The Ethics and Responsibilities of Spaying and Neutering

By John Cargill, M.A., M.B.A., M.S. and Susan Thorpe-Vargas, M.S., Ph.D.

There are many good reasons to alter your companion pet, but the question that lingers is when is the best time?

Early spay and neutering is an indelicate, controversial and emotionally charged subject at best. Should you surgically render your dog(s) incapable of reproducing? If so, when? The answers to these questions vary depending upon the situation. In ou r culture, castration (neutering) has such negative connotations that many are reluctant even to consider such an option, even though the financial costs and risks involved are much lower than spaying. On the other hand, spaying, similar to the human hyst erectomy, generally is considered routine. In this article we examine the medical, financial, social and ethical aspects involved and the responsibilities that should be embraced by parent breed clubs, local dog clubs and registries such as the American K ennel Club.

Ethical, Social and Financial Benefits Of Neutering

Every year U.S. shelters euthanize between 11 and 19 million cats and dogs,#1 and the pet population continues to grow. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 2,500 to 3,000 dogs and cats are born every hour.2 From these statistic s we can glean: 1) there are too many dogs being bred, 2) too many dogs are placed with marginal owners and 3) dogs have joined the ranks of disposable commodities in our society.

There are many considerations to take into account when discussing spaying and neutering animals. Among the most important are the ethical, financial and social responsibilities of the greater public.

Ethical - Is it right to put unwanted dogs down as if their lives have little or no meaning or value? Does a dog, as a potential pet, have such intrinsic merit that its life becomes important to society?

Although both authors feel dogs are should be categorized as livestock, we believe that as pets, companions and helpers, dogs should be placed in a special category of livestock because of their contributions to humanity. For those who would say the contribution of companionship is minor compared with the contribution of animals to the human food chain that gives life, we counter with the concept that animals part of the human food chain are commodities whereas companions of any species rarely, i f ever, are. Therefore, we claim there is a moral imperative to address the problem of unwanted dogs with appropriate spay and neuter policies for all but breeding stock animals. If putting one dog down can be considered bad, how much worse is it to have to put many times that down? It has been estimated that one pregnant female in six years together with her offspring could produce an astounding total of 67,000 dogs.3

Financial -The cost of running humane shelters and animal control programs nationally is tremendous. With approximately more than 6,000 shelters, financial estimates run from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars each year.4 Included in those estimates are costs for animal control officers, shelter administration, general operations and facilities. None of this comes cheaply. Costs for animal control facilities usually are born through taxation and through animal licensing fees. In t he case of privately funded shelters, support comes from a lot of donations.

Is it fair that nondog owners and responsible dog owners should shoulder the burden of animal control costs and shelter costs? Probably not, but who said it had to be fair? Would it be more fair if dog owners beared the entire cost? Probably so, if and only if all dog owners contributed equally, but our country has been unable to devise any way, given the current legal and political climate, to ensure all dog owners contribute equally.

Whose burden is it?

Nationally, we suspect many more dogs are unlicensed than licensed. Some municipal and county jurisdictions have become oppressive in their licensing requirements with the result that many dog owners just don't bother anymore.
While the intent of local ordinances is to solve a problem, more often than not it is the highly visible dog fancier living in a residential area that is targeted. Yet, it is not these folks who have the stray dogs; it is not these folks giving away puppies out of a cardboard box in the local supermarket parking lot to marginal would-be dog owners. Furthermore, it is not these folks who are breeding litters so their children can witness and understand the miracles of birth and of life. Although some dog fanciers may contribute to the problem, we safely can say that as a group, they are not the root or principal cause.

Even so, it is not that unusual for purebred animals to be discarded. Almost every breed has some type of national or local rescue program. Stray dogs constitute a community health hazard, too, and thus cannot be ignored by any responsible commun ity leadership. The problem is shared by all but caused by whom?

What Are The Medical Ramifications?

Medical questions concerning prepubertal gonadectomy (early spay/neuter at between 7 and 8 weeks of age) only recently have been addressed by peer reviewed studies. A leader in the early spay and neuter movement has been the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston.

