To neuter or not: The modern dog parent’s dilemma

Skyler, a 12-year-old mixed breed, was at least a year old when he was neutered at a Massachusetts rescue. Photo by Brianna Silva.

By Brianna Silva

An increase in dog ownership during the pandemic has sparked a growing conversation about the pluses and minuses of neutering with the topic of euthanasia looming in the background as concerns grow over animal overpopulation similar to that of the 1970s.

As COVID-19 spread in 2020 and kept people at home, many who never had pets before decided to get dogs to keep them company. Forbes Advisor conducted a survey and found 78% of pet owners acquired pets during the pandemic. This pet purchasing pandemonium brought the percentage of U.S. households that own at least one dog up to 45% in 2020, according to data from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), a noteworthy increase from just 38% in 2016. National dog ownership has since leveled off according to the AVMA, but local shelters and rescues say that the post-COVID dog population remains an issue. 

“We have a whole new epidemic on our hands,” said Cynthia Sweet, founder of Sweet Paws Rescue, a nonprofit animal rescue organization based in Groveland, Mass. “Everybody got a dog during COVID, people who should not have gotten a dog, people who couldn’t afford a dog, and then everybody’s returning those dogs. So now the country is just saturated with dogs that nobody wants,” said Sweet. The intake of dogs in Mass. shelters was at least 11,000 dogs in 2023, according to the national database from Shelter Animals Count, an independent nonprofit organization created to share its data of sheltered animals.

How high rates of euthanasia in animal shelters normalized neutering
For many first-time dog owners, the question of whether neutering is looking large. Also called desexing, neutering is a form of surgical sterilization in which the testes are removed from a male dog or cat to stop the animal’s ability to reproduce. The procedure, recognized by dog owners across the United States as common practice now, wasn’t always the standard until it gained traction in the 1970s when public officials and animal welfare organizations raised concerns about the high rates of euthanasia in shelters because of the overwhelming number of stray animals.

Blueberry and Cherry, both 2-year-old pitbulls, are set to be spayed soon. Photo by Mia Diensthuber.

But research sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in 2018 showed that the early neutering approach in combination with responsible ownership promoted by the HSUS, the American Humane Association and the National Animal Control Association in the 1970s were “likely a major contributor to the huge decline in shelter euthanasia in the United States.” Both the number of animals arriving at shelters and the rate of euthanasia has reduced since the ‘70s with an estimated 90% decrease from about 13.5 million cats and dogs euthanized annually “even though the total dog population has doubled by comparing data,” according to the 2018 research.

Many animal experts are now recommending when dogs should be fixed based on their breed. “For the larger breed dogs, I can say almost certainly that [veterinarians] say to wait, but for the mid to small breed dogs, you wouldn’t have as much to worry about per se,” said Annika Jonsson, the animal care and facilities manager for the University of Massachusetts Amherst Mount Ida campus. Larger breeds such as St. Bernards or Irish Wolfhounds require more time to mature sexually, meaning that they’ve gone through puberty and their body is fully developed, said Jonsson. If larger breeds are fixed before they’ve finished growing, Jonsson said that could increase their risk of having joint problems later in their life. 

Jonsson, a certified veterinary technician who manages the school’s adoption program at the Newton campus, said the program adopts out retired research Beagles that the students work with for an entire semester to acclimate them to the environment and prepare them for general public adoption. As an accredited program by the AVMA, students are able to observe and assist in a dog neutering on campus with an attending veterinarian as part of the many skills students gain. “They learn all the basic ins and outs of an operating room,” said Jonsson. “They’ll learn how to scrub for a procedure and gown up, and then they’ll go into the operating room that performs the entire procedure.”

Some organizations still encourage pet owners to neuter their dogs and cats. Animal welfare organizations such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – which was originally against widespread neutering – are leading proponents of the practice.

Neutering remains just as hot a topic as it was during the ‘70s, but now local animal rescues voicing their concerns on the growing dog population in New England.

