This may seem like a weird topic for a horse blog… but since most of us with horses also have dogs, I figure it’s all good!
I’ve had my female dog Tiah for two years now. And after going through 2 heat cycles – one every 8 or 9 months – where my carpets are destroyed by the discharge, the smell is nasty and she is miserable at being banned from the horse fields (where there is an un-neutered male) – I decided it was time to get her spayed.
I should have known it would not be so simple or easy as portrayed! After spending a day researching, I’ve boiled it down to three options for kinder, more beneficial procedures than the traditional female dog spay, which removes the uterus and ovaries (ovariohysterectomy).
I’m going to give you a brief description and the pros and cons of each method, along with some links to in-depth materials and videos. And at the very end, I’m going to tell you what I decided to do after wading through all of this!
Female Dog Spaying or Sterilization
1. Ovary-sparing spay procedure (hysterectomy – removal of uterus only)
- Removes uterus but not ovaries
- Dog has heat cycle with hormones, but no discharge
- Takes only 15 minutes longer than traditional spay procedure
- Dog may allow mounting – but will not become pregnant (although intercourse is not advised):
“Female dogs who retain their ovaries still have estrous cycles, but without the messy discharge. They also continue to attract males during cycles, and may be receptive to them (allow mating). To prevent potential trauma to sex organs, owners of female dogs who’ve undergone the procedure should be vigilant in prohibiting mating. This is because a small portion of the cranial aspect of the vagina must be removed in order to remove the entire cervix. There shouldn’t be a problem anatomically for the female if intercourse occurs, but Dr. Kutzler can’t entirely rule out the possibility of trauma to the vagina. It’s a matter of being safe rather than sorry.”
So what else is wrong with the routine spay procedure?
In addition to the increased cancer risk in medium –> large sized dogs if their ovaries are removed, urinary incontinence is another big consideration if I opt to stick with the traditional spaying method (removing the uterus and ovaries):
“Dr. Kutzler answered that she doesn’t remember hearing anything about the side effects of spay/neuter in veterinary school. But once she was in private practice, she began treating cases of urinary incontinence after ovariohysterectomies (traditional spays). She asked the owners of the practice and her colleagues how common this was, and why it wasn’t better documented as a problem following spay procedures. But at that time, there was still debate as to whether urinary incontinence was a result of trauma to pelvic nerves due to removal of the uterus, or whether it was the result of removing the ovaries and the hormones they produce.
The only treatment for the condition at that time was hormone supplementation (estrogens). The drug most commonly used was diethylstilbestrol (DES). “
Other complications of the traditional spaying method include urinary calculi, diabetes, hypothyroidism, hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament rupture, aggressive and fearful behavior, cognitive dysfunction syndrome, and cancers like prostate adenocarcinoma and transitional cell adenocarcinoma. This is because there are no ovaries left to regulate the production of Luteinizing Hormone – which is then over-produced by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
Prof. Michelle Kutzler DVM, who pioneered the Ovary-sparing Spay has set up an excellent education website for both owners and veterinarians, the site has a self-register list of veterinarians who stipulate which procedures they are trained to do. However, since no one is curating this list, you may find that when you call a vet to book an ovary-sparing spay (for example) it turns out they have never actually done the procedure before! So you will need to phone a number of vets from the list to find out who can actually do the procedure you require.
There is also another veterinarian list maintained by the Ovary Sparing Spay & Vasectomy Info Facebook Group by members who have actually had an ovary-sparing spay or vasectomy done on their own dog and then want to recommend their vet to others. It might be better to check this list first!
For a really thorough Powerpoint presentation on the risks vs. benefits of the traditional ovariohysterectomy (OHE) and this new Ovary-Sparing Spay, just click here.
Or, watch this interview with Dr. Kutzler DVM as she’s interviewed by Dr. Karen Becker DVM:
If you prefer, you can download a transcript of this interview here.
