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The Facts About Spaying And Neutering Dogs

Learn the facts about spay and neutering dogs.

Learn the facts about spay and neutering dogs.

One of the most important things you can do to ensure your puppy’s health and well being is to have him neutered or spayed. These simple operations do much more than prevent unwanted puppies. They have health and behavior benefits that will help make your pup a better, happier companion.

Benefits include the reduction or elimination of the risk that a female dog will suffer from potentially fatal mammary tumors, uterine infections or uterine cancer; elimination of the risk of prostate problems or testicular cancer in male dogs; less inclination to roam in search of a mate, reducing the risk of injury or loss; and fewer undesirable behaviors, such as mounting or aggression. Spaying also stops behavioral and physiological changes associated with estrus (heat), such as bloody discharge from the female’s vulva and attraction of male dogs.

About Spay/Neuter Surgery

Female dogs are spayed by removing their reproductive organs, and male dogs are neutered by removing their testicles. The spay surgery, or ovariohysterectomy, as your veterinarian may refer to it, is the most commonly performed surgery on companion animals in the United States. Removal of the testicles (neutering) is the most common form of sterilization in male dogs in the United States. In both cases, the operation is performed while your pup is anesthetized. The vast majority of dogs recover quickly, with no complications from anesthesia or surgery.

You’ll need to withhold food and water the night before the surgery. This helps prevent vomiting and aspiration while the dog is anesthetized. Your veterinarian will alert you to anything else you need to do or know about before the surgery. Don’t be afraid to ask questions beforehand. A good veterinarian is happy to address any concerns you might have, and you’ll be more confident if you understand everything that will happen.

During the spay surgery, the veterinarian removes the ovaries and uterus. After your puppy is sedated and anesthetized (so she doesn’t feel any pain or have any awareness of what’s going on), the veterinarian makes a small incision in the belly area and removes the two ovaries and the uterus. Then the vet ties off blood vessels to prevent bleeding during the remainder of the procedure. This also reduces the risk of bleeding or infection after the surgery.

When the surgery is completed, the incision is closed up with absorbable sutures (stitches that are absorbed by the body as the tissue heals), skin staples, surgical glue or regular stitches that can be removed 10 to 14 days after surgery.

The neuter surgery is a short and simple procedure. In most cases, the veterinarian makes an incision in the skin just above the scrotal sac, pulls out the testicles, and ties off the spermatic cord, which contains the vas deferens (ducts that transport sperm) and vessels and nerves of the testes (testicles). Then the spermatic cord is cut and returned to its normal position inside the body. The testicles are removed and the incision is closed.

Sometimes the testicles are located inside the abdomen or within the tissues leading to the scrotum. This developmental defect is called monorchid if one testicle is retained and cryptorchid if both testicles are retained. When that’s the case, the vet usually has to make an abdominal incision and look around for them; sometimes two incisions are necessary. The rest of the surgery is performed in much the same way as described above.

Most dogs can go home the same day after a spay or neuter surgery. Some veterinarians like to keep animals overnight so they can monitor their condition, but the choice is usually yours.

Safety Concerns

It’s a scary thing to send a young pup in for elective surgery. Most people have heard stories about simple surgeries gone wrong or may even have experienced the loss of a pet in childhood that was attributed to surgical mishap.

Fortunately for dogs today, improvements in anesthesia and monitoring equipment make surgery safer than ever. The use of gas anesthetics; a better understanding of how to use pain medications before, during and after surgery; and increased and better monitoring by veterinary technicians have brought striking increases in surgical safety.

Pre-anesthetic blood testing is becoming standard practice, particularly for spaying, which is a longer, more involved surgery than neutering (except when one or both testicles are retained inside the body). It’s not necessary to run a full blood panel and complete blood count. A simple test that includes blood urea nitrogen (BUN) levels, total blood protein and a hematocrit (the ratio of packed red blood cells to whole blood) is adequate for a young, healthy dog, says Deb Eldredge, DVM, of Burrstone Animal Hospital in New Hartford, New York.

Keep in mind, however, that normal bloodwork doesn’t mean your dog won’t have a problem with anesthesia, says Christine Wilford, DVM, of Seattle, Washington. “When it comes to anesthesia, the most important part of the animal is the heart and lungs, and bloodwork isn’t going to tell you anything about those.” What’s most important, she says, is that the puppy doesn’t have a heart murmur and doesn’t have any pre-existing diseases that are going untreated.

“I’m not against pre-anesthetic bloodwork,” Dr. Wilford says, “but I don’t like the implication that when the results are normal your animal is going to be safe. The safety of your dog depends on the appropriate use of the anesthetic more than anything else.”

