While great progress has been made in reducing the number of pets entering shelters in the United States, it’s estimated there are still 5.8 million stray and unwanted pets in need of homes every year. One of the contributing factors is the number of unplanned litters of puppies and kittens. The easiest way to prevent an animal from becoming pregnant or siring a litter is spaying and neutering. Helping to reduce the number of homeless pets is just one of the many compelling reasons to spay or neuter your dog or cat.

The age at which dogs and cats can reproduce varies by breed and size. On average, a dog becomes sexually mature around six-nine months of age; for cats and rabbits, the average is five months of age. Once an animal is sexually mature, it begins to produce reproductive hormones. These hormones can affect an animal’s health and behavior. Spaying and neutering dogs and cats prior to sexual maturity not only helps prevent unwanted litters, it also can help keep your pet happy and healthy.

The most common reason animals are surrendered to shelters is behavior problems. While the cause of problematic behaviors is rarely simple, intact animals often display behaviors related to their reproductive hormones that would not occur if they were spayed or neutered. Examples of these unwanted behaviors include urine marking, roaming, and in-heat behaviors. Because behaviors often have instinctive and learned components, the earlier an animal is spayed or neutered, the more likely it is these behaviors will never occur.

While early spay and neuter can be beneficial behaviorally, it can also help prevent serious health issues. For female dogs and cats, spaying prior to the first heat cycle reduces the risk of mammary cancer, which is malignant in 50% of dogs and 90% of cats. Spaying also prevents female dogs and cats from developing a pyometra, which is a serious infection of the uterus. A pyometra is an emergency situation and can be fatal if not addressed quickly. Neutering male dogs and cats prevents testicular cancer as well as decreasing the likelihood of male-to-male aggression, lessening the chance of severe or life-threatening injuries due to fighting.

There are many myths surrounding spaying and neutering in dogs and cats, so it is important to speak with your veterinarian to understand the risks and benefits for your animal. One myth that’s been proven unfounded time and again is spaying or neutering causes animals to become obese. While reproductive hormones can influence an animal’s metabolism, these effects are minor compared to the importance of appropriate diet and exercise. Dogs and cats fed the right number of calories for their life stage and lifestyle can remain lean into old age.

Many people might be concerned about the potential risks associated with a puppy or kitten undergoing surgery. It’s important to keep in mind spays and neuters are some of the most common surgical procedures veterinarians perform. In addition, your veterinarian will conduct a thorough physical exam on your pet prior to anesthesia, and many veterinary clinics recommend or require pre-surgical blood work to screen for underlying conditions. Puppies and kittens recover much quicker from surgery than adult dogs and cats. Most animals will be eating, drinking, and acting normally just a few hours after surgery.

Multiple veterinary organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association and American Animal Hospital Association, recommend cats should be spayed or neutered by the age of five months. Dogs’ guidelines are less clear in part due to the range of onset of sexual maturity based on breed and size. Speaking with your veterinarian about when your puppy should be spayed or neutered should happen during your first wellness visit. This will help you and your veterinarian design the best plan for your dog.

Choosing to spay or neuter your dog or cat can impact many other lives. Allowing your pet to remain intact can affect their health and well-being, and can lead to more unwanted dogs and cats ending up in shelters. And if you’re looking for a new family member that has already been spayed or neutered, adopt a pet from a shelter!

About the author

Dr. Jen Wilson-Cohen - Veterinarian
Jen Wilson-Cohen

Dr. Jen Wilson-Cohen received her DVM degree from Washington State University. Her focus is on shelter medicine, and she has special interests in surgery, nutrition, and education. She shares her home with two dogs and two cats.

Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region
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