The decision to spay or neuter your Golden Retriever, and when to do it, can be a tough one to make.
You want to give your Golden the best life possible, but you’re just not quite sure what the right choice is.
There is a lot of conflicting advice floating around out there, plus a lot of pressure from society.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and conflicted as a Golden parent.
As with all things related to the health of your dog, it’s best to have a thorough conversation with your vet to help you weigh out all the factors that go along with spaying or neutering your Golden Retriever.
But to help you prepare for that conversation, this article will tell you:
- What to consider when deciding if you should spay or neuter your Golden Retriever
- The best age to spay or neuter
- What research shows about spaying and neutering Golden Retrievers
- Risks associated with spaying, neutering, or leaving your dog intact
- Whether or not spaying or neutering solves behavior issues
A Quick Overview of Spay and Neuter
Spaying and neutering are medical procedures that sterilize a dog, making them permanently incapable of reproducing.
The procedure is called spaying for a female dog, and neutering for a male dog.
The term “sterilization” refers to both female and male surgical procedures.
When a female dog is spayed, the reproductive tract, ovaries, and uterus are removed, and she will no longer have heat cycles.
When a male dog is neutered, the testicles are removed.
(There’s no way around using proper body part terminology when discussing this topic, so buckle up!)
Additionally, those organs are responsible for producing certain hormones, so once they are removed, hormone production is also affected.
In the United States, sterilization of dogs is a widely used and accepted procedure and it’s commonly done around 6 months of age.
We recently did a study of nearly 600 Golden Retriever owners and found that 78% of Golden Retriever parents have had their dogs spayed or neutered.
It’s become a culturally accepted part of being a “responsible dog owner” in the United States, though we will dive into this idea later to consider if this is true or not.
If you’re American, you might be surprised to hear that in Europe, ideas around sterilization are different.
In many European countries, spaying and neutering is not the norm and the majority of dogs are left intact, which means they are not sterilized, and it’s not necessarily seen as the “responsible” thing to do.
In fact, Norway does not allow spaying and neutering unless absolutely medically necessary.
This perfectly illustrates how spaying and neutering is not always such a clearcut, black and white decision.
Should I Spay or Neuter My Golden Retriever?
The short answer: it depends!
There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
Not a very satisfying answer, but it’s worth taking time to look at all the factors before jumping to any decision.
You’ll want to consider:
- Your dog’s age and sex
- Risks and benefits of sterilization
- Your lifestyle
The decision of if and when to spay or neuter should be done on an individual basis.
Your veterinarian can help you assess all of these factors for your specific dog.
It can help to talk with a veterinarian who is experienced with the breed, or at least is familiar with the current studies about sterilization and Golden Retrievers.
What Research Shows About Spaying-Neutering Golden Retrievers
Thankfully there is research on spaying and neutering Golden Retrievers to help you make an informed decision for your dog’s physical and behavioral wellbeing.
Research has shown that the effects of spaying and neutering vary widely by breed, so it’s especially helpful that there is research specific to Goldens.
Please note that this is not an exhaustive review of all research on spay and neuter, and you should always talk to your vet about this decision.
Increased Risk of Joint Disorders and Cancer
A 2013 study on Golden Retrievers offers some valuable information that can help you make the right decision about spaying or neutering your dog.
The dogs were studied for joint disorders and cancers, including hip dysplasia (HD), cranial cruciate ligament tear (CCL), lymphosarcoma (LSA), hemangiosarcoma (HSA), and mast cell tumor (MCT).
For all five diseases, the rates were “significantly higher in both males and females that were neutered either early or late compared with intact (non-neutered) dogs.”
When diseases did occur in intact dogs, the occurrence was one-fourth to one-half that of dogs sterilized both before and after one year of age.
Overall, intact dogs showed lower rates of joint disorders and cancers.
Age of spaying did not show an effect on hip dysplasia in females.
Cranial Cruciate Ligament Tear
Both females and males sterilized before one year of age showed an increase in cranial cruciate ligament tear.
Males neutered before one year had almost 3 times the occurrence of lymphosarcoma as intact males.
Males neutered after one year had no cases of lymphosarcoma.
Females showed no significant differences.
Females spayed after one year of age showed an increased occurrence of hemangiosarcoma, compared to intact females and females spayed before one year of age.
Males showed no significant differences.
Mast Cell Tumor
Females spayed after one year of age showed an increased occurrence of mast cell tumors.
Mast cell tumors did not occur in intact females.
No differences were shown for males.
Goldens neutered before the age of 6 months showed four to five times the incidence of joint disorders compared to non-neutered Goldens.
They also found that male Golden Retrievers showed the greatest increase in joint disorders, namely hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament tear.
