Reviewed for accuracy on January 8, 2019, by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM
Spaying or neutering is one of the most responsible ways dog owners can care for their pet. First-time dog owners are likely to have many questions about spaying and neutering procedures, from the risks involved to how much they will cost. Here are some answers to the most common questions that pet parents have about the spay and neutering process.
What’s the Difference Between Spaying and Neutering?
Spaying a dog refers to the removal of a female dog’s reproductive organs, while neutering refers to the procedure that’s done for males.
When a female dog is spayed, the vet removes her ovaries and usually her uterus as well. Spaying renders a female dog no longer able to reproduce and eliminates her heat cycle. Typically, behavior related to breeding instincts will cease, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), but this is not always true for every dog.
The procedure is also known as an ovariohysterectomy (where both uterus and ovaries are removed) or an ovariectomy (where only ovaries are removed). Both surgeries are equally safe and effective.
When neutering a dog, both testicles and their associated structures are removed. This procedure is also known as castration. Neutering renders a male dog unable to reproduce, but any behavior related to breeding instincts, like humping, usually ceases—but not always, says the AVMA. This may depend on the age of the dog and other factors.
Alternative procedures, like vasectomies for male dogs (the severing of the tubes that conduct sperm from the testes), are available but not commonly performed.
Why Spay or Neuter?
Animal shelters around the country are filled with unwanted puppies and dogs. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that approximately 6.5 million animals enter the shelter or rescue system annually. Of those 6.5 million animals, only an estimated 3.2 million find their way out of the shelter or rescue and into a home.
Spaying and neutering reduces the number of unwanted litters, which, in turn, helps to reduce the number of unwanted pets or stray animals that enter shelters or rescues.
These procedures also have specific health benefits that can help a dog live a healthier, longer life, and they may reduce behavioral issues. Spaying a dog helps prevent serious health problems, including mammary cancer and pyometra, a potentially life-threatening uterine infection, says Carolyn Brown, senior medical director of community medicine at the ASPCA.
Neutering male dogs helps keep them from developing testicular cancer, Brown says. Neutered male dogs are also generally less aggressive and less likely to stray from home. This helps keep them safe because they are less likely to get into fights or be hit by a car.
On the other hand, some diseases, like prostatic cancer and certain orthopedic conditions, are slightly more common in dogs who have been spayed or neutered. For most pet parents, however, the pros of spaying and neutering their dogs outweigh the cons.
When Should You Spay or Neuter Your Dog?
The traditional age for spaying or neutering a dog is between 4 and 6 months, although a spay clinic or shelter may safely spay or neuter dogs as young as 2 months old, says Brown. However, “each individual owner should discuss their specific circumstances with their personal vets,” recommends Brown. Several factors can influence the timing of spaying and neutering.
For example, a dog’s breed can make a difference. Research has shown that larger dog breeds tend to mature a little later than their smaller counterparts, explains Brown. An animal’s living situation may also be a consideration.
For example, a male and female from the same litter who are adopted into the same home should be spayed and neutered earlier, before the female goes into heat, Brown says. On the other hand, there’s less urgency to spay or neuter if the puppy is the only intact dog living in the house, she adds.
Most veterinarians recommend spaying a female dog before her first heat cycle. This varies but occurs somewhere between 5 and 10 months of age. Spaying before the first heat cycle greatly reduces her risk of developing dog mammary (breast) cancer.
For male dogs, adult size is an important factor. Small and medium male dogs are generally neutered earlier—around 6 months of age—while your veterinarian may recommend waiting until a giant breed puppy is a year or more before neutering.
But before a dog is spayed or neutered, it’s very important that the vet, whether at a private practice, a spay/neuter clinic or a shelter, give the animal a complete checkup to ensure he or she has no health issues, Brown points out. The pet’s owner should also provide a full medical history, because underlying conditions or current prescription pet medications could be relevant, she says.
Recovery From Spay and Neuter Surgery
Dog owners can help their pets have safe and comfortable recoveries after being spayed or neutered by following some precautions recommended by the ASPCA:
- Keep the dog inside and away from other animals during the recovery period.
- Don’t let the dog run around and jump on and off things for up to 2 weeks after surgery, or as long as the vet advises.
- Ensure the dog is unable to lick their incision site by using a cone (popularly known as the “cone of shame”) or other methods, as recommended by the vet.
- Check the incision every day to make sure it’s healing properly. If redness, swelling, discharge or a foul odor are present, contact your vet immediately.
- Don’t bathe the dog for at least 10 days post-surgery.
- Call the vet if the dog is uncomfortable, is lethargic, is eating less, is vomiting or has diarrhea.
Brown also recommends discussing pain management with the vet before the procedure is done to be sure that pet pain medication is sent home with the dog. Pain medication may or may not be needed, but it’s best to have on hand just in case, she notes.
A good way to gauge a dog’s recovery is that if the dog is comfortable and energetic enough to play, he or she is probably doing okay, says Dr. Marina Tejeda of the North Shore Animal League America’s SpayUSA based in Port Washington, New York.
However, a playful dog is not license to allow her to run around before she is fully healed. Feeling like her usual self is just evidence that your dog is on her way to recovering.
Is Spay and Neuter Surgery Risky?
Spay and neutering are common surgeries, but there’s always some degree of risk involved for animals undergoing surgery and with general anesthesia, according to the AVMA.
Dogs should be given a thorough physical exam to ensure their general good health before surgery is performed. Blood work may be recommended to ensure that the dog has no underlying health issues, says Dr. Tejeda. Liver and kidney issues and heart murmurs may require further investigation, she notes.
What Are Some Misconceptions About Spay and Neuter Procedures?
A number of misconceptions about spaying and neutering dogs persist. One of the most popular beliefs is that a sterilized dog will get fat. Not true, as long as dog owners provide the proper amount of exercise and dog food, notes Brown of the ASPCA.
Dogs do tend to need fewer calories (by about 20 percent) after being spayed or neutered, but changing their diet appropriately and keeping them active will prevent weight gain.
Another misconception is that spaying or neutering a dog will change a dog’s personality. That’s not true, either. “It shouldn’t change their behavior much at all,” Brown says. If anything, it may help stop unwanted behaviors such as marking in the house.
What Does It Cost to Spay or Neuter Your Dog?
The cost of spaying or neutering a dog varies widely by geographic area as well as the size of the dog. Petfinder reports that most animal hospitals charge more than 300 dollars for the surgery. A low-cost clinic may charge in the range of 45 to 135 dollars, but this varies by location.
But the proliferation of low-cost spay and neuter clinics makes it worth researching the low-cost options available in a given area. Organizations SpayUSA and the ASPCA offer searchable national databases to help dog owners find affordable spay and neuter resources in their areas.
SpayUSA offers vouchers that cover part of the surgery’s cost at participating clinics. Dog owners can also check with their local municipalities for specific low-cost and affordable options for spay and neuter procedures.
Dr. Tejeda points out that low-cost care provided by spay and neuter clinics does not necessarily mean the care will be less comprehensive than what a private practice provides. “Low-cost does not mean low-quality,” she emphasizes. Ask for a breakdown of the costs associated with your dog’s spay or neuter to get an idea of what is and what is not included.
By: Samantha Drake