8 minute read

Spaying and Neutering Is Good for Your Pet — and for the World

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Many pet parents opt to surgically spay or neuter their pets to lengthen their lifespan and reduce the population of unwanted and unhoused pets.

For females, the surgery is called “spay.” For males, it’s called “neuter” or “castrate.” For both females and males, veterinarians may use the term “sterilize.” Many people call it, getting their pet “fixed.”

Some of us adopt or buy animals that already have these safe, elective surgeries. Others agree to spay or neuter as part of an adoption contract with a rescue or other humane organization.

If you have a pet that hasn’t had this elective surgery (also called an “intact animal”), should you consider it? 

Your Options

Both spaying and neutering are surgically performed by a trained veterinarian who removes certain reproductive organs so the animal can no longer make new puppies or kittens. It can also change the behavior of animals, making them less interested in roaming around to find a mate. Only a veterinarian should perform these tricky procedures, and under anesthesia.

Spaying

Typically, female dogs and cats have a vagina, uterus, two fallopian tubes, and two ovaries. Having at least one uterine horn, fallopian tube, and ovary are necessary for a female pet to get pregnant and carry puppies and kittens until they’re born.

In a typical spay, a female cat or dog has the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus surgically removed. After the surgery, she can no longer go into “heat” and can’t make babies. Her instincts to track down and attract a mate are also reduced. 

A spay is a major surgery since the surgeon goes into the abdominal cavity. 

Veterinary surgeons who work at a shelter or spay-neuter clinic usually perform these procedures with smaller incisions and much quicker than other veterinarians. Many times these surgeries cost less at a shelter or spay-neuter clinic.

Afterward, many vet teams give the dog or cat a small tattoo on their belly so that others will know that they’ve been spayed. No pet wants an unnecessary surgery because it’s already been done before. And no one wants to pay for an unnecessary surgery either.

Neutering

The most common way to neuter males is through surgery. A trained veterinarian removes the testes (testicles) from a male cat or dog. He no longer can fertilize a female and usually stops looking for females that are in heat.

A neuter is not a major surgery unless one of the testes hasn’t descended into the scrotum, which is called cryptorchidism or retained testicle. Then the veterinary surgeon needs to go into the abdomen to find it so they can remove it. This would increase the cost of the procedure, so don’t be surprised if this happens. 

Many veterinary teams will give the dog or cat a small tattoo so that others can know that their pet can no longer make a female pregnant since they’ve been sterilized.

Less Common Conditions

It might surprise you to learn that not all dogs and cats are born with the organs needed to reproduce to make puppies or kittens. After conception (egg and sperm join) and during development in the uterus (womb), sometimes these organs don’t form in typical fashion. They can be genetic and/or developmental problems. 

Some of these genetic and developmental problems can lead to health problems that only a veterinarian can fix surgically. Veterinarians will often share photos or videos of these dogs and cats with one another because it’s unusual to find these. It makes for great continuing education for us veterinarians and those who’ve never seen one before can get assistance from their colleagues.

Less Common Approaches

There are a few less-common and less-invasive ways to prevent animals from making more puppies and kittens. Not all veterinarians offer these kinds of procedures. If they are offered, these options often cost more.

  • An injection for male cats and dogs that makes them infertile (called chemical castration). Some of these are injected as a hormonal chip under the skin or as an injection directly into the testicles.
  • Vasectomy for male dogs or cats that cuts the vas deferens (the tube leading from the testicle to release the sperm), similar to the procedure done on human males. It leaves the testes in the scrotum so the breeding instinct may stay.
  • Hysterectomy for female cats or dogs removes the uterus and part of the fallopian tubes. Because the ovaries stay in their body,  the breeding instinct may remain.
  • Ovariectomy removes the ovaries, but the uterus remains, eliminating the heat cycle and breeding instincts. However, leaving the uterus in the animal can lead to a pyometra, which is an infected uterus (see below). A pyometra can be deadly for your female pet and cost a lot of money to try and surgically treat. Often, these pets are not in great health so surgery is riskier and euthanasia may be kinder to your pet (and for your budget).

