Spaying and Neutering Pets

Common Surgical Procedure Has Benefits

An In-Depth Look with Dr. Ingrid B. Pyka

Stethoscope with heart image

Certainly, the most common surgeries performed in small animal veterinary medicine are the spays and neuters. Traditionally, dogs, cats, and pocket pets were sterilized to assist in population control. While the Humane Society of the United States reports about 6-8 million animals are admitted annually into shelters across the country, it also estimates 3-4 million of these animals are euthanized each year. This astounding number does not account for stray animals living and dying alone “on the streets.”

But, health concerns and extending the quality of pets’ lives have also become a major incentive to altering our pets. Many serious health risks can be minimized or prevented altogether with spaying and neutering – especially if done at an early age.

What is a Neuter?

Males having their testicles surgically removed are “castrated” or “neutered.” As long as both testicles have descended into the scrotal sac, the surgery is relatively non-invasive, with an incision just in front of the scrotum.

If, however, either one or both testicles did not descend into the scrotum (cryptorchidism), the veterinarian must surgically enter the abdomen to reach the testicle(s) for removal. Some cryptorchids may have partially undescended testicles that lay under the skin near the scrotum. These patients may or may not need an additional incision during the surgery and usually do not require access into the abdominal muscle wall.

Advantages to Neutering Pets

Dog sits on veterinary exam table

Since neutering removes the testicles, it completely eliminates the possibility of testicular cancer. Cryptorchid patients have a dramatically higher risk for developing cancers of the abdominal testicle. They especially benefit from this procedure.

Though neutering does not help prevent prostate cancer, castration does decrease prostatic hypertrophy (enlargement). Older dogs are often neutered mainly as a treatment for an enlarged prostate gland, perineal hernia and treatment of cancer of the testicles.

Personality does not dramatically change after surgical altering, but, territorial urine marking should considerably lessen especially when neutered at an early age. The intensity of a male dog trying to reach a female in heat will also be significantly lowered. Many intact males have been tragically hit by a car as they carelessly race across the road in lust of another female dog.


Many serious health risks can be minimized or prevented all together with spaying and neutering — especially if done at an earlier age.

What is a Spay?

When a female animal has her reproductive organs removed, it is called an ovariohysterectomy (often abbreviated as OHE or OVH). It is more commonly referred to as a spay.

In this operation, the veterinarian generally makes an incision along the middle of the belly to access into the abdomen. As the blood vessels are each carefully tied off to prevent bleeding, both of the ovaries and the uterus are removed. Recovery generally is fairly quick, though keeping your pet inactive for several days to a week dramatically decreases post-operative complications.

Veterinarians are now beginning to use newer techniques using laparoscopes (long surgical tubes with cameras and lights at the end), making only two or three tiny incisions. This approach to spaying causes much less trauma to the body wall. Post-operative pain is lessened and recovery is faster. At this time, this technique can only be done in dogs. It is also generally associated with higher costs and, though gaining popularity, only a small percentage of veterinary clinics are trained in and have purchased the expensive equipment.

Why Spay Pets?

Veterinary surgery sign

Again, population-control perspective set aside, spaying your pet does have great advantages in long term health issues. Perhaps the most common health risk avoided by spaying is the pyometra, or, infection of the uterus. Pyometra in a dog or cat causes serious illness and can become rapidly life-threatening if not treated. Attempts at caring for these patients with antibiotics and a prostaglandin enzyme are risky, painful, and, too often, not effective. The treatment of choice is emergency surgery to remove the infected uterus and ovaries as soon as possible.

Another complication of the intact female is development of reproductive cancers. Ovarian, uterine and mammary (breast) cancers are all too frequent occurrences in unspayed females. Each heat cycle the female dog goes through increases the risk of mammary tumors. Thus, unless spayed at an early age, mammary cancers remain a viable risk.

Some puppies have recurrent vaginal infections or inflammation. Most of these “puppy vaginitis” cases resolve after spaying.

Naturally, any dog or cat in heat will attract males. Allowing in-heat dogs and cats into public areas risks unwelcome attention from other dogs and cats. Injuries from the likely ensuing fights are inevitable.

On the behavioral aspect, anyone that has witnessed a cat in heat (ready to breed), knows the maddening attitude she has during this time. The continuum of meowing, wailing, screeching will generally drive most families with a cat in heat to beg for an “emergency” spay.

Dogs, fortunately, do not exhibit the same noisy cries as their feline counterparts. They do, however, have the bloody vaginal discharge while they are in heat. This too will stop if spayed.

Complications of Altering Your Pet

Of course, any surgical procedure carries with it inherent risks: continued hemorrhaging from a blood vessel, anesthetic complications, incisional dehiscence (breaking open of the sutured site) and/or infection. With current anesthetic and surgical precautions, along with appropriate aftercare by the pet-owners, however, the potential for these complications are minimized - especially compared to the risks of NOT spaying your pet.

Certainly problems can arise from spaying and neutering as well. Obesity is one of the most common complaints in altered animals. Pet owners need to be aware that neutering and aging causes a decrease in metabolic rate and activity level of their pets. Overfeeding, a sedentary lifestyle, breed predisposition and indoor housing all contribute to pet obesity.  Consult with your veterinarian about the proper feeding and exercise following your pet’s spay or neuter.

When to Spay or Neuter

This question provokes constant debate in the veterinary and rescue fields. Indeed, some medical complications (for example, mammary tumors) can be avoided with altering the animals when they are less than six months of age. Other studies suggest benefits to other disorders (such as decreased noise phobias) when spaying or neutering take place after six months of age. Some owners or breeders delay the surgery as they feel that the full growth potential will not be met if the spay or neuter occurs before one year.

Though, many veterinarians and shelters sterilize when the animals are three to four months old or even younger, most veterinarians will recommend spaying and neutering dogs and cats at six months of age. At this time, they should have sufficient growth and development, without yet having gone through a heat cycle.

Discuss with your veterinarian your pet and his or her specific needs. Your veterinarian will be able to guide you as to what is best for your pet.


Want to learn more about how VPI's optional CareGuardSM coverage can help cover the costs of your pet's spay/neuter procedure? Click here.

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