First, some basic reproductive terminology:
Spayed = a female cat or dog who has had both ovaries and uterus surgically removed, and is not capable of producing offspring.
Neutered = a male cat or dog who has had both testicles surgically removed, and is not capable of producing offspring. Also known as castration. Some refer to "neutered" as a male or female dog that has been surgically altered to render them sterile (testicles removed or ovaries removed, making them not capable of producing offspring).
Related terms: desexed, fixed, altered, castrated
Intact = not spayed or neutered, the animal has reproductive organs capable of producing offspring.
Queen = intact female cat
Tom = intact male cat
Bitch = intact female dog
Dog = intact male dog
For the purpose of this article, intact male cats and dogs will be referred to as the "pet" or "patient".
Is neutering a major surgery?
No, in the sense that neutering does not enter the abdominal or other body cavities. A general anesthetic is required, however, and there are risks, as with any surgery and anesthesia procedure. Dogs and cats generally recover a bit quicker from neutering than spaying since it is not as invasive as a spay. (For more on the actual surgery, see below.)
Myth #1 - I've heard that my pet won't be as good of a protector of my home and family if neutered (dogs).
Dogs have a natural instinct to protect their home and loved ones. They are also much more inclined to stay home and happy when neutered. It is true that unneutered dogs are often more aggressive and territorial (urine marking, fighting), but these traits should not be confused with loyalty and protection of their home and family.
Providing a loving environment for your pet, proper health care, and proper training will be the most influential benefit to maintaining a happy pet that fits into your family.
Myth #2 - I am worried that my pet will become fat and lazy.
Proper nutrition and exercise are what will keep your pet at a healthy weight and level of fitness, not failing to neuter him.
I want to neuter my pet, but I think I'll wait until it is more convenient for me (i.e. when time, money, other activities, etc. permit).
Just because you own a male pet doesn't mean that you shouldn't be a responsible pet owner as far as pet pregnancy "accidents" - creating more unwanted puppies or kittens. Even with the best fencing, kennel, and training - it is not a guarantee that your dog won't escape or...that a female in heat won't "break in" to meet up with your pet. Cats, of course, are difficult to contain if outside, and they are quite quick at escaping the house when they want to be!
Pet overpopulation is a HUGE problem in the United States and many countries around the world -- don't contribute to the problem of unwanted puppies and kittens simply due to lack time, interest, funding, etc. Speak with your veterinarian if you have financial concerns.
Non-neutered males have an increased risk of cancer (testicular, perianal, and possibly prostate) over their lifetime.
Why does my vet want to do pre-surgery blood work on my pet?
Many veterinarians offer pre-anesthesia screening to their patients, and may have you sign a waiver if you decline these blood tests. Why is this so important? It provides a way to assess kidney and liver function prior to undergoing anesthesia among other things. The liver and kidneys are the primary routes that the anesthetics are broken down and removed from the body. If they aren't working well, then anesthesia may be more of a risk. There are many anesthetic agents available, and your veterinarian may also use the blood screening information to determine the best anesthetic protocol for your pet.
What happens during the surgery?
Your pet will be sedated and anesthetized so he won't feel any pain or be aware of what is happening. His breathing and heart rate will be closely monitored by the veterinary staff.
(Note: there is more than one way to neuter an animal - descriptions here are the most common techniques used.)
Dog: The surgeon makes a small incision just in front (towards the pet's head) of the scrotum (sac that contains the testicles). Each testicle is removed separately, and the blood supply and vas deferens (spermatic cord) are ligated (tied off). The subcutaneous layers are sutured together with an absorbable thread, then the skin is closed with either skin staples, absorbable (hidden) sutures, or sutures that will be visible and need to be removed 10-14 days after surgery.
Cat: Many veterinarians prefer to incise (cut) the scrotum itself in the cat to remove the testicles. Each testicle is removed and ligated as described above, and the two incisions are allowed to heal as an open wound - no sutures. The incisions are very small, and are usually barely noticeable shortly after the surgery.
My vet said that my pet is cryptorchid. What is that, and will the surgery be different from a "normal" neuter?
Cryptorchid is a medical term meaning literally "hidden testes" (crypt = hidden, orchid refers to the testicle, or testes). This is considered a birth defect - where the testicle doesn't "migrate" out of the body cavity and into the scrotum like normal during fetal development. Some pets can be "late bloomers" and a testicle not present at birth can descend later, but by 4-6 months of age, if it isn't there, it won't likely be. It is a heritable trait, so any pets in a breeding program with this condition should be neutered to not pass on this trait.
Where is the testicle?
That depends! It can be deep inside the abdomen, similar to where the ovary would be found - by the kidney. It may be anywhere from the kidney area to the bladder. It could also be in the inguinal canal, the passageway from the abdomen to the scrotum.
Testicles in the abdomen are not likely to be palpated, but the vet has a good chance of palpating a testicle in the inguinal canal. I say "not likely" to be palpated, because most of the time, the hidden testicle is much smaller than normal, even when in the inguinal canal. This is not always the case -- as I remember a geriatric Irish Setter that had been neutered as a pup. Apparently, only the testicle in the scrotum had been removed at the time of neutering, several years before. This dog was presented for difficulty defecating and urinating, with a large abdominal mass. A very large (12" diameter) testicle was taking over the abdomen! Thankfully, surgery went well, and he could live out his senior years comfortably.
Moral of the story: cryptorchid dogs should NOT be bred, and must be neutered - since the risk of testicular cancer in an abdominally cryptorchid dog is high.
How soon will he be "back to normal"?
Most people are surprised at how quickly their pets recover from surgery (certainly much sooner than their human counterparts!) Most pets are up and alert shortly after surgery, and for neuter patients, most are back to their "normal" self by the next day. It is very importantto restrict activity in those pets who are very active and to control excessive licking of the surgical site. It is also important to note that if your pet has already reached puberty (age 5 to 6 months or older), behaviors influenced by hormones will take a month or two to subside. Behaviors include, but are not limited to: fighting, roaming, urine marking and so on. Some of these behaviors are learned in addition to being hormonally influenced, so do not expect complete cessation of undesirable behaviors in all cases post-surgery. Neutering prior to puberty will lessen the occurrence of these behaviors from ever showing up.