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P. Sandøe1, S. Corr2, C. Palmer3
1University of Copenhagen, Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences and Department of Food and Resource Economics, Copenhagen, Denmark
2University of Glasgow, College of Medical- Veterinary and Life Sciences, Glasgow, USA
3Texas A&M University, Department of Philosophy, College Station, USA
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), among others, strongly encourages owners of dogs and cats to have their companion neutered1. 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 speci c medical reason for doing so. The of cial 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 signi cance 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 book3.
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 bene t from gaining better health, according
to some studies at least, is suf cient 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 on 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 Regan4, though
An Urban Experience

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