Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Elective surgery

Spay and Neuter
Spays and neuters are probably the two most common surgeries we put our pets through. With such severe pet overpopulation issues in the US and countries around the world, spaying and neutering every pet who is adopted from a shelter, and encouraging the same for all pets, has been a major push for pet lovers world wide. Most shelters adopt out dogs and cats only if they have already been altered, and those that don't will most often require a spay/neuter contract to be signed, with proof of the surgery taking place required within a certain amount of time. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a majorly important step in controlling pet overpopulation.

But, recent reading has lead me to believe there is a lot more we should consider before getting our companions this elective surgery. Dr. Zink is probably the foremost veterinarian in the dog sporting world. Her earliest published works mention spaying and neutering as pet population control measures and then move on. In more recent years, however, Dr. Zink has changed her stance on every dog being subjected to this surgery, especially at a young age.

Performance dogs need to be sound in body to compete in the high impact sports we enjoy doing with them such as agility, obedience, flyball, and other sports. Early spaying and neutering may actually be putting our dogs at an increased risk. Early spaying or neutering, that is, doing the surgery before the dog finishes growing, can impact our dogs in many ways, including increasing overall height, causing disproportionate leg bone lengths (which causes poor angulation and additional stress on the dog's joints), and shows increased chances of hip dysplasia.

Early spay and neuter has also been linked to higher chances of bone cancer and hemangiosarcoma. Mammary cancer risk is increased, however, with every heat cycle a bitch goes through, but is generally only malignant 30% of the time and is one of the most successfully treated cancers in dogs. Prostate cancer has been assumed to have a reduced risk in neutered males, but recent studies have suggested that neutering in fact does not change the odds.

Koira was spayed at 6 months old and Pallo was neutered at about 9 months old. If I were to get another dog who was not previously spayed or neutered, I believe that while I would still have the surgery done, I would wait until the dog was at least a year old, or possibly even a year and a half or two years depending on the breed and projected age of maturity. Leaving the surgery for a little bit later can alleviate some of the risks of spay/neuter, especially those associated with orthopedic growth.

For more reading on spay and neuter, refer to this article by Dr. Zink, with resources for all the studies included at the bottom.

Dew Claws

You can see in this picture how Koira is using her dew claws to help her climb up out of the water

Dew claw removal is another elective surgery that is performed on many dogs in the US that may have severe consequences for performance dogs. Again, Dr. Zink has some great articles about this issue that can be found here and here.

Dew claws have long been thought to be useless on all dogs, simply an extra toe that risks getting caught or ripped off during physical activity. However, Dr. Zink has found that not only does the dew claw help with reducing joint stress and increasing traction while running, but removing the dew claw increases the risk of carpal arthritis significantly as well as causing the five (count them, five) tendons an muscle groups connected to the dew claw to atrophy.

Pallo's dew claws, while not visible in this picture, are helping him keep his balance and traction on the box.

Both Koira and Pallo have their dew claws in the front. Both of them have nice, tight dew claws that aren't loose and don't flap around out in space. I contemplated whether they should have the dew claws removed (if they were to ever be put under for another surgery) to reduce the risk of injury. But, I have very much changed my mind about this. Dew claws are important for a functioning canine athlete. Should one of them ever severely injure their dew claw in such a way as removing it is the best choice, then I will have it removed. Otherwise, I will be leaving their dews alone.

Pallo's dew claw
Koira's dew claws

How should these issues affect your choice of a performance dog?

As most people know, dogs adopted from the shelter are spayed or neutered already or are adopted out on a spay/neuter contract. This doesn't mean that your next performance dog can't come from rescue, however. Some rescues will be willing to work with you if a dog is not yet spayed or neutered and is not yet physically mature by having you sign a contract stating that you will get the surgery performed when the dog reaches a certain age or the growth plates are proven closed. Others, especially smaller local shelters, will be reluctant to work with individuals on this, as the last thing they want is for any of the dogs to leave the shelter and produce offspring.

If you choose to purchase a performance dog from a reputable breeder, you should have more options available to you. While many breeders would prefer their dogs be altered before going to their new homes if they are not going to be bred, most of them will be willing to work with you if you share the information about why you would prefer to wait and are willing to sign a contract to return the dog if the surgery doesn't take place by a certain date.

For dew claws, options are both more limited and more open. Most dew claws are removed within a few days of birth by the breeder or vet. At this age, they can pretty much just pinch the dews off. However, this may mean that the shelter dog or breed rescue you are interested in already has had their dew claws removed ages ago. On the other hand, many shelter dogs will still have their dew claws intact.

Breeders may be willing to not remove the dew claws of their puppies. However, since the dew claws are removed at such a young age and must be removed (or are strongly encouraged to be removed) to show in conformation, many reputable breeders will insist on removing the dew claws from all puppies, since decisions on which puppy you will be bringing home would be made at a much later date. Performance breeders who breed either purebreds for working stock or sport mixes will likely be more open to leaving dew claws intact than those who also breed for the conformation ring.


  1. Great post! I am a huge advocate for later spays if the owner can responsibly look after an intact dog till they are done growing.

    Kodee my oldest was spayed at 5.5 months. Kodee's legs and length are too long, and she has poor alignment as well as signs of early arthritis.

