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Pyometra in the Female Dog

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Any unspayed female dog is at risk from Pyometra. Pyometra is an infection/inflammation of the womb, and is life-threatening. The womb fills with pus, can rupture, and infection can spread to the bloodstream, even affecting kidney function. If Pyometra is suspected, it requires emergency treatment.

Symptoms and signs of Pyometra

The symptoms can come on suddenly. A normal, healthy dog with a good appetite, may suddenly refuse food for no obvious reason, or may become lethargic, unwilling to go for a walk as usual, or even get off her bed. Sometimes there is vomiting, or unusual water intake, though not always, but she may show a need to defecate, even if she has only recently been taken out. There is almost always fever, though this can be harder for the owner to spot, unless her temperature is taken. (Fever in a dog is a temperature of over 102 degrees. Their normal body temperature is around 101.5 degrees but this can fluctuate slightly.)

Often there is vaginal discharge, this can be any colour, even watery and clear. It can be bad-smelling, but not always. Vaginal discharge in a female who is not "in Heat" should always be investigated by a veterinarian.
Sometimes, there is no discharge at all. But far from this being less to worry about -this symptom can be even more dangerous, and can indicate what is called "closed Pyometra" (where the cervix is closed, and no pus can escape from the uterus.)

The dog may lie down, unwilling to move, sometimes contracting her belly muscles as if straining to give birth. Sometimes there is obvious swelling in the belly.
Occasionally she may behave quite normally, but there will always be some sign...maybe she refused an extra treat she would normally have gobbled down? Maybe she didn't want to play ball that day, and she always does? Or did she leave half her breakfast, and that is unknown?
Many cases of Pyometra are presented to a vet when the infection has already taken a good hold, because the dog's caretaker mistook the symptoms for a mildly "upset tummy".

Causes of Pyometra

Unfortunately, being a dog, and being female and unspayed are the main causes of Pyometra. It is far more common in females of middle-age and older. But any dog can be affected, at any age after her first "Heat" cycle.
It is thought that an unusual level of the female hormone Progesterone or response to Progesterone is the main trigger for the development of this disease. Females with a history of "False Pregnancies" are more susceptible, though it is not always the case.
It can strike a fit, happy, well-looked after dog, with a good health history!

Does pregnancy and whelping protect a dog against developing this?

No. It can develop in any female, even if she has delivered healthy litters of puppies in the past.

Treatment for Pyometra

Do not delay in seeking immediate veterinary care if you suspect your dog may have Pyometra. Do not wait -even an extra hour! The faster treatment is started, the better chance your dog will have of surviving this crisis.
Intravenous fluids and antibiotics are usually started straight away. Sometimes surgery to remove the uterus and ovaries begins immediately, and sometimes the dog is kept on fluids and antibiotics for a few hours before surgery. The reason for this is to give the antibiotics chance to attack the worst of the infection, and as the kidneys are under great stress, toxins to be flushed from the system by the intravenous fluids, to help save kidney function.
Surgery is always the most successful treatment. Aggressive antibiotic treatment alone may appear to combat Pyometra temporarily, but it will recur at or following the next "Heat" cycle.
If treatment is immediately sought, and started quickly, (within a 'window' of four hours maximum) the dog has a good chance of survival and full recovery.

Post-surgical care

Removal of the uterus is a fairly major surgical procedure, so for the first week there should be lots of rest, no walking up stairs, or jumping in and out of cars, or up onto beds. Exercise should be restricted to "toilet" breaks only for the first couple of days, followed by a week or so of gentle short walks on-leash, to prevent running.
Good easily-digested nutritious food should be given, and access to clean water.
The vet will usually make an appointment for a post-surgical check about 3-4 days later, then a follow-up appointment after about 10 days to remove sutures if non-dissolvable ones are used. The healing of the scar is observed, and the dog's general condition.
Sometimes these check-ups and suture removal are included in the price for the surgery as part of the vet's "duty of care".
It is wise at this point to have the vet also take full bloodwork to assess the kidneys, as Pyometra can occasionally cause lasting weakness in renal function.

How to completely avoid Pyometra

If you are uncertain whether or not you wish to breed your female, then having her spayed is the only way to prevent Pyometra, which is very common, and can be a cause of sudden death.

Copyright S.Groves 2014

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  1. LPC's Avatar
    A very informative blog. Thank you, Tobi.
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