A number of interesting and important research studies have been published in the last 5 years on the subject of the risks and benefits of neutering in dogs, and these have provided important information to help guide veterinarians and owners in making decisions about neutering. I published a narrative review of the literature on neutering in 2010, before most of these papers appeared, and I have been following this area of study with interest and evaluating individual papers as they are published. Though each study has its limitations, as is always true in science, and we must be careful not to overgeneralize the results of particular studies or lurch wildly from one set of recommendations to another on the basis of limited evidence, these studies are influencing traditional dogma about neutering. I have made several significant changes in both the information I give to owners and the recommendations I make about neutering based on the emerging evidence.
Another important study has recently been published which adds to the evidence in this area.
Hart BL, Hart LA, Thigpen AP, Willits NH. Long-Term Health Effects of Neutering Dogs: Comparison of Labrador Retrievers with Golden Retrievers. PLoS ONE 2014;9(7): e102241. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102241
This study was produced by the same group which published an earlier retrospective study of Golden retrievers, and it is quite similar in its methods and some of its limitations. The authors reviewed medical records from the veterinary hospital at the University of California Davis veterinary college. The study looked for Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers from 1 to 8 years of age and evaluated the occurrence of 6 diseases relative to neutering status and age at neutering.
The findings are summarized in Table 1 for Labradors and Table 2 for Golden retrievers. For comparison, I have also extracted similar data from the earlier paper by on Golden retrievers by the same group in Table 3. This paper classified age at neutering differently (early being <12 months of age and late being >12 months of age), so the studies are not directly comparable, but it is useful to scan for any possible patterns that might help us make sense of these complex data.
First off, what does the study appear to show? Well, perhaps the most important finding is that there are significant differences in the pattern of possible effects of neutering between males and females, and also between the breeds. This latter point is extremely important. People tend to jump on the findings from a study in a single breed and want to generalize those findings to all dogs and make broad recommendations based on that single study. However, if the possible effects of neutering differ significantly between two breeds as closely related and similar as Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers, likely these effects will be even more dissimilar in breeds less closely related. A study of Rottweilers or Viszlas, for example, may tell us little or nothing about what to expect in Beagles or Poodles. This is worth keeping in mind before we rush into making sweeping recommendations for all dogs.
The findings in this study suggest some increase in the risk of some diseases with neutering, but the patterns were not very consistent. Neutering before 6 months of age appeared to be associated with higher risk of cruciate ligament disease and elbow dysplasia in male Labradors but not with the risk of hip dysplasia. In females, however, the pattern was the opposite, with neutering at less than 6 months being associated with greater risk of hip dysplasia but not the other two orthopedic diseases. But in Golden retrievers, neutering before 6 months of age was associated with greater risk of cruciate ligament disease in both sexes, but with greater risk of hip dysplasia only in males, not females.
Comparing the current study with the previous study of Golden retrievers also adds to the confusion. In the current study, risk of lymphoma seems to be higher in dogs neutered between 6-11 months than in intact dogs, but not in dogs neutered before 6 months or after 11 months. In the previous study, however, lymphoma risk appeared higher in males neutered before 12 months but not in females neutered at this age. In another example, late neutering in the first paper seemed to increase the risk of hemangiosarcoma in female Goldens but not in males. This was contrary to the hypothesis that earlier neutering might increase the risk of this cancer. However, in the current study, no differences in hemangiosarcoma risk were found for any neutered group of males or females compared to intact dogs.
There are, as always, a number of limitations that we must bear in mind when evaluating this study. As with the previous study, dogs were those seen at a university veterinary hospital. This is a very different population than usually seen at regular general veterinary practices. The veterinary hospital at UC Davis typically sees seen sicker dogs, dogs with more affluent owners, and dogs that live in different areas than those seen by regular practices in the rest of California. So we have to be careful about assuming than any relationships seen between health and neutering in this population will hold for the very different population of primary care practice patients.
