Is desexing a cult?

There are two definitions of ‘cult’ (according to Google):

  • A usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease, or
  • Obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing.

The community’s perception of desexing fits well into both of these categories.


Border terrier bitch on a table at a dog show, being examined by a judge.

The weird dog show culture.


How is desexing a cult?

There is relatively little data on desexing. You may be surprised to hear this, considering how the procedure is so loudly advocated, but there are few long-term controlled studies on gonadectomanies (i.e. removal of ovaries or testicles) in the dog. By this I mean that desexing is quite ‘nonscientific’ in that there is little research on what it actually does (or doesn’t) do for dogs.

Despite this, desexing is claimed to have “exceptional power in curing a particular disease”.  For example, desex your dog to fix humping, aggression, to ‘calm your dog down’, to stop testicular cancer, stop mammary cancer, and so on and so on. In this way, the desexing mantra clearly fits into the first definition of ‘cult’. Desexing is a nonscientific method that has exceptional power in preventing and curing particular diseases and behaviours.

The way that the community embraces desexing could be described as obsessive devotion. The RSPCA, PETA, and even the (government run) Dog and Cat Management Board all promote desexing. The community follows suit. There is a devotion to desexing – it is loved, embraced enthusiastically, has a committed following. The community loves desexing, despite little evidence.  This obsession towards desexing can also be described as cult-like.

In this way, desexing is a cult as it is:

  • a nonscientific method claimed to have exclusive power, and
  • obsessively followed by individuals and the community.


Logical Fallacies

Logical fallacies allow individuals to avoid a fundamental lack of evidence. The Glossary of Logical Fallacies explains:

… some individuals will attempt to derail the [scientific, evidence-based] process by diverting the progression of the debate with fallacious arguments.  Such efforts have the intent of masking the indefensibility of a flawed theory by muddying the waters with emotive rhetoric and fractured logic, with the ultimate goal being to convince someone to believe some idea that is not scientifically valid or that they might not otherwise accept.

Logical fallacies are inherent in both definitions of the desexing cult: a disregard of evidence underlined by a devotion to desexing.  In all things desexing, there is a fundamental lack of critical thinking. Any attempt to debate desexing often descends into a sphere of logical fallacies, like those described in the graphic below.

Rational Thinking

I frequently make arguments against mandatory and default desexing.  I say things like, “but breeding causes more dogs, not just gonads” and “there is no overpopulation problem, so it doesn’t even matter if people breed their dogs” and “desexing is correlated with some types of cancer“.

These arguments are met with responses like “Rescues desex their pets, so it’s obviously good for pets” (bandwagon) and “The Dog and Cat Management Board says desexing is good” (appeal to authority).  They make strawman arguments like, “So you’re saying that no dog should ever be desexed?” and even just deny the claims all together, “It really doesn’t make sense that desexing would cause an increase in lymphosarcoma” (personal incredulity).

People make black and white arguments like “We can either have mandatory desexing or we can let everyone have a several litters in their backyard every year”, that then extend to slippery slope arguments, “If we don’t encourage people to desex, then people will breed more puppies”.

One of my big pet hate is anecdotal evidence.  “I had a dog that was desexed at 12 weeks and it lived to 15 years old and died of a stroke” and “I knew an entire dog that used to bite everyone, and it was desexed and then it stopped biting”.

The false cause, “But so many dogs are dying in pounds because people don’t desex!” and “Entire dogs bite more, so testicles clearly cause dogs to bite.”

They ask loaded questions like, “So you are okay with the number of dogs dying in pounds?” or “So backyard breeders are okay by you?”.

In all these claims there is a lack of logic, validity and reasoning. Logical fallacies are a flaw in logic. These logical flaws are overwhelming in discussions on desexing. Debates should be argued and won on factual evidence and sound reasoning – and logical fallacies are neither.


What to do?

Unfortunately, the very nature of a cult is that it is difficult to break one. The devotion of to the thing itself is in the very definition of cult. Indeed, there also seems to be a veneration of gonads itself within the desexing cult.

I guess the only thing to possibly do is to logically state our claims for entire dogs, not use logical fallacies, and hope that people are willing to be wrong about that. We need to demand evidence that desexing has exceptional power – evidence in the way of articles in peer-reviewed papers. At the same time, we can supply our own evidence that desexing isn’t all it seems to be.

At the same time, we need to support dog science that allows us to make more solid conclusions on desexing. When evidence becomes available, we need to embrace it – even if that potentially means changing our view on desexing. I am not prepared to personally commit logical fallacies, just as I reject those exclaimed by others.


Further reading:

5 Logical Fallacies That Make You More Wrong Than You Think

The Great Spay-Neuter Fallacy

Understanding Science – Logical Fallacies

Border-Wars Comment Policy (or the Disagreement Hierarchy)

6 thoughts on “Is desexing a cult?

  1. This is a difficult subject for me.

    As an Animal Control Officer, I am pro-sterilization. I DO see more issues with intact dogs — aggression, roaming, unwanted litters. I have personally euthanized hundreds of unwanted animals. It’s gut-wrenching. Yes, many — if not all — of these problems could be solved with responsible ownership. But that’s not happening, especially in densely populated, low-income neighborhoods. And when aggressive spay/neuter programs are offered and used, these issues decrease. Also the worst dog bites I’ve investigated were perpetrated by intact males or females with pups. I believe that an unaltered animal (especially a poorly socialized, unaltered animal) is dangerous to the public.

