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12/12/12

FAQs and myths about dog neutering

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) and myths about neutering:

This section outlines some of the commonly held myths and misconceptions about neutering surgery and answers some of your commonly asked questions.

 Myth 1 - All desexed dogs gain weight (get fat).

I have previously discussed this topic in other sections of this page: it is a commonly held belief that is, quite simply, not true.

Studies have shown that neutered animals probably require around 25% less calories to maintain a healthy bodyweight than entire male animals of the same bodyweight do. This is because a neutered animal has a lower metabolic rate than an entire animal does. Because of this, what tends to happen is that most owners, unaware of this fact, continue to feed their neutered male dogs the same amount of food calories after the surgery that they did prior to the surgery, with the result that their pets become fat. Consequently, the myth of automatic obesity has become perpetuated through the dog-owning circles and, as a result, many owners simply will not consider desexing their dogs because of the fear of them gaining weight and getting diabetes and so on.


Author's note: The fact of the matter is that dogs will not become obese simply because they have been desexed. They will only become obese if the post-neutering drop in their metabolic rate is not taken into account and they are fed the same amount of food calories as an entire animal. Any weight gain that is experienced can be reversed through not feeding the pet as many calories and treats. 

Myth 2 - Desexed males lose their drive to herd, hunt and work.

Although this has yet to be proven, a lot of farmers, hunters and owners of guarding, sporting and working dogs will refuse to desex them out of the fear that their animals will no longer have any drive to do the work required of them. They believe that, without testosterone, the animal won't chase sheep; chase pigs; chase burglars; run races and so on.

As discussed in section 7c, however, many kinds of behaviours, including these herding, driving, guarding and predatory-type behaviours, are not mediated by testosterone at all. They are instead instinctive drives that have been built into the various breeds by genetic selection over centuries and which can be enhanced through the correct training of the animal. Removing the animal's testicles and therefore its testosterone should not really have any bearing on the animal's drive to do these instinctive, non-testosterone-fueled activities. 

One way to consider it is to look at the female of the species. Female dogs hunt and herd and drive and guard as well as male dogs do and yet they have no testicles and nowhere near as much testosterone as a male. They have less muscling, strength and stamina than a male animal does, however, and therefore they may not be as physically adept at certain tasks (e.g. bringing down wild pigs) as a male animal. Their drive to fulfill these tasks, however, is just the same, even if their physicality is not. 

Author's note: one could well argue that such a dog might work better if it does not have male hormonal urges distracting it from the task at hand.

Author's note: the only time that a male dog's herding, hunting etc. performance might be adversely affected by desexing is if the dog is allowed to get fat after desexing (point 8a). Fat, neutered dogs have less muscle-bulk, strength and stamina than an entire male animal and they may, therefore, not be as physically adept at performing certain tasks (e.g. bringing down wild pigs) as an intact male, however, their drive to fulfill these tasks will be just the same. 

Myth 3 - Without his testicles, a male dog won't feel like himself (i.e. he "won't be a man").

It is common these days for humans to attribute human feelings and emotions (e.g. love, sadness, grief and so on) onto their animals and, in doing so, make them out to be more human than they actually are. Pets have an understanding of concepts like being part of the pack and needing to behave to fit in with the pack and receive food. To then extrapolate their needy, cuddly behaviour, as many pet owners do, and claim that these animals act well-behaved and cuddle up to us as a sign of their "love" for us is probably a little far-fetched. Similarly, this testicle myth is another common example of human emotions being incorrectly attributed to our pets. What often happens is that, because the owner (often a large, burly guy with a large testicled dog) believes that he himself would feel incomplete and therefore "not a man" without his own testicles, then so will his dog feel the same way if his testicles are taken.

The fact of the matter is that dogs probably don't even notice that their testicles are missing. They certainly don't seem to be in any way depressed about it (as a human in the same situation would) and tend to go about their doggy business just the same as always once the procedure is performed. If dogs were truly depressed or worried about being neutered and not having their testes, there would be some sort of long term depression, shyness or behavioural change seen in them and this just does not seem to occur. 

Despite me telling you all this, if you are still concerned that your animal will not be "a man" after the neutering surgery is done, then consider getting your pet some testicular implants to replace the real testicles removed at surgery. Owners of show animals commonly have them put into their dogs' scrotums so that they seem more complete and pet owners can request these too. They cost a few hundred dollars on top of the normal costs of desexing. The prosthetic testicles are implanted at the time of castration and so, as far as the dog's appearance goes, nothing will have seemed to have changed after the surgery is done. Peace of mind.

