Spaying is an important procedure that has benefits beyond preventing pregnancy.
Raising a puppy is a big job. You need to provide them with socialization opportunities, teach them where to potty (no, not on the living room carpet!) and train them to listen to basic commands, and make sure you’re staying on top of critical vaccinations and well-puppy checks. But perhaps one of the biggest decisions you’ll face before your pet’s first birthday is whether to spay your sweet girl. Talking with a veterinarian is a great first step in navigating the information available and making the right decision for your pet when it comes to spaying.
“There is no perfectly right answer about whether or when to spay a female dog,” says Pam Nichols, DVM, president-elect of the American Animal Hospital Association. “It involves a good conversation with a trusted veterinarian about the reasons to spay, the health risks, and benefits of both spaying and not spaying. The conversation is different for every size and breed of pet, and for every client and their tolerance for certain behaviors and their ability to manage their pet’s environment.”
Nicohols said in the “old days” vets were mostly in favor of spaying between 4 and 9 months old and defaulted to taking out the ovaries and uterus. “Now we get to decide when and which surgery is best based on the individual pet and pet parent.”
As you navigate your female dog’s early months, take some time to learn all about spaying and your options so that you’re prepared to make the best decision for your pup’s health and your lifestyle.
Let’s start with a rundown on what spaying actually involves. Spaying is the common term used to describe a medical procedure called an ovariohysterectomy, which involves the complete removal of a female dog’s ovaries and uterus in order to prevent her from having puppies. You may have heard people refer to it as getting your dog “fixed.” The male version of desexing is called neutering.
As Nichols mentioned above, there is a second procedure used by some veterinarians in recent years. In an ovariectomy, only the ovaries are removed, leaving the uterus intact. Some veterinarians—and pet owners—prefer the ovariectomy procedure because it’s less invasive and takes less time to perform, meaning your dog isn’t under anesthesia as long. But there is very little proof that either one is substantially better than the other.
There are numerous benefits to spaying your dog, starting with the most obvious: preventing unwanted pregnancy. “If a pet owner is not planning to breed their pet, they should plan to spay,” Nichols says.
Caring for a pregnant dog is time consuming and expensive. Delivery can be difficult. And then you have a whole litter of puppies who will need shots and new homes. With overpopulation becoming a larger issue across the country, deciding to spay or neuter your dog seems like a responsible choice. “The only reason to breed a dog is to improve the breed; not to show kids the miracle of life, not to make money, not to calm down your female or to get another pet,” says Nichols.
Spaying your dog helps to reduce pet overpopulation, ensuring that she does not have puppies that you may have difficulty finding homes for. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that approximately 6.5 million animals enter the shelter or rescue system annually. Of those 6.5 million animals, only an estimated 3.2 million find their way into a home.
Spaying also prevents your dog from going into heat. When in heat, your dog may have an urge to escape your home or yard to find a mate, which could be potentially dangerous. Even if you have the best of intentions to keep her safe, her powerful hormones will take control.
Female dogs go into heat once every eight months for up to three weeks at a time. And this happens her entire life. If you spay your dog, she will no longer go into heat, making it easier for you to keep her safe. Plus, you won’t have to deal with the distinct and unattractive smell associated with dogs in heat and the mess that comes with it. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), other behaviors related to breeding, such as humping, will typically cease for most dogs as well.
Research has also shown that spaying reduces the risk of certain illnesses, such as pyometra (a common, life-threatening infection of the uterus) and mammary gland, ovarian, and uterine cancer. “There are just too many health risks to keeping a female dog intact,” Nichols says.
Contrary to popular belief, having your dog spayed will not change her behavior or demeanor in the long run—she’ll remain as intelligent, playful, and affectionate as before. It can, however, reduce the likelihood of separation anxiety or fearful elimination.
Of course, no surgical procedure is without risk and spaying does have a few potential drawbacks. But most agree that the benefits outweigh any risks. Spaying is one of the most frequently performed surgeries and the majority of surgeries performed on healthy animals are successful.
Beyond the risk of surgery itself, some vets say spaying can increase your dog’s potential to be overweight. But that’s something that can be managed by you as the pet owner with diet and exercise.
