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Arguably the most important vet visit for your pet will be for spaying (females) or neutering (males), often referred to as desexing in Australia. The technique for desexing your cat can vary between different vets and clinics, so I will talk to you about my thoughts and experiences because that’s what I know. However I strongly recommend that you openly discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your local vet as they apply to your individual situation. For any vets reading this, I would also encourage you to share your experiences and agree/disagree so readers get a sense of the variation they may encounter.
What is a Spaying or Neutering Operation?
The desexing operation involves removing the reproductive organs of your pet to prevent them breeding in the future. In females, this involves removal of both ovaries and the uterine body (ovariohysterectomy). In males, both testicles are removed (orchidectomy). Because the testicles are located outside the body wall in dogs and cats, neutering or castration is less technically demanding and probably doesn’t hurt as much post-operatively as the spay procedure.
What Can I Expect When my Cat is Desexed?
The Night Before
Your pet should be fasted for approximately 12 hours before the operation. This is to reduce the risk of vomiting and inhaling the vomit during the operation and recovery, which can have serious complications. It is usually recommended to provide water overnight, since we want to avoid dehydration before surgery.
The Morning Of
You will probably be asked to bring your cat in early in the morning for admission. You will likely need to fill out some forms and may be asked about extra procedures such as microchipping and pre-anaesthetic bloodwork. If your cat hasn’t yet been microchipped this is a great opportunity to get it done when they won’t feel the needle.
Pre-anaesthetic bloodwork may or may not be performed or recommended, depending on the clinic. Chances are your kitten is happy and healthy, but we can only tell so much based on an external examination. There are some conditions that can occur during development that aren’t obvious in the first few months of life, such as certain liver and kidney diseases. These conditions can cause major complications with an anaesthetic, since most drugs are metabolised through either the liver or the kidneys. So it is always reassuring to know that these are in good working order, via a blood test, before administering anaesthetic drugs.
Before the Operation
Before the operation your cat should receive a full check-up to ensure they are not dehydrated, they have a normal temperature and that their heart and lungs sound clear.
They may then have an intravenous (into the vein, IV) catheter placed. A small patch of hair is clipped, usually over a front leg, and the catheter is inserted into the vein and secured in place. This is why your cat may have a bald patch or bandage on its front leg when it returns home. An IV catheter allows for the administration of drugs and fluids throughout the procedure and is also good preparation in case of an emergency during the anaesthetic.
IV fluids help to maintain blood pressure throughout the procedure, since the drugs used generally decrease blood pressure, which is further exacerbated by any blood loss that may occur. Fluids also help to flush out the anaesthetic drugs through the kidneys, leading to a faster recovery. Because neutering, particularly of cats, is generally a very short procedure (5-15 minutes), your vet may or may not give IV fluids. This may be optional (recommended), automatically included or not done at all depending on the vet clinic, so speak to your vet to find out more.
Finally your pet should receive a premedication: usually a combination of a sedative and pain relief. This reduces the dose of anaesthetic drugs required, reduces anxiety for your cat and provides for a smoother anaesthetic and recovery.
The Desexing Surgery
The surgery begins with the administration of anaesthetic drugs. There are many different drugs available and the choice depends very much on your vet. Once your cat is asleep, a breathing tube may be placed through the mouth into the airway to ensure there is no risk of suffocation. Again, this is often not done for male cats because the procedure is so fast. Female cats are often given oxygen and inhaled anaesthetic drugs through this tube during the procedure and ideally are placed on a heat mat to keep them warm.
The surgical area, either around the scrotum in a male or the belly for females, is shaved and cleaned with animal-safe antiseptic to prevent hair and dirt contaminating the surgical area. During this time the vet will be ‘scrubbing up’, thoroughly scrubbing their hands with an antiseptic soap to prevent infection. Once everything is clean, the surgery is performed.
For male cats, this involves two incisions over the scrotum to remove the testicles and is different from the technique used for dogs. For females, an incision is made along the middle of the belly or alternatively through the flank, and is essentially the same method used for dogs. The uterus and ovaries are isolated and tied off with dissolvable suture material to seal off any blood vessels before being removed. The incision through the belly is closed with one or two layers of dissolvable suture material and the skin is closed with either internal dissolvable or external non-dissolvable sutures. You may be able to feel the internal suture layers as a bumpy hard ridge through your cat’s skin for 4-8 weeks after surgery while they dissolve.
