For someone who has spent a career in reproductive endocrinology there’s a surprising dearth of stories about gonads in my blog. I am now correcting that impression.
This post was prompted by the memory of a visit to our former veterinary clinic for Ben’s checkup. One of the techs who examined him wanted to show us her own Golden and went out to retrieve her dog from the kennel. It had that lovely nature redolent of its breed with a double coat of hair and brushy tail. He was magnificent in every way, except one. His long bones were so elongated he looked like he was walking on stilts. The next time I saw a Golden like him I snapped a picture, but it wasn’t an extreme example.
Both owners told me their dogs were neutered around 6 months of age. Many female dogs are also spayed before puberty, and the same for cats, but I believe it’s too young when they are still immature.
There are four reasons for castrating a dog before puberty. 1) It’s good for society because it avoids breeding unwanted animals that may suffer or become feral and terrorize the neighborhood and wildlife. 2) It’s good for the vet because surgery is easier when the gonads are tiny. 3) It’s good for the pet owner because it reduces socially embarrassing mounting and marking behavior, or hounding females in heat. 4) And it’s good for the animal, or is it?
Among many impacts on the animal’s body and behavior, testosterone in males has a double effect on the long bones of limbs and ribs, as in humans. At low levels in juveniles, testosterone stimulates growth zones near the ends of bones (epiphyses), and when it rises to adult levels epiphyses fuse to prevent further elongation, and the bones are then considered mature. But if levels remain low because the testes are surgically removed the long bones continue growing past the age when they would normally stop. The final stature of the body is partly dictated by the trajectory of testosterone, and the same for estrogen in females. Without his sex hormones, Ben would become a canine eunuch.
That’s why a girl who has her first period early, at say age 6 to 8, tends to become a shorter adult because her bones have matured prematurely by estrogen. Hence, no more than 3-4” in height can be expected after menarche. Conversely, delayed puberty gives more time for growing, although sex hormones are only part of the story. Testosterone has the same effects in boys, although less apparent because there is no stage of puberty as marked as the onset of menstruation. But I digress…
Ben is an adult dog approaching two years old and still intact, yet we have no intention of breeding him. His day of the knife is postponed, and our vet agrees with the physiological rationale that his body should experience testosterone at full throttle before we cut his engine.
Ben looks like classic Goldens you see at the Westminster or Crufts Dog Show, where every competitor must be intact to qualify for show. They have shorter and stouter legs than either of the examples I mentioned, although it’s hard to compare pictures because of his shaggy coat. He doesn’t need to be “fixed” urgently because he’s not aggressive or horny and does not roam willy-nilly looking for females. I am sure he’s a better-looking and healthier specimen for still being intact. The delay helps weight control and avoids extra strain on bones and joints, but if it raises his risk of prostate growth a tad in old age the disease is unlikely to be malignant, as in men. But his time will come, and he won’t be the only family member feeling sad that day. It feels unkind to put our best friend under the knife for mostly social reasons, and some owners feel so guilty they replace the testes with prostheses.
A pair of neuticles made of medical-grade silicone fill the vacant space to give the impotent the presence of potency. The swollen scrotal sac placates an owner’s conscience, but I wonder if it can restore a dog’s pride?