No topic has been more widely debated than the effects, or lack thereof, of neutering and spaying. This is the first of chapters I will be doing related to this topic: Part 1 – Neutering a Male and Part 2- Spaying a Female.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must start by saying that other than a “Veterinary Technician 101” class taken many years ago, I have no degree, formal training or education in veterinary medicine. However, I am very well read in animal biology and brain growth, with over 10 years experience as a veterinary assistant. I have directly assisted in thousands of neuter and spay surgeries, but unlike 98% of professionals in the veterinary field, I have 17+ years of hands-on experience with the behavior and training of intact (unneutered and unspayed) and altered (neutered and spayed) male and female dogs.
Over time, I have found it increasingly frustrating that along with the push to neuter and spay your pet, that there is rarely an honest explanation given of what these procedures mean to the physiology and development of your pet. I hope to right that wrong through this series of articles.
The younger veterinarians are starting to formally study the importance of brain development and hormones. It wasn’t something that was studied before the 90’s, because there were no diseases or ailments they were able to associate with this. Dogs would survive to their (estimated) full lifespan, so, from a medical standpoint, it couldn’t have been a damaging thing. Historically, the only reason veterinary schools would study certain issues was because they got direct funding and grants from companies that would develop products that can be sold for profit based on what information the study would uncover. Just as in human medicine, it’s purely a matter of business and sales at times. Who do you think provides the text books for vet students to study nutrition? Have you noticed that every vet office sells dog food, and every major dog food brand says “veterinary recommended” on it? What would you think if a pediatrician sold toys, baby food and diapers?
Until recently, they didn’t study hormones in relation to brain growth and bone growth because there was no veterinary or pharmaceutical product to sell you for it. If you decide you don’t want to neuter or spay your animal, it doesn’t make anyone any money. It does, however, make money to neuter and spay. There can be a fine line separating sales from professionalism sometimes. That line depends on the ethics and the morals of the professional.
Neutering your male dog
The removal of the testicles by way of a two-three inch incision above the scrotum, but below the penis, and severing the Vas Deferens, is known as neutering. The average age for the procedure is between 5 and 9 months depending on the opinion of the veterinarian. Shelters commonly do this to far younger animals, but I’ll condemn them for this practice in part 3. The common thinking is that by removing the male genitals, we limit their desire to roam, to become or use aggression regularly, eliminate sexual behavior, population control, eliminate the chances for testicular cancer, make them less stubborn or more negotiable. That’s a very vague and Neanderthal way of explaining the actual results, and for the most part, untrue. Notice that the above results only focus on the benefits of the ease of handling the animal, not the actual “results” of the procedure.
Testosterone- the male hormone that is mainly responsible for the behaviors we are trying to limit or eliminate, is responsible for much more than we credit it for- bone growth and density, muscle growth and density. Preliminary evidence suggests that low testosterone levels may be a risk factor for cognitive decline. And quite simply, it is what makes a male act and look like a male.
In my opinion, there is nothing, in any dog breed, more handsome than the muscular profile of a bulldog or terrier in an alert stance. Intact males (without additional exercise) naturally achieve a tight-skinned, muscular appearance even in loose-skinned breeds (St. Bernard, Shar Pei). I have often seen male dogs neutered before 7 months having a bloated, “barrel” shaped, jelly-like appearance. I don’t mean to say they are unhealthy or sickly. The dog just lacks muscle tone and a vibrant appearance, even in their prime. Muscle tone suffers when we neuter a dog before his body has a chance to fully develop during adolescence as does his bone growth.
Based on my experienced observation, it is my opinion that early neutering has subtle, but important impact on a male dog’s social interaction. An underdeveloped male dog has a weaker constitution and lower confidence level. You may think “I don’t want my Rottweiler to be more confident. Won’t he be more apt to fight?” I don’t believe that is the case at all. It always seems to me that the nervous, more defensive individuals seem to be more willing to “throw the first punch”. Bravery and confidence allows an individual the patience and nerve to try and avoid conflict whenever possible. I believe this because I have seen it from many intact males, and I feel safer in groups of intact dogs than I do at a dog park with random individuals that are mostly, if not, all androgynous. I believe androgyny causes discomfort, confusion and could possibly turn what could have been a normal interaction into a defensive one.
To say that neutering limits or eliminates aggression is a myth. Show me the study done by ANY veterinarian, biologist, physiologist, or veterinary school that shows neutered dogs have fewer occurrences of aggression. No such study exists. Testosterone does have its role in aggression, however. Aggression is a natural reaction to stress. It’s behavioral origin is in the brain. It’s beginning is the breaking of a psychological stress threshold resulting in an assertive and/or physical behavior. It has a specific developmental trigger that, in a young puppy, is in an inactive part of the brain. As a puppy grows, he starts to learn through his experiences, genetic or physiological predisposition (breed traits), and the environment. As his brain grows in size, it grows in activity as well. An MRI would show that a 9 week old puppy’s brain, though physically fills the skull cavity, is mostly inactive. In layman’s terms, as he ages, ever growing electrical pulses in his brain start to “jump” the gaps between brain cells. These gaps are called synapses, and in doing this, they cause the cells to connect, similar to a wired current, between brain cells. The more “wired” synapses, the more electrical activity, the more learning and space for information to be stored. By 9 months to one and a half years of age, your puppy’s synapses are firing on all cylinders- just as it does for us humans when we are between 18 – 22 years of age! Literally- the brain physically grew, and as a result, the electrical activity spread like a fire. Aggression may not have ever been a part of that puppy’s behavioral repertoire, but it was always there. The electrical pulses have stimulated a part of the brain it wasn’t able to reach before. Now, when he feels challenged, threatened, stressed or hurt, a particular combination of hormones absorbed by the brain, with a few of those electrical pulses and – BOOM! Within a millisecond- a new idea followed by a quick response. Before that first bite, this dog started to show you, in a more subtle way, he didn’t want to run and/or submit to such occurrences any more. You will never fully recognize, be able to predict or understand this without basic training of some kind.
