I’m an American. Where I live, spaying or neutering your dog is seen as the default—it’s as much a given as buying a collar and tag. In many shelters, it’s impossible to adopt a dog without first getting them “fixed,” so to speak. But why should we fix what isn’t broken? It’s proven, at this point, that leaving a dog’s endocrine (hormonal) system intact keeps their bodies and brains healthy. Full spays or neuters often cause anxiety and aggression, inhibit learning, and cause orthopedic issues. Hormones are vital to the proper functioning of any creature’s body, including our own! So why should we put our dogs through invasive, painful, unnecessary procedures they can’t consent to, with permanent effects they’d never want? The answer is, we shouldn’t.
Unfortunately, at the same time, there is still a kernel of validity to the other side of the issue at hand: it is true that in the society we have wrought, it often is a very bad idea to let dogs reproduce. Many dogs are inbred by humans and deal with genetic health issues they’d pass down to their puppies, and if you can’t keep them, shelters are already overflowing. It’s frankly inhumane to allow dogs to be born into a life of pain and discomfort, or to chance them being euthanized at a shelter that just doesn’t have the funding to keep them. So how do we reconcile these two conflicting sides when it comes to making the choice to spay or neuter?
The truth is, there are more options out there than either “fixing” your dog or leaving them intact. A number of less invasive procedures exist, with little to no impact on your dog’s happiness and health. While a dog can’t consent to any medical procedure, it’s our responsibility as their guardians to make the right decisions for them and their potential future pups, not to mention the many dogs already in shelters who really don’t need more competition for adoption. So sometimes we must make the difficult choice to decide on their behalf, when they are unable to understand or decide for themselves. So let’s dive into a few healthier and kinder options we should consider when making that choice for our dogs.
First up, for our male dogs: alternatives to neutering.
It’s the default surgical sterilization option for human males, and that’s for a good reason: It’s an incredibly minor procedure with no side effects. Small incisions are made and the vas deferens, the little tube which permits sperm to leave the testicle, is severed. This effectively sterilizes the dog with little pain or risk of complications. The endocrine system still functions perfectly well, meaning it’s an unbeatable choice for preserving your dog’s physical and mental health. In the rare event that intact testicles do cause health issues for your dog down the line, neutering remains an option that can effectively stop these issues in their tracks if need be. It’s always better to wait and see if such a procedure is necessary—after all, we don’t castrate humans as a “preventative measure” for testicular cancer.
Unfortunately, despite how easy it is to perform a vasectomy, many American vets don’t offer the procedure, simply because it’s not “in fashion.” Although, I have heard of cases where a vasectomy was performed on request, even when not an officially offered service, so there’s no harm in asking around. In other regions of the world, such as Europe, it’s much easier to get this procedure done, due to the culture not being nearly as obsessed with “fixing” an animal as America is. Less invasive procedures like a vasectomy tend to be more readily available in places where the default is to not sterilize at all.
Zeuterin™ (currently unavailable)
This is a weird one. Zeuterin, called EsterilSol in the Central/South American countries in which it was also approved, is a one-time zinc injection administered to each testicle which kills sperm, and over time atrophies the testicles. This results in permanent sterilization. Dogs are typically kept awake but lightly sedated; sedation is primarily to keep the dog still for ease of injection, and very few dogs have any outward reaction to the procedure. The testicular atrophy results in testosterone concentrations being lowered by about half, and there isn’t much research around how much a decrease of that level would impact a dog’s health.
In most cases, I would only recommend Zeuterin if you’ve tried and failed to find a vet willing to perform a vasectomy, and the dog interacts with unsterilized females.
(NOTE: Zeuterin is currently unavailable, but this section has been included for educational purposes, and in case of future availability of the chemical formula by the same or other manufacturers.)
Now, for female dogs: alternatives to spaying.
This procedure can be pricier than a spay. Despite how minor it is, it requires more finesse. Incisions in the abdomen are made, and the fallopian tubes are removed. This leaves the ovaries and the uterus but prevents pregnancy by keeping eggs from reaching the uterus. This would be the female equivalent of a vasectomy: a minimally invasive procedure that maintains hormone levels, with the least possible alteration done to the dog’s reproductive organs. For the same reasons as a vasectomy, this is a more commonly available procedure in Europe. Because the endocrine system and uterus are both undisturbed, a dog who has had a tubal ligation will still go into heat, as well as go through a period of bleeding beforehand. You can use dog diapers to protect your carpeting and furniture during this stage.
While there’s little risk of complications from the surgery itself, one big risk that’s left is pyometra. Pyometra is an infection of the uterus that affects nearly one in four unspayed female dogs, and will kill if left untreated. Treatment is typically a full spay, which will cost, at the very least, twenty times more for a dog with pyometra. Different breeds have different risk levels for pyometra, so if you’re considering this as an option, make sure to do research on your dog’s specific breed to know how safe it would be for them to keep their uterus.
This procedure is the most similar to a traditional spay or neuter out of all the options we’ve discussed. Like a traditional spay, the uterus is removed, but unlike a traditional spay, the ovaries are maintained. Like with tubal ligation, hormone levels are unaffected, which means the dog will still enter heat, but due to the lack of a uterus, bleeding does not occur beforehand.
Unfortunately, the freedom from doggy diapers comes at a cost: this is a much more invasive, and therefore much riskier, procedure. Risks can range from hemorrhaging to lifelong incontinence. Even pyometra can still sometimes happen after a spay, whether or not the ovaries are retained—this is called stump pyometra, and occurs when a small portion of the uterus is left behind. All these downsides are still present in a traditional spay though, so if you must sterilize your female dog, it’s best to at least let them keep their ovaries.
For a male dog I would recommend, hands down, a vasectomy. There’s practically no downside to it, so long as you can find a vet to do it. If you can’t, Zeuterin is a better alternative than a traditional neuter, should it be available. When it comes to female dogs, the situation is more complicated, and I would highly recommend doing research on your dog’s individual breed to know what would be best for them—although if it’s a spay your dog needs, an ovary sparing one will avoid the hormonal health issues caused by a traditional spay.
Hormones help keep your dogs happy and healthy, don’t take them away without reason!
Article written by Reign (May 2023)
Find them at https://twitter.com/zeta_yena
Questions, comments or concerns? Check out the discussion thread on ZooCommunity or join our Discord server!