SpayAware campaign: helping dogs and cats
I was at a photoshoot today. This is a glamorous title, and there was some glamour: former Miss World Rosanna Davison was in attendance.
However, the reason for the photoshoot was far from glamorous: it was to promote the launch of Spayaware, the annual awareness week that highlights the importance of spaying and neutering dogs and cats. These operations are important for two main reasons. First, there are significant benefits for pets' health and behaviour. And second, the best way to control the population of unwanted dogs and cats is to prevent unwanted pregnancies by spaying pets before they have a chance to breed.
The health and behaviour benefits have been known for years, but with better ways of gathering and analysing data, vets have recently fine tuned our understanding of the impact of the operations.
For cats, there's strong evidence that all males and females should be neutered and spayed when they are around four months of age: the benefits far outweigh any adverse effects.
For dogs, there are subtleties that need to be addressed, even though, on balance, the operations are still the best option for nearly all pets.
Spaying a female dog eliminates the risk of unwanted pregnancy, dystocia (difficulty whelping) and prevents the physical and behavioural changes associated with the six-monthly reproductive cycle. It also dramatically reduces the risk of mammary cancer and removes the risk of pyometra (an infected womb) which occurs in 23% of intact females and kills approximately 1% of affected animals.
Mammary tumours are the most common malignant tumours in female dogs, and spaying before two years of age greatly reduces the likelihood of this cancer. Spaying also eliminates the risk of uterine, cervical and ovarian tumours.
In Norway, it's illegal for vets to routinely spay pets: it is regarded as a mutilation which is unfair to the animal (in the same way as we see tail docking and ear cropping as mutilations). One of the consequences of this policy is that vets in Norway are kept very busy treating older female dogs with mammary tumours and infected wombs: in Ireland, we only see this rarely as the widespread spaying of pets prevents them. This clear health benefit is perhaps something that the Norwegian authorities should consider when making decisions about allowing - or banning - spaying in their nation's pets.
It is true that there are some conditions that may become more common in spayed animals, including urinary incontinence (although this can be treated effectively in most cases), and some other rare types of tumours. And there are some breeds (e.g. giant breeds of dog) that should be spayed when they are older (e.g. 18 months of age) since if they are spayed when young, they may be more likely to develop certain bone and joint diseases.
For these reasons, it isn't possible to have a universal rule that "all female dogs should be spayed at a particular time". The decision has to be made for the individual dog, after discussing all the different aspects with your vet.
Castrating male dogs also has benefits, including preventing testicular cancer, the second most common tumour of dogs. It also dramatically reduces the incidence of other diseases of the mature prostate gland and it reduces the risk of common tumours seen in the under-the-tail area.
Castration also affects dog behaviour, reducing aggression and dominance in male dogs. It can reduce sibling rivalry, lessen territorial marking with urine, reduce the likelihood of roaming, and lessens the incidence of embarrassing behaviours like humping cushions, owners' legs etc.
However it is also true that there are some arguments against castration: there are some rare cancers that may be more common in castrated animals, and if a dog is shy and nervous, castration can make this even more of a problem. The timing is also debatable: again, it makes sense for giant breeds of dogs to be castrated later than small breeds of dogs, to ensure that their skeletons are fully mature.
On balance, there are more benefits than disadvantages to most dogs from castration, but as with female dogs, the decision about doing this operation should be made on an individual basis.
The main reason for the annual SpayAware campaign is that there are still too many unwanted dogs and cats in Ireland. Spay/neuter is the best way to control the population of pets.
Every year, the Irish dog pound system compiles statistics about stray dogs, and the figures for 2017 were recently published. The good news this year was that the headline number of dogs being euthanased in pounds is the lowest ever, at less than 1000 for the first time. However, the number of dogs entering pounds is still stubbornly high, at over 11000. And this is why population control of dogs is so important: there are still 11000 dogs every year in Ireland ending up homeless because they are not wanted. If more people spayed and neutered their pets, this figure would start to fall.
So don't delay: spay and neuter today!
See www.spayaware.ie for more info.