Bird Dogs & Training  |  02/15/2024

Ask A Vet Ep. 6: When Should I Spay or Neuter My Bird Dog?


Spaying and neutering should be thought of as a complex medical decision that necessitates a custom-tailored approach

By Seth Bynum, DVM

For decades, veterinarians have uniformly promoted early spay and neuter as a solution to managing the pet population. While effective at controlling unwanted pregnancies and preventing some reproductive diseases, this strategy brings its own unique set of consequences that are seldom discussed with dog owners.

Referring to spaying and neutering as “fixing” is a shortsighted label, as dogs are far from broken in their natural state. Reproductive hormones originating in the testes and ovaries serve many functions in the body, and their removal contributes to both benefits and risks as a result of disrupting this system. Particularly for our bird dog community, spaying and neutering should be thought of as a complex medical decision that necessitates a custom-tailored approach to the specific needs of the pet and their owners.

Hormones help promote physical development

Generally speaking, most working dogs would benefit by reaching full physical and mental maturity prior to spaying and neutering. For most sporting breeds, this threshold is achieved by reaching a minimum of 20 to 24 months of age. In terms of physical development, growth plates have closed in long bones and muscular development has peaked by this benchmark, thanks to estrogen and testosterone. Joints and ligaments, the latter of which utilize reproductive hormones in their development, have also solidified by around the second year of life.

With neither hard proof nor a full explanation of how this occurs, we have seen a strong correlation with severe orthopedic injuries, such as blown cruciate injuries in hunting breeds with a history of early spay or neuter. While traumatic injuries can occur regardless of reproductive status, delaying a hunting dog’s sterilization surgery may reduce the likelihood of a serious sports injury potentially set in motion by removing these hormones too early.

Early spay and neuter may affect mental development

Don’t discount mental maturity as another appropriate landmark at which most hunting dogs should arrive before spaying and neutering. Personality development is partly driven by reproductive hormones. Professional trainers have long touted this fact, as many have commented that huntings dogs that have been altered early in life often lack confidence, drive and focus compared to their intact counterparts. While these personal anecdotes are far from scientific theory, there has been some peer-reviewed research linking behavioral problems to early spay and neuter. A retrospective study in vizslas demonstrated a strong association between excessive fear and anxiety-based behaviors and timing of alteration.

It’s important to remember that sex hormones play many important roles in the endocrine system, not the least among which is their ability to help regulate metabolism. In fact, the single biggest postoperative complication with spaying and neutering–one that is rarely discussed with dog owners–is their pet’s increased risk of obesity. An altered pet will require fewer calories in their diet overall than an intact dog, despite a similar active lifestyle.

Timing of the surgery

With sharp instruments, living tissue and general anesthesia involved, no surgical procedure is without risk. Fortunately, most neuters and spays are routine and minimally invasive with a few caveats. Set your hunting dog up for a smooth experience under the knife by being conscientious in scheduling their surgery. While it may be convenient and tempting to spay females during heat, my personal experience in the clinic is that the surgery is quicker, cleaner and easier to recover from when performed in between heat cycles. For both males and females, try to conduct the surgery in the offseason to avoid any disruption to their time in the field. If they’ve lost some body condition over the course of a long hunting season, it may also be a good idea to allow them some recovery time over late winter or early spring before scheduling.

In Conclusion

As satisfying as it would be to offer up an easy answer here, understand there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when deciding when or if to spay or neuter your hunting dog. It’s up to you and your dog’s veterinarian to discuss the risks and benefits of delayed sterilization so you can move forward with a plan that best fits your lifestyle.


Proudly brought to you in collaboration with Purina Pro Plan, Ask A Vet is a twelve-part series featuring Dr. RuthAnn Lobos and Dr. Seth Bynum, answering YOUR questions about your four-legged friend. Come back next month for Episode #7, and check out Episode #1, Episode #2, Episode #3, Episode #4 and Episode #5!