Mandatory spay/neuter laws introduced decades ago still require pets to undergo the procedure to help combat overpopulation. Today, 26 states have laws in place for all animals adopted from animal shelters, according to PETA. These mandatory laws essentially make neutering the sole method of sterilization.

Not all animal advocates agree with these mandatory spay/neuter laws. Animal advocate Aubrie Kavanaugh, a defense litigation paralegal from Alabama who manages the blog Paws4Change, said mandatory spay/neuter laws won’t solve all these problems despite its good intentions. “It can have the opposite of the desired effect,” said Kavanaugh. “What you’re left with is people that can least afford to have it done. So what you’re essentially doing is you’re punishing the people that can’t afford it.” There needs to be a greater focus on the root of the problem in order to prevent it, said Kavanaugh, something which these mandatory laws fail to do.

Navigating the contradicting research on neutering
The owner’s decision to get their dog fixed becomes even more difficult when they’re faced with an overwhelming amount of conflicting information regarding the medical and behavioral benefits of neutering. 

Piña, a 7-year-old black lab hound mix, was spayed at 9 months old after she was adopted from a South Carolina rescue. Her sister Pip was already spayed at 3 months old when she was adopted from a Massachusetts rescue. Photo by Brianna Silva.

The ASPCA lists the medical and behavioral benefits to neutering companion animals. Other animal experts like Elizabeth Park, a Boston-based dog trainer, said neutering can decrease certain behaviors among male dogs such as marking and aggression, but it’s not the sole cause and solution to a dog’s aggression. “It could definitely be a contributing factor in the case of an unfixed dog like you might see a slight decrease in its reaction toward other male dogs,” said Park.

Some studies and experts say neutering has no impact on a dog’s bones or behavior, while others state that canine gonads are critical to the endocrine, musculoskeletal, behavior and anti-neoplastic health. 

Neutering dogs at such a young age could also impact their skeletal growth, causing irregular body proportions due to abnormal bone growth and development. Some studies have found that neutered dogs have a higher incidence of rupturing their ACL than untreated dogs, regardless of their breed or size. 

In 2013 Dr. Benjamin Hart and his team, with support from the American Kennel Club, published a report, which found that desexing golden retrievers, especially before six months of age, actually increased their risk of serious joint diseases four to five times over the risk intact dogs face.

Another concern pet owners have is obesity, which the ASPCA  explains that “obesity is a multi-factorial problem and not an automatic consequence of neutering – even an intact animal can become obese if a proper diet and exercise regimen is not followed.” Another study found that neutered Golden Retrievers showed an increased risk for the development of overweight and obesity.

Dog shelters come with their own set of consequences
For new dog owners who decided they couldn’t handle the job or didn’t want to neuter their pets, shelters became an option. “People didn’t know how to take care of them properly, or socialize or train them properly,” said Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club, an organization that advocates for responsible dog ownership and is dedicated to advancing dog sports. “There’s a lot of implications that went with that.”

Euthanasia is one way for shelters struggling with budgets and a lack of space to deal with a growing number of unwanted pets.

Euthanasia places a huge burden physically and especially mentally on veterinarians, said Klein. “I’ve worked in emergency for many years, there have been with a vet tech or a veterinarian who had to do multiple euthanasia a day for whatever reason,” he said. “It’s very taxing and trying, and it can be very, very depressing.”

The choice to neuter a dog is not as easy as some people might think because there are simply too many factors to consider that the decision becomes overwhelming to many dog owners. Now responsible dog owners who just want what’s best for their furry companions not only have to consider the dog’s age and breed, where they live and their lifestyle, but they must also sift through a large amount of conflicting research on the physical and mental benefits and disadvantages of neutering.

In the end, it’s really a pet owner’s personal decision. “It’s a case-by-case basis that requires discussion with the dog’s veterinarian,” said Dr. John Berg, a professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “There’s no one clear rule that’s right for all male dogs,” he said.