Spay, Neuter or Not

Hunting Dogs

For both health and performance reasons, fewer owners are spaying or neutering their dogs—and then only after the dogs are at least a year old.

by Tom Davis
Photograph by Dale Spartas
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.

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.”


6 Comments

  • Reply June 7, 2019

    Terry Huffman

    I wonder what the percentage of fixed dogs vs. unfixed dogs is that escape from their kennels and get hit by a car or whatever; or the percentage of fixed dogs vs. unfixed dogs that are welcome in their owners’ homes.

  • Reply June 7, 2019

    John R. Johnson, D.V.M,.

    I have been a practicing veterinarian since 1975. A study at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas was completed in 1974 using Beagles as models. The study was related to human breast cancer. I believe the study lasted approximately 16 years. One thing that came out of the study was that beagles that were not spayed, or spayed later in life, had a significant increase in mammary gland adenocarcinomas (malignant breast cancer). My first 8-10 years in practice I saw dogs of many breeds, most middle aged, with inoperable breast cancer. These dogs were 99% unspayed.
    Dr. Benjamin Hart is well respected in the veterinary community, but there are many well respected veterinary oncologists that will state that if a female dog is spayed prior to or immediately after her first heat cycle she will never get breast cancer because they have never seen a dog get breast cancer when spayed under those guidelines.
    I have owned labs that were all professionally trained. My last lab’s both parents were Field Trial Champions. I neutered him at about one year of age and he was such an intense hunter I had to use a TriTronics collar on him whenever in the field. My current dog is an English Cocker. She was trained by Paul McGagh of Glencoe Kennels in Bismarck, ND and he wanted me to field trial her but I wanted her home to hunt and as a family pet.
    IMHO the best thing a veterinarian can do is inform any hunting dog owner about the health risks involved in not spaying or neutering (breast cancer, pyometra, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, etc.) so that if an intact dog develops any of these conditions the owner will know that they likely could have been prevented.
    I would also submit that the vast majority of hunting dog owners care as much about their dog being a healthy, happy, family pet as much or more than an intense hunting companion. I would agree that if a dog owner’s primary concern is winning field trials then by all means leave the dog intact. However I am not prepared to lose my dog prematurely to a preventable condition by not neutering. I would also submit that there are a lot of veterinarians that have been in practice many years as I have that would respectfully disagree with the comment that dogs are “healthier with their hormones”. And I have not even touched on the behavioral differences that occur in intact adult dogs that many times force the owners to euthanize for no other reason than behavioral.

  • Reply June 7, 2019

    Myles Pache

    O.K., now I’m totally confused. For years I’ve been told that “fixing” dogs stops cancer later in life and have always thought that I killed my best dog ever at age 13 by not having him “fixed”. He died of anal cancer. Is this just like the coffe,butter, coconut oil, eggs are bad, now they are good bullshit that I’ve been hearing for years?

  • Reply June 7, 2019

    Dan Walter

    I wonder if this study tried to account for bias associated with which dogs are left intact? It seems that dogs left intact are often for breeding purposes are more likely ones that come from animals with the better hip/elbow clearances (joints) and from the most cancer free lineage backgrounds. Regardless, its interesting.

  • Reply June 7, 2019

    Ed Fladger

    I do wish there was a consistent answer because I agonized over the decision to spay my sweet English Cocker.I previously had a stubborn but brilliant Brittany male who constantly raced for the horizon.He was totally unfit for the house and eventually escaped his kennel by digging out and met the proverbial truck.Heartbroken, I blamed myself thinking I shoulda, woulda, coulda snipped him to calm him down, but I loved his high spirit. I asked EVERYONE about my new English Cocker, and the consensus was to spay her for all the reasons listed in the article.I suffered horribly, thinking she would be better off with all her God-given parts.The tie-breaker was the fact that I felt not qualified nor prepared to properly breed her (a real shame), so I opted for the pet/companion role.Thankfully, her hobby is as obsessive as mine when it comes to hunting birds(she’s incredible), plus, she even thinks she’s my mother, so I lucked out all the way around. It’s good to be blessed.

  • Reply June 15, 2019

    Pat Marek

    So anyone who would listen to Tom Ness needs to step back and think. There have been dogs that have been very successful in field trials and hunting after neutering. He may have an agenda as a pro. My springer ended up being the grandfather to the national champion, but after he was neutered hunted his heart out till the day he died. I feel I got more years of this loving spaniel making his life the most important part of mine.

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