Training and fieldwork creates a special kind of bond between a dog and its owner. But our four-legged friends often find themselves in situations where they need your help. Our new Ask A Vet series delivers advice directly from a professional, working veterinarian. Have a question about your dog? Shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll dig into the concern.
“My GWP just turned two years old and rumors around the bird dog community state this is the time to preform the snip snip treatment. From what I hear, this is the peak of his hormone and body development – but I want to make sure I get professional feedback before I make my decision.
I’m on the fence about breeding him later, but I still want to know all the facts as I move forward.” -Matt Hardinge
Discussion of when or whether to spay or neuter a bird dog comes up often with clients, usually during a pup’s first vet visit. Amid comments about sharp deciduous teeth, crate training, and our shared love of puppy breath, these new owners inevitably lean on my expertise to help make sense of the conflicting information they’ve heard regarding the pros, cons, and timeline for spaying and neutering.
Understandably so—it’s complex, and the complexity lies primarily in the fact that there’s simply no single, correct answer for every owner and hunting dog. The decision to spay or neuter is all about mitigating risk. As a veterinarian, I strive to provide clients with all the scientific information I can to support their particular situation. However, the body of evidence can appear contradictory and provides few clear-cut answers.
Just so we’re all on the same page, the most common “spay” procedure in North America is an ovariohysterectomy, wherein a veterinarian surgically removes both ovaries and the uterus. Neutering involves the removal of the testicles, which eliminates a male dog’s ability to produce sperm and testosterone, a sex steroid responsible for libido, leg-lifting, and occasional fisticuffs with other males. Both these procedures are very safe in the short term.
Obesity, Joint Disease, and Cancer
There is compelling research linking spay and neuter with higher risk of joint disease. This correlation should be of particular interest to bird dog owners, as a blown ACL or early osteoarthritis can bring a premature end to your pup’s hunting career. Research is also emerging showing a link to increased incidences of certain types of cancers in specific hunting dog breeds when spayed or neutered young.
Additionally, the sex hormones produced by the ovaries and testicles play a significant role in regulating metabolism, and I commonly counsel bird dog owners about the risk of obesity in their newly spayed or neutered hunting companions.
The altered bird dog will need far fewer calories in the offseason than their intact counterparts to maintain an athletic physique. I can easily point to obesity and its link to joint disease and chronic inflammation as the single biggest contributor to early retirement in hunting dogs.
Mammary Tumors and Uterine Disease
Like humans, dogs are prone to malignant breast cancer. If a female is spayed prior to her first heat cycle (somewhere between 6 and 9 months old), her risk of developing these tumors is extremely low. Females that are never spayed or spayed later in life have a significantly higher risk of these tumors emerging as they age.
Intact females, particularly those who are not used for breeding, are at high risk for developing pyometra, which is a potentially life-threatening infection of the uterus.
The treatment often involves spaying, but at a much higher cost, greater risk, and longer recovery than the traditional procedure performed on young, healthy patients. Conversely, females that are spayed early have a significant risk of developing urinary incontinence as they age. The sphincters that allow females to voluntarily release urine when they pee are controlled, in part, by estrogen produced in the ovaries.
I’ve yet to see an older, intact male dog that didn’t struggle with prostate issues. The organ lies next to the urinary bladder and surrounds the urethra, and just like in humans, it continues to grow throughout life in the presence of testosterone.
Over time, the enlargement of the prostate (generally referred to as benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH) impacts the flow of urine, leading to dribbling around the house. The disease can progress to straining to defecate as the prostate continues to grow. In severe cases, BPH can lead to complete blockage of the urethra and ultimately, death. On a positive note, intact males have a much lower incidence of certain prostate tumors than their neutered counterparts.
Finding a Balance
The majority of hunting dogs spend much of the year at home as a companion. I try to strike a balance between exposing them to serious health risks later in life and the benefits of utilizing those hormones to help them reach full physical maturity. ‘
I often recommend letting female bird dogs have one heat cycle before spaying to reduce the risk of urinary incontinence down the road, assuming the owners are comfortable with the risk of pregnancy during that first heat.
For males, I recommend owners push back their neuter to 18- to 24-months old, assuming everyone in the family is comfortable with marking, sniffing, and a little bravado. The delayed surgery allows for the development of traditional male physique driven by testosterone’s role in proper muscle, bone, and joint development. Males prone to aggression should go to the chopping block earlier and be excluded from any breeding program.
There remains a spirited debate among bird dog enthusiasts as to whether keeping a dog intact maximizes its prey drive, and thus its utility as a hunting companion. I’d like to emphasize that absolutely no scientific evidence exists to support the idea that intact animals make better hunters.
The desire to find birds comes from between the ears, not between the legs. The instinct to point, retrieve, and pursue game lies deep in their DNA and exists irrespective of the presence of reproductive hormones.