Neutering dogs, cats and rabbits involves removing the ovaries and womb from females (spaying) and the testicles from males (castrating). The surgery is done usually at around 6 months of age, so before puberty (4 months in rabbits). At this age, the patient has grown sufficiently to cope well with the surgery, yet has not become hormonally active, so the surgery is less major.
Neutering is performed for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, it is generally accepted that neutered animals are on the whole healthier; a number of medical conditions related to the reproductive system are common in older animals of both sexes, and neutering prevents these.
Additionally, there may be behavioural or psychological benefits, and sometimes we recommend neutering for these reasons. For example, male cats often spray pungent smelling urine to mark their territory, which can be a serious problem if it is in your living room! Many male animals can be aggressive at times, and neutering reduces this. Females on heat can be noisy, restless, even distressed if not allowed out to mate. Lastly, neutering makes an animal easier to look after – for example they are less inclined to roam, more docile/affectionate, no mess during the oestrus cycle in bitches.
All neutering is carried out under general anaesthesia. Therefore dogs and cats must be deprived of food from about midnight the previous evening, and the water bowl removed first thing in the morning. Rabbits do not need to be starved as they are unable to vomit. Patients should be brought to the surgery between 8.15 and 9 am on the appointed day. Please bring cats and rabbits in secure baskets/cages. A consent form will have been prepared and the nurse will ask you to read and sign it. The form points out that all operations and anaesthetics carry small risks, which you accept. If you want to discuss any aspect of the operation, the nurse or a veterinary surgeon will be happy to help. You will probably be asked to telephone for a progress report at lunchtime; at this time we will arrange when your pet will be ready for collection.
After admission, your pet will be weighed to enable the dose of anaesthetic to be accurately calculated. He/she will then be settled into a comfortable hygienic kennel until shortly before the operation. When the vet is ready for the patient, he/she is taken to the Preparation Room, where the vet gives check over to make sure there are no unexpected problems. A pre-med (sedative) may be given, and then the patient is anaesthetised, and the operation performed in the operating theatre. Afterwards, patients are kept under close observation until they are able to walk. They are then returned to their kennels to complete their recovery.
Tom cats: In male cats, surgery is quite minor. Under a general anaesthetic, the scrotum is incised and the testicles are removed. There is no need for sutures. Patients are discharged the same day.
Queen cats: In female cats, the operation is a little more major. An incision is made in the left flank of the patient, and the ovaries and uterus are located and removed after ligating the blood vessels to prevent haemorrhage. The wound is sutured in several layers, and you will probably see between one and three skin stitches, which need to be removed after 10 days.
Some pedigree cats are spayed via a midline incision in the belly. This prevents the patch of shaved fur being visible. In the “pointed” coat-colour breeds (for example Siamese), the fur initially grows back a dark colour, before being replaced at the next moult with normal coat colour. The operation is slightly more uncomfortable when performed this way, and takes a little longer, but some owners prefer it.
Queens can be spayed during the early stages of pregnancy with no noticeable effects. Later on, the operation is a bit more major, necessitating a midline incision. Pregnancy up to about 7 weeks can be terminated like this, and although it can be a little traumatic at this stage for the cat, it may be better than allowing a 7 month-old kitten to give birth to and rear 4 or 5 kittens herself.
Male dogs: Castration is relatively minor, although it is a bigger op than for cats. A single incision is made in front of the scrotum, the testicles are ligated and removed, and the incision sutured with one to three stitches which are removed 10 days later. This is a sensitive area in male dogs, and a few will lick incessantly at the operation site, causing problems. If this happens, a collar is used to protect to stitches until the incision has healed.
There are several medical and social reasons for castration. For instance, conditions in older dogs related to testosterone include:
- Anal adenomata (small tumours round the anus which ulcerate and bleed)
- Prostatic hypertrophy, leading to constipation and sometimes prostatitis
- Tumours in the testicles
- Retained testicles
- Perineal hernia is seen almost exclusively in older entire male dogs; we do not fully understand why this is, but castration will prevent the problem
It should be noted that if any of the above conditions do develop in later life, one essential part of treatment will be castration, no matter how old the patient is.
