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It has only been in the last 15 years that I have begun to question commonly accepted beliefs regarding dog care and breeding. What should dogs eat? How should they be vaccinated? When should they be castrated or as we more delicately put it in the US, spayed and neutered? Yesterday, my growing concerns about the spay-neuter status quo were supported by a top American research institution. Here is my story.

How do we make the best decisions for our dogs?

How do we make the best decisions for our dogs?

Early in my career in dogs, I believed that spaying and neutering went hand in hand with responsible dog ownership. Like other loving owners, I assumed that castrating my dogs would protect them from cancer, ensure they were not aggressive towards people or dogs, keep them from roaming, and generally provide the best possible life for them. As important, I would also not contribute to the dog overpopulation problem. Like any responsible breeder, I sold my pet puppies on spay-neuter contracts that required castration at 6 months of age. I felt guilty not spaying my breeding girls, fearing that requiring them to have babies was shortening their lives.

In 1988, I moved to Germany for three years. The only castrated dogs that I met in Europe were owned by Americans. Not a single German dog was spayed or neutered. Yet the dogs were healthy and well mannered, played together without incident, joined us at cafés, and met politely on city streets. There were no packs of sex-obsessed dogs roaming the streets. Nor were shelters filled with homeless puppies. In fact, about the only dogs in the Karlsruhe shelter were those dumped by Americans before returning to the States.

When I got home to the US, my 5-year old dog developed a uterine infection and was spayed. “Not to worry,” her vet told me, “She won’t change at all.” Within 6 weeks, this very high energy dog went from eating 10 cups of Eukanuba a day to only 2. Prior to spaying, we had never worried about maintaining her weight. Now we began a lifelong effort to keep her lean yet still satisfied. Within a year, my previously wash-and-wear dog developed a horrible coat that mildewed…literally. Despite regular grooming and bathing, the stench was so bad that we had to shave her so all of us could be in the same room.

By 1998, I was seriously questioning the party line that spaying and neutering were best for all dogs. How could all of Europe not castrate their dogs if it was essential to their health and mental well being? Why were my breeding dogs living into their teens while some of the pet dogs that I sold dying of cancer before 10? Why did my retired, spayed girls suddenly turn into hairy, chow hounds, looking for food everywhere and anywhere while I attempted to keep them slim and clean?

At the same time, I saw the cancer rate in golden retrievers climb. My gut told me there was a connection between our diligence in spaying and neutering all pets and the rates of hemangiosarcoma, lymphosarcoma and osteosarcoma in goldens. By 2000, I stopped requiring Gaylan’s pets to be spayed or neutered. By 2008, I made my warranty contingent on the dog remaining intact until at least 2 and preferably beyond. I started talking to my performance and pet owners, asking them to never neuter their boys and to only spay the girls after 4 years. In most cases, these loving owners were caught in a battle between me and their vet. Me, a lowly breeder, begging them to leave their dog intact and their vet telling them their dog would die of cancer if they did.  Most followed their vet’s advice.

My performance owners were also caught between the American Kennel Club and me. Although a dog breeding registry, the AKC only allows bitches in season to compete in bench shows and tracking tests. Once in heat, girls must be withdrawn from all other events, often with no reimbursement of entry fees as if the owner had made an egregious error. I have lost thousands of dollars over the years because of this regulation. Many of my owners have spayed their girls rather than face not only the financial loss but the disruption in their competition schedules.

Flyer in agility

Due to AKC regulations, performance owners must choose between leaving their girls intact and showing them

Over the last 10 years, a trickle of research has hinted that dog owners have been sold a bill of goods regarding the health benefits of spaying and neutering.  Despite the efforts of these researchers, the veterinary community has ignored or even hindered the publication of these studies.

Yesterday, the most mainstream and compelling evidence thus far was released! A team of prominent University of California at Davis researchers published the results of a study on golden retrievers supporting my fears. They compared three categories of dogs, those neutered early (before 12 months), neutered late (after 12 months) and left intact (never neutered), across a number of orthopedic diseases and cancers common in goldens. Neutered animals had higher rates of EVERY DISEASE studied except hemangio in males, where the rates were equal! Here are just a few of the other results:

  • Hip Dysplasia. Ten percent of early-neutered males were diagnosed with hip dysplasia, double the occurrence in intact males.
  • Cranial Cruciate Ligament Tear. There were no cases of cranial cruciate ligament tears in intact males or females, but in early-neutered males and females the occurrences were 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
  • Lymphosarcoma. Almost 10 percent of early-neutered males were diagnosed with lymphosarcoma, three times more than intact males.
  • Hemangiosarcoma. The percentage of hemangiosarcoma cases in late-neutered females was about 8 percent, four times more than intact and early-neutered females.
  • Mast Cell Tumors. There were no cases of mast cell tumors in intact females, but the occurrence was nearly 6 percent in late-neutered females.

Read the study yourself at Neutering Dogs: Effects on Joint Disorders and Cancers in Golden Retrievers. My gratitude to PLOS ONE and the authors for making this entire paper available for free to all of us!  As a result of this paper, I will continue to challenge the status quo and raise money to fund quality research like this into dog health.

What do you question most about the care of your dog?

Spay-Neuter References

Farhoody, Parvene and M. Christine Zink. 2010. Behavioral and Physical Effects of Spaying and Neutering Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris), accessed at http://www.vizslacanada.ca/SNBehaviorBoneDataSnapShot.pdf.

Sanborn, Laura J. 2007. Long-Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay / Neuter in Dogs.  Accessed at http://www.naiaonline.org/pdfs/LongTermHealthEffectsOfSpayNeuterInDogs.pdf

Torres de la Riva, G., B. Hart, et al. 2013. “Neutering Dogs: Effects on Joint Disorders and Cancers in Golden Retrievers” PLOS ONE.  Available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0055937.

Waters, David. 2009.  A Healthier Respect for Ovaries, accessed at http://www.gpmcf.org/respectovaries.html.

Waters DJ, Kengeri SS, Clever B, et al: “Exploring the mechanisms of sex differences in longevity: lifetime ovary exposure and exceptional longevity in dogs.” Aging Cell October 26, 2009.  Article available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805875/.

Zink, M. Christine. 2005. Early Spay-Neuter Considerations for the Canine Athlete: One Veterinarian’s Opinion.  Accessed at http://www.caninesports.com/uploads/1/5/3/1/15319800/spay_neuter_considerations_2013.pdf

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