A Brush With Death: Sienna's Story

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a mobile, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, PA. Find him online at www.DrPhilZeltzman.com. He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (www.WalkaHound.com).

Kelly Serfas, a Certified Veterinary Technician in Bethlehem, PA, contributed to this article.

Sienna was one sick dog. She had been vomiting for a few days, with a decreased appetite, increased thirst and increased urination. When the 8-year old female Springer spaniel presented to the ER, she also had a fever.  She was in shock and severely depressed. Her belly was distended and painful. These signs are pretty classic in the veterinary world...

Radiographs confirmed the ER doctor's suspicion of a pyometra, a life-threatening condition where the uterus fills up with pus. She was treated for shock with IV fluids. Blood work showed a high white blood cell count - a sign of infection. Kidney values were high and the red blood cell count was low (anemia), which are common in pyometra patients.

Emergency surgery was the only treatment that could save Sienna's life, but she was too sick to go under anesthesia.  After stabilization and pain control, we took Sienna to surgery. When we opened her belly, some smelly brown fluid leaked out; this was a sign that the pyometra had ruptured or torn. The uterus was gigantic.  We found the tear and plugged it.  Then we performed pyometra surgery, which is basically a fancy (and expensive) spay. We then rinsed Sienna's belly with large amounts of sterile saline.

We stitched up her belly and recovered her in ICU, where she was closely monitored. After 48 hours of intensive treatments, Sienna finally turned the corner. She had more energy, was able to walk outside to go to the bathroom, and became interested in food. By the third day, