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

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Spaying your puppy may change her personality for the better.

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

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

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

–Evelyn PetersenTopeka,

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 vetsumsremoving itsurgically, but I am
afraid of the fate.
Is it safe for

–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

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

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).