Neutering: the facts

Having our pets neutered is highly recommended by most vets – but what are the health benefits for the animals and what actually happens to our four-legged friends when they have the operation?

Neutering is an important part of responsible pet ownership. It not only stops your pet having unwanted litters, but also prevents potential behavioural, medical and surgical problems such as mammary cancer.

The term 'neutering' describes the sterilisation of both sexes. In males, it involves the removal of both testicles (known as castration). In females, it is known as ‘spaying’ and involves the removal of both the ovaries and uterus. While this may sound drastic, it's a routine procedure.

On arrival at the vet, the patient is weighed, its heart and lungs are checked, its testicles (if male) are checked, and its temperature is taken. The vet will also make sure that the patient has been starved from the night before – this decreases the likelihood of it regurgitating and inhaling food into its lungs while under anaesthetic.

As with most operations, techniques vary – but male cats are usually castrated via simple incisions that rarely require stitches, whereas female cats are often spayed via a keyhole incision on the left flank that requires a few stitches to close. Rabbits can also be neutered, allowing them to live happily together without fighting or breeding.

It will come as no surprise that canine genitalia are bigger, so usually require more intricate needlework beneath the surface. Female dogs are spayed three months after their last season or at six months of age, depending on the breed. Your vet will be able to provide advice on what is best for your pet.

After a full anaesthetic recovery, your pet can be sent home to rest with a light diet, pain relief and possibly a buster collar – to prevent them licking or nibbling their wounds.

As well as removing the possibility of pregnancy in females and unwanted litters, neutering offers your pet numerous health benefits:

  • Avoidance of pyometra. This is an infection of the uterus (womb) and is usually seen in older, unneutered female dogs following their season, although younger dogs can also suffer from the condition. Symptoms include:
    • Loss of appetite
    • Drinking more than usual
    • Licking the back end more than normal
    • Pus (yellow/brown/red) discharge from her vulva
    • Swollen abdomen
    • Vomiting
  • Avoidance of false pregnancies. Many unneutered female dogs can experience a false pregnancy whereby they show symptoms of pregnancy due to a hormonal imbalance. Symptoms include:
    • Loss of appetite
    • Vomiting
    • Mothering activity such as self-nursing or creating ‘nests’
    • Restlessness
    • Enlarged mammary glands
    • Depression
  • Significantly reduced risk of mammary cancer. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, the risk of a female dog developing a mammary tumour is 0.5% if they are spayed before their first heat (which usually occurs after six months). However, it rises significantly after their first heat to around 8%, while it reaches a concerning 26% in dogs that aren’t spayed until after their second season. If your dog is diagnosed with mammary cancer, it’s not uncommon for your dog to require a mastectomy. Before any mammary surgery is undertaken, your vet would take an X-ray to see if the cancer has spread to the lungs or other organs.
  • A reduced likelihood of ovarian cysts in female dogs.
  • A reduced tendency for male dogs to get into fights, which can lead to injury.
  • Neutered female cats are less likely to suffer from womb infections, ovarian cysts and false pregnancies. They also benefit from a significantly reduced risk of mammary cancer and are at less risk of contracting serious diseases, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), through the mating process.
  • A reduced tendency for male cats to roam or get into fights, which can lead to injury and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Neutering also removes the possibility of testicular cancer.
  • Male cat urine has a strong, repulsive smell – neutering reduces this smell.
  • Neutering reduces aggression in male rabbits.
  • Lower risk of female rabbits suffering from womb infections and uterine cancer.

Talk to your vet about the best time to get your cat, dog or rabbit neutered

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