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September 26, 2018Essay

When Should You Spay or Neuter a Rhodesian Ridgeback?

Showing a profound lack of judgment by the people at Google, my site often ends up at the top of search results for questions about Rhodesian Ridgebacks. My qualifications for such prestigious placement are that I have Rhodesian Ridgebacks, I have a camera, and I have a very loose understanding of how to control both of those things. That said, I’m always happy to share whatever knowledge I’ve picked up along the way. I can’t offer the expertise of a veterinarian or behaviorist, so I simply try to share the perspective of what an average owner might experience.

Recently, inquiries about the timing of a Ridgeback’s spay/neuter are increasingly common. It’s a question with pitfalls and nuance and a lot of strong opinions. I’ve heard people say veterinarians only recommend spay/neuter because it makes them money, and I’ve heard people say anyone who doesn’t spay/neuter their dog is an irresponsible jerk. Neither of these sentiments is particularly helpful (or true), and the conflicting opinions leave a lot of us feeling uncertain and ill prepared to make the best decision for our own dogs.

Rather than attempt to make that decision for you, I hope this post offers some dispassionate context for how to best consider your options.

There is likely no greater success story for the welfare of pets in the United States than the efficacy of preventative spay/neuter efforts. Just twenty years ago, in Chicago alone, over 40,000 pets were euthanized in the city pound annually. The number of homeless pets killed in the city has been reduced by 87% since then, and while the success of thriving adoption efforts is vital to the improved statistics, the driving force behind this change is coordinated spay/neuter campaigns.

Understood in this light, spay/neuter efforts in America are a direct response to a larger public health crisis. The easiest and best way to combat that crisis is to simply spay/neuter every pet animal (i.e., every animal not explicitly part of ethical/responsible breeding practices). It’s unarguably been an effective and necessary measure, and it will remain so for as long as the problem persists. This is why most vets and animal welfare organizations rightly include spay/neuter in their standard of care.

In addition to the systemic problems associated with intact dogs, there are also considerable logistical and behavioral concerns at the individual level. I don’t believe most people are prepared to handle the challenges of a female’s heat-cycle or any of the assorted testosterone troubles of a “teenage” male. Which, having barely survived both scenarios myself, is totally understandable. A consequence of the necessary spay/neuter work means that we as a society don’t have much practice and experience with raising/training/socializing intact dogs. Furthermore, since daycares/boarding facilities generally won’t accept intact dogs it leaves a lot people without much of a choice.

Given all of the above many people are surprised when a Rhodesian Ridgeback breeder or rescue group insists you wait to spay/neuter your dog. They might be even more surprised when they hear the same recommendation from their vet. I know I was when I first got Eko, but since then I’ve learned a lot about why you would want to delay the spay/neuter of your Ridgeback.

The reason to wait, in short, is because an increasing  number of studies suggest delaying spay/neuter until the full sexual/physical development of large breed dogs improves their longevity and overall health.

MOST IMPORTANT OF NOTES: I am just an idiot with an internet connection. As always, you should absolutely not take my word on this…or on anything, really. Each of the above links is to a recent peer-reviewed article which I would encourage you to read. Everything I say here should be read as a conversational and educational starting point, not an inarguable statement of fact.

The data seems to show meaningful endocrine and musculoskeletal benefits for intact dogs, as well as a significant reduction in the risks of certain types of cancer. But I’d like to stress that science is hard and there is no universal consensus that’s equally applicable to all dogs. Nor are there any guarantees. A delayed neuter doesn’t eliminate the risks of certain health conditions, but it does appear to diminish them. Alternatively, other cancers and health risks are associated with keeping dogs intact.

Unfortunately, all this means there is no simple prescriptive answer. There is no perfect timing and recommendation that works for everyone’s specific dog and situation. There are meaningful pros and cons no matter what your decision might be. Delaying or deciding against spay/neuter comes with significant long term challenges/responsibilities that you must unequivocally be prepared to handle if you decide to go that route. That’s why the best thing you can do is be informed about your options ahead of time so that you can thoughtfully consider the best course of action.

Consult with your vet, your breeder, and as many educational resources as you can find. In the end, trust that no one is better positioned to make the appropriate decision than you are.

We all want to do what’s best for our dogs. We want to make the “right” choices, but more often than not we must make uncertain choices with imperfect information. And that is certainly the case here.  What matters is we make the best choices we can and then make the best of whatever comes afterwards.

Again, this post is intended to be a very superficial overview of the spay/neuter discussion for people who are new to the conversation. In the past, some of the most helpful information on these types of posts ends up in the comments section. If you have any specific questions, fire away. And if you have any expertise or resources to share below I know it will be much appreciated by people for years to come. Thanks!

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