Spaying is a procedure few of us question. This year alone, thousands of female dogs will undergo the hysterectomy operation, which removes the ovaries and uterus. Chances are your own pet has already undergone these removals.
A groundbreaking new study, however, may change the way we view this common surgery.
Longevity and Ovaries Linked
Women tend to live longer than men do, but did you know this life span edge holds true for female dogs too? “Like women, female dogs in our study had a distinct survival advantage over males,” according to project leader Dr. David Waters, Ph.D., a veterinarian, director of the Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation and associate director of Purdue University’s Center on Aging and the Life Course.
Nevertheless, female dogs do not always reach the same age. That became obvious when Waters and his team studied information on the oldest living pet dogs in the United States. (Data on these canine seniors is tracked by the Center for Exceptional Longevity Studies.) Waters had a nagging suspicion: “We think that ovaries are part of a system that impacts longevity and perhaps the rate of aging.”
To test out the theory, Waters, who is also a professor in the department of veterinary clinical sciences at Purdue, and his team analyzed 119 rottweiler “centenarians,” which were elderly dogs that survived to 13 years. That’s 30 percent longer than the life span of most breed members. “We found that female rottweilers that kept their ovaries for at least six years were four times more likely to reach exceptional longevity compared to females who had the shortest lifetime ovary exposure.”
Yet another study, on more than 29,000 women, came to a similar conclusion. Dr. William Parker of the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., led that research. “For the last 35 years, most doctors have been routinely advising women undergoing hysterectomy to have their ovaries removed to prevent ovarian cancer,” he said. “We believe that such an automatic recommendation is no longer warranted.”
Important to Weigh the Pros and Cons
When it comes to longevity, Waters, Parker and their colleagues believe it’s worth it for a female to keep her ovaries. Women who retain their ovaries for at least 50 years often live longer than women who don’t, according to the new findings. For dogs, the comparable age for keeping the ovaries intact, at least for large breeds like rottweilers, is about 6 or 7 years.
Waters is quick to point out that all women and dog owners should weigh the pros and cons of keeping ovaries and should initiate an informed discussion on the upside and downside with their doctor and their pet’s veterinarian.
The Benefits of Spaying
Linda Lasky, a registered veterinary technician at Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, Calif., said she is not aware of any veterinary hospital that performs a partial hysterectomy on dogs. Owners must therefore choose between three options:
1. Do not have the dog spayed.
2. Spay the dog after she is at least 6 years old.
3. Spay the dog before she reaches puberty, which is the commonly accepted practice.
Lasky strongly recommends the third option, which she said helps prevent two potentially fatal health problems: mammary tumors and pyometra, a canine uterine infection. Spaying also prevents certain behavioral problems related to dogs going into heat. The most obvious benefit of spaying is that it curbs canine overpopulation.
Other Ways of Extending Your Dog’s Life
Through his Gerontology Training Program for DVMs, Waters works with veterinarians to address the findings about ovaries and other longevity matters. He says participants in the program also “emerge as effective educators of pet owners on issues pertaining to lifestyle choices that promote healthy longevity.”
Lasky agrees that lifestyle choices, such as what owners feed their dogs and how they care for them, can also make a huge difference in the quality and length of their pets’ lives. Over the years, she’s noticed that “companion animals are living longer and longer” due to improved medical help, quality nutrition, and love and care provided by owners. Therefore, while retention of ovaries remains a hotly debated issue, spayed dogs may still have a chance at earning a coveted spot in the oldest canines database at the Center for Exceptional Longevity Studies.
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