The hospital mainly was concerned about the use of anesthesia, special surgical techniques, hypothermia and post-surgical complications of the surgery in neonates. In partnership with its shelter, Angell developed definitive procedures and protoc ols for safely dealing with the very young animal. It is surprising, but the studies showed the neonates actually did better and had fewer complications than older animals. (#5) Additional studies are needed, however, to evaluate the long-term results and complications from this type of surgery.6#

There also are some specific questions and concerns being raised about the effects of early spaying caused by other research. Although no animal studies are available yet, some human research shows bone mass in young girls is seriously compromise d if appropriate sex hormones are not available. (#7) This would increase the chance of stress fractures later in life, but one cannot assume this would affect canines the same way. Another long-term concern was incontinence in the s payed female, in that primary sexual characteristics were not as large or as well-developed among the early spay and neutered group.#8 The authors know of at least two studies that are addressing these issues. #9

Although the answers are not in yet on the full effects of spaying and neutering, research shows there are some definite outcomes:

Physiological Effects of Altering.

It does appear, however, that excitability and activity levels may be measurably increased in the castrated dog; however, no such finding has been made in the case of the spayed bitch.10# Closure of growth plates in the long bones is delayed measurably in the neutered dog, with the result that long bones continue growing past the normal end of growth. While neutered dogs and spayed females will grow taller than their intact counterparts, the additional length of long bone is negligible.#11 Probably the most significant physiological change in both spaying and neutering is lower metabolic rate. Spayed and neutered animals thus have a tendency to gain weight.12-16

Psychological Effects of Altering.

Contrary to popular opinion, a spayed or neutered dog does not become a "wimp." Don't take our word for it. Go out and challenge an altered male of a breed noted for its guarding and territorial instincts and find out for yourself.

The noticeable psychological change is that the neutered males will not go bonkers over the females in season, and spayed females will not be exciting the males. For animals that will not be used for breeding, the argument can be made that they w ill be happier and better off neutered or spayed. An added advantage is that if a bitch is spayed before reaching sexual maturity, the incidence of mammary cancer is diminished significantly. 17,18

Our Responsibility To The Dogs

Now that we've established pet overpopulation is a social problem and spaying and neutering can ease the ills, what about humankind's responsibility to its canine companions and what can we do to stop the problem before it starts?

The answer is to breed only the best dogs. Is it ethical to breed other than the healthiest and best animals? To do so is to cause predictable genetic disease, pain and suffering in future generations of dogs. This practice probably was not envis ioned when "dominion over all the animals of the earth" was written. Without the pressures of natural selection favoring survival of the fittest, humans have the ability to program in a range of genetically transmitted diseases, such as canine h ip dysplasia, hypothyroidism, von Willebrand's disease, progressive retinal atrophy and others, that have become prevalent.

The authors believe and encourage those who breed or own dogs to alter all but their breeding stock and to screen that stock for genetic problems. Any animal determined to have a serious genetically transmitted disease should be removed immediate ly from breeding consideration and altered.

What else can be done? Let's take a look at the role of individual breeders, commercial breeders and retail pet stores.

Individual breeders. Responsibility lies with breeders to evaluate their animals and the puppies they sell. Breeders should produce only the number of litters they can be sure to place in good homes and consider spay/neuter contracts. AKC has a w onderful program for supporting spay/neuter contracts we advise they check out.19 However, if breeders spayed or neutered their pet-quality puppies before they went to their new homes, contractual compliance wouldn't be necessary.

Commercial breeders.

It is easy to take potshots at commercial breeders and to call them puppy mills. Some certainly are puppy mills run under deplorable conditions; others are well-managed agricultural activities. Until such time as dogs lose their status as agricul tural commodities, puppy mills will compete with hobby breeders for the same customers. By breeding only the best, fanciers may put pressure on commercial breeders to perform to a higher standard, which they will have to do in order to compete. Public awa reness at the pet store level is beginning to cause commercial breeders to select their breeding stock more carefully and to influence local legislators to enact puppy lemon laws.

Retail stores.

People in large numbers still buy puppies from pet stores, and many of them are satisfied customers. It is the rare occasion a pet store owner discourages a buyer from purchasing a pup because he or she was unsure it would fit into the buyer's li festlye. Retail stores have a tremendous need for speed in placing puppies because they lose their appeal after only a few weeks in the store. Various ordinances have been passed in many localities and states prohibiting very young puppies in pet stores, but this has increased the pressure on the retail store to sell to anyone who walks in the door with a sufficient amount of money in hand whether or not he or she should have a puppy.

