It's Like an Aging Pill for Your Pet, but Millions Overlook It

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

early spay neuter health risks

Story at-a-glance -

  • The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is in its sixth year, and important findings are starting to be released
  • Almost a third of the Goldens in the study are overweight or obese, and researchers have made a connection between spaying and neutering and obesity
  • The researchers have also revealed that in overweight/obese spayed or neutered Goldens, there’s a 300 percent increased risk of orthopedic diseases and injuries
  • Of all the health conditions in large breed dogs associated with spaying and neutering, the easiest to prevent is obesity
  • It’s extremely important that the owners of large and giant breed dogs understand the risks of spay/neuter, and especially for breeds prone to obesity, take steps to keep their pet lean and well-conditioned throughout life

It's hard to believe, but the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is already in its sixth year! The Morris Animal Foundation, which is sponsoring the research, is providing updates and insights into some of the trends they're seeing with the 3,000 dogs enrolled in the study.

Timing of Spay/Neuter in Goldens Plays a Significant Role in Obesity and Orthopedic Disease

Sadly, almost a third of the Goldens in the study are currently overweight or obese. Suspecting that gonadectomy plays a role, the researchers divided 2,764 of the 3,000 dogs into four groups based on the age they were spayed or neutered:

  • 6 months or younger
  • Between 6 months and 1 year
  • Older than 1 year
  • Dogs who are still intact

The researchers learned that dogs spayed or neutered before they were a year old faced twice the risk for overweight or obesity as intact dogs. The dogs who were desexed after one year had a 40 percent increased risk. And for every year older the dog was when spayed or neutered, it reduced the risk by 70 percent.

Another study finding is that dogs who were spayed or neutered and overweight or obese had a 300 percent increased risk of chronic non-traumatic orthopedic injury such as cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) injury and osteoarthritis.

'The Reality Is This: Intact Dogs Are Much More Likely to Enjoy Healthy Weights'

Unlike when I first started out as a veterinarian, today we can refer to a steadily growing body of scientific research that indicates spay/neuter has a significant downside for dogs.

The findings from the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study are further evidence of specific risks associated with spaying and neutering large and giant breed dogs, including include obesity, cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) ruptures, hip dysplasia, several types of cancer, urine dribbling (incontinence) and cystitis (bladder inflammation).1

It's worth noting that obesity in pets is at epidemic levels. In 2017, 56 percent of dogs were overweight or obese, and veterinarian Dr. Patty Khuly believes spays and neuters have played a significant role in the explosion of fat dogs over the last few decades.

" … [A]s we're now learning," writes Khuly in Veterinary Practice News, "preventing reproductive disease isn't necessarily a good enough reason to remove organs; not if those organs offer more benefits than they pose risks."

"To be sure, it has a lot to do with how we feed ourselves and our families and the 'food is love' culture we reside in," she writes. "It also has a lot to do with the rise of the pet food industry and the proliferation of diets and treats it so effectively markets. But could there be another component we conveniently tend to overlook? After all, everyone knows for sure that spayed and neutered dogs are heavier.

There's no doubt about it. The inconvenient truth is that dog sterilization leads to fatter dogs. This we know. No one disputes it. Whatever you think about all these new studies on sterilization and certain diseases, the reality of the situation is this: Intact dogs are much more likely to enjoy healthy weights."2

It's important to note that we can sterilize our pets without compromising critical sex hormone function that keeps immune and metabolic health optimal. Traditional spay/neuter surgery results in pets being "desexed," causing instant menopause and creating massive hormone deficiencies that negatively impact overall long term health.

There are several alternatives to desexing surgery that render pets sterile, but preserve vital hormone function, including hysterectomy (ovary-sparing spays) and vasectomies. The Parsemus Foundation has additional information about these procedures.

And while I agree that winding up with a fat dog is a risk factor of spaying and neutering, I also think that of all the risk factors associated with gonadectomy, overweight and obesity are entirely preventable when pet parents are committed to keeping their canine companions at a healthy weight.

Now That You Know Better, You Can Do Better

If you have a large or giant breed dog who has been spayed or neutered, and especially if he's a Golden or Labrador Retriever or another breed prone to obesity, it's critically important for your dog's health, mobility, longevity and quality of life that you keep him lean and well-conditioned.

If you're not sure whether your dog is overweight, look down at her from above. You should be able to see a tapered-in waist. If she's oval-shaped, she's probably too heavy. You should also be able to feel (but not see) her ribs as well as the bones near the base of her tail. If she's obese, you'll see noticeable amounts of excess fat on her abdomen, hips and neck.

Also compare her to this body condition chart provided by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA):

>>>>> Click Here <<<<<

The goal is a body condition score of 4 to 5, and for large dogs in particular, it's better to err on the side of too lean than chunky.

What to Feed an Overweight Dog

Pet foods high in carbohydrates — typically kibble — are the biggest cause of obesity in both dogs and cats. Your carnivorous dog needs food high in animal protein and moisture, moderately high in animal fat, and with low to no grain or starch content (which is pretty much the opposite of what dry pet foods offer, especially grain-free kibble).

A high-quality fresh food diet is the best choice for pets who need to lose weight. It's important to adequately nourish their bodies as weight loss occurs, making sure their requirements for key amino acids, essential fatty acids and other nutrients are met. The key to healthy weight loss is to meet your pet's nutritional requirements through a balanced diet but feed less food (portion control), which forces her body to burn fat stores. The first step is to transition her to a diet free of potatoes, corn, rice, soy and tapioca.

My recommendation is a homemade fresh food diet of lean meats, healthy fats, and fibrous vegetables and low glycemic fruits as the only sources of carbohydrates.

Feed Exactly (and ONLY) the Calories Your Dog Needs to Reach and Maintain an Ideal Weight

Next, calculate kcal (kilocalorie) requirements for your pet's ideal weight. Let's say your dog is 60 pounds and should be 50 pounds.

Daily calories (canine) = Body Weight (kg) x 30 + 70

To use this formula, first you need to convert her weight from pounds to kilograms. One kilogram = 2.2 pounds, so divide her ideal weight (not her current weight) in pounds by 2.2. 50/2.2 = 22.7, so your dog's ideal weight in kilograms is 22.7. Now our formula looks like this: Daily calories = 22.7 (kg) x 30 + 70. And finally, it looks like this: Daily calories = 751. If your dog eats 750 calories a day she should drop steadily to her ideal weight of 50 pounds and maintain it.

Measure food portions using an actual measuring cup and drastically limit treats (be sure to include any treats you feed in his total daily calorie count). I recommend setting aside a small portion of homemade food that can be rolled into tiny pea-sized bites and used as treats throughout the day.

Daily Exercise Is Non-Negotiable

Consistent daily exercise, including at least 20 minutes (and preferably 60) of aerobic activity will help your pet burn fat and increase muscle tone. If you're unable to provide your dog with this much physical activity (and some dogs require even more), consider joining a pet sports club or doggy daycare. Another option is to hire a dog walker (or dog jogger, hiker or biker).

If you happen to have a Golden or another type of retriever, you can turn her innate love of retrieving into a tremendous daily workout, especially if you use something like a Chuckit! Ball Launcher.

If your pet is very overweight or obese, he may not be able to endure extended periods of exercise initially. Swimming is actually an excellent low-impact, gentle form of exercise for dogs that need to start out slow, as well as those with arthritis or mobility issues. Ask your veterinarian what exercises are safe for your pet to do, and which you either need to avoid or put off until he's in better condition.