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Defective dog dilemma and questions of identity

Yesterday, I wrote about a foster dog who came to us with an extensive birth defect in his urogenital system.

He was supposed to be neutered and partially repaired today, but when she realized how major the problem was, our wonderful vet started making calls. She’s looking either for advice or for a veterinary surgeon who might take the case pro-bono.

The condition — perineal hypospadias — is unusual enough that even a vet from a clinic in the Big City (and in this case, I really mean The Big City, not just the place I laughingly call The Big City) hadn’t performed surgery on this deformity in 20 years. But he did recall the case and its outcome.

His recommendation (ouch): completely remove our boy’s penis, sheath, testicles, and scrotum; leave the opening in the rear from which he pees. So, although he may continue to lift his leg like a boy, to all external appearances and in the way he urinates, he will be female.

As with female dogs, our boy will always have a higher risk of urinary tract infections (in fact, he has one right now). But with “boy parts” removed, he’ll have a lower risk for post-surgical complications.

So the question is: When we put him up for adoption do we list him as a male or female?

This is one of those times I really wish dogs could talk. Of course, maybe if he could he’s just say, “Don’t touch my junk!” Which wouldn’t be terribly helpful.

But since hypospadia is, genetically speaking, associated with hermaphroditism, it’s quite possible that if he could talk, he’d tell us, “I feel more like a female” or “No, I’m a macho boy despite the weird parts.”

Yeah, I know with canines it doesn’t matter as much as with humans. But it might matter to a potential adopter. Of course, we’ll disclose the whole situation and advertise him — or her! — as a special needs dog. But what would you say? Male? Or female?

Funny how the mind works. Our boy came to us with a “gender neutral” name (volunteers learned it from a neighbor of the man who abandoned him). But the name wasn’t an easy one to say, so everybody automatically gravitated to another name — which happened to be very masculine.

Silly, but it’s going to twist my brain a bit if we decide that “he” should be listed as “she.” My mind has already defined him a male. I see him not only as a biological male, but as a — yes, sorry to say — a male in several stereotyped ways. But when I step back, it’s clear that all that definition is in my own mind, not really in his behavior.

Photos (added per request):

Foster dog in need of surgery

Foster dog gnawing a bone

Foster dog tussling with my dog Ava


  1. water lily
    water lily September 29, 2011 2:48 pm

    Hmm. That is a dilemma.

    How old is he? If he’s had a previous owner, they (hopefully) used the term “Good boy!” to praise him. In that case, you may want to think of him as a boy, so that the new owners can continue with praise he understands.

    On the other hand, I think that many people would consider him a girl if he has no visible male parts.

    Either way, God bless all involved in his/her care.

  2. Claire
    Claire September 29, 2011 3:00 pm

    Good question on the age, water lily. He’s less than a year old. It’s hard to guess how much “Good boy!” he heard; we know that his original owner was both neglectful and abusive. So he may have heard a lot less positive things than “Good boy!” I’ve been just using “Good dog!”

    In any case, he learns very quickly and will adapt.

    But yes … with no visible male parts, it might be better to list him as a female. Because otherwise people might react to him as a deformed — or otherwise “lacking” — male. That would be sad.

    So strange about identity. I mentioned in the post that I saw him as a male, completely aside from his “parts.” But I just spent half an hour out in the yard with “her,” and now I’m noticing how soft the eyes look. And the broad head that seemed so masculine this morning is now taking on a feminine aspect. Even when “she” turns backside to me and I see the gigantic balls wobbling around, the slender figure and the walk suddenly seem very girlish.

    Yeah, tell me I’m an idiot. But that’s human psychology for you …

    And thanks for the good wishes, water lily. I already know how much you love dogs and what good people you are.

  3. Woody
    Woody September 29, 2011 3:22 pm

    Do you have a picture of our canine friend?

  4. Matt, another
    Matt, another September 29, 2011 3:33 pm

    Change his name to Butch, kind of gender neutral that way. I don’t praise my dogs with good boy, or good girl, it has always been by name. I want the specific dog to know they did good or bad, not the whole pack.

