The Role of Spaying and Neutering in Preventative Care

When it comes to being a pet owner, there are a lot of responsibilities and health decisions you’ll need to make on behalf of your pet. Some decisions are easier than others, but there will always be research-backed and veterinarian-approved recommendations for every decision you’ll have to make. Today, our discussion will focus on one of the most responsible decisions you can make as a pet owner – spaying or neutering your pet.

As a veterinarian, I've seen firsthand the positive impact spaying and neutering procedures have on the lives of both pets and their owners. Spaying and neutering are not just about controlling the pet population; they also bring significant health benefits and behavioral improvements. To help you better understand spaying and neutering and why they are so commonly recommended, let’s dive into what these procedures entail, why they're essential, and how you can best care for your pet throughout the process.

Understanding Spaying and Neutering

What Is Spaying?

Spaying is one of the most common veterinary surgeries for female pets, recommended for population control and a number of added health benefits. Spaying, also known as an ovariohysterectomy, involves removing a female pet’s reproductive organs, including the ovaries and usually the uterus. It is considered a routine and safe surgical procedure, with about 90% of adopted cats and dogs in the United States being spayed.

Spaying helps prevent various health issues, including uterine infections (pyometra) and breast tumors, which are often malignant in unspayed pets. By removing the ovaries, spaying also eliminates the heat cycle, thereby preventing the stress and behavioral changes that accompany it, such as restlessness or vocalization in cats.

What Is Neutering?

Neutering, or castration, is a surgical procedure performed on male pets that involves the removal of the testicles, rendering the animal infertile and unable to reproduce.

The procedure has numerous health and behavioral benefits that can greatly impact both a pet and its owner. Neutering significantly reduces the risk of prostate problems and eliminates the possibility of testicular cancer. Behaviorally, neutering often reduces aggressive tendencies and territorial behaviors such as marking and roaming, which can be especially pronounced in unneutered males. This can result in a more docile, home-centered pet.

Pupp and kitten on couch.The Procedures

As a veterinarian, I believe it's essential for pet owners to understand what these procedures entail. A better understanding of what exactly to expect when you drop your pet off and bring it home can help owners properly prepare their pet for surgery and ensure they’re equipped for at-home care post-surgery. Let's break down the specifics of these surgeries to provide a clearer picture of what they involve.

The Spaying Procedure

  • Pre-Surgical Assessment: Pets typically undergo a thorough veterinary examination before a spay surgery. This may include blood tests to ensure they are fit for anesthesia.
  • Anesthesia and Surgery: Spaying is a surgical procedure that involves placing the pet under general anesthesia. The veterinarian then makes a small incision, usually in the pet's lower abdomen.
  • Removal of Reproductive Organs: In this procedure, the ovaries and usually the uterus are carefully removed. This is a meticulous process that requires precision and care.
  • Recovery: Post-surgery, the incision is closed with stitches. The pet is then moved to a recovery area where they are closely monitored as they wake up from anesthesia.
  • Post-Operative Care: Owners are given detailed care instructions for their pet's recovery at home, which usually includes limited activity, wound care, and pain management.

The Neutering Procedure

  • Preparation and Anesthesia: Neutering, or castration, begins with a general health check and pre-anesthetic bloodwork. Once cleared, the pet is anesthetized for the surgery.
  • Surgical Procedure: The veterinarian makes a small incision near the front of the scrotum. Through this incision, the testicles are accessed and removed.
  • Closing the Incision: The incision is typically small and may require only a few stitches or sometimes none at all, depending on the technique used.
  • Recovery Process: Post-neutering, pets usually recover more quickly than after a spay surgery. However, they still need rest and careful observation as they regain consciousness.
  • Home Care: Owners are advised to keep their pets calm and restricted from excessive activity. Monitoring the incision for signs of infection or irritation is also important.

Associated Risks of Spaying & Neutering

While spaying and neutering procedures are widely considered safe, and millions of pets undergo these procedures each year, it’s important for pet owners to be aware that there can be risks associated with spaying and neutering, as there are with any surgical procedure.

