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Posted on 02-24-2016

A Meditation on Gonadectomy

By Bill Stork, DVM

An extremely predictable confluence of events recently provided me with time to do some involuntary snow-shovel meditation.

Mid-State Equipment in Watertown has custody of my John Deere 2520. Jeff and John are chasing a mechanical version of what vets call a “nebulopathy”, and I have 30 yards of cobbled blacktop at an 18% incline. Which absolutely ensured we would be blessed with the second significant snow event of the season.

The Packers didn’t play until 3:15. With a victory over the Maryland Native Americans in the divisional round of the playoffs a foregone conclusion, my mind was clear to contemplate matters of secondary urgency.

I made a double wide swath down the middle of the drive with the angle-blade and traded for the snow-blaster. As I squatted low and made twenty passes to the west, I pondered how I could benefit society and raise two grounded kids after winning 900 million dollars with my Powerball ticket.

So that my 50-year-old lumbar vertebrae didn’t assume a permanent torticollis, I stood upright and slid back to the base of the hill to swipe the other side. With the prevailing northwest wind at my back, I launched snow in the air for Token to attack, and prepared myself on how to answer “the call”.

Every author dreams of a book deal from one of the “Big 5” publishers. After playing to a raucous crowd of 18 folks at the Lake Mills Public Library (only half of whom are on the payroll), and 15 minutes on WBEV with Brenda Murphy, I’m expecting one of the next calls to surely be Random House. The conflict is, being a veterinarian takes all my grey matter and most of my time. I love both my clients and patients. According to Mike Perry, the life of a best-selling author becomes a perpetual blur of paparazzi, red carpet, readings, and author events. My response time to dystocias, cast-iron furnace grate entrapments, and fish hook entanglements would become too slow to serve. I fear my absence would quickly erode Dr. Clark’s “Chi”.

I’m sure the first book deal would be on the same order of magnitude as Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt’s NFL contracts. In return, the editors at HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster would want to weigh in on the direction and tenor of my little essays. They may have made best sellers and household names of Mike Perry, Bristol Palin, and Mary Higgins Clark; but when I’m looking for a light to follow, I listen to Sylvia Sippel.

For those who follow us regularly (thank you, Don and Gary), our holiday articles reflected on 2015 with a contemplative, and I thought uplifting, take on death. The natural sequel would be to wax on the lessons learned in our old dog Remmi’s last year, or a re-tread on aging. My son turns 18 tomorrow.

These notions were shattered with the subtlety of Clay Mathews at a tea party by a woman barely 5’ tall and weighing less than the linebacker’s equipment.

The door had not shut behind her when Sylvia looked over the top of her glasses, “Live Like You’re Dyin’, good God man, you gotta lighten up”.

Yes, ma'am.

Rather than risk another philosophical, autobiographical tangent, we’ll stick to a topic that is both clinically relevant, and timely.

It is charming beyond description that many of the young people we know are animal lovers. Rather than I-Pads and smart rings for Christmas, they begged their parents for puppies and kittens. There could also be a case in which the kids justified mom and dad.

Dr. Clark and I spend the months of January and February ensuring these young'uns are immunized according to their lifestyle, free of parasites, and skilled at licking our noses. Mittsy, Alli, and Danielle teach a puppy class. Graduates of the Lake Mills Puppy Pre-school learn that coming to the sound of their name, not  jumping on people, dropping what’s in your mouth, and men in horrifying Halloween masks all result in approximately 10lbs of freeze-dried liver.

The discussion of when and if we spay and neuter is a serious one, worthy of tact, clinical facts, and diplomacy. We’ll ask, “Have you thought about having him neutered?” Responses vary from “Can you do it now?” to “You can have his, if I can have yours”.

What follows is a somewhat comprehensive and occasionally serious look at many of the factors we take into consideration as we try hard to make the recommendation that best fits your pet, your family, your relationship with your in-laws, and the dignity of your child’s favorite Christmas toy.

Terms used to describe sexual neutralization, in descending order from clinical to the vernacular, include: orchiectomy, spay, neuter, castration, fix, and “nut”. Others are less elegant. For the purpose of this piece we will use "spay" and "neuter" for gender-specific references. Many points will apply equally to males and females.

I’m not a particularly skilled typist, and it seems awkward to reach for the "/" key every time I need to refer to spay/neuter. Neuter accurately refers to the procedure in both sexes, but is only two syllables, and evokes less emotion than the British band Cold Play. If Roget says I can use gonadectomy and I choose to use neuter, I’d hope someone would take my laptop next time I get up for a cup of coffee. It takes more time to type, but you can really punch that first syllable. Not to mention, how often do we get to use gonad in appropriate context? My version of Microsoft Word is installed with “redneck spell check", and it still doesn’t recognize gonadectomy. It will surely drive Mittsy out of her OCD skull to see so many words underlined in red when I send this to her for editing.

Folks first began to have pets for pleasure and companionship in the years after WWII as the nation began to crawl out from under the Great Depression. It surely didn’t take long to realize that something had to be done or the country really would “go to the dogs”. The first and broadest recommendation was six months of age, largely based on the age at which they were most likely to survive anesthesia. In the few years it took me to get to vet school, anesthesia would become exponentially safer, thanks to pioneering work by the likes of William Tranquilli at the University of Illinois. Still, we stuck with six months, citing studies that demonstrated the incidence of mammary cancer and pregnancies in females spayed before their first estrus was nearly zero.

