To desex or not to desex

A question that many people ask me is “when do I get my pet desexed * and do I have to?”

This is something that has been debated for as long as I can recall and until recently and despite being in Veterinary practice for over two decades, I had little understanding myself of the reasons behind this decision.
As with everything, it is better to make informed choices but information on this subject has been slow to appear. It will always be the prerogative of pet owners to make their own decisions but a balance of arguments need to be considered.
Being one myself to always challenge convention I am a little nonplussed by my acceptance of the current practice of prepubertal desexing. **tiny kitten

Ideally it may seem nice to keep animals intact but if they are not being used for intentional breeding then very many of them will engage in unintentional breeding. This potentially compounds the dire animal welfare situation that still exists with thousands of unwanted animals being destroyed annually.  The majority of pet owners therefore, will elect to desex their pets for this and a variety of other reasons.

This posting is designed to provide considerations to assist in making this decision. It also poses it’s own questions to ponder.puppy china

From an homeopathic perspective, prepubertal desexing may remove the ‘system’ from the animals radar or vital vigilance. Theoretically then, the body does not know it has, or had, a reproductive capacity. This perhaps removes any physical ‘issues’ surrounding reproductive activity or the lack thereof.
As one homeopathic colleague suggests “they don’t miss what they never had”.
A counterpoint to this idea is that the brain is the largest sex organ and with or without hormones it will create certain behavioural patterns albeit fewer than it would in the presence of sex hormones.

Desexed cats will still respond to increasing/decreasing daylight stimuli to the pineal gland that governs mating behaviour.  The highest incidence of cystitis (urinary bladder inflammation) and fighting in desexed cats occurs at solstice times (Winter especially) as a result of this phenomenon. When the reproductive system is removed the body finds outlet for disease through other organs like the urinary system. This is easily overlooked and misdiagnosed as a result.

In Vet school in Australia we always thought the Poms (Vets in England), were a bit behind in generally recommending that bitches have a season (oestrus cycle) before speying. We were taught here the classic ‘oestrogen priming theory’, whereby a system once primed with oestrogen can still go on to produce mammary cancer even if ovariectomised. I imagine there must have been cases of such for this to have been expounded to vet students.
I discovered more recently, however, the merits in allowing the animals to ‘come into their own’ or be hormonally primed prior to desexing. I had success with treating an animal (speyed) that I believed was exhibiting resentment (behavioural abberation) for not being able to have pups as a result of having been desexed. I think/owner thinks she was desexed prepubertally but maybe if she had a silent heat she may have been primed, so I am not certain that this behaviour arose spontaneously without hormonal priming. It’s also only one case and only my interpretation but it perhaps challenges the emotional, behavioural and personality development aspects of a pet and the effects that desexing may have at this level. olderx2 with golden

Giving animals an opportunity to grow and mature under the influence of sex hormones may cause a greater ‘jolt’ when this is removed.  I have seen dogs become depressed when castrated as adults and not as juveniles.

Homeopathically speaking we want to allow expression without suppression  which is very difficult to achieve in animals that have no control over their sex instinct. Undesexed animals, a natural state, can be challenging to manage well and medical intervention leads to it’s own set of problems and cannot be recommended.  Pyometritis (uterine infections) and cycle aberrations are common in animals who have had their reproductive cycles altered medicinally and this can hardly be called natural practice. And so the debate continues in this cycle of pro and conlab pup

The cases of juvenile vulval incontinence and male urolith obstruction were common problems long before prepubertal desexing became the norm so regardless of age at desexing these juvenile physical characteristics can seemingly arise. Maybe a fully mature animal has fewer problems here.
Not being in general practice now for over five years I don’t know what is happening with the current early desexing outcomes in this regard nor the incidence of cancers of the reproductive system which even then seemed hugely overrepresented in entire animals for obvious reasons.  I find myself wondering now however whether the increased incidence of cancer in animals in general is any worse than having a reproductive outlet for this disease.  It is perhaps easier to remove a dogs ovaries than her urinary bladder once cancer becomes established in cancer prone animals. Or is being entire really an invitation for reproductive cancer in its own right?

It would also be almost impossible to detect specific cases of delayed intelligence in desexed animals but family farming sources repeatedly believed their working dogs (female especially) worked better when entire. This may be as much related to increased energy as presumed intellect.

What about the suggestion of less than optimal growth in prepubertal desexed animals?

icecream pupIt is widely accepted, for example, that geldings do not attain the muscle development and bulk of stallions and a possibility that mares (entire female horses) generally perform better in races.
I remember an endocrinologist challenging me about why desexed animals don’t become osteoporotic like men who lose their testicles to cancer and I had no answers. There is a definite link between calcium deposition and bone growth and sex hormones. It doesn’t appear to be of major importance in the health maintenance of animals but you have to wonder if stallions would have as many bone fractures or chips as geldings and whether the incidence of bone injuries is lower in mares.
There are sound management reasons for gelding (desexing) stallions.

Other factors to consider when contemplating desexing your pet include;
-anaesthesia risks, minimized by modern good practice and practitioner experience
-surgical risk minimized by practitioner experience and practice standard
-leg cocking and territory marking in males can continue after desexing
-aggression and fighting can continue after desexing
-overpopulation of unwanted animals is a serious issue and ‘accidents’ happen even in well managed animals
-a bitch in season effectively needs isolation for 3 weeks to minimise pregnancy risk
-animals not being used for breeding may develop other problematic outlets of behaviour when normal sexual outlets are denied.
-Instinctive behaviour is already being repressed in domestic pets at many levels
-whilst testicular and ovarian cancer does not occur if desexed, the tendency to cancer in the prone animal is not reduced and therefore can occur elsewhere
-the truth lies at the intersection of all available theories if you can find these points


Since posting this blog five years ago, new information is being made available that reaffirms my tendency towards delaying desexing for as long as possible, where possible. Those of us with a choice can make informed decisions based on emerging evidence such as that being made available by holistic vets in the USA for example.


It is always helpful to seek the professional opinions of those you trust. Veterinarians, amongst others, have both the experience and knowledge to provide advice in these matters.
Good luck in finding the help you need to decide for yourselves when or whether to desex your pets.


* desex: surgical removal of ovaries and uterus or spey in females and surgical removal of testicles, castration or neuter in males

**  prepubertal desexing occurs before sexual maturity and hormonal priming.

3 Responses to “To desex or not to desex”

  1. From Roger Middleton

    I liked that you had mentioned that it can be important to let a pet become hormonally primed prior to desexing them. My wife and I had bought our daughter a dog for her birthday and a few months ago, and while we love the dog, we’re needing to have her fixed because we wouldn’t be able to handle having puppies everywhere. I’ll have to start looking for a vet that can handle the procedure, and I’ll be making sure that my dog is hormonally primed before I make any decision.

  2. From Delphine

    There is an article on the website from their holistic vet, Dr Becker, and her rethink about desexing, as she noted pets returning to her practise that she had desexed many years before, and their subsequent illnesses. Compared to the health of her intact patients:
    I am investigating how and when to get my tiny 1 year old pooch desexed at the moment.

  3. From Anthony

    Thank you so much for posting this. I have been searching for some unbiased information and had been struggling to find anything worth reading.
    Fantastic article!

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