The study explains that when sex hormones are removed during neutering, this leads to delayed closure of bone growth plates, which puts joints more at risk of disease.
While neutering had little effect on the cancer rate of male Goldens, female Goldens who were spayed at any time past 6 months of age showed three to four times the incidence of cancer compared to intact females.
Cons of Spaying or Neutering Golden Retrievers
The risks of spaying and neutering vary depending on if your dog is male or female.
Here’s the short version:
The cons of neutering your Golden Retriever are that they may have an increased risk of joint disorders, hypothyroidism, obesity, and a reduced lifespan if you neuter them too early.
The cons of spaying your Golden Retriever are that they may have an increased risk of cancer, obesity, and a decreased lifespan.
Now let’s dive a little deeper into these potential risks…
Risk For Neutering Male Golden Retrievers
The research shows that neutering male Golden Retrievers before one year of age is associated with a significant increase in joint disorders.
The incidence of joint disorders goes up even more for male Goldens neutered before 6 months of age.
Decreased Life Span
The Golden Retriever Club of America (GRCA) conducted a study that found that taller Golden Retrievers had shorter life spans.
Neutering before one year of age results in taller dogs by delaying the closure of bone growth plates, which allows the dog to keep growing longer than if they were intact.
Therefore, males neutered before one year of age are likely to be larger, which is associated with a shorter lifespan.
The GRCA study also found that males neutered before one year of age show an 80% greater risk of hypothyroidism.
A 2019 study found that Golden Retrievers neutered at any age were 50 to 100% more likely to become overweight or obese compared to intact dogs.
Excess weight can also contribute to orthopedic issues.
Neutering is a surgery that requires general anesthesia, and as with any operation, there are always associated risks.
But it’s important to know that with modern veterinary medicine, the risks of the surgery are extremely low.
Post-surgical complications include infection, hematoma, and hemorrhage.
Now, let’s talk about the risk of spaying your female.
Risks Of Spaying Female Golden Retrievers
For females, the research shows a significant increase in the incidence of cancers, no matter the age of spaying.
Decreased Life Span
Just like with male Goldens, females who are spayed before one year of age grow taller than females who are intact or spayed after one year.
This increase in height is associated with a decreased life span.
A 2019 study found that Golden Retrievers spayed at any age were 50 to 100% more likely to become overweight or obese compared to intact dogs.
Excess weight also makes orthopedic issues more likely.
Spaying is considered a major operation and requires anesthesia.
As with any surgery and anesthesia, there are risks associated, but thankfully complications during surgery are rare.
It is possible for a spay surgery to be incomplete, which means some uterine or ovarian tissue is unintentionally left behind.
This can result in Ovarian Remnant Syndrome, where the female dog continues to have her heat cycle even after surgery.
If both ovarian and uterine tissue are left behind during a spay surgery, stump pyometra can occur, where that uterine remnant becomes infected.
Infection of the incision is also a risk, as it is with any surgery.
Spay incontinence, which refers to reduced control of a dog’s bladder due to a drop in estrogen after a spay surgery, is also a possibility.
But the good new is that this 2020 study found no incidence of spay incontinence in their sample of spayed female Golden Retrievers, no matter the age of spay.
Pros for Spaying or Neutering Golden Retrievers
Now that we scared you with the potential risks of spaying or neutering, let’s lighten the mood and talk about its potential benefits.
First, we’ll talk about the benefits of neutering males, then we’ll talk about the benefits of spaying females.
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The most obvious benefit of neutering your male dog is that he will be unable to make puppies.
If you have an intact female dog in your household, this can make your life a lot easier, as it does take work to ensure that your unneutered male doesn’t mate with any intact females.
It’s often stated that neutering your dog ensures you are a responsible pet owner who is not contributing to pet overpopulation.
While it is true that a neutered dog cannot be part of the pet overpopulation problem, as a responsible dog owner, your dog shouldn’t be left to roam free and mate, regardless of whether they are neutered or not.
Neutered males are often less interested in female dogs, which means less obsessive sniffing of girl dog pee and pulling towards girls that smell good.
Many neutered males are still quite interested in females, but it’s usually not as intense as intact males.
Testicular cancer poses a very small risk to unneutered dogs, as less than half a percent of dogs with both descended testicles develop it.
Neutered dogs, of course, don’t face any risk of testicular cancer.
Intact dogs are also at risk of benign prostatic hypertrophy, which is a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate gland that only occurs in intact dogs.
Therefore, neutered dogs are not at risk of benign prostatic hypertrophy.
Intact males are also more likely than neutered males to develop perineal hernia.
One of the most obvious benefits of spaying a female Golden Retriever is that she can’t have any unplanned litters of puppies.
Historically, spaying was seen as something all responsible pet owners did to make sure they weren’t a part of pet overpopulation.
