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When to Spay or Neuter Your Retriever

Understand the risks associated with putting your duck dog under the knife when they are too young.

When to Spay or Neuter Your Retriever

Until recently, it was common to assume six months was the prime age to spay or neuter your dog, but now experts suggest that might be too early. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

It wasn’t that long ago when you could plunk down a deposit on a Lab puppy and pick it up at five or six weeks of age. Now, most pups are kept with their moms and littermates until they are at least seven weeks old, and oftentimes, longer.

The rules change over time as we learn more about our dogs and their health. It’s not just puppy pickup windows that are being rethought either. Currently, one of the most debated topics concerning all dogs, is when to spay or neuter. Six months used to be the hard-and-fast rule, mostly because it allowed dogs to mature enough to handle the anesthesia as well as the recovery process of a surgery.

For males, this was about as far as it went. For females, it was also a great way to keep a dog from going into its first heat cycle, which honestly, most dog owners just don’t want to deal with. Recent research has revealed that, while a cycling female isn’t much fun to have in the house, it might be worth it in order to ensure better health for the remainder of its life.

Chesapeake Bay Retriever with goose
While timing is everything when it comes to spaying or neutering your gun dog, the subsequent health benefits should provide them a long tenure in the field. (Chris Ingram photo)

Hormone Interruption

First, the good news. No matter what your duck dog is sporting in its undercarriage, the removal of the sex organs has an impact on hormone production. With females, this can be a positive if you consider the rates of mammary cancer in intact versus spayed dogs. Pyometra, a uterus infection that can be very dangerous, is also not an issue in fixed females but is very common in intact dogs.

Males who lose their knackers might also experience some benefits, although ancillary. Of course, they won’t get testicle cancer after being neutered, but they also tend to be less aggressive and less likely to roam the streets looking for a mate. Decreasing both behaviors keeps them generally safer. While we could file this away as a good enough reason to schedule a vet visit for our young pups, it’s best to look at the other side of the coin when it comes to hormone production.

Early Surgery Downsides

Now, the bad news. Studies conducted at UC Davis in California to suss out the long-term effects of neutering and spaying early on in a dog’s life have yielded some interesting finds. For example, golden retrievers neutered before six months of age were five times more likely to develop certain orthopedic diseases throughout their life than intact dogs. Labs, it was found, were twice as likely.

Other negatives have been linked to early-life reproductive surgery as well, including lymphoma. While the research is ongoing, much of it seems to suggest that the hormonal disruption of removing sexual organs can potentially cause real health issues later in life.

This has also been linked to obesity, which is an epidemic in the pet world. One study, which took a deep dive into over 3,000 golden retrievers, revealed that dogs that were spayed or neutered before six months of age had a much higher chance of obesity and the associated orthopedic risks that come from being a heavyweight. It’s important to note that many of the studies on this topic are breed specific, so they don’t necessarily portend similar results in different breeds.

Responsible or Too Risky?

For decades we’ve been told that spaying and neutering our pets is the responsible thing to do (right, Bob Barker?) It still is. We just have better information now to work with as far as, not only the timing of the big surgery, but also what we should pay attention to throughout our dogs’ post-surgery lives.

Feeding black Labrador retriever
No matter when you decide to spay or neuter your hunting dog, you'll want to closely monitor their health throughout their post-op lives. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Considering many of the potential risks of too-early spaying and neutering could result in conditions that take a hunting buddy right out of the physical game, this takes on a bigger meaning for those of us who love hitting the marshes and flooded timber with our dogs.

If you’ve got a male, it seems, body weight and conditioning after neutering are important to pay attention to throughout all stages of life. If you prefer females and can’t wait until they have matured sexually before spaying, then it’s really, really important to pay attention to their health throughout their life. Many of the issues they face can be prevented by proper exercise and diet, but both are a moving target that changes throughout their lives as they age. Simply put, this requires a higher level of owner diligence.

Whether your dog lifts its leg or squats to pee, the question of timing around spaying and neutering is not as easy to answer as it once was. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea, it just means we have an obligation to understand the risks and make better decisions given the most current info we have. Of course, that has always been the case when it has come to our dog’s health.


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