Here I am on my soapbox again. If you own an unspayed female dog, read on: A three-year-old female dog was recently presented to me, flat out and unresponsive. According to the owner she had been “in heat” for the past two months and, although she had slowed down and lost her appetite, she was doing fine until yesterday. We immediately admitted her, placed an IV catheter and started fluids, and began a diagnostic blood workup. However, in spite of our attempts, within an hour of her arrival she went into respiratory and cardiac arrest and died with no response to our efforts at resuscitation.
So what happened? Why did this young dog get so sick and why did she die? The simple answer is: because the dog never got spayed. She was suffering from a condition called pyometra. It’s not common but we see it far too often. The result of a hormone problem within the reproductive system, it often appears to start with an apparently normal heat cycle that has gone awry. In a nutshell, the dog goes into heat, the hormones within the ovaries and brain that control the heat cycle get out of control, and there is a collection of pus, sometimes due to infection and sometimes not, within the uterus. If the cervix closes down, the pus has nowhere to go so it accumulates within the uterus and the uterus enlarges. As the uterus distends, sometimes the body is fooled into thinking it is pregnant and all of the mechanisms of pregnancy kick in. When the time finally comes for the anticipated “birth” of the puppies or kittens, the cervix opens up and, to the owner’s surprise, instead of puppies or kittens the accumulated pus is discharged. While this pus is collecting within the uterus, the patient is susceptible to a number of potential complications such as septicemia (blood poisoning), kidney damage, or infection of other organs. The dog that we hospitalized was suffering from severe septic shock and her condition was just too advanced when we got to it. The “two months” of being “in heat” described by the owner was probably, mostly if not all, the draining of this pus discharge from the infected uterus, and the dog’s body was continuously exposed to that infection during most of that period. Sometimes in these cases when we dig deeper the owner will mention that the dog has had a history of irregular or nonexistent heat cycles. The hormones have been messed up for ages.
There was no reason for this young dog to have died. It was entirely avoidable. The simple act of getting her surgically spayed early in her life would have saved her life. We see this scenario and variations of it far too often. The unspayed dog (or sometimes even a cat) has been in heat recently and starts acting a little “off.” Sometimes we’re lucky to have even that much to go on. There may be no visible signs at all. In some cases the dog starts to leak small (or occasionally large) amounts of dark, bloody fluid from the vaginal canal. This bloody discharge leads the owner to think that she is still (or back) in heat. At times, when the condition mimics pregnancy and the dog’s belly swells up, the owner will present the dog as a “pregnant” dog that has been acting sick. There may even be milk present in the mammary glands. Fortunately, most of the time these pyometra dogs don’t die. But they often still end up requiring a costly emergency lifesaving surgical procedure that could have and should have been avoided by simply taking routine preventative action. Although the end result of the surgery is the same as a routine spay, the procedure itself is far more involved and far more critical – translate that to far more expensive – than a routine preventative spay. And, although this patient that I couldn’t save was only three years old, keep in mind that usually these pyometra cases are seen in much older pets – sometimes ten years of age or older. That makes the decision to spend often a thousand dollars or more to save her life that much more daunting. The risk is greater, the cost is greater, for those who are looking at a cost-benefit comparison the expected remaining lifespan is less – there’s a lot on the line.
Why not avoid the entire scenario? The bottom line is that there are much more significant reasons to get your pet spayed at an early age than simply prevention of unwanted puppies or kittens. Pyometra, along with ovarian and uterine cancer and other uterine and ovarian pathologies, can be entirely eliminated as potential health issues in the spayed pet. If you have chosen not to spay your pet, watch for irregular or nonexistent heat cycles. Take it as a warning sign that something bad may be looming.
So next time your veterinarian talks about getting your dog or cat spayed, or you see or hear one of those ads to “Help Avoid Unwanted Puppies and Kittens – Spay or Neuter Your Pet”, instead of “help avoid unwanted puppies and kittens…” think “Help Save Your Pet’s Life, Help Avoid a Very Expensive and Dangerous Health Problem.” Get your pet spayed.