There are four decisions no dog owner can avoid. You will be making these lifestyle choices for your dog regardless of whether you spend time researching the available information to ensure they are well-considered and informed decisions or whether they are simply choices of omission - we are certainly all prone to taking the easy road of doing things the way we always have.

A few months ago, I wrote about the comprehensive changes in our approach to vaccinating dogs that have led to a situation where routine vaccines will in most cases now be for puppies only as the adult 'boosters' of the past are replaced with titre tests. 

Today, I want to touch upon another area where changes are currently sweeping across the veterinary community, namely the issue of neutering.

Cultural differences play a big role when new dog owners decide whether to have their dog neutered or to leave him or her intact. In some parts of the world, neutering of healthy dogs is considered unethical. In Norway routine neutering is downright illegal meaning that around 99% of all dogs in Norway are left intact. At the same time, there are parts of the world where neutering has historically been strongly encouraged and perhaps even regarded as a prerequisite for responsible dog ownership.

Until five years ago many vets certainly considered routine neutering as being in the general interest of the dog. The most serious side effect was believed to be the risk of urinary incontinence ('spay incontinence') in bitches. Then, in 2013, a bombshell was dropped in the form of a major study from the UC Davis school of veterinary medicine. The study revealed what no one had previously suspected, that neutered dogs of both sexes have a much greater risk of developing joint disease as well as several different types of cancer compared to intact dogs. In the frenzy of studies that have followed, increased risks of allergies, autoimmune disorders and thyroid disease have been added to the list of side effects and though research is ongoing, it is certainly safe to say that this startling new evidence should make anyone think twice before neutering.

For now, here's what we know:

Male dogs:

Castration

Health benefits and risks

Health benefits of castration

  • A castrated dog will have a reduced risk of benign prostate hyperplasia in old age and, of course, no risk of testicular cancer. There are, however, no overriding health-based arguments for routine castration.

 Health ill effects of castration

  • Increased risk of joint disease (cruciate ligament disease, hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia)
  • Increased risk of several types of cancer (lymphoma, hemangiosarcoma, osteosarcoma, mast cell tumours)
  • increased risk of a range of immune-mediated diseases, such as allergies and auto-immune disease

Female dogs:

Bitch spay

Health benefits and risks

Health benefits of spaying

  • No risk of pyometra (womb infections)
  • Reduced risk of mammary tumours (breast cancer)

 Health ill effects of spaying

  • Risk of urinary incontinence and increased risk of cystitis
  • Increased risk of joint disease (cruciate ligament disease, hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia)
  • Increased risk of several types of cancer (lymphoma, hemangiosarcoma, osteosarcoma, mast cell tumours)
  • Increased risk of a range of immune-mediated diseases, such as allergies and auto-immune disease

Please note that the above information relates to routine neutering of healthy dogs only. If your dog has an illness (such as testicular cancer or a womb infection) this may tip the scale in favour of neutering. In the case of healthy dogs, however, it is now clear that neutering will have an overall detrimental effect on the health of male dogs. It also looks like bitches are healthier when left intact, though this requires the carers to look out for signs of mammary tumours and pyometra.

Research is very much ongoing. One aspect, for instance, that it turns out we don't understand as well as we thought we did prior to 2013 is the relevance of the age of neutering. Whatever new evidence surfaces in the future, there can be no doubt that the way we look out for our dogs is changing fast.

 

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Over 50 years ago now, my friend and colleague, Prof. Ron Schultz, and I were the only two people saying we were over-vaccinating pets. I was called irresponsible in public at a large veterinary conference because others were unwilling to consider the idea that vaccines might not always be needed or safe. Since then, people aren’t shooting arrows at us now because our backs are full of them!  Joking aside, despite the criticism, we were and remain determined to continue to educate about this topic.

Even today, estimates are that only about 40% of veterinarians are following the current WSAVA, AVMA, AAHA and BVA vaccine policy guidelines. *  There is no such thing as an ‘up to date’ or ‘due’ vaccination. Enlightened veterinarians now can offer a package of separated vaccine components, when available, rather than give them all together, since the published data show more adverse reactions when multiple vaccines are administered at the same time.

