Elective Surgery and Your Dog


About a year ago, Janice and Leroy got into a spat. Now, these are two dogs that just go together like bread and butter, peanut butter and jelly, skates and ice – you get the idea. They sleep together on my bed with me, share their toys, eat together, and just obviously love each other. But for whatever reason, all hell broke loose. I still don’t know what caused the dispute, because they were in the living room and I was in the kitchen.

All of a sudden, there was barking and snarling, and finally a harsh yelp. I burst into the living room to see what the heck was going on, and the fight was over, but Leroy was shaking his head back and forth, and blood was raining everywhere. Janice had apparently caught him on the left ear, and ear wounds bleed like crazy. I tried applying pressure, but Leroy just kept on bleeding. I debated breaking out the Crazy Glue – yes, Crazy Glue. It’s pretty much the same thing as the surgical glue veterinarians use for minor wounds.

A note – If you do choose to treat a dog’s wound this way, you will have to make sure that it is thoroughly cleaned first, and then you will have to follow with a course of antibiotics to prevent infections. You can get oral antibiotics from your vet, but if you’re comfortable giving an injection, as I am, you’ll get better, faster-acting, and less costly results by administering 1cc of Pen-Pro into the muscle of the hindquarters.

Now, back to Leroy. It quickly became apparent that there was no way the Crazy Glue was going to do the job. So I called Neila, and asked her if she could come over and apply pressure to Leroy’s ear while I drove him to the vet.

Leroy ended up needing surgery. You’re probably thinking, “Surgery? He had a torn ear! Why did he need surgery?”

Well, anything that involves cutting is considered to be surgery, and Leroy needed more than just to be stitched up. His ear was pretty torn up, so Dr. Stephen had to put him under general anesthetic, and then cut away some of the ripped tissue in order to create smoother areas that could be effectively stitched together.

What Leroy had was necessary surgery. There are also elective surgeries for dogs, in the same way that there are for humans.

What Is Elective Surgery?

Elective surgery is any type of surgery that is done by choice. It does not include a procedure that is not necessary to save a person’s life, or to correct a chronic condition. When you think of elective surgery for humans, liposuction and other cosmetic treatments are likely the first that come to mind. A vasectomy or a tubal ligation to prevent creating unwanted offspring would also be an elective surgical procedure.

With dogs, the most common type of elective surgery would be spaying or neutering, although sometimes these procedures can also be necessary surgery, as in the case of a bitch who has developed pyometra (a uterine infection that is invariably fatal if the bitch is not spayed – I talked about this in Pyometra – The Uterine Infection That Can Kill Your Dog), or a male that has developed testicular cancer. Other types of elective surgery include ear cropping (which should simply never be done, ever), and tail docking.

Generally speaking, I don’t advocate most types of elective surgery for dogs, except, of course, for spaying and neutering if you have no intention of using your dog for breeding purposes. With that in mind, though, let’s talk about the risks and benefits of different types of elective surgery for your dog.

Fat Removal

Yes, you actually can have this done, but it’s not like liposuction in humans. I expect that at some point during their lives, I will probably have to consider having fatty deposits removed from Janice, or Leroy, or both. This is because Boxers are one of the breeds most prone to developing fatty tumors. Notice I said “tumors,” not “cancerous growths.” Most of the time, the fatty tumors turn out to be benign. Your vet can analyze fatty tumors by means of a needle biopsy to determine whether or not they are cancerous.

If the tumors are slow-growing, they may not need to be surgically removed. However, even benign fatty tumors can grow quickly, and if they do, they can cause pressure on adjacent structures. If you know that your dog is prone to fatty tumors that just grow, and grow, and grow some more, then you may choose to have them removed before they do – in other words, go with elective surgery before your dog ends up actually needing surgery. This type of elective surgery carries very few risks.

Related Content:

Perineal Hernia in Dogs (Video)
Caesarean Section as an Alternative to Natural Whelping
The 9 Truth’s About Spaying and Neutering(Video)

Dental Issues

Dogs can experience the same dental problems as humans. Now granted, many dogs live out their lives with gingival growths, loose teeth, and decayed teeth. This does not mean that they are living happily. So, even though surgery is not essential in the sense that it is needed to save your dog’s life, you may very well want to consider it in order to preserve your dog’s quality of life.

