Pediatric spay/neuter: do recent reports have you confused?

It looks like spring is once again upon us and with it is the start of puppy and kitten season. As you likely already know, providing spay and neuter services to our shelter and community animals is essential for managing pet overpopulation. This makes sense, as preventing unwanted litters will ultimately decrease the number of homeless animals. However, you may be aware of some recent reports linking harmful health conditions to early age spay/neuter. With many puppies and kittens soon entering our shelters, this may leave you wondering when is the optimal age for these procedures?

kittens looking confused

Is younger better?

In most cases, yes! For those of us involved in animal sheltering, our goal is to get animals adopted as humanely and as quickly as possible. Most people would agree that dogs and cats are at their cutest and, therefore, most adoptable during puppy and kittenhood. It is, therefore, beneficial for shelters to have them ready for adoption at the safest and earliest age possible.

For several years now shelters and high-quality high-volume spay/neuter clinics have been spaying and neutering puppies and kittens as early as 2 months of age. What veterinarians have seen in the short term is that these youngsters require less anesthetic and surgical time as compared to their adult counterparts, decreasing the risks associated with these factors. Additionally, puppies and kittens clinically appear to recover from surgery much quicker and can often be found playing and rough housing just a few hours after surgery!

Is there any cause for alarm?

Not at this time. Recently, several studies have reported that certain types of cancers and musculoskeletal conditions may be the result of early age spay/neuter. However, most of these studies sampled specific breeds from hospital records, making application to the general dog and cat populations inappropriate. Although there are risks (anesthetic related complications, post-operative bleeding, etc.) associated with every type of surgical procedure, at this time there is no conclusive evidence indicating that early age spay/neuter increases the risk of developing harmful health conditions later in life. In light of pet overpopulation, the benefits of pediatric spay/neuter indeed outweigh any risks.

Are there any precautions for pediatric spay/neuter procedures?

Yes. These little creatures are quite susceptible to both hypothermia (being cold) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) during anesthesia. It is, therefore, important to feed them a small amount of food just prior to anesthesia in order for them to maintain their blood sugar levels. For a 2lb puppy or kitten, a tablespoon of canned food ½ hour before premedication for anesthesia will help keep their blood sugar stable. In order to maintain body temperature, puppies and kittens should be provided with a supplemental heat source before, during and after their procedures. Individual puppies and kittens can be given a warming disc or bag while in their cages before and after surgery. Litters should be housed together or with their mothers, if possible, to benefit from each other’s body heat. Use of a warm water pad or even a layer of foam over the surgery table will help prevent their body temperatures from dropping dangerously low during surgery.puppies in a box

Another benefit to consider

Pediatric spay/neuter shortens the length of stay for puppies and kittens in shelters. It is well accepted that the longer an animal is in a shelter, the more likely it will become exposed to contagious disease and become ill. Puppies and kittens are our most susceptible shelter residents and it should be a priority to get them adopted as soon as possible. By spaying and neutering them at 2 months of age, we will not only have them ready for adoption when they are at their cutest, but also when it is most protective for them.

What do you think about early age spay-neuter? Leave your comments below in the discussion area.

The Birds and the Bees…..

downloadAs many shelters have encountered, hoarding situations are often not limited to cats and dogs.  So staff can sometimes be faced with determining housing based on sex to avoid adding to the pet population. Although some exotic species are very social and being housed together can reduce stress, it’s important to be able to sex them to prevent unwanted litters, advise potential adopters, and avoid possible fighting. Sexing different species can be challenging to say the least. Internet searches can be a powerful tool with images and videos to help. But here are some tips all in one place that may be useful:


Rabbits can be tricky. A relaxed male can have obvious testicles. But if nervous, they have an ability to keep them in their abdomen rather than allowing them to descend and be easily identified. If already neutered, it is essential to extrude the genitals to determine sex. There are sometimes only subtle differences between an extruded penis and an extruded vulva. It’s also important to remember proper handling techniques when sexing rabbits since any kind of a struggle can lead to a back injury. 0e55aa8e4a5f6afac5b1cb4ee200e512

Guinea Pigs

Guinea Pigs are somewhat easier. Males will have obvious testicles usually becoming more prominent after 4 weeks of age. If altered, the penis can be extruded to verify sex.

Small Rodents

In some instances males can keep their testicles retracted like rabbits. Otherwise, males can have prominent testicles. Other tips include using the distance between the anus and genitals (where males will have a greater distance), and observing nipples (only in females) to determine sex.

