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Ask a Vet: What Happens When a Dog is Spayed?

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Dog Spayed

What happens when a dog is spayed is something many dog owners may wonder about before making the appointment or dropping their dogs off for the procedure. This is a very valid question considering that for many pet parents, dogs are part of the family, and it's natural to feel concerned and even a bit nervous about what happens behind closed doors. Veterinarian Dr. Eric Weiner explains what happens when a dog is spayed and goes in depth on what to expect when your dog comes along with some tips for your dog's aftercare. 

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What happens when a dog is spayed?

What Happens When a Dog is Spayed?

Let’s discuss spaying dogs. What happens when a dog is spayed? Why do veterinarians recommend doing it? What is involved? How does it affect your furry female friend? Let’s start with what it is.

Spaying a dog refers to surgically removing the dog’s ability to reproduce, also known as sterilizing. This means the dog will no longer come into heat or be able to get pregnant. The correct use of the word is ‘to spay,’ and the past tense is ‘spayed’, not “spayeded” as commonly said. “My dog has been spayed.”

Most often this is done by performing an ovariohysterectomy, where both ovaries and the uterus are removed. Some veterinarians prefer an ovariectomy, in which just the ovaries are removed, leaving the uterus behind.

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Some believe this latter procedure is beneficial as it may shorten the length of the incision, decrease time under anesthesia, and improve healing time. Others believe that leaving the uterus in may be risky in the fear of the dog developing a pyometra. This concept will be explained a little later in the next paragraphs.

At the end of the day, which procedure to choose is really dependent on doctor preference as they are both acceptable methods for spaying.

Pros of Spaying a Dog

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Did you know that every day 70,000 puppies and kittens are born in the United States? Source: Suncoast Humane Society.

There are several pros of spaying a dog. The first benefit is population control. There are so many homeless dogs in shelters, why do we need to add to that? If you are thinking about breeding your dog because she is so cute, let’s slow down and think about it for a minute. Proper breeding is a lot more expensive and time consuming than most people realize.

First, both parents should be checked for congenital abnormalities (undesirable traits that can be passed onto offspring) by a veterinarian. These are traits that we want to weed out and try to discontinue (preventing future dogs from suffering from those issues), not propagate.

Once the dog has been bred and is pregnant (which like in people is not always easy; there is a lot involved in successful breeding, such as estrus cycle timing, infertility issues, etc.) routine vet checks including ultrasounds and x-rays should be performed to check the health of mom and puppies. Also, it is helpful to count puppies to get an idea of how many to expect at time of delivery. Often dogs have problems giving birth and need emergency c-sections, which can be life threatening to both mom and pups, and potentially very expensive.

All of these veterinary services, despite being very important, do add up financially. If the owner is not prepared to go through the recommendations of monitoring a healthy pregnancy, breeding their dog would be ill advised.

Another benefit to spaying is cancer prevention. It would be extremely unlikely for a dog to get ovarian cancer if she does not have ovaries. There have also been studies that show a link between sexual status of a dog (spayed or intact) and mammary or breast cancer.

The risk of a dog getting mammary cancer if she is spayed before her first heat cycle is as low as 0.5 percent. Dogs that are spayed after their first heat cycle, have just a slightly increased risk of 8 percent, and a 26 percent risk is expected after the second and subsequent heat cycles.

There are several other benefits, but the last one discussed here is preventing pyometras. A pyometra is an infection of the uterus. This can be difficult to detect and may be life threatening if not handled appropriately and swiftly. It makes sense that removing the uterus would prevent that from occurring.

However removing the ovaries and their ability to produce certain hormones is what actually prevents the occurrence of pyometras. The treatment, beyond life saving supportive care, is ovariohysterectomy. The question is wouldn’t it be better to spay a young healthy stable dog versus a critically ill dog with increased risk and emergency fees?

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Cons of Spaying a Dog

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Downsides to spaying includes anesthetic and surgical risk, and decreased metabolic rate. Although this is one of the most routine surgeries performed in small animal medicine, this surgery is still a major abdominal surgery.