2. Laparoscopic ovariectomy
With this option, instead of removing the uterus and leaving the ovaries, the vet removes the ovaries and leaves the uterus intact. Although the risk of pyometra (hormonal abnormality sometimes followed by uterine infection) is very small, if you are concerned about it, then this may be the better option for you. Because without the ovaries to produce progesterone, pyometra does not occur.
In a laparoscopic ovariectomy the vet makes 2 small incisions (versus 1 large incision) to remove only the ovaries; tissue trauma is much less and recovery time is much faster. However, as the normal female dog hormones are no longer produced, this procedure still runs the increased risk of most of the issues highlighted above.
On the flip side, some veterinarians are claiming it is a healthier option than complete ovariohysterectomy because the ureters (tubes that transport urine from kidneys to the bladder) run right alongside the uterus and can be nicked or obstructed during the hysterectomy.
- Ovaries are removed, but uterus left intact
- Dog will not have heat cycles, nor hormone cycle, nor discharge
Personally, due to the reduced trauma, I think this option is still superior to the traditional ovariohysterectomy if you are not willing or able to find a vet trained to do the Ovary-sparing procedure outlined in Option #1.
3. Tubal Ligation
This is where both the ovaries and uterus are left in place, but the tubes connecting the ovaries to the uterus are tied off. This option is becoming popular among breeders (to ensure you can’t breed the puppy you buy) and some animal shelters since it can be performed at 6-8 weeks.
As the ovaries are still intact, the dog continues to experience it’s normal hormone cycle, similar to the Ovary-sparing Spay. The downside to this procedure is that it is not taught in veterinary school – so it can be difficult to find a vet who has obtained the extra training necessary to perform a tubal ligation.
Surgical Sterilization Is Illegal??
“In Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland – routine surgical sterilization of pets is prohibited. It’s actually illegal unless medically necessary. The responsibility for controlling an animal’s reproduction falls to the owner.
There are also more non-surgical alternatives for sterilizing pets available in Europe than in the U.S. Of course, this is primarily due to pet owner demand in countries where surgical sterilization for purposes of contraception is illegal. But regardless, being a responsible pet owner is a very important part of the equation.
As Dr. Kutzler explains, it’s too easy for pet owners to say, ‘I’m not going to worry about my pet’s reproductive health. I’m just going to remove the reproductive tract, and then I don’t have to worry about it.’
In addition to the convenience factor, spaying and neutering procedures have traditionally been viewed not only as harmless, but actually beneficial to an animal’s health. So it’s no wonder they’ve been so popular for so long with both pet owners and veterinarians.
But Dr. Kutzler makes the point that most female dogs only cycle once or twice a year, and some females may only cycle once or twice every two years. So the period when owners need to be responsible for their pet’s reproductive health in order to prevent unwanted litters is a short amount of time over the entire lifespan of a dog.
And, of course, if the entire lifespan of the dog is decreased to three or four years because of the early onset of bone cancer or hemangiosarcoma, it really comes down to making the best decision for the pet’s health and longevity.”
*The quotes given above and the complete article on female dog spaying written in an easy-to-understand format are here.
Male Dog Spaying or Sterilization
Interestingly, there is also a new non-surgical procedure to spaying male dogs which involves injecting a drug called Zeuterin into their testes; which contains zinc gluconate neutralized by arginine. Zeuterin acts as a spermicide and causes irreversible fibrosis of the testicles, which causes the testes to atrophy and shrink in size, but they still remain visible.
So the male dog will continue to produce testosterone at a level of 41-52% of previous levels, but will not have viable sperm to reproduce.
The potential downside? A study done in the Galapagos Islands in 2008 concluded:
“The authors of this study determined that proper injection technique is critical because injection or leakage into surrounding tissues can result in severe tissue damage. And while scrotal swelling and tenderness are common in the first days after injection, a more serious reaction is the development of scrotal ulcers or draining tracts in the scrotal or preputial area. The self-trauma that follows can be severe.
The researchers also observed that lesions aren’t always restricted to the injection site, which could indicate the solution may spread beyond the target area.”
