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Spaying and the Risk of Cancer: Our reader wonders if spaying will make a difference in her Golden Retriever's risk of cancer.

Q I read the neuter question and answer in the April 2018 issue with great interest. I have an almost 14-month-old female Golden Retriever who is just finishing her first heat. I have no intention of breeding her, but I have delayed having her spayed because a breeder recommended I read an article published online in PLOS ONE about the UC Davis study you cited.

I have since discussed this with a couple of local veterinarians and was advised that waiting to have the surgery done until after the first heat, but before the second would be fine, and that I should not wait any longer than that because of the increased risk of mammary cancer. What is the real take away for a Golden Retriever female's long-term health and well-being?

A For an answer to this excellent question, we went to two veterinarians at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine:

From Cornell Emeritus Professor of Behavior Medicine and renowned behavior expert Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD: There are some behavioral reasons not to spay a bitch. The most common behavioral side effect of spaying is obesity. Many years ago, we tracked food intake and weight gain in Beagles before and after ovariohysterectomy (the official term for spaying). Their food intake increased immediately. In addition, spayed females are less active, so the combination of a few more calories a day and fewer laps around the yard and your Golden may be well on her way to joining the 50 percent of our dogs who are overweight or obese.

The other little-known consequence of spaying is an increase in aggression. The study demonstrating this was done on German Shepherds. Half of each litter was spayed and the other was only anesthetized. The dogs were tested five months later. Each dog was led by its handler up to a run containing another German Shepherd who was a stranger to them. The spayed dogs barked and lunged much more often than the unspayed ones. Even their barks were different. An aggressive dog's bark is noisier, that is has more frequencies, than that of a non-aggressive dog. In Cornells behavior clinic, spayed females are often presented for aggression toward another spayed female in the household. Make the decision on spaying your dog on what's best for your own situation.

From Cheryl Balkman, MS, DVM, DACVIM, Section Chief, Small Animal Clinical Oncology Dept. of Clinical Sciences, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine:

Thank you for your timely question regarding your female Golden Retriever's health and well-being with regard to the timing of her spay.

Cancer is a complex disease that occurs from a combination of genetic influences and environmental exposures. We know that the risk of developing cancer increases with age in both people and dogs. Determining whether something contributes to the development of cancer for any species is a formidable task due to the complicated nature of the disease.

It is well known that the Golden Retriever has a high prevalence of developing cancer. It is reported that more than 50 percent of Golden Retrievers ultimately die from cancer-related causes. The questions, of course, are: 1) Why such a high prevalence of cancer in this breed? and 2) Is there anything we can do to decrease this risk?

Recent studies have focused on the association of neutering (spay or castration) and the development of cancer. Two studies (Torres de la Riva et. al. and Hart et. al.) showed that more Golden Retrievers that were spayed or castrated developed cancer compared to Golden Retrievers that were intact (not neutered).

A more recent study by Kent et. al. looked at the association of neutering status and cancer-related mortality in Golden Retrievers. Kent's study showed no difference in cancer-related deaths between male Golden Retrievers that were intact or castrated.

In female Golden Retrievers, a higher percentage of spayed dogs died of cancer-related causes compared with intact females (66% vs. 41% respectfully). However, they also showed that the risk of developing cancer increased with age and that spayed females lived longer (9.6 years) than intact female dogs (7.6 years). Their study concluded that age was the biggest risk factor for dying of cancer and not reproductive status (intact or neutered).

Although frustrating, I do not think the data is clear one way or the other with regard to how spaying your dog will influence her development of cancer in the future. More studies are needed to answer this question.

The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study ( is an important project that will hopefully get us closer to some of these answers.
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Publication:Dog Watch
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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