Some pet owners are more concerned about anesthesia rather than the actual sterilization of their pets. While this is a valid concern, you can rest assured that your veterinarian has you covered. Veterinary anesthesia has become safer than ever with advances in technology and monitoring equipment. Veterinarians carefully assess the pet's health before the procedure and use anesthesia protocols tailored to the individual animal to ensure the wellbeing of your pet throughout the entire procedure. The same can also be said for any other issues that arise during the procedure. Remember, your veterinarian is a trained professional who will know how to respond if any complications should arise during surgery.

A number of other common concerns for pet owners come after surgery and center around pain management and post-operative care. While pets may experience pain or discomfort following a sterilization procedure, that’s completely normal. If you’re concerned about your pet being in an unusual amount of pain, you can work with your veterinarian to create a pain management plan to keep your pet comfortable during their recovery period.

Adult pug and adult cat at veterinary clinic.

The Benefits of Spaying & Neutering

Beyond the crucial aspect of population control, spaying or neutering a dog or cat offers a range of significant health and behavioral benefits . Here are some of the key advantages of sterilization in pets:

  1. Reduced Risk of Tumors and Cancer: Spaying can drastically lower the risk of mammary gland tumors (breast cancer), which is particularly prevalent in unspayed females. Spaying before the first heat cycle offers the best protection against these diseases.
    *Neutering can also lower the risk of certain health problems that male pets may face, including testicular cancer. Research shows that it may also reduce the incidence of prostate issues and decrease the risk of certain urinary tract infections.
  2. Prevention of Uterine Infections: One of the most critical benefits of spaying is the prevention of pyometra, a potentially life-threatening uterine infection common in unspayed females, especially as they age.
  3. Elimination of Heat Cycles: Spaying eliminates heat cycles in female dogs and cats, which can often be messy (due to bleeding) and attract unwanted attention from males, leading to stress and behavioral issues.
  4. Reduced Risk of Ovarian and Uterine Cancer: Since the ovaries and often the uterus are removed during the spaying process, the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer is virtually eliminated.
  5. Decreased Desire to Roam: Unspayed females often have a strong instinct to roam while in heat, which can lead to the risk of accidents (like getting hit by a car) or fights with other animals. Spaying reduces this urge to roam, keeping them safer.
    *Intact males will display similar behavior, which can create opportunities for male dogs to escape. Like spaying in females, neutering male dogs can curb these instinctive behaviors and keep your dog safer.
  6. Behavioral Benefits: Both spaying and neutering can lead to a reduction in certain behavior problems, such as aggression or marking territory in the house, making them more manageable and less prone to engage in fights with other animals.
  7. Longer, Healthier Lives: On average, spayed pets live longer, healthier lives. This is partly due to the reduced risk of certain types of cancers and other medical complications that can arise in unspayed females. Research from The University of Alabama at Birmingham supports this and notes sterilization as a contributing factor to increased life spans in both male and female dogs.
  8. Cost-Effective: While there is an upfront cost for the spaying procedure, it can save money in the long run by preventing the costs associated with caring for a pregnant pet and her offspring, as well as treating medical conditions that are more common in unspayed on unneutered pets.
  9. Improved Focus on Training: Both cats and dogs who have been spayed or neutered may also get some advantages when it comes to training. These pets can be less distracted by hormonal urges, making training sessions more effective and contributing to better overall behavior and obedience.

When In Doubt, Talk to Your Veterinarian

When you commit to owning a pet, you also commit to engaging in responsible ownership behaviors and putting your pet’s health and wellbeing at the heart of every decision you make. While subjecting your pet to a surgical procedure may seem like a worrisome decision, rest assured, veterinarians make the recommendation for spaying and neutering with complete confidence and research-backed insight.

By choosing to spay or neuter your pet, you're contributing to the wellbeing of your furry friend and playing a part in addressing the broader issue of pet overpopulation. If you have any concerns or questions, reach out to your veterinarian; remember, they’re dedicated to helping you and your pet live your best and healthiest lives together.

Don't have a vet in your area yet? We can help you find a local veterinarian.

If you have more questions, the GeniusVets Telehealth platform will give you unlimited access to text and/or video calls with board-certified veterinarians! To learn more click here.

Contributing DVM