Dear Dr. Evans,
I just adopted a female Labrador (maybe a mix, but she sure looks like a Lab) from a shelter. Sookie is four months old, very sweet and pretty, and my buddy would like a pup like her. I’m thinking of letting her have at least one litter if I can find a male I like. I’ve heard that vets recommend spaying and neutering all dogs at around six months, but do I really have to? She’s a great dog.
I’m glad you found a puppy you love, but please do her a favor—get her spayed before her first heat.
Unless you have the absolute world-class, top-of-the-line, first-at-Westminister Lab lady, the world doesn’t need more puppies. When you adopted your new friend, I bet you walked past cage after cage of forlorn dogs and pups, all wagging hopefully or, worse, resignedly. Your dog is one of the lucky ones. Sure, a dog as great as yours may have a very easily placed litter. But for every pup you find a home for, there’s one at the pound waiting to find a “forever home.” And a lot of them won’t be so fortunate. Estimates vary, but three to four million cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters every year — approximately 56 percent of shelter dogs and 71 percent of shelter cats, according to the American Humane Association. Please don’t let your girl contribute to the problem.
Besides, there are a lot of good solid reasons to have Sookie spayed before she comes into heat. If a dog is spayed before her first heat, she’s many, many times likelier than an unspayed female to avoid breast tumors later in life. The protective effect of spaying diminishes with every heat she has; a dog who’s spayed after her fourth or fifth heat is just as likely to develop mammary cancer as an intact female. An unspayed female is also at risk for pyometra, a very dangerous uterine infection that generally demands emergency surgery with a significant risk of life-threatening complications (and a significant risk of costing the owner thousands of dollars). And every six months or so, an unspayed female will find every male dog in the neighborhood on her doorstep with a bunch of roses and bad intentions. Sookie may not mind these booty calls, but I guarantee you will.
As a side note, these remarks generally apply to cats as well, though once a female cat goes into heat, she cycles in and out of season once every few weeks. Really vocal, really dramatic, and really annoying.
As to the timing of spaying/neutering, six months is not set in stone, but it is a good guideline. Shelters have been spaying and neutering very young kittens and puppies for years, without any apparent ill effects. And recently, one study suggested that neutering later in life — say, at one to two years of age — allows male dogs to develop more adult musculature, leaving them less prone to hip dysplasia and other musculoskeletal issues. Then again, intact males develop some ugly testosterone-fueled behaviors, like aggression and urine marking.
Veterianry guidelines may change with time and further study, but seriously — get Sookie spayed. You won’t regret it.
Dr. Lynn Anne Evans of the Barrington Veterinary Clinic has been practicing veterinary medicine for 26 years. Do you have a pet question for Dr. Evans? Please email firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Dr. Evans” in the subject line.