Unwanted Desires - Is Routine Neutering of Companion Dogs Ethically Acceptable?
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), among others, strongly encourages owners of dogs and cats to have their companion neutered.1 However, not all vets take this view. Across continental Europe, vets have traditionally been more reluctant to neuter dogs. (We will use “neuter” to refer to sterilization of both sexes). In Sweden, for example, it was illegal to castrate a male dog until 1988, unless there was a specific medical reason for doing so. The official view of Swedish vets is still much more restrictive than that of the AMVA. In 2011, the section of the Swedish Veterinary Association dealing with companion animals issued a statement2 in which routine surgical neutering of dogs is rejected as sound policy. However, the idea of routine neutering of companion animals seems to be spreading. (By routine neutering, we mean neutering of healthy animals becoming the norm or “default setting”).
Neutering dogs may be of ethical significance in several ways. Neutering plays an important role in discussions about unwanted and unowned dog populations, the existence and management of which raises a wide range of ethical issues. In this paper, however, we’re interested in a narrower set of concerns: The routine neutering of companion dogs that are always restrained when outdoors - that is, dogs of both sexes living in situations where it’s impossible, or extremely unlikely, that pregnancy will occur and so where neutering is not necessary to avoid reproduction. This applies to many dogs living in urban or suburban environments in Western industrialized countries. We will consider this issue from two kinds of ethical perspectives, a utilitarian perspective and a deontological or animal rights perspective, as both are widely held approaches to thinking about ethical problems, including those relating to companion animals. For a more comprehensive analysis we refer to Ch. 10 of our recent book.3
On a utilitarian approach to ethics, only the consequences of our actions/practices - here neutering - matter directly. The aim is to maximize what’s good and minimize what’s bad. And we’ll take maximum net positive welfare in terms of animal and human subjective experiences as the ultimate ethical goal.
Surgery likely causes negative experiences such as pain and stress, though these are unlikely to be long lasting or serious provided that anaesthetic and painkillers are used. But if maximizing net positive welfare is the goal, then positive experiences or the prevention of other negative experiences would have to result from the surgery to outweigh the certain negative experiences it causes (though these positive experiences need not be to the neutered animal itself).
In the case of bitches, this may be the case: The expected benefit from gaining better health, according to some studies at least, is sufficient to outweigh the certain negative experiences associated with neutering. This isn’t the case for male dogs; in fact, since neutering actually increases health risks for male dogs, in particular by increasing the risk of developing certain cancers, the likelihood of suffering later adds to the negative experiences of surgery.
There are other, additional, factors to consider here, in particular the loss of neutered animals’ positive welfare because the animal cannot undergo sexual and reproductive experiences that may (for instance) be positively stimulating and exciting.
But we could counter this worry by considering what the alternatives actually are for most companion animals. If a bitch on heat is kept indoors and not walked while she’s in heat, then even if she has no sexual desires, she has negative experiences from having to miss her walks. If animals are not to be allowed to breed, nor to behave sexually, then leaving them entire may mean not only that they don’t have pleasurable experiences, but that they actually have frustrating ones. From a utilitarian point of view, a frustrated entire animal is worse off than an unfrustrated, neutered one.
From a utilitarian view in which mental states are concerned, routine neutering is problematic, especially in male dogs, although neutering will be permissible, or even required, in some cases.
Next, we will consider a deontological rights view on which ethical responsibilities are understood not so much as bringing about the best consequences, but as not violating basic rights, such as the right not to be killed. Neutering, on this view, may fall under a more general right: a right not to be harmed, or a right to respectful treatment. That animals have the latter right is defended by the philosopher Tom Regan,4 though not in the context of neutering. David Boonin,5 however, does apply this right to neutering. Boonin argues that since neutering an animal imposes non-trivial harms on it, the practice requires ethical justification. But most neutering is justified only by reference to benefits to other individuals either for the owners or to prevent harms to possible offspring (though this may not apply to neutering bitches, who are likely to benefit as individuals from being neutered). Rights theorists, however, normally insist that an individual’s rights may not be violated to benefit other individuals. So it looks as though, on this view, neutering would not be permissible unless it would clearly benefit the individual concerned.
However, according to Boonin neutering is a relatively minor harm in comparison with avoiding the production of potentially miserable offspring, and a rights view could be reworked to recognize this. While this argument may be appropriate in cases where unwanted reproduction is likely, it doesn’t apply to the cases we’re considering here, where companion dogs are not free-ranging, and thus would not be producing miserable offspring anyway. So, given that this qualification doesn’t seem to work here, Boonin’s rights argument raises very serious questions about the routine neutering of companion animals.
A third right that might be at stake is a right to bodily integrity. According to proponents of this right, individual animals were born in particular ways, with specific bodily features: tails, ears, claws - and gonads. These features are all part of an animal’s bodily integrity. Surgically to remove or alter any of these parts is to infringe on this bodily integrity, and can be seen as a rights violation.
However, it seems reasonable to say that if a dog has testicular cancer, for instance, it would be permissible to remove the testes, even though this would affect his bodily integrity, since presumably we could make a case that if the dog were able to give permission in this case, he would. However, the welfare benefits from neutering are not so clear cut in all cases that we could say that if healthy animals were able, they would choose voluntarily to relinquish their right to bodily integrity in order to allow routine neutering, as some women choose prophylactic mastectomies to prevent serious disease. And given the evidence, the ‘prophylactic’ argument seems only to be applicable to bitches, since many dogs may actually be made worse off by neutering.
Overall, then, routine neutering appears problematic on rights arguments. Benefits to others do not usually justify rights infringements; so it‘s only in cases where neutering benefits the animals being neutered that we can make a more straightforward argument that rights could be waived. So, arguments flowing from animal rights perspectives are very unlikely to support the practice of routinely neutering companion animals, at least.
The overall conclusion of our ethical analysis is that from two major perspectives in animal ethics - utilitarianism with a focus on animal welfare conceptualized in terms of subjective experience, and from the view of deontological animal rights - routine neutering of companion dogs is ethically problematic. There may be an argument in favour of spaying bitches to prevent serious disease late in life, but when applying this argument it will be important to include all relevant health concerns, including the risk of obesity. However, this argument does not apply to male dogs, many of whom will live healthier and happy lives in an intact state.
1. Spaying and neutering. American Veterinay Medical Association. www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/spay-neuter.aspx.
2. Norm angtiende kirurgisk kastration av friska hundar [Norm regarding the surgical neutering of healthy dogs] Sveriges Veterinaraforbund. http://svf.se/sv/Sallskapet/Smadjurssektionen/Normgruppen/Normer-av-medicinsk-karaktar/Norm-angaende-kirurgisk-kastration-av-friskahundar (VIN editor: URL was not accessible as of 5-17-2018).
3. Companion Animal Ethics. Chichester: Universdies Federation for Animal Welfare. Wiley-Blackwell.
4. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
5. Between the Species III, 1–8.