Spay and castration, the most common methods of sterilization in the US, are surgical procedures in which the sex organs (gonads) are removed. The ovaries and uterus are removed during a traditional spay and the testes are removed during castration. After many years of this practice, recent research in dogs has found that removal of the sex organs, along with its associated hormones, can result in significant health and behavioral issues for some pets. Gonad-sparing options for sterilization are available but unfortunately, they are not considered by most veterinarians, shelters, and rescue groups. Only a small percentage of veterinarians provide hormone-sparing sterilization. Many pet owners are not aware of health problems that occur due to loss of hormones. Given this reality, it is important to know how to support the health of a spayed or castrated pet to give them the best life possible.
How can I support my pet before surgical sterilization?
- Do not vaccinate your pet at least two weeks prior to or 2 months following sterilization surgery. When you drop your pet off on the day of surgery, be sure to tell the hospital staff that no vaccines are to be administered. Put your request in writing and get assurances that the note will be given to the surgical staff.
- Get a pre-op physical and lab work: Prior to the procedure, schedule a complete physical examination with your veterinarian. Pre-op lab work is critical! If not already a standard part of the complete exam, request full pre-op lab work (CBC, Chemistry panel, urinalysis). A thyroid blood test and a chest x-ray is also recommended if your pet is middle aged or older. Based on the results of these tests, the anesthetic protocol can be adjusted based on the organ function of the animal.
- Support the immune system – An optimized immune system will help speed up healing. Supplements such as probiotics, medicinal mushrooms, colostrum, vitamin C, and echinacea will provide excellent immune support.
How can I help my pet heal after surgical sterilization?
The goal is to heal completely with no post-surgical complications. Your veterinarian will send you home with discharge instructions and medications for pain.
- Limit activity in the days following surgery to avoid opening the incision. It is best to keep the dog away from other animals in the house until the incision is healed. Castration is a simpler procedure than spay. Dogs undergoing castration without complications will often be discharged the same day. Dogs undergoing spay may require an overnight stay in the hospital.
- Check the incision and keep it dry. Dr. Peter Dobias recommends Calendula 200 C one dose daily for five days. This homeopathic remedy has a very positive effect on incision healing.
- Pain management –Veterinarians often prescribe NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for pain management. If giving an NSAID, watch for bloody or dark tarry stools, vomiting, diarrhea, or lack of appetite; if they are present, stop these medications immediately and call your veterinarian for an alternative medication. DO NOT give any over-the-counter medications for pain. Watch for signs of pain: flinching, hiding, unwillingness to move, or aggression. These behaviors can be a sign that a secondary infection is present. There are several options to aid in pain management including herbal formulas such as Dog Gone Pain and CBD products. A homeopathic alternative for pain management is Arnica 1M, administered orally once every two hours (or less frequently) for the first 24 to 48 hours depending on the patient’s comfort level. Probiotics are also important for recovery, especially if antibiotics are prescribed. A species- specific, high-quality probiotic containing billions of CFUs and multiple strains is recommended.
Detox the liver and kidneys from the effects of anesthesia - To detox the liver from the anesthesia, the following can be given to your pet one week before and two weeks after the procedure:
- Milk thistle: 100mg per 20 pounds of weight twice daily
- NAC (N-acetyl cysteine): 250mg per 30 pounds of weight twice daily
- Sam-e (S-adenosyl-L-methionine): 90-425 mg once daily 1 week before and 2 weeks following procedure on an empty stomach.
- B vitamins
- CoQ10 5 mg per pound of body weight twice daily
- Foods with sulforaphane – broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale especially helpful is broccoli sprouts – 1/8-1/2 daily for 10 days. Green Juju’s “Just greens” is a good substitute in place of these foods.
To detox the kidneys from the anesthesia, give your pet fresh or dried parsley. Dried parsley can be infused to make tea. Another great herb is dandelion root or leaves. The leaves can be chopped or ground and added to food. Dried dandelion root and leaves are also available in powder and tea.
How can I support my spayed or castrated pet for the long term?
