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Why, (and how!) We Spay and Neuter

July 26th 2020
Surgical sterilization of dogs and cats has been a major part of the medical care for pets for decades. As pets have become an ever-larger part of our emotional family, the wish to keep them healthy and happy has grown. “Preventive medicine” procedures that help avoid health issues from developing are recognized as helping our pets live longer and happier lives, while saving our pet owners worry and expense. Thus, to avoid multiple health issues, we often spay and neuter our pets.
The spay procedure, medically called an ovariohysterectomy, is the surgical removal of the ovaries and uterus from the female pet. Dogs and cats have quite different reproductive structures than we do, and their reproductive cycles are quite different as well. Then, because “cats are not small dogs”, the cat even has a different reproductive cycle than does a dog! However, both species can become pregnant, develop infections or cancer of the reproductive organs, as well as having a higher chance of associated diseases such as mammary cancer and hormone problems. Our prevention goal in spaying the pet is to avoid these health issues. With the ovaries and uterus removed, there is no chance of cancer of these organs, the pet is rendered sterile so no pregnancies can occur, the reproductive hormones are reduced, and behaviors that accompany the pets being “in heat” such as howling, wanting to roam, urine marking, and mood and personality changes are avoided.
In the female dog and cat an ovariohysterectomy or “spay” is performed under a general anesthetic, and entails a small incision into the surgically prepared abdomen, allowing us to access the entire reproductive tract, including the ovaries, the uterus, and the major blood vessels feeding them. Specialized surgical techniques and instruments are used to tie off the blood vessels, free the reproductive tract from the surrounding tissues, remove the organs from the abdomen, and then surgically close the three major layers of the abdomen. Throughout the procedure in depth monitoring of the patient’s vital signs continues to ensure the anesthetic safety for the pet. Recovery from the surgery and anesthetic is closely observed and for most patients the pet can be home the same day.
The orchiectomy (or “neuter”) procedure to remove the testicles is not as complicated as the spay procedure, as the male dog and cats’ testicles are usually located outside the abdominal cavity. (This surgery can get as involved as a spay procedure if one or both testicles are retained up in the abdomen, requiring us to perform an abdominal surgery to find and remove the retained organs.) In a routine neutering, the pet is under a general anesthetic, the surgery site is prepared to allow a sterile surgery, and a small incision near or on the scrotum allows us to isolate the testicles and associated structures (blood vessels, spermatic cords, and surrounding tissues) and these are then tied off and the testes removed.  The incision on the dog is then surgically closed in two or three layers; the male cat surgery site is usually left to close and heal on its own, being small and performed through just a thin layer of tissue. Return to home is usually the same day.
Questions arise regarding other techniques to render a pet sterile, such as vasectomy or tubal ligation. While these procedures are possible in both the dog and the cat, the many usually unwanted health and behaviour side effects of keeping the ovaries and testicles remain, such as a higher incidence of cancer of the mammary glands, especially in the female dog, and some hormonally driven cancers in the males. As well, the behaviour and physical changes associated with the pets going into heat will continue. For most pet owners the benefits of having the pet sterilized is the way to go.
By Dr Tony Gerrow

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