We doubt this is going to change. Until society certifies humans for parenthood, it is doubtful there will be a certification for dog ownership other than, "Do you have enough money to buy this dog?" With this said, we believe the retai l store does have a moral obligation to the puppies it sells as well as a fiduciary obligation to its owners and investors. See Figure 1 for statistics extracted from the 1996 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.20 No distinction was made between purebred registered dogs and others, but we can conclude that the majority of dogs sold through pet stores are purebred because that is where the profit margin lies.

Limitations In Competition?

Many dog lovers want a purebred dog or there would not be so many people involved in the fancy, and puppy mills_a major source of purebred dogs_would not continue to exist. Registries such as the United Kennel Club and the AKC and the parent bree d clubs, by virtue of their declaring what is or is not a purebred dog and whether or not it may or may not compete in group and Best in Show competition, traditionally have excluded spayed and neutered animals from those higher levels of competition.21,2 2 If we decided only breeding stock should be left reproductively intact, the majority of competitors would be altered instead of the other way around.

AKC regulations do allow the competition of spayed and neutered animals in many field and performance events.#23 However, some anomalies exist according to the parent breed club's wishes: Beagles 24 and Basset Hounds #25 must be intact for field trials, and in lure coursing, spayed/neutered animals may compete, but monorchid and cryptorchid dogs may not compete.26 If the AKC and other registries would open up all competition to spayed or neutered animals, there would be less reason to keep animals intact.

What Is The Answer?

There are no easy or quick solutions to the problem of unwanted dogs numbering in the millions. Lemon laws may help increase the health of both puppy mill and hobby breeder puppies, thus reducing the number abandoned to their fate at shelters for health reasons. To address this situation, the HSUS once proposed a national breeding ban for dogs and cats. It since has backed off from that position and is concentrating on spay and neuter programs, which appear to be working, albeit slowly, throughou t the United States. Veterinarians for some years now have been donating time to spay and neuter clinics.

Given the legal system, our current views of democracy and our understanding of "dominion" over animals, and America's general rejection of Gestapo tactics, it only is going to be through educating the public about the overpopulation pr oblem and the fate of animals at shelters and by restricting breeding to the numbers of animals the market can bear that the excess will be trimmed. Spay and neuter programs are a very good start.

There are so many unwanted dogs in the United States that the humane shelters have been overflowing for years. As dog fanciers we have the responsibility to breed only the most fit animals and to breed only a quantity that the market will bear. A ny increases above market demand will result in more dogs being sent to shelters for slaughter, however humanely it may be done.

The veterinary profession also plays an essential role in addressing the problem of pet overpopulation. It seems that surgical neutering is the only viable option, but when that surgery should take place is still a controversial issue among clini cians. Medically, there is no reason not to spay and neuter; the only question is "When?" Costs of spaying and neutering are minimal. Only by reducing the number of animals capable of breeding will we be able to reduce the excess dog population and the obscene numbers of animals put to death.


1. "National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy," National Shelter Census:1994 results, Fort Collins, Colo., pp.1-2.

2. The Humane Society of the United States. Close-up Report. Washington, D.C., 1983.

3. HSUS Web site page, Pet Population Fact Sheet, 1997,

4. John Snyder, Society of Animal Welfare Administrators, personal communication, October 1 and 17, 1997.

5. A.M. Faggella and M.G. Aronsohn, "Evaluation of Anesthetic Protocols for Neutering 6-to14-week-old Pups," Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol. 205. No. 2., July 15, 1994, pp. 308-314.

6. Lisa M. Howe," Short-term Results and Complications of Prepubertal Gonadectomy in Cats and Dogs," Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol. 211, No. 1, July 1, 1997. PAGES??

7. M.P. Warren MP and J. Brooks-Gunn, "Lack of Bone Accretion and Amenorrhea: Evidence for a Relative Osteopenia in Weight-bearing Bones," Journal of Clinical Endochronology and Metabolism, Vol. 72, No. 4, April 1991, pp. 847-853.

8. K.R. Salmeri, M. Bloomberg, S.L. Scruggs and V. Shille, "Gonadectomy in Immature Dogs: Effects on Skeletal, Physical, and Behavioral Development," Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol. 198, No. 7 , April 1991, pp. 1193-1203.

