For my lay readers, neuters are for males and spays are for females. At the risk of sounding unprofessional, a handy mnemonic is that the word neuters contains the word "nuts". Which brings me to the next area of confusion: the widespread misunderstanding of what this procedure actually entails. I'll focus on neutering and leaving spaying for another post lest I blather on too long.
So, the technical term neuter is actually orchidectomy. "So doc, you're taking out his... orchids???" Yeah, so that's why we don't use that term at all. A more descriptive term is castration. Large animal veterinarians routinely and happily call it that. The companion animal world is different however. Picture a sweet little old lady with her tiny fluffy white poodle sitting primly on her lap. He has a blue bow at the base of each ear and smells faintly of peaches. Now picture me saying, "Yes, Mrs. Butterworth, it's time to castrate Baby." Moreover, there are people who think that castration means cutting the penis off. Yikes! Yes, there are such people who believe such things. And no, we never do that (except in very special circumstances in cats who have frequent urinary obstructions, but I digress).
What do we do then? We do this: we surgically remove the testicles (remember? neuters contains nuts?). Sometimes I'm asked why we don't just perform a vasectomy instead. This is because reproductive control is only one of the reasons to neuter. In many cases we would also like to remove the ability to produce testosterone in order to eliminate the risk of testicular cancers and chronic prostate infections later in life, as well as to help curb marking behaviour, roaming and male-on-male aggression. You'll note that I wrote "help curb". Too often people use neutering as a substitute for training. It is not.
Now I'm going to wade into a controversial area. Virtually all cats are neutered. The exceptions involve people who have had their own olfactory nerves removed. However, not all dogs are neutered, at least not at the traditional six months of age, and - here is the controversial bit - this might be ok. There is evidence now that breeds of dogs that are prone to cruciate knee ligament ruptures (typically large breeds) may be at increased risk if they are neutered before their bodies are fully mature. This might mean waiting until 18 or 24 months for some breeds. There may be other risks associated with early neutering in some dogs as well. This is a complex area of ongoing research, so please (please please) speak to your veterinarian first before making any decisions based on what you have read here or elsewhere on the internet. A lot of what we do has evolved from boilerplate "one size fits all" recommendations to a discussion of options tailored to the risk/benefit ratio specific to your pet. And this is a good thing. A confusing thing, but a good thing.
I guess that was more like toe-dipping rather than wading...
Finally, I'm going to leave you with this:
This 100% for real. And endorsed, it seems, by Kim Kardashian. Yes, finally there is help for the owner who wants to neuter their dog, but has an unhealthy attachment to the appearance of his scrotum. Unfortunately it's not the help these people actually need.
Comes with a nifty bumper sticker though!