I hope everyone has had a chance to be outside this weekend to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather! I’ve still got a gut feeling that we’re going to pay for this later with bad weather but I’m not about to miss a chance to enjoy it.
I still want to cover a topic today that I believe isn’t as well explained as it should be: spay surgery. I always welcome respectful debate about topics I cover, so I hope to encourage readers to ask questions or offer opinions. I have to manually approve each comment that’s made, so it may take a day for them to appear on the blog.
Commonly called a “spay,” this surgery is actually an ovariohysterectomy (OVH or OHE). It’s performed under general anesthesia with the obvious intention of preventing pregnancy in a female dog. Female dogs that are going to be used for breeding can’t be spayed, of course. If an owner is absolutely certain that a dog will be having a litter of puppies, there’s really no discussion to have. In the US, veterinarians remove both ovaries and almost all of the uterus from a female dog. In other parts of the world, the surgery may be only an ovariectomy, with just the two ovaries removed.
Most veterinary hospitals recommend that all female dogs get spayed. The age at which the surgery is performed is variable and ranges from 16 weeks to 6 months. The procedure is extremely routine for veterinarians. That’s a good thing! Procedures we do frequently have better outcomes and fewer complications. Patients are usually recovered by 10 days post-operatively. In most cases, I don’t think clients are given enough information about the procedure, why it’s important, and what to expect during and after the surgery. Clients are left with questions and anxiety. I can talk more about the procedure itself at another time if anyone is interested.
Population control is one of the most commonly cited reasons for spaying. The harsh truth is that far, far too many dogs are put to sleep in the US each year because they do not have homes. Most families are utterly unprepared for the amount of work (and cost) involved with having a litter of puppies, especially if the dog becomes pregnant against the owner’s intentions. Please don’t misunderstand. Population control is good! It’s a social and ethical goal that is sometimes hard for clients to connect with.
There are other direct health benefits from a spay. First of all, we eliminate the risk for cancer in the ovaries. Removal of the ovaries also stops the dogs from having heat cycles (estrus cycles). If the uterus is removed, we drastically reduce the risk of future uterine infections. If a female dog is spayed before her first heat cycle, we reduce her risk of developing mammary (breast) cancer by about 90%. If she is spayed after her first heat, we only reduce the risk by about 70%. That may not sound like much, but if it’s YOUR dog at higher risk, it’s risk that’s directly tied to you and your pet’s well being. I have lots of owners tell me that they “just want to have one litter,” then spay the dog. I also hear frequently, “We think it will be good for the kids to see our dog have a litter.” The vast majority of these clients never do breed the dog, which puts her at risk for the problems just mentioned.
Let me be clear: not spaying your female dog puts her at higher risk for two types of cancer and/or a life-threatening uterine infection. I don’t say this to use fear as a tool or a weapon. I think it’s critical that owners understand what the consequences of their choices are. In the last 5 months at Pet Authority, we’ve had at least 4 uterine infections and three mammary tumors. All of these dogs were unspayed females between 5 and 10 years of age. These are very real consequences that we see in practice.
In order to be fair, I need to mention some of the possible complications of the spay surgery. We do have to open the abdomen during this procedure, so complications with the incision (hernias, the incision opening up, etc.) can occur. These things are very rare if the post-operative rules are followed closely. Spayed dogs do have a lower metabolism than unspayed dogs, so they will not need as much food. (Spaying doesn’t make dogs fat. Overfeeding does.) Some female dogs will develop urinary incontinence at some point after the spay. We believe that this is related to the lack of hormones that the ovaries would normally release. This incontinence is treatable and in almost all cases and will be controlled as long as the dog stays on the incontinence medication.
Each owner needs to weigh the benefits, disadvantages, and costs associated with doing or not doing the spay procedure. Having an adult female dog spayed because she has a uterine infection more than doubles the cost of the surgery. It’s a higher-risk procedure because the dogs are already sick. I’m aware that a spay is not a cheap procedure. I wish we could make the surgery less costly without sacrificing patient safety. I also don’t believe owners would be comfortable hearing from us that we can do something at less cost with “only a little more risk.”
The bottom line, in my opinion, is that we can do a female dog a lot more good by spaying her than by not. We can minimize risk during anesthesia with good, safe practices. We can eliminate or reduce some cancer risks. We can nearly eliminate the chances of a life-threatening infection occurring. I just don’t see where the drawbacks are.
Thanks for taking the time to read my perspective on a somewhat controversial topic. Please ask questions, share information, or offer your opinion. Respectful debate is a healthy, beneficial thing. 🙂