Pet Care: Benefits of Spaying Dogs, Safety of Anesthesia, Cats with Extra Toes

Myths and benefits of spaying dogs, the safety of anesthetics for pets, and cats with extra toes.


Spaying your puppy may change her personality for the better.


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I was on emergency duty recently and responded to a client who came running through our doors, bathed in tears and desperately clutching her 14-year-old hyperthyroid cat in a red towel. Boo-Boo, a gentle yet antiquated calico, had somehow struggled up underneath the hood of the neighbor's car, straddled the fan belt, and nearly met her death the next morning when the engine turned over.

The owner, Ms. X, was frantic, and with good reason. Boo-Boo was a disaster. In shock and dehydrated, she had a severe heart murmur—worsened by her hyperthyroid condition and two large gashes on her hind legs and chest from the nasty fan belt. The night was already late. The financial situation of the owner was grim at best. I couldn't help but wonder why only my emergency nights seemed plagued by "full-moon" near-fatalities such as this one.

I sent Ms. X home with the notion that somehow we'd devise a payment plan if and when the little cat made it through the night. She unwillingly left, still crying, clutching her purse, and mumbling to herself something about nine lives.

I wandered back to the intensive-care unit to commence the massive cleanup effort of Boo-Boo's wounds, started her on intravenous-fluid therapy, and stabilized her heart condition. It wasn't until 1 A.M. that the last of 47 sutures was placed in her legs, the anesthesia was turned off, and I left to get a few hours of sleep.

At 7 A.M. the next morning, much to everyone's satisfaction, Boo-Boo was bright and alert, though still a bit shocked and pained. She had made it through the worst part of the trauma.

Over the next three days, her condition improved enough so that she was able to return home under strict house confinement, medication, and tender loving care. Her owner was ecstatic, and I ended up waiving the emergency fee and surgery cost, charging only for hospital boarding. I'm not sure if this was due to the good Samaritan in me or the fact that I had forgotten to log the fees in the computer due to late-night drowsiness. Either way, it was one more happy ending.

But the experience left me thinking. Too many pet owners I've spoken with believe that veterinarians enjoy sinking their hooks into patients. They are convinced that veterinarians force them into unnecessary payment traps or perform emergency care just to bring in extra income. I tell the Boo-Boo story simply to convey the thought that veterinary medicine is probably one of the biggest bargains you can obtain these days. I come to believe this more and more as I progress in my career, and hope it's a thought you can also share, albeit under different circumstances than a late-night fan-belt mishap.

Anyway, I'll stop lecturing and wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving. If you have any questions about the dog who got into too many turkey table scraps after the great dinner, or the cat who ate someone's Halloween candy, I'd be happy to answer them. In the meantime, do me a small favor: Keep your car hoods closed.

Dear Andrea,  

We purchased a five-month-old bulldog recently and are interested in having her spayed. My husband believes that it's wrong to deprive an animal of the natural right to reproduce and that spaying will change our pup's personality. Can you give us some insight on these questions?  

—Evelyn Petersen Topeka, Kansas  

Dear Evelyn,

There seem to be many old wives' tales about whether to let a pet breed or not.

Many of these myths seem to be surrounded by our ability to anthropomorphize our pets; in other words, why would we want to deprive our pup of the chance to bear offspring when we wouldn't do that to ourselves? Actually, though, when you consider the medical and behavioral advantages—as well as the social and humane issues involved—spaying and neutering may be one of the kindest things we can do.

By spaying a female animal (removing her reproductive tract), we do deprive her of the ability to bear young. But unlike humans, most of an animal's sense to mate and breed is initiated by internal or physiological mechanisms and has very little to do with matters of the heart. To carry this even further, consider the actions of planned breeding and artificial insemination. Using these techniques, owners, breeders, and animal-show workers breed animals in an attempt to optimize certain qualities of specific breeds, often for their own purposes and sometimes with severe medical consequences.

As for changing your pet's personality, your husband is probably correct in thinking this will happen. But it's often in your favor. Without the necessary organs to reproduce, animals usually don't produce those key hormones—estrogen and testosterone—that initiate mating behavior in the adult pet.

We're all aware of the events that surround "in-season" times: roaming, fighting for mates, aggressivity, personality changes, etc. Chances are, you will benefit from any psychological or social changes that might result from the surgery, because your pet will probably not engage in roaming (possibly into someone else's territory or worse yet, traffic) or fighting over potential mates. She is also likely to have a more stable temperament.

The surgical procedure referred to as spaying ("neutering" is usually reserved for male animals) is medically termed an ovariohysterectomy. The animal is anesthetized and the ovaries, uterine horns, and uterine body of the female's genital tract are removed under sterile conditions.

The most common reason for spaying is to eliminate the possibilities of unwanted kittens or puppies, and to obtain a certificate of sterilization for licensing. In addition, by spaying before the animal's first heat (or estrus), dogs will have 1/12 the incidence of breast cancer of those spayed after their first heat cycle. Dogs spayed after their first heat cycle (but usually under two to three years of age) also have a lower incidence of mammary tumors than those that aren't spayed at all.

So by spaying your pup, you're actual ly giving her preventive care for her adult life. If this is done prior to her first estrus cycle—outside of eliminating the possibility of uterine infections and uterine or ovarian cancer—you're also decreasing her chances of developing mammary cancer.

