World Spay Day is an awareness day dedicated to the promotion of spaying in the UK. Although it’s mostly aimed at cats, we thought we’d use the opportunity to have a chat about spaying dogs and all the pros and cons.
What is neutering?
‘Neutering’ is the term commonly used to describe the removal of an animal’s ability to produce young. Typically, in females, this usually involves a ‘spay’ (or, to use the posh medical term, an ‘ovariohysterectomy’) where we remove the ovaries and uterus. Alternatively, they can be neutered by the removal of their ovaries only (more common in other countries or if the procedure is done laparoscopically)- now known as ‘ovariectomy’. Again, it may be accomplished by the removal of the uterus only- a procedure known as ‘hysterectomy’ or ‘ovary-sparing spay’. However, this is a new phenomenon that is not recommended by the majority of vets – we’ll go through why below.
What are the benefits of neutering?
There are lots of reasons to spay, but the main reasons are health benefits, behavioural benefits and population control.
Neutering has a range of protective health effects. Firstly, spayed dogs cannot get pregnant. This means they won’t need an emergency caesarean or suffer with any of the diseases related to pregnancy. Female dogs are less likely to get tumours in their mammary glands if they’ve been neutered. There is evidence that neutering before the first season dramatically drops the risk of mammary tumours. Neutering between the first and second seasons still drops the risk, although not as much. But the more heats she has, the more she risks getting mammary tumours in old age. Neutering also prevents a nasty infection of the uterus called a pyometra, which can be fatal. Pyometras occur due to changes to the uterine lining over many seasons. At first, the lining becomes cystic (fluid-filled) but with repeat seasons it eventually becomes infected. The condition requires emergency surgery- a far riskier procedure than an earlier preventative spay.
As for behavioural benefits- there is no hard-and-fast rule and some pets will benefit whilst others won’t. Dogs that become aggressive immediately after their season whilst in the ‘false pregnancy’ period may be calmer with neutering as they won’t feel so over-protective. And dogs may be less likely to roam.
What are the risks of neutering?
As with any procedure, there are a few documented risks. Obviously, anaesthetics always carry some degree of risk, although this is low for most healthy dogs. In some larger breeds of dog (particularly Labradors and Rottweilers), there have been one or two studies showing that neutering very young may increase their risk of some diseases, as they haven’t yet finished growing. This is the case for osteosarcoma- a painful and quickly spreading bone cancer- and cruciate disease. Pets that have been neutered have lower calorie requirements, which makes it much easier for them to put on weight. This can be easily managed with dietary control but is definitely worth mentioning as obese animals are prone to many different diseases.
Behaviourally, there are sometimes risks too. There are a small proportion of dogs with behavioural issues that could be made worse by neutering, so if your dog has a behavioural problem it’s best to have an assessment with a qualified behaviourist before deciding whether to go ahead and neuter. After all, the process cannot be reversed.
What age should I neuter?
Trying to decide when to spay your dog is difficult. There are so many pros and cons to all methods! On the whole, most vets agree with neutering dogs either before their first season or between the first and second season. Small-breed dogs mature younger than large-breed dogs, and their skeleton is often complete by 7 months of age. This means that the risks of pre-pubertal neutering (i.e neutering before the first season) are far less in these dogs. Large-breed dogs, on the other hand, continue maturing skeletally up to 18 months or so- these dogs benefit more from retaining their hormones through their growth. For these dogs, neutering after the first season, but before the second, is a good way to allow them the hormones for growth whilst also balancing the risks of mammary cancer.
What are the different types of spay for dogs?
Laparoscopic ovariectomy or ‘keyhole spay’ is performed using cameras. There is much less tugging on tissues and therefore they are often less painful. The holes are also far smaller, so dogs neutered with this method can return to exercise more quickly- which is great for big or bouncy dogs. Only the ovaries are taken with this sort of spay, but since pyometra and uterine tumours are caused by hormones and seasons, there’s no risk to leaving the uterus intact. Cautery is used rather than traditional suture ligatures, which reduces the chance of the body rejecting the material.
- Less pain than traditional method
- Quicker return to exercise
- Prevents pregnancy
- Not possible in very small or very overweight dogs
- More expensive
- Not all vets have this technology
The standard, traditional, midline method involves an incision on the dog’s belly. The ovaries and uterus are removed through this hole, and ligatures are tied to stop the bleeding.
- Can be performed by most surgeons
- Prevents pregnancy
- Long incision and pulling on ovaries to get them out can be painful
Hysterectomy (Ovary-sparing spay)
Ovary-sparing spays are growing in popularity. They’re often recommended by people who are trying to prevent pregnancy but who believe the ovarian hormones are necessary for health in dogs. Unfortunately, the hormones are the bits that cause mammary tumours and ovarian tumours. And although you’d think without a uterus pyometra isn’t likely, a ‘stump pyometra’ can occur- an infection in the tiny bit of remaining tissue left near the cervix after the uterus is removed. This means that the only benefit to the surgery is preventing pregnancy.
- Allows natural hormones to remain
- Prevents pregnancy
- Dogs will still be hormonally in season- so may still be mounted by males
- Hormonal changes such as false pregnancy can still cause aggression
- Mammary changes with false pregnancy still occur- so there’s still a risk of mastitis
- Risk of mammary tumours, ovarian tumours and pyometra
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, it’s up to you whether you spay your dog. And whilst we encourage responsible pet ownership, it’s not our place to tell you what to do. If you have further questions we strongly recommend visiting your local vet- they’ll be able to discuss your concerns and go through pros and cons for you particular breed and age of dog.