There are also several behavioural problems which can be prevented or alleviated by castration:
- Territory marking
- Mounting behaviour (with children, other dogs, or inanimate objects)
- Restlessness or loss of appetite when a bitch nearby is in season
A castrated dog cannot father a litter, and it is generally regarded as socially responsible to have your dog neutered.
There is a very effective hormone implant for male dogs which lasts for 6 to 12 months. However, it is quite costly and a permanent surgical solution is much more economical. The implant is useful particularly in older dogs which need castration for medical reasons but can't have surgery. Sometimes, it is chosen before resorting to surgery by owners who would really prefer their dog to remain intact to see if a behavioural problem would be solved by castration.
Bitches: The surgery for females is actually quite a major op (ask any lady who’s had a hysterectomy!) but most bitches recover very quickly. An incision on the belly is made, usually 1 to 3 inches in length, and the ovaries and womb are removed after ligating the blood vessels. The skin is usually sutured but sometimes tissue glue is used. As with male dogs, some individuals lick incessantly and are determined to remove the sutures, so a collar may be needed to protect until they are removed after 10 days.
There are several medical and social reasons for spaying bitches. The bitch's uterus is in some ways like our appendix - it is rarely used, and often causes life-threatening problems, especially as the bitch gets older. The most common condition is called 'pyometra', in which the uterus fills with pus. Toxins from this are absorbed into the blood stream and 'poison' the whole system. The only treatment for this condition is to remove the affected uterus and ovaries but the animal is already in a weakened state and thus the risks of surgery are much greater than when spaying a fit animal. Other benefits include:
- Bitches that never have a season do not get mammary cancers at all. The risk increases with each season that occurs until the sixth; after that, the risk is the same.
- False pregnancies are prevented. These are a common problem for many bitches, and although not dangerous, they can be quite distressing to both animal and owner. Allowing a bitch to have a litter does not help prevent false pregnancies.
- The social problems created by a bitch coming on heath every 6 months are completely eliminated by spaying. No more confinement, carpet cleaning or guarding against the attentions of would-be-suitors!
- The bitch does not have a menopause. She continues to have heat cycles into her old age although the periods may become more irregular.
Bucks (males): In male rabbits, an incision is made in the skin of the scrotum over a testicle. It is then removed from the scrotum, the blood vessels to it are ligated, and the testicle is removed. The incision is sutured. The same procedure is repeated for the second testicle.
Does (females): A common cause of death in old female rabbits is cancer of the womb. Spaying prevents this disease, and allows the doe to live a comfortable and happy life without the mood swings which often occur when she is in season. Does are spayed from about 4 months of age.
An incision is made on the belly behind the umbilicus. The ovaries and uterus are removed after carefully ligating the blood vessels, and the incision sutured in two or three layers. Rabbit tissues are much more delicate than dogs and cats, and we take great care to minimise tissue trauma. We always give painkillers after this surgery. Stitches are removed from the skin incision after 10 days.
Is it cruel?
No! Removing the testicles removes the dog's libido and interest in all matters sexual, so his inability to perform will not worry him at all.
Any side effects?
Owners are often worried that the dog may put on weight or change his temperament as a result of being neutered. There is no evidence that neutering will alter for the worse any aspect of a dog's mental or physical character. It will reduce their sense of status within the pack, leading to less conflict in the home. However, it rarely affects the dog's desire to guard their home.
Weight gain is a possible problem. If an animal eats more calories than it needs for daily exercise and keeping warm, the excess can either be burned off as waste heat or stored as fat. Which of these happens depends on the individual animal's metabolism. Un-neutered dogs tend to burn off excess calories, but castration often alters this tendency. Consequently, an amount of food fed before neutering may well lead to obesity afterwards. We recommend reducing the daily food intake by a third immediately a dog is castrated. If they then loses weight, the amount fed can be increased. We all know it is easier to gain weight than to lose it!
Urinary incontinence is sometimes seen in older spayed bitches. It is far more common in overweight individuals. Usually, it can be very successfully treated with medicine in the food.
What post-op care is needed?
Your dog will need a warm, quiet place to rest when they come home first. They must be encouraged to drink the same evening, but don't offer food unless they ask for it. If they are hungry, a light meal would be appropriate - scrambled eggs, boiled chicken or white fish. Don't give too much. Exercise should be restricted to the lead until stitches are removed (about 10 days post-op). For bitches, do not allow jumping onto furniture or going up and down stairs.