I will only briefly touch on the topic of overpopulation and overcrowded shelters—one of the most popular moral arguments in favor of desexing your pets. Worldwide, there is an enormous population of stray cats and dogs. Strays can pose an enormous threat and cause considerable damage to wildlife populations (both plants and animals) in addition to their contribution to the spread of parasitic infections and disease. Some people fail to acknowledge the fact that even if dogs and cats would have existed in the wild and caused some degree of these complications as natural parts of their lifecycle, the current global population of cats and dogs has far surpassed what would be its natural level without human intervention and human action. In other words, human intervention in the cat and dog populations has caused an unnaturally large number of cats and dogs to come into existence. Human action has been such that we have rapidly bred populations of cats and dogs, while simultaneously abandoning intact (not fixed) members of the cat and dog species. The release of an enormous population of intact male and female cats and dogs that were born and raised in captivity has largely contributed to an overly successful population of strays. Humans have directly caused the issue of a large stray population of these species. Higher number of strays naturally correlates to higher number of animals in our shelters and animal control facilities—therefore causing the rapid level of euthanasia that takes place on a daily basis. Desexing your pets is the number one most effective way to ensure you do not contribute to this cycle. Even if you are not the type of person who would ever abandon your intact pet, and even if your pet is strictly indoor, it IS possible for them to accidentally escape and mate—particularly when their behavioral and instinctive desire to mate will cause them to seek out these opportunities. Accidental release of intact pets still plays an enormous role in the overpopulation issue, oven without the owners even knowing that they were/are part of the problem. The issue of overpopulation and wildlife preservation ultimately come down to a value judgment, meaning you as an individual must look at the facts and make a decision as to what you think is or isn’t morally sound. What is less flexible to interpretation is the scientific reality that desexing pets provides certain benefits to your pet’s wellbeing and health, which we will discuss now.
I would like to discuss behavioral complications only in the context of their threat to your pet’s physical health. In other words, I don’t wish to merely tell you that desexing reduces aggression. What I DO wish to discuss is the fact that reduced levels of aggression lead to a lower frequency of injury in your pet. Many owners are not immediately aware of the risk to their pet’s health in terms of behavioral propensity towards territorial aggression, so I see value in at least addressing this topic briefly. Higher degrees of territorial aggression cause cats and dogs to be more likely to pick fights with other animals in order to secure territory. Cats and dogs will not only attempt to pick fights with other members of its species, but also OTHER species such as raccoons, opossum, coyotes, bob cats, mountain lions, etc. An intact pet is at risk for losing its life to a larger predator because of its aggressive and territorial tendencies. In addition to the threat to a pet’s life, the pet is also at risk for disease such as rabies or parasitic infection from battle injuries in the event your pet picks a fight. Secondary infection of wounds is also a viable concern. It should be noted, that pets that have lived for one year or longer without being fixed are more likely to have permanent behavioral tendencies. In other words, for example, fixing a male cat that is 2 years old because you dislike his spraying doesn’t guarantee the procedure will stop this behavior. More often than not, a cat that is older than a year will maintain its behavior after the neuter. The same is true for dogs and their behavioral tendencies (male and female). This means if you are someone who has concerns about behavioral complications revolving around certain pets such as: spraying, aggression, marking, howling, etc., then you are better off desexing your pet before the age of 1.
One enormously beneficial correlation to desexing your pet (in terms of its physical health) is in its reduced risk for cancer. Female cats and dogs, like humans, are susceptible to mammary cancer. It has been observed that if a female is spayed before her first estrus cycle (commonly referred to as “going into heat”) she faces a near zero percent chance for mammary cancer. After her first estrus cycle, her chances for mammary cancer increase to roughly 10%. After the second estrus cycle, a female faces close to a 1 in 4 chance for mammary cancer. The increasing correlation for mammary cancer after each successive estrus cycle has been a remarkable observation in the veterinary realm. Mammary cancer is more often than not a fatal occurrence in female cats and dogs, and discovering the benefit of decreasing its frequency via desexing has been a breakthrough discovery for female pet health.
