Should You Spay Your Labrador? A look at pros and cons

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Should you spay your Labrador? Nowadays, the answer is rarely a straightforward yes or no.

[wp_ad_camp_5]This article takes a look at the pros and cons of spaying female dogs, to help you to make the right decision for your bitch.

For many years now,  veterinary surgeons throughout the UK and elsewhere have been recommending the routine spaying, of all bitches which are not going to be bred from.

In the USA  where neutering often takes place at a very early age, this seems to be widely accepted as the ‘right thing’ to do, and a useful form of population control.

In the UK the situation most bitches seem to be left intact until after their first season, and neutering of dogs is not quite as widespread

Vets tell us that spaying your bitch will protect her against life threatening disease such as mammary cancer and pyometra.

Some breeders counter that the benefits of spaying have been overstated and that this is a major procedure which is risky in itself and has serious unwanted side effects.

So who is right?

How common is mammary cancer in dogs

So just how common is mammary cancer in dogs?

Let’s have a look at some of the facts.

On the face of it, the incidence of mammary tumours in unspayed bitches appears to be worryingly high.

Most sources state that 25% or 26% of all unspayed female dogs will develop mammary tumours at some point.

And about half of these tumours will be malignant.

Sounds worrying doesn’t it?

What does spaying achieve?

Most sources state that the risk of mammary tumours in dogs spayed before their first season is negligible, and before her second season is around 8%, rising to 25% afterwards.

[wp_ad_camp_2]In other words, if you wait until after the second  season, it is too late  to reduce the risk of mammary tumours.

These two sets of figures have been widely quoted for several years

When looking at statistics they are of course often not as straightforward as they seem.

A recent review

Since this article was first written, a systematic review has been carried out into the effect of spaying on the incidence of mammary cancer in dogs.  This is useful because a systematic review, is where many studies are gathered together, examined for soundness and the data within them reviewed.

We are getting better at constructing well designed studies, so reviews are helpful as they are able to highlight badly designed or biased studies.

Results of the review

This recent review was published in 2012 and looked thirteen separate reports on the association between neutering and mammary tumours.

should-you-spay-your-bitchNine of these reports were considered to have a high risk of bias.

The remaining four studies had a moderate risk of bias. One of the studies found an association between neutering and reduced risk of tumours.  Two of the studies found no association. A further study presented no numbers.

Due to the high risk of bias and the weak evidence, the systematic review concluded that the evidence for the efficacy of spaying as a protection against mammary tumours is weak

What does this mean?

Sadly, it means that we really don’t have enough evidence to draw any conclusions on whether or not neutering helps reduce the risk of mammary tumours, and that more and better research is needed into this subject.

It is probably fair to say however, that most vets still support neutering and see it as a helpful way to reduce the risk of mammary tumours.

Other factors involved in mammary tumours

Differences in susceptibility to cancer may vary from breed to breed, between large dogs and small, between purebred and crossbred dogs (one study showed that the risk doubles for purebred dogs) and depending on environmental influences.

One study showed that unspayed bitches who were thin as puppies had half the risk of developing mammary tumours as those that were not thin as puppies. Some studies are carried out on a very small number of subjects, and some come to different conclusions than others.

Just as in humans, there appears to be a genetic element in the risk factors for canine mammary tumours. If siblings of your dog or her mother, have developed mammary tumours, then your bitch is at greater risk. This genetic component is presumably why pedigree dogs are also at increased risk.[wp_ad_camp_4]

What about pyometra?

There is another reason for spaying an adult bitch, especially one that is still entire as she approaches middle age, and that is pyometra

Pyometra is a very nasty infection of the uterus or womb.   It tends to occur in older bitches a few weeks after the end of their ‘season’.

When a bitch contracts pyometra, pus builds up inside the uterus which is stretchy, and becomes more and more swollen –  the bitch may even start to look pregnant.    It’s a bit like appendicitis but in a much larger organ.

If the cervix, or entrance to the uterus, remains closed,  the disease may go undetected until the infection is so advanced that the dog cannot be saved.    If you are lucky,  your dog will have a discharge and the infection will be detected before it kills her.

Pyometra is undoubtedly painful,  but dogs, like many other animals, tend to hide pain (a survival mechanism) until it becomes unbearable.  So all you may notice in your bitch, is that she seems a bit ‘off-colour’

You can read more about pyometra in my article: Pyometra: how to make sure your bitch is safe

It’s a killer

Pyometra is an often silent and deadly killer, but most importantly its prevalence is widely understated.  People worry a great deal about mammary cancer,  but unless she is a cancer prone breed, your bitch is probably far more at risk from pyometra.

