Spay-Neuter or De Sex?

Years ago, I was in the Scotland at a reception kicking off a conference on animal welfare. I was introduced to the group by my host as an “American Ethologist.” There was a smattering of welcoming applause in greeting, and then a kindly-looking gentleman approached me, asked if he could get me a glass of wine. He returned, passed me my glass and said: “You Americans are butchers.”

I had meant to sip my wine, but now I began gulping it. I had no idea what he was referring to but my mind went to American foreign policy. I said nothing, while he went on to say he was appalled that Americans de-sex their dogs and cats as a matter of course, no matter how healthy they were. “That’s disgusting,” he told me. “Should young girls have their sex organs removed to prevent the possibility of ovarian cancer? Putting young dogs through surgery, major surgery for females, at a young age is unethical, and I can’t believe your veterinary profession advocates it.”

That was in the 80’s, a long time ago, but this perspective has been bubbling up for years and is beginning to get more attention in the U.S. Along with canine nutrition, I know of few topics that elicit as much passion as this one. I wrote a long post about the costs and benefits of spay-neutering in 2013, with a similar beginning to this one, which elicited 182 comments. The same year, Whole Dog Journal had an excellent article by Denise Flaim about the controversy, because it was becoming a hot issue within the dog world.

I bring it up again because America’s ubiquitous spay-neuter policies are now being discussed in broader circles. Best-selling author and researcher Alexandra Horowitz is reaching an audience far outside of the “dog fancy” in her new book, Our Dogs, Ourselves with a chapter titled “Against Sex”. She landed an Op Ed piece in the New York Times titled “Dogs Are Not Here for Our Convenience“. And in a great example of “words matter,” she uses the term de-sex rather than spay-neuter, to be clear about what we are actually doing.

In her book she begins by saying that not spaying or neutering a pet is considered a synonym for “irresponsible owner”.  As she says, noting that author Ted Kerasote was compared unfavorably to dog fighter Michael Vick for keeping his dog Pukka intact, “To compare an owner’s decision not to remove his dog’s testicles to the willful and giddy electrocution and methodical torture of dogs is to feel very, very sure about the importance of de-sexing.”

Which is why most shelter and humane society workers, who deal with unwanted dogs and cats every minute, every day, every month, are strong advocates for spay-neuter policies. After all, the data is overwhelming that the number of dogs and cats euthanized in this country has plummeted: “In the 1960s, about one quarter of the dog population was still roaming the streets (whether owned or not) and 10 to 20-fold more dogs were euthanized in shelters compared to the present.” ( From Rowan and Kartal 2018). Surely those policies have been successful, right?

And yet, some say that the change is not as much about spay-neuter policies as many believe. Horowitz and others argue that other changes have had more of an effect, and that the spay neuter mantra begun in the 1970’s was not the driving force of the large decrease in animals euthanized.

Here’s my question to you: Do you feel differently about spaying or neutering your dog or cat than you did, say, ten years ago? If you are ready to leap over the falls with me and discuss it, here are some rules of engagement: 1. Hang on to your hats. 2. Polite, respectful conversations only. 3. Please discuss with your dog.

Certainly, we now know more about the physical costs to spaying and neutering than we did before, especially if done early in life. Beyond the risk of major surgery, we know that the hormones produced by the sex organs are integral to the health of the mammalian body, far beyond their role in reproduction. Without these hormones–estrogen and testosterone and progesterone especially–the body can not develop normally, nor can it necessarily function as well as it could have. Thus the research that shows early de-sexing (to use the European term) substantially increases, for example, the risk of joint disease and cancer in Golden Retrievers. Of course, there is also data that shows rates of mammary cancer in females is decreased after spaying, as is the risk of pyometra, an infection of the uterus. It goes without saying that removing body parts that might later be susceptible to a medical problem eliminates the medical problem. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause others.

And then there’s the behavioral issue, including the behavior of the animals’ owners and the pets themselves. Horowitz argues that it is simply unethical to de-sex dogs and cats and put the responsibility for population control on them. She makes the point that spay-neuter is not only less common in many other countries, it was actually illegal in much of Scandinavia until just recently. She reports that only 7% of dogs in Sweden are spayed or neutered.

Beyond reproductive behavior, there is the fact/belief that intact males and females behave differently, and more problematically than spayed or neutered ones. I can tell you that the only cases I remember in which one dog tried to kill another in the same home involved intact animals. I also can tell you that Cool Hand Luke was an intact male, and worked, with grace, dignity and benevolence, dog-dog aggression cases with me for years. He not only never got into a fight, he could be counted on to prevent them. And that most of the dogs at sheepdog trials are intact, are often off leash, and are managed such that conflict happens so rarely I can’t remember the last incident.

