To Spay or Not to Spay? The Pros and Cons Are Worth Weighing.

Not spaying your dog leaves her more susceptible to serious conditions.

Female dogs not spayed before 2 seasons have a 1-in-4 risk of developing breast cancer. By: rhaarmans

Do you worry about whether or not to spay your female dog?

Quite rightly, responsible folks worry about what to do when it comes to spaying. On the one hand, there is a chance of urinary incontinence in later life. On the other, there is the inconvenience of her coming into heat every 6 months — plus the risk of unwanted pregnancy.

Some information also suggests that spaying large breed dogs, such as Dobermans or rottweilers, before they have finished growing causes a slightly increased risk of an aggressive bone cancer called osteosarcoma.

However, when weighing the pros and cons of surgery, as everyone should, you shouldn’t forget the adage that “common things are common.” This is never truer than with the entire female dog and a 1-in-4 risk of developing breast cancer.

Yesterday brought the “for” and “against” arguments for spaying into sharp focus when I had 2 very different cases in the same morning.

Lola and Her Wet Bed

The first case was a spaniel brought in for a free flea check.

Lola was a typical happy, waggy spaniel with a special way of using her cuteness to get the treats out of your hands. Her human mentioned that recently Lola had wet her bed at night and wondered if it was time she went onto the “little white pills” her friend’s dog took for incontinence.

From the history, it sounded like urinary incontinence — plus Lola had been spayed and was the right age. It’s not uncommon for an older female dog to suffer from USMI (urinary sphincter mechanism incompetence). This is triggered by low estrogen levels. The valve at the exit to the bladder lacks tone, and urine leaks out when the dog is deeply asleep.

The risk of urinary incontinence is a common reason people give for not getting their dog spayed. In truth, while this problem is unpleasant, it can be treated with the dog equivalent of HRT to tighten up the bladder valve.

I asked Lola’s mom to drop in a urine sample for analysis, and bingo — an unexpected finding. Lola’s urine was very weak. In fact, it was barely concentrated at all.

This could either be the result of Lola drinking excessively or mean that her kidneys have a problem concentrating her urine.

The upshot was that Lola is now booked for blood tests, and being spayed is a red herring. Let’s hope the tests pinpoint a problem that can be treated so Lola has a dry bed again. But even if she did have a true urinary incontinence as a result of having been spayed, those “little white pills” could get her back into dry habits.

Contrast this with my next case, a dog booked for surgery…

Unspayed dogs also risk developing pyometra, a dangerous infection in the womb. By: dfletcher

Another Lump

The next case was an 8-year-old black Lab — another happy, waggy dog.

Pebbles was due to have a lump in her breast area removed, along with the related chain of mammary glands.

A mastectomy in a dog is no light undertaking. To be sure it was fair to put Pebbles through big surgery, I X-rayed her chest because some mammary tumors are aggressive and liable to spread to other parts of the body, of which the lungs are a prime spot.

Unfortunately, radiographs of Pebbles’ chest showed a secondary lump the size of a tennis ball in her lungs. This sad game of consequences ultimately came about because Pebbles hadn’t been spayed. Female dogs who have 2 seasons or more stand a 1-in-4 risk of developing breast cancer.

In Pebbles’ case, she had developed an aggressive form that would shorten her life.

Additional Risk

A dog with her womb intact may develop a pyometra in later life.

This is a condition where the womb lining weakens and becomes infected, filling with pus. In turn, this causes blood poisoning — which leads to organ failure and death. The treatment is surgical removal of the infected womb, which can be risky in a sick dog.

Ultimately, you must decide what’s best for your dog. But know that some outcomes have a better outlook than others, and common things are common.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed July 29, 2016.

Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS

View posts by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS
Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, is a veterinarian with nearly 30 years of experience in companion animal practice. Dr. Elliott earned her Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow. She was also designated a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Married with 2 grown-up kids, Dr. Elliott has a naughty puggle called Poggle, 3 cats, and a bearded dragon.

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