But, again, a responsible dog owner won’t be letting their dog roam around free to mate with whatever dog they come across.
Spaying your female can give you peace of mind that she won’t be having any accidental puppies though, especially if you have an intact male in your home.
Reduced risk of mammary cancer has long been claimed as a benefit of spaying female dogs early, usually before their first heat cycle.
However, this 2013 study on Golden Retrievers found no cases of mammary cancer in intact females in the study.
The study acknowledged the concern about mammary cancer risk in intact females, but found the evidence to be weak if existent at all.
More recent research calls into question the accuracy of past studies that initially suggested a link between spaying and reduced risk of mammary cancer, and states that more research is needed to understand any possible connection.
So, all that to say, it is unclear if spaying a female Golden lowers her risk of mammary cancer.
Spaying does eliminate the risk of pyometra, which is an infection of the uterus that can be potentially life-threatening.
This 2020 study found that 4% of intact female Golden Retrievers in the study were reported with pyometra.
Spayed females no longer have a uterus or reproductive tract, so there is no risk of such infection.
This 2021 study found that there is a genetic component associated with pyometra in female Golden Retrievers, which suggests that there are other risk factors to pyometra than the fact that a dog is intact.
Lifestyle Considerations for Spaying and Neutering
In addition to health, it’s also important to look at lifestyle factors when deciding if and when to spay or neuter your Golden Retriever.
Dog Parks, Daycare and Boarding
If you and your dog routinely visit the dog park, you might consider spaying or neutering to prevent any accidental breedings from happening while your dog is at the park.
Intact female dogs will need to stay home from the dog park during their heat cycle, whereas spayed females can enjoy dog park romps year-round.
Ideally, everyone with an intact female dog would not bring her to the dog park when she’s in heat, but you can’t control other people’s decisions and your intact male could potentially breed with an intact female.
The same thing applies to dog daycare and boarding.
Many daycares and boarding facilities do not allow intact dogs at their facility beyond 6 months of age.
As discussed, sterilizing a Golden Retriever at 6 months poses significant health risks.
Some daycares do allow intact dogs beyond 6 months of age, so if daycare is important for you and your dog, you might want to do your research and find one if you want to wait until your dog is older to have them spayed or neutered.
You could also hire a dog walker for your intact dog if you’re unable to send your dog to daycare past 6 months.
If your Golden enjoys playing with other dogs, you can have playdates at your home.
And rather than sending your dog to a boarding facility, you can likely find a dog sitter who can watch your intact dog in your home or theirs.
So there are workarounds if you do choose to keep your dog intact or sterilize them past the 6 months mark.
It’s important to weigh out the health risks of spaying and neutering and the age factor with the potential benefits of dog parks, daycare, and boarding.
Dog Sports and Active Dogs
The Golden Retriever Club of America suggests that people who participate in dog sports, such as agility, disc, dock diving, and flyball, wait until their dog is older to spay or neuter.
This can help protect performance dogs from orthopedic injury.
Similarly, if you and your dog are avid hikers and enjoy a lot of physical activity, it may be worth considering waiting until your Golden Retriever is older to spay or neuter.
What is the Best Age to Spay or Neuter My Golden Retriever?
Now that we’ve looked at some research and considered the risks and benefits, let’s talk about the best age to spay or neuter your Golden Retriever.
There is no one right answer to this question, but experts do have suggestions based on the research.
A 2020 study, also by the University of California, Davis, compared the health benefits and risks of spay and neuter on 35 dog breeds, including Golden Retrievers.
Researchers suggest neutering your male Golden Retriever after one year of age due to the increased risk of joint disorders and cancers.
Researchers suggest spaying your female Golden Retriever after one year of age and remaining vigilant for any cancers, or leaving them intact due to the increased risk of cancer in females of all spaying ages.
Research shows that sterilizing Golden Retrievers at 6 months of age, which is common practice in the United States, poses significant health risks.
Again, it’s best to have a conversation with your veterinarian to determine the best age for your specific Golden Retriever.
You can even bring along some of the studies used in this article to help base your conversation around current research findings.
Does Spaying and Neutering Resolve Dog Behavior Issues?
It’s commonly believed that spaying and neutering can resolve unwanted dog behavior, such as urine marking, humping, roaming, and aggression, especially in male dogs.
The reality seems to be more complicated.
One study showed that roaming, and urine marking improved in 40% of dogs after being netuered, and aggression to another family dog or human improved in 20% of dogs.
Another study showed that neutered dogs are more likely to have their butts sniffed by intact males, and displayed more anxious and insecure behavior.
This suggests that the effect of neutering on male dog behavior is complex.
It might improve some things, it may even make some things worse, or it may have no real effect on behavior at all.
