If you are reading this it probably means that you are thinking of castrating your dog. You may be wondering – why is this a big deal? Is it not just what everybody does? Yes, maybe years ago it was, however in recent years the attitude towards castrating dogs has changed. It used to be said that castrating your male dog is the answer to all your problems – aggression? Castrate. Unruly behaviour/disobedience? Castrate. Fortunately, extensive research has shown that castration can, in fact, make all of these behaviours worse. The problem with this ‘castration solves everything’ attitude is that this is based on the believe that every single behaviour your dog exhibits (good and bad), is controlled and ‘caused’ by his male hormone (testosterone). In reality, this is very much not the case and there are many, sometimes multifactorial, causes for a certain behaviour.
From a veterinary point of view castration is advised as it prevents certain medical diseases such as prostate and testicular disease and of course, to prevent unwanted reproduction. Even though this is an important argument for neutering, less attention is paid to the potential medical conditions that may be caused by early neutering; obesity, joint problems, endocrine disorders and some rare cancers. Of course, the incidence of these conditions again, is influenced by multiple factors (genetics, environmental factors) so early neutering does not necessary mean that your dog will get any of these conditions but it is important to be aware of all of these pros/cons as you are considering castrating your dog.
Testosterone, what is it and what does it do?
Testosterone is a hormone produced by the testis, and adrenal gland – it is responsible for male sexual development organs and also has a positive effect on bone, skin and the cardiovascular system. Testosterone levels rise in pre-pubertal dogs and reaches a peak at puberty (6-12 months – depending on size/breed of dog). This is why most dogs are brought in for castration between 6-12 months as owners may see a change in behaviour during this time. In easy terms – testosterone helps your dog become stronger, more confident, and able to cope with whatever it encounters. This is important as instinctively a strong, confident dog has a bigger chance of reproducing and scaring off any competition (other male dogs).
By castrating your dog, we are, simply put, removing that male hormone and therefore any behaviour’s directly linked to testosterone will diminish or disappear; extreme marking behaviours, inter-male aggression, roaming behaviours, mounting and some territorial aggression. It is important to note, that even though these behaviours may have initially been influenced by his hormones, over time, these behaviours can become ‘learned behaviours’ and these are less likely to be affected by castration.
As said before, testosterone helps your dog feel more confident, and able to cope with new and ‘scary’ situations. If we have a dog, often between 6months-1 years old that is lacking confidence or is fearful (this can be due to lack of early socialization, genetics, environmental factors) and we were to castrate him and as such remove his confidence hormone, we can leave the dog even more fearful and with little confidence, meaning it will be more difficult for you to work on his fears. Castrating these dogs, can often make behaviours worse or indeed cause aggression/reactivity as they are no longer able to cope with certain situations.
Dogs also undergo certain ‘fear periods’ which are periods where they develop a lack of confidence and things that previously were not scary, suddenly are scary. These periods are first between 8-10 weeks of age (this is why socialization/wide exposure in this age is so important) and then another one between 6-14 months (this one is set as such a wide period as this one differs per dog and can last from weeks to months, and vary in severity). As you may already realize now, is that dogs go through a lot whilst going from puppyhood to adulthood and castrating in this time may therefore be detrimental to them. In these cases, spending time working on the dog’s anxieties and allowing it to mature a little more (2-3years of age) before castrating is recommended. Some really fearful dogs may actually benefit from staying entire their whole life.
There are, of course, those very balanced and happy dogs going through puberty, or that are negatively controlled by their hormones; humping everything, looking for female dogs constantly, etc. In this case, castrating likely will be the right thing to do for this dog but it is always important to assess each dog individually.
As an interim there is the option of chemical castration, which unlike surgical castration, is reversible. This is an implant placed under the dog’s skin and has the exact same effect as surgical castration, but only for 6months to 1year. This can be useful in cases where we are not sure whether to castrate or not.
Lastly – aggression, in any form, be it towards people or other dogs, is rarely purely hormonally caused. The majority of aggression stems from fear and is a ‘normal’ communication form for dogs. It is important, for any unwanted behaviour, to investigate the underlying trigger/cause for the behaviour so that we can treat it appropriately.
If, after reading this, you are still unsure whether castration is right for your dog, please contact the surgery to discuss further.