Dog lifting leg on pole
You know that I am a big proponent of spaying and neutering for pet dogs; it offers a variety of benefits for our pets. Among other things, it can reduce roaming and help prevent serious conditions such as uterine infections. And there’s no doubt that it has helped to dramatically reduce the number of animals euthanized in shelters for lack of homes.  

We veterinarians used to recommend that young animals be spayed or neutered at about 6 months of age. And we learned that pups could be altered as early as 8 weeks of age and bounce back quickly from the surgery, making it easier for shelters to adopt them out knowing they wouldn’t reproduce.

But we’ve also learned some new things about spay/neuter surgery that can affect the age at which we recommend it. Some large and giant breeds who are surgically altered at an early age appear to be more prone to certain types of cancer as well as orthopedic problems such as hip dysplasia and canine cruciate ligament tears

Pet owners may also choose to keep dogs intact (not neutered) because they are working dogs or canine athletes for whom the presence of testosterone contributes to better muscle tone. Females spayed too early may develop urinary incontinence.

For these reasons and others, I am seeing more pet owners who consult with their veterinarian and decide to wait until full physical maturity (anywhere from 14 to 24 months) to spay or neuter their dogs.

If you and your veterinarian decide that waiting to spay or neuter your dog is right for his health, you may have questions about what it’s like to live with an intact dog. For starters, you’ll need to take steps to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Here’s what else you need to know.

Intact Females

Female dogs have a “season,” when they smell ripe and delicious and irresistible to male dogs. Sometimes referred to as being “in heat,” this period occurs twice a year in most dogs, usually every five to nine months. At what age this first occurs and how often it occurs depends on the size or breed of the dog. Small dogs tend to have their first season as early as six months of age, while large or giant breeds may not reach sexual maturity until 1 to 2 years of age. But it does vary. Many Basenjis are known for coming into season only once a year, and the same may be true for some giant breeds.
The complete estrus, or heat, cycle typically lasts two to three weeks. You may notice that your dog’s vulva is swollen or that she has a bloody discharge. This stage, called proestrus, averages nine days but can last as little as three days or as long as 17 days. The discharge usually occurs during the second week. Many dogs keep themselves so clean during this time that you may not even notice the discharge, but others must wear protective panties that keep the discharge off clothing and furniture and prevent males from gaining access to them.

In the next phase of the cycle, known as estrus, females are ready for male attention — and willing to allow it — and that’s when you need to be extra-careful to make sure they don’t hook up with the dog next door. Go outdoors with her on leash and stay with her, just in case there are any interested males in the vicinity. It’s best to keep her indoors the rest of the time. Even a secure kennel with a strong top and a concrete bottom isn’t foolproof; two dogs can mate through the kennel fence.

The third stage is called diestrus, when the female is no longer interested in mating or is not interesting to males. Her hormone levels drop, eventually returning her to the stage known as anestrus, the quiet period that lasts an average of 130 to 150 days until the cycle begins again.

Intact Males

When we think of living with intact male dogs, the assumption is often that they are going to be humping everything in their path and lifting their legs in the house and that they will inevitably be aggressive toward other male dogs.

But that’s not always so. Like any other dog, an intact male can and should learn manners. There’s no reason he can’t learn that humping and leg-lifting in the home are no-nos. And as far as aggression, it’s often the case that neutered males are aggressive toward intact males — possibly because they smell different.

Not all intact male dogs have an odor, but like teenage boys, adolescent male dogs can be stinky. It could be hormones, it could be that their aim isn’t very good yet and they are getting urine on their legs or it could be that they have a health problem that should be checked out by your veterinarian. In most cases, though, that canine funk should disappear by the time your male reaches maturity at 14 to 24 months.

Preventing humping and urine marking inside the house is a matter of management and training. To help prevent humping, occupy your dog with other activities such as play, training and puzzle toys. If you catch him in the act, redirect him with a game of fetch or a run through his obedience commands. Training teaches him control and focus, while play relieves stress and wears him out. When you’re out and about, keep him on leash and at your side so he lacks opportunity.

Adolescent males who seemed to be house-trained may start lifting their leg in the home as a way of marking territory. (Intact females may also do this to attract mates.) That’s not cool. Do some remedial house training, restrict your dog’s freedom in the home with a crate or by leashing him at your side and thoroughly clean the area he marked with an enzymatic odor neutralizer. If he is whiny or barky in the presence of in-season females, give him the canine equivalent of a cold shower: extra walks, play and training to help take his mind off the hot girl. He’ll still want her, but the desire will be slightly dampened.

Living with an intact dog requires some extra care — keeping females confined and not allowing males to be pests — but with consistent training and appropriate management, there’s no reason they have to be any more difficult to live with than a spayed or neutered dog.

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