The risk, of course, is that dental procedures will have to be done under general anesthetic, which can sometimes be problematic for older dogs – in other words, the dogs that are most likely to suffer from dental problems. So, if your vet offers you the opportunity to have bloodwork done pre-surgery to identify any health issues that might make surgery more risky, have the bloodwork done. Your vet will not insist on it – the choice is yours. And I have to point out that you may think that your dog is 100% healthy, but there have been instances where pre-surgery bloodwork has identified underlying problems that were never suspected. And once your dog is on the operating table, and under anesthetic, that is absolutely not the time to discover, and have to deal with, an underlying condition.

Orthopedic Problems

That limp might just be a sprain, which isn’t going to require surgery. Or, it could be a torn ligament, which might require surgery if it is going to heal properly. Surgical procedures for progressive arthritis are considered to be elective, but the reality is that the problem is not going to go away on its own – it’s just going to get progressively worse – so if you love your dog, deal with it in a timely fashion. What you are trying to do is treat the problem early on, before the condition hits the point where surgery is not going to help.

Sometimes, elective surgical procedures have to be weighed against quality of life, and the age of your dog. For instance, it is very possible, no matter what you have heard, for a dog with hip dysplasia to live a long and happy life without the need for surgery. It depends on the severity of the condition. It is possible to have hip replacement done on dogs, just the same as it is for humans. But if your dog is getting around nicely and not in pain, the benefit of a hip replacement could be outweighed by the risk of surgery, followed by the necessary recovery time. If your dog is elderly, and you and your vet are both satisfied that he is not experiencing discomfort, or that any discomfort can be easily treated with medication, your dog can probably live the rest of his life without surgery. He will die with hip dysplasia, yes, but it will not be the cause of death and will not lead to you needing to consider euthanasia because of the condition.

Bauer encourages his clients to consider the expense, whether the problem is negatively affecting the animal’s quality of life and whether the problem is likely to worsen to the point that surgical repair will be significantly less effective. And regarding the anesthetic factors, Bauer says, “In unhealthy animals, anesthesia may be a consideration, but with today’s anesthetics and monitoring equipment and with a pre-surgical blood chemistry evaluation, anesthesia risk is minimal.”

Your Decision

Any time that you are considering elective surgery for your dog, a good veterinarian will talk with you about the various risks and benefits. The final decision will always be up to you. You would be hard-pressed, because of liability issues, to find a vet who will say “You have to have those fatty lumps removed,” or “Let’s get those teeth out,” or “Your dog needs a hip replacement.” As I’ve suggested in several other posts, the best course of action here is to go for a way that your vet can tell you what should be done without putting himself or herself in a position that could come back with a huge ass-bite if something goes wrong with the surgery. Just say something along the lines of “If you had a dog that was exactly the same breed and exactly the same age and the same gender as mine, and had exactly the same condition, what would you do?” You’ll get an honest answer.

It’s always about risks versus benefits. Sometimes the decision isn’t going to be clear-cut – I mean, if your dog has been hit by a car and has internal injuries, there’s no “yes or no” in a situation like that. He needs surgery. It’s not elective. However, many types of elective surgery can improve your dog’s quality of life.

Now, let’s move on to an issue that can be pretty controversial, and brings out very vocal opponents, but occasionally proponents as well.

Cosmetic Surgery

Cosmetic surgery for dogs is, as it is with humans, an elective procedure that has much less to do with quality of life than it does with aesthetics. Dog with drooping ears that don’t match the standard for the breed? Have them lifted! Dog barking all the time and driving you nuts? Have his vocal cords removed! Undescended testicles in your show dog? Get him implants!

Yes, people do all these crazy things. Usually, though, when you hear pet advocates going on about cosmetic procedures, they probably don’t even know about the really demented things that people do to their dogs in the name of aesthetics – most of the time, what they’re on about it ear cropping and tail docking.

As to ear docking, I’ve already said that it should never be done. Think about it – unless your dog’s ears stand naturally, those ear flaps protect against dirt and debris, and fly bites. Why would you want to subject your dog to such a procedure? In fact, many people want to see the procedure made illegal. Right now, it’s not illegal anywhere in the United States, but given the increase in lobbying against this procedure, it may be soon. It is already illegal in England and Wales.

As to tail docking, it’s not illegal in most places either, although some veterinary associations are prohibiting their members to do it. So, your vet may not be able to do it, but you still can. Now, if that sounds horrible, let me tell you about bloodless docking. I do it with Janice’s litters, because (so sue me) I find the look of a Boxer more aesthetically pleasing with a docked tail. Neila does it with her Rottweilers.

