What is Involved with Spaying your Dog?

Spaying your dog

Spaying in veterinary surgeries is classed as a routine procedure.  Vet students spay cats and often spay bitches before qualifying.  Spaying your dog is definitely not a simple surgery. You should weigh up the pros and cons to decide the best choice for you and your dog.

I know of experienced vets who are anxious when spaying bitches but why is that the case?

What is Spaying?

Spaying is the name given to neutering female animals.  It involves removing both the ovaries and usually the uterus.  In women, this is known as an Ovariohysterectomy and it’s not a routine procedure.  In fact, in human medicine it’s avoided whenever possible and is usually only performed by Gynaecologists with several years’ experience post-graduation from Med School.

Broken down, Ovariohysterectomy means; “Ovario-” refers to the ovaries whereas “Hysterectomy”, removal of the uterus (or womb) so, put together, it means removal of the uterus and ovaries.

In humans, though they usually just perform a hysterectomy (ie the ovaries are not removed) whereas if vets are spaying your dog the ovaries are almost always removed.  Women without ovaries have low Oestrogen (a female sex hormone) levels.  People’s need Oestrogen for their bones to absorb sufficient Calcium. Without Oestrogen, the bones poorly absorb Calcium.  Naturally post-menopause the levels of Oestrogen in women put them at risk of Osteoporosis (meaning pores, or holes, in the bones) and removal of the ovaries causes this to occur sooner.

In dogs, however, this doesn’t appear to happen.  The relationship between Oestrogen and Calcium is unknown.  This means the removal of the ovaries causes fewer problems in our pets.

Oestrogen does cause issues.  Along with other sex hormones, oestrogen leads to bitches coming into season (“on heat”), makes them fertile and increases the risk of some diseases (eg mammary cancer).  These factors together demonstrate why vets spay bitches.

Normal Bitch spay
A normal bitch spay showing the anatomy of the female reproductive tract which is removed via spaying.
Why is Spaying Your Dog a Big Surgery?

Spaying isn’t an easy surgery, especially not with larger breeds or overweight dogs. With these, it’s harder to get to the ovaries and sufficiently cut off their blood supply.

If blood supply isn’t sufficiently cut off it leaves a blood vessel close to the Aorta (the biggest artery in the body, coming straight out of the heart into the tummy) open leading to blood pulsing out which, in severe cases and when not immediately dealt with, can lead to death.

Dogs also have a large amount of fat around the ovaries making them harder to find and cut off the blood supply, risking future bleeding.

This surgery can be incredibly stressful for the veterinary surgeon and whilst most bitches are fine, especially those who are young and a healthy weight, there are occasional complications.  The complication rate is around 17-22% but most of these are related to issues with the wound healing rather than complications in the surgery (6% of spays).

Spaying your dog is usually done by open surgery where a cut is placed down the centre of the tummy and both the ovaries and uterus are removed through that hole.

To have bitch spay
A young female YorkieX puppy who will be spayed in a few months.  Instagram; @TenaciousTilly

Otherwise, some practices do it via keyhole surgery.  Here, several small incisions are made and usually just the ovaries are removed.  Even if the uterus is not removed, with the ovaries gone the bitch can’t get pregnant or get a condition known as a pyometra which is partially caused by female sex hormones.

Spaying requires the vet to close your bitches muscle layers with dissolvable stitches.  These do not need removing. They then close the skin with either the same material or stitches which need to be removed seven to ten days later.

After the op your dog will be sore so will usually go home with several days worth of painkillers.  You should try to keep them quiet for the first few days and prevent them jumping up.

After a week has passed treating them like normal is fine most cases.  However, your dog’s muscles still won’t be fully healed so you should not let them run off the lead for around three weeks.

 

