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.
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.