What Is The Best Age To Spay Or Neuter A Dog To Prevent Joint Problems?

For every puppy that I see in my veterinary practice, there’s always one central question that every puppy parent wants to know: what’s the best time to spay/neuter my dog?

What Is The Best Age To Spay Or Neuter A Dog To Prevent Joint Problems? The answer is that it depends on the breed of the dog and the ultimate size of the dog. In general, smaller breeds can be neutered at any time while larger dog breeds should be neutered closer to a year of age.

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Sound confusing? When should you spay/neuter your dog? As a veterinarian with over 20 years of experience, this is a question I hear almost daily. Let’s dig further into this to give you the best possible answer for your situation.

Why Are So Many Dogs Spayed Or Neutered At A Young Age?

In an effort to control the numbers of dogs in shelters, veterinarians and shelters have routinely recommended “fixing” dogs at an early age. For veterinarians (including myself), the recommendation was usually to get this done before the dog was 6 months old.

For shelters, the spay/neuter operation is usually done at a much younger age. It’s commonplace to see dogs be “fixed” before the age of 2-3 months. This may seem ridiculously early, but shelters can not rely upon new dog owners to get their dogs spayed/neutered before they reach the age where they can reproduce.

However, the pet-owning public has gotten far better over the past 10-15 years in taking care of their dogs. Responsible dog ownership is now commonplace in most areas of the country and the idea that dogs should be spayed or neutered at a super young age is being challenged by the knowledge that early surgeries such as these are causing problems in these dogs later in life.

What Joint Problems Can Dogs Have That Can Be Affected By Early Spay/Neutering?

The most common orthopedic/joint issues seen in dogs are:

  • Hip Dysplasia
  • Elbow Dysplasia
  • Cranial Crucial Ligament Tears (CCL or ACL)

What Evidence Supports The Idea That Certain Breeds Should Not Be “Fixed” Before They Are Mature?

Until the past 5-6 years, there was only anecdotal evidence that early spaying and neutering was leading to more joint problems in dogs. However, there are now several studies that have focused specifically on this issue:

  • Large dog breeds such as American Staffordshire Terriers, Newfoundlands, Rottweiler, Akita (and more) that developed a CCL/ACL rupture before the age of 2 years old were found to be far more likely in spayed/neutered dogs that were also significantly overweight.
  • In a study that looked at dogs that were spayed/neutered before the age of 1 year, the following was determined:
    • Dogs weighing over 20 kg (45 lbs) were 3x more likely to develop joint issues if they were neutered earlier than a year
    • Dogs less than 20 kg had no increased risk of joint disorders if neutered younger
  • In another retrospective study in German Shepherd dogs, dogs altered at an early age were found to be 3x more likely to develop joint problems before the age of 8 years.

Why I’m Still A Bit Doubtful About These Studies

This is my own personal opinion based on my 20+ years of experience. My counter-arguments to these studies are as follows:

  • How much does genetics play into the development of joint issues?
    • I’ve seen several severe cases in my career of hip and elbow dysplasia in dogs that haven’t been “fixed” yet. There are certain dog breeds that are being bred taller and bigger than they used to be. Wouldn’t this affect joint development and put more severe stress on joints at a younger age?
    • Responsible breeders screen their parent dogs for hip dysplasia and won’t breed a dog that doesn’t pass the OFA exam. They also will remove a parent dog from breeding if too many of their puppies develop hip dysplasia. This implies that genetics play a significant role in the development of hip issues and I don’t think any of the above study authors would disagree with that.
  • How Much Does The Body Condition Score Affect Joint Issues?
    • In the first study that looked at early CCL/ACL (same problem, just some people call it the Anterior Cruciate Ligament and some call it the Cranial Crucial Ligament), the dogs in the study were also significantly overweight.
    • Dogs that are overweight put additional stress on their joints and bones. It’s common sense that a chronically overweight animal will develop more orthopedic issues than dogs that are of normal weight.
    • After dogs are spayed/neutered, some can become overweight if their owners don’t adjust the food intake as needed.
  • Correlation Isn’t Necessarily Causation
    • These studies are conducted by dogs that show up to veterinary surgical centers with diagnosed orthopedic issues.
    • If you would conduct a study of the millions of dogs in the United States, I’d wager that the vast majority were spayed/neutered before the age of a year.
    • It may be more a correlating factor than a causation factor that these dogs suffering from joint disease would have benefited from not being spayed/neutered.
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What Do I Tell My Dog Owners About When To Spay/Neuter?

Alright. So all that above info is extremely confusing. On one hand, I’m showing you studies that seem to support the idea that early “fixing” can cause joint problems in larger dogs. On the other hand, I’m arguing that I think that there are likely other issues at play and that the cause of issues like hip dysplasia and ACL tears are far more than just when these dogs were spayed/neutered.

I also believe that there are many other factors (such as behavior issues and the owner’s own preference) that play into the decision of when to spay/neuter.

Here’s what I tell my dog owners:

  • For dogs under 40 lbs:
    • You can choose to spay/neuter at any time. It shouldn’t have much of an effect on their health as an adult.
  • For male dogs over 40 lbs:
    • Neutering can be done as late as a year. Longer if the owner really wants to wait or the dog is a breed that will be over 100 lbs fully mature. I don’t have a problem with that and believe that there are real benefits to waiting to neuter for these large dogs.
    • Know this: you won’t be able to place your dog in a day play or boarding facility if they aren’t neutered after a certain age (for our facility it’s 6 months). If you like to socialize your dog at the dog park, you’ll find that many other dogs will have issues with your intact dog even if they are neutered themselves.
  • For female dogs over 40 lbs:
    • I still recommend that dog owners spay their female dogs before their first heat. Unless an owner is comfortable and experienced with a female dog in heat, there are so many potential issues that can happen with an intact female dog when they go into heat that it’s just better to spay before that.
      • Bleeding from the vulva can be messy and smelly in the house
      • Every male dog in the neighborhood will be very interested in your female dog while she’s in heat – this makes it difficult or impossible to take her on a walk (don’t even think of taking her to a dog park or an off-leash area)
      • She may act abnormally due to the hormones she’s producing while in heat – owners who aren’t experienced with this may mistake the symptoms as illness
      • Like intact male dogs over the age of 6 months, you can’t take her to a day play or boarding facility

What Can A Dog Owner Do To Prevent Joint Problems In Their Dog?

Regardless of your decision on when to spay/neuter your dog, there are some basic preventative measures that any dog owner can take to try and stop joint problems from affecting their dog:

  • Start with the best possible genetics – if you’re purchasing a pure-bred puppy, make sure that the breeder has OFA records that indicate a “excellent” score on the hips. That is the best possible score and the only way to try and predict just how good the hips of the puppies will be. It’s not perfect – “excellent” hips don’t guarantee that your particular puppy won’t have hip dysplasia – but it’s all we have right now.
  • Keep your dog at a healthy weight! Keep stress off those joints!! You should be able to feel (not see) the ribs of your dog and the waist of your dog should be smaller than the hips and the chest.
  • Once fully mature, joint supplements that provide extra substances designed to maintain connective tissue health can be added to your dog’s health regimen.

In Conclusion

  • Waiting to neuter male dogs over the age of 40 lbs until a year of age might help prevent joint issues later in life
  • Studies have emerged that show a correlating factor between joint diseases like hip dysplasia and ACL tears and when the dogs were spayed/neutered
  • There likely are a multitude of factors that impact joint health outside of when a dog is spayed/neutered

Last update on 2021-12-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API