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Spay and Neutering Dogs 101: Everything You Need to Know

By Samantha Drake


Spaying and neutering is one of the most responsible ways dog owners can care for their pet. First-time dog owners are likely to have many questions about the sterilization procedure, from the risks involved to how much it will cost. Here are answers to questions dog owners most want answered about this common surgery.


What’s the Difference Between Spaying and Neutering?


First of all, spaying refers to the removal of a female dog’s reproductive organs while, as the word is commonly used, neutering refers to the procedure in males. When a female dog is spayed, the vet removes her ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus. Spaying renders a female dog no longer able to reproduce and eliminates her heat cycle. Any behavior related to breeding instincts may or may not cease, says the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The procedure is also known as an ovariohysterectomy.


When a male dog is neutered, both testicles and their associated structures are removed. Neutering renders a male dog unable to reproduce and any behavior related to breeding instincts, like humping, may or may not cease, the AVMA says. The procedure is also known as castration.


Alternative procedures, like vasectomies for male dogs (the severing of the tubes that conduct sperm from the testes) or ovariectomies (the removal of the ovaries only) are available but not commonly performed.


Why Spay or Neuter?


Animal shelters around the country are filled with unwanted puppies and dogs. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates there are 10,000 rescue organizations in North America, both those with shelters and those that rely on networks of foster homes to care for the animals. Yet, millions of unwanted puppies and dogs are euthanized every year, according to the HSUS. Spaying and neutering reduces the number of unwanted litters.


It also has specific health benefits that can help a dog live a healthier, longer life and may reduce behavior issues. Spaying a female dog helps prevent serious health problems including mammary cancer and pyometra, a potentially life-threatening uterine infection, says Carolyn Brown, senior medical director of community medicine at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Neutering male dogs helps keep them from contracting benign prostatic hyperplasia, also known as an enlarged prostate gland, and testicular cancer, Brown says. Neutered male dogs are also generally less aggressive and less likely to stray from home.


On the other hand, some diseases like prostatic cancer and certain orthopedic conditions are more common in dogs who have been spayed or neutered. For most owners, however, the pros of spaying and neutering their dogs outweigh the cons.


When Should You Spay or Neuter Your Dog?


The traditional age for spaying or neutering a dog is between six and nine months, although a spay clinic or shelter may safely spay or neuter dogs as young as two months old, says Brown. However, “each individual owner should discuss their specific circumstances with their personal vets,” recommends Brown. Several factors can influence the timing of spaying and neutering.


For example, a dog’s breed can make a difference. Research has shown that larger dog breeds tend to mature a little later than their smaller counterparts, explains Brown. An animal’s living situation may also be a consideration. For example, a male and female from the same litter who are adopted into the same home should be spayed and neutered earlier, before the female goes into heat, Brown says. On the other hand, there’s less urgency to spay or neuter if the puppy is the only intact dog living in the house, she adds.


But before a dog is spayed or neutered, it’s very important that the vet, whether at a private practice, a spay/neuter clinic or a shelter, give the animal a complete check up to ensure he or she has no health issues, Brown points out. The dog’s owner should also provide a full medical history because underlying conditions or current medications could be relevant, she says.


Recovery From Spay and Neuter Surgery


Dog owners can help their pets have safe and comfortable recoveries after being spayed or neutered by following some precautions recommended by the ASPCA:


- Keep the dog inside and away from other animals during the recovery period.

- Don’t let the dog run around and jump on and off things for up to two weeks after surgery, or as long as the vet advises.

- Ensure the dog is unable to lick its incision site by using an Elizabethan collar (popularly known as the “cone of shame”) or other methods as recommended by the vet.

- Check the incision every day to make sure it’s healing properly. If redness, swelling or discharge, contact the vet.

- Don’t bathe the dog for at least 10 days post-surgery.

- Call the vet if the dog is uncomfortable, lethargic, eating less, vomiting or has diarrhea.


Brown also recommends discussing pain management with the vet before the procedure is done to be sure pain medication is sent home with the dog. Pain medication may or may not be needed, but it’s best to have on hand just in case, she notes.


A good way to gauge a dog’s recovery is that if the dog is comfortable and energetic enough to play, he or she is probably doing okay, adds Dr. Marina Tejeda of the North Shore Animal League America’s SpayUSA based in Port Washington, N.Y.


Is Spay and Neuter Surgery Risky?


Spay and neutering are common surgeries, but there’s always some degree of risk involved for animals undergoing surgery and with general anesthesia, according to the AVMA.


Dogs should be given a thorough physical exam to ensure its general good health before surgery is performed. Blood work may be recommended to ensure the dog has no underlying health issues, says Tejeda. Liver and kidney issues and heart murmurs may require further investigation, she notes.


What are Some Misconceptions About Spay and Neuter Procedures?


A number of misconceptions about spaying and neutering dogs persist. One of the most popular beliefs is that a sterilized dog will get fat. Not true, as long as dog owners provide the proper amount of exercise and food, notes Brown of the ASPCA. Dogs do tend to need fewer calories after being spayed or neutered but changing their diet appropriately and keeping them active will prevent weight gain.


Another misconception is that spaying or neutering a dog will change a dog’s personality. That’s not true, either. “It shouldn’t change their behavior much at all,” Brown says.


What Does it Cost to Spay or Neuter Your Dog?


The cost of spaying or neutering a dog varies widely by geographic area as well as the size of the dog. Petfinder reports that some animal hospitals charge more than $300 for the surgery. A low-cost clinic may charge in the range of $45 to $135.


But the proliferation of low-cost spay and neuter clinics makes it worth researching the low-cost options available in a given area. Organizations offer searchable national databases like the ones available through SpayUSA and the ASPCA  to help dog owners find affordable spay and neuter resources in their areas.


SpayUSA offers vouchers that cover part of the surgery’s cost at participating clinics, or dog owners can check with their local municipalities for specific low-cost and affordable options for spay and neuter procedures.


Dr. Tejeda points out that low-cost care provided by spay and neuter clinics does not necessarily mean the care will be less comprehensive than what a private practice provides. “Low-cost does not mean low-quality,” she emphasizes. Ask for a breakdown of the costs associated with your dog’s spay or neuter to get an idea of what is and what is not included.


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