During surgery, the dog’s breathing and heart rate are closely monitored by the veterinary staff. I.V. catheters (a tube in a vein) are often placed as a safety measure so drugs can be rapidly injected in case of an emergency, such as a reaction to anesthesia or a change in heart rate, Dr. Eldredge says.

Veterinarians can also use drugs to prevent pain before, during and after the operation. The use of pain-relieving drugs before and during surgery is the sign of a progressive veterinarian, Dr. Wilford says. “It’s documented that if you administer pain relief before pain is induced, less pain occurs and the risk of resulting chronic pain is reduced.”

Veterinarians used to believe that if an animal was in pain, it would lie still and recover better. That’s not true, Dr. Wilford says. “It’s now been proven that if they hurt, they’re restless and they can’t lie still,” she says. “If you offer the animals pain relief, they’ll rest better, be in less pain and be at less risk of tearing an incision. If you’re shopping for a veterinarian and you run across one who doesn’t believe in pain relief for a routine surgery, then knock on the next door until you find somebody who understands the need for it,” Dr. Wilford advises.

Recovery Period

Most dogs recover quickly from a spay or neuter surgery usually within a week. It’s important to keep their activity levels low during the week after surgery. This helps ensure that the incision heals properly and doesn’t tear or become infected.

“The dogs usually want to run around more than they ought to,” Dr. Wilford says. “You can’t keep them still, but limit jumping on and off the couch or off the deck — anything that puts stress on the belly, especially in a female.”

The easiest way to limit your pup’s activity is to keep it on a leash and at your side for the week following the surgery. When not leashed or otherwise under your supervision, the crate is the safest place for your puppy.

Don’t be alarmed if your puppy has some swelling at the incision site. “Usually, if it’s an absorbable suture, there might be swelling on the incision line, and that’s not a problem,” Dr. Wilford says. “Depending on the type of suture that’s used, it can take weeks or even months for the swelling to go away, because the body has to break it [absorbable suture] down. When the vet uses a really nice, expensive suture that lasts six to eight weeks in the body, you’re going to see more swelling on the suture line, especially in dogs with thin, delicate skin.”

Often, male dogs will lick the incision site. The resulting dermatitis (skin inflammation) is common after neuter surgery. If this concerns you, ask the veterinarian for an Elizabethan collar (plastic, cone-shaped collar, resembling a lamp shade) to place around your dog’s neck so it can’t get at the area.

When To Schedule Surgery

Traditionally, a spay or neuter surgery takes place when a pup is approximately 6 months old, before puberty sets in. The age of 6 months was chosen arbitrarily years ago and isn’t set in stone. Today, veterinarians know that a spay or neuter surgery can be performed as early as 6 to 8 weeks of age with no harmful effects.

Young puppies recover more quickly than older ones from a spay or neuter surgery, and are often up and about in a matter of hours. Veterinarians have learned from experience that the procedures are easier to perform on young pups (due to less fat and muscle tissue). Overall, the younger animals recover faster and with less pain.

Early spay and neuter surgery (prepuberal gonadectomy in vet speak) has been practiced for more than 25 years and has been shown to have no significant short- or long-term side effects.

Some breeders have puppies spayed or neutered before sending them to their new homes at 8 to 10 weeks of age. This ensures that puppies sold as pets, or those that have genetic or conformation flaws, won’t reproduce. Many animal shelters also spay or neuter young puppies before adopting them out. They see the procedure as a way of reducing the flow of animals through their doors.

Of course, it’s not necessary for all puppies to be altered at such a young age. Most veterinarians prefer to wait until a puppy is at least 4 months (16 weeks) old before performing a spay or neuter surgery. It’s earlier than sexual maturity, and the pup is still resilient. “If it’s a puppy that’s already in a home, I prefer to wait until the immune system has matured,” Dr. Wilford says. “The vaccines are finished, they’re completely dewormed and they’re not having any common puppy problems, such as diarrhea. I like to spay or neuter puppies at 4 to 5 months of age, which gets them before the first heat in the females.”

In some clinics, the surgery is scheduled to coincide with a puppy’s final series of vaccinations, which is usually around 4 months of age. This makes things convenient for the owner and the veterinarian because the puppy needs to come into the clinic anyway.

Spaying or neutering your puppy is the right thing to do for both of you. A female dog is relieved of the stress of twice-yearly heat cycles and no longer faces the prospect of cystic ovaries, pregnancies, pyometra (a serious and sometimes fatal uterine infection) and irregular heat cycles. Nor do you have to keep her confined during estrus.

A neutered male has less risk of prostate enlargement and perianal adenomas (tumors of glands found around the anus) and no risk of testicular cancer. He’s less territorial, gets along better with other dogs, and is less likely to roam. The willingness and ability of altered males and females to protect their home and family remains intact, as does their love for their people.

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