The Peculiar Politics Of Pet Sterilization
People have all sorts of different opinions regarding sterilization in pets, some for it, some against.
No longer is the supremacy of neutering at 6 months the universally accepted truth it once was, Dr. Patty Khuly says.
Along the way, however, I’ve become something of a magnet for people who espouse peculiar political viewpoints on the subject of pets.
Though the bulk of my politically minded readers can most charitably be described as quirky, colorful, intelligent and pleasantly eccentric, the comment section on my posts has always been plagued by more than a few exasperating examples of the politically pet-obsessed.
And nowhere has this become more evident recently than on the subject of the simple spay and castration.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether we’re talking about when, whether, how or why; the subject still holds sway.
Of all the topics I tackle, only nutrition challenges the neuter theme for all the emotional investment it attracts. The only difference—and it’s a crucial one—is that sterilization seems increasingly likely to draw more debate-laced veterinary commentary than the fraught topic of nutrition, which appears to enjoy far greater veterinary consensus.
Whether we’re talking about TNR in cats (which suffers from its own unique expanse of hazardous terrain), the no-kill controversy and the need for low-cost sterilization options (another minefield), or the wisdom, methodology and timing of canine sterilization, frothy commentary on the business of pet sex rages on the Internet.
But most impressive of all, perhaps, is the emerging canine neuter conundrum, a subject I raise here because I believe the profession would do well to take note of the impressive degree of climate change under way on this issue.
Let me explain: No longer is the supremacy of neutering at 6 months the universally accepted truth it once was.
Sure, the vast majority of companion animal practitioners still counsel in favor of surgical sterilization to prevent unwanted litters and thereby offset the pet overpopulation problem.
So, too, do we widely recommend it to abolish heat cycles in females; moderate unwanted behavior in males; eliminate dangers associated with whelping and the possibility of pyometra; dispense with the risk of ovarian, uterine or testicular cancers; eradicate the risk of benign prostatic hyperplasia and subsequent prostate infections; minimize the menace of mammary tumors in females; and play down the prospect of perineal hernias in males.
Differences of Opinion
Yet in spite of all these benefits, sterilization isn’t well-received the world around. In many European countries it’s frowned upon unless a medical condition arises to necessitate it. In fact, Germany has outlawed surgical sterilization, citing animal welfare concerns.
Subjecting dogs to sterilization because we’re too ignorant or irresponsible to keep them apart seems downright cruel to those who live in cultures where common sense is enough to keep the problem of pet overpopulation at bay. After all, surgical sterilization is an irreversible and arguably extreme solution to a very simple problem.
But what about all the wonderful health benefits of sterilization? Why wouldn’t we want to rid our pets of the health risks gonads pose? I mean, why not do what’s in the interest of pet overpopulation if it’s what’s best for our dogs, too?
Trouble is, as the trend toward individualized care for pets accelerates––a cause we almost universally champion––research into what’s ideal for each animal’s unique needs is starting to reveal more details about the pros, cons and ideal timing of sterilization.
Indeed, in direct subversion of our culture’s current conventional wisdom, it’s become increasingly clear that spaying and castrating isn’t always best for all dogs in all households––not if you’re looking beyond population control toward what’s best for our individual patients.
This rethinking of the American neuter mantra was brought to you courtesy of a growing cache of literature exploring certain canine conditions in recent years. Higher rates of obesity, cruciate ligament disease, hip dysplasia, certain cancers (lymphosarcoma, osteosarcoma and mast cell tumors, in particular) as well as specific behavior concerns have all been correlated with gonadectomy, some with early gonadectomy, in particular.
In learning that some problems and pathologies may be more prevalent among neutered dogs than in their intact counterparts, some of us openly question the status quo on sterilization. After all, the risks and expenses of surgical sterilization are not insignificant. Could it be that those oddball Europeans had it right all along?
To openly ask the question within the U.S., however, is to court political strife. This is to be expected given the half-century veterinary medicine has spent vehemently campaigning to bring surgical sterilization to as many pets as possible—more so given that this movement was brought to the masses based on the twin notions of better health and responsible ownership.
But now we’ve collected a sizable body of evidence questioning the prevailing paradigm, and I’d expect rationality to begin to seep into veterinary circles. Yet I’ve seen scant evidence that veterinary medicine is willing to open its collective mind on the subject.
Client requests for later sterilization dates are routinely dismissed. Easier surgical alternatives to gonadectomy (such as vasectomy and tubal ligation) are scoffed at. Mandatory spay and castration laws still enjoy some veterinary support. And newer approaches, such as intratesticular zinc gluconate injection, are more often written off than they are intelligently considered.
It seems that veterinary advocacy in favor of what’s best for pets goes only so far as evidence-based medicine will take us outside the realm of pet sterilization. On this topic we seem more interested in sacrificing our patients on the utilitarian altar of pet responsibility than treating them as unique individuals.
What’s worse is that our patients are owned by paying clients whose misdirection or coercion based on popular societal norms we’d otherwise consider unethical.
After all, when clients tell us they’re spending their mortgage money on their dogs’ chemo we think it’s sad … but sweet. But when they tell us they’re thinking it might be best to leave their dogs intact we suddenly acquire a moral compass––a self-righteous one, at that.
Die Hard with a Vengeance
I take heart in the knowledge that it’s still the early days for the concept of alternatives to surgical sterilization. After all, we’ve been living and laboring under this standard for more than half a century and old habits are known to die hard in our community.
What’s more heartening still is the certain knowledge that what underlies the undeniably quirky politics of sterilization isn’t intransigence for its own selfish ends or an anthropomorphism of sexual politics, but rather an unwillingness to sacrifice any more animal lives in the service of human vanity than we do now.
But I can’t help but think that we, as scientists and ethical professionals, should bring more to the table than this decades-old, propaganda-infused brew.
Dr. Khuly is a small animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com.