    When I got Becky I read articles outlining much of what you have here. I waited till she was 2 to spay her. I am very pleased. Becky is properly proportioned and moves beautifully.

  2. Nice post. I am also an advocate of later spay/neuter for all the reasons you stated. regarding dew claws: My new puppy has her dew claws. The breeder believes the pups use them. I figure if they are an issue I can have them removed when she is spayed (probably at 2 due to the possibility of showing and breeding her). I am really curious to see if she uses them though!

  3. Hi Koira and Pallo! I just love your names! Thank you for interesting post and information! I would like to say more but can't in English - sorry! Hugs to Koira and Pallo! x Teje & Nero

  4. Recently I've lamented the fact that Cohen has been docked, and has had her dew claws removed. I've similarly heard that both the tail and dew claws are important for peak performance in a canine athlete. It's tough to find an Aussie breeder I like who leaves tails intact however. I'm curious about where I'll end up getting my future dogs from. Rescue? Shelter? Show breeder? Who knows.

  5. I have never really understood the point of removing the front dew claws and quite frankly a lot of the dogs I have seen who had them removed later (as in not within a few days of birth)have chewed the incisions and made a huge mess of the whole deal.

    As far as spay/neuter age I still prefer the 4-6 months for my own pets (if I had a puppy) but can understand if people want to wait. From the surgeons standpoint doing it younger is less traumatic and less risky than a full grown adult. I would want it to be as safe and painless as possible for my pet. There are also other solid health and cosmetic differences that play into my decision. I have looked at the studies indicating increased incidence of certain diseases or tumors but they don't affect my decision or recommendations. This is because the dogs in these studies are the ones seen at large referral/research centers and are probably more likely to have been altered as part of their vet's recommendations and/or responsible pet ownership so the population may very well be skewed Also an increase from .04-.08% or whatever is actually negligible even if it is "double."

    All my dogs will come from shelter/rescue until there is no such thing! Good luck right?

  6. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing an alternative point of view. We adopted our dog from the shelter when she was about a year old and she was not spayed until she was picked up as a stray. So the surgery was probably done at this optimum time. In that way, I guess, she may have been fortunate?

    Oddly, she did have scarring from where dew claws were removed on her back legs. This would have been from before she ended up at the shelter. It's always made me wonder what happened.

    As an animal welfare advocate, I would always recommend pet owners to have their animals spayed or neutered. But in circumstances with people who care and know what they are doing, I will allow it may ultimately be better to wait for the optimum time for the dog's health. Thanks for the information!

  7. Greyhounds are not spayed or neutered until they go into the adoption program.

    Flocko was five years old when we brought him home. Since I had owned him as a puppy he came home fully equipped.

    He drove us nuts wanting to ummm, get friendly with every dog near him. Once we go him altered, he was such a gentleman and has been ever since.

    I don't mind the idea of people waiting until their pets are a little older, but I do have problems with irresponsible pet owners.

  8. Personally, I feel my decision to spay yuki at 6 months and rocket at 4 1/2 months was the right one for us. I've read up before on both sides of the issue and just felt that the points for pro early/spay neutering swayed me in that direction. If you are responsible to take care of your unaltered pup because you feel like a later spay/neuter is the right decision for you, than more power to you.

    Yuki's tail was docked and dew claws were removed by her breeder. Rocket's tail was not docked, nor were his dew claws removed. I like how their ears were left natural, and would never think of removing his dewclaws or having their ears done. After reading that they are dewclaws are used for climbing, it makes sense to me why he is able to climb gates so easily and yuki is left behind.
    because she can't.

  9. No disagreement here. The corgi was snipped at 6months before I knew any better. The toller was also snipped at 6months and I regret it. I debated forever and ended up going with the surgery simply so I could keep bringing him to the daycare I worked at. Future dogs will all wait until at least 18 months if neutered ever. Spaying I'm not as decided on as the research doesn't show as many benefit for waiting and I don't really want to deal with heat cycles!

  10. I waited until 19 months to neuter Steve and I don't regret it in the least. I would have waited until after he was two, but since he was injured and on crate rest anyway, it seemed like a good time to get it out of the way.

    I went to a seminar given by Dr. Zink awhile ago and a lot of people there were kind of taken aback by her argument against spay/neuter. She made it very clear that she was speaking to a specific audience of sport people who, by their very presence in her seminar made it clear they are not "Joe Average dog owner". Her current recommendation for sport dogs is to spay after two heats and leave males intact unless there is reason not to. She also questions why vets are not doing more vasectomies, since ostensibly the biggest reason behind the MUST SPEUTER EVERYTHING!!! movement is the pet overpopulation issue.

    Steve has never run under four seconds with his dewclaws covered by his skid boots. Unfortunately, I fail at vetwrapping his stop pads, so he has to wear skid boots most of the time.

  11. Katie, I am so jealous of you getting to go to the Dr. Zink seminar. I really, really would LOVE to go to one. I have heard she is not only knowledgeable, but also a great presenter.

    Its interesting that you have noticed a difference in Steve's times with dew claws covered or not. Does the vet wrap not cover them, or is it just not as think as the skid boots, so lets him use his dew claws to some extent?