Spaying or neutering a female dog is not a small operation. So owners should think carefully about all the pros and cons before deciding.
Deciding whether to spay – pros and cons
The main advantages of spaying are preventing pregnancy, preventing infection of the uterus (pyometra), preventing ovarian or uterine cancer and reducing the likelihood of mammary (breast) cancer, all of which can be life-threatening. It also prevents the inconvenience of having a bitch in season with unwanted attention from male dogs.
The main disadvantages are major surgery with associated risks, an anaesthetic with associated risks and the increased likelihood of urinary incontinence in later life. Fortunately, the risks involved in anaesthesia and surgery are very small indeed compared with the risks of the other conditions which are prevented by spaying. Urinary incontinence in later life is a nuisance but not very common, and can usually be controlled by drugs.
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There is no medical reason to let a bitch have one litter before spay. In fact, some of the benefits like protection against mammary tumours, are lost if the operation is delayed. Unless an owner is committed to having a litter, with all the work and expense that can be involved, and the bitch is also suitable in temperament and free of any hereditary problems, then breeding should not be considered.
Some people expect that their bitch will get fat after spay, but in fact this is entirely preventable with a healthy diet and proper exercise.
My own opinion is that most bitches should be spayed because of the health benefits. My boxer bitch Tilly was recently spayed.
Deciding when to spay
It is not a good idea to spay when a bitch is in season or about to come into season, because the blood vessels supplying the uterus and ovaries are all larger and this will increase the risks of surgery. The other time we try to avoid is the 8 weeks after a season, when a bitch may suffer from a hormonal imbalance called a false pregnancy.
If this happens, she may be acting as if she is nursing pups and the operation at this time would cause such sudden changes in hormone levels that it would be unfair to her. Also if she was producing milk, the enlargement of the milk glands would make it more difficult for the spay wound to heal.
For all of these reasons, the time chosen to spay is usually either before the first season occurs, or 3-4 months after a season. A physical examination by the vet will determine whether a 5-6 month old bitch puppy is mature enough to spay before her first season.
Before the operation
As well as timing the operation carefully to reduce any risks, it is also important that the bitch is not overweight. Because this increases the difficulty of the operation, it may well be advised that an overweight bitch should lose weight before the operation.
Another important way of spotting avoidable risks is by taking a blood test before the anaesthetic. This could be done on the day of the operation or a few days earlier. This is used to check the liver and kidney function (both vital when dealing with anaesthetic drugs) and to rule out any unsuspected illnesses.
Before going to the surgery
Before any anaesthetic, the patient should be starved for a number of hours, according to the instructions of the surgery. This prevents any problems with vomiting which could be dangerous. It is also a good idea to allow the dog enough exercise to empty the bladder and bowels. Apart from that, it is best to stick as closely as possible to the normal routines of the day so that the dog does not feel anxious.
Being admitted for surgery
On arrival at the surgery, you can expect to be seen by a vet or a veterinary nurse who will check that you understand the nature of the operation and will answer any questions you may have. They will ask you to read and to sign a consent form for the procedure and ask you to supply contact phone numbers. This is very important in case anything needs to be discussed with the owner before or during the operation.
Before the anaesthetic
Your bitch will be weighed to help calculate the dosages of drugs and given a physical examination including checking her heart. If a pre-anaesthetic blood test has not already been done, it will be done now and the results checked before proceeding. If any abnormalities are found, these will be discussed with the owner before deciding whether the operation goes ahead or not. One possible outcome is that extra precautions such as intravenous fluids may be given.
A pre-med, which is usually a combination of several drugs, will be given by injection. This begins to make the dog feel a bit sleepy and ensures that pain relief will be as effective as possible.
There are several ways in which this can be given, but the most common is by an injection into the vein of the front leg. The effects of the most commonly used drugs are very fast, but don’t last for very long, so a tube is placed into the windpipe to allow anaesthetic gas and oxygen to be given. The anaesthetic gas allows the right level of anaesthesia to be maintained safely for as long as necessary.
Various pieces of equipment will then be connected up to monitor the anaesthetic. This is a skilled job which would usually be carried out by a qualified veterinary nurse. Apart from the operating table, the instruments and the anaesthetic machine, a lot of specialised equipment will be on “stand by” in case it is needed.
The area where the surgical incision is to be made will be prepared by clipping and thorough cleaning to make it as close to sterile as possible. The site is usually in the middle of the tummy, but some vets prefer to use an incision through the side of the tummy.
While the bitch is being prepared for surgery as mentioned above, the surgeon will be “scrubbing up” and putting on sterile clothing (gown, gloves, hat & mask) just as in all television surgical drama programmes. The surgical instruments will have been sterilised in advance and are opened and laid out at the start of the operation.
The operation involves removal of the ovaries and uterus (ovario-hysterectomy). The surgeon carefully opens the abdomen by cutting through the various layers. The first ovary is located and its blood vessels are tied off before it can be cut free at one end, then this is repeated with the second ovary. It is a delicate and fiddly job, needing great care and attention.
The main body of the womb or uterus is then tied off as well before the whole thing can be cut free and removed. After checking for any bleeding, the layers of the tummy can then be sewn closed again. A dressing might be applied to the wound. Further drugs may be given now as needed.
When the operation is finished, the gas anaesthetic is reduced and the bitch begins to wake up. She will be constantly monitored and the tube removed from her windpipe when she reaches the right level of wakefulness.
Like humans, dogs are often a bit woozy as they come round, so she will be placed in a cage with soft warm bedding and kept under observation. Usually they will wake up uneventfully and then sleep it off for the rest of the day.
The bitch will not be allowed home until she is able to walk and is comfortable. Full instructions should be given by the surgery concerning after-care. The most important things would be to check the appearance of the wound, to prevent the bitch from licking it (with a plastic bucket-collar if necessary) and to limit her exercise by keeping her on the lead. Any concerns of any kind should be raised with the surgery.
Any medication supplied should be given according to the instructions. Pain relief can be given by tablets or liquid on the food. Antibiotics are not always needed, but may be supplied if there is a need for them.
Usually there will be stitches in the skin which need to be removed after about 10 days, but sometimes these are concealed under the surface and will dissolve by themselves.
After a couple of weeks, if all goes according to plan, the bitch can be allowed to gradually increase her exercise levels. This is the stage that Tilly has now reached and she is thoroughly enjoying a good run again now that she is feeling back to normal.
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