For being the shortest month of the year, February sure celebrates a lot of subjects and raises a lot of awareness. Not only is it National Pet Dental Health Month, it’s also Spay and Neuter Awareness Month.
What you should be most aware of is that spaying or neutering your pets is one of the kindest things you can do for them, for a number of reasons. Today, we’re going to look at what spaying and neutering are, how they benefit your pets, and how they benefit society at large, both human and animal.
A simple fix
If you’re adopting a fairly young puppy or kitten, the first question is, “When should I have it done?” In the case of cats, the rule of thumb is “fix by five,” as in do it by the time they are five months old.
And, as always seems to be the case, dogs are a little more complicated. Small-breed dogs, or those under 45 pounds as adults, should be fixed by six months of age, although females should be fixed before they first go into heat. For large dogs, you’d need to discuss timing with your vet for females, while it’s recommended that large males not be neutered until they have finished growing, usually between nine and fifteen months old.
So what are spaying and neutering?
Simply put, they are surgical procedures designed to remove an animal’s ability to reproduce. Although both procedures effectively involve neutering an animal, traditionally, spaying refers to females and neutering to males.
However, technically, either term can apply to either gender. It’s another example of medicine having two words, one from Greek and the other from Latin, describing the same thing. In this case, “spay” comes from the Greek spathe, referring to a broad blade, i.e. the tool used to perform the operation.
Meanwhile, neuter is the Latin word meaning “neither one nor the other.” It also applied to the process of removing the reproductive organs from an animal of any sex, thereby rendering it neither sex.
It is only usage that has separated the two terms. If you want to get technical, then what a vet performs on a male dog or cat is an orchiectomy, derived from the Greek words for “testicle” (orkis) and “removal” (ectomy). The procedure for female dogs and cats is an ovariohysterectomy, from the Greek words for eggs (ova), uterus (hyster) and removal (ectomy).
While the procedure is relatively non-invasive for males, it’s a bit more complicated for females, but still safe.
There is one rare issue, though. Some vets will only remove the ovaries, leaving the uterus and Fallopian tubes in place. This is fine as long as they get all of the ovaries, but if any tissue is left behind it can lead to ovarian remnant syndrome.
What this means is that your female dog hasn’t been completely spayed and can still reproduce. Basically, if you think you’ve had her fixed but then she goes into heat anyway, then your veterinarian missed something and you should get a do-over.
The main complication that boy dogs face afterwards is pain, and they tend to come out of it with much stronger medications for a while. Like girl dogs, they’ll probably also have an Elizabethan Collar, referred to terribly inaccurately by a lot of people as the Cone of Shame. Hint: It’s not.
It is cute in that it can make your fur baby look like a walking floor lamp, though.
The purpose of the E-Collar is to prevent your dog or cat from licking or biting at the incision and sutures, so it’s for their own safety. And particularly when your dog or cat is stuck in one of these uncomfortable things, you need to provide them with a very comfortable bed to lie down on and sleep in. They’ll thank you for that.
One other issue — that’s really more a problem for the humans than the pets — is that a neutered male pet will be “less of a man (?)” without his testicles, but that’s just projection. Your dog or cat won’t notice and doesn’t care. That doesn’t stop companies from making products designed to replace what’s been removed but, again, these are meant more to console the humans.
The many benefits of spaying and neutering
Let’s first look at how spaying and neutering are beneficial to all pets in general. For those living in the wild, it can be the best way to reduce their numbers, which are staggering.
In the U.S., there are an estimated 70 million stray cats and dogs. Out of this number, only six to eight million per year make it into shelters, and out of those, one in four is a pit bull or pit bull related breed. Thanks to the existence of breed bans, pit bull type dogs often don’t even make it out of shelters alive.
And only about ten percent of those millions of animals going into shelters per year have been spayed or neutered. This is a huge problem because in just seven years, an unfixed female dog and her offspring can produce 67,000 more dogs, while an unspayed female cat and hers can lead to a whopping 420,000 cats in the same period.
And, of course, all of them are unfixed until humans step in as well.