Reputable veterinary clinics will do everything they can to minimize risk as much as possible. This includes preanesthetic blood work to make sure the organs are functioning properly and up for the challenge of anesthesia. A complete physical exam will be performed the morning of the procedure. Then, an anesthetic protocol should be tailored to the individual.

An intravenous catheter should be placed to have access to the vein to administer medications and fluids during the procedure. Once the pet is sleeping, an endotracheal (ET) tube is placed to control airways and maintain anesthesia on gas and oxygen.

Unfortunately some pets (just like people) have bad reactions to anesthesia, and there are no warning signs to tell which ones may react poorly until it happens. Luckily, these cases are very few and far between.

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Surgical complications include excessive bleeding, infection, and accidentally tying off the ureter (connection between kidneys and bladder). Surgeons are trained to take special care to avoid these issues, and they too are very rarely seen.

Although it is true that spaying decreases their rate of metabolism, thus promoting weight gain, it is not as pressing as other factors that promote weight gain. Poor diet and sedentary lifestyle play a more significant role in obesity. There is a belief that spaying too early (before one year of age) will lead to urinary incontinence. This has not been scientifically proven. The vast majority of dogs do just fine and don’t know the difference.

How to Care for a Dog After Spay Surgery

A typical spay scar healing well.

A typical spay scar healing well. Source: Liannadavis CC BY-SA 4.0

Despite dogs undergoing a major surgery, the hardest part of aftercare most owners experience is keeping them inactive. They are typically mopey for a day or so after the surgery.

However as the anesthesia wears off (typically 24 hours or less), they go back to normal and want to play. Restricting activity for the first two weeks after surgery decreases the risk of postoperative complications such as bleeding and incisional dehiscence (incision falling apart).

Beyond that, aftercare involves simple wound management. Keep the area clean and dry. Monitor the area for excessive redness, oozing, bleeding, odor, and make sure the incision remains intact. A little bruising and straw colored discharge is acceptable and should be expected.

Icing the incision with an ice pack wrapped in a clean paper towel or washcloth, for 15 minutes twice daily for the first three days may help decrease inflammation.

Post-surgery, dogs are typically sent home with some sort of anti-inflammatory to decrease inflammation and discomfort. Please inform your veterinarian if you feel like your pet is still painful or uncomfortable.

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Depending on surgeon preference, the skin may be closed with stitches that need to be removed (typically in 10 to 14 days) or with dissolvable stitches that do not need to be removed. Elizabethan collars (AKA “cone of shame”) is used to prevent the pet from chewing the stitches out. If this occurs, infection is more likely to occur and repair is more than likely going to require another round of anesthesia. Please follow the discharge instructions specific to your pet and veterinarian’s preferences.

We discussed what happens when a dog is spayed and the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of spaying dogs. The overall arching theme is that in normal healthy dogs, the benefits of spaying way outweigh the risks. Please discuss with your veterinarian if you have any other questions or concerns regarding having your dog spayed.

Photo credit:

Wikimedia, Incision from spaying of a female dog at 6 months old, taken 24 hours after surgery, by Liannadavis CC BY-SA 4.0

About the Author 

dr eric

Dr. Eric Weiner is a small animal veterinarian practicing in Orlando, Florida. He is a third generation veterinarian as both his father and grandfather are vets. Although he grew up following both of them around and wanted to be a veterinarian himself, he took a bit of a detour and attended Hofstra University originally as a music major.

Eventually realizing his true passion still lays within Veterinary Medicine, he switch majors and graduated in 2010 with a BA in biology and dual minors in biochemistry and music. Dr. Weiner attended Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and graduated in 2015, concentrating in mixed animal medicine and surgery. During his clinical year, his favorite rotation was which ever he was currently on. He especially enjoyed spending time at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, where he worked closely with search and rescue dogs, diabetic alert dogs, and even cancer detection dogs.

When Dr. Weiner is not working with animals, he enjoys riding his motorcycle and playing baseball. He is married to his high school sweetheart and they are enjoying their brand new baby girl. In addition, they live with their therapy dog Murphy, and two cats, Stella and Luna.

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