by Tom Davis
Willie was 50 pounds of high-tailed, hard-muscled, tri-colored English setter. He had style to burn, and he ran like a deer—so much so that often, when he’d been out of sight for a while and I’d glimpse that waving flag out of the corner of my eye, my subconscious would register “deer” before the cognitive machinery kicked in. He had ridiculous stamina, too, and was so dismissive of heat that you about had to tackle him to make him take a drink.
Photograph by Dale Spartas
And while there wasn’t an upland gamebird Willie couldn’t handle, he was a genius on prairie grouse—the best I’ve ever seen at getting these touchy birds pointed.
But here’s the thing: When Willie was around a year old, his owner had him neutered. The reasons are unimportant; the point is that he was still a hell of a hunting dog. One could argue that he would have been even better “intact” but, as someone who saw a lot of Willie over the years, trust me when I say that there was precious little room for improvement.
I’ve hunted over some darn good spayed females of various breeds, as well . . . yet recently when I asked several eminent gundog people—guys who’ve collectively worked with thousands of dogs—if they thought that spaying or neutering has a negative effect on hunting ability, to a man they answered, “Yes.” It may have been a guarded, qualified yes, but it was a yes nevertheless.
Tom Ness, the North Dakota pro who’s best known as a cocker man but trains all sporting breeds, was particularly emphatic. “I’ve never seen a neutered male that was worth a damn,” he told me. “They just don’t have any drive. Spayed females tend to be a little better but still not as good as intact ones, in my opinion.”
All the pros I spoke to also noted that unless there was an urgent veterinary reason for doing so—pyometra (infection of the uterus), for example—they never had their own dogs spayed or neutered, whether they intended to breed them or not. This decision was informed not only by the aforementioned performance considerations, but also by the conviction born of experience that intact dogs are simply healthier in the long run.
It’s hard for us in the dog-owning rank and file to know exactly what to make of this—especially with many veterinarians still recommending spaying or neutering as a sensible, low-risk option that may temper certain problem behaviors (e.g., marking and aggression) in males and reduce the risk of females developing malignant mammary tumors later in life.
Yeah, I know: It’s about as clear as mud.
Performance considerations aside, there’s a growing consensus in the academic community that spaying or neutering, especially when done “early” (prior to six months of age) per the customary practice, may increase a dog’s risk for developing joint disorders and/or certain cancers. This is unequivocally the case with Labrador and golden retrievers, as documented in a widely cited study by Dr. Benjamin Hart and his colleagues at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. They tracked the health histories of some 1,200 goldens and 1,900 Labs and found that the incidence of one or more forms of joint disease—elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia and cruciate-ligament injury—increases dramatically in dogs spayed or neutered before their first birthdays. (The science is complicated, but the increased risk stems from the dog’s hormonal “factory” being shut down before the skeletal growth plates are fully developed.)
The data for goldens are particularly disturbing. While intact goldens have just a 3-percent chance of being diagnosed during their lifetimes with joint disease, the risk for goldens that are spayed or neutered before six months jumps to an astonishing 23 percent. The risk for goldens spayed or neutered between six months and one year drops to 11 percent, but that’s still more than three times the “background” rate.
And while male goldens neutered before one year of age have a slightly elevated risk for developing cancers, the risk for female goldens spayed at any age increases four-fold! Not at all surprising, Hart and his team recommend that female goldens be left intact or, if they must be spayed, that the procedure be delayed until they’re at least one year of age and that owners “remain vigilant” for cancers.
Fortunately for Labs and their owners, the study found no correlation between spaying or neutering, regardless of the dog’s age at the time of the procedure, and an increased incidence of cancers. But while intact Labs of both sexes have about a 6 percent risk for joint disease, the risk for males neutered before six months jumps to 9 percent and to 11 percent for females spayed any time before their first birthday. The obvious conclusion, then, is to delay the respective procedures until the dogs have reached the appropriate age thresholds.
The study also found, somewhat surprisingly, that the evidence that spaying reduces the risk of mammary cancer is “very weak.”
Of course these findings pertain only to the two breeds in the study. Still, until data sets can be developed for other sporting breeds, there’s a groundswell of opinion that if you must spay or neuter your dog, you should wait until he or she is at least a year old. Or, to play it even safer, until he or she is fully grown.
Some breeders have, in light of this new evidence, gone so far as to sell puppies only to buyers who agree not to spay or neuter them, although how they enforce this strikes me as a bit problematic.
Certainly there are legitimate reasons to spay or neuter a dog—especially in this era when animal shelters are filled to capacity—but it is not a decision to be taken lightly. I asked Shawn Wayment, the Colorado veterinarian who blogs as “birddogdoc” (uplandways.com), what his bottom-line advice to his hunting clients is. “That dogs are healthier with their hormones,” he replied. “There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument but, assuming the owner is a responsible individual, I recommend leaving the dog intact.”