as much as I do; my wife has advised me that I might as well open a gun shop. But I digress.) To the subject at hand, do yourself and your new pup a favor — learn!
Do NOT let anyone talk you into a decision that might have negative ramifications for your new hunting buddy for the rest of his or her life. If you decide for early neuter, make it your studied call.
I realize that I am in large part preaching to the choir here, as many hunters already agree with me, but there is so much pressure being brought to bear to snip that pup that the call needs to go out to consider, and reconsider, this critically important decision.