The Risks of Spaying and Neutering

There are a few risks to the surgical procedures mentioned above. The surgeries themselves are performed by many veterinarians, but there are always some risks associated with anesthesia. And after the surgery, it can be challenging for pet parents to keep a dog or cat settled down so they can heal properly.

It’s important to keep your pet from licking or chewing at any surgical site using a “cone” or inflatable ring on your pet for at least a week to ten days. I’ve heard and seen too many horror stories of pet parents who removed the cone or ring too early and now their pet needs more veterinary care (and increases your cost). Your pet should still be able to drink and eat with those on. 

There are some breed-specific risks associated with spaying or neutering dogs, such as joint problems and some types of cancers. Luckily, most breeds can be spayed or neutered at any time without increased risk of having future health problems. You can ask your veterinarian what they think is right for you and your pet, but ultimately, the decision is up to you.

The Benefits of Sterilization

Spaying and neutering means you get to spend more years with your beloved animal.

On an individual level, sterilized pets live longer and often behave better. Male cats are less likely to mark their territory by spraying, and dogs show less aggression.

Animals that are looking for mates tend to roam; their breeding instinct makes them restless. They can be injured or killed by vehicles or get into fights with other animals. And sterilization usually reduces the risk of certain cancers connected with the uterus, mammary glands, testes, and prostate.

This lifespan chart from Banfield Pet Hospital shows state-by-state average lifespans. It indicates that neutered males live 18% longer and spayed female dogs 23% longer. The difference is even more dramatic with cats: Spayed females live 39% longer, and neutered males live 62% longer.

That’s a lot more quality time you have with your beloved pet.

Also, veterinarians strongly recommend sterilizing pets that have undesirable genetic traits. This reduces the number of pets born with genetic disorders that cause health problems in any number of unusual ways. If you’ve ever wanted to breed your pet, ask your veterinarian if they believe they’d make a good pet for breeding. Veterinarians will be more likely to say yes if your pet has few genetic defects for that breed.

Too Many Babies!

Did you know that an unsterilized female cat is capable of giving birth to 100 kittens in her life?

On a societal level, spaying and neutering is the right thing to do. There are just too many cats, dogs, puppies, kittens, and other kinds of animals in shelters already. Sterilizing your pet ensures that they won’t reproduce and add to the millions of animals that are euthanized each year.

It’s for that reason that veterinarians often recommend sterilizing your dog or cat early in life.

What Age Is Best for Spaying and Neutering?

There are some discussions among pet parents and veterinarians about when it is best to do these surgeries. The best age is clearer for cats than for dogs.

Many veterinary and animal welfare organizations support the practice of early spaying and neutering of cats, which is before their bodies can create life. That is, cats can be safely spayed or neutered as early as 6 to 12 weeks of age. Studies indicate that there are no serious health problems that follow a spay/neuter procedure on a kitten this young. For managed cat colonies (cats allowed to roam outside and people will feed them), they recommend removing kittens as early as 6-8 weeks of age to spay or neuter them.

On the other hand, researchers are still looking into the optimal age for spaying and neutering dogs. A 2020 research study was published by researchers at the University of California-Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine using their hospital records. They investigated the ideal age to spay or neuter 35 breeds of dogs, with their recommendations indicated in the table below (revised from their article in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, July 2020, Volume 7, Article 388).