Dogs younger than 12 months were excluded from this study. While the disease looked at are less common in dogs less than 1 year of age than in older dogs, they do occur. If dogs who get these diseases under 12 months are different, in terms of neuter status, from the dogs looked at in this study, that might change the apparent relationship. For example, if dogs who are intact are more likely to get one of these diseases earlier than neutered dogs, then excluding younger dogs would make neutering seem like a risk when it might actually be protective.
Similarly, dogs over 9 years of age were excluded as well. These dogs are particularly likely to get some of the cancers looked at in the study, and again if the ones who do differ in neuter status from the ones in this study, the apparent relationships identified in the study might be very different from the real relationships between these diseases and neutering.
A number of potential benefits of neutering, such as preventing mammary tumors and uterine infections in females and possibly being associated with longer overall lifespans, were not included in this study. While these are not directly related to the questions the authors sought to investigate, it is important that we consider overall risks and benefits when deciding when or if to neuter our dogs. If neutering prevents some cancers and increases the risk of others, for example, we need to make a decision about which effect is greater or more important in a particular dog. This study only looks at a small piece of that equation, namely the risks but not the benefits.
Finally, there are many comparisons made in this study, and each one is evaluated statistically. This can create a problem known as the multiple comparisons problems, in which the usual threshold for statistical significance is not appropriate. It is common, in studies which make multiple comparisons between subgroups and don’t correct for this problem to find a smattering of statistically significant results which are really the result of chance. In this study, I am not certain if a correction for multiple comparisons was made. If not, this could explain some of the significant differences found, particularly when the overall pattern is not consistent between studies or does not fit expectations based on biology.
Overall, this study does suggest that neutering under 6-12 months of age might be associated with an increased risk of some orthopedic diseases in Golden retrivers and Labrador retrievers. In Labs, neutering does not appear to increase cancer risk. In Goldens, there may be some effect on cancer risk, but it differs between males and females. And in females, it may even be the case that earlier neutering is associated with a lower cancer risk than neutering later in life. But there are a number of inconsistencies and limitations which make these findings tentative at best.
The study also appears to show a strong difference in the effects of neutering on disease risk between even very closely related breeds. So it is important to recognize that the effects seen in one breed cannot reliably predict those that might be seen in another.
No single, universal recommendation for neutering or not neutering dogs of any sex, breed, or age is justified by the scientific evidence. There is some suggestion that females may experience significant health benefits, particularly in prevention of pyometra and mammary tumors, though the evidence concerning mammary tumors is weaker than generally believed. For males, there does not seem to be a compelling, consistent health benefit to neutering, and in large breeds there may be some benefit to waiting until after 1 year of age. In any case, as I always stress, it is important to balance potential risks and benefits carefully.
And not all benefits of neutering are related to the health of the individual dog. Millions of unwanted dogs are born and euthanized in the U.S. every year, and while every client I talk to dismisses the possibility that their dog could contribute to that problem if left intact, most of these dogs are the product of breeding by owned pets. So if you choose to keep your dog intact for health reasons, it is important to accept that this creates an additional responsibility to make sure he or she does not contribute to the serious problem of overpopulation and the suffering and euthanasia of unwanted dogs.
With my own clients, I discuss the complexity and inconsistency of the evidence, the general trends that seem to be apparent, and the important of making individualized decisions based on all the relevant factors, including age, breed, sex, intended purpose, and the circumstances of the owner. For the most part, I recommend neutering of females before their first heat, though the evidence is still not ironclad and more work needs to be done to elucidate the details of potential risks and benefits in different breeds and with different neutering ages. For males, I no longer see a compelling reason to neuter unless there is clear evidence of aggression towards other dogs, however I emphasize to owners that they must be aware of the added responsibility to prevent roaming and unwanted breeding.
These recommendations are different from those I gave when I first graduated from veterinary school, and they have changed as a result of changing and improving evidence. Likely they will continue to evolve as more research is done and we have a better understanding of the issue.