By Sarah Hodgson
When I conduct a pre-puppy consultation, one of the most common questions is about sex: Which is better? Whether you’re considering a dog, cat or horse, does sex matter? My professional, definitive answer? Sort of. Why so vague? Because I feel strongly that whatever decision you make, the love you feel for your pet will be blind to all but the relationship you’ve fostered. Male or female, you’ll soon forget all the practical and impractical reasons for your choice and see your pet as an extension of yourself.
Of course, there are some key difference between males and females. There are the obvious anatomical differences, but go below the surface – to the hormonal modifications – and you’ll find that chemicals make the difference. Basically, males produce testosterone and develop a drive to procreate. Females produce estrogen and feel compelled to nest. Add to this some distinct species characteristics and inborn personality traits that define every one of us, no matter the number of legs we walk on or the type of skin we wear.
Here is what we know of mammals, humans included. We all go through a variety of developmental phases.
Infancy is a dependent time in which all creatures live in the shadow of their parents.
The early separation and developmental stages mark the onset of hormonal differentiation. This phase is easily recognizable: Kids stop listening, puppies run off, horses stomp, buck or stop dead, and cats destroy the furniture.
Then comes sexual maturity. Males get a hormonal surge that results in a drive to confront authority and a growing preoccupation with the opposite sex. Females may be more confrontational in their interactions or just the opposite, overly friendly, modifying their personalities to stand out to potential suitors.
Then voilà – mature adults, ready for reproduction.
Altering your pet does arrest some muscle development and inhibit sexual and emotional maturity, but a pet’s attitude will still shift as he or she ages.
The sexual differences come down to this:
With dogs – If you long for a full-time companion, get a pooch. However, with the proven brain capacity of an 18-month-old child, most dogs are not good pets for people who spend a lot of time away from home.
There is no research to suggest any difference between a male or female dog’s ability to relate, learn and interact with people. Nevertheless, the behavioral impact of testosterone and estrogen can be significant. If a dog is from a rescue organization, I try to learn when the animal was altered or if a female has had a litter of puppies.
If you’re choosing a specific breed, speak to several breeders about sexual differences. Ask me and I will tell you that what matters most is a dog’s past life experiences and innate personality.
With cats – Though more solitary and independent than dogs, cats are still bound to a family unit and happily interact with people they trust. As with dogs, there are no studies on sexual differentiation. If unneutered, similar patterns of roaming, marking and territorial definition exist for males, and personality and behavior modification during the reproductive cycle for females.
With horses – Horses are herd animals and find solace with other horses or loving companions. As prey animals, horses feel safe in groups and often take emotional cues from their companions.
Female horses go into heat on a 21-day cycle. Some mares get fussy during this time but others tolerate their hormonal shifts without a ruffle. While it’s possible to neuter a female horse, it’s an invasive procedure and rarely done.
Male horses, on the other hand, are often neutered in a procedure known as “gelding.” Where once there was a colt or a stallion, there now stands a gelding. A gelding is notably calmer and more focused than a stallion – testosterone, or lack thereof, strikes again – and thus this procedure is done in about 90 percent of all male horses.
So which is best? Male, female or gelding? Again I point to personality but learn as much as possible and take your time with your decision. Once you accept responsibility for a pet’s life and you make a commitment to know and love this being, its sex won’t matter.