Summary on Vaccine Policy

AAHA 2003 –  Current knowledge supports the statement that 

  • No vaccine is always safe, no vaccine is always protective and no vaccine is always indicated
  • Misunderstanding, misinformation and the conservative nature of our profession have largely slowed adoption of protocols advocating decreased frequency of vaccination

WSAVA 2015-2017

From Prof. Michael J. Day

  • Vaccination should be just one part of a holistic preventive healthcare program for pets that is most simply delivered within the framework of an annual health check consultation
  • Vaccination is an act of veterinary science that should be considered as individualized medicine, tailored for the needs of the individual pet, and delivered as one part of a preventive medicine program in an annual health check visit

Importantly, pet caregivers should understand that the act of giving a vaccine may not equate to immunization of that animal. Vaccines may not always produce the needed or desired immune protective response, not only if the vaccine itself was inadequately prepared (very rare) but also if the pet is a genetic low or non-responder to that vaccine (quite common in certain breeds of dogs and their families).  In the latter case, that pet will be susceptible lifelong to the disease of concern and revaccination will not help and could even be harmful.  

In response to issues raised above, vaccine experts recently have recommended new protocols for dogs and cats. These include: 1) giving the puppy or kitten vaccine series later (starting  not before 8 weeks of age, except in the cases of outbreaks of virulent viral disease or in orphans or those that never received colostrum from their dams) followed by a booster at one year of age; 2) administering further boosters in a combination vaccine every three years or as split components alternating every other year until; 3) the pet reaches geriatric age, at which time booster vaccination is likely to be unnecessary and can be unsafe for those with aging-related or immunologic disorders. 

In the intervening years between booster vaccinations, and in the case of geriatric pets, circulating humoral immunity can be evaluated by measuring serum vaccine antibody titers as an indication of the presence of immune memory (e.g. VacciCheck). Titers do not distinguish between immunity generated by vaccination and/or exposure to the disease, although the magnitude of immunity produced just by vaccination is usually lower.

When to Vaccinate Puppies & Kittens? Which Vaccines are Needed? What About Socialization?

Puppies

  • Should receive MLV or recombinant “Core” vaccines (canine distemper, parvovirus and hepatitis/adenovirus) preferably either at 9-10 and 14-16 weeks of age (minimum protocol), or, at 9, 12 and 16-18 weeks of age
  • Rabies vaccines are all adjuvanted killed products and are given as required by law, preferably always given separately from other vaccines, and as late as legally allowed – e.g. 20-24 weeks of age. Thimerosal (mercury) - free rabies vaccines are preferred and safer
  • Other vaccines are optional, and depend upon circumstances and disease risk in the area
  • For the optional Bordetella or kennel cough vaccines, the oral version is preferred over the intranasal although both offer better protection than the injectable version
  • Leptospirosis vaccines protect against only 4 serovars of the organism and are second to rabies vaccines in risk of hypersensitivity and other adverse effects. Use if endemic in the area of concern
  • While canine influenza viruses (2 strains; H3N2 and H3N8) are highly contagious, most infected dogs have mild to no clinical issues, unless they develop a high fever and are at risk for secondary pneumonia. Vaccination, while being widely promoted, is still optional
  • Three or more days after the last round of puppy vaccines, they can be out and about to be socialized. In the interim period, between 10-14 weeks of age, socialization can take place in the back yard or at puppy training classes with known friends and healthy dogs
  • Until fully vaccinated, puppies should not walk on unfamiliar or public grounds; they can be carried about, when needed to travel
  • If Titer testing is desired, instead of giving another vaccine after 12 weeks of age, wait until at least 16 weeks of age to avoid measuring residual maternal immunity

Kittens

  • Core vaccines (feline panleukopenia, feline calicivirus, feline rhinotracheitis/herpes) given as MLV or killed, inactivated or intranasal products are started in a 2 or three-dose series beginning for example at 7-9 weeks of age and 12-16 weeks, or at 7, 11 and 16 weeks
  • Rabies vaccines if legally required are recommended as for puppies, although cats can receive a recombinant non-adjuvanted rabies vaccine which is preferred over the adjuvanted killed rabies vaccines given to dogs. This non-adjuvanted rabies vaccine is not yet available for dogs
  • Some people consider feline leukemia virus (FeLV) vaccine as important for cats, especially those that live outdoors or are indoor/outdoor. Options are a recombinant non-adjuvanted or a killed adjuvanted vaccine
  • Feline immune deficiency virus (FIV) vaccine is available in an adjuvanted killed virus vaccine for those cats at similar exposure risk to FeLV.
  • Other vaccines (Chlamydia, FIP) are generally not recommended or are optional, and depend upon circumstances and disease risk in the area
  • Socialization and Vaccine Titer testing options are as for puppies

*WSAVA-World Small Animal Veterinary Association; AVM A- American Veterinary Medical Association; AAHA-, American Animal Hospital Association; BVA-  British Veterinary Association

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