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Neutering or spaying dogs and cats

Team Walmart Pets

July 2, 2021


min read

Fixed. Spayed. Neutered. No matter what you call it, chances are your vet has recommended the procedure for your favorite family member. While pet parents view neutering or spaying as a rite of passage in their pet’s lives, vets see it as an important aspect of a pet’s preventive and wellness care.

And even though pet insurance may not cover preventive or elective care, enrolling in Walmart Pet Insurance can help with the financial burden if your pet experiences surgical complications.

Let’s take a look at the benefits and risks of these surgeries and what, if any, is the best time to schedule the snip or spay.

What does spayed mean?

During spay surgery, a female dog or cat's reproductive organs — called the ovaries — are removed. This makes it impossible for the dog or cat to get pregnant and have puppies or kittens. 

What does neutered mean?

Similar to a spay procedure in female dogs and cats, a male dog or cat can undergo neuter, during which their testicles are removed via surgical castration. 

Other terms for the two phrases mentioned include "fixing" and "de-sexing." Both procedures are done under anesthesia. 

What are the benefits of spaying and neutering?

Removing your pet’s ability to reproduce benefits all furry friends, and it goes beyond just helping the pet overpopulation issue. Here are a few health benefits of spaying and neutering pets:

  • By reducing the pet population, you make it easier for other shelter pets to find a loving home.
  • A staggering 10 million pets are surrendered to shelters each year, and of those, three to four million are humanely euthanized just because they have no home. As it turns out, being homeless is the #1 killer of companion animals.* Don’t add to that problem!
  • Spaying your female dog or cat before they have their first heat cycle reduces their chances of developing mammary (breast) cancer to almost zero.
  • If she is allowed to go through one heat cycle, a female dog’s odds of developing mammary cancer shoot up to about 8%, and if she goes through two cycles, it increases to 25%. Similar is true for female cats.
  • Spaying also eliminates the chances of ovarian and uterine cancer, as well as the risk of pyometra — a sometimes life-threatening uterine infection that often occurs in middle-aged, unsprayed females.
  • As an added bonus, spaying females eliminates heat cycles, which can be messy at best and downright annoying at worst.
  • For males, removing the testicles greatly reduces the risk of testicular cancer and benign prostatic hyperplasia.
  • Neutering also decreases the likelihood that unwanted behaviors like humping and roaming will persist into adulthood.*
  • Unspayed and unneutered (also known as intact) animals have shorter lifespans than fixed animals.
  • There is a lot of conflicting evidence regarding the diseases that cats and dogs get later in life when intact versus spayed/neutered, but the takeaway here is that fixed animals live longer lives.
  • Now that you know the benefits of spaying and neutering, I’m sure you’re clamoring to the phone to schedule your pet's vet appointment, right?

What’s the best age to spay or neuter your dog or cat?

Typically, we’d like to see female pets spayed before their first heat cycle, so in the past, we’ve recommended that pets get spayed and neutered around 6 months of age. 

If you can prevent unwanted pregnancy, wait as long as possible before sterilization. For most of my patients, this means around 10 to 14 months of age.

But, as we advance veterinary medicine, we are realizing that this blanket approach is not always best for every pet. Here are some other factors to consider:

  • Large and giant breed dogs cycle much later than their smaller counterparts.
  • Some of these giant dogs don’t have their first heat cycle until they are a year old or later.
  • Large and giant breed dogs are prone to developmental bone diseases.

It makes sense to wait until a dog, and her skeleton is a little more mature before considering surgery. There are fewer orthopedic problems down the line if these big dogs (or high-performance sporting dogs) are allowed to grow before they are spayed.

Veterinary scientists from the University of California Davis have been investigating this issue for many years. In 2014, they discovered that Golden Retrievers spayed or neutered earlier than 1 year of age had four times the number of joint disorders than those who had the surgery later. They also found Labrador Retrievers had twice the number of joint problems when sterilized before 1 year.

For cats, research shows that the best age to spay or neuter them is around 5 months.

For male dogs, consider their appearance when they’re fully grown

If you have a Rottweiler, and you want him to look like a typical, strong, muscled Rottie with a large head, you’ll want to delay his neuter a bit. Without a good dose of testosterone, he just won’t look the same. If his appearance doesn't matter to you, this is not an issue.

What age should you spay or neuter your German Shepherd?

Studies have shown that German Shepherds have increased health risks if spayed or neutered too early.

In their latest study, they evaluated nearly 1,200 German Shepherds over a 14.5 year period. They wanted to determine if those spayed and neutered early had more or less joint disease and cancer, which cost German Shepherd pet parents on average $2,683 in 2018 according to pet insurance claims data. 

The results were surprising:

  • Dogs spayed or neutered before 1 year of age had three times the number of joint disorders.
  • Breast cancer was diagnosed in 4% of intact females, compared with less than 1% in females neutered before 1 year of age.
  • Instances of other cancers were not higher in the spayed and neutered dogs than in intact dogs.
  • Urinary incontinence, not diagnosed in later spayed or intact females were observed in 7% of females neutered before 1 year of age.

The trend of several studies is becoming clearer: Early spay and neuter may increase the risk of joint disease. Other studies have shown early sterilization may also increase pet obesity and subsequent joint disease and other problems.

One more reason to wait: puppy vaginitis

If you have a puppy who has had issues with puppy vaginitis, it’s best to delay until after her first heat. You’ll definitely want to get her taken care of before her second heat, though, to avoid the increased risk of mammary cancer.

Is there a wrong age to spay or neuter a dog?

Again, this is a highly individualistic issue. Shelters generally have a rule that pet parents should wait until an animal is at least 2 months old and at least 2 lbs. This is a very young, very small animal, but shelters just can’t hold pets until they are 6 months old to spay. There’s simply no room. In very young pets, we worry about keeping them safe and healthy under anesthesia during surgery.

The same goes for older pets, too. Surgery always carries a risk, and for older dogs whose health may be compromised, the risk is slightly greater. That said, I’d still rather spay an old dog who is relatively healthy than have to deal with an old dog who has to be spayed on an emergency basis because she has developed a uterine infection (which is very common, by the way).

How much does it cost to spay a dog or cat?

Costs for spaying and neutering will vary from region to region, from under $50 to a few hundred dollars, and will depend on whether the surgery is performed at a low-cost spay clinic or animal shelter or at a regular veterinary clinic.

What are the risks of spaying or neutering?

Any surgery carries risks, even a routine one like spaying or neutering. But, the chances of experiencing complications in healthy animals are very small. While pet insurance does not cover the spaying or neutering procedure itself (since it is not an unexpected injury or illness), but if there are health complications that arise as a result of the procedure, those complications may be eligible for coverage. 

Some common examples of complications resulting from spay/neuter**:

  • Seroma (fluid accumulation at the incision site) 
  • Pain 
  • Swelling of the incision 
  • Mild bleeding or hemorrhage 
  • Dehiscence (opening of the incision) 
  • Infection

One last note about spayed dogs: they are more likely to develop urinary incontinence later in life. This has nothing to do with the age at which they were spayed, as previously thought, but the chances of hormone-responsive incontinence are higher in spayed females than in intact females. Generally, the condition responds very well to medication and does not pose a serious health threat.

To make a very long story short, having your pet spayed or neutered should be a question of WHEN, not IF. The best age to have your pet spayed or neutered depends heavily on your pet’s size, breed and lifestyle. Talk to your veterinarian to determine the best time for your family, and then follow through. 

*American Veterinary Medical Association. https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/spay-neuter.aspx

**Bushby, Philip A. “Preventing and Managing Spay/Neuter Complications (Proceedings).” DVM 360, 2010.

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