There are also studies that show that spaying before bone growth is complete in larger breeds may increase their risk of knee injury later in life. But when you weigh these options with an overall increase in lifespan, the spaying procedure may still be the best option.
Some research has shown that spayed females may have an increased risk of urinary tract infections or may experience urinary incontinence, which means they can’t control their bladders as well. Fortunately, both conditions can be helped with medication should the conditions surface.
Talk with your veterinarian about these and any other risks that may be specific to your dog’s age, breed or medical history. Your vet will be able to provide you with the best course of action so you’re making an informed decision.
There’s no magic number here, as the timing is breed, behavior, and environment dependent. The best advice is to talk with your veterinarian for recommendations and specific thoughts on timing for your dog. She’s a unique creature after all.
Many veterinarians recommend that your dog be spayed before her first heat cycle, which could occur between 5 and 10 months. In recent years, there has been some research through the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation about the health benefits of waiting until after puberty to spay your dog, citing an apparent reduction in orthopedic problems as one reason to wait. That said, you’ll also want to consider what other dogs live in your home or in your neighborhood when thinking about whether you wait until after your pup’s first heat cycle to spay her.
While any size dog can be spayed, larger dogs are more of a challenge during the procedure, so again, having your vet involved in the decision process is essential. “The larger the dog breed, the later we now choose to spay,” Nichols says. “And some breeds might benefit from having a heat cycle or two, for example, if a puppy has a tiny or recessed vulva, I might have them wait longer. On the other hand, if the dog is having recurrent urinary tract infections from puppy vaginitis I would have them spay earlier.”
If you have a grown dog who has not yet been spayed, it’s not too late to decide to have your pet undergo the surgery. You and your vet will simply account for her heat cycle before scheduling the procedure, typically 2 to 3 months after the heat cycle has passed.
The cost to spay your dog varies across the country and is often based on the size of your pet, but the surgery could run up to $500 at a traditional, private-practice veterinarian. There are often low-cost options available; check to see if there’s a spay and neuter clinic in your area. (For more on the cost of spaying see How Much Does It Cost to Spay or Neuter a Dog?) While this procedure is not inexpensive, the cost is likely less than having to care for a whole litter of puppies and a lifetime of other health issues.
Just like a human surgical procedure, your puppy will receive some pre-procedure instructions from her vet. Your dog will not be allowed to eat eight hours before surgery begins as the anesthesia could make her nauseous. Check with your vet to see if it’s okay for her to drink water.
Your vet will also do pre-surgery blood work to screen for any issues that impact which anesthesia is used and indicate any other health issues that could impact the procedure.
On the day of the procedure, your dog will be anesthetized—which comes with a very low risk of complications—typically through an IV that also gives her fluids during the operation. The vet will also insert a breathing tube to provide oxygen and any gas anesthetic needed.
To perform the surgery, your dog’s vet will make an incision just below her belly button, then will remove the ovaries and uterus before stitching or suturing your dog back up. Nichols notes that you should ask if your veterinarian offers minimally invasive surgery as an option. The whole process takes anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes.
You’ll likely be able take your pup home the same day the operation is completed, although some vets will want an overnight stay.
Although a very common procedure, spaying is a major surgery and you should plan for your pup’s recovery accordingly. When you bring your dog home after surgery, she’ll need a quiet, private place away from other animals to rest. She likely won’t have much of an appetite, but it will gradually return. You may have to encourage her to eat a little bit.
Once she is up and moving—slowly—you can take her on brief walks on a short leash. Absolutely no running or jumping. You want to make sure her incision does not get wet, so no swimming or bathing. And she may need an Elizabethan collar (or E-collar, aka, the “cone of shame”) to make sure she doesn’t lick her incision, even at bed time.
Check your pup’s incision daily. If you notice any discharge, call your vet right away. Depending on what type of stitches your dog has, they may dissolve on their own, or you may need to visit the vet for follow up and to have the stitches removed. Also, reach out to your vet if your dog seems to be in excessive pain as there are some pain medications that can be prescribed. Other things to watch for include loss of appetite for more than two days, refusal to drink water for more than a day, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Don’t get too worried if your dog is lethargic shortly after surgery. That’s normal. She may be back to normal activity levels in as soon as 7 to 10 days, but it may also take a couple of weeks for her full activity level to return.