Can you spay or neuter an older dog? While these procedures are commonly performed early in a dog's life, spaying or neutering an older dog is a common practice, too. Though spaying or neutering an older dog has side effects, sometimes it's used to treat or prevent illness.
Take the story of Waldo, an 11-year-old Golden Retriever, for example. I enjoy seeing my puppy patients grow up and mature as they age. As they reach the “golden oldie” years (usually over the age of 7), I go on higher alert during exams to be sure that I catch any health concerns early, before they become serious problems.
It was with this mindset that I examined Waldo. I could still remember his first puppy visit. Back then, he was a little golden ball of fluff rolling excitedly around my exam room floor and play-nipping at me as I tried to examine him. But on this present visit I was concerned, to say the least, when I palpated a thickened area associated with his right testicle.
On closer questioning, his parent said that Waldo had been asking to go outside to urinate more frequently, straining some and creating smaller urine pools than normal. The family thought these were just normal changes from aging and weren’t concerned. In fact, they hadn’t even thought to mention them until I asked.
I was certainly concerned about these changes, and the worry of both testicular cancer and prostatic disease crossed my mind. “We really should do a little more testing to determine what the significance of these findings are,” I explained to the parent. We got Waldo checked in as an outpatient.
The Benefits of Spaying and Neutering an Older Dog
Spaying and neutering dogs isn’t just about population control, and it isn’t something just done to puppies, either. Many people are not aware that when spaying or neutering is done before disease develops, these surgeries can prevent several forms of cancers as well as pyometras (uterine infections), prostatic disease, prostatic enlargement and a variety of different behavior problems.
Although veterinarians usually prefer to spay and neuter dogs when they are young, neutering or spaying older dogs, or any age dog for that matter, can be done with some careful planning. The benefits for senior dogs differ from those experienced by puppies, but many good reasons exist for doing it, including to prevent some cancers and infection. Unfortunately, I have also had to perform these surgeries on senior dogs on an emergency basis after a health problem has emerged.
Spaying or Neutering an Older Dog: The Surgery Process
What happens to the senior dog after admission for an elective spay or neuter? First, a veterinary technician checks over the history of the patient and takes the vital signs prior to any procedures or medications. Older patients routinely should have a blood panel done prior to surgery to look for underlying problems that may affect either the animal’s ability to metabolize anesthesia or to properly clot his blood during the procedure. Generally, this blood sample is drawn and processed by the veterinary technician shortly prior to surgery.
At this point, the veterinarian closely examines the dog to ensure everything appears normal. If the lab work and exam are both satisfactory, at this point the dog usually receives a pre-operative sedative.
In my practice, we administer something called “balanced anesthesia.” This is a combination of very small doses of multiple different medications. The approach helps us obtain all of the advantages of these drugs without the side effects that might be involved at higher doses. It is a very safe way to get the job done comfortably and with a minimum of unwanted adverse effects.
Once the dog is thoroughly sedated, an area is shaved on a foreleg and prepared for an IV catheter. This catheter allows the veterinarian to administer fluids to help maintain blood pressure, administer additional sedatives and anesthetics as needed, and allow immediate venous access if an emergency occurs. Although we like to place catheters in all of our surgical patients, they are critical in senior patients, who tend to have a slightly harder time maintaining their blood pressure while sleeping. These IV fluids also help to “flush” the drugs through the system and into the urine.
The now happily snoozing dog will have a breathing tube (also known as an endotracheal tube) placed through the oral cavity and into the windpipe. This allows the veterinarian to administer a continuous flow of oxygen to the patient, but also allows the delivery of gas anesthetics, which may be required during the procedure at varying amounts. Using the breathing tube, the veterinary team can fine-tune the plane of anesthesia (how deep or how light the patient sleeps). The patient is now prepped for surgery. The girls are shaved between the end of the rib cage and the pelvic bone; and the boys are shaved in the area from the penis to the scrotum. The shaved spot is cleaned with an antiseptic, and the patient is moved into the surgical suite.
For spaying older dogs, the veterinarian removes the ovaries and the uterus through a single incision near the dog’s belly button. For neutering an older dog, both testicles are removed through a single incision located between the base of the penis and the scrotum. Most veterinarians use a dissolving suture so there is no need to have sutures removed post-operatively. If something unusual or unexpected is discovered during surgery (for example, a tumor that was not diagnosed until the time of surgery), the incision may be larger than usual, and skin sutures or staples may be needed.
Spaying or Neutering an Older Dog: Side Effects
After spaying or neutering an older dog, side effects are usually minimal. Post-operative care is critical for the senior dog. Much like older humans, hospital stays and surgeries take a little more toll on them than they do on younger dogs. A senior dog recovering from a surgery likely needs extra TLC, including perhaps a little extra help on the stairs as well as some coaxing to eat.
Within 10 to 14 days, they should be completely recovered and nearly back to their pre-operative state. Parents must enforce their rest period for the first few weeks, however, because a dog who is too active post-operatively can experience a number of complications and delay of healing.
Another way parents can help with the healing process is by giving their dog all medications as directed by the veterinarian. Prescription pain medications help ease any post-operative discomfort in the first few days following surgery. Even if a dog appears to be pain-free, the medication should be given as directed–it is much easier to prevent pain than to treat it! Other medications, such as antibiotics, may also be dispensed if a veterinarian has some concerns based on the pet’s medical particulars.
Although it is a little more complicated to perform a major procedure on a senior dog, it is routinely done safely with a little pre-planning and care. If you have this done for your senior dog, you can rest easy knowing that your “golden oldie” now has a significantly reduced chance of developing conditions that may require an emergency surgery, which is always a much riskier prospect in a senior animal.
Circling back to risks and surgery, our initial patient, Waldo, was indeed diagnosed with an early-stage testicular cancer as well as enlargement of the prostate. Because we were able to catch it early, he successfully underwent a neutering procedure; the cancer has not metastasized, and several years later he still lives a very comfortable and active life. So yes, you can neuter an older dog—with a happy and healthy outcome!