Spaying puppies, sometimes as young as seven weeks, has become increasingly common in shelters and rescues. The idea is to prevent unwanted litters, but pet parents, too, sometimes face pressure to spay dogs early because of the perceived notion that it’s messy or inconvenient to have a dog go into heat. Can you spay a dog too early? Can the practice be harmful?
“While there is understandably motivation to prevent overpopulation, pediatric spay does not come without risks,” says Dr. Tory Waxman, Chief Veterinary Officer and co-founder of human-grade dog food brand Sundays for Dogs, Inc.
If you have a puppy and are considering when is the right age to spay a dog, earlier is not always better and can lead to ongoing medical conditions for the rest of your dog’s life.
What to consider before spaying a dog
Spaying is the right decision for most dogs. In addition to the risk of unwanted litters, there are significant health risks associated with dogs not being spayed.
“Spaying prevents pyometra (uterine infection), ovarian and uterine cancer (albeit rare) and drastically decreases the risk of mammary cancer. Spaying also prevents pyometra (uterine infection) which can result in a life-threatening emergency if not treated early,” says Dr. Waxman.
We want to spay our dogs, but having the surgery done too early can have unintended consequences. Dr. Waxman says that in some breeds, early spaying can “predispose certain breeds to cancers more commonly seen in altered individuals (such as lymphoma and bone cancer).”
In addition, there have been some studies that indicate there can be a connection between female dogs spayed early and the development of urinary incontinence. Large female dogs were more susceptible to having incontinence post spaying.
Furthermore, Dr. Waxman advises that studies show that dogs spayed at an early age are at an increased risk of fear-based behavioral issues. Although spaying is important for your dog’s health, it’s equally important to be thoughtful about what age you have your puppy altered.
When to spay a dog
There is not a one size fits all recommendation for when to spay female puppies. Still, it is generally considered best to delay spaying larger dogs as it gives them more time to develop properly physically.
A recent study analyzed the existing scientific data regarding the ideal age to spay or neuter in order to decrease the risk of cancer and orthopedic disease. The researchers published the information in a helpful chart for 35 popular dog breeds.
“Current research suggests that spaying or neutering large breed dogs at a younger age puts them at a higher risk for cancer and orthopedic issues as compared to their small breed counterparts,” says Dr. Waxman.
Dr. Waxman encourages dog guardians to discuss with their vets the pros and cons of spaying at different ages before making decisions about when to spay their dog.
What are the risks of spaying a dog early?
Female puppies spayed at 7 weeks have been known to experience a delayed closure of growth plates, meaning they don’t finish growing until longer.
“Puppies that were altered at a young age may be predisposed to orthopedic issues in addition to certain types of cancer,” Dr. Waxman advises.
Puppies spayed at an early age may also experience a higher prevalence of CCL knee ruptures, and early spay may also contribute to the onset of hip dysplasia.
What if you have a dog spayed early?
If you have adopted a dog who was spayed early, there are things that you can do to support your dog and help her as she grows. Talk with your vet about how your puppy is growing. Dr. Waxman notes that “It is important to wait until growth plate closure before starting any intense activity (running long distances, agility, etc.). In addition, your puppy may need to remain on a puppy-specific diet for a longer period of time which should be discussed with your veterinarian.”
Regardless of what age your dog is spayed, Dr. Waxman advises that your dog receive regular veterinary care.
“It is important to visit your year annually, and for senior pets (over 7 years of age, and even over 4 for some large breed dogs) optimally biannually,” advises Dr. Waxman.