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)

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

10 Replies to “Early Age Desexing and Incontinence”

  1. Hi Andrew. Thank you for this information. We got my dog from a rescue organization in Townsville, Queensland. She was 13 weeks old when we got her and were told she had been desexed at 10 weeks of age due to the “backyard breeding” issues here. I was 19 years old at the time and impulsively wanted to save a young dog from being put down. Well, come 5/6 months of age Bella is potty trained but still has “accidents” where she was just laying down and peeing. This was only once in a while so we ignored it due to a bigger issue at hand. Bella was lame in her front right elbow. Took her to the vet and turns out she has quite severe elbow dysplasia (FCP) in both elbows. She had surgery to clean them out in September at 9 months old. Surgery didn’t go well, it didn’t help a lot and she continued limping for almost 12 weeks post-op. During this post-op period, I heard her hips making popping sounds as she would walk. We found out at 10 months old she had severe hip dysplasia in both hips as well. It was too far progressed to have a TPO done. We put Bella into physiotherapy and 3x weekly swim sessions, along with pain medication and limited exercise. We have continued on this regimen for months and it seems she is not limping as she used to and is living a somewhat-pain free life. Since her elbow surgery, her incontinence issue has also gotten progressively worse. They believed it could be ectopic ureters but I believe it’s from Bella being desexed too young. We are continuing to figure out what the best course of action for this issue is. It seems to be that Bella is the by product of poor breeding, bad genetics, and being desexed too young. I love her with all of my heart and am so grateful for the time I will have with her. I am doing my best, and I am continuing to research the best way to manage Bella’s health. Thank you for publishing this article.

  2. hi there , while doing a search, i have a cane corso 22 weeks old male… im worried about his future as being in sa mandatory desexing… the way im reading your article i am in the view off waiting to at least 12 months plus. im going to try to get a vet exeption medical grounds…any advice you can give me,, i dont want him to grow massive then have hip problems.. he is a pet and spoilt family member whos quality off life is first thought thank ray

    1. Hi Raymond. An exemption to 12 months should not be a problem for your vet. Note though that if you follow the link for giant breeds, they are not at such a great risk as large and medium sized dogs. The reason is probably that they do not get hip dysplasia and cruciate ligament problems as commonly.

  3. This is a really useful article. I’ve been following a breeder’s social media for months, I am on her waiting list & became attached to the idea of getting a dachshund puppy from her, but then she disclosed that she desexes the puppies at 2 months of age. I could start anew on a different waiting list, but that’s frustrating. She said her trust has been broken in the past and she does it to protect her puppies. However, like your article says, it’s a deal breaker for me. While desexing 50 puppies across the next 5 years might stop any of them from being misused and bred, I don’t believe it’s best for any individual puppy. My preliminary reading suggests that 10-12 months would be a better age for desexing a dachshund. I offered to get her a letter of reference and didn’t get a yes or a no to that, we’re in limbo, but you mention offering to sign a legal agreement. Is there a sample of the paperwork for a legal agreement that you could link to, or is a solicitor needed? Thank you, Jenny

      1. Thanks, Andrew. Upon more reflection, I think knowing that the breeder (who is registered) desexes her dachshund puppies rather than going to more effort to check out who is going to buy her puppies has put me off. I offered to drive 1.5 hours just to meet her and didn’t get a clear ‘yes’, so I think I’ll ring the dachshund club and ask them for a different recommendation. I might need to wait longer for a puppy, but I’ve decided, even if she allowed my one puppy not to be desexed early, I don’t want to support that breeder. Thanks

  4. 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.

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