It is a procedure that most dog owners are familiar with, or at least aware of – that of neutering your pet. Neutering is the process of removing some or all of an animal’s reproductive tract; namely the testicles in male dogs and the uterus and ovaries in females. For both sexes, neutering confers many health benefits, not to mention preventing unwanted pregnancies. But the timing of the surgery can be controversial; with many differing opinions on the best time to perform the operation. To complicate the situation further, the advice often varies depending on the breed, size or lifestyle of the dog. And for female dogs, it can be even less clear cut. So, what is the best age to spay your dog?
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Why spay a female dog?
As a general rule of thumb, most veterinarians will advise spaying a bitch unless the owner is planning on breeding from her. Spaying comes with many health benefits:
- an elimination of the risk of the dog developing a pyometra (womb infection). Which is very common in older entire female dogs and can be life threatening
- an elimination of the risk of the dog developing ovarian cancer and in some cases, uterine cancer
- a reduction in the risk of the dog developing mammary (breast) cancer if neutered before her third season
- no chance of a ‘false pregnancy’ or pseudopregnancy occurring, which can be distressing for the dog
- no chance of pregnancy
There is also the added convenience of not having the dog coming into season every 6 months. Meaning no blood spotting and no unwanted male attention.
Are there any downsides to spaying?
Spaying a dog obviously involves an anaesthetic and surgery so there are the risks associated with these. Although with modern practices and the fact that most animals presenting for neutering are young and healthy, this risk is very low.
It is commonly recognised that there is an increased risk of urinary incontinence in female dogs that have been spayed, compared to those that are left entire. For larger dogs, this risk is also higher in those spayed earlier than 6 months old. And the incontinence may begin at a younger age. But in many cases the condition can often be successfully treated with medication.
Sadly, the development of some cancers has been shown to be more common in spayed females than entire females. Though there are often other factors involved, with the breed of dog being of particular significance.
What is involved in spaying?
The medical term for spaying is either ovariectomy (removal of the ovaries) or ovariohysterectomy (removal of the ovaries and the uterus) depending on the technique used. Traditionally in the UK, it was an ovariohysterectomy that was performed. But with the arrival of key-hole surgery, more and more practices are turning to ovariectomy. If the uterus is healthy and the ovaries are removed in full, there is no medical need to remove the uterus as well. This means a simpler and quicker operation with no loss of the benefits of spaying.
So when should you spay a dog?
In short, it depends. Historically, it was advised to spay shortly after 6 months of age, timing the surgery for 3-4 months after a season (often their first). Now it appears the decision is not as clear cut as that; with various elements needing to be taken into consideration.
Probably the most concerning finding is the suspected increased risk of certain cancers or orthopaedic diseases in some large breeds (specifically Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds) when neutered at this traditional age. Although research is ongoing, many practitioners are now suggesting to spay larger breeds closer to, or after, one year of age. This needs to be weighed up against potentially losing the benefit of earlier spaying on the reduction in the risk of mammary cancer development. And the risk of the dog becoming pregnant, and so would always involve a discussion with your vet.
In some countries and certainly in rescue centres, many dogs are being spayed before 6 months of age and before they’ve had their first season. This is known as prepubertal neutering. Benefits of prepubertal neutering include simpler and quicker surgery, faster recovery time and a near-zero chance of developing mammary cancer later in life. However, as mentioned above, for certain larger breeds of dog early neutering can carry increased risks of some orthopaedic diseases and other cancers. And potentially increase the risk of early-onset urinary incontinence.
The exact time will depend on her cycle
One important rule to always follow though is not to spay a bitch that is in season; in the dioestrus period (approximately the 2 month period after their season) or going through a false pregnancy. Spaying a bitch in season is much more risky. This is because there is an increased chance of bleeding or tearing of the tissues during surgery. This also often makes the operation longer, potentially increasing anaesthetic risk. Spaying during the dioestrus period or if the dog is experiencing a false pregnancy can lead to rapid fluctuations in hormone levels. This can result in a prolonged or even persistent state of false pregnancy which can be hard to rectify.
So although there remains some logic in the ‘old fashioned’ guidelines, when planning to spay a dog, consideration should be given to their breed, size, lifestyle and cancer risk so the most appropriate time for the surgery can be determined. Having a thorough conversation with your vet will allow any risks to be discussed and managed in order to provide the safest solution for all involved.