Q: I have a friend who refuses to neuter her dogs. She says we all deserve to have choices in how we care for our pets and that her vet agrees with her decision to keep her dogs “intact.” Since when is spaying and neutering a choice? The way I see it, there are no morally acceptable alternatives to sterilization if pet overpopulation is the inevitable outcome.
A: Eloquently put. But you’re wrong. Pet overpopulation is not inevitable. Responsible humans are completely capable of keeping their pets from breeding. Consider: Pet overpopulation isn’t a problem in Europe, where canine spays and neuters aren't commonly performed and most dogs are sterilized only if their reproductive organs become diseased.
Of course, the prevention of reproductive diseases is a legitimate reason to spay and neuter. That’s what all veterinarians are taught in veterinary school, and it’s often cited as the primary reason we recommend sterilization procedures. But as we’re now learning, preventing reproductive disease isn’t necessarily a good enough reason to remove organs; not if those organs offer more benefits than they pose risks.
Here’s a quick rundown of the risks and benefits of letting your pets remain intact:
Risks: These include prostatic disease, testicular disease and perineal hernias for males. Most are highly treatable. For girls, pyometra (uterine infections) and mammary tumors are the biggest risk. All but the most aggressive mammary tumors are treatable, if caught early. Male behaviors like roaming, urine marking and aggression are more likely.
Benefits: These may include a reduced incidence of certain orthopedic diseases along with some cancers. Interestingly, very recent work indicates that intact male dogs may be less aggressive with other dogs and experience less fear-based aggression in social interactions.
Is there enough evidence for veterinarians to draw bright lines? Maybe not. But the European example shows that shifting cultural norms in our country may at some future date make pet overpopulation second to individual pet health when it comes to sterilization.
Of course, if you do sterilize you help prevent pet overpopulation by ensuring that no “accidents” occur. And that’s a great thing. But that decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis in consultation with your veterinarian.
Note: In case you’re wondering, none of this applies to cats. We still haven’t come up with a good enough cat overpopulation solution that doesn’t involve sterilization.
Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is
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