If you don't plan to breed your dog — and you shouldn't, unless you have a superb example of the breed whose characteristics would improve the gene pool — you have two options for preventing puppies. The first is abstinence. This requires a high level of responsibility and maturity on your part, because it's a sure thing that your dog isn't going to show any restraint when it comes to satisfying those reproductive urges. You'll need to make sure your female is securely confined during estrus (heat). This is trickier than it sounds, because she will make every effort to escape in search of male companionship — and every male for miles around will be trying to get to her as well. And, of course, you'll need to make sure your male doesn't have any opportunity to impregnate the local females.
Spay/neuter surgery can be safely performed as early as six weeks of age. It is often done this early on puppies adopted from animal shelters. Animals this young don't require as much anesthesia as older puppies or adult dogs, and they recover rapidly from surgery.
The second option is spay or neuter surgery. Spay surgery, or ovariohysterectomy, is the removal of the female's uterus and ovaries. Neutering is the removal of the male's testicles, to prevent the production of sperm. Traditionally, spay/neuter surgery is performed just at or before the onset of puberty. Many veterinarians like to schedule spay/neuter surgery at four or five months of age, when puppy vaccinations have been completed.
Benefits of Spay/Neuter Surgery
Besides its main purpose of birth control, spay/neuter surgery has health benefits. Females that are spayed before their first estrus cycle are much less likely to develop breast cancer later in life than females spayed after one or more cycles. They are also spared the risk of developing ovarian cysts or uterine infections. Neutered males have no risk of testicular cancer and are at reduced risk for prostate enlargement and perianal adenomas, which are tumors of glands found around the anus. Dogs that are spayed or neutered are also more likely to get along better with other dogs and less likely to roam (unless they are scent hounds, in which case they are genetically programmed to follow tantalizing scents).
What You Need to Know
Before surgery, the veterinarian may recommend running a blood panel to make sure your dog is in good health. If your dog is young and has no known health problems, the only blood work will mostly likely be a simple test for blood urea nitrogen (BUN) levels, total blood protein, and a hematocrit, which is the ratio of packed red blood cells to whole blood. An aging dog or one that's not in tip-top health may need more extensive blood work.
Emergencies such as a reaction to anesthesia or a change in heart rate are rare. Thanks to improvements in anesthesia and monitoring equipment, veterinary surgery is very safe.
During surgery, the veterinarian or a staff member should monitor your dog's breathing and heart rate. Ask if they take the precaution of placing an IV catheter in a vein. This safety measure allows drugs to be injected quickly in the event of an emergency.
You'll also want to make sure the veterinarian provides your dog with pain-relief drugs before, during, and after surgery. The use of these drugs ensures that your dog suffers as little pain as possible and recovers more quickly. Some veterinarians don't believe pain relief is necessary for routine surgeries such as a spay or neuter procedure, but more progressive veterinarians know that a dog who's given pain relief will rest better and be at less risk of tearing an incision. (See Chapter 10 for more on medicating for pain.)
During the first few days after surgery your dog may be tired and a little sore, even with pain medication. Other dogs are as frisky as ever, running around and bouncing off the walls. Whether your dog feels well or not, it's important to keep him as still as possible. Rest will help the incision heal more quickly. You can limit activity by keeping your dog on leash or confining him to a crate.
To keep your dog from licking or biting at her stitches, you may need to use what's known as an Elizabethan collar. This plastic, cone-shaped collar (which resembles a lampshade) fits around your dog's neck, preventing her from reaching the sutured area. The drawback is that dogs hate wearing these collars and will shake their heads frequently in vain attempts to remove them. They may also be more likely to run into furniture while wearing the collar.
Some swelling at the incision site is normal, especially if the veterinarian uses absorbable sutures. Depending on the type of suture, swelling may last for six to eight weeks. This swelling may be more noticeable on a dog with thin, delicate skin. Redness, obvious inflammation, or any discharge (other than a little pinkish stuff the first day or so) are signs of possible infection, and your veterinarian should take a look.