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What's the right age to spay or neuter your dog? Here’s what to know

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In the United States today, it’s common for dogs and cats not meant for breeding purposes to be spayed (ovariohysterectomy) or neutered (castration). In fact, 78% of dog-owning households have spayed or neutered their canine companions, according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2019-2020 National Pet Owners survey.

This near-routine practice was a result of veterinarians and animal shelters working together to reduce the number of unwanted animals that would be euthanized. Currently, Statista estimates that 6.5 million animals enter U.S. animal shelters each year; of that number, about 1.5 million are euthanized.

Although euthanasia has decreased over the last decade, there remains a strong case for routine spay/neuter to further reduce the number of unwanted animals and unnecessary euthanasia in this country.

But when is the earliest your dog can be spayed/neutered? Here’s what to know:

Updated research

The spay and neuter usually takes place at a very young age for pets, often at 4-6 months. However, that may not be the best age to do it. The relationship between sex hormones and canine health was not considered in the earliest spay/neuter campaigns. Fixing that young of a dog may have affected their health.

Research conducted by the University of California, Davis, reveals that for some dog breeds, neutering and spaying can increase the risks of certain health conditions such as joint disorders, cranial cruciate rupture and some cancers.

Age and breed

Sex hormones are important in the development of any animal; they affect psychological development as well as the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and the immune systems.

Different breeds and sizes of dogs mature at different ages, which means early spay/neuter may not be bad for all dogs. The wide margin of maturation of dogs varies considerably — toy breed dogs are sexually mature as early as 6-9 months old.

However, large and giant breeds may mature as late as 16-18 months old; these breeds generally have more to risk in future health conditions when spayed or neutered too early.

Your role as owner

The American Veterinary Medical Association “promotes the professional judgment of the veterinarian in developing an informed, case by case assessment of each individual patient, taking into account all the potential risks and benefits of spay/neuter.”

As a veterinarian, I believe “6 months of age” should no longer be the guideline for spay/neuter age, but rather it should be tailored to each individual dog, especially for large or giant breeds. An age of 6-9 months may be appropriate for neutering or spaying a toy or small breed, but a large or giant breed may need to wait until they are more than a year old.

If you have a purebred dog, your breeder may be able to provide valuable insight, as well. Then, consult your vet on spay/neuter timing based on your dog’s breed or breed type, sex and potential future medical concerns.

It is also important to understand that, often, the earlier these procedures are done, the easier the surgery is for the veterinarian and the easier the recovery for the patient. For female dogs, don’t spay them while they are going through their heat cycle, as that may exacerbate bleeding.

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