Spaying and Neutering: What It Is & How to Talk to Your Vet About It

Published: 02/16/2021
Spaying and neutering is the most common surgery performed by vets, and an estimated 80% of all dogs in the US have undergone this procedure. We’ve all heard the terms, but what is spaying and neutering really? What are the risks and benefits? We’ll discuss the pros, cons, and alternatives and how to bring them up to your pet’s veterinarian.

What is spaying?

Spaying is another word for surgical sterilization (or ovariohysterectomy) of a female animal. Spaying is a routine procedure done under anesthesia. The vet will make a small vertical incision below the navel and remove both the uterus and the ovaries.

What is neutering?

Neutering, or orchiectomy, is the means for surgical sterilization of males. Though the end result is the same, the procedure is different and less invasive than a typical spay. Vets put the animal under anesthesia, cut away the testicular tissue, and sew up the area using the remaining skin.

When can a pet be spayed or neutered?

Experts recommend that cats be spayed or neutered between 4 to 6 months of age. However, some vets will perform this procedure as early as 8 to 12 weeks of age.

Technically, a canine can be spayed as early as 6 months old, but vets suggest the surgery before a female animal goes into her first “heat” or estrus. Heat is a period of fertility once the animal reaches sexual maturity.

The heat cycle in females is marked by distinctive physical and behavioral changes like roaming and vaginal bleeding. While males don’t go into heat, they are receptive to when a nearby female goes into estrus and may exhibit unusual behaviors like aggression and running away.

Should I get my pet spayed or neutered?

You shouldn’t get your pet sterilized if you intend to use your pet for breeding purposes, for apparent reasons. Aside from breeding animals, vets recommend spaying or neutering all pets unless they have an underlying condition.

These procedures have innumerable benefits both for the health of your pet and for the environment. Health conditions to consider when thinking about having your pet “fixed” include a history of reproductive cancers, mammary cancer, or uterine infections. In most cases, these illnesses are preventable by spaying or neutering. 

What are the pros and cons of spaying and neutering?

Spaying and neutering have many pros as well as cons. Weigh the risks and benefits when deciding whether or not to have your fur-baby “fixed.”

Pros of spay/neuter
  • No risk of pregnancy complications
  • No unwanted puppies

  • Eliminated risk of testicular and uterine cancer

  • Decreased risk of prostate cancer and uterine infection

  • Lower rates of mammary cancer in females

  • Reduction in aggression

  • Reduction in wandering

  • No messy heat cycles

  • Population control

Cons of spay/neuter

  • Can contribute to weight gain

  • May cause incontinence in females

  • Can cause a decrease in energy

  • Heightened risk of hypothyroidism

  • Neutering too early can increase the risk of orthopedic disease

  • Adverse reactions to anesthesia

  • Low testosterone associated with neutering may lead to cognitive impairment

Spaying and neutering alternatives

There are alternatives to spaying and neutering that don’t affect the hormones and have fewer risks. These include: 

  • Injectable medication used to prevent sperm production

  • Vasectomy: Removal of the tubes that carry sperm from the testes to the penis

  • Hysterectomy: Like a human hysterectomy, the vet will remove the uterus and a portion of the fallopian tubes

  • Ovariectomy: Removes the ovaries only, though this will eliminate estrogen production

How to talk to a vet about spaying and neutering

You should bring up surgical sterilization when your pup is nearing 6 months old. Discuss the benefits and risks and when is the right time for your breed. Some vets recommend different spay/neutering timelines for different breeds.

The risks associated with waiting vs. early sterilization are different for small and large breeds. For instance, experts recommend that large breed dogs wait until they reach adulthood to get “fixed” due to the surgery’s impact on growth hormones. Performing the procedure too early may cause the dog’s growth plate not to fuse properly and create joint issues. Smaller dogs, especially Shih Tzus, have different risks and may be slightly more prone to cancer if “fixed” before adulthood. 

If and when you decide to spay/neuter your pet depends entirely on you. Discuss your options with your vet and talk about alternatives if you’re uncomfortable with the risks.
Like we mentioned above, spaying and neutering are routine surgeries, and complications are rare. Use your best judgment to decide what’s best for your fur-baby and the pet population!