9. Ann Marder, D.V.M., Boston, and Tom Lane, D.V.M., Ph.D., University of Florida, Veterinary School of Medicine, Gainesville, Fla., personal communications, September 1997.

10. Salmeri.

11. Ibid.

12. S.W. Crane, "Occurrence and Management of Obesity in Companion Animals," Journal of Small Animal. Practice, Vol. 32, No. 11, pp. 275-282.

13. C. Sloth, "Practical Management of Obesity in Dogs and Cats, "Journal of Small Animal Practice, 1992,33:178-182 ??

14. R.S. Anderson, "Obesity in the Dog and Cat," in C.S.G. Grunsell and F.W.G. Hill (eds), The Veterinary Annual, John Wright & Sons Ltd., 1973, pp. 182-186.

15. K.A. Houpt, et al., "Effect of Sex and Reproductive Status on Sucrose Preference, Food Intake and Body Weight of Dogs," Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 1979,174, pp.083-1085??

16. M.V. Root, S.D. Johnnston and P.N. Olson, "Effect of Prepuberal and Postpuberal Gonadectomy on Heat Production Measured on Indirect Calorimetry in Male and Female Domestic Cats," American Journal of Veterinary Researc h, Vol. 57, No 3, March 1996, pp.375-374.

17. R. Schneinder, "Comparison of Age, Sex and Incidence Rates in Humans and Canine Breast Cancer," Cancer, Vol. 26, 1970, pp 419-426.

18. R. Schneinder, C.R. Dorn, and D. Taylor, "Factors Influencing Canine Mammary Cancer Development and Post-surgical Survival Rates," Journal of the National Institutes of Cancer, Vol. 45, 1969, pp. 1249-1251.

19. AKC Registration Regulations, spay/neuter contracts, "A written agreement between buyer and seller to the effect that AKC registration papers will not be furnished to the buyer until the seller has been furnished with evid ence that the dog has been neutered or spayed is acceptable under our Rules." To order a copy of the spay/neuter contracts or any of the the AKS's books of rules and regulations, contact them at 5580 Centerview Drive, Raleigh, N.C. 27606; (919) 233-9 767.

20. American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 255 Glenville Road, Greenwich, Conn. 06831;(800) 452-1225.

21. AKC Rules Applying to Dog Shows, 7/01/97, Chapter 11. "Dog Show Entries Condition of Dogs Affecting Eligibility," Section 8, Change in Appearance, "A dog which is blind, deaf, castrated, spayed, or which has been changed in appearance by artificial means except as specified in the standard for its breed, or a male which does not have two normal testicles normally located in the scrotum, may not compete at any show and will be disqualified except that a castrated male may be entered as Stud Dog in the Stud Dog Class except as specified in the standard for its breed, or a male which does not have two normal testicles normally located in the scrotum, may not compete at any show and will be disqualified except that a castrated male may be entered as Stud Dog in the Stud Dog Class and a spayed bitch may be entered as Brood Bitch in the Brood Bitch Class."

22. AKC Rules Applying to Dog Shows, 7/01/97, Chapter 11, "Dog Show Entries Condition of Dogs Affecting Eligibility," Section 8, Change in Appearance, "Neutered dogs and spayed bitches would be allowed to compete in Veterans Classes only at independent specialties and/or those all-breed shows which do not offer any competitive classes beyond Best of Breed."

23. AKC Obedience Regulations, 7/01/97, Chapter 1, "General Regulations," Section 16. Disqualification, Ineligibility, Excusals and Changes in Appearance of Dogs, "Spayed bitches, castrated dogs, monorchid or cryptor chid males, and dogs that have faults which would disqualify them under the standards for their breeds, may compete in Obedience Trials if otherwise eligible under these Regulations."

24. AKC Beagle Field Trial Rules, "Standard Procedures," 2-B.

25. AKC Field Trial Rules and Standard Procedures for Basset Hounds, "Standard Procedures," 2-B.

26. AKC Regulations for Lure Coursing Test and Trials, Chapter I, TITLE Section 3, Eligibility of Sighthounds, "Spayed and neutered hounds are eligible to participate. Monorchid and cryptorchid hounds are ineligible to partici pate."