Spaying dogs is a common practice, but what is it, how is it done, and how does it affect your dog? Learn why you might want to have your dog spayed so you can decide whether or not to go forward with the procedure. Many people confuse spaying with neutering. Spaying is a surgical procedure to remove the ovaries and uterus from female dogs and neutering is a surgical procedure to remove the testicles from male dogs.
What Is a Spay?
The word "spay" is a common term for ovariohysterectomy. This is a surgical procedure that involves the removal of a female dog's reproductive organs. A spay must be performed under general anesthesia by a veterinarian. The procedure will permanently stop the dog from having heat cycles and being able to reproduce. In some cases, veterinarians will remove just the ovaries and leave the uterus intact. This procedure is called an ovariectomy, but its effects are essentially the same as with an ovariohysterectomy.
Why Do Dogs Get Spayed?
Dogs are typically spayed in order to eliminate the possibility of reproduction, but there are many other benefits to the procedure, including:
- Ending estrous cycles (heat) so your dog will not feel the instinct to have puppies
- Stopping certain diseases like pyometra (infected uterus)
- Eliminating cancer of the ovaries or uterus
- Reducing the risk of mammary cancer when performed early in a dog's life
Dogs are often spayed around the age of six months, before the reproductive system is active. Puppies adopted from animal shelters may be spayed even earlier to ensure that the procedure is performed. In some cases, it is beneficial to delay spaying, for instance when a dog has a recessed vulva that predisposes it to infections or to reduce the risk of orthopedic diseases in some large breeds.
While spaying is best thought of as a preventative measure performed in young animals, older dogs may need to be spayed after their show or reproductive career is over or to treat diseases of the ovaries and uterus and other medical conditions.
What Are the Risks of a Spay?
Complications are uncommon during a routine spay. However, the procedure is not without risks. As with any surgical procedure, potential complications include anesthesia reaction, excessive bleeding, bruising, and infection. Some dogs may develop hormone-related urinary incontinence.
It's important for a veterinarian to thoroughly examine the dog and perform lab work prior to surgery. These procedures may reveal health issues that increase the dog's risk of complications during and after surgery. In cases where an underlying health problem is found, the veterinarian may recommend further diagnostics, like additional lab work, radiographs, ultrasound, and additional lab tests prior to anesthesia. The vet may adjust the anesthesia protocol for the dog's safety. Or, the vet may decide that anesthesia is not safe for the dog at this time.
Overall, the prognosis for recovery is excellent in healthy dogs.
What Happens During a Spay?
Spaying is routine surgery. In general, the full process around the spay will last about one to two hours (from the time anesthesia starts until the dog is awake). The spay surgery itself typically takes about 30 minutes. Here's what happens during the different phases of the spaying surgery:
- Administering anesthesia: Before surgery begins, the dog is put under general anesthesia. Pain medication is often started in advance. Most vets use injectable drugs to induce anesthesia, often given through an intravenous catheter. Next, a breathing tube is placed in the dog's trachea to maintain an open airway and deliver gas (inhalant) anesthesia. The gas is used to maintain an optimum level of anesthesia.
- Monitoring vital signs: Once the dog is under anesthesia, technicians typically place monitors to track vital signs and take measures to keep the dog warm (body temperature drops during anesthesia). Intravenous fluids should be administered as well to maintain blood pressure, prevent dehydration, and offset blood loss during surgery. Vital signs are monitored constantly to make sure the dog is doing well during the procedure.
- Prepping for surgery: Next, the anesthetized dog is usually placed on its back, and a technician shaves the hair on the abdomen, then scrubs the skin with a special surgical cleanser that removes dirt and germs. The dog is then moved to the surgery table in the operating room for a final antiseptic scrub. Staff members in the operating room wear caps to cover their hair and masks to cover their mouths and noses. Meanwhile, the veterinarian dons a surgical cap and mask, scrubs her hands and arms with surgical cleanser, then puts on a sterile surgical gown and sterile gloves.
- Surgery: Before making the first cut, the veterinarian covers the dog with sterile drapes to keep germs and debris from getting into the surgery site. Then, a scalpel (sometimes a laser) is used to make a small incision through the layers of skin and body wall over the location of the uterus and ovaries. Using special surgical instruments, the vet navigates through fat and other tissue and isolates the uterus and ovaries. The blood supply and tissues supporting the uterus and ovaries are skillfully tied off with a suture before the vet carefully cuts them away.
- Closing the abdomen: The abdomen is then closed with several layers of internal sutures. Some vets use special skin glue to close the outer layer of skin while others use visible external sutures or surgical staples (this is a matter of the vet's preference and the dog's specific needs).
- Recovery: After the surgery is complete, a technician will reduce the anesthesia levels, clean the skin around the surgical site gently, then move the dog to recovery. As a bonus, the tech will often trim the dog's nails while your pet is still under anesthesia. Additional pain medication may be given depending on the dog's needs. The goal is for the dog to wake up in a soft, warm bed with as little pain as possible.
After the Spay
Most dogs recover very quickly from spay surgery. However, it is important to keep your pup rested and relatively inactive for a week or two after the surgery to allow for proper healing. Running and jumping too soon can irritate the tissue in the abdomen, causing inflammation and pain. It can also make sutures tear, possibly causing internal bleeding or the incision to open up. Too much activity can slow the healing process and lead to complications.
The dog must also be kept from licking the incision. As the incision heals, discomfort or itching may lead the dog to lick the area. This introduces bacteria and causes irritation, which can lead to an infection. In extreme cases, dogs can also chew out their sutures.
The vet may send the dog home with an Elizabethan collar, known informally as an "e-collar." The collar resembles a lampshade and blocks the dog from licking the incision. Most dogs dislike the collar, but it's better than having to go back to surgery or risk infection of the surgical wound.
Howe, Lisa M. Current perspectives on the optimal age to spay/castrate dogs and cats. Veterinary medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), vol. 6, pp. 171-180, 2015. doi:10.2147/VMRR.S53264
Spay and Neuter Surgery Effects on Dogs' Health. International Association of Animal Behaviorists.
Should Dogs Lick Wounds to Heal Them? American Kennel Club.