After the surgery, it will take a little bit of time for the anaesthetic drugs to wear off. This depends on many different factors like your cat’s metabolism, fat content and temperature, what drugs were used, whether fluids were given etc. During this time, your cat will be kept warm and quiet and should be checked regularly for any signs of complications e.g. bleeding, pain, cold. If a breathing tube was placed, this is removed once your cat can swallow on their own. Extra pain relief is also often given at this time.
Gradually the drugs will wear off and your cat will start to lift its head, have a look around and eventually walk around and have something to eat. If they look like they are chewing at their stitches (females), they will get a cone of shame – much better than ripping the stitches out and needing another surgery or getting infected! Within a couple of hours, they are almost back to normal and usually ready to go home.
The speed of recovery varies a lot between individual animals. However generally cats are back to normal by the time they go home. They may be a bit groggy that night so keep them warm and quiet (and indoors) but I am often told that by the next morning they are running around again like nothing happened! They can have food and water at home, although they may feel a bit sick from the anaesthetic and may vomit so a small meal is advised.
Most vets would say that recovery is complete in one to two weeks. If external sutures were placed (females) then these are usually removed at 10 to 14 days. This also gives the vet or vet nurse a chance to check the wound and make sure everything is healing well. During this time, it is best to keep your cat inside so you can closely observe if anything is not right. Don’t disturb the wound too much but if you notice any redness, heat, pain, swelling or discharge from the incision, it is worth getting this checked by your vet. If your cat is bothering the wound, make sure you get a cone of shame to avoid serious complications. If your cat seems unwell, is off their food, vomiting, lethargic or not toileting properly it is also best to get them checked over.
It is usually unnecessary to go home with antibiotics after desexing so long as the surgery was performed in a sterile manner and your cat doesn’t have a weakened immune system. Additional pain relief may be provided depending on your vet. Do your best to keep them quiet during this time since excessive activity can irritate around the sutures and lead to swelling. If you have any concerns, contact your vet.
In no time, your cat should be feeling fine again and you are doing your part to help reduce pet overpopulation. Far too many healthy animals are put to sleep each year because there are not enough homes for them all, not to mention the damage to the environment that feral animals cause.
By getting your cat desexed, you are making a difference and being a responsible pet owner. So spread the word – happy World Spay Day!
Images: Chika Watanabe / Surface Warriors / 123Batfink / adrigu via Flickr
Layla Morgan Wilde (Cat Wisdom 101) says
Good and much needed info. I’m curious how desexing as a term came into use rather than spay/neuter?
Dr Robyn says
Desexing is the term commonly used in Australia. I realise this contrasts dramatically with the USA but force of habit. I find it easier to use as a collective term when referring to both male and female animals, rather than specifying spay/neuter or spay/castrate every time. Also personally I really dislike the term “fix/fixing/fixed” in this situation so I chose to go with desexing. Not sure how it came into common use in Australia or how long the term has been around.
This is such a wonderful and informative post. Spaying and neutering is SO important, and we are grateful for you helping spread the word!
Thank you for such an informative article, it’s reassuring to understand what happens when your pet goes to the vet to get spayed. My kitten was spayed at the shelter before I adopted her when she was about 8 weeks old, I always wondered about the recommended age for this operation and whether 8 weeks was too young???
Happy World Spay Day!!
Dr Robyn says
Multiple studies, both long and short term, have shown that early age desexing (from 7 weeks of age or even younger) is safe and has no long-term detrimental effects compared to desexing at the ‘traditional’ age of 6-7 months old. Early age desexing is especially important for shelters and adoption agencies since their goal is to reduce pet overpopulation. Despite many shelters having a ‘desexing contract’, where the adopted cat should be returned at an older age for desexing, followup has shown that 60% or more do not return for the operation! So ethically, shelters need to desex at a young age.
Early age desexing has been endorsed by many veterinary associations, including (but not limited to!) the American Association of Feline Practitioners, International Society of Feline Medicine, ASPCA, American Veterinary Medical Association etc.
The anaesthetic and surgery are safe (although extra precautions should be taken), it does not stunt growth, rates of obesity are the same for early age or traditional age desexed animals (the metabolic rate is actually slower in desexed animals so they require less food), there is no increased risk for musculoskeletal problems, urinary problems, behaviour problems or immune suppression/risk of infectious diseases. One study showed cats desexed at an early age may be more timid and younger kittens actually recover quicker from surgery and show less post-operative pain.
So rest assured that your little girl should be just fine, despite being desexed young. The ‘traditional’ age that we vets recommend is just that – based on tradition. There is no evidence supporting that that is the “right” time to do it. But because older anaesthetics weren’t as safe in young animals, it was often put off until >6 months old and that has just stuck.