Dr. Jennifer Summerfield wrote an insightful article explaining that there is very little evidence that neutering improves aggression issues.
If you are having a behavior issue with your Golden Retriever, it’s best to discuss options with your veterinarian or a certified professional trainer.
This will help you come up with the most effective plan to tackle the issue, which may or may not involve sterilization.
What to Know if You Choose to NOT Spay or Neuter Your Golden
Perhaps you have discussed things with your veterinarian and decided to keep your Golden Retriever intact, whether until a certain age or indefinitely.
There are some important things to know about living comfortably and responsibly with an intact dog.
The main thing to know is that it is your responsibility to prevent accidental breeding and to have a plan to do just that.
It is possible to keep a dog intact and avoid any mating mishaps.
If you have an intact male, he has the potential to make puppies.
This means you need to manage him carefully around any intact females, or else he could breed with her.
Breeding should always be done carefully and responsibly, and not by accident.
If you have intact females in your home, you will have to be especially cautious during her heat cycles to keep them apart.
This can be hard, as some males become quite worked up, whining and pacing around the house constantly.
Some people will opt to have a friend or family member take the intact male during the window of time that their intact female can become pregnant.
It is possible to prevent accidental breeding, but it takes planning and a lot of vigilance, and should not be taken lightly.
You will also want to ensure that your intact male is not able to roam around outdoors and breed with any female dogs in heat in your area.
Simple safety precautions like keeping doors closed, keeping your dog leashed, and ensuring your yard is securely fenced go a long way to prevent roaming and accidental breeding.
If you’re not sure your fence can contain your intact dog, consider adding a tie-out and supervising your dog when they are in the yard.
If you choose to leave your female intact, she can have puppies if she mates with an intact male.
She will also have heat cycles, so it’s important to learn about the signs that indicate she is in heat and to understand at which point in her cycle she can become pregnant.
This is critical to understand so that you can prevent accidental breeding.
An intact female will also bleed during part of her heat cycle, so you may need to outfit her with some cute dog underwear to keep your home clean.
Most Golden Retrievers will go into heat every six months, so about two times per year.
There are often behavioral changes that go along with the physical changes your intact female will experience during her heat.
Perhaps she is more sensitive, lethargic, clingy, or reserved, or she may become even more outgoing and affectionate.
Some females in heat can, unfortunately, become aggressive toward other dogs, so if that does happen, you’ll want to keep her away from other dogs during that time.
It’s common for females to also have a change in appetite, becoming pickier or maybe completely ravenous.
She also may be flirty with other dogs, as she looks for a mate, and might even be prone to escaping your home or yard.
It’s very important to keep your female away from any potentially intact male dogs while she is in heat.
Male dogs have been known to climb fences to get to females in heat, and dogs have even successfully mated through fences, so it’s best to keep her on a leash at all times, even in your fenced yard.
You will want to pause any dog park and daycare visits, or playdates with intact males during her heat.
Avoid letting her interact with any dogs on leashed walks as well, just to be safe.
Alternatives to Spay and Neuter
There are a couple of alternatives to spaying and neutering your Golden Retriever, besides choosing to keep them intact.
For males, a vasectomy is an option.
This makes him incapable of making puppies, while still keeping all his reproductive organs and sex hormones, as the testicles are not removed.
If you’re concerned about preventing accidental breedings and want the peace of mind that your male won’t be fathering any litters, a vasectomy may be something to look into more.
A vasectomy leaves your dog essentially as an intact dog, only without the ability to successfully breed.
For females, there is an ovary-sparing hysterectomy.
This surgery removes the uterus and cervix, but leaves the ovaries, which produce sex hormones.
This makes the female dog incapable of becoming pregnant, but leaves her with hormones which research seems to suggest offer a protective role against cancer.
She will still have heat cycles, though usually no bleeding, and be attractive to males.
Again, this is potentially an option to look into if you are worried about accidental breeding.
Spay and Neuter: An Individual Choice
More modern research indicates that the decision of if and when to sterilize your Golden Retriever needs to be made on a case-by-case basis, rather than a blanket practice of sterilizing all dogs at a young age.
The idea that spaying and neutering always leads to a better and longer life for your dog is not so black and white as once believed.
There are benefits and risks to spaying and neutering your dog at any age and there are benefits and risks to leaving your dog intact.
The choice is a matter of weighing out the research, health and behavior risks and benefits of sterilization, your dog’s age and your lifestyle.
What are your thoughts on neutering or spaying your Golden Retriever?
Let us know down in the comments!
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About the author:
Alisa Healy is a professional dog trainer in the Chicago suburbs, with a wide range of training experience from shelters to in-home training to dog sports. She is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner and is passionate about helping people and dogs live fulfilling, harmonious lives together.