Most vets agree it's best to neuter or spay a puppy at five to six months of age. Current research in veterinary anesthesia and surgery, however, is examining the possibility that these "elective surgeries" can be performed earlier in the animal's life (eight to 12 weeks of age) in an effort to help control animal overpopulation and reduce the leading cause of death in animals - euthanasia (putting an animal to sleep).

Dear Andrea,  

I own a 13-year-old dalmation,Roscoe, who has a small tumor onhis toe. My vet sumsremoving it surgically, but I am afraid of the fate. Is it safe for Roscoe?  

—Peter Davidson
Vineland, New Jersey

Dear Peter,

Using anesthesia on an older dog can be challenging but is a relatively safe procedure if necessary precautions are taken. Any geriatric patient, canine or feline, is likely to have more disease than a young patient, as well as less "reserve;" or ability of the body systems to handle the stress of disease, hospitalization, anesthesia, and surgery.

Thus, the primary goals of treating any geriatric patient under anesthesia are to minimize stress by keeping anesthesia time to a minimum, using drugs that produce minimal cardiopulmonary depression, maintaining adequate kidney function, and monitoring constantly and closely. Most modern veterinary hospitals are equipped with adequate cardiac and respiratory monitoring devices to ensure that precautions are taken and patients under anesthesia stay within a "safe zone."

One of the best precautions you can take is to maintain a basic wellness plan. This involves keeping Roscoe's vaccinations up-to-date, having him undergo yearly physical exams and parasite checks, and possibly even doing a presurgical blood screening and complete blood-cell count. (These are often performed annually in geriatric animals as part of a routine health-care screen.)

This would allow your vet to choose suitable anesthetic drugs and ensure that Roscoe's liver and kidneys are working adequately to clear them out. In addition, some simple blood tests may flag other health problems—including metabolic, endocrine, cardiac, liver, and kidney troubles—that should be addressed prior to the surgery. Some vets even suggest preanesthetic electrocardiograms or radiographs (x-rays) to evaluate their patients more thoroughly.

Particularly important, especially for Roscoe's breed, is an evaluation of his urinary tract (kidneys and bladder) before surgery. Dalmations are often predisposed to urinary calculi (stone) formation. The urinary tract is very important in clearing any drugs, let alone anesthetic agents, from the bloodstream, so make sure that his kidneys are in good shape prior to surgery. Your vet might suggest a complete urinalysis and/or ultrasound of Roscoe's abdomen.

Local anesthesia or nerve blocks are an option to remove a simple skin tumor from Roscoe's toe. However, if the mass is firmly adherent to any underlying tissues (which is usually the case), it's probably safer to reduce his stress and pain completely with the use of general anesthesia.

In response to the increased number of animals that we consider "geriatrics," modern veterinary medicine has developed some of the finest techniques in anesthesia and analgesia (pain relief) for making surgical procedures safer. Should you take these precautions, the age of your pets no longer becomes the determining factor for avoiding the surgery. Consider what one of my favorite mentors has been quoted as saying, "Age is never a disease; don't make it one!"

Dear Andrea,  

We just obtained a kitten who has a few additional toes. Are there any problems with these? Should we consider declawing her?  

—Judy Preston
Orange County, CA

Dear Judy,

Most cats have five toes on each of their front feet and four on each hind foot. Polydactyly—the presence of one or more extra digits (or toes)—is commonly present at birth in pigs and cats and is extremely common in cats from northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. In certain breeds of cats, a double-pawed condition sometimes appears.

There are a few problems with extra or supernumerary toes. Often, the toes that are duplicated are the first or innermost toes, with respect to our thumbs. These toes, which do not contact the ground, are known as dewclaws. With little or no ground or surface contact, the nails tend to overgrow; if not clipped regularly, they usually grow into the pads or skin, causing great discomfort.

Also, these extra toes are usually extremely mobile because they have less connective tissue attachments (bones and ligaments) to the foot than their normal counterparts. Therefore, they often catch on rugged surfaces, or are pulled and torn by carpeting. Cats have less of a problem with these extra toes than do dogs, because most cats and kittens are more agile and have better balance.

I would not suggest declawing any cat unless it was an alternative to euthanasia or giving it up. In fact, I believe that if more owners knew the logistics of the surgery, they might be more reluctant to have their pets go through with it. Declawing is a misnomer. A more accurate term might be "de-toeing" because the procedure actually involves the amputation or removal of the outermost bone of each of the toes. This is a painful procedure, as is any amputation, and most vets who perform the surgery provide cats with a balanced anesthesia regime that includes pain relief or analgesia first and foremost. The surgery, if need be performed, is best accomplished early in the kitten's life (six to eight months of age), when the connective tissue is more easily severed, and recovery is often speedier. Declawing is usually performed only on indoor or well-protected cats that have little need to defend themselves, and it is normally necessary to declaw only the front feet.

Many people declaw cats to prevent damage to furniture and injury to owners, but there are alternatives: behavior modification (training the cat not to scratch), capping the nails with synthetic covers, or even alternate surgical procedures that sever the tendons involved in flexing the toes (which some believe is less drastic).