Should I castrate my dog?

A black spaniel jumping a log with a duck dummy in its mouth

Neutering your dog shouldn't affect his drive to work - Credit: Rebecca Green

Should we be neutering our male gundogs not intended for breeding – or will this affect their hunting drive? Vicky Payne explains

When you take your male gundog puppy to the vets for his vaccinations, the topic of neutering will usually come up. But is neutering the right decision for a working gundog? And if he isn’t neutered, what do you need to be aware of? 

Vets recommend neutering of dogs not intended for breeding to reduce the risk of unwanted litters and for health reasons. However, the health argument is less clear cut for males than females. Removing the testicles prevents testicular cancer and torsion, and benign prostate enlargement, and it reduces the risk of perianal tumours and hernias. However, it may increase the risk of other cancers and does not prevent prostate cancer.

Neutering before puberty can alter the length ratio of the leg bones and may be linked to a higher risk of joint disease including cruciate rupture. Obesity is more common in neutered dogs but can be avoided by adjusting the amount of food given.  

Castration is often suggested for preventing aggression in dogs, but cases of male-male aggression are less common than fear aggression which neutering can make worse. That said, if you have more than one entire male dog, there is always a risk of testosterone-driven spats, especially if they scent an in-season female.

If keeping more than one entire male, consider how you will separate them if they do start to fight, and watch for early warning signs such as a stiff posture, placing their neck over the other dog, and growling. Care should also be taken with males on shoot transport, although the nature of gundogs means they are usually congenial when working. 

An old keeper’s tale says that castrated dogs lose their drive for work, but that isn’t usually the case. Most assistance dogs and some police dogs are neutered and continue to carry out their duties. Having said that, one study found that neutered police dogs were slightly harder to train and less good at scent tasks than entire ones so maybe there is a grain of truth to the myth? 

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Unwanted litters are easy to avoid with a bit of common sense. Ensure your dog has excellent recall and keep him close if you have to use public dog walking areas. In-season bitches should not be off lead in public places – but some people are idiots!

If you keep a mixed kennel of entire males and females, things are more challenging. Dogs can become very distressed when kept near ovulating bitches so you may need to consider sending them away if you aren’t lucky to have space for separate kennel blocks. Matings have happened through kennel bars and fences won’t keep star-crossed lovers apart, so take care.

Using your dog at stud can make him more difficult to train in the short-term, but long-term temperament changes are less common in gundog breeds. Before using your dog at stud, he should have proven himself in the field, be free from faults, and have had relevant health tests for his breed. Mating should take place under supervision to avoid injury to dog or bitch. 

Almost all entire males over six will have an enlarged prostate (BHP) but few dogs show clinical signs. Symptoms can include difficulty passing faeces or urine, blood in the urine and semen, and pain. BHP will affect fertility, but a medication is available to reduce prostate size without affecting fertility.

If the dog is no longer required at stud, castration is curative, or an implant is available. Both my old stud dogs developed BHP and the only symptom was generally being a bit down. They responded well to medication and Rebus continued siring puppies until he was 13! 

So, to castrate or not? That really is a personal decision based on your lifestyle and circumstances. If you decide to castrate your working dog, wait until he is over a year old, preferably two, so that he is mentally and physically mature and you are able to balance the health pros and cons.