We've all heard what amount to old wives' tales about neutering and spaying our pets: Our animal friends will gain weight or lose their playful personalities; it's important to let a pet cycle through heat at least once; a female should have at least one litter of puppies or kittens before being neutered or spayed.
Is any of it true? Absolutely not.
Few animal lovers would argue with the most poignant and obvious reason for spaying or neutering their pets -- every kitten or puppy born takes a home (if it's lucky) that is desperately needed by an animal living in a cage in a shelter, often in the shadow of euthanasia. More than three million cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters nationwide, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
If that thought isn't convincing enough, there are plenty of other good reasons to take this important step with your beloved cat or dog. According to Marguerite Richmond, a veterinary technician and the director of development at the Humane Society for Tacoma & Pierce County in Washington, pets that are spayed or neutered are healthier and happier, and make more sociable companions.
"Ninety-nine percent of the animals we see for aggression are unaltered animals," Richmond said. "There is a high correlation between aggression and not being altered or spayed."
Male dogs especially tend to be aggressive if they are not altered, according to Richmond, while neutered males live more happily with their human families. "Male dogs who are neutered and stay home tend to be more protective, more aware of their family and more loyal. They don't urinate all over the house; they don't have those bad habits," she said.
There is absolutely no truth to the common perception that a female dog should go into heat at least once, or have a litter of puppies before she is spayed, Richmond said. In fact, there is a higher incidence of mammary cancer, uterine cancer and infections of the uterus in females who are not spayed. "Female dogs in heat will roam, attract male dogs and bleed. Long-term studies have shown that pets can be safely neutered as early as eight weeks," Richmond said. Many animal shelters spay their animals before allowing adoptions to take place.
Male and female cats are even more dramatically affected by a lack of spaying or neutering, because females will cycle in and out of heat continuously, and males will be on the constant lookout for opportunities to mate, Richmond said. Male cats that are not neutered are also more likely to fight with other felines.
Some parents believe their children will learn about the miracle of birth if their cat has a litter, but Richmond noted that cats will usually hide when they give birth, and children often won't see the kittens until they are older. Families that want to experience puppies or kittens have a better option -- one that will help save lives instead of contributing to overpopulation. They can foster litters that come into local shelters until the kittens are old enough for adoption.
If the cost of spaying or neutering is a problem, many local shelters and animal rescue societies have low-cost or free spaying programs. For more information about neutering or spaying your pet, talk to your veterinarian, contact your local animal shelter, or visit these links:
Faye Rapoport DesPres is a freelance writer specializing in pet care, family and outdoor activities. She lives with her husband and five cats, and has a website at OurPlaceToPaws.com.