New puppy visits have to be one of my favorite appointments in veterinary medicine. Adorable puppies, excited owners, so many opportunities to lay the groundwork for a long and happy life together. We cover lots of topics: vaccinations, deworming schedules, training, nutrition. During the first visit, one of the most common questions I get with puppies is, “When should my pet be spayed or neutered?”
For a very long time, veterinary medicine offered a fairly standard response: Six months. But why is that? Is it truly in every pet’s best interests to be desexed, and if so, why this particular age? Let’s unpack this very important topic so that you understand the factors we consider when we give you our recommendation for spays and neuters.
Understand Exactly What a Spay or Neuter Entails
A spay, known in veterinary parlance as ovariohysterectomy, is the surgical removal of both the ovaries and the uterus in female dogs. While ovariectomies (removal of the ovaries, leaving the uterus) are becoming more common in other parts of the world, the complete ovariohysterectomy is still the main procedure taught and performed in the United States. In the dog, the ovaries are up near the kidneys, and the y-shaped uterus extends from both ovaries down to the cervix. An ovariohysterectomy is a major abdominal surgery that carries with it, like all surgeries, risk and benefit.
A neuter procedure, or castration, removes the testicles from a male dog. Unless the dog has a retained testicle (a condition known as cryptorchidism), a neuter procedure does not enter the abdominal cavity. While still a major surgery, it is not as complex as a spay in a healthy, normal male dog.
The Size of the Pet Matters
A main reason veterinarians recommend a spay at six months as opposed to six weeks is concern for anesthesia. Very small pets can be more of a challenge in terms of temperature regulation and anesthetic safety, though with today’s advanced protocols, we can very safely and successfully anesthetize even tiny pediatric patients. In a shelter environment, where highly trained and experienced staff perform thousands of pediatric spays and neuters a year, it is not uncommon to perform these procedures in pets closer to