Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Fear of Testicles

Why is the animal community afraid of testicles? And to a lesser extent, ovaries and the uterus?

Every time I see a male dog with nuts, I hear the sound of scissors in my head. It's a reflex. I'll sometimes verbalize, "That's a beautiful dog, but he needs to be snipped yesterday!"

I am working on re-training my reaction.

It is hard, though. I have been taught by the animal shelter community that castration is the end-all, be-all way to stop dogs and cats from being killed in shelters.

And while I am a fan of neutering at the appropriate age or triage castration for areas with actual street/semi-feral dog problems, I have had to evaluate why I feel the way I do about castration.

I have been taught to feel this way. By college professors, by supervisors, by an entire dog-rescue/shelter community, dog trainers, and even veterinarians. They have all said castrating a dog before the age of 6-mos is not just appropriate, but absolutely necessary for the health and well-being of the dog.

Which is untrue. Or it is only partially true. Or, it is only true in some circumstances. But it is not True.

When Mina had to have a canine tooth extracted and a silver dollar sized lump removed from her chest, I agonized over the surgery. It was not a simple procedure. She, at the age of 10, would be completely sedated and heavily medicated with analgesics afterwards. The surgery would take nearly an hour. It was not that it would cost me more than a $1,000, but the anesthesia and surgery itself that I fretted over. Was it necessary? Would she survive the anesthesia? How would the tooth extraction affect her eating?

The veterinarian was pleased with my questions, answering them with patience and enthusiasm. It was never implied I would be a bad person if I waited on the surgery or did not have it, although it was discouraged for Mina's future health.

I went ahead with the surgery. The benefits - elimination of a rotted tooth and a potentially cancerous tumor outweighed the risks. Her lifespan will be longer without that tooth and, while the tumor was benign, it was growing.

Contrast that with Mina's spay. I had asked if it would be appropriate to wait to spay when I started fostering her. She was 25 lbs underweight and had a major tapeworm infestation. The shelter was willing to wait, since I was a long-time volunteer and trusted. The veterinarian, though, assured me it was in Mina's best interest to spay her now, right now, and that waiting was bad. She could go into heat any moment and make spaying her riskier. The shelter staff agreed, even if they were willing to wait. So I relented, and she was spayed while malnourished, parasitized and unthrifty. It is not something I would ever repeat.

And afterward? After she had her ENTIRE reproductive system removed, sliced open for the world to see and stitched back together...the vet was not planning on giving her analgesics. I know Mina is stoic. Also, I know being cut open hurts. Given the choice between no pain meds and pain meds, mammals and birds self-medicate when they hurt. I paid for the pain meds, even if the veterinarian thought I was silly.

That was nine years ago and times have changed. Many veterinarians provide post-op pain relief to dogs who are spayed and neutered. Some still do not. I still contrast the surgeries. The spay was far more painful for Mina by objective medical standards, yet it was treated as if Mina was having a toe-nail clipping rather than invasive surgery.

Castration does have some health benefits for the animals in question. For male dogs, it will eliminate some forms of cancer. Since the procreative drive, an incredibly powerful force, is eliminated, male dogs are perhaps offered some stress relief (no drive to procreate and guard such a powerful resource). For female dogs, it will eliminate pyometra and other forms of cancer. Pyometra rarely kills bitches, but it does affect nearly a quarter of intact female dogs. By far, castration is probably most appealing because it is far more convenient for us humans to deal with neutered dogs than un-neutered ones.

On the other hand, castration is a serious surgery that we take far too lightly. For females, it is not just serious, it's highly invasive.

Neutering too soon in giant-breed dogs, particularly males, causes bone growth problems. Spaying a female dog after she has gone through estrus or pregnancy increases the risk of incontinence. Mina suffers from spay-induced incontinence. It is easy to treat but requires her to be on medication for the rest of her life. Spaying also triples the risk of hypothyroidism in females, another condition Mina has, also requiring life-long medication. Other forms of cancer, like prostate, are more common in neutered male dogs than intact ones. It is suggested bone cancer is more likely in early-neutered dogs, male and female.

I think this overview of the cost-benefit of castration in male and female dogs is useful.

I am not advocating everyone stop castrating dogs and cats.

But uteruses and testicles have served very important functions - and not just reproductively - for a very long time. Their removal causes a cascade effect of hormonal changes. They are not accessories. Their absence is felt for the lifetime of the animal's life.

Which is why I think removing them should be considered a major surgery and that risks should be evaluated with a cost-benefit analysis for the animal first, the human second. Veterinarians should not scoff at the notion someone might not want to castrate their dog nor should animal shelter officials deny adoptions based on the reproductive status of another animal residing with the applicant.

Stop fearing balls and ovaries, but especially testicles (they're so visible, dangling there), and start thinking - really thinking - about what spaying and neutering does to our dogs and whether the risks outweigh the benefits for each dog in question. I appreciate the sensitive position animal shelters are put in, when few people actually follow through with spay-neuter vouchers. It can be heart-breaking seeing a dog you adopted out returned with a litter of puppies in tow.

Still, there must be a middle ground in which shelters can ethically and appropriately advocate for castration of most shelter animals while allowing that testicles and ovaries are a) useful and important and b) perhaps medically necessary for some dogs. If I ever end up with another dog not from a shelter (rescued in another manner), I would take castration far more seriously. I might modify the age at which neutering occurred. I might even *gasp* consider not castrating a male dog. I just don't know, but I will put more thought into it than I did with Mina.

On my part, I will work on not judging every pair of testicles I see on a dog as unnecessary and in need of permanent removal.

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