A Cork vet transformed death row in dog pounds

Twenty years ago the dog population in Ireland was out of control. Over 20,000 unwanted dogs were euthanized in Ireland’s dog pounds each year.

Fast forward to 2021 and the total number of dogs euthanized annually in Ireland’s dog pound has dropped to less than 200 dogs. Yes, that’s right: from over 20,000 to less than 200. The change is amazing.

There are many reasons for this, but the starting point for the solution was one person: Edmond O’Sullivan, a veterinarian in Cork. He was so angry about the high number of euthanized dogs that he organized a National Stray Dog Forum in 2001, where all stakeholders dealing with stray dogs came together to develop a plan to solve the problem.

This meeting was attended by veterinarians, animal rescue groups, gardaí and government officials, as well as other interested parties. An action plan has been put in place, including mandatory microchips (which became law in 2015), closer links between pound dogs and animal rescue groups, a nationwide subsidized neutering and neutering program (this was later set up by the Dogs Trust charity), and better public education about neutering and neutering.

An annual “Spay Week” campaign was launched. The campaign emphasized that neutering is important, not only to prevent excessive numbers of puppies and kittens, but also to optimize your pet’s health. Female hormones can cause serious health problems. Neutered pets, on average, live longer and healthier lives.

It gradually became an accepted, standard part of pet ownership to ensure that your dog or cat was spayed. Technically, castration is a surgical procedure called an “ovarian hysterectomy” (the uterus and ovaries are removed). The operation costs between 200 and 350 euros for a dog and 80 to 160 euros for a cat. It is usually done as a daytime procedure where pets are left with the vet in the morning and picked up the same evening.

The plan to reduce unwanted pets has been hugely successful, as evidenced by the dramatic decline in the euthanasia rate in Irish dog pounds.

In the past it was believed that all bitches and cats should be neutered around six months of age. The message now is that it is not that simple. More recently, new research has emerged that challenges this general recommendation. Researchers have extracted pet health data from the computerized records of thousands of veterinary practices and used them to review the effects of neutering on various subgroups within the broad pet population.

Some recommendations remain unchanged. For bitches and cats, breeding still has no advantages: in fact, the process of pregnancy and childbirth carries risks.

It also remains true that neutering early has a dramatic impact on reducing breast cancer rates in dogs. Repeated exposure of breast tissue to the high levels of estrogen observed during a season predisposes women to breast cancer.

This type of cancer – the canine equivalent of breast cancer – is very common in unpaid bitches, but it is almost never seen in dogs neutered before their first season.

In Norway, it is illegal to castrate bitches unless there are compelling medical reasons (Norwegian ethical beliefs that castration is considered a form of mutilation). As a result, most bitches in Norway remain unpaid.

The negative long-term effects on their health are significant: over 50% of older bitches develop breast cancer and every week veterinarians across Norway are busy performing breast tumor removal surgery in older bitches. Here in Ireland we rarely see this condition again because so many bitches are neutered at a young age.

In cats, neutering reduces the risk of breast tumors by 40 to 60% at any age, so this remains an important reason to have this surgery done.

It’s also still true that castration prevents a condition called pyometra, a serious uterine infection that occurs in 25% of older unpaid bitches. Pyometra has a death rate of up to 17%, even with extensive treatment. During castration, the uterus is removed so that pyometra is apparently completely prevented. Again, Norwegian veterinarians are required to regularly treat dogs with pyometra, while it has become rare in Ireland.

There have always been some known drawbacks to spaying and neutering. Bitches are 50% more likely to become overweight or obese after neutering, so it is important to carefully control their diet to avoid this. In addition, a small number of bitches develop urinary incontinence after being castrated. This can be effectively treated with daily medication if it happens.

Recent research has given three new thoughts on castration.

First, the early castration of large and giant dog breeds has been linked to an increased incidence of osteosarcoma (bone cancer) and also cruciate ligament rupture, so it is now recommended that these breeds be kept until sexual maturity (z months old) before surgery.

Second, after castration, Dachshunds are more likely to have a herniated disc. So there are arguments for delaying or not doing the process in this long-backed breed.

Third, some specific breeds (e.g., Golden Retrievers) appear to be more prone to certain types of cancer if neutered at a young age.

So what should pet owners do in 2021 to have their pet neutered? Each animal should be assessed individually by its veterinarian in order to choose the optimal approach to optimal health for that particular animal. The old “one size fits all” approach no longer applies.