One American study  showed that the risk of pyometra in a bitch over nine years old is a shocking 66%.   A study in Sweden where only 7% of dogs are routinely neutered, showed that around 25% of bitches would have experienced this disease before the age of ten.  That figure ranged from 10% to 54% depending on the breed.

With every season she goes through and for every year that goes by,  the risk to your bitch increases.   The standard treatment for pyometra is an emergency spay.  This is a far more risky, and much more expensive, operation than a standard  routine spay for your dog

The benefits of spaying

The evidence to suggest that spaying your bitch early in life (before her second season) will protect her from mammary tumours is weak.  More research is needed to confirm this.

Spaying later in life may be less likely to confer protection, than spaying at a very early age.

Spaying at any age offers your dog almost complete protection against pyometra afterwards. Detecting this horrid disease is often very difficult and the evidence suggests that as your bitch becomes elderly she is more likely to get it than not.

Spaying of course has the added advantage for the owner who does not wish to breed, of removing the heat cycle so that the bitch can be worked/taken out in public, all year round.

But what is clear from recent studies, is that there are risks as well as benefits, to spaying your bitch.

The disadvantages of spaying

Before you whisk your female labrador down to the vet, we need to look now at the other side of the coin.

Some research has shown that spaying may in some respects, be disadvantageous to your dogs health.

Studies have shown increased risk in joint problems, urinary incontinence and in several other types of cancer in bitches that have been spayed, compared with bitches that have been left intact.

This is obviously something we need to consider before booking our bitches in for a spay.

Urinary incontinence

A recent systematic review has looked at the increased risk of incontinence in the bitch after spaying.  Seven studies were identified of which four were at high risk of bias.

The review concluded that there was some weak evidence to suggest that spaying may be associated with increased risk of urinary incontinence, especially if carried out before three months old.

Urinary incontinence in spayed bitches may be treatable with hormone replacement.   Much more worrying is the recent research into the association between neutering and the risk of certain cancers.

Cancer

Some studies have shown that spayed bitches, whilst less at risk from mammary cancer, are more at risk from some other cancers.

A study on golden retrievers (a cancer prone breed) in 2013 showed an increase in risk of two different types of tumour in bitches that were spayed later in life, compared with those that were left intact. It also showed a significant increase in CCL (cruciate ligament) tears in bitches spayed early in life.

A study on Hungarian Viszlas (over two thousand of them) showed a significant increased risk of several types on cancer in bitches that had been spayed, compared with those that had not.

These risks from other types of cancer, may balance out the advantages of a reduction in mammary cancer through spaying. If indeed there is one.

Joint problems

Sex hormones are involved in growth, and in slowing the growth of an animal as it reaches puberty.  Dogs that are neutered before sexual maturity grow longer leg bones.

This alters the angle of the joint and may be the reason that studies have shown an increase in serious joint problems (like cruciate ligament tears) in bitches that have been spayed.

This is important, not only for working dogs, but for pet dogs too.  CCL tears involve expensive surgery and  long periods of inactivity and crate rest.

Coat condition and temperament

Last but not least, your spayed bitch is also likely to experience permanent changes in coat condition which may be unacceptable to some owners

[wp_ad_camp_1]Particularly those who are ‘showing’ their dogs.

There is also a perception that the bitch who is spayed very young may develop mentally in a different way from the entire bitch

Perhaps altering her drive and potential in competitive fieldwork, though I could not find any concrete evidence for this.

Nor is such evidence is likely to be forthcoming as gundogs do not complete their training before their second heat.

 Deciding whether to spay

Because the competitive dog does not reach or show her full potential until after the optimum time for spaying, selecting which bitches to spay and which bitches to breed from is problematical for owners of working or competition Labradors.

Removing ovaries and uterus as a means of enhancing and prolonging a working dog’s life is unlikely, therefore, to become popular amongst serious field triallers and dog breeders.  Especially with the increased risk in joint problems being a factor.

For pet dog owners,  the situation is also still far from clear.  The possibility of reduced risk of mammary cancers in intact bitches may be outweighed by the risks of other cancers in spayed bitches.

The situation with regard to pyometra is an important consideration.  If you leave your bitch unspayed throughout her life,  she may well develop pyometra.  For that reason alone, some owners will chose to spay their bitch at some point.

A long and healthy life?

The evidence for the benefits of spaying for the pet dog is incomplete.  Whether you view such intervention as a ‘mutilation’ or as a ‘life-saver’ is very personal matter and a choice that each dog owner has to make for themselves.

greenies for dogs
This article is intended to be a summary of the available information and is not a substitute for veterinary advice. Remember that veterinary/medical advances are being made all the time.

We have made several changes to this article since it was originally published.  Do please let us know if you think this article needs updating again with new research.