Myth 4 - Male dogs need to have sex before being desexed.

No, no and no! Dogs do not need a sexual experience to be in any way complete either emotionally or behaviorally. Similar to the myth above (myth 3), this is a situation where human emotions and desires have been superimposed on top of what is best for the dog. Allowing the pet to have a sexual experience prior to desexing may well lead to some established behavioural problems developing that persist even after neutering has occurred (e.g. roaming, mounting and humping toys and other pets). The "experience" could also result in an unwanted litter of pups being born. 

You could argue that, from a human emotional viewpoint, it is cruel to let the dog experience the "pleasures of sex" only to then take it all away from him by desexing. Better for him to never know what it feels like because then he won't know what he's missing. 

Myth 5 - Male dogs should be allowed to father (sire) a litter before desexing.

Allowing a litter to be born simply because you feel that the 'dog should be allowed to be a father' is very irresponsible and just results in more and more unwanted, dumped puppies finding their way into pounds and shelters and waste-disposal units. 

Myth 6 - Vets just advise neutering for the money and not for my dog's health.

Whilst it is true that desexing, along with vaccinations, worming and flea prevention, is one of the main bread-and-butter activities of the veterinary profession, we do not advocate the procedure just for the money. Face it, if money and not the animal was all that we considered when making these decisions to operate or not, then vets in Australia (can't vouch for the rest of the world) would still be tail-docking and ear-docking pets and we would now be starting to see many veterinary surgeons dabbling in pointless cosmetic surgery to suit an owner's particularaesthetic tastes (as does occur overseas). If money was our only concern, veterinarians would not be now promoting 3-yearly vaccine regimens instead of the previously popular and more lucrative yearly vaccinations. 

Surgical procedures are not without risk to the animal (see section 6 on surgical complications) and, therefore, vets do not advocate surgical procedures, including desexing,if there is no benefit for that animal or society as a whole. The benefits must outweigh the risks. Vets advocate the desexing of male and female dogs for all of the population control, genetic disease control and medical and behavioural benefits previously discussed (section 2). 

Another thing to consider is that, by advocating the mass desexing of animals, veterinarians are essentially desexing themselves out of business. Fewer puppies around means fewer vaccinations and fewer clients. Veterinarians could also be making a lot more money out of all of the caesarean sections and dystocias (inability to give birth) and mammary cancers and testicular cancers that would be the result if we weren't pushing desexing so aggressively. 

FAQ 1 - Why won't my veterinarian clean my dog's teeth at the same time as desexing him?

Veterinarians the world over have a policy of not performing a "dirty" surgery at the same time as a "clean" surgery. 

A dirty surgery is a surgery or procedure whereby the tissues involved have a high level of bacterial contamination, such that many bacteria are likely to be released into the animal's bloodstream and surrounding tissues as a direct result of the surgical or medical procedure. Dentistry is a good example of this - when an animal gets its teeth cleaned, millions of bacteria from the teeth and gums are released into the animal's blood stream. 

A clean surgery is a surgery or procedure with minimal bacterial contamination risk. Desexing and orthopedic surgeries are common examples of clean surgeries.

The reason why veterinarians will not perform a dirty surgery (such as a dental scale and polish) at the same time as they will a clean surgery (e.g. desexing) is because of the risk that the bacteria from the dirty surgery will travel throughout the animal's bloodstream and lodge in the site of the clean surgery. This could result in infection setting up in the site of the clean surgery, which could be disastrous in situations like orthopedic operations and desexing surgeries, which are supposed to remain as sterile and bacteria-free as possible. 

FAQ 2 - Why shouldn't my vet vaccinate my dog while he is under anaesthetic?

In order for vaccines to work effectively, the animal needs to have a fully functional immune system that is capable of responding to the vaccination contents. See our great How vaccines work page for more details on the immune response to vaccination. 

The reason why most vets will not vaccinate an animal that is undergoing an anaesthetic procedure is because the animal's temperature will often fall to below normal levels when it is under an anesthetic. Since many of the body's immune cells do not work as well when body temperatures are very low, there is the risk that the vaccination might fail to induce the full immunological protective response if it is given to a cold animal. Hence the reason why vets don't vaccinate anesthetized pets. 

FAQ 3 - Is desexing safe? It's just a routine procedure isn't it?

There is no such thing as a routine or "safe" anaesthetic procedure, regardless of whether the procedure is elective or not. There is always the risk, albeit small, that a normal, healthy individual animal or human may not wake up from an anaesthetic process or that it will develop a potentially fatal complication from having had surgery or anaesthesia performed (e.g. renal failure). 

In the case of desexing, yes it is a "routine" procedure insofar as we vets perform hundreds of them every year. For the most part, the complications of the procedure are exceptionally low: very very few animals die or suffer severe, life-threatening complications as a result of neutering. To say that the procedure is perfectly safe, however, would imply that nothing bad can ever happen and this is simply not true. Section 6 of this page lists a whole string of operative and post-operative complications that can occur, some of which can be fatal. 

FAQ 4 - My veterinarian offered to do a pre-anaesthetic blood screening test - is this necessary?

As mentioned in an earlier section (section 6i), anaesthesia does drop the animal's blood pressure and place the animal's kidneys and liver under strain, both from the lower blood pressures and from the need to metabolise and excrete the drugs from the body. The pressure on and risk of damage to the kidneys and liver from an anaesthetic procedure is much greater if those organs (liver and kidneys) are already compromised by disease or scarring (old-age changes). 

The role of a pre-anaesthetic blood panel is to detect significant kidney and liver pathology before the animal has an anaesthetic so that the vet can decide upon safer, alternative drugs or anaesthetic strategies or decide to not do the procedure at all (e.g. if it elective), thereby reducing the risks of a pet succumbing to post-operative renal or liver failure. The reason that a blood test is crucial in detecting if any pathology (disease) exists is because the veterinarian often can not tell what is going on in your pet's liver or kidneys from a clinical exam alone. The pet may look totally fine on the examination table and yet have only a small bit of renal function remaining. All the owner may notice at home is that the animal is drinking more water than normal and even this might not be all that obvious. 

Most vets these days offer a pre-anaesthetic blood panel to all animals so that all owners have the option of checking their pet's kidneys and liver before any anaesthesia is done. Although this test is much more valuable in older animals (> 8 years old) because they are the age group most likely to have some degree of kidney or liver compromise, young animals may also benefit from pre-anaesthetic testing. Young animals are not immune from suffering the effects of acute renal failure after surgery. Certain breeds: e.g. Staffordshire Bull terriers (Staffies), English Bull Terriers, Shar Peis, Beagles, Basenjis, Cairn Terriers, Tibetan Spaniels, Dobermanns, Elkhounds, Samoyeds and many others are prone to various congenital renal defects. These animals are very likely to have some degree of renal compromise at a young age and this may first be picked up on a pre-anesthetic blood screen. 

So, as to the question, "Is pre-anaesthetic blood screening necessary?" - I would say yes. In animals over the age of 8 years, I would say that it is very necessary because these older animals commonly get organ dysfunction, which might only be detectable on a blood screening test. Diagnosing the problem before anaesthesia and taking it into account during anaesthesia may well prevent the animal from developing acute renal or liver failure after surgery. In animals under 8 years, I would say that blood screening is necessary, but more optional. Playing the odds, it is less common for an animal under 8 years of age to have severe liver or renal disease. However, if you are the kind of owner who wants to cover all of the safety bases for your pet, I would advise pre-anaesthetic blood screening in all animals that have an anaesthetic. This way, if your pet does happen to be one of the animals that has developed young-age kidney or liver issues, the problem will be detected prior to surgery commencing (it will also allow earlier diagnosis and treatment for the condition to start, which is beneficial for the prognosis). 

FAQ 5 - When is desexing not safe to do?

Desexing is not safe to perform on any animal which has a medical condition that precludes it from having a safe anaesthetic. Any disease or condition that results in compromise to the animal's heart beat, heart contractility, heart rhythm, respiratory function or ability to metabolise (break down) and excrete drugs may be exacerbated, perhaps terminally, by general anaesthesia. Examples of such diseases include: heart failure, heart arrhythmias, pneumonia, shock, sepsis (systemic infection, causing shock), renal failure, liver failure and many more. 

Any animal with a severe blood clotting disorder should not be operated on because it will not be able to clot its blood during the surgery and could well hemorrhage to death. Examples include: platelet disorders, platelet deficiencies, hemophilias A, B and C, vwD (von Willebrands disease) and rodenticide poisoning. 

Any animal with severely infected or diseased skin in the region of the surgical site should not be operated on. These animals are likely to have a high level of superficial bacteria and this could well result in wound infection and wound break down. 
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