Dog and cat sterilizations have been the gold standard recommendation for the last few decades. There are many good reasons to have your pet sterilized, and it remains the recommended suggestion, however it is no longer a “one size fits all” rule, and each pet should have a risk/benefit analysis of when the correct time is to do the surgery.

What exactly is sterilizing/spaying/neutering?

The term “sterilizing” is the word used for both genders, male or female. It means to remove the reproductive organs from the body. In males, we speak of “neutering/castrating” them, or having your male dog “neutered” or “castrated”. In females, we speak of “spaying” them or having them “spayed”.

A neuter/spay entails surgery under general anaesthetic to remove the organs required to breed. In males the testes are removed from the scrotum (essentially only the bag is left behind) and in females the ovaries as well as the uterus are removed. This means that they are no longer able to breed and produce offspring. It is a permanent procedure, there is no way to reverse it.

The cut in both males and females is generally quite small, 2-3cm in length. The general procedure is to bring your dog/cat to the clinic in the morning, starved (no food from 10pm the previous evening, just keep water out for them to drink), leave them at the clinic, we do the surgery, and you fetch them later that afternoon once they are awake enough to go home. We have a theatre nurse that monitors the anaesthetic closely during the surgery, and your pet will go on a drip during the procedure to ensure maximum hydration, allowing their bodies to handle the anaesethetic and maintain good blood pressure. They receive pain medication as an injection before the procedure to make sure they have minimal discomfort once the surgery is done, and will go home with more pain medication for a few days. Some patients are stitched up using dissolvable stitches (these take 3-6months to dissolve) and others will have nylon stitches, which need to be removed after 14 days.

Why should I get my dog sterilized?

Other than the fact that it has now been made law by the City of Cape Town, that all home-owned pets should be sterilized, there are multiple benefits to getting your male or female pet sterilized.

  • No unwanted pregnancies (there are so many unwanted dogs and strays already!)
  • Stops the heat cycle in females (and therefore stops other dogs harassing yours!)
  • Reduces chance of mammary cancer (breast cancer) in female dogs substantially
  • Prevents pyometra (a life-threatening condition in female dogs in which the uterus fills with pus)
  • Reduces roaming in male cats and dogs
  • Reduces chances of urinary “marking” of territory of male dogs and cats
  • Reduces aggression in male cats and dogs
  • Prevents testicular cancer and prostate disease in male dogs

When is the right time to get my pet sterilized?

Ahhh. The big question. The answer used to be: at 6 months of age. Nowadays though, it is not as simple anymore. There has been new research that has found that there may be some associated injuries that can be linked to early sterilizing, particularly of large breed dogs. This is as a result of the different way a large breed dog’s skeletal system develops after sterilization at a young age (6m or younger) vs later (after they are fully grown). It appears in studies that the incidents of cruciate disease are potentially much higher in large breed dogs that are sterilized at 6 months in comparison with those sterilized after they have reached complete skeletal maturity.

The general rule now for the correct age of sterilising is:

  • 6 months for cats
  • 6-9 months for small breed dogs,
  • and after 12 months for large breed dogs,

depending on a couple of factors such as your home environment, other pets, risks of not doing the surgery earlier. And no, there is no such thing as “a female should have at least one litter before she is sterilized”. This is a myth, studies have shown there is absolutely no health benefit to allowing a pregnancy before sterilizing. It is about the age that they are.

There are multiple other conditions that may take effect by sterilizing your dog, and you should discuss these with your vet should they be of great concern to you. Though the incidence of these conditions is incredibly low, the chances are still there, and certain conditions tend to appear in certain breeds (for example urethral sphincter mechanism incontinence or a “leaky bladder” after being spayed at a young age is more common in breeds like Ridgebacks). Together with your vet, the risks and benefits of sterilizing your dog or cat should be discussed and the best decision for your pet made on the time it should be done.

So there are risks? What are these risks?

Yes, there are risks that come with the surgery. There is no deal that is 100% safe, regardless of which way you look at things, there are risks either way. What is important to understand, is that the risks of NOT sterilizing weigh a lot heavier than the risks of sterilizing. This has to do with the chances of the risk happening. For example, it is much more likely that your female dog WILL get breast cancer if she is not sterilized than the chances of her getting bone cancer if she is sterilized. This is by no means down-playing the seriousness of the potential risks of various cancers, however the incidences of these conditions are a lot less frequent than the consequences of not sterilizing.

It can be compared with taking medication. All medication comes with potential risks of side effects. However you choose to accept the small risk of those side effects because of the high chance that the medication will help you with your condition. The benefits outweigh the risks. Sterilisation should be seen the same way. It is not without risks, but the benefits outweigh the risks.