The Labrador Handbook by Pippa Mattinson

If you have any concerns about your dog’s health, or to find out more about the benefits and disadvantages of spaying your bitch, you should contact your veterinary surgeon.

How about your dog?

Did you have your bitch spayed?   Where there any unwanted side effects,  and were you happy with your decision?  We would be interested to hear of your experiences.

Further reading

The following links have more information on the issues discussed in this article:

More information on Labradors

labrador-jacket-800You can find out more about how to keep your Labrador as fit and healthy as possible in the Health section of our website.

If you’d like all of our best Labrador information together in one place, then get your copy of The Labrador Handbook today.

The Labrador Handbook looks at all aspects owning a Labrador, through daily care, to health and training at each stage of their life.

The Labrador Handbook is available worldwide.

21 COMMENTS

  1. I’m now in the situation to make a decision if, and when best to spay my female, 5 months old pup, and found this information very helpful. It also made me look for some more recent information and I found this abstract from 2017 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28787064; title “Neutering of female dogs – old and new insights into Pros and Cons”) that takes into account the points indicated here, but where it also says regarding the risk of other forms of cancer and HD in spayed dogs the following:

    “Recently, several studies have been published suggesting a significantly higher risk of different forms of neoplasia and musculoskeletal disorders in neutered dogs. However, factors that may bias these findings, including nutritional condition, age and/or housing, were not addressed in most studies.”

    And it concludes as follows:

    “The optimal time may be between the first and the second heat. It can be suggested, that at this time, a certain reduction of the risk of mammary neoplasia can be achieved with only a moderate potential for undesired side effects.”

    I might just do that.

  2. We have a 6month old labrador from working dog stock who has been diagnosed with the canine herpes virus. She has slight incontinence when she sleeps but otherwise knows to go outside. We want to be able to put her in home boarding occasionally but the local council licensing means that no-one can take her until she is spayed.
    Would you recommend waiting until her first season before getting her spayed?

  3. One other option not mentioned here is a tubal ligation. this proceedure can be done while puppy is young. When done with laproscopics, it is not invasive at all. You can still decide to have the orvaries removed at a later date.

  4. We were encouraged to have our Labrador puppy spayed before she had her first ‘heat’ as we were told it reduced the risk of mammary tumours. The spaying didn’t seem to alter her character in any way and she did not grow very big, she never had any joint problems and her coat remained a lovely silky black. However, when she was 9 1/2 she was diagnosed with a huge cancer mass that was inoperable because it was just behind her heart. She did undergo chemotherapy which meant she lived for another two to three years but when she was 12 she began to have breathing difficulties and sadly died one night.

  5. In common with Yvonne Mustapha (April 16, 2016), I am interested in a competently performed ovary sparing spay for my Labrador, now two and a half years old. It seems to me that the main risk of not spaying is Pyometra. If just the uterus (+ stem?) is carefully and fully removed this risk will be removed (a possible increased risk of mammary cancer will remain). The risks of a full spay (joint problems and cancers other than mammary and urinary incontinence) are, as I understand it, associated with the consequent absence in hormones produced by the ovaries. Thus ovary sparing spay seems optimum, if done carefully so that no uterine tissue remains. When I tried to find a vet to do this I could not. Why do no UK vets offer this or develop the expertise to offer it please?

    • i would say Kate,vets might as well do a full hysterectomy because once the blood supply to the ovary is cut off,they shrivel up and die anyway so no hormones whatever you do,no easy answers to this one

  6. Just a thought. i have a 1yr old dog and a 7 month bitch- looking at options for ‘that’ first season- dog boarding my dog as him being castrated while so timid is not recommended…possibility of a vasectomy… but being advised to spay my bitch before her first season seems to be the preferred option by my Vet. Both dogs would be eventually neutered though. I always waited for the first season with my previous girls but reading the mixed messages here- as an orthopaedic nurse my self- Could spaying with HRT until a year old (say) be an option?

    • I meant to add- the dog bitch combo had a plan A- my brother always took my previous dog on ‘his holidays’ to the seaside- Plan A went topsy turvy- hence my ‘problems’

  7. I have recently looked up part spaying where the whole of the uterus ( + the stem ) is removed but the Ovaries are left intact. This seems to lower the risk of Osteo-sarcoma ( bone cancer ) which also occurs more in certain breeds of dogs.
    This makes sense as in the human female if the whole of the womb is removed they need hormone replacement treatment after, but if possible only the uterus is removed and the ovaries are kept .
    Has anyone looked into this and if there is a Vet that does this form of Spay in Buckinghamshire