  5. Pat
    Pat September 29, 2011 4:43 pm

    I would tend to think of him as male — as I do when human males “change their sex.” It’s what’s inside that counts, and if this fellow has no uterus, then he sure isn’t female.

    The people who worry about such things are going to wonder why a female is lifting her leg, and will question that; while the caring person who takes this dog on probably won’t care what other people think about it anyway.

  6. Claire
    Claire September 29, 2011 6:07 pm

    Photos added per Woody’s request.

  7. naturegirl
    naturegirl September 29, 2011 7:27 pm

    Awww, a transgender dog ! How very in vogue…..and marketable by instant recognition of the situation…..what a cutie, hopefully all the problems can be conquered and followed by a long transgendered life……

  8. hanza
    hanza September 29, 2011 7:34 pm

    I go with advertising the dog as a ‘he’. With explanation to prospective new parent that his male parts had to be removed because of a birth defect. That doing that was the most effective way of dealing with the problem. Least complicated and practical surgery etc.

  9. Linda
    Linda September 29, 2011 7:42 pm

    My Mastiff had to undergo a similar operation, only it spared his penis. He was a boy before the surgery, and a boy after. I vote you just call him a special needs male. Nothing you can do will make the little guy female.

  10. Will
    Will September 29, 2011 9:59 pm

    Ah, gender identity … it’s really only an issue with humans who have had ‘he’ and ‘she’ shoved down our throats until it pervades every aspect of our lives.

    Is a woman who has had a radical double mastectomy and a hysterectomy still a woman? Is a dog who has his balls and bits surgically removed still a … dog?

    Full disclosure to whoever adopts him and let them make up their mind, and in the meantime, call him by the name that works.

  11. Carl-Bear
    Carl-Bear September 29, 2011 11:49 pm

    Practically speaking: List him as male, with an explanation of treatment. If he has any future medical issues with innards, an owner might be a little confused that their bitch has the wrong internals.

  12. Karen
    Karen September 30, 2011 4:17 am

    Gorgeous dog! I can’t imagine why the gender would matter, except for some ulterior reasons like wanting a male for fighting or a female for starting a puppy mill. Isn’t “genderless” all the quirky fad these days? Name the puppy Pat, like the old SNL skit, and eliminate any potential owners who make a fuss about gender. If we didn’t already have 4 furbabies(and a cat) I’d be thrilled to have such a beautiful animal. And thanks for the pics.

  13. Woody
    Woody September 30, 2011 4:54 am

    What a handsome lad! I vote that you refer to him as male and just explain the medical issues to potential adopters. He was born a guy and hasn’t been transgendered (no vagina) so he’s still a guy. I really hope you find him a loving home and do a follow up for us when he’s settled in.

  14. Matt, another
    Matt, another September 30, 2011 6:33 am

    No testicles or penis, pees like a girl, but lifts his leg for show. Maybe you could name the dog Congresscritter?

  15. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal September 30, 2011 7:37 am

    Of course, if “s/he” really is a hermaphrodite “male or female” is meaningless no matter what anyone else might believe.

  16. Pat
    Pat September 30, 2011 8:23 am

    He is a beautiful dog, isn’t he? And his coat is so shiny! He looks like he’s part Lab, and part… what?… maybe setter or a pointer in his background. Definitely a sweetheart…

  17. Scott
    Scott September 30, 2011 9:11 am

    I’d list him as “neutered male” to me, that’s exactly what he is. When someone goes to adopt him, then fill them in on the whole story,and what sort of problems he may have in the future. This shouldn’t affect his “adoptability” and would weed those out not willing to care for an animal who may have medical problems in the future.

  18. Joel
    Joel September 30, 2011 10:50 am

    List him as REALLY neutered. And name him “Ambi.”

  19. Pat
    Pat September 30, 2011 1:37 pm

    What was the original “gender neutral” name that was hard to say, and couldn’t it be short-cutted to a nickname, so the dog would answer to a name he was at least partially familiar with?

  20. Laura
    Laura October 1, 2011 5:31 am

    Oh, what a lovely lovely dog!! Claire, I am sure you’ll have a good chat with any potential adopters and “official” gender just won’t be an issue. If he’s going to a loving family– and I can’t imagine you’d send him anywhere else– then what else could possibly matter? He looks like a loving little sweetie.

  21. Zohngalt
    Zohngalt October 1, 2011 6:42 am

    You mentioned advertising as a “special needs” dog. Go with that idea. The ultimate adopter(s) will need to be told the history, just like a human adoption. If that bothers them, then they are not an appropriate new home.

  22. Danny
    Danny October 1, 2011 1:36 pm

    Will he have “control” issues?

  23. Jim B.
    Jim B. October 1, 2011 9:02 pm

    I’m posting this due to Claire’s love of dogs.

    Just caught the last part of this movie. I was aware of the original story from Japan, of the faithful Akita, the dog who used to wait at the train station for his beloved deceased owner, year after year.

    If this doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, nothing will.

  24. Roberta X
    Roberta X October 2, 2011 12:00 pm

    Pity’s sake, this is a dog, not someone doing a TMI interview on a TV chat show!

    Most of the gender-driven imperatives (as opposed to what we might project on the innocent critter) are mooted by spaying/neutering. They would be very much secondary to a dog’s need to belong.

    List the dog as neutered male, with some medical problems; if he’s not going to be any more susceptible to UTIs than his sisters (and if he lifts a leg rather than squatting, he may even be slightly less), then it’s not going to make a huge difference.

    Dogs are very much what humans have made of them, but that doesn’t make them little people in fur suits. This little fellow deserves a chance to have a wee without complications — and he deserves a home and a family to love and be loved by. If the new owner choose to name him “Spike” or “Nellie,” who cares, as long as they treat him well.

  25. cattleprod
    cattleprod October 2, 2011 2:06 pm

    Lack of male reproductive organs doesn’t make a dog, or a person, a female. =p! This kind of thinking is the result of the male/non-male complex our western society is so fond of. It doesn’t matter if the dog doesn’t have a penis anymore, it isn’t ever going to be a female dog, or identify itself as a female dog. There is more to gender than male and non-male and most of it is in our heads. Present the dog as-is and let its forever family choose a forever name.

    Kudos to you for being so kind as to foster a dog, especially one that needs medical treatment! It isn’t easy. =] Keep on blogging!

  26. Claire
    Claire October 2, 2011 2:28 pm

    Good points, all. Seems our boy is likely to remain “our boy.” Although I’m rather fond of the suggestions to make him a “Pat.” (No offense, Pat.)

    Good question on control issues. Nothing I know of in the surgery should cause that. In fact, he has control issues now — but only in the sense of having a terrible aim. πŸ™‚ Neutering him should help that a little, since there won’t be so much in the way.

    We’re still not 100 percent sure he’ll have to lose all his parts. It seems that every case of hypospadias is a bit different and every surgeon has a different approach to it. It’s rare enough that no standard protocol seems to have developed. Right now we have two possibilities for getting him help — one a clinic in the Big City that takes some pro bono cases for shelters, another a veterinary school that’s interested in taking him as a demonstration case for students (sounds awful, but the particular resident who wants to perform the surgery was an experienced vet before going back for a surgical residency) . Still awaiting final decisions of TPTB in both institutions. The vet school is far away and would require either a strenuous trip for one volunteer or enlistment of one of the canine underground railroad organizations to help us out.

    Thanks for your good will and good wishes — and the love so many of you share for critters. I’ll keep you posted.

  27. Pat
    Pat October 3, 2011 1:41 pm

    “Although I’m rather fond of the suggestions to make him a β€œPat.” (No offense, Pat.)”

    Woof! πŸ™‚ None taken. I think he will make somebody a great pet. Hope Robbie is being nice to him; another male in the family is sure to upset the balance of Authority.

  28. Claire
    Claire October 3, 2011 2:50 pm

    Heh. Robbie considers himself being “nice” when he draws only small amounts of blood. That’s about how it’s going. The two boys are such complete opposites. Robbie is a dog-aggressive control freak. “Pat” is Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky who thinks every other dog in the world exists to be his friend.

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