Behavior Changes Post-Spay Surgery

I've never dealt with an issue like this before, where behavior changed so drastically after altering a dog's reproductive status, even in all the dogs I've had in my life.  I've had many, many dogs, of many, many breeds... I've had them from puppies, then spayed them; I've gotten them as teenagers, then spayed them; I've gotten them as older adults, then spayed them.  I don't know if I just didn't recognize the change in behavior (although I can't imagine that I didn't see such obvious changes), or if the changes never occurred until now.  Seeing the amount of research studies that I found on the topic, many studies have been done... that leads me to believe that it's a fairly common behavioral issue.  The only behavioral changes I ever remember seeing had more to do with either minor changes in how the dog is received by other dogs (as in dog-dog aggression), or in the actual trauma of the surgery itself... once the healing had occurred, behavior returned to normal.  Maybe that's what will happen this time, as well.

Maizey was spayed on August 25, 2022, at the age of 13 months, and after her first heat (her spay surgery was delayed because of her heat cycle… she was scheduled for this surgery in June, but started her heat cycle the week before the surgery date). It was explained to me that the lower abdomen becomes engorged with blood during this time, so the vet recommended waiting until the cycle had concluded, and I agreed... no need to increase the chances of additional bleeding problems, during or post surgery.

The following video shows an incident that occurred between me and Maizey on a morning just a few days after the surgery… at first, I thought it was “cute”.  In retrospect though, and after my research, I’m more prone to tear up over it… bear in mind that I would not choose to keep her intact, as I know the consequences.  I’ve worked too long in rescue to risk adding to the problem by leaving my beloved dog intact and risking an unwanted (by me) pregnancy.

Please note that I DO NOT recommend foregoing altering surgery altogether.  I'm a firm believer in spay & neuter as the number one way to control pet population... Maizey has that perfect Squishy Dog personality... she's very smart, and very sweet, and loves to be close and cuddly.  She is why people want big dogs, and I'm training her as a therapy dog so that others can enjoy her too.  But she's severely dysplastic, and will likely require surgery to correct it within the next couple of years... since this problem is at least partly genetic, she's spayed.

Post spay surgery (as of this writing, it’s been only about 12 days since), she’s nesting.  Nesting behavior is presented by an animal (or human) that is preparing to have offspring... it includes cleaning the area, making it comfortable for Mama and babies. Maizey gathered toys and piled them in odd places that I've never found them before, like in a corner of the couch, or in the middle of our bed.  She’s returning now to her normal happy, bouncy behavior, but still piling her toys in the middle of my bed, whimpering, whining, and crying if one of the toys giggles, squeaks, or otherwise makes a sound.  The research I’ve seen thus far attributes this kind of behavior (whining, gathering blankets and toys) to the changes in hormone levels, much like the hormonal changes that occur in women just before childbirth, or after removal of the ovaries.

A new study completed in Italy in 2017 brings up the possibility of recommending spay surgery that spares the hormone-producing glands (gonads), like the surgery performed in women to remove the uterus... to remove the risk of pregnancy while leaving the regulating hormones intact.  Per this study, behavior changes exhibited post spay surgery (including gonad removal) can be attributed to these hormonal fluctuations, particularly if the animal is a “teenager” (when behavior tends to be heightened anyway). 

According to this study, “…dogs have a passing phase of reduced obedience towards their owners during puberty…Perhaps the most important thing to note for dog owners is that these behaviour changes were a passing phase. By the time dogs were 12 months old, their behaviour had returned to how they were before puberty, or in most cases, had improved…This is crucial for any new dog owner to be aware of, because sadly, adolescence is the peak age when dogs are abandoned and end up in animal shelters. It’s also extremely important that owners don’t punish their dogs for disobedience or start to pull away and disengage from them at this time, as this would be likely to make problem behavior worse in the long run, as it does in people.”

Dogs are typically (not always, but mostly) altered during their teenaged periods, when their behavior (or the behaviors that are attributed to those awful teenaged years, anyway) is most likely to cause such distress that owners either give them up or relegate them to the backyard... often on a chain.  It's believed that what is happening is that many dog owners are finding themselves at a loss when behavior spins out of control during this period... they seek help from either a vet or trainer, who tell them to alter the dog and train for obedience... then, glandular changes occurring in the teenaged months that cause such overblown teenaged behavior are removed, which sends the dog's body and mind into a tailspin... it causes the behavior produced to be even more heightened before it gets better when the hormones even out.

At this time, I don't know of any vets locally who are making it a practice to leave the gonads in place during altering surgery.  Hopefully, and because of newer studies like this one, owners will be able to seek out vets who plan these surgeries with an eye to lessening the side effects of these kinds of procedures on behavior, and how this behavior can wreak havoc on dogs and their homes.

Brenda R.

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