Every summer, I witness the consequences of uncontrolled breeding of dogs and cats. Last week, a litter of five kittens was found, dumped in a local park. And a few weeks earlier, I heard about a litter of eight cross-bred pups that had been born "accidentally": their owner was worried about being able to find homes for them all.
This pattern of unwanted kittens and puppies is repeated across the country, leading to thousands of surplus animals every year. Some find homes, but many have to be euthanased, because there aren't enough homes for them all.
Furthermore, last year the ISPCA had to tackle many issues resulting from the indiscriminate breeding of cats, with almost 350 felines being rescued. Sixty-nine cats and kittens were removed from one property alone and many of these appalling situations could have been prevented if owners had been responsible enough to neuter or spay their pets.
These are some of the reasons why I am keen to highlight a campaign that is taking place this week: Spayaware. This is an annual publicity drive to encourage people to have their dogs and cats spayed and neutered. Pet owners may believe that their own pets will not breed, but the truth is that all animals have a natural inclination to do so. If actions are not taken to prevent breeding, dogs and cats are likely to get pregnant, and unwanted animals will be born.
The Spayaware campaign highlights the fact that spaying and neutering also brings many health benefits for pets. Studies show that neutered and spayed pets have longer lives, overall, on a population basis, compared to pets that are not neutered. There are many reasons for this, some listed below, but this single, simple statistic should be enough to persuade many people to go ahead with the operations.
The most startling life saving effect of spaying is the dramatic reduction in mammary cancer in female dogs (the canine equivalent of human breast cancer). If a female dog is spayed before her first season, this cancer is almost completely prevented. In Norway, where spaying dogs is illegal (it's regarded as a "mutilation"), over 50% of female dogs suffer from malignant mammary cancer. It is, by far, the most common cancer to affect female dogs, yet it can be prevented by spaying early in life.
The second common problem that's prevented by spaying is an infected womb, known as "pyometra". This is a serious illness, with a mortality rate of 4 - 17% even when comprehensive treatment is given. Another Scandinavian study found that 25% of unspayed females developed this problem by10 years of age. Spaying involves removing the womb, so obviously pyometra is completely prevented.
A few years ago, a group of Norwegian vets visited my clinic on an educational tour. They were astonished to see how few animals under our care suffered from mammary tumours and pyometra (because most pets are now spayed in Ireland).
In Norway, they have to treat patients with these problems every day, because they weren't spayed when younger.
There are benefits for male dogs too: testicular cancer is the second most common cancer in male dogs, and neutering (castration) eliminates that risk because the testicles are surgically removed. The prostate gland is also prone to disease in older dogs (just as it is in older male humans). Benign prostatic hyperplasia, affects 60-100% of dogs over 7 years of age, often causing difficulty urinating or defecating. This is completely prevented by neutering.
Hormones have a significant effect on male behaviour too. In one study, neutering reduced roaming behaviour of dogs by 90%, aggression between males by 62%, urine marking behaviour by 50%, and mounting behaviour by 80%. If your pet shows these problem behaviours, neutering will help to solve them.
There are some down sides to neutering: the male hormone, testosterone, helps dogs to feel confident. If this is removed by neutering, some anxious, fearful male dogs may be less likely to develop the confidence they need to function well in social environments. And in females, the removal of the female hormones can lead to some urinary incontinence, although this can be easily treated with daily medication when it happens.
It is well known that both male and female dogs are more likely to put on weight if they are neutered or spayed, but once owners are aware of this risk, they can take steps to keep their pets lean and fit. All of my own pets have been neutered and spayed, and none of them have been overweight.
Finally, while smaller dogs should be spay/neutered at around six months of age, it's now recommended to allow large or giant breeds of dogs to develop to full maturity, at around 18 months of age, before doing the operations. This helps to avoid some joint and bone problems that are more common in these breeds if the operations are done whey they are younger.
The answer for all pet owners is simple: speak to your vet to find out what's best for your pet, but whatever you do, don't contribute to Ireland's mountain of unwanted pups and kittens.
For more information on this important topic, see www.spayaware.ie