And so, as we all know, we’re really talking about our behavior here. Horowitz writes: “To address the overpopulation of unwanted dogs, we do not address the overpopulation. Instead, we non sequitur: we take brand new dogs and introduce them into our homes by first putting them through surgery at six, four or even three months of age. These new, sexless puppies are at once our projections into the future and our ducking of the past: Here! we say, In the future there will be fewer unwanted dogs! As for our past misdeeds, we are quiet.”

I’d like to hear about you, and your experience. We could all moan about how irresponsible others are, but I don’t want to go there, unless we are talking about practical solutions. “We need to educate people better” is a wonderful thought, but it’s not enough. I’d most like to know about YOU. How do you feel now? Have your practices changed? I’ll start by saying that I did have Maggie spayed, but much later in life than I would have if I’d gotten her ten years ago. And that when she came back from surgery, clearly in a great deal of pain while between pain medications, I felt awful. Truly awful that I had put her through that. I’m not sure I’ll do it again.

So . . . where are you on this?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Just back from yet another sheepdog trial, also one with mixed results. The course was much smaller, but tough because the wind was gusting over 20 mph and the sheep were woolly freight trains running to the ‘exhaust pens’. Maggie’s first run was not a thing of beauty. Of most concern was that she fixated on the sheep behind her in the exhaust pen; a habit she just began this summer that I think is related to being stressed. “These sheep are closer and much less scary than the ones waaaay far away, so I’ll go to them.” I did get her off of them and into a nice outrun and lift, but her fetch was curvy and sloppy, and the sheep literally won on the first leg of the drive. Maggie simply could not win, and the judge said “Thank You” just as I was about to retire her myself.

Lots and lots of dogs had a massive amount of trouble that day, and I wouldn’t have been too concerned except that Maggie spurted brown water diarrhea within a few feet of leaving the course. Classic stress colilitis. That, combined with this new habit of looking for sheep close by rather than the ones she was supposed to find, worried me that Maggie was having too hard a time. The Midwest Championship was so challenging, and here we were at another especially tough trial, right after moving her up into this difficult, advanced class. After reviewing the entire summer, and how she’d been doing and what she’d been asked to do, I decided that for our second run I would set up a win. (I hoped.) I’d begin as usual with an outrun, lift and fetch, and then voluntarily leave the post before she got into trouble on the drive.

Those 3 parts of the run are called the ‘gather,’ and it’s the part at which Maggie excels. I so wanted her to have a win, and feel happy to play at her favorite sport and feel confident and motivated to play some more. The day was less windy and the sheep were more cooperative. I sent her on her outrun, and a few yards into it she glanced to the far left, behind her, to the sheep in the exhaust pen. My heart sunk for a moment, but YAY!, she turned her head back and did a perfect outrun, a gorgeous lift and  “the best fetch of the day” accordingly to another handler.  I will say myself that it was pretty gorgeous. She took control of the sheep the second she made contact and kept them in a dead-on straight line for the first 2/3 of the fetch. She bobbled a little before the fetch gates, but we got them back on line and made the fetch gates, for a truly beautiful fetch. Once the sheep were at my feet I threw up my arms and said Whooo Hooo! Good girl Maggie.” And then left the field to surprised onlookers who no doubt wondered what the hell I was doing.

I honestly will never know if that was exactly the right thing to do. The sheep were moving so well that I’d say we had 50/50 odds of actually having our best run of the summer. But I figured that the cost of it not going well was far higher than the benefit of a success. I’m thinking of this first season as the one in which Maggie and I learn as much as we can, rather than the one in which we score as well as we can. All I can say is that Maggie seemed truly happy, she worked sheep at home the next day with enthusiasm and commitment. And oh yeah, that I am so proud of her for hanging in there with me in this crazy adventure. Thanks Maggie, did I mention how much I love you? (Two more trials this season coming up in October. I’ll keep you posted.)

This weekend’s trial was at the Jefferson County Sheep and Wool Festival. I took a lovely break enjoying the interesting sheep and beautiful things for sale:

And, oh yeah: I went to a sheepdog trial and a wedding broke out. Friends and trial hosts John and Hixie surprised everyone by getting married at the handler’s meeting on Saturday morning. Best wedding ever. I was too obsessed with sneaking the bride a bouquet (I got a tip the night before) to take my camera, but getting married in barn boots and old jeans has got to be the newest thing. Congratulations friends, may all your trials be sheep ones.