I have followed the literature on the risks and benefits of neutering for many years, from writing my own literature review in 2010 to critically analyzing individual research studies on the subject here. The evidence is always growing and changing, and the attitudes of pet owners and veterinarians shift over time. When I started working as a veterinarian almost 20 years ago, routine neutering of all dogs and cats at about 6 months of age was still the dominant and recommended practice. There wasn’t much specific scientific evidence for or against this timing, and the focus of most debate about it was whether or not neutering earlier was better or worse (the evidence suggests there isn’t much difference).1–3
More recently, a series of studies have looked at health outcomes in dogs neutered at or before the traditional age and later than the traditional age.4–6 The initial papers focused on only a few breeds (golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and German shepherds), and they had a number of other limitations that made generalizing to neutering for all dogs or cats unreliable. I’ve discussed these individual papers in detail previously.
A reasonable interpretation of these studies would be that there are some risks of neutering in some breeds, particularly in raising the incidence of diseases those breeds are already pre-disposed to. Earlier neutering might be a factor in this, though if you look at the studies in detail, this association doesn’t hold consistently. Some risks are seen, for example, inn golden retrievers but not Labradors, or in female dogs but not males, or in dogs neutered before 6 months or after 12 months of age but not between these ages.
All-in-all, these studies should be viewed as evidence that the relationship between breed, size, sex, neutering and various health conditions is complex and hard to predict. No simple, one-size-fits all approach is likely to be optimal for everyone, whether it is traditional neutering at 6 months of age or alternative approaches.
Unfortunately, many people have gone well beyond such reasonable interpretations and used these studies to suggest no dogs should be neutered before 1-2 years of age, or that they should not be neutered at all. Some more extreme voices have even claimed these studies show neutering causes cancer or has other dire health effects. Such excessive claims risk causing harm when pet owners avoid the benefits of neutering out of fear of unlikely risks.
The group whose research has been most influential in changing attitudes about neutering has recently published a brief summary of a much more extensive research project that will hopefully be published in full this year. This more detailed study includes an additional 32 breeds, and the findings illustrate how complex and nuanced the issue is and how unreliable broad, rigid approaches are.
According to the authors, “Considering the occurrence of joint disorders…it is evident that vulnerability to early neutering is related to body size,” with both purebred and mixed small-breed dogs not showing the increased risk with early neutering previously reported in larger breeds.7 The issue of cruciate ruptures and hip dysplasia and other orthopedic diseases that may be influenced by neutering appear only to be a significant consideration in larger breeds which are already prone to these diseases.
Similarly, previous studies have suggested neutering, especially at an early age, may be associated with greater risk of some cancers. However, this risk varies dramatically by sex and breed, with differences seen between male and female golden retrievers, between golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers, and so on. The new evidence makes this variability even clearer. The researchers report no association between early neutering and cancer in mixed-breed dogs and, “in small-breed dogs, with the exception of the Shih Tzu, there was no association between cancer incidence and spaying at any age.”7 So much for the “neutering causes cancer” claim.
In making decisions about neutering, as with any other medical intervention, the key is to balance risks and benefits in the context of the best available evidence. As the evidence changes, we have to be willing to change our positions. I once recommended routine neutering at 6 months for all dogs and cats. I now tend to suggest that there are few medical benefits to neutering male dogs who don’t exhibit certain behavior problems, and these benefits may be offset by some risks in some breeds, especially larger breeds. For female dogs, the benefits of preventing mammary cancer and uterine infections still likely outweigh the risks in most dogs, but in breeds like golden retrievers who are at risk for some cancers that seem to be more common in neutered females, neutering later may have advantages.
None of these are rigid, universal rules, and we must always consider the unique needs and circumstances of each animal. However, broad claims that we should never neuter or should always wait until some specific age are no more reasonable than broad claims that we should always neuter everybody at 6 months old, and our pets and patients will be better off if we move away from such simplistic thinking and consider the scientific evidence in all its complexity.
1. Howe LM. Short-term results and complications of prepubertal gonadectomy in cats and dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1997;211(1):57-62. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9215412. Accessed January 3, 2019.
2. Olson PN, Kustritz M V, Johnston SD. Early-age neutering of dogs and cats in the United States (a review). J Reprod Fertil Suppl. 2001;57:223-232. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11787153. Accessed January 5, 2020.
3. Stubbs WP, Bloomberg MS, Scruggs SL, Shille VM, Lane TJ. Effects of prepubertal gonadectomy on physical and behavioral development in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1996;209(11):1864-1871.
4. Torres de la Riva G, Hart BL, Farver TB, et al. Neutering Dogs: Effects on Joint Disorders and Cancers in Golden Retrievers. Williams BO, ed. PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e55937. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055937
5. Hart BL, Hart LA, Thigpen AP, Willits NH. Long-term health effects of neutering dogs: comparison of Labrador Retrievers with Golden Retrievers. Coulombe RA, ed. PLoS One. 2014;9(7):e102241. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102241
6. Hart BL, Hart LA, Thigpen AP, Willits NH. Neutering of German Shepherd Dogs: associated joint disorders, cancers and urinary incontinence. Vet Med Sci. 2016;2(3):191-199. doi:10.1002/vms3.34
7. Hart B, Hart L, Thigpen A, Willits N. Best age for spay and neuter: A new paradigm. Clin Theriogenology. 2019;3(11):235-237.