Dear Doctor: Can Spaying Fix the Problem Behavior?
Q. I acquired a Bernese Mountain Dog from a breeder when she was 6½ years old. She had never been bred because she has a heart murmur. But she was never spayed, either.
We have had her close to a year and a half now and have found her to be a very good dog and easy to have around. Her only negative behavior is that she gets crazy every so often. She will climb over furniture, try to sit on my lap, go under tables or other low/small spaces, pant, and drool excessively. There is no stopping her. We just have to wait until it passes — anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours.
Would you spay her? Thank you very much for your input.
Rochester, New York
Dear Ms. Gabryel,
A. Some unspayed dogs do become more restless as they begin to go into heat, and even a bit clingy. But panting and drooling don’t fit the profile of a dog in heat, nor do distinct episodes that last anywhere from minutes to a couple of hours. Also, dogs go into heat, on average, about once every six months. If by “every so often” you mean she is exhibiting this behavior every few weeks or even every couple of months, it is most certainly not heat.
Rather, the behavior sounds very much like fear or pain. Trying to climb onto your lap (which goes beyond the clinginess of heat) and hide in small spaces, in concert with the panting and drooling, are the give-aways.
The first thing to do is have your dog visit the veterinarian to rule out any conditions that could be causing pain. If pain is not the issue, look for triggers of fear. Maybe she gets upset when she hears a certain sound in the house that only gets emitted intermittently, or when a particular car with a faulty muffler drives by, or when she smells a certain dog or person walking past your home. Once you find the cause of her terror, you can take steps to make her feel safe — perhaps by taking her to a safe space such as a basement where she will be unable to hear what she is frightened of.
Incidentally, while spaying will not solve your dog’s behavioral issues, you might want to consider it for another reason. Spaying — removing the uterus and ovaries — prevents the risk that a dog will develop pyometra, a serious and potentially life-threatening uterine infection that often requires an emergency hysterectomy. There is also a chance that spaying could help reduce the risk for mammary cancer, although most of the protection against that disease comes when a dog is very young — in her first months of life, before she has her first and second episode of heat.
Of course, spaying will remove the chance of an unwanted pregnancy as well — something to consider if you let your dog wander off leash in parks and such.
On the flip side, spaying can increase the risk for obesity and urinary incontinence — but those two conditions are treatable, and even preventable in terms of weight gain, with lifestyle changes or medicine, so they are not a big concern.
There is also evidence, though, that spaying can increase the risk for very serious illnesses, including lymphoma and osteosarcoma (bone cancer). More research is needed, and the exact level of risk is unclear, but it’s something you will want to weigh with your veterinarian while deciding between definitively preventing any risk for pyometra and possibly increasing the risk for some less common but equally troublesome illnesses.