A few years ago, three friends and I traveled to eastern Maine for a grouse hunt. My partners brought female setters, two Gordons and an English, and I brought a male springer spaniel. It took less than an hour in the covers the first afternoon to realize we had a problem: Three of the four dogs—my male springer, in particular—were flighty and disinterested in hunting. Some thought and a couple of questions provided the answer; one of the Gordon setters was in heat, a biological reality that ended the day for all of us and the trip for the dog's owner.
But a greater issue than a lost hunt was that this friend had considered spaying his female. Because she was a well-bred dog, he opted to leave her intact and breed her. The downside of his decision was that a year later the still-young Gordon died of uterine cancer, a disease that spaying would have prevented.
Therein lies a fundamental dilemma for gun-dog owners: Should we or shouldn't we neuter our dogs? The question breaks down further: Should we place the health benefits of neutering above the breeding potential of a dog; can we look realistically at whether a dog should breed; and can we overcome a human-centered reluctance to "fix" a dog?
Neutering is a general term that includes the spaying of females and the castration of males, though some use the word specifically for male castration. Both neutering procedures are low risk and routine. Spaying (technically called ovariohysterectomy) involves a veterinarian making an incision in the female dog's abdomen through which the uterus and ovaries are removed. Most dogs go home the day after surgery and are back to normal after 10-14 days of restricted activity.
Castrating a male dog is even less complicated. The testicles are removed through a small incision in front of the scrotum. Because this surgical procedure (also called altering) is relatively superficial, males are quickly up and about and need little more than a week's worth of activity restriction.
Spaying and castration are irreversible procedures—once reproductive equipment has been removed, it's gone forever—so neutering decisions must be taken seriously, with all of the facts at your disposal. Keep in mind that neutering is different from tubal ligation in females and vasectomy in males. Although we think of these as human procedures, both are occasionally performed on dogs to prevent pregnancies. Contrary to neutering, tubal ligation and vasectomy cause no reduction in sexual response and confer no health or behavioral benefits.
Female dogs are usually spayed at or before 6 months of age and prior to their first heat. Early spaying reduces or eliminates the risk of potentially life-threatening reproductive tract diseases that females face, especially as they age. Because the uterus and ovaries have been removed, ovarian cysts and tumors along with uterine cancer and pyometra (a deadly uterine infection) cannot occur in spayed females. Also, research shows the incidence of mammary tumors—the most common tumor in intact females—are negligible in animals spayed at the appropriate age. In some dog circles, an old myth persists that says a female won't be "normal," thus shouldn't be spayed, until she has gone through two heat periods. This approach has no basis in medical fact and can significantly reduce the health benefits of early spaying.
Conventional veterinary wisdom recommends males be castrated at between 6 and 12 months of age, when they're sexually mature, though some vets say 9-12 months is a safer age. The reason for the age discrepancy reflects the variation in times when males reach sexual maturity. Dogs neutered prior to puberty might suffer from deficiencies in bone development, muscle mass and some secondary sex traits. Castration after puberty ensures a typical male body type. Neutering at the proper age not only eliminates the possibility of testicular tumors and cancer, it also dramatically reduces prostate gland infections and growths.
Weighing The Pros And Cons
A reasonable question is that if neutering is beneficial, why don't more hunters utilize the procedures? Making such a decision can be difficult, especially given the inaccuracies, misinformation and falsehoods that surround neutered dogs!—falsehoods like, "Neutered dogs become fat couch potatoes," or "My dog will lose its nose and its drive to hunt," or "Castration turns males into ‘girl' dogs." Unfortunately, such opinions—along with others of the same ilk—have drifted around the gun-dog world for so long that too many hunters accept them as truth and, as a result, reject neutering as a legitimate option.
The reality is there are few downsides to the spaying and castration of gun dogs. The most obvious consideration involves loss of breeding potential, particularly in females. Permanently removing a finely bred, potentially first-class animal from the gene pool is a serious matter that should be examined from all angles. Indeed, the issue of neutering becomes more complicated as the quality of dogs increases.
On average, female dogs go through heat cycles every 6-8 months, though schedules vary between individuals. Spaying not only eliminates the twice-yearly hassle of these reproductive cycles, but also the behavioral changes—flightiness, irritability, false pregnancies, occasionally excessive distractibility—that accompany the hormonal fluctuations of heat periods. There's truth in the old saying that if you liked your female's behavior before spaying, you'll like it afterward.
Castration performed at the right age tends to diminish typical male behaviors like frequent urine marking, breeding-related roaming (for those who unwisely allow dogs to run free), aggression, fighting and dominance mounting of other dogs and human legs. And be assured that young Spike, your prized male, will not become a "girl."
In both males and females, no clinical or on-the-ground evidence exists to suggest that neutering changes hunting skill, drive, stamina or scenting ability. Along with proven health benefits, neutered dogs are often—though not always—a bit more mellow and less prone to hormonal or mating-related distractions, which can lead to greater stability and consistency in the field. One other point: Sportsmen commonly voice concerns that spayed or castrated dogs will gain weight and get fat. They won't unless you let them. With neutered and intact dogs alike, weight is controlled by an appropriate diet and balanced exercise. Any dog can become fat if it eats too much and runs too little.
For various reasons—some valid, some not—neutering working gun dogs might not be the right option for all hunters in all circumstances. But it is an option many sportsmen should at least seriously consider.