Bloodless docking simply involves securing a strong rubber band up close to the base of the puppy’s tail. I do it within a few days of birth. If your hands are steady, you can use small rubber bands (the kind of bands used to braid a horse’s mane are good for this purpose), or if you’re not all that steady, you can use a tool called an “elastrator.” You place a very small, very strong band on the prongs of the tool, and then open it the way you would a pair of pliers. With the tool open, you slide the band up over the puppy’s tail into the desired position. Then, close the tool. The band slips off, you put the puppy back on the mother, and in about a week, the lower part of the tail dries up and falls off.  The only distress caused to the puppy is from being removed from the mother for less than a minute – the procedure itself is humane and painless.

The Morality Issue Regarding Cosmetic Surgery

Animal advocates often throw out the moral issues regarding cosmetic procedures for dogs. And I think that to some extent, they’re right. Your dog didn’t ask for an ear lift, and is it really right to have something like that done just because you have a certain concept of beauty? When does it go too far? I have heard of ear cropping procedures (which as I have said, I abhor) that have gone horribly wrong. In fact, down at the dog park where I take Janice and Leroy, there is a red Doberman who just breaks my heart every time I look at him – the cropping job apparently ended up being botched, and had to be re-done. Then the ears became infected. So, ultimately, the procedure that was supposed to give the dog those pretty, pointed ears that work so well to emphasize the slender shape of the dog’s face resulted in the dog having pretty much no ears at all.

I’ve also heard it said that tail docking is cruel. “You’re taking away his smile!” they say. Well, I’m not so sure. Janice and Leroy are both docked. They just smile differently – with their little stubby tails kind of wagging their whole bodies!” And anyone who has ever known and loved a dog knows, they smile with their mouths, too.

Proponents of tail docking will tell you that in hunting or working dogs, docking can prevent tail injuries. Opponents, on the other hand, point out that there have been very few reports of tail injuries in these types of dogs. I’m not questioning that, but I do have to wonder if that’s because of the number of docked dogs out there – obviously, if there is no tail, then there is going to be no injury to report.

I’m cool with tail docking, but not with ear docking. And I am very definitely not cool with de-barking. Proponents of the procedure will tell you that not only does it result in considerably less stress in their lives (which I would imagine is the main reason for considering the procedure in the process), it really doesn’t harm the dog. Of course there is no risk of complications from surgery, right? Hey, it’s the only elective surgery that has no risk of complications! As if.

And the dog doesn’t lose his whole bark, he’s just a lot quieter. Well, let me ask you this – have you ever had laryngitis? I have. And I can’t tell you how many times I just wanted to scream a lung up at some insufferable asshat who was annoying me beyond reason. But I couldn’t do it. At times, it was so frustrating that I’d just sit down and burst into tears. Along with the great, hacking, wheezing, semi-sobs that were so unsatisfactory because I couldn’t make them loud.

There is no way that a dog who wants let out a huge bark and can’t is happy. I don’t need research to back up that claim – I just know it intuitively, as any sensible person want. Besides, why would you want to de-bark a dog instead of just working on behavior modification? Last June, Janice alerted me to a prowler in the yard by barking. I was asleep at the time. Do you suppose I would have awakened if all she could do was whisper to me?

Related Content:

Perineal Hernia in Dogs (Video)
Caesarean Section as an Alternative to Natural Whelping
The 9 Truth’s About Spaying and Neutering(Video)


So, elective surgeries for dogs. Well, yes, they can be beneficial if you weigh the risks against the possible outcomes and make the right decision. Cosmetic surgery? Some would say “No, not ever, not under any circumstances.” But I’m pretty sure that Janice and Leroy are not enjoying a lesser quality of life because their tails are docked, and I’m equally sure that their offspring aren’t suffering from just having cute little stubs to wave around as opposed to those long (and from my perspective, freakish-looking) natural Boxer tails. Neila’sRotts are also docked, and I’ve never seen such a happy, well-adjusted gang of dogs.

I’ll deal with the fatty lumps if and when they occur. And I’ll probably do it early on, when it’s still elective surgery.

So, I think the final word here is, elective surgery before it translates into necessary surgery. And when elective surgery is also cosmetic, be careful – some procedures can actually be harmful. Others might be against altering “what the dog is born with,” but they are not necessarily harmful.

Please, leave the ears alone. The bark too. What you do with the tails is up to you. At least that’s my perspective. You can feel free to disagree with me, and I’m sure that if you do, you’ll find plenty of like-minded people who will back you up.

For now, I’m going to go make a cup of hot chocolate. Then I’m going to cue up Netflix and binge-watch “Supernatural” – I love those Winchester boys! And while I’m watching, I’m going to have Janice on one side of me, and Leroy on the other, and I’m going to scratch where their stubby little tails meet their butts – they love that!