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Veterinary Forum November 2008 (Vol 25, No 11)

Clinical Report — Can neutering control behavior problems?

by Sophia Yin, DVM, MS (Animal Science)

    On an episode of "It's Me or the Dog," a show on Animal Planet, British dog trainer Victoria Stilwell tackled the problem of a bull terrier that exhibited mounting behavior. The first solution was to send the dog for a time-out when he mounted. However, the mounting was so severe that the trainer finally recommended neutering, which solved the problem. This case raises two questions: What other behavioral issues can neutering help address, and what is the rate of success?

    In general, it would be expected that spaying or neutering most likely affects sexually dimorphic behaviors — those that are more characteristic for one gender or the other. This is exactly what a 1997 study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis, Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital found.1

    Misbehaving Males

    This study evaluated how neutering adult male dogs affected such problem behaviors as urine marking in the house, mounting, roaming, fear of inanimate stimuli as well as aggression toward family members, strangers, household dogs, unfamiliar dogs and human territorial intruders. Fifty-seven dogs that had exhibited one or more of these problems before being castrated at 2 to 7 years of age were included in the study. Follow-up revealed that castration was most effective at reducing urine marking, mounting and roaming, leading to a 90% decrease in these behaviors in 40% of the study dogs and a 50% decrease in the remaining 60% of the study dogs. No relationship existed between the effect of neutering and the age of the dog or duration of the problem behavior before castration.

    Neutering also affected aggression toward canine and human family members but to a lesser extent and in fewer dogs, with 25% of the study dogs improving by more than 50%. Surprisingly, 10% to 15% of dogs showed less aggression toward unfamiliar dogs and territorial intruders. Therefore, neutering can likely provide marked improvement for many dogs that are exhibiting marking, roaming or mounting behavior and may offer some improvement in dogs that are aggressive toward people and other dogs. Neutering seems to be less successful in reducing other types of aggression, although improvement is possible.

    For cats, the story may be even more promising. "Regarding behaviors that are more specific to male animals, castration seems to be more effective [in modifying behavior problems] in cats than in dogs," says Melissa Bain, DVM, assistant professor of clinical animal behavior at UC Davis. "A study conducted here in the 1990s found that castration greatly reduces or eliminates urine spraying, roaming and fighting with neighborhood males in 90% of male cats."2 This study also found that 50% of the cats dramatically decreased — by 80% — their roaming and fighting behaviors in the first week, although the remaining study cats demonstrated a more gradual decline.

    Misbehaving Females

    The study results for male dogs and cats make the course of action clear. But for female dogs, the findings on the effects of spaying on behavior were unexpected.

    According to Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, DACVB, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University Hospital for Animals, spaying may actually contribute to behavioral problems. In a cooperative study with the Institute of Animal Medicine at Gyeongsang National University in Korea, Houpt and her colleagues found that ovariohysterectomy in healthy German shepherds bred as working dogs led to increased reactivity.3

    In the study, 14 healthy German shepherd bitches at the Korean Air Force Dog Training Center were studied. Half of the study dogs were spayed at 5 to 10 months of age, and the other half were intact. The dogs were littermates and were split equally into both groups to control for genetics. The dogs all lived in the same kennel environment and received similar handling. Their behavioral reactions were tested at 4 and 5 months after surgery.

    Each dog was tested separately in its outdoor kennel while the rest of the dogs remained indoors. An unfamiliar human with an unknown dog walked within 1 meter of the target dog's kennel, and the kenneled German shepherd's response was recorded. In each of four different recordings for each dog, researchers recorded barking or growling, lunging, jumping, snapping, head high, ears forward, eyes staring, lips lifting or curling. Dogs received a score of 3 if they exhibited all 10 behaviors, a score of 2 if they exhibited seven of 10 behaviors and a score of 1 if they exhibited four of 10 behaviors. Dogs with response to fewer than four behaviors received a score of 0.

    "Ideally we would have scored the dogs before they were spayed, too," says Houpt. "Regardless, the results were dramatic. Dogs that had been spayed were significantly more reactive, with most receiving scores of 2 and 3, whereas the unspayed littermates received reactivity scores of 1." These scores decreased in two of the seven experimental dogs on repeat testing, but by the final testing phase, five of the seven dogs still received a score of 2 or higher.

    However, she emphasizes that military dogs would be expected to exhibit more aggressive behaviors on command, so these dogs would not be appropriate as pet or guide dogs or for pet therapy. Although the study was small, Houpt suggests that veterinarians should consider performing a hysterectomy rather than an ovariohysterectomy for preventive health reasons in aggressive pet female dogs.

    "Of course, theoretically, the real cure would be to spay and then give progestins," Houpt added. "This was done years ago and worked well until the dogs became diabetic and had increased appetites. Sometimes you could cure the territorial aggression, but then they became food-aggressive. It is not something we recommend now."

    1. Neilson JC, Eckstein RA, Hart BL. Effects of castration on problem behaviors in male dogs with reference to age and duration of behavior. JAVMA 1997;211(2):180-183.

    2. Hart BL, Eckstein RA. The role of gonadal hormones in the occurrence of objectionable behaviours in dogs and cats. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1997;52:331-344.

    3. im HH, Yeon SC, Houpt KA, et al. Effects of ovariohysterectomy on reactivity in German shepherd dogs. Vet J 2006;172(1):154-159.

    References »

    NEXT: Combat dogs get new hospital


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