Dog Breed
Males
Females
Australian Cattle Dog
Choice
6 months old or older
Australian Shepherd
Choice
Choice
Beagle
11 months old or older
Choice
Bernese Mountain Dog
23 months old or older
Choice
Border Collie
11 months old or older
11 months old or older
Boston Terrier
11 months old or older
Choice
Boxer
23 months old or older
23 months old or older
Bulldog
Choice
Choice
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Choice
Choice
Chihuahua
Choice
Choice
Cocker Spaniel
6 months old or older
23 months old or older
Collie
Choice
11 months old or older
Corgi
6 months old or older
Choice
Dachshund
Choice
Choice
Doberman Pinscher
Leave intact
23 months old or older
English Springer Spaniel
Choice
11 months old or older
German Shepherd
23 months old or older
23 months old or older
Golden Retriever
11 months old or older
Leave intact
Great Dane
Choice
Choice
Irish Wolfhound
23 months old or older
Choice
Jack Russell Terrier
Choice
Choice
Labrador Retriever
6 months old or older
11 months old or older
Maltese
Choice
Choice
Miniature Schnauzer
Choice
Choice
Pomeranian
Choice
Choice
Poodle (Toy)
Choice
Choice
Poodle (Miniature)
11 months old or older
Choice
Poodle (Standard)
23 months old or older
Choice
Pug
Choice
Choice
Rottweiler
11 months old or older
6 months old or older
Saint Bernard
Choice
6 months old or older
Shetland Sheepdog
Choice
23 months old or older
Shi Tzu
Choice
23 months old or older
West Highland White Terrier
Choice
Choice
Yorkshire Terrier
Choice
Choice
  • Those listed as “Choice” indicates that you have more choices as to when to spay or neuter your dog. Most veterinarians would say that earlier is better (as early as 6-8 weeks old) for these breeds of dogs, for mixed breed dogs, and for stray dogs.
  • “Leave intact” means that spay or neuter surgery is not recommended for that breed, so you’ll need to be careful to keep them away from other dogs that are intact and of breeding age.

Finding Affordable Spaying and Neutering

Spaying and neutering is quite safe and common, but it is surgery and it can come with a hefty price tag, especially for large dogs, obese pets, pregnant pets, and pets with certain health problems, like a pyometra (see above). 

Luckily, a number of organizations and resources exist to help low-income pet parents cover the costs of these important operations.

Veterinary Care Vouchers from One Health Organization do not cover the costs of routine spaying and neutering, but the program is designed to help struggling pet parents cover the other costs of essential veterinary care, such as physical exams, vaccinations, parasite control, tests, treatments, and other surgeries.

Common Misconceptions

As a veterinarian with extensive training in biology and genetics, and growing up around animals that my mom bred, it surprises me when people don’t know basic reproductive anatomy and animal behavior when it comes to dogs, cats, and their breeding habits.

Here are truths associated with anatomy and behavior. 

  1. Male dogs and cats WILL mate with any of their female relatives if they’re in the same location when the females are in heat or are receptive to the male mating with them.
  2. Female dogs in heat will have some bleeding, much like women will have periods. Though, bleeding occurs at different times of the estrus cycle for female dogs as compared to women.
  3. Female dogs can only get pregnant when they’re in heat.
  4. Female cats in heat do not bleed, but they can show some very peculiar behaviors when they’re in heat.
  5. Female cats can become pregnant even if they’re not in heat. Cats are called “induced ovulators” since a male can induce a female cat to release an egg during mating, resulting in pregnancy.
  6. Male dogs and cats DO have nipples. Just like human males, they have nipples, too. Of course, only females will produce milk after they deliver their puppies or kittens.

Making an Informed Decision

Most pet parents barely notice the difference when it comes to behavior after a dog or cat has healed from the surgery. And pets are so strong and resilient, they can bounce back in a week or less.

My recommendation for pet parents who are unsure about whether to spay and neuter — or when to spay and neuter— is to talk to your veterinarian or a certified veterinary nurse, also known as a veterinary technician, working in your pet’s clinic. They’ll be able to make a recommendation based on your pet’s breed, size, and age. 

If you decide you want your animal to have the surgery, they’ll help you understand what you need to do to keep your pet safe so they can heal.

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