I am getting increasing numbers of people finding me and inquiring about vasectomies and ovary-sparing spays. There are pros and cons to these procedures in place of traditional neuters and spays, and like most things, I think there should be different considerations for animals based on several factors such as age and breed. So let’s look at some factors and sum up some options so you can make an educated decision.
First, I will say I do more vasectomies than ovary-sparing spays, which I will discuss next. A vasectomy is done similar to that of a human male, where a piece of the spermatic cord is removed so that sperm made in the testicles cannot be transmitted to a female for reproduction. It’s a much more delicate surgery than a neuter (in which you remove the entire testicles), and the surgery itself takes about twice a long as a traditional neuter. Therefore, the dog is under anesthesia a bit longer, and the surgery generally costs more because of this. There are 2 small incisions rather than one, and there tends to be less swelling and bruising (again because it’s a more delicate procedure). The recovery time is the same as a traditional neuter – about 7-10 days.
Why do people request vasectomies? There is a lot of information out there right now and speculation that neutered animals can have increased joint problems and cancer. It makes sense that dogs (like humans) need natural hormones to grow properly and stay healthy. My perspective, reading the literature and also observing in my own animals and patients, is that EARLY neuter can impact proper growth of the long bones, setting the joints up for dysplasia and injuries, like elbow dysplasia and ACL tears. In my experience, this tends to be mostly true in dogs neutered very young (prior to 4 months of age) and dogs who have poor nutrition. In our practice, we recommend waiting to neuter male dogs until they are full grown (8 months for most small breeds, 1 year for medium to large breeds, and 18 months for giant breeds). I do a traditional neuter for 99% of my patients. I will offer a vasectomy for people who need to make sure their male cannot breed prior to these timeframes. It does not stop the testosterone production, so they still can have dominant-type male behaviors like picking fights and marking indoors, and they maintain a desire to breed, so they will still “tie-up” or mate a female in heat, they just cannot impregnate her. They also can sense a female in heat and run away from home looking for her. The good news about a vasectomy is that you can always go back and do a traditional neuter later if your dog is exhibiting any of these less-than-desirable behaviors. This is not the case, however, for a female who has had an ovary-sparing spay.
In an ovary-sparing spay, the uterus is removed, but the ovaries are left behind, which allows the female to keep her hormones for proper growth, but she cannot carry puppies. She will still go into heat twice a year, but will not have vaginal bleeding or discharge. Males will still sense her hormones and want to mate with her, and they can even “tie-up” with her, but she cannot become pregnant. Unlike a vasectomy, this type of spay is no easier or harder than a traditional spay. The procedure is very similar, but we leave the ovaries behind. There are two reasons I do not recommend this procedure over a traditional spay. First is that you cannot go back later and remove the ovaries easily. The ovaries are very tiny and located along the back next to the kidneys. The only way we can get to them is by locating the uterus and using it to pull the ovaries up and out. If we keep the ovaries, once we let them back into the abdomen, there are ligaments that pull it back down along the back. It becomes very difficult to find them later without a laparoscope. If you can find a vet to do a laparoscopic spay (and I do know of one practice in particular), they may be able to locate them without much excess trauma to your female. For most people, however, this brings on much more cost as well as a second round of surgery and anesthesia that, in my mind, does not provide much benefit. The second and more prominent reason I do not recommend this procedure is that the risk of breast or mammary cancer in dogs goes up exponentially for each heat cycle she has, whether or not there is a uterus present. Since a great majority of owners interested in this procedure are looking to prevent cancer, I cannot feel good about this option for them. Your average dog goes into heat at around 8 months of age. The standard recommendation is to spay at 6 months of age. In our practice, we try to give them the benefit of 6-8 weeks of additional natural growth and try to get them in for their spay at 7 ½ – 8 months of age. Alternatively, some pet owners (especially with large or giant breed dogs) will allow their females to go through one heat cycle only, thereby only minimally increasing the risk for mammary cancer, and allow them to be fully grown before spaying them at 1 year of age. The heat cycle generally lasts 2 weeks, which is a little inconvenient for most pet owners, but worthwhile for those who are fully committed to allowing their dog’s growth plates to close before the spay.
For me, I do not see an increased risk for joint disease or cancer in dogs who are neutered at 8-15 months. For the dogs who come into our practice already spayed or neutered very young, I do recommend a nutritional hormone product to help with proper bone and joint development, and I have so far been happy with the results. I have not yet seen any joint disease in those patients. For those who are primarily worried about cancer, I believe you will make far greater impact focusing on minimizing chemicals and maximizing nutrition. This is what we have observed in our practice. And you don’t have to ask special for this type of care, this is what we recommend to all patients who see us. It is our commitment every day to optimize the health of your pet and prevent diseases like cancer. Please let us know if you have further questions regarding vasectomies and ovary-sparing spays, or if you think your puppy could use nutritional and/or hormone therapy to maximize health after an early spay or neuter.
Dr. Nicole Sheehan