As a German Shepherd owner, one of the most important decisions you’ll make about your dog’s health is whether or not to have them spayed or neutered. This procedure, also known as sterilization or desexing, involves surgical removal of your dog’s ovaries (spaying) or testes (neutering).
But is it the right choice for your Shepherd? And if so, when should you have this procedure done? This definitive guide will cover everything you need to know.
The Pros and Cons of Sterilization
There are some well-established benefits to having your German Shepherd spayed or neutered. These include:
Preventing unwanted pregnancies: This is the primary reason most owners choose to sterilize their dogs. Without functioning ovaries or testes, dogs cannot reproduce.
Reducing certain health risks: Spaying eliminates the risk of pyometra, a dangerous uterine infection. Neutering may lower risks for testicular cancer and some prostate issues.
Potential behavior changes: Sterilization may reduce roaming, mounting, and aggression tendencies influenced by sex hormones.
However, some key studies have revealed health risks associated specifically with early spay/neuter in larger breeds like German Shepherds. The young age at sterilization seems to negatively impact their joint and bone development.
Increased joint disorder risks: According to research published in Veterinary Medicine and Science, Shepherds sterilized before 1 year of age had significantly higher rates of hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament tears than intact dogs or those sterilized after 1 year.
Higher rates of incontinence: Another finding was increased urinary incontinence in females spayed before 1 year.
So for German Shepherds, a growing body of evidence suggests significant orthopedic risks to early sterilization. This has led to updated recommendations to delay the procedure until your Shepherd is fully grown.
Expert Recommendations on When to Sterilize
Many vets and breeders previously urged owners to sterilize Shepherds around 6 months of age. But the latest scientific research makes it clear that waiting until at least 12 to 14 months of age is safest in this breed when it comes to joint health.
Some vets even advise waiting until 18 to 24 months to ensure full skeletal development before spay or neuter.
Ginny Altman, an experienced German Shepherd breeder, explained to Purina:
“I used to recommend neutering my puppies before they reached sexual maturity. Now, if the owner wants to neuter, I recommend waiting until the dog has matured and certainly waiting until they have quit growing, which is usually between 18 and 24 months of age.”
The key study’s lead researcher, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Benjamin Hart, also concluded:
“I advise owners of German Shepherd Dog puppies to be in no hurry to neuter a male or spay a female. I always tell them to wait until their dog is at least a year old before neutering.”
So the current best practice is to delay sterilization of your German Shepherd until they are full grown, around 12 to 24 months of age. While this does mean managing an intact dog during adolescence, doing so optimizes their lifelong orthopedic health.
Managing an Intact German Shepherd
Deciding to delay your Shepherd’s spay or neuter means you’ll be managing an intact adult dog for some time after adoption. This comes with some additional responsibilities:
Prevent Accidental Breeding
- Closely supervise outside time
- Walk on leash or long line only
- Consider secure fencing if off leash
Prepare for Physical & Behavioral Changes
- Adolescence 8-18 months
- More independent, distractible
- Roaming/mounting tendencies
- Manage with patience & training
Females – Heat Cycles Every 6 Months
- Signs – swollen vulva, blood-tinged discharge
- Keep confined & supervised during 2-3 weeks
- Limit contact with intact males
Putting in this extra management now will allow your Shepherd to fully physically mature before sterilization, optimizing their health. Work closely with your vet to decide the ideal timing between 12-24 months.
Long-Term Impacts of Early Sterilization
To understand why delayed sterilization is the current best practice for Shepherds, it helps to dive into the research on how early spay/neuter specifically impacts their health.
The key 2016 study analyzed medical records of 1,170 intact and sterilized German Shepherds treated over 13+ years at UC Davis’ vet school. They grouped the dogs by when they were sterilized and analyzed orthopedic disorder rates.
The differences were striking. You can see some highlights in this chart:
|Type of Disorder
|Cranial Cruciate Ligament Tear
|7% of females
Table showing increased rates of hip dysplasia, CCL tears, and urinary incontinence in German Shepherds sterilized early before 1 year of age versus intact dogs or those sterilized after 1 year.
Clearly, sterilization before skeletal maturity (around 1 year of age) significantly increases risks of both joint disorders and incontinence later in a German Shepherd’s life.
The researchers think early removal of key hormones prevents the normal closure of long bone growth plates. This causes slight abnormal skeletal development that over years leads to much higher rates of debilitating orthopedic conditions:
“We think that early neutering prevents the gonadal hormone secretion that normally stimulates closure of long-bone growth plates as a dog approaches maturity. The bones grow slightly longer than normal, which, in turn, disrupts joint alignment enough to lead to clinically apparent joint problems in some dogs.”
So while the behavioral impacts of sterilization can be beneficial, the orthopedic impacts of doing so too early make delaying this procedure vitally important for your German Shepherd’s future comfort and mobility.
Individualized Decision Making on Spay/Neuter
While the research shows waiting until at least 12-14 months of age is ideal for most German Shepherds when it comes to sterilization, experts say some individualization can still be helpful.
Take your Shepherd’s purpose and lifestyle into account. Is this a family pet you want to avoid reproductive behaviors in? Is your dog highly active and involved in demanding sports like agility that make joint health paramount?
For high-intensity working or sport dogs, waiting even longer until 18-24 months to optimize complete skeletal development first may be advisable. Whereas moderately active companion dogs likely experience sufficient maturity around 12-14 months for the behavioral benefits of spay/neuter to outweigh continuing to manage heat cycles or male hormonal behaviors.
Discuss your own dog’s activity level, home environment, and purpose with your trusted vet. Also involve any breeder or trainer you actively work with in making this major health decision for your beloved German Shepherd’s long happy life by your side.
Conclusion: Use This Definitive Guide to Do What’s Best For Your Shepherd
Spaying or neutering requires carefully weighing both health and behavioral impacts when making this permanent decision for your German Shepherd’s life. While the procedure provides reproductive control and other benefits, important breed-specific research shows removing sex hormones too early significantly raises their risk of painful mobility-impairing orthopedic diseases.
That’s why it’s now recommended to delay sterilization in Shepherds until 12-14 months and ideally 18-24 months – allowing them to reach full skeletal maturity first. Work closely with your vet to choose the optimal timing for your dog based on their purpose, home environment, and activity level.
While managing an adolescent intact Shepherd does require some extra time and attention from you, putting in that effort now is well worth avoiding costly joint surgeries and immobility later in their life. This definitive guide empowers you to use the latest science to make a truly informed spay/neuter decision that optimizes your beloved German Shepherd’s health and wellbeing for years to come.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can’t I just do early sterilization to prevent aggressive behavior?
Studies show that while sex hormones do influence some undesirable behaviors, sterilization after maturity at 12-14 months is still very effective at preventing ongoing issues with roaming, mounting, etc. The orthopedic risks simply outweigh any small potential behavior benefit to very early sterilization.
What are signs my German Shepherd has reached maturity to safely sterilize?
Your vet can confirm via x-rays, but general signs are their growth has plateaued, females have had a first heat cycle or males are lifting their leg regularly. This typically occurs between 12-14 months but may be up to 24 months in some slower maturing Shepherd lines.
If I don’t sterilize until maturity, do I need to worry about offspring?
Ensure your home is secure against wandering, always supervise outside, walk on leash, and enroll your Shepherd in training. If managed properly until an appropriate spay/neuter age, accidental breeding is preventable. Though supervision is key!