What are the Positives to Spaying
  • Stops your dog going into season.
    • You don’t have to worry about not taking them for a walk or to doggy day-care when in season in case there are any males around.
    • The mess involved with bitches bleeding when in season no longer occurs.
  • Birth control.
    • Pure and simply once they are spayed they cannot breed.
    • The UK dog population exceeds the demand (with rescue centres completely full) puppies are difficult to sell and may end up in a shelter
  • Pyometria = “Pus in Uterus”
    pyometra bitch spay
    The pus-filled uterus of a pyometra being removed in surgery
    • This is a life-theratening condition killing approximate 5% of treated cases meaning 1% of entire female dogs older than 10 years die from it.
    • There are two main treatments for Pyometra’s;
      • Emergency or urgent spaying; main treatment most vets use.
        • This involves the removal of the whole uterus which also removes all the infection.
        • Dog’s will also be put on a drip and needed large amounts of antibiotics to kill the bacteria in their bloodstream.
      • Medical Treatment
        • Giving the bitch with two or three different medications, to open the cervix (sometimes it’s already dilated), expel pus from the uterus and antibiotics to kill the bacteria.
        • This is often successful however in 80% of cases bitches will go on to develop a pyometria after their next season.  Bitches should be spayed once they’ve recovered.
        • Spaying is a big operation and riskier in ill animals. The advantage of this approach spaying your dog when they are healthier to reduce the risk of surgery.
        • I have seen this method not be fully effective leading to the bitch needing to be spayed urgently when unwell.
        • Though Prometra’s most commonly occur when bitches are over 10yrs old, 2% of bitches get this within any year when they are younger.
  • Mammary cancers (breast cancer in dogs)
      • The risk of dogs getting mammary cancer if they are spayed before their first season is virtually nothing, 0.5% meaning 1 in 200 bitches will get it.  However, the risk rises with each successive season they have, being at 8% if spayed after their first season and 26% after their second.
      • Mammary Tumours are grouped into two main types, benign ones which spread (malignant) with chances being 50:50.
      • If it’s benign it can usually be removed by surgery and if all of it has been removed there should be no further problems.
      • In malignant cases, tumours are likely to spread throughout the other mammary glands and elsewhere; most commonly to the lungs.
        • These are harder to treat and once they’ve spread to the lungs further treatment may only extend/ improve your dog’s life rather than cure them.
      • Studies have shown spaying a bitch once she has mammary cancer will not improve their survival times.
  • Ovary and Uterine Cancers
    • These are less common and can mostly only affect animals who haven’t been spayed.
      • Uterine cancers are seen in only approximately 0.3-0.4% tumours in dogs whereas Ovarian cancers are seen in 0.5-6% of dogs.
      • If they’ve only had their ovaries removed they can still get uterine cancer though the chance is low.
    • These are often diagnosed quite late and are difficult to treat.
What Are the Cons?
  • Urinary incontinence when older associated with a loss of hormones they would’ve had if they weren’t spayed.
    • Most cases caused by spaying the bitch would have incontinence to some degree prior to their first season.
      • With these bitches if you still want them to be spayed it is recommended that you wait until after their first season as often the hormones leading to this help stop the incontinence from continuing.
    • Generally even if they had no issues when young, being spayed after their first season reduces the risks and severity of spay-associated urinary incontinence when older, however, it still occurs in approximately 20% of spayed bitches.
  • Obesity
    • Neutered animals need approximately 30% fewer calories than entire ones so it is easy for them to quickly gain weight once spayed.
    • It is recommended you put them on a lite/ low calorie or “neutered dog” diet post-spaying. These have all the nutrients in normal diets but fewer calories.  As opposed to feeding them less of a normal diet where they’ll also receive fewer vitamins/ minerals/ proteins that they need.
  • Hypothyroidism
    • A disorder where the metabolism is slowed.
    • It can also cause hair loss, lack of energy, mood changes, aggression, obesity and make the dogs feel cold much of the time
    • It needs lifelong medication, usually in the form of tablets, to improve your dog’s symptoms
  • Vaginal Dermatitis
    • Swelling, pain and infection of the vagina, vulva and some of the areas around them.
    • Signs of this are hair loss and thickening of/ discharge from the skin around the vagina and vulva. She will often be licking the area a lot and making it really sore and reddened.
    • This usually starts before a bitch hits puberty and is due to a lack of sex hormones
    • The first surge of hormones prior to their first season usually resolves this
    • If affected dogs are spayed prior to their first season this will worsen rather than resolve and may affect them for life and can be very uncomfortable.
  • Osteosarcoma
    Xray showing Osteosarcoma; a bitch spay risk
    Xray with arrows showing suspected osteosarcome. See the increased bone an the “fuzziness” in it indicating some of the bone has been eaten away.
    • This is a really nasty bone cancer
    • It tends to affect big breeds of dog, especially Rottweilers
    • It causes huge swellings most commonly around the elbow which are excruciatingly painful and solid.
    • They are very quick to come up and this cancer causes much of the bone to be eaten away often leading to the bone fracturing. It also spreads to the lungs very quickly can affecting your dog’s breathing.
    • Most cases will be diagnosed with XRays. A vet will not only xray the leg but also the chest to look for spread.
    • The biggest chance of survival is to amputate the leg or at least remove all of the affected part and replace it with bone grafts (bits of bone taken from dead animals) or metal plates.
      • With Rottweilers being such heavy dogs, along with other breeds prone to this, these interventions often aren’t very successful
    • In the majority of cases there’s already spread to the lungs before amputation is performed, thus the chances of them surviving longer than a year or two even with intensive treatment are very small. If chemotherapy or radiotherapy is not attempted in these cases the dog often has weeks to live, if that,
      • To avoid this it is often worthwhile delaying neutering Rottweilers and other large breeds until at least after their first season.

 

In Summary

Spaying your dog has several positives and negatives.  Firstly it prevents them getting pregnant as well as reduce the risk of mammary cancers and prevent ovarian and uterine cancers and Pyometras.  These can all be fatal.

The downsides, however, are the increased risks of obesity, incontinence, Hypothyroidism, Vaginal dermatitis and Osteosarcoma’s, especially in Rottweilers.

Most of the positives are aided by early neutering before bitches have their first season and having puppies does not reduce the risk of problems; in fact there’s the risk of her having health issues during the pregnancy, birth or afterwards.  However, the opposite can be said for the cons; these may be reduced with later spaying.

Whether you choose to spay your dog early, later on, or not at all is up to you but you should definitely have a think about it and discuss it with your veterinary surgeon.

 

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Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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