By: Dr. Juli, DVM @itsDrJuli
There is much to remember when caring for your pet, especially during puppyhood. As a part of responsible pet ownership, your dog will require multiple veterinary visits, training, and proper nutrition to support their growing bones and developing organs. Veterinary medical care decisions during your pup’s development and maturation can have lifelong benefits or consequences. For example, the lack of proper vaccination can make your dog vulnerable to potentially deadly diseases, like parvovirus. With all the available information and misinformation online, it can be overwhelming to understand all the options and recommendations for proper dog care.
One of the most essential decisions dog owners must make with their family veterinarian is determining the best time to spay/neuter their dog, and this topic has been the subject of much debate and ongoing research. However, there is no one-age-fits-all answer to this critical procedure. Numerous considerations must be weighed when making an irreversible decision for your dog. Pet parents must understand the benefits, risks, and reasons to consider spaying or neutering their dog.
What is Spaying and Neutering?
A spay or neuter describes the surgical procedure performed on an animal’s reproductive organs to sterilize female and male pets so they can no longer reproduce. Specifically, a spay — performed on female dogs — also known as an ovariohysterectomy, is abdominal surgery to remove both ovaries and the uterus. Although not common practice, in some cases, an ovariectomy may be performed, which is the removal of the two ovaries only.
A neuter — performed on male dogs — also called castration or orchiectomy, describes the surgical procedure to remove male testicles. Neuters are generally considered a less invasive surgical procedure unless one or both testicles have not descended, called cryptorchid testicles. Removing a retained testicle is a more involved abdominal procedure, similar to a spay. Sterilization can also be achieved by a vasectomy procedure, which removes a portion of the vas deferens, the tube that carries the sperm from the testicle; however, this procedure is only advised in some instances.
Benefits of Sterilizing Your Dog
According to the ASPCA, more than 3 million dogs enter shelters yearly due to the birth of unwanted litters, and more than half are put down via euthanasia due to pet overpopulation and limited available homes. One of the most significant benefits of sterilization is decreasing the dog overpopulation problem. The American Veterinary Medical Association endorses expert recommendations that pets not intended for breeding should be spayed or neutered unless it is medically advised not to do so.
In addition to population control, the benefits of spaying and neutering include the following:
- Drastically decreasing the risk of mammary cancer, which is fatal in 50% of dogs
- Prevention of heat or estrus
- Elimination of hormone fluctuations that can cause false pregnancy during a heat cycle
- Eliminates the risk of tumors known to cause testicular, uterine, and ovarian cancers
- Eliminates the risk of pyometra, a potentially fatal uterine infection
- Neutered males have a decreased risk of prostate problems such as prostatic enlargement, which occurs in older dogs
- Decreased risk of prostate infection (i.e., prostatitis)
- Decreased desire to roam in search of a mate
- Decreased behavioral problems such as marking or certain types of aggression
- Increased life span
When to Spay or Neuter Your Dog
Previously, the universally recommended age for a dog spay or neuter was six months old, which coincided with the completion of their vaccination series and just before sexual maturity in female dogs. However, in light of continued research, numerous factors are considered, including breed, age, sex, behavioral needs, and genetics. Additionally, a 2020 study by the University of California at Davis found that some breeds have an increased risk for certain cancers and joint disorders if they are spayed or neutered when they are less than one year old. As the research evolves, veterinarians may adjust their recommendations on the timing of this surgery based on the available data.
If your pet comes from a breeder or was not sterilized at the animal shelter, you and your family will have to make the choice to spay/neuter your pet. The decision to sterilize should be a collaborative decision between a pet owner and their family veterinarian. The American Animal Hospital Association Life Stage Guidelines also report the following recommendations based on breed size:
Toy and Small Breeds (45 pounds and under)
Males who are neutered at six months old and females who are spayed before their first heat cycle will have a decreased risk for certain cancers. Smaller breed dogs are less likely to suffer from sterilization-related joint problems.
Large and giant breeds (over 45 pounds)
These dogs should not be sterilized until after they stop growing, which generally occurs between 9 and 15 months of age in males and between 5 and 15 months in females. For some giant breed dogs, growth may continue up to 2 years old. Sterilizing these breeds too early may cause joint problems, like a torn cruciate ligament or an increased risk for certain cancers.
What to Expect Before, During, and After Sterilization Surgery
Dog owners are often reluctant to sterilize their pets because it requires general anesthesia and a day-long hospital visit. Although considered a major surgery, spay and neuter procedures are one of the most commonly performed surgeries by veterinarians. They are generally safe and low-risk for most pets.
Before your dog’s procedure, your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination and pre-anesthetic blood work to ensure minimal risk to your dog for processing the anesthesia agents. Sometimes, your vet may advise an X-ray to check their heart and lungs. After dinner the night before your dog’s surgery and the morning of the surgery, you must withhold food from your pet to ensure they do not vomit and risk aspiration of any food into their lungs while under anesthesia; this is standard practice in human medicine.
During the surgery, your dog will receive intravenous fluids, pain medication, and a specialized warming blanket. A veterinary nurse will also closely monitor your dog’s heart rate, respiration rate, and body temperature.
Once your pup is awake and ready to return home, your veterinarian will review proper post-op care, which may include the following:
- Pain medication for a few days
- Keeping an Elizabethan collar (i.e., cone of shame) on your dog to prevent them from licking the surgical site
- Avoiding baths or swimming until their recheck examination
- Exercise and activity restriction for two weeks
- Keeping your dog calm and ensuring they get plenty of rest
- Monitoring for any swelling, redness, discharge, or pain at the incision site
Most dogs will be tired during the first 24 hours following their procedure. If your pup seems excessively lethargic or shows any adverse reactions, like vomiting and diarrhea, immediately contact your veterinarian.
Common Misconceptions about Spaying and Neutering
There are numerous misconceptions about the effects of spaying or neutering pets that are not based on scientific evidence. Always discuss concerns about your pet’s health with your veterinarian to ensure you are comfortable and understand the risks, benefits, or changes that may occur after your dog’s procedure.
Common myths about sterilization surgeries include:
- It will make my dog fat. Although removing sex hormones will slow your dog’s metabolism, overfeeding and lack of exercise are the primary causes of pet obesity. Diet adjustments and regular exercise will ensure your dog remains a healthy weight.
- It will change my dog’s personality. Spaying or neutering your pet does not affect their personality, intelligence, or level of affection. It may decrease aggressive tendencies and the desire and urge to roam for a mate.
- My dog needs to have a litter before she is spayed. There is no scientific evidence to support that having a litter has any psychological or physical health benefits for female pets.
How to Support Your Dog Before and After Their Surgery
Once you have decided on the optimal time to sterilize your pup, you want to ensure they are healthy and prepared so that recovery is smooth and seamless. Follow these tips for optimal dog health and minimal post-op complications:
- Ensure your dog is fully vaccinated before their surgery so that their immune system can combat common dog infections or diseases.
- Keep your dog a healthy weight; overweight dogs may require more time under general anesthesia, which is not ideal.
- Ensure your dog remains calm and relaxed during their recovery to prevent injury to the surgical site. Talk to your vet if you are having trouble keeping your energetic pup relaxed, and consider giving them Native Pet Calm Chews to promote relaxation.
Choosing the right time to spay or neuter your dog is a collaborative decision with your trusted veterinarian based on your individual dog’s well-being. Ensure to discuss any concerns or questions with your vet so that you are confident in your pet’s health plan.
For more information and tips on your dog’s health, check out the Native Pet blog.