So, you’ve done it. You’ve found your beautiful girl and you’re ready to adopt!
If you’re adopting from a shelter, your puppy or kitten likely comes already spayed or neutered. If not, you have some choices ahead of you. Today we’ll be discussing spaying, next week we’ll cover the boys and neutering.
Like with many things in your furkid’s life, there is no cut and dry best answer across the board for spaying and neutering. In these blog posts we will weigh the pros and cons so that you and your veterinarian can choose what is best in your situation.
For cats, there are really three considerations regarding the age of spaying. The first, and probably most important and impactful consideration, is how well can you keep your cat indoors? If your kitten has door dashing tendencies, then spay sooner rather than later. You do not want your little girl running outside when she’s in heat and returning pregnant, injured, or not returning at all. If you are confident that she will stay indoors (like I was when I adopted Pippi) then we can move on.
The second important consideration is a medical concern. Cats and dogs both can develop hormone dependent breast cancer. In cats this is a very serious condition. Breast cancer in cats is almost always a very aggressive cancer and usually requires radical complete mastectomy as a surgical intervention. Since your kitties belly is pretty much covered with breast tissue, this is not an easy surgery and we want to do everything we can to prevent it.
When I adopted Pippi, I was very concerned about this. She is a Maine Coon so, for reasons I’ll discuss in the dog section, I wanted her to have her hormones for as long as possible without dramatically increasing her risk of breast cancer. What I discovered is that when cats are spayed at or before 1 year of age, they have minimal risk of breast cancer.
The third consideration is the feline heat cycle. Cats are what we call “seasonally polyestrus” which means that they will cycle repeatedly (sometimes continuously) when conditions are right until and unless they become pregnant. This is part of why they are so efficient at reproducing.
For cats the seasonal stimulus is light cycles. This means that for an indoor cat living with artificial lighting in the average household, her body always thinks it’s the right season to be in heat! Some cats have very gentle, quiet heat cycles with breaks in between that you hardly notice, other cats have intense, caterwauling desperate heat cycles that may come back to back. In the case of an intense cycler it may not be reasonable to wait to spay her, both for purposes of the sanity of her housemates, and because that’s an awful lot of work to ask her young body to do!
In the vast majority of female cats, early spaying seems to cause few problems. I always prefer that we allow the body to mature (ie. one heat cycle) when possible. However, for the reasons stated above, that may not be possible. Especially if you adopted a male/female pair of kittens, make sure to be on top of sterilization or your kittens will make kittens!
Puppies are a little more complex than kittens, and you’re more likely to adopt an intact puppy than an intact kitten, so it’s more likely you’ll have to make a choice.
The first concern, again, has to do with unwanted reproduction. If you do not have good control over your puppy, or solid fencing to keep her in and the neighborhood boys out, then by all means, spay sooner rather than later. If that is not a concern for you, then there are more nuanced considerations.
There are health concerns both with staying intact, and with getting spayed. Spayed dogs are at risk for hormone dependent incontinence (usually later in life), and when they are spayed before maturity their growth plates on their bones take longer to close. This means slightly longer bones and slightly altered joint angles compared to what your dog’s genetics call for. This may be a contributing factor to the problems we see now with ruptured cruciate ligaments.
There is also some early research in male golden retrievers that suggests they may be less at risk for certain types of cancer, such as bone cancer or splenic cancer, if they stay intact.
However, in females, what we are weighing these things against are very real and relatively common health risks. Female dogs can suffer from two hormone related conditions: Breast cancer and pyometra.
Breast cancer in dogs is generally less aggressive than that in cats and usually a little more easily dealt with, however that doesn’t mean we want to see it! Like in cats, total exposure to hormones and age of the pet at spay matter. A large study done in Norway indicated that the risk of breast cancer only increased slightly between 0 and 18 months, but after that it went up progressively. Practically this means that a puppy spayed at 12-24 months has only a slightly increased risk of breast cancer, but a dog spayed at 5 years has a significantly increased risk.
Pyometra is a form of infectious, or even sterile, discharge in the uterus. This condition is an emergency and can cause your furkid to become very ill. In cases of pyometra the usual treatment is emergency spay, which is much more risky and complicated than a routine spay. This is a hormone dependent condition and does not occur in dogs who have had their ovaries removed. I have not often seen this in younger dogs, but it is always a possibility.
If not caught early pyometra can cause a serious enough illness to result in death, and it many times progresses very rapidly.
The other major health concerns in female dogs addressed by spaying are ovarian cancer (no ovaries, no ovarian cancer) and uterine cancer. A small portion of the uterus remains after spaying, but we reduce the risk by reducing the amount of tissue and the hormones in the system.
Bottom line with all things considered, my general recommendation for a health puppy in a controlled environment is to wait to spay until they reach skeletal maturity (anywhere from 10 months in a small dog to 18-24 months in large to giant breed dogs), but at that point I do recommend spaying primarily in order to prevent breast cancer and pyometra as well as preventing pregnancy.
We all have different risk tolerances, however, and I have had some clients that chose to spay before the first heat cycle in order to minimize the risk of breast cancer as much as they could, and other clients who have chosen not to spay. I don’t recommend this, but with careful health monitoring and the understanding that emergency surgery (potentially with more complications than a routine spay) would be required in the event of a pyometra, this is possible. I do recommend these clients keep a careful watch on the mammary chains for any signs of lumps, and if their dog is even a little sick we investigate for pyometra.
Stay tuned next time for the gentlemen’s edition of Tips for “the snip.”
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