Enough is enough: The importance of spaying and neutering


File photo. File photo.

“So, is it really necessary to… you know?” asks the anxious new puppy owner as he unwittingly extends two fingers of his free hand into the form of scissors.

The short answer? Yes. Yes, it really is. And for so many reasons.

Here’s the sad truth: There are literally millions of homeless dogs and cats out there. Shelters are packed beyond capacity. These unwanted animals face living their lives in cages, and more than half are euthanized to relieve the strain on a hopelessly overloaded system. I worry that big statistics like this can be too abstract to really strike home, so I’d ask that you simply imagine your own pet as one of them. If that knot growing in the pit of your stomach isn’t awful enough, magnify it by 5 million. That’s the ASPCA’s lowball estimate of the number of animals that cycle through our shelter system every year. It could be a million or two higher. This is a legitimate tragedy.

I’ll put the finest point I can on this. Unless there is a medical reason to prevent it, you should absolutely spay or neuter your pet. It is, without question or equivocation, the responsible thing to do. It doesn’t matter if your pet is a street mutt found in a parking lot or has AKC papers tracing his lineage back to a distinguished sire owned by King Henry VIII. Each new animal born is another one doomed to remain homeless. Sterilized animals break the cycle. It’s as simple s that.

On occasion, someone will take the opportunity to remind me that I’d be out of a job if there were no animals breeding at all. That’s true, I suppose. But I feel rather confident that veterinarians will happily reconsider their recommendations as soon as America finds itself even remotely threatened by a dog and cat shortage. Until then, the current wisdom on spaying and neutering rests in a pretty wide comfort zone. It’s time to stop making this problem worse.

But let’s, for argument’s sake, pretend that there wasn’t an overpopulation problem. Would there still be a reason to have your pet spayed or neutered? The answer is, again, yes. The health benefits of sterilization are many, and the risks are few.

Neutering is a term typically reserved for male animals, and refers to the removal of the testicles. It’s gross, I know, but bear with me. It’s a very quick procedure, and when dogs wake up, they have absolutely no idea that anything happened. Plus, unbeknownst to them, they are now more likely to live a full and happy life. Sneaky, sneaky. Neutered animals, for obvious reasons, cannot develop testicular cancer. They don’t develop prostate enlargement later in life. They are less prone to roaming and fighting, and less likely to demonstrate aggression and dominance issues (this is particularly important if you have children in the house).

Resistance to neutering frequently comes from men (I’ll give you a moment to express adequate shock). I’ve lost count of how many concerned women have told me that they really want to neuter the dog, but their boyfriend or husband keeps freaking out about the idea. This seems silly to me. I can only assume these poor guys are misunderstanding the procedure. So let me say, on the record: Don’t worry, boys. You get to keep yours.

Spaying is the term used for sterilization of female animals, and most commonly involves the surgical removal of the ovaries and uterus. It is a more involved procedure than neutering, to be sure. But it is performed so frequently that nearly any veterinarian can safely be considered an expert. And the health benefits are overwhelming. The most significant is the prevention of pyometra—a deadly uterine infection which I find myself treating much more often than I should. Ironically, the treatment is basically a spay, except much (much, much) more expensive and risky because the poor thing is almost always in critical condition by the time she comes in.

Animals spayed before their first heat cycle are also considerably less likely to develop mammary gland cancer (their equivalent of breast cancer), which is malignant half the time in dogs, and almost all the time in cats. This bears repeating: It is a common misconception that pets should be allowed to have a heat cycle before being spayed. Once animals complete their first heat cycle, they are at permanently increased risk of mammary cancer for the rest of their lives.

None of this is to say that spaying and neutering are completely without risk. It would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. But those risks are completely insignificant compared to the risks of not doing anything. In recent years, there has been an increased push to postpone spaying and neutering until a later age, or to avoid it altogether. Much of this push comes from people who are well-intentioned but ultimately misinformed. Internet forums have created echo-chambers in which minor worries and rare events can be magnified into dire concerns which occur all the time. Blogs are passed off as literature, and repetition turns hearsay into fact. There is a lot of good information online, but it can be tough to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you have any questions about the safety or wisdom of spaying or neutering your pet, please speak to your veterinarian about it.

Spaying and neutering are important parts of responsible pet ownership. Not only do they help stem the tragic pet overpopulation problem, but they give your own dog or cat a better chance of living a full and healthy life. The choice really couldn’t be any simpler.

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