    On the other hand, I have no plans to neuter my 11 month old German shepherd. Showing aside, new studies propose that early neutering may cause (or at least exacerbate) hip dysplasia, a big problem with this breed. Other studies show that early de-sexing compromises bone density. Even if I weren’t showing my dog, I wouldn’t sterilize him until he was fully mature. However, I’m a responsible, experienced dog owner and am equipped to deal with the hormone-driven behaviors. Unfortunately I am NOT the average dog owner.

    And on ANOTHER hand, I am a stubborn American, and resent anybody — especially the Government — forcing me to do anything. So where does this leave me? I don’t think that mandatory sterilization is the answer. I think education, accountability and availability of affordable spay/neuter programs is.

    Does this make any sense? Told you it was a difficult subject for me!!!

    • I really reject the idea that entire dogs are aggressive. Statistically, maybe, but universally, no. I always invite anyone to come to my house and make any of my intact dogs bite you. It’s an open invitation. My dogs have excellent temperaments, or else they wouldn’t be kept entire. In my state, our government recently suggested dogs should have pass a temperament test to remain entire. Yuck! You can read more about it here:

      I don’t believe that shelters/pounds have to euthanise animals. They choose to because they see it as easier or more convenient. There are plenty of no kill communities in the USA.

      Desexing programs should be offered at low or no cost. Many people want to desex their pets, but don’t have the means to do so. Those people should definitely be our target.

      I don’t think anyone should be desexing large breed puppies before 6 months of age for the welfare of that individual dog. It doesn’t matter if you’re a ‘responsible person’ or not – it’s still not within a large breed’s dogs best interest to be desexed at an early age. And if we’re all about animal welfare, then EAD for dogs shouldn’t be in our dialogue.

  2. I am concerned about potential genetic-health consequences of neutering-as-norm… just a thought. If almost all pet dogs are desexed and the occasional back yard litters prevented, wouldn’t that reduce the genetic diversity (~ health) of the dog population? Especially for pure breeds… where already relatively few popular individuals sire large proportions of the puppies within the breeds, and many breeds already badly suffer from health issues associated with loss of genetic diversity (inbreeding et.c.) + anatomic deformities dictated by extreme breed standards.

    Average family dogs (as opposed to top show dogs), and especially cross breeds…are likely more genetically diverse and less likely to suffer from such extremities than “elite sires” within a breed. Systematically neutering family dogs before they can contribute to the gene pool must reduce the gene pool and genetic health of domestic dogs overall. I haven’t read any research about that, but that is just logical.

    • Mados, you’ve made a similar comment on another post and, in short, I agree with you. Dogs should almost have to show their ability to live happily as family pets before being bred from. Our current default attitude on desexing prevents a lot of good dogs from ever entering the gene pool.

  3. You stated that “I don’t believe that shelters/pounds have to euthanise animals. They choose to because they see it as easier or more convenient. There are plenty of no kill communities in the USA.”

    Here I must disagree with you. I work in a US municipal shelter, and I’ve seen this first hand for the past 9 years. We don’t kill because it’s “convenient.” (BTW, it’s NEVER easy.) More because we have 450 cages, and take in 100+ animals daily. Even with aggressive adoption campaigns, an army of foster parents and rescue groups taking everything they can, we’re still left with more animals than cages. Even when we double (and triple) up. Sadly, 90% of the dog adoption cages are full pits and pit mixes. Not everybody wants a pit — including many landlords, homeowners associations and insurance companies. The hard question is: how long are they to be held? And is there such a thing as too long? I believe there is. Several years ago I watched one go cage crazy. She was large, black, and not housebroken. There was nothing spectacular about her and people tended to walk by her cage. She’d get bored and spin. The more she spun, the less people looked. After nearly 8 months of trying everything I could think of (including giving her away) I felt it was more humane to euthanize her than watch her spin herself to death. What are we to do with these dogs? And if we don’t euthanize them, then where do we put them?

    I believe that “No-Kill” is a fallacy. “Low-Kill” is closer to the truth. And there are issues that go with it. Our Humane Society is a limited admissions “No Kill” facility, which means they only take what they think is adoptable, and only when they have space available. They don’t take cats at all. Anything that is stray, older, ugly, or has “issues” is directed to the municipal open admissions “Kill” shelter above (with the 450 cages).

    There’s a lot of money in “No Kill.” So to qualify for grants and donations, data is skewed, numbers are fudged and animals are intentionally misclassified. I have seen happy, healthy animals identified as “sick” and “aggressive” and therefore “Not adoptable” so they can be euthanized without hurting the Maddie’s Fund bank roll.

    I could go on and on, but it’s starting to make me angry (again). The “No Kill” movement ruffles my feathers in the same way the spay/neuter movement ruffles yours!

    One more thing: what is EAD? Some things don’t translate well from there to here. Like when you say “desex” I assume you mean spay/neuter where the sex organs are completely removed. Correct? And this is NOT the same as sterilization, which could mean preventing reproduction without removing sex organs (i.e. vasectomy, tubal ligation). Am I correct here as well?

    • EAD is ‘early age desexing’.
      Desex is a term to cover both spay and neuter.
      Sterilisation can be desexing, but can also be less-permanent contraceptions like suprelorin or permanent, like vasectomy.

      So, yes, you’re correct on that front.

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