Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

PUPULATION CONTROL

DECIDING WHEN TO SPAY OR NEUTER YOUR DOG DEPENDS ON A VARIETY OF FACTORS, NOT JUST AGE

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 of 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.

For instance, giant breeds are more at risk for osteosarcoma. Breeds at higher risk for CCL tears include Akitas, German shepherds, golden and Labrador retrievers, Newfoundlands, poodles and Saint Bernards. The science tells us that in certain breeds it's beneficial to let bones mature before spaying and neutering.

Don't get us wrong. We believe 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. Several recent studies have addressed these topics.

-- 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. Talk to your veterinarian about the best age for your dog based on breed and the latest science.

-- 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.

-- Make your decision based on the most current research and your dog's breed and lifestyle. For instance, if your dog will be a canine athlete, later neutering may improve his muscle tone and decrease the risk of CCL ruptures.

-- 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.

Q&A

Shipping pet by air?

Take precautions

Q: We are moving cross-country, and I am wondering about the best way to transport our pets. Is it safe to ship them by air? -- via email

A: Air cargo is the fastest way to move your pets, but it definitely has drawbacks. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals actually recommends against shipping pets by air because of concerns about stress, temperature extremes, possible mishandling during transport and the potential for loss of the pet.

If you have an option, I think it's safer for your pet to travel with you by car or to travel beneath your seat on board the plane. If that's not possible, take the following steps to reduce a pet's in-air risk:

-- Ship pets only if they are healthy and past young puppyhood or kittenhood. Animals who are very young, very old, sick, frail, in season or pregnant should not travel in air cargo because their immune systems aren't operating at their best. That goes double for animals with flat faces, such as bulldogs, Boston terriers, pugs or Persian cats. Those animals are less tolerant of temperature extremes and are more likely to die in flight.

-- Check an airline's pet-shipping safety record. Reports of incidents involving loss, injury or death of a pet are available on the U.S. Department of Transportation's website at www.dot.gov/airconsumer/air-travel-consumer-reports.

-- Choose a nonstop flight. If you are traveling in summer, book your pet on a night flight to reduce the risk of heatstroke. It's even better if you can travel on the same flight. Let a flight attendant know that you have an animal in cargo.

-- Don't give your pet a tranquilizer beforehand. It can depress his breathing ability and make him less able to brace himself during turbulence.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has more tips on safe air for pets at https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Traveling-with-Your-Pet-FAQs.aspx. -- Dr. Marty Becker

THE BUZZ

Labs log 23 years

as top dog breed

-- Labrador retrievers have fetched the title of the nation's most popular dog breed for the 23rd year in a row, according to American Kennel Club registration statistics. That makes them the longest-running holder of the top spot since the AKC's founding in 1884. Labs are popular for their classic canine good looks, friendliness, energy and versatility. When they aren't retrieving a bird, stick or ball, they may be found working as guide dogs, assistance dogs, detection dogs or search-and-rescue dogs. They come in three colors -- black, yellow and chocolate -- and weigh 55 to 80 pounds.

-- Researcher and cat expert Leslie Lyons at the University of Missouri is working to sequence the genomes of 99 cats from around the world, with the goal of improving knowledge of feline genetics, including causes of diseases that affect both cats and humans. The 99 Lives Cat Whole Genome Sequencing Initiative is seeking genetic samples from pedigreed and mixed-breed cats. The knowledge gained could help both cats and people suffering from such illnesses as polycystic kidney disease, retinitis pigmentosa and spinal muscular atrophy.

-- Pet-loving parents know that caring for a pet helps kids develop a confident and caring nature, but developmental psychologist Megan K. Mueller, a professor at the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, has authored a study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Science, that links human-animal interactions to positive emotional and cognitive development in young adults. Using data collected from more than 500 adults aged 18 to 26, Mueller found that those who had strong relationships with pets were more likely to help friends and family and contribute to their communities. -- Kim Campbell Thornton

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.