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"She looks fine now". The woman looked somewhat sheepish as her kitten explored the top of the consulting table. She’d rushed into the clinic in a panic a moment earlier, convinced her dear little Topsy was having a fit - or in dreadful pain. "She’s been rolling round all over the floor and making the strangest noises, I was so worried..."she trailed off lamely, as the kitten leapt gracefully onto her shoulder, a picture of good health.
"How old is Topsy now?"
"She’s just eight months."
"And she hasn’t been speyed yet has she?"
"No - I’ve been meaning to make the appointment - I just haven’t got around to it yet."
And there we had the "problem". No fits, no pain - this was a kitten in the grip of her hormones, a cat on heat. And for those unfamiliar with such a beast, it can be quite a revelation. For the sweet playful kitten turns into a yowling, howling, shameless little hussy, quite happy to associate with any or all of the most disreputable tomcats. Shut in for safety, she moons around the house like a lovesick teenager, while cat fights erupt at the backdoor as the toms line up to vie for her favours.
If that seems manageable (usually a day of this mayhem is enough to induce urgent phone calls to the vet pleading for her to be speyed - "Yesterday if possible!"), the fact that cats will continue to come on heat every couple of weeks for up to ten days at a time if they’re not mated, is enough to put off all but dedicated breeders.
Topsy’s mum was having none of it - the kitten was admitted on the spot for speying the following day. End of problem.
Dogs are a different kettle of fish. Once they’re on heat, it’s preferable not to spey, because the dramatic increase in blood supply to the uterus and ovaries makes the operation more difficult - not such a problem in a cat. Unlike cats, dogs only cycle every six months, whether they become pregnant or not. On the other hand, the heat period lasts a full three weeks, and although, on average, it’s more likely a bitch will conceive only during the middle week, she may well be attractive to dogs for the whole period.
"That’s fine" you may well say "Our section is fully fenced so she’ll be safe." Don’t count on it! Dogs will go to enormous lengths - and heights - to get to a bitch on heat. And she’ll be pretty keen to get to him too. The most obedient dog will forget all its training when the urge takes over!
So at the first sign of heat - a swelling of the vulva with some dripping blood - she needs to be locked away.
Inevitably, mistakes happen. Someone leaves the door open or you turn your back for a moment and before you know it, your darling girl is out on the street, well and truly "attached" to that horrible great mongrel from up the road.
Don’t panic! First of all, it’s perfectly normal for dogs to remain "tied" together for some time after mating. It will do more harm than good to try to separate them - the mating has already taken place, after all, and there have been some horrific injuries caused by forcing "tied" dogs apart.
Secondly, a pregnant bitch can still be speyed with no problem once the heat is finished. Finally, there is the equivalent of the "morning after" pill for dogs to prevent pregnancy after mating. However, the fact that it significantly extends the heat period and may potentially have side effects - increasing the chance of uterine infections, for instance - make this a much less desirable option.
Speying and neutering pets is much more accepted than it used to be. Quite apart from the discount most councils now offer in the registration fees for speyed and neuter dogs, the pure hassle of having females on heat, or males constantly out on the prowl is too much for most owners. Some still demur, however.
"We thought it would be nice for the kids if we let her have a litter of kittens" is one line. Well, nine times out of ten, she’ll have them in the middle of the night in the darkest corner she can find. The children will be mad at you because they missed the big event, and all of a sudden you’ve got five kittens to find homes for.
"It’s too expensive - I just can’t afford it," is another common excuse. Certainly, there is cost involved, especially if you’re speying a large dog. However, the one-off expense of a neuter or spey is pretty small bikkies in the overall scheme of things.
Instead of wondering if you can afford to spey or neuter the dog or cat, it might be more appropriate to ask whether you can afford not to. De-sexed animals are definitely cheaper to keep. Lower veterinary bills, lower food costs, and none of the expense of raising a litter of pups or kittens!
Then there’s the "you’ve got to let them have their fun" attitude - usually applied to male pets by their male owners - and those who get a vicarious thrill out of having an animal that’s "real tough" and can beat the living daylights out of anything that moves. Maybe they see their dog’s castration as threatening to their macho image...
A more common fear is that neutering changes the pet’s character. There is no evidence for this. Which is not to say that neutering has no effect at all. In a spey operation, the ovaries and uterus are removed; in a male the testicles go. What this does is to remove the animals’ major source of sex hormones. So along with not being able to reproduce. they also lose a lot of the behaviour that relates to sexual activity - the roaming after bitches on heat; the competitive aggression between rivals; the excessive urine marking; and even inappropriate mounting behaviour.
Unneutered tomcats tend to fight a lot more than their neutered counterparts and are consequently much more susceptible to abscesses and to the feline version of AIDS, which is passed on through the saliva when one cat bites another. In females, because sexual activity is confined to the "heat" periods, the behavioural changes are less apparent. One other effect of the loss of hormones is a slight lowering of the metabolic rate, so it is indeed true that a neutered animal will put on weight more easily - but only if you feed it more than it needs. You could even look on this as a cost-saving exercise, as the neutered pet needs relatively less food to maintain its weight at a healthy level.
The other problem which sometimes occurs with the loss of hormones is the leaking of urine experienced by some older speyed bitches. The muscle that holds the neck of the bladder closed is to some extent hormone dependent. Without the hormones, and with the gradual loss of muscle tone with age, the muscle may slacken, allowing urine to leak out. Fortunately, this problem is easily dealt with medically. In terms of character changes, their personalities are unaffected.
And there are certainly lots of advantages to neutering pets, not least of which is the need to avoid contributing to the already over-abundant pet population. Every year, because the supply is always higher than the demand, thousands of surplus companion animals are put down - a "convenience" killing that has been estimated at 50,000 cats and dogs a year. That’s not a fun job at all - in fact it’s inclined to make those involved feel quite militant against people irresponsible or ignorant enough to let their pets breed indiscriminately. De-sexed animals will also tend to wander less, thereby reducing the possibility of road accidents. Neutered males are less likely to mark territory by urine spraying, a benefit which will be particularly appreciated by anyone familiar with the strong and lingering smell of tomcat urine! And, of course, there is a much reduced incidence of the hormone-dependent cancers of the mammary glands in the female, the prostate in the male.
- Virginia Williams & Bert Westera