Early Age Desexing and Incontinence

Updated November 29, 2020

If the only way you could have a certain puppy was if they were already desexed, would it be a deal-breaker for you? It would be for me.

It’s not a trivial issue. Many breeds in Australia come already desexed by the breeder before sale. I can see why they do it, but as a vet, it makes me uncomfortable. What’s the big deal?

Disadvantages of Early Age Desexing

The evidence shows that certain disease conditions are more common when desexing is performed too early. Possibly the most important are:

  • Joint disorders such as hip dysplasia and cruciate ligament tears
  • Urinary problems such as incontinence

I’ve already written about the best age to desex a dog to avoid joint problems. It’s especially important for large breed dogs of both sexes where desexing should be delayed to over one year of age.

What about bedwetting? This affects mainly females of all sizes and may be an even bigger problem. We don’t like to face it, but studies show that inappropriate urination is a leading cause of surrender at shelters. Even in the best cases, incontinence can still prevent owners having a close relationship with their dog, or require lifelong medication.

Does Desexing Cause Incontinence?

The largest study to date shows that desexing roughly doubles the risk of incontinence to over 3% of female dogs. The decision to desex at 6 months instead of 12 months does not appear to increase the risk further.

This is in contrast to the situation with Early Age Desexing at 8 to 12 weeks, where incontinence appears to be more likely to occur.

There is a sliding scale where decreasing age of neuter is associated with an increasing incidence of urinary incontinence. Females speyed before 3 months of age appear to be at highest risk.

We have to be careful, as up to now there’s only been one study comparing this group with traditional ages of desexing. However, I’ve read the paper and there’s no reason to doubt the findings, especially as the authors were pro early desexing, not anti.

Breeds At Risk Of Incontinence

The age of desexing is likely to be even more important for at-risk breeds. Have a look at the rates for these dogs:

  • Irish red setter 32%
  • Dobermann 22%
  • Bearded collie 17%
  • Rough collie 16%
  • Dalmatian 16%
  • Weimaraner 11%

In general, the risk of incontinence is higher for larger breeds and heavier dogs. That’s very similar to the effect of desexing on joint development.

Help! My Dog Is Incontinent!

So what happens if your dog starts leaking urine? Don’t worry, it’s more of a disappointment than a disaster.

First, there are a lot of causes of incontinence in dogs other than desexing. Visit the link to learn more.

Then, even if it’s related to desexing, it can usually be treated with either of the drugs phenylpropanolamine or oestrogen.

Recommended Desexing Ages

Here’s how to reduce the negative effects of desexing on dogs.

  • For dogs of both sexes with an adult weight over 25kg, desex after one year of age.
  • For breeds who will be between 10 and 25kg the risks are probably on a sliding scale so a slight deferment to 9 months may be best.
  • For small dogs, 6 months remains the best age for desexing.
  • Early age desexing before 5 months is rarely in the best interests of a dog or their owner. There’s the known risk of incontinence in females, but it’s also likely that joint development will be affected for both sexes even in small dogs at this age.

The big exception is in rescue shelters, where early desexing prior to sale is essential, and the benefits to dogs and society far outweigh the risks. Early age desexing appears perfectly fine in cats, too.

If you’re looking for a puppy, talk to the breeder about your concerns. Offer to sign a legal agreement if that’s what it takes. If they insist, ask them to do a tubal ligation so that hormones remain at normal levels. You can then do a full desexing later.

Hopefully, information like this can help encourage everyone to make the decision that’s best for your pup.

Further Reading

O’Neill, D. G., Riddell, A., Church, D. B., Owen, L., Brodbelt, D. C., & Hall, J. L. (2017). Urinary incontinence in bitches under primary veterinary care in England: prevalence and risk factors. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 58(12), 685-693. Full text here.

Spain, C. V., Scarlett, J. M., & Houpt, K. A. (2004). Long-term risks and benefits of early-age gonadectomy in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 224(3), 380-387. (Full text available at Google Scholar)

If you’re a vet and our culture appeals to you, we’re currently hiring. Click here to learn more!
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!


4 Replies to “Early Age Desexing and Incontinence”

  1. Is exactly five months ok for desexing a very small breed dog who just started marking territory by lifting his leg, and has become suddenly taller? Is there still too much risk for his joints, or is discouraging him making the marking a habit still worth desexing at five months and not six?

    1. Hi Ann. I always advise to give preference to behaviour over joints when choosing the right age for desexing, as in the long run it’s going to matter more. Therefore I would get him done soon. Being small, it’s probably not such a bad age for correct joint development anyway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *