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The Hows, Whens, Whys, and Politics of C-Sections for Pets

By Dr. Patty Khuly

C-sections for dogs and cats

If you think C-sections sound like they wouldn’t be a big thing in the world of pets, you’d be wrong. If you know a Bulldog, for example (be they French or English), then you know at least one dog who was been born via Caesarian section. Lots of tiny breeds suffer reproductive troubles too, especially if the boy is significantly bigger. Smushy-headed cats like Persians are similarly at risk.

Yes, C-sections are a surprisingly common affair. Which is kind of strange if you think about it. After all, in a world where more pets need homes than have them, it’s almost unfathomable that veterinarians should routinely schedule these expensive procedures to ensure that pets can safely give birth to offspring – dogs and cats who will typically require the same procedure should they, in turn, reproduce.

But first, some background: Commonly believed to have been named after the Roman emperor whose mother bore him via this non-traditional route, the so-called C-section pioneered a dramatic surgical solution to retrieving human babies whose mothers would have otherwise died in childbirth. It had been considered dramatic and revolutionary well into the twentieth century, yet by modern standards, this impressive surgical procedure is now regarded as routine among human women.

Indeed, in the last few decades we’ve witnessed an impressive trend toward this surgical alternative to natural birth. No longer is the C-section reserved for emergencies; it’s become so commonplace as to be considered almost elective by some physicians’ standards. Which is as fraught an issue, ethically speaking, as almost any other in medicine.

Given the controversy in human medicine, it’s not surprising that the issue of C-sections would prove troublesome in veterinary medicine too. Though the issues (and the stakes) are different in the pet world, the topic is controversial. That’s because the Cesarean section, when employed for breeds of dogs and cats incapable of natural birth, smacks of an animal welfare violation.

Among those who pay attention to animal welfare issues, especially as they pertain to the genetic selection of purebred dogs, the C-section is a subject uncomfortably entrenched at the intersection of purebred breeding, genetic disease, animal welfare, and veterinary ethics.

Here’s why:

Though most small animal veterinarians perform emergency C-sections on a fairly regular basis (typically when the female has gone well past term or when labor is significantly prolonged), few of us believe that healthy moms and babies are better served by C-section. “Natural birth is always preferable” is the prevailing party line. Nevertheless, plenty among us have had cause to schedule C-sections in advance. In these high-risk cases, pets must be delivered just before their due dates.

In most cases it’s because the likelihood is high that the patients won’t survive a natural birth. Sometimes we learn this when we take radiographs (X-rays) between day 45 and 60 of a 63-day gestation period and find that the babies inside are larger than we expect (as happens often when paternity is in question). Other times it’s because we know for sure that the daddy is a big dude and the mother small by comparison (it often happens after accidental “mismatings”).

In too many cases, however, C-sections happen because the pets in question possess an exaggerated cranial conformation. So large and round are their heads that the babies can’t breach the birth canal. Bully breeds of dogs, flat-faced cats, and others whose heads are disproportionately large, broad, and shortened are the most common candidates for scheduled, prescribed surgeries – surgeries that are by no means less painful or risky than the alternative.

Which raises some questions: Why are we propagating any breed of dog or cat whose very survival requires a procedure most veterinarians agree isn’t ideal?

To be sure, C-sections save lives. Whether we’re talking about humans or pets, getting babies out fast is imperative in some instances. But do we really need to actively breed pets who can’t live without them? I think not. But then that would mean no more Bulldogs. Are you prepared to live in a world without them? Me…? I’d make the sacrifice.

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