I think, it is safe to say, that one of the most common veterinary procedures in any clinic today is castration (also known as spay/neuter or sterilisation). Globally, it is almost as routine as vaccinations or deworming.
Spay/Neuter clinics are a common business model in the West; Humane Societies often offer low-cost castration services to the public; the animals offered for adoption in most shelters are always castrated before going to a new family. While it is self-explanatory that a castration is a sure way to prevent unwanted pregnancies, there is an array of other reasons why this remains an important and responsible practice. It is especially true in the Cambodian context.
Rabies remains one of the biggest public health issues related to animals in Cambodia. Pasteur Institute estimates that nearly 1,000 people die each year from rabies, two thirds of them are children. With an estimated 5 million dogs in the country – mostly community and homeless dogs – it is an impossible task to eradicate rabies, if the population of the animals in each area is not properly monitored and controlled. Even with the best of intentions and initiatives, rabies vaccinations become rather useless on the grand scale of public health if the street animal population in the communities are allowed to multiply without any oversight, regulation or records.
Luckily, dogs can only produce two litters per year, but cats, on the other hand, reproduce with a much higher rate. It is estimated that one intact female cat can be responsible for 22,000 offspring in just four years (and the offspring of her offsprings). While cats are less likely to carry rabies (at least there are no statistics available on correlation of cat bites and human rabies cases in Cambodia), cats do carry a wide range of serious zoonic diseases that are easily transmitted to humans and can be rather dangerous, especially for kids, elderly and those with compromised immunity.
Feral cats in the forests of Cambodia have been known to hunt wildlife, in some cases to the point of wiping out the entire bird or animal species from the area, creating serious issues of delicate balance in local flora and fauna.
Street life is tough for any animal and life expectancy is much shorter for a homeless animal than a pet, both in rural and urban areas. Prevention of needless suffering, such as lack of food, nutrition, spread of a multitude of viral diseases, parasite infestations and much more, are also reasons to carry out sterilisation missions for homeless animals. At Animal Mama for instance, we believe that once we control the population in one area, we then must devote our resources to eradicate viral and parasite outbreaks by appropriate vaccination and parasite treatments. One cannot go without another. The multifaceted approach is the only way to effectively improve both, animal welfare and public health.
Right. So, it is safe to say, that most of us can agree that population control of homeless dogs and cats is vital for animal well-being and public health. But what about pets? Our beloved family members – should they undergo the procedure and what are the benefits? How does that benefit them and do they need it in the first place?
What comes to my mind immediately is the benefit to society of preventing unwanted litters of puppies and kittens – many of whom do face a very uncertain future. “Dogs and cats who are never born can’t die in a shelter or live homeless on the streets.”
There are many health benefits, too. According to ASPCA, “Your female pet will live a longer, healthier life. Spaying helps prevent uterine infections and breast tumors, which are malignant or cancerous in about 50 percent of dogs and 90 percent of cats. Spaying your pet before her first heat offers the best protection from these diseases. Neutering your male companion prevents testicular cancer and some prostate problems.”
In fact, neutering male dogs has been rather problematic in Cambodia. Males are preferred to be kept intact, some for personal reasons of the owners and some for religious ones. Yet, we have had several cases of intact male dogs suffering from a severe form of perineal hernia – a terrible condition, where most often than not an extensive surgical intervention is required. Not only is this needless suffering for your pet, it is an expensive procedure and depending on the extent of the herniation could result in a sad outcome. And the intact males are much more represented when it comes to suffering from the condition.
Those pet owners who feel that castration is not necessary or dangerous, may want to re-check current research. Surely, the animal should be allowed to develop before castration, but there is a relatively wide agreement in veterinary science that the procedure should be carried out around 9 to 12 months of age and can be as early as 5 or 6 months.
Some argue that spaying and neutering of the animal will bring about obesity, but there are no concrete correlations between castration and weight gain, so pet owners should be more concerned about providing appropriate diet and exercise to their pet before and after the spaying or neutering procedure.
An abundance of studies have shown the behavioural benefits of castration for dogs and cats. Again, to quote ASPCA “Your spayed female pet will not go into heat. While cycles can vary, female felines usually go into heat four to five days every three weeks during the breeding season. In an effort to advertise for mates, they will yowl and urinate more frequently—sometimes all over the house.” If given a chance, they will try to escape in search of a mate and come back with a belly full of a new generation.
Male dogs will be less likely to roam away from home as well. “An intact male will do just about anything to find a mate, including finding creative ways escape from the house. Once he is free to roam, he risks injury in traffic and fights with other male animals.” In Cambodia, where rabies, TVT and FIV is a huge concern, it is always best to ensure that your pet dog or cat stays inside and is not instinctually driven to run out. While neutering is not a quick fix to serious behavioral problems, certainly, neutered males are less likely to show aggression, run away, or mark their territory (which can be every corner of your home) by peeing everywhere, “Unneutered dogs and cats are more likely to mark their territory by spraying strong-smelling urine all over the house. Your dog might be less likely to mount other dogs, people and inanimate objects after he is neutered. Some aggression problems may be avoided by early neutering.”
I am aware of studies where some adverse health issues have been correlated with early spay and neuter. It is rather difficult for any pet owner to navigate a huge body of research literature. You should also know that there have been reports of adverse effects of early sterilisation, especially with certain breed of dogs (some studies found a correlation in hip problems and early sterilisation in some large dog breeds). Early sterilisation may also be linked to some form of cancers, UTIs and thyroid problems.
Another issue to consider is the castration of a female dog: There are two forms of castration for a female dog. The first is called an ovariectomy and it involves removing both of the dog’s ovaries. The second is called ovariohysterectomy and it removes the ovaries and the uterus.
According to Dogs Naturally Magazine, “the balance of long-term health risks and benefits of spay/neuter will vary from one animal to the next. Breed, age, and gender are variables that must be taken into consideration in conjunction with non-medical factors for each individual animal. Across-the-board recommendations for all pet dogs do not appear to be supportable from findings in veterinary medical literature.”
The “simple” answer, at least in my humble opinion, is to sterilise, while keeping in mind the few points: first, allow your pet to form and mature, so do not sterilise too early – a good age is between 9 -12 months old. Do your research and speak to your vet about your individual pet, his overall health and consider both positive and negative long-term effects of sterilisation for your pet. Finally, please do not use birth-control injections as they have been shown over and over to cause serious and often deadly infection of uterus, called pyometra.
As with everything, do your research, ask questions and educate yourself.
Animal Mama® Animal Clinic & Welfare Centre provides a wide range of services for animals & pets: vet care, boarding, daycare, pet food & supplies, hydrotherapy, grooming and doggy play dates.
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