The issue of desexing dogs is an emotive one that can lead to serious conflict even among dog lovers. The whole subject is complicated by its very nature and perhaps because it makes humans think of their own species and how they would feel if some other life forms were making such a decision about them: it’s a thought that makes us wince.
What shall we call it?
Even the words used to describe the process are disputed. Desexing is a euphemism, and we use euphemisms when we can’t bring ourselves to call a spade a spade. Some call it neutering or sterilization. When applied to females, the word often used is spay, which is derived from an old French word for sword (still evident in epée, as found in the sport of fencing), although citing that particular weapon conjures up images more akin to dealing with males.
With horses, the word geld is used, although a gelding is specifically a male.
Why are we so shy about calling it castration, which is a suitably factual, scientific term? Because the very idea of it makes many people shudder.
But perhaps there is a double standard here. Many people think nothing of wiping out entire populations of creatures that are regarded as pests. The fact that we can become emotionally attached to dogs but not to rats, mosquitoes and termites undoubtedly has an effect on our thinking.
Are there health benefits in desexing?
There is evidence that desexing has benefits as a preventive measure. In males, it can prevent testicular tumours and prostate problems (yes, male dogs have a prostate gland), while females can avoid mammary tumours and womb infections.
If such pre-emptive steps seem like alarmist decisions, it should be noted that some women have opted to have their breast flesh removed and replaced by implants, not for cosmetic purposes but to reduce their risk of developing a common female cancer, especially if there is a family history of it.
Sexual desire in animals cannot be regulated by education as to respect for others, let alone by peer pressure. When male dogs get the urge to have intercourse, there is nothing in another part of their brain telling them to seek a female’s affection and consent first. Similarly, an unspayed female can find herself sending out signals that invite such male attention. A female wanting to do what comes naturally can behave in a way that her owner finds upsetting, while a male may go running off in search of some action. There are also behavioural traits such as scent marking – a dog denoting his territory by urinating on a prominent landmark such as a lamppost. Neutering can prevent this.
There is only so much that can be achieved by training – and let’s face it, human beings have enough trouble getting the message and controlling themselves.
On the one hand, we may see desexing as unwarranted interference in an animal’s natural behaviour. To some, it smacks of “playing God”. On the other hand, unwanted pregnancies bring their own problems, because a litter of cute puppies soon becomes a brood of dogs needing homes and looking after.
Will my dog get fat if I have him neutered?
There is no evidence that this is necessarily the case. But a dog may need less food after desexing: you can discuss this with your vet.
Should a female be allowed to have one litter before she is spayed?
This is a consideration based on human compassion. We are thinking about what is fair and unfair: let her experience the joy of being a mother at least once before we remove the possibility. There is no conclusive evidence of psychological effects on a female. Risks associated with pregnancy are greater than those linked with spaying.
The cost of desexing
Any vet will be able to attend to this, but charges may vary according to size and breed. It is worth looking at a few veterinarians’ websites and making enquiries before booking an appointment.
Talking it through
Given that this is such an emotive subject, it is something that could usefully be talked through with someone you respect. If you happen to know a vet who is willing to talk to you outside work (unless you’re prepared to actually pay for an appointment to do this), bring the subject up with a friend or family member. Outline your concerns and get their opinion. Read up on it: there is plenty of information online that can help you get a good perspective. But ultimately the decision is yours and you have to take responsibility for it.