However, Dr. Kutzler maintains that this study isn’t indicative of the procedure performed in North America or Europe:
“…she hasn’t heard of any beyond injection-site reactions. The percentage of those is small, and it could be because the injections were performed in very rural areas where veterinarians might not have access to a clean environment in which to perform the procedure.
According to Dr. Kutzler, injection-site reactions can be as minimal as just some heat and discomfort around the testes for one or two days, which resolve without any medication at all, to a chronically draining tract that requires a complete scrotal ablation. That happens in a very low percentage of cases. Depending on the reports, anywhere from 0.5 percent to maybe 1.8 percent of injections result in that type of complication.
As for long-term health complications, Dr. Kutzler says she really hasn’t heard of any. And she believes that’s important because the original version of the drug was approved in 2003 – it was called Neutersol. She believes we would have heard about complications associated with the product by now, 10 years later. Many shelter dogs were injected with Neutersol as a sterilization method.”
Vasectomy is also an option for sterilizing a male dog. Dr. Kutzler says she’s not opposed to male dog vasectomy and has performed them on shelter and research dogs. The only downside is that – as with tubal ligation – vets are not trained to do a vasectomy in school and so you must make sure your vet has received additional, specialized training in this procedure. As Dr. Karen Becker DVM says:
“Ted asked his research assistant to call all 26 veterinary teaching colleges in the U.S. And he discovered not one of them is offering instruction on vasectomies and tubal ligations.
Some of those called became incensed Ted would even suggest things should change, which puzzled him. So he would ask, ‘Are you invested in having fewer unwanted puppies, or are you invested in spaying and neutering?’ Some of the people he talked to had no answer for his question. Others were quite honest in sharing they felt they were ‘too old to change.’
Ted then mentioned a conversation he and I once had on the subject, and how he remembered it took me about 40 cadavers to learn how to do vasectomies and tubal ligations.
And he’s right – I had to practice. And in fact, I practiced on wildlife, because they were about the only animals I came across that were still intact. So when someone dropped off, say, an opossum or a raccoon hit by a car – or if an animal died at my clinic – I would practice by performing a vasectomy or a tubal ligation on them.”
So vasectomy would indeed be a viable option that – as with human males – preserves the long-term health of the dog. You would just need to search to find a veterinarian skilled enough to perform it. Again, check the list on the Parsemus Foundation website for vets who say they can perform vasectomies – then phone to confirm they actually can.
There is also another veterinarian list maintained by the Ovary Sparing Spay & Vasectomy Info Facebook Group by members who have actually had an ovary-sparing spay or vasectomy done on their own dog, and you can add your own vet to it if they do the procedure.
After spending the day in research – who knew there was SO MUCH I didn’t know, or hadn’t thought about??
I thought this blog post would be a comparison of different spaying methods and then I would select the best one for Tiah.
But after learning how removing the ovaries or testicles (hormone production) severely compromises the animal’s health and lifespan, to the point where doing so is actually illegal in numerous enlightened countries… Well, my focus has now shifted away from, what is the least damaging spaying method? To: how can I make her heat cycles less messy and disruptive to our home?
And I realize it’s actually not going to be too bad:
- I put the dining chairs on top of the couches, to keep her off the sofas if we’re not sitting on them.
- I put up a baby gate to block the stairs to the carpeted areas.
- When it’s time for bed (she sleeps with my daughter) I put an old duvet on her bed and close the door to her room – her carpet is already trashed from markers, nail polish, etc.
- I roll up my Persian rugs and just let her drip all over the hardwoods (she will promptly remove any ‘diaper’ attempts).
- She simply cannot go to the barn with me during her cycle and the kids will have to step up with taking her to the park (leashed) twice a day. Which will be good for all of them actually!
I have already taught her to lick up her own blood from the floors, and she continually licks herself clean – she does not like the discharge either – so she’s pretty self-cleaning already. The rest, once every 8-9 months, is actually a small price to pay for her ongoing health and a good long life!