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How Are Dogs and Cats Spayed?

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Lindsay Butzer, DVM
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Dr. Lindsay Butzer
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Cat getting spayed

Spaying for dogs and cats removes the uterus and ovaries through an incision in the abdomen. While there are several different techniques, all pets are anesthetized for the procedure. Surgery can take from 30-60 minutes, which is long enough that most pets should receive IV fluids during surgery.
Veterinarians provide pain medication in addition to anesthesia so that after the anesthesia wears off the pet remains comfortable. Most veterinarians keep the pet overnight in the hospital, but some hospitals do not have employees working during the night so your pet may be better off at home. Veterinarians dispense pain medication to keep your pet comfortable as she heals. It was once believed that pain after surgery was desirable because it prevented pets from being active and damaging the surgical site, but research has shown the opposite is true: Pets provided with pain medication heal faster than pets not given pain medication.
To begin the surgery, hair is clipped from the lower abdomen, the area is cleaned, and an incision is made through the skin on the midline between the navel and the pubic bone. The abdominal muscles are separated, and the intestines moved slightly so that the ovaries, which are at the back of the body close to the spine, are found. The ligaments, nerves, blood and lymph vessels traveling to the ovaries are tied off on both sides. Then, the bladder is moved aside and the uterus identified. Nerves, blood and lymph vessels are tied off, then the cervix is tied off. Traditionally "tying off" was done with suture material, but some veterinarians use metal staples rather than suture material. With all the tissues separated and tied off, the scalpel slices through the uterus and ovaries and removes them without any bleeding into the abdomen. The peritoneal lining around the intestines and abdominal organs is sutured closed, then the muscles and skin are closed. Some surgeons use staples, others use suture material.
Surgery can be done with a laser or with a scalpel. Lasers create less scarring and discomfort, but the surgery is more expensive because it takes slightly longer and the equipment is expensive.

Key facts about spaying in dogs and cats

  • It can take several weeks for your dog or cat to fully recover from spay surgery
  • Adding extra fiber to your pet's diet can help prevent constipation after surgery

Spay post-operative care
Recovery from a spay surgery takes several weeks. It's important to keep your pet quiet and severely limit exercise for the first week and walk with a harness and leash. Feed only broth until you see your pet's intestines are working and is passing gas or defecating normally. Then, provide one meal of easily digested food such as chicken soup and rice. This fully stimulates the intestines, which may be sluggish after anesthesia. If your pet does well with the chicken soup and rice, return to normal feeding. If your pet vomits or has no appetite, notify your veterinarian.
Over the next couple weeks, slowly increase the amount of activity. Pets that become active too quickly can have several problems:

  • An open incision site (dehiscence)
  • Abdominal bleeding
  • Infection
  • Pain

How to care for your dog or cat after spay surgery
Use a calming pheromone, such as Adaptil Collar for Dogs or Sentry Calming Collar for Cats. Provide fiber to establish normal bowel habits and prevent constipation in an animal that is less active than normal. Be Well is an excellent source of fiber and healing antioxidants. Place a cool pack on the abdomen to decrease swelling and pain.

Notify your veterinarian if your pet has:

  • A fever
  • Swelling
  • Heat or redness
  • Bleeding from the vagina or incision site
  • Vomiting
  • No urine within 12 hours
  • No appetite within 24 hours
  • No stool within 24-36 hours
  • A tendency to lick the area excessively
  • An opening of the incision

Does spaying cause pyometra?
Pyometra (pyo=pus and metra=uterus) is a bacterial infection in the uterus that is often fatal. Spayed pets rarely develop pyometra, and then only if there is an infection in the uterine stump. Unspayed dogs and cats develop pyometra under several conditions:

  • Have had many estrus cycles that stimulated growth of cells inside the uterus
  • Have vaginal infection or diarrhea that allows bacteria to travel up the vagina to the uterus

There are two forms of pyometra: open and closed. Both open and closed pyometra can be fatal but it's easier to recognize open pyometra and begin treatment. Open pyometra occurs when the bacterial infection creates pus that is able to drain from the uterus into the vagina and out the body. Closed pyometra occurs when bacterial infection cannot drain and builds up within the uterus causing sepsis.
Symptoms of pyometra can include fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, increased drinking and urinating, and a swollen abdomen. Because these symptoms are nonspecific, it is difficult for many pet owners to realize what is happening until the infection has become life-threatening. It is even harder to recognize the symptoms of pyometra in cats than it is to recognize them in dogs.
The best treatment for pyometra is to remove the uterus and ovaries by spaying immediately. If surgery is not done, and your pet is treated with prostaglandins, antibiotics and IV fluids, your pet may recover its health, but the cells inside the uterus have not changed, and the condition may reoccur. If prostaglandins are used in treatment, your pet should be bred at its next estrus cycle.