This is why catch, neuter, vaccinate, and release programs have been springing up all over the place. The Netherlands pretty much ended their stray dog problem with this practice. This, combined with a huge extra tax added to the cost of buying a dog from a breeder or pet shop incentivized people to adopt from shelters instead.
In the U.S., there are many trap, neuter, and release (TNR) programs for feral cats designed to reduce their numbers. And note the word “feral.” These are cats (and dogs) born in the wild who were not raised around and have never lived with humans, so are unsuitable for adoption. Stray cats and dogs did once live with humans, so the preference there is to get them into shelters to be adopted.
The benefits here extend beyond just the cats and dogs. Reducing numbers of feral and stray cat packs can protect wildlife, especially birds, and neutering dogs, especially males, can protect humans by lowering the dogs’ aggression and reducing their territorial instincts.
Finally, spaying and neutering will extend the life of your pet through the combination of health benefits and behavioral changes.
Now, what about benefits specific to gender?
Something for the girls
There are multiple health benefits to spaying a female. For one thing, it obviously eliminates the possibility of ovarian cancer, but it also greatly reduces the risk of breast cancer — remember, dogs and cats, like humans, are mammals, too, and one of the defining characteristics of mammals is having breasts, or mammaries. It’s how mammals got their name.
Other conditions that are avoided in the case of a complete hysterectomy are ovarian and uterine cysts, as well as a bacterial infection called pyometra, which affects the uterus in both dogs and cats.
Also, being mammals, our fur baby girls ride the same hormonal roller coaster that their pet moms do and, even if they don’t do it as often, they can still experience all of the same mood swings and cramps and discomfort. Spaying them removes that problem, and can make for a much calmer adult dog.
Finally, being spayed will prevent two problematic situations: Your dog or cat escaping to find that unfixed male in the neighborhood that she can smell, or her basically firing up the pheromone bat signal that summons every male dog or cat in the neighborhood whenever she goes into heat.
Something for the boys
Male dogs and cats also experience health benefits. In their case, there are reduced risks of prostate disease and cancer, and the complete elimination of a chance of testicular cancer.
As mentioned previously, it reduces their aggression and territoriality. One of the ways a male dog expresses the latter is to lift his leg and pee on things. He’s less likely to do this to a wall in your house, the living room sofa, or a visiting neighbor if he’s been fixed.
As for male cats, they do the same, but by spraying, and if you’ve ever been hit by that or have been downwind of someone who has, you know that you never want it to happen at all.
Your fur baby boy also won’t go roaming when that unfixed female in the neighborhood sends out the “ready” alert.
So why doesn’t everyone do it?
You’d think that, given all of the above information, everybody would happily spay or neuter their pet, but that isn’t always the case. As previously mentioned, some people feel that neutering takes away their pet’s masculinity when it really does no such thing, because dogs and cats don’t see themselves in those terms.
There are also people who think that they can buy that pair of expensive pure-bred puppies or kittens and turn them into their own very profitable pet factory. This is the kind of thing that leads to backyard breeders, which is one of the worst forms of animal abuse out there.
The people who do it may have good intentions, but they rarely have the skills or the resources to do it right.
Finally, there's a simple lack of awareness, which is why a month like this has to exist. People don’t know that it’s an option.
Society can provide a push in a few ways. As was already mentioned, there’s the concept of slapping a hefty luxury tax on dogs bought from pet shops and breeders. It’s also the case in a lot of places, that the licensing fees for unfixed pets are a lot higher than they are for those that have been spayed or neutered.
This money in turn can be used to subsidize the adoption and sterilization fees at public shelters. That’s a win-win, because it allows people to find a loving cat or dog that may have been given up voluntarily or abandoned, and that gives them a second chance.
It’s the best gift you can give your fur baby
If you’re newly adopting a cat or dog, you should definitely have this done as a part of the adoption process. A lot of shelters include it, many automatically, and many others mandatorily.
Sure, they’ll be a bit woozy when they come home, but give them that comfy bed and blanket in their new corner, and they can sleep it off through most of those important first three days. By the time they’re feeling more chipper, they will have already come to think of this place as home and you as their family.
You will forever be their pet parents. Meanwhile, you’ll never have to worry about them making you pet grandparents.
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