  8. We had our fox red lab bitch spayed when she was 11 months old, a couple of months after her first season. We wanted wait until she had matured and were advised this was best. My mum had her black lab spayed before her first season.
    Our dog seemed to calm down much quicker than my mums and although that might be down to genetics I do believe that spaying before her first season contributed to her very boisterous behaviour
    However we noticed around 3 years afterward ours had been spayed she had urinary incontinence, she is on propalin and will be for the rest of her life we were told this was a risk of spaying after the first season.
    We now have a chocolate puppy, and have decided to wait until after her first season (which we wish would hurry up as she is now 10 months old!) but we think we may go for the laprascopic spay, as this is now an option, fingers crossed she will calm down a bit when she matures!! We feel the need to spay ad we don’t want unwanted puppies as we’re just not in a position for this and not being able to walk her for 3-4 weeks is going to drive both us and her insane so we don’t want to stress her out more than once!

  9. We had our female lab spayed at 6 months before her first heat and I regret that now. While she came through the surgery easier than my previous lab that was spayed at 1-1/2, we are now dealing with occasional incontinence in our 2 year old lab. If I knew then what I know now, I would have waited. We have had several females of different breeds over the years spayed at different ages with no mammary cancer or incontinence. My next female will be spayed after 1 or 2 seasons.

  10. My black lab who is 7 soon is currently in season. Very irratable, is frustrated her walking off the lead has had to stop and is acting slightly different? I’m deciding if to get her spayed but not sure as she is older. Can anybody help me please xx

    • I have an 8 year old chocolate lab who we decided to have spayed 3 months ago. We made this decision as she has twice in the past had Pyometra the last time being December 2014 the first time we almost lost her but we foolishly believed she wouldn’t get it again which of course she did.
      Getting her spayed was just the best decision,Milly is a different dog she is happier and has lots more energy and life, when the vet operated cysts were found all along her uterus which we were unaware of.

  11. Thanks Pippa for a very informed item. My 11month choc lab has no had her first season yet and I found it unusual until a few people said there dogs were late starters. Apparently my puppy’s Auntie was 15 months before she had her first one. Must admit I’d never hear of joint problems occurring in bitches who’d been spayed too young.
    I did have my collie cross bitch spayed between her second and third season and she developed slight urinary incontinence about 3years later and stayed on Propalin for the rest of her life. But this was manageable and she lived a happy healthy life with no joint problems until she reached about 10 years of age and she lived to be 14 and a half.

  12. As you say, it’s a personal decision, but I would NEVER spay again before at least the first heat, probably the second. Against my better judgement, I took the advice of my vet and of dog trainers and had Pebbles spayed at 7 months before her first heat. She is now very prone to joint injuries – the vets said hip dysplasia but when x-rayed, her hips are near perfect. Pebbles is taller than her mother who was only spayed after 4 litters and is a very strong dog who moves beautifully. I’m no expert but I have made a point of looking at bitches spayed before and after the first heat and those allowed to reach maturity naturally are, in my opinion, much stronger and move much better (I’m talking only about Labradors). After all, would you give a little girl of 7 years old a hysterectomy?? I realize that unwanted litters, world over, present a huge problem and you have to be extremely careful but I honestly feel that this is the main reason that vets and trainers advocate sterilization before maturity. Just saying…… Nobody would ever talk me into doing it again.
    Kind regards

  13. I had our Lab spayed after her 1st heat. I was worried about pyometra because our last dog had an open pyometra and luckily I was able to bring her to the vet quickly.

    I also do not want any unexpected litters. I’ve read studies and articles about the disadvantage of spaying. At 18 months, my Lab was diagnosed w/ osteoarthritis. I felt so guilty I thought it was a direct result of her spaying, though my Vet assured us that it MAY NOT be caused by spaying. I don’t know anymore. I wish there’s more information out there and more studies.

    Now my Lab is taking Cetyl-M, we’ll have periodic xrays to monitor her athritis and if it progresses, we’re looking into stem cell as an option.

  14. I have heard that from friends’ experiences that spaying will cause incontinence in female labs and they have to be on pills their whole life to prevent bed wetting. Is that true?

  15. My year old lab has just come into season. I am thinking of having her spayed but my partner fears that she will put on weight if this is done. Is he right?

  16. Are there behavior advantages to spaying? My 6 month old lab seems on edge & is mounting everything. Will spaying ease her?

  17. Thanks that’s really helpful! I’ve read both articles and am pretty sure I’ll go ahead-the only question being exactly when. Slightly worried about the bone density/hip dysplasia/bone cancer aspect of spaying, my dog being a (rather tall and thin) Labrador, although she has had her hips X-rayed and apparently they’re pretty spot on. (not scored yet). I didn’t know that was an issue..Thanks again. It’s a tricky one!

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