Yesterday’s surgery schedule was packed tight with the standard mix of routine, uneventful surgeries… at least, that’s what you might assume after reading this list:

  • Canine spay, medium
  • Feline dentistry/X-ray fractured tooth
  • Feline dentistry/apply sealant
  • Canine eyelid cyst removal/dentistry
  • Canine toe mass removal
  • Canine mass removal/re-check root canal
  • Canine spay, large/videoscope ears

Sure, there were seven cases, twelve procedures and only six hours before three PM (my “must-be-conscious-by” deadline). But this was doable. No stress. None, whatsoever…until I got into my first spay and saw she was in heat. Lots of careful manipulation later and…disaster averted.

So you know, dogs should not be in heat when they’re spayed—at least that’s my take on the subject. The blood vessels supplying the uterus and ovaries (the organs to be removed) are significantly increased in size, while the tissues to be handled are invariably more tender and susceptible to tearing.

(Unfortunately, you can’t always tell on the outside that a dog’s recently been in heat—and I like to wait a full month to give the tissues a chance to “settle.”)

IMHO, it’s not a safe situation, though many vets I’ve worked for in the past didn’t approve of my “no-spay-while-in-heat” rule. Their almost-universal rejoinder to my spay-postponement pleas? “If it’s on the schedule, you do it. Got it?”

(For the record, cats don’t qualify for postponement. Their procedure is far simpler, on average, than any dog spay.)

The next five cases went reasonably well, though the fractured tooth required extraction and the root canal’s opposite tooth required more of the same (scheduled for another day). Next up: the large dog spay. At the last minute, I decided to call the owner to ask when she’d last been in heat (that’s a standard receptionist question but it was the housekeeper who’d brought her in so I wanted to be sure). No answer. Oh well…

I was especially cautious about this case because she was eleven(!) years old. Now, we don’t see a lot of eleven year olds for spays, as you might imagine. If we do, it’s because they’re suffering from an allied ailment (infected uterus, mammary tumors, etc.). Most people willing to spay their dogs do so at a much earlier age. But there’s no cutoff limit—I’ll spay a dog at whatever age I have to just to get it done. Statistically, it’s always best for the dog’s health, regardless of age (as long as she’s in generally good shape).

Getting into this dog’s abdomen, though, I was reminded of why it is I’ve always hated large dog spays. Even when they’re not in heat, even when everything goes perfectly, there’s always a level of stress, sweat and suffering—and that’s just the vet’s side of things.

In spite of everything you might assume (given the artificially low price of this procedure and the apparent universality of its application), it’s a tough bit of work. Early on in my career I’d cry behind my mask and hope no one noticed. It seemed so hopeless, getting comfortable with something so difficult.

Yesterday, 45 minutes into the procedure (and I’m generally fast in my surgeries), I couldn’t help thinking: twelve years, hundreds of large dog spays and still I’m not comfortable.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here. Maybe there are some procedures no vet should ever get comfortable with.