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Ask Dr. Pawz: What is the best age to neuter a dog?

Wednesday - 3/6/2013, 8:30am  ET

Katy_Nelson.jpg
Dr. Katy Nelson. (Courtesy Rich Kessler Designs)

Katy Nelson, special to wtop.com

Our first question today comes to us from Lilian B.

Hello Dr. Katy, I recently read about a study about the age at which a dog is neutered and its correlation to some health conditions such as hip dysphasia and mast cell tumors. It seems that dogs neutered younger had higher incidence of hip dysphasia because too early neutering stopped bone maturation. However, dogs neutered older had higher incidence of mast cell tumor. My question is what is optimum age for neutering to reduce risk for both? My son has a 7-month-old Boxer.

Great question, Lilian! There are many, many studies out there that examine the optimum age to spay and neuter dogs and cats. Some show benefits to waiting until after maturity to spay and neuter, while others show benefits in sterilization prior to sexual maturity.

For male dogs, the benefits shown to waiting until after maturity are in some cases breed dependent, with the larger dog breeds benefiting more from waiting until closer to puberty. Puberty in dogs can range anywhere from 6 months to 24 months depending upon the breed, with larger breed dogs maturing later than small breeds. Significant behavioral problems, as well as accidental breedings, can be avoided if neutered between 6 and 12 months. At this time, that is the agreed upon recommendation by most veterinarians.

For female dogs, I would say that the jury is still out. Since the 1960s, it has been accepted that spaying prior to the first heat protected female dogs from mammary tumors, and that has been the recommendation for years. However, a recent study by the Royal Veterinary College in the UK, and another study at Purdue University, has called that into question. Further examination is needed to determine whether the recommendation of the last half century is still accurate. My best advice is to work with your veterinarian to determine the optimum age for spaying your specific dog.

For cats, there does not seem to be any significant evidence that waiting has any specific benefit, so spaying and neutering around age 4 to 6 months old is the accepted recommendation. This allows time to finish their vaccination series, avoid some behavioral issues and still prevents early and accidental breedings.

The most important thing is to spay and neuter your pets to avoid adding to the extreme pet overpopulation faced in the United States.

Our second question today comes to us from Rich K.

Dr. Katy, our older cat has been having accidents outside the litter box for a while. He urinates in the box consistently, but he very rarely poops in his box. Also, recently his stools have become, let's just say, "messy." Do you have any recommendations for what we can do to help? Should we change his food? Right now, he eats a grocery store brand of dry food that he seems to like.

Rich, I'm sorry to hear you guys are dealing with this. I know how frustrated you must be. To solve this problem, we're going to have to examine a few issues. First off, we need to examine the number of litter boxes that you have in the house to ensure that your kitty has enough "bathrooms" to keep him happy. General rule of thumb is to have one litter box per level of the house per cat, plus an extra never hurts. Therefore, if you have a three-level town home and two cats, you should have a minimum of six litter boxes. Also, since kitties are notoriously finicky, make sure that you're cleaning them every day so as not to "offend their sensibilities."

Second, talk with your veterinarian about running a few tests on a fecal sample. Ruling out bacterial overgrowths, parasites or other issues can be done with a simple and fairly inexpensive testing process. If issues are found, they can be addressed accordingly with either further testing, medication or other treatments.

Finally, changing the diet may be helpful if recommended by your veterinarian. We are what we eat, so perhaps by feeding a more appropriate diet you may be able to help the stools become more formed and therefore help him to control where he goes a little better. Discuss an age appropriate canned diet that is designed for cats with gastrointestinal issues. These diets typically have prebiotics in them and perhaps even a slightly higher fiber content.

Also, ask your veterinarian if probioitics may be helpful. 70% of our immune system is located in our gastrointestinal tract, so by keeping our gut, and that of our pets, healthy, we may be able to improve overall health. There are numerous probiotic products on the market, and many are over the counter and easily available.

Thank you so much for these great questions, and I hope you'll keep them coming!

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Dr. Katy Nelson is an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va. Tune in to "The Pet Show" with Dr. Katy every Saturday at 11 a.m. on Washington D.C.'s News Channel 8, and listen on WTOP for her Dr. Pawz segments every two weeks. Have questions for Dr. Katy? You can follow her on Twitter @drkatynelson, on Facebook or email her at askdrkaty@wtop.com. Follow @WTOPLiving on Twitter.