Q: I foster homeless dogs, cats and other animals so I know how important it is to spay and neuter to prevent accidental litters, reducing the number of animals we needlessly kill each year. At what age should animals be spayed or neutered? Is there any reason I need to wait for a female's first heat cycle and are there any risks involved with older animals undergoing these procedures?
— Blu Stephens, foster mom, Anniston
A: There have been a number of studies to evaluate the ideal time to spay or neuter a dog. Probably the most quoted study was done at Ohio State University a number of years ago. This study indicated that the younger a dog was spayed (after 6 month of age and before the first heat cycle), the less likely they were to develop breast cancer. At roughly 6 months of age the average dog is internally mature even though they may not be full grown.
This makes them the "best risk of anesthesia." There have not been any studies to indicate that there is a benefit to even one heat cycle, both in physical or mental development. This also seems to hold true for males. Size and physical development are genetically coded and influenced by nutrition and preventative health care, not hormone levels, therefore neutering a male at a young age does not diminish his development.
Older or mature dogs should be evaluated on a case by case basis by your veterinarian to determine if there are any health issues that would affect their surgical risk. There are potential health problems that develop frequently in senior dogs that make it important to consider spaying or neutering before they become seniors (8 years and older).
— Dr. William Brom, Greenbrier Animal Clinic
New cues can calm trauma-related anxiety
Q: Piston, my 1 1/2-year-old registered pit bull, was stolen when she was 4 months old and held for four days until I paid a ransom. When I got her back, she was dehydrated, unfed and covered in scratch marks. She didn't respond to me for a week afterwards — emotionless with a blank stare.
Eventually she returned to her normal self, but with a noticeable difference in her trust towards others. I learned that the man who took Piston kept her tied up in a field and left her locked in his vehicle while he was at work, so he could try to sell her on his breaks. For months after her return, whenever she got in the car she would immediately crawl onto the back floorboard and stay there.
To this day Piston has separation anxiety. She is no longer chewing/tearing things up, but she still gets completely depressed if I leave her alone for any amount of time, as if she thinks I¹m never coming back. I¹ve done everything I can think of to reassure her but nothing works.
She¹s such a sweet dog. Any suggestions on what I can do for her?
— Danielle Gentry and Piston, Anniston
A: Some dogs, when separated from family members, exhibit distress and initiate problem behaviors. This is called separation anxiety. The hallmark characteristics of canine separation anxiety are vocalization, destruction, elimination (urination, defecation) in the house, drooling and/or behavioral depression. It sounds as though Piston (at least at this point) is showing only depression.
The first step that I recommend is sitting down with your veterinarian to have him/her gather a thorough history and perform an examination on Piston.
If separation anxiety is diagnosed, treatment in Piston's case would revolve around independence training, habituation to departure cues, changing routines and counter-conditioning.
Briefly, independence training involves training Piston to be less attached and encouraging interactions that are more focused and structured. Habituation to departure cues and changing routines requires you to disassociate departure cues from an actual departure. For example, picking up your car keys and fiddling with them, but not actually leaving.
Counter conditioning involves teaching Piston to engage in an alternate activity just prior to your departure. Establishing a safe location and making Piston's at-home situation more interesting may be all that is needed.
Specifically, I like the use of a Kong toy with peanut butter or a treat in it.
Treating separation anxiety can be complex and challenging, but also rewarding.
A website that offers good explanations and therapies is www.veterinarypartner.com. Search for "Separation Anxiety."
Please keep us posted on her progress.
— Dr. Barry Nicholls, Animal Medical Center