Reptiles and Birds

Laszlo probing drawingThese animals can be the most difficult to sex. Some species have different coloring or physical characteristics that differentiate the sexes (Eclectus parrots have red females and green males). Lizards and snakes can sometimes have sex determined by inserting a probe into the cloaca (the probe will go in further in males). Some species can only be sexed with DNA testing. It’s recommended to involve an exotics veterinarian or specialist to aid in sexing.

With Spring in the air, it may be a good time to brush up on sexing different species because you never know when you may have hundreds of rats on your hands.


Separation is key!

Do you know the different between isolation and quarantine? Does your staff, board members or architects understand what a holding ward is? If the answer is no–you are not alone. These terms are commonly misused by shelter workers, and it is important that we define each as a separate space. This is particularly poignant during renovations or the creation of a new facility. Let’s take a look at what these words mean for your organization:

1) Holding refers to a space for healthy, not yet adoptable animals. You may be familiar with holding spaces in the context of stray or health department holds. Holding is a place where non-infectious animals can wait for the next step in their shelter journey. They may be waiting for a medical check, spay-neuter, or their owner to reclaim them. Holding is further broken down based on species and age. It is important to separate based on these factors in the event of a disease outbreak and to reduce stress. In general every shelter should have four holding spaces: kitten, adult cat, puppy and adult dog.

2) Quarantine is confusing term due to overlap between holding and isolation. Strictly speaking, quarantine is for currently healthy animals which have been exposed to infectious disease. For example quarantine should be used for transfer of dogs from another organization which is experiencing a kennel cough outbreak. These dogs were exposed, may become ill, and shouldn’t be put in the general population (holding) in case they become sick. Quarantine is useful when there is a history or known high risk of disease exposure. Once again, quarantine spaces should be broken up by species and age, but also by origin. If you take in transfers from multiple organizations at the same time, it is ideal to quarantine them in separate spaces.

3) Isolation is where sick animals are held for the duration of their treatment. Another term you may have heard is infirmary or hospital. In general, isolation is for animals with contagious disease (e.g. URI, parvovirus, ringworm). A hospital or treatment area may refer to a space where non-infectious diseases are treated (e.g. injuries, recovering from surgery). Isolation should be broken up by species and disease. The disease categories we tend to use are respiratory (URI), gastrointestinal (GI or diarrhea) and derm (ringworm). At a bare minimum shelters should have one isolation ward per species. However, it is best to keep the diseases separate, as you do not want your URI cats to develop ringworm or panleukopenia, etc. With dogs, kennel cough is further complicated by distemper, necessitating a separate distemper area if your shelter chooses to

Wow, that’s a lot of spaces. You may be thinking that it is impossible to provide enough spaces for all the diseases, species and age groups described above–and you are right! In the real world shelters have limited space and resources. So how do you determine how much of each type of space your shelter needs? Ask yourself the following questions: What species do you keep? How many at a time? What diseases do you see commonly? Which diseases will you treat or not treat? What spaces do you have available?

If your shelter does not treat ringworm, parvo, panleukopenia or distemper, then those diseases can be ignored. Frequently we are left with URI and diarrhea (Giardia, coccidia) for dogs and cats. Having flexible spaces, i.e. small rooms, allows a shelter to shift the purpose of a room. For example, when taking in a transport of puppies, a room can turn from adult dog URI to puppy holding. Of course, it is important to clean and disinfect appropriately, as some diseases can stay in the environment (e.g. parvo, ringworm). In many instances rooms can be combined due to necessity, e.g. ringworm houses cats and kittens. Now that you know the basics, let’s summarize:

  • Holding (healthy animals)
    • Adult cat
    • Kitten
    • Adult dog
    • Puppy
    • Small animals (rabbits, etc.)
  • Quarantine (healthy animals)
    • Variable
    • Can be unoccupied isolation, holding space or foster
  • Isolation (sick animals)
    • Adult cat URI
    • Kitten URI
    • Adult cat diarrhea
    • Kitten diarrhea
    • Feline ringworm (adult and kitten)
    • Adult dog URI
    • Puppy URI
    • Adult dog diarrhea
    • Puppy diarrhea

I hope this overview has been helpful. Look at your particular shelter and make sure that you have basic holding and isolation spaces. Still overwhelmed? Consultation with an expert in shelter medicine may help!