Whether your pet has been spayed/castrated four days or four years ago, it is important to support the endocrine system. The endocrine system consists of tissues and glands that release hormones into the bloodstream. A big part of endocrine balance comes from the hormones made in the testicles and ovaries. If these gonads were removed during sterilization, the remaining glands in the endocrine system must work harder to maintain hormonal balance. Certain levels of sex hormones are still needed for healthy biologic function throughout life. When the testes or ovaries are removed, the task of producing these hormones falls to the adrenal glands. In addition to potential adrenal gland issues, the potential effects of hormonal imbalances include changes in bone growth and development, ligament and hip problems, urinary issues, immune system imbalances, and shorted lifespan. Ways to support the endocrine system include:
- Glandular support – In addition to the adrenal glands, other glands that support the immune system and balance hormones include tonsils, salivary glands, thymus, thyroid, pituitary, pancreas, and lymph nodes. Supplementing with natural hormone products such as melatonin can provide glandular support. Melatonin promotes healthy cortisol and estrogen levels. Veterinary endocrinologists are also recommending HMR (7-hydroxymatairesinol) lignans in combination with melatonin to support estrogen metabolism.
- Monitoring endocrine gland function- Blood tests that measure the number of circulating hormones in the blood are the most common tests used to detect disorders of the endocrine system. Many different hormones can be measured in the blood, such as cortisol, thyroxine, ACTH, parathyroid hormone, growth hormone, and insulin. The adrenal glands and thyroid gland can be monitored using blood tests that measure the response of endocrine glands to stimulating hormones. A complete blood count and a urinalysis can also be used to determine problems with the endocrine system. The results of these blood tests may signal additional testing such as CT scan and MRI, radioisotope scan, and biopsy.
- Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine – Whenever surgery is performed on an animal, stagnation of blood circulation or a disruption in the liver blood stores can occur. These liver imbalances can cause behavioral changes. After being spayed or neutered, many animals undergo what seems like personality changes. Some seem to be fatigued and have no interest in exercise – they just want to eat. This syndrome is caused by a deficiency of liver blood which is too weak to keep the Qi (life force) moving. Treatment is aimed at nourishing the blood and Qi with herbs, foods, or massaging acupressure points. Chinese herbs such as Epimedium have been shown to increase testosterone levels in research animals. Deer antler velvet contains multiple substances including the female sex hormones estrone and estradiol and the male sex hormones including testosterone, androstenedione, and dehydroepiandosterone. Research in rats, using elk velvet antler, suggested the substance may have an androgen-like effect. It also contains substances that might help cells grow and function.
- Nutrition – A species-appropriate, high-quality raw or gently cooked commercial or home prepared diet will give your dog or cat the best chance at a long life, with or without gonads. Qi tonic herbs such as sage, thyme, licorice root, cinnamon, and ginger can be added in small quantities to any recipe. Jing means “essence” and is the foundation of life. If your dog or cat was spayed or neutered before reaching maturity, post-natal Jing is compromised. Jing tonics include eggs, bee pollen, small fish from the sea (sardines, mackerel), kelp, bone marrow and broth, fermented raw goat or cow milk, colostrum, Reishi mushrooms and Vitamin D.
- Hormone Restoration Therapy - Hormonal replacement is not a common treatment for dogs and cats, and the most published accounts are focused on using hormone therapy to treat urinary incontinence. There is very little research on this process and standardized methods are not yet developed. One study published in 2021 focused on one 4-year-old dog who was suffering from progressive reduced mobility, rapid weight gain and fear of unfamiliar people following a pediatric neuter. He started weekly testosterone shots followed by gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) after three months. The dog has shown significant improvement in mobility, and his fear and anxiety were somewhat alleviated. The dog continues to receive hormone treatment, and his health is monitored through standard blood work, testosterone levels, and regular prostate exams. There is a need for more research to develop standard procedures and determine best practices for hormone restoration therapy.
Much has been learned about the health risks of spay and neuter in recent years. There is no way to reverse a traditional spay or castration; however, there are many options you can implement to support your dog’s endocrine system. Take the time to do the research and then share that research with your veterinarian to determine a support protocol that is tailor-made for your pet.