by Margaret A. Cleek, Ph.D
More than 25 years ago I was off-put by the claims of positive non-reproductive outcomes for neutering dogs. The recent ANIMALS 24-7 article Does castration really alter male dog behavior? reminded me of my concerns.
Proponents of surgical neutering, the sooner the better, were and remain largely concerned with pet overpopulation. Animal advocates who focus on pet overpopulation continue to vociferously promote early-age spay/neuter and to recommend strict penalties in the form of high license differentials for keeping unaltered dogs.
Their position tends to be that surgical sterilization is the only option, and the sooner the better for the health and behavioral aspects of the dog’s life.
I have long found this disturbing, for a couple of reasons. For one, even a quarter of a century ago I had already been involved in these issues for some time, and was aware of research suggesting that responsible confinement is a viable form of animal birth control.
Responsible confinement is, for example, a long-established social norm among German and Scandinavian dog-keepers, who have managed to avoid dog overpopulation and high-volume shelter killing, with much lower dog sterilization rates than had been achieved in the U.S. even in the 1990s, when U.S. shelters were still killing five million or more homeless dogs per year.
While realizing that promoting responsible confinement among U.S. dog-keepers might have all the effectiveness of promoting “abstinence” to suppress unwanted pregnancies among teenagers, it is true that many Americans, myself among them, have had generations of intact dogs who have never roamed at large or had any opportunity to breed.
Outcomes of surgical neutering are not all positive
Despite this history, surgical gonadectomy became the only socially acceptable choice among responsible dog-keepers, and has been promoted as having only positive outcomes.
While I understand the need to reduce surplus numbers, I cannot agree that the outcomes of surgical gonadectomy are all positive. A wealth of articles published in peer-reviewed veterinary journals challenge the notion that only positive health and behavioral outcomes, beyond eliminating the possibility of reproduction, result from surgical gonadectomy.
Indeed, the findings indicate that even reduced aggression, the most commonly cited behavioral outcome of surgical gonadectomy, is not assured. Some research suggests that surgical gonadectomy might increase aggressive behavior in female dogs, outside of the context of protecting litters.
Some studies indicate that juvenile neutering has some negative health effects on both bitches and dogs. Negative health outcomes from juvenile spay/neuter may be worse for large breeds and males.
“Non-surgical options for males seem important to consider”
Independent of my position regarding equality of the sexes in the human population, and shared reproductive responsibility for my species, nature and practicality dictate that eliminating the reproductive capacity of our female pets is more critical and has a more profound impact than sterilizing males.
Given that negative health aspects may be more pronounced for males than for females, intact females present more issues for pet owners, and non-surgical ways of eliminating reproductive capabilities are becoming available, non-surgical options for males seem to be an important strategy to consider.
Meanwhile, to promote acceptance of castrating male dogs and cats, veterinarians and humane organizations promoted the notion that neutering might reduce aggression and other behavioral problems until this idea became commonly accepted, and is today claimed as a positive effect of surgical neutering that non-surgical options might not achieve. Yet there is little or no evidence that surgical gonadectomy ever achieved these effects in the first place.
Addressing the wrong end of the dog
The supporting evidence for the idea that castration might make dogs safer, for example, came almost entirely from observation of the effects of castration on cattle and other hoofed species, among whom only the most aggressive mature males breed at all, while other males tend to live apart in bachelor herds.
In fact, castrating dogs to solve behavioral problems is addressing the wrong end of the dog. Neutering may alter the motivation behind a dog’s behavior, but not the behavior per se.
For example, if a dog is getting out for the sole purpose of breeding bitches in season, if you neuter the dog before this behavior occurs, the motivation and hence the behavior would be reduced. But if the dog is getting out initially for the sheer joy of running, sniffing, and eating horse poop, garbage, whatever, neutering the dog will have no impact on the behavior.
Aggressive behavior is complex
Conversely, if the dog is getting out chiefly to go to bitches and breed, neutering after the behavior is established will not have much impact on the behavior, even though the dog will no longer produce offspring.
Aggressive dog behavior, and the motivations behind it, are complex, as the ANIMALS 24-7 article Does castration really alter male dog behavior? explores in depth. Drives and motivations vary by source, and according to some studies, by breed. I doubt that it is possible to come up with any definitive proven statement on the issue.
For example, if the motivation behind an aggressive incident is competition among male dogs for a female in season, neutering before the behavior is established may be effective, but if the motivation for aggression is prey drive, or a propensity to engage in kill-or-be-killed behavior, neutering will not impact the behavior.
Surgical s/n has been oversold
It is a very positive development that we have achieved the dramatic reduction in surplus dog and cat births that has in turn reduced animal shelter intake and killing by approximately 85% since the 1970s. This has been achieved largely through surgical spay/neuter.
The fact remains, however, that this was achieved in large part by persuading the public to buy into junk science and “facts” without factual substance.
The pitch for surgical gonadectomy from veterinarians and the humane community resembled the bogus claim now often made about pit bull aggression that “it is not the dog, it’s the people.”
We have been told, over and over, until most of the public believes it, that neutering will “fix” everything about the dog.
“Calming the dog down”
People will claim, for example, that neutering affected the behavior of their own dog profoundly, especially by “calming the dog down.” But how often is this really just a natural outcome of the dog maturing out of the puppy stage, or a positive outcome of training that was already in process, or followed the neutering?
Acceptance of the need for reproductive control of our pets has been one of the most successful social change programs of all time. The results, achieved in just one human generation, are phenomenal.
I doubt that we will ever go back to the time when vast numbers of people allowed their pets to have litters so that their children could “experience the miracle of birth,” as was once common, or because breeding pets looked like easy money, or because they just didn’t care enough to prevent pregnancy, when a trip to the pound to surrender unwanted puppies and kittens was a convenient option.
Pit bulls & Chihuahuas
As a society we have largely come to accept stewardship and the need to control pet birth.
It cannot be denied however that this has been differentially embraced by sub-populations of dog-keepers. Thus pit bulls and Chihuahuas are over-represented in the surplus pet population, continuing to keep animal shelters filled to capacity. Both of these breeds have significant issues with negative and aggressive behaviors which render them inappropriate for most homes.
I personally feel that it is wrong for shelters and rescues to rehome these dogs as if this were not true. I support all efforts to target these populations of dogs and owners to provide education and assistance to reduce their continued proliferation, and have for over 25 years.
I do not condone telling the public that the issues associated with pit bulls and Chihuahuas are solvable with socialization and neutering, except to the extent that neutering helps to prevent the births of more pit bulls and Chihuahuas for whom there will never be good “forever” homes.
“All dogs are not created equal”
Success in eliminating pet overpopulation is not just about gonad removal.
What I would like to see now is a paradigm shift in how the humane community is marketing dogs. In particular, I would like to see the humane community stop trying to sell the notion that the only available dogs should be the offspring of the irresponsible.
People do have preferences and requirements for the dogs who share their homes. All dogs are not created equal, and a snip and a hug cannot solve all problems with aggression or other behaviors.
The truth needs to be told or we will continue to see tragic outcomes.