Spaying pets: How this vet handles the 'heat'

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: October 25, 2008
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If you guessed this post would tackle the topic of spaying pets while they’re in heat…you’d be right on target.

In case you’ve missed my other rants on this topic let me first explain: Cats in heat are easily altered. Dogs in heat—especially older, large breed and/or fat ones—can prove a nightmare for any vet (even the most experienced among us).

Granted, I never set out to spay a dog in heat. In fact, the only time I ever do is when it’s not obvious from the outside that she is in fact “in season.” Whenever I suspect a bitch is in heat (btw, I love using the b-word in a medical context) I go the extra mile to make sure that I don’t open her up until I’ve checked with the owner.

In the event the owner seems to know exactly when the animal’s last heat occurred, I’ll usually take their word for it. If an intact male dog in the hospital appears to be freaking out over her, however, I’ll take his word for it, too.

In these questionable cases I usually perform vaginal cytology (gently scrape a few cells from the vagina and examine them under a microscope). If the appearance of the cells there suggests they may be coming into heat—especially in a large or overweight dog—I defer the surgery.

so you know, not all dogs bleed when they’re in heat (this called a “silent heat”). Not all dogs come into season on a dime every six months (like they’re supposed to). And not all owners know when their dogs have cycled (yes, I know this sounds strange to you but it’s the norm among my clients).

But, unfortunately, even vaginal cytology can be unhelpful. What ends up happening is the obvious: We open them up only to find that their uterus is bigger than it might otherwise have been. We note engorged blood vessels in the ligaments and along the uterine body. And the tissues we’ve planned to cut? They have a tendency to want to rip.

It’s no fun.

But what’s my alternative? Stitch her back up and send her home?

Nope. The standard of care is to undertake the spay anyway. I don’t know any vets who will abort the procedure once the abdomen is already breached.

The owner of the three year-old Rottweiler I spayed this week did not agree, however. She’s angry I undertook to spay her dog anyway. Since I had previously explained that I did not want to spay her large, overweight dog while she was in heat (and asked her to be sure of her last heat date before the surgery) she was shocked that I would do so and angry that she was not give the chance to decline once I realized the state of affairs.

At the root of this problem, as with most veterinary-client issues, is communication. The owner was unavailable by phone immediately after surgery. She arrived so late to pick up her dog that day that I was no longer present to explain the situation. I did not call her in the evening to make sure she understood that the spay had to be undertaken anyway (I should have). She was not available by phone the following day—I had to leave a message.

Turns out, two days later, I come to learn she’s angry about the time I undertook the procedure, too (late lunchtime). She claims I provided “substandard care” to her dog by spaying her in heat…and late in the day. Though she was informed we’d had to delay her dog’s procedure to spend three hours in surgery with an emergency (a dog that had been kicked in the face by a horse), she did not feel that was a good enough reason.

Via voice mail, I offered to see the dog if she was not doing well (I thought that might be the problem and I was very concerned, of course). Turns out dog is quiet but otherwise doing just fine. It’s the owner who’s steamed and unhappy.

Sometimes it seems I just can’t win. I did a great job to the best of my ability yet because I did not go the extra mile to communicate a complication (which in no way hindered the success of the procedure but which certainly deserved an explanation) the client was unsatisfied. Granted, it sounds as if she might have been unsatisfied no matter what I did given the state of her distress over a 1:30 PM spay time.

As if spaying fat Rottweilers in heat isn’t enough…taking more heat from owners is sometimes our lot. And that’s OK…I guess…as long as by writing about it I can purge this stress once and for all.