It was an idea in his head that was put there to begin with through genetics and physiology. It wasn’t a passive dog that when adolescents began, the hormones created. It wasn’t a passive dog until you played tug-o-war with him and he “learned” to be aggressive. Aggression had been a part of his brain from the moment he was born. His hormones and growth triggered the particular part of his brain where aggression lay dormant. You didn’t stand a chance of preventing it. It was a matter of time until it came out.
Testosterone does, create more driven, and intense aggression, but not aggression itself. Nationally, most dog bites that occur, yearly, occur in neutered males- not intact males. In fairness, that’s likely because there are more neutered males in the county than intact males. A confident, intact male’s goal is to avoid aggression whenever possible. It’s a waste of energy, especially in a pack or social animal to consistently use aggression especially for individual gain. Aggression is a tool to discourage challenges or competition rather than to make themselves feel good emotionally (like a schoolyard bully would). A nervous or defensive male will almost always bite first and early on in the conflict, and usually less predictably, due to insecurities. These individuals tend to bite weaker targets, like the very young or the elderly, often with less hesitation, rather than confront a more physically fit adversary, like a young adult man. For these reasons, police dogs are left intact. Working farm dogs are kept intact. Active hunting dogs are intact. The testosterone produced helps create more drive, more muscle growth, better bone density, more intense, more confident and predictable aggressive responses necessary to withstand the daily stresses of their tasks. If you are truly worried about controlling your male dog’s behavior, here’s a wacky idea…TRAIN HIM! There are no bad side effects to training. If you don’t have time to train, you shouldn’t have a dog. It’s like saying “I just got a dog, but I don’t have the time or money to take him to the vet, so I hope he stays healthy or I’ll have to give him up to a shelter”.
I am a big supporter of neutering all male dogs everywhere with exception to working and breeding class dogs. I don’t mean to seem otherwise. We have pets, not police dogs. There is no need for a canine behemoth in the suburbs. I just strongly believe in neutering after a safe amount of development, and do it for far better reasons- health and soundness.
A male dog should look and behave like a male dog. I had a male that I neutered a 1 ½ years old for this reason. Jax, an adopted pit bull, was what you would call a “late bloomer”. I had a veterinarian (I was employed by) angrily “encourage” me to neuter him at 6 months old. Jax had a very mild, happy-go-lucky outlook on life. When he developed good muscle tone and bone structure, I had him neutered. No cancer, no excessive urinary marking, no humping legs, and he guarded the house better than any dog. A stranger walked into my house unannounced one morning…he came within 3 feet of being in the newspaper the following day (R.I.P. Jax. You taught me more than I ever taught you).
That late neutering made Jax a better dog. Neutering a dog at 6 months is good for some overly developed male puppies, but for a smaller percentage of dogs. 6 months in dog years is about 9 -10 human years. How would a human child develop if he was neutered at 10 years old? Would he act “normal” at 18 years old? Would he physically be the same as an intact boy when they are 18 years old? Some might say yes. That would defy everything we know about science, biology and nature. Some would say “but dogs are not humans. They are dogs”. What I am talking about is not exclusive to humans or dogs- it’s mammalian. We, as are dogs, are mammals, and yes…it is the same! I use humans as a conceivable common analogy- no creature develops normally when the genitals are removed before full development, period! I just believe this procedure has a proper time per the individual. My cousin and his girlfriend, Darin and Shannon, have a 3 month old Boston terrier puppy. The puppy’s name is Louis. Louis needs a little more time to grow to take on a more masculine physique, but behaviorally…he is as scrappy as they come. Thank God he’s small! I told Darin, “take ‘em off whenever you feel ready, buddy!” It should be his decision based on his needs or desires.
One more, and absolutely the most important reason why you want to neuter your pet. There is a popular opinion among social circles that women are generally the more intelligent gender. Whenever I hear a man say “I can’t neuter him. I feel sorry for him. I kept mine, so why shouldn’t he keep his. It’s the way a male dog should be”, or any derivative of said statements, I feel that that man proves how dumb men truly are! HOW DARE YOU, SIR!!! Every time I hear it, I’m embarrassed to be a man! You have the same equipment! You should know how it works! Imagine talking to, hearing, touching, interacting with, smelling, and having some physical contact with females, but every time you had “certain ideas”, your parents pulled you away, stopped you, and yelled “no”. Oh yeah…that’s a great way to instill loyalty, trust, and a solid relationship. Even a dog kept in his own yard can sense and/or smell nearby females. Do you not know how stressful that is!? It’s horribly conflicting trying to stay out of trouble and keeping mom and dad happy, but battling daily, sometimes hourly, urges! STRONG URGES! That is constant, ongoing stress and harassment for that male. I would think a man would instinctively understand, but when I hear any of that line-of-B.S., I die a little bit inside.
If you do not breed, if you do not work your dog for professional or survival reasons, YOU NEED TO NEUTER YOUR MALE. Good dog breeding is hard- far too hard for 99% of un-dog educated people. Leave breeding to the pros.