Those numbers hold up to years and cross-examination, but they are not the only variable to be considered.

Mammary and testicular cancers are prevalent in the population of intact dogs. Gonadectomy at a young age reduces the incidence to nearly zero. There are other cancers such as lymphosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, and osteosarcoma that may not be recognized by spell check, but are more prevalent in animals that are neutered early as compared to their sexually-intact cohorts. It is important to note the actual incidence of these cancers is somewhat breed-dependent, but quite low in general.

Dave Barry would point out that “Sexually Intact Cohorts” would make a fabulous band name.

We have recently started to look at the effect of early gonadectomy on the incidence of musculoskeletal issues later in life.

Before I began my ascent in the literary world, I considered myself a decent local, club, bike rider. One fall afternoon I was furiously pedaling the Glacial Drumlin Trail on my cyclocross bike. Hunched low, I suddenly heard a broken banter through the headwind howling through my helmet (the reader's image of the intensity of the headwind is crucial to my esteem). In short order, I was overtaken like a Prius at Daytona by two Pointers and a Husky-type dog drawing a repurposed Honda motorcycle frame fashioned in her dad’s shop into a three-wheeled chariot.

Reminiscent of Charlton Heston in The Gladiator, and at least as attractive, our own Dr. Clark shouted commands like “come-by”, smiled, and waved as she blew past me.

When there is snow, the same dogs will pull her on skis, sleds, or in moments of minimal organization… her backside. Skijoring and sled dog racing have gotten her a nice collection of medals, some rather stunning bruises (according to Kelly and Kaley), and fueled a keen interest in sports medicine. Dr. Clark is a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist.

Testosterone and estrogen contribute to proper closure of growth plates in long bones of dogs. It is thought that early gonadectomy can increase the likelihood of hip dysplasia and cruciate disease later in life. In guys like Chief, the greatest Dane I know, and Harry the Mastiff, there is nearly universal agreement that delayed gonadectomy is of benefit. As for the carry-on breeds like Pomeranians, Yorkshire Terriers, and those microscopic dogs from the Taco Bell commercials who weigh as much as a set of toenail trimmings from their big brothers, we trend toward early neuter.

For the plethora of dogs and breeds who fall in the middle, we work hard to be as inclusive as possible in considering the proper timing of gonadectomy. Owner preference, the dog's personality, conformation, configuration of the family, lifestyle, and fitness are but a few variables we weigh. Your dog’s breed is a factor for all the above reasons, as are incidence of certain cancers and diseases.

It’s been said there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. The ultimate decision should always revolve around… your dog.

There are times when the answer is easy and obvious.

Our friends Amy and Ben are the small town Wisconsin, half-scale, 2015 adaptation of "The Brady Bunch”. Because two teenagers, Winston the English Shepherd, and 8-year-old Ariel had quickly settled into a harmonious balance, they drove to Northern Wisconsin and brought home Henry. At 12 weeks of age, Henry was the Golden Retriever puppy who truly was cute as a calendar, well on his way to the toilet training hall of fame, and loved to snuggle with his big brother on the front porch.

Regardless of his motivation, it turns out that Henry is as amorous as he is gorgeous. He has taken as his “love interest” Ariel’s stuffed, motion-sensitive, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with light up nose.

Needless to say, Santa’s lead deer takes “positive reinforcement light years beyond hotdogs and Velveeta.

Henry will be spending the day with us very soon, and leaving without his two most valued possessions.

There are times when you audible.

Clark Kent and Lois Lane are the couple that give us hope. Shortly after the white picket fence and before the 2.2 kids, they adopted a yellow lab. Bogart had a tail that wagged the whole dog, a head like melon, and charm. Dog’s Best Friend and Mittsy gave the couple advice on establishing proper space with his people. On his second visit it nearly drove him insane, but he knew not to jump up.

But among his buddies at the dog park, his boundaries were still a bit fuzzy. It was determined that a little testosterone might earn him a canine comeuppance. We’d wait to do his surgery near nine months of age.

Factor “X”, as it turns out, is the in-law’s décor.

Jen and John Shipley are Clark and Lois’ in-laws. They have the most spectacular urban garden, pristine sunset views, a taste for fine microbrews, and a cat that doesn’t travel well. I don’t so much mind “stopping by on my way home”. They’ve also spent considerable time in New Mexico and Arizona. Their house is warmly decorated in burnt-earth tones, Kokopelli figurines, and Hopi art.

Lois inherited her parent’s love of animals, and Bogart was always welcome. Rather, he was, right up until he began to lift his leg. His un-invitation was not because the magnanimous Shipleys were concerned for their carpet. Bogey’s first attempted mark was a 4-foot Saguaro cactus. Weighing 68 pounds at seven months of age, Bogart had grown faster than his vestibular apparatus. Testosterone was telling his brain to “mark it”, a few months before he could reliably balance on three paws.

At the risk of being thought anthropomorphic, I’m thinking the punishment would exceed the crime by a factor of several.

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