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Alterations, while they wait

If you got a pup during the holidays, you're probably starting to wonder when you should have your young pal spayed or neutered.

IF YOU got a puppy during the holidays, you're probably starting to wonder when you should have your young pal spayed (removal of ovaries and uterus) or neutered (removal of testes). The answer to that used to be straightforward: Most veterinarians recommended that the surgery take place when the pet was 6 to 9 months old.

Spaying and neutering has benefits for pets, owners and society. In general, altered pets live healthier, longer lives. They are less likely to roam because they don't have hormones urging them to seek out a mate and females don't need to be confined during twice-yearly heat cycles. And widespread spay/neuter efforts have greatly reduced the numbers of homeless animals in shelters.

All those benefits are important, but we've discovered that they must be balanced with the needs of individual dogs, and that can be a challenge. The issue of when to spay or neuter a pet is complicated, and there's no one-size-fits-all answer. New research tells us that for some dogs, at least, waiting until they reach physical maturity is a better option than pre- or early adolescent spay/neuter surgery.

Depending on the age at which it's performed, several studies have shown that spay/neuter surgery is linked to increases in the incidence of certain diseases or conditions in dogs, including osteosarcoma (bone cancer), hemangiosarcoma (heart tumor), hypothyroidism and canine cruciate ligament (CCL) injuries, as well as prostate cancer in male dogs and urinary incontinence in females.

Don't get us wrong. We believe that spaying and neutering is the right thing to do for family pets. The benefits more than outweigh the risks. The decision you need to make, in conjunction with your veterinarian, is when to schedule it for your particular pet. Here are some factors to consider:

* Ask your veterinarian about the health risks faced by your breed and whether any of these issues are affected by the age at which a dog is spayed or neutered.

* Typically, the bigger the dog, the greater the risk of orthopedic problems with early spay/neuter. Letting the dog mature before spaying or neutering may improve bone health over the long run.

* Consider alternative methods of altering your dog, such as ovariectomy (removal of only the ovaries) or injectable neutering with Zeuterin. An ovariectomy is less invasive, and the Zeuterin procedure allows dogs to retain some of their testosterone, which can offer certain protective health benefits, according to some studies.

*  Put risk into perspective. Altering at a young age may have only a slight effect on the incidence of disease, and the increase in incidence will be breed-related. If the risk increases from 1 in 20,000 to 2 in 20,000, you are still better off spaying or neutering your dog.

Cat owners, your decision is easy. Spaying or neutering before 5 or 6 months of age is still best, no matter what the breed or mix.