In addition to cancer, female cats and dogs that aren’t spayed are at a high risk of pyometra. This is a very serious bacterial infection of the uterus that requires aggressive treatment with surgical intervention, and is often life threatening. The hormonal changes that happen in the female’s reproductive tract during each successive estrus cycle cause this secondary infection by inhibiting white blood cells from entering the uterus. This happens so that a male’s sperm may enter the female’s reproductive tract without being targeted by the female’s immune system to increase the likelihood of reproduction. White blood cells are crucial for immunity against infection and illness, so their inhibition in the uterus increases the likelihood for infection in this area. In addition to the low degree of immune response in the uterus, the uterine lining also thickens in preparation for pregnancy. If pregnancy does not occur through several rounds of estrus, the lining will continually get thicker and begin to form cysts. The thick, cyst-lined uterine lining secretes fluids and components that create the ideal environment for bacterial growth. These two factors, reduced immunity and a thickened wall, play key roles in promoting pyometra. It should be reiterated that this is a VERY serious condition and it occurs frequently in females that are not spayed. Their chances for pyometra increase with every round of estrus in which the female does not get pregnant. Less commonly experienced complications such as uterine and ovarian cancer can still pose a threat to your female pet’s health, and these complications are completely prevented by spaying. As a personal experience aside: I once assisted in the surgical removal of a dog’s uterus because she had a case of pyometra. The uterus had grown to roughly 16 times its healthy size—typically the uterus of a dog her size would range from 3-4 ounces, but her uterus had reached a whopping 4 pounds, which is frankly enormous. She was in a considerable amount of pain, and quite ill, but thanks to veterinary intervention she survived.
Similarly, as male dogs age, their prostate will enlarge over time in a condition called benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH). The prostate exposed to testosterone is more susceptible to infection, which can cause considerable pain and complications for your male dogs as well. This condition is not likely to be self-correcting, and instead requires invasive surgery and the neutering of your pet. Males are also subject to the possibility of testicular cancer, hernias, and tumors, all of which are reduced in frequency as a result of neutering your pet at a young age. Although male complications such as the ones listed above are less likely to occur than pyometra in females, males are definitely more likely to have dangerous behavioral complications and a propensity towards aggression that can lead to health and safety issues (as we discussed above). Males are often more territorial and more likely to pick fights.
Now that you are informed about the potential health and safety complications that can be reduced as a consequence of desexing your pet, I would like to just briefly let you know how a spay and a neuter are executed. The benefit to this education is only for the sake of awareness, because I know most people are not experienced in assisting or performing these procedures. The procedures are executed under general anesthesia while your pet is intubated (which means there is a breathing tube in the throat of your pet). Before intubation, your pet is given injection(s) to sedate them and assist in pain. Once sedated, the tube is inserted into your pet’s airway and immediate observations are made on your pet’s heart rate and oxygen levels (both of which are closely monitored through the duration of the procedure). Once intubation is successfully complete, anesthesia is delivered and the procedure can begin. The area of incision is shaved when necessary, and then sterilized with a chlorhexidine solution takes place. Chlorhexidine is a topical disinfectant and antiseptic. Once thoroughly sterilized (for 5 minutes or more) the incision can be made. To begin a spay, an incision is made inferior (below) the navel into the abdomen, and most often the removal of the ovaries and entire uterine structure is executed through this incision site. The incision is stitched closed with 2 layers of sutures under the skin that dissolve over time, and the outmost layer of skin is sealed with veterinary, surgical-grade glue or stitches/staples (most often glue is used). To being a neuter, the skin of the scrotum (the skin that encases the testicles) is opened with an incision and the testicles are completely removed through the incision site. Often the incision site on a male cat is small enough to not actually require stitches, whereas a male dog requires stitches under the skin and a topical glue to seal the skin (similar to the spay). Anesthesia is cut off, and the tube is removed from your pet’s airway. They are then closely monitored until they are fully awake and stable.