I think I’ve finally figured out what has been bothering me so much about the book Pukka’s Promise. The author researched a lot of issues around the health and training of dogs to try to find what is the healthiest for dogs. When I was reading it my brain kept yelling, “Yes, but…”
The veterinarians interviewed were either in academia or in holistic practice. The clients they see are a special breed. I’d love to be in a purely holistic practice but that’s not the world I live in. The results that these veterinarians are seeing are possible because of the passion and dedication of the owners that choose to come to those practices.
I’m not saying my clients don’t love their dogs but many aren’t as observant as may be ideal. In the section in the book on spaying and neutering, it recommends against spaying most dogs. It says that spaying shouldn’t be recommended as a prevention against mammary cancer because mammary cancer is curable. In fact it says that dogs don’t die of mammary cancer.
In my practice I see a lot of first time clients bring in a dog for a lump on the abdomen. There are 2 scenarios.
- If it is a long haired dog or a big dog, they just noticed it when it started to bleed. Mammary tumors eventually ulcerate. The only treatment is surgical removal. The last one of these that I saw was 8 inches in diameter and the owner hadn’t seen it before it started to ooze.
- Smaller dogs tend to have had the lump for a long time and “it wasn’t bothering her.” These can also be huge relative to the size of the dog.
All I can do is get them on antibiotics for the infection and get them to a hospital that can remove the mass. When the owners see the cost of the surgery, most of these dogs are euthanized. Sure, they didn’t die of cancer strictly speaking, but they died as a result of getting a tumor. When I’m seeing dogs routinely I check for mammary masses at every visit. As soon as I see one I recommend removal. I tell the stories about how they grow and spread. I’ve had people refuse for years until it suddenly starts growing rapidly. Some people won’t believe until it is an emergency.
We know that spaying a dog before her first heat cycle decreases the risk of mammary cancer by over 90%.
The other reason we recommend spaying is because of pyometra, which is an infected uterus. These dogs can get septic quickly. Again, the book says they rarely die. I’ve seen them die. The signs of pyometra can be very vague. The owner may not bring them in until they are very sick and the vet may not figure out what is going on until it is late. This is an emergency surgery. It is expensive. For some people that is not an option.
My favorite was the comment in the book from the vet who had never seen an accidental pregnancy in her practice of mainly unspayed dogs. Seriously? I’d love to have that group of responsible pet owners but I see accidental pregnancies all the time. Dogs are crafty. They get loose when they want to. They bolt out doors. They tear down doors.
There are problems with spaying dogs. The biggest one we see is incontinence when laying down. It is from a lack of estrogen. It can be controlled with medication but that isn’t ideal. I don’t have hard numbers but I feel like I see about equal numbers of incontinence dogs and mammary tumor dogs.
Spayed dogs also have slower metabolisms and gain weight easily.
My ideal situation would be to remove the uterus of dogs to eliminate the risk of pyometra and pregnancy. I would leave the ovaries in if this was an owner who was willing to monitor diligently for tumors and have any masses removed immediately. As a vet who hated doing spays more than anything in the entire universe, I would have loved that because getting the ovaries out is the most frustrating part of the surgery. That type of surgery isn’t done much and I’ve never seen any discussion of how it works out over the life of dogs. I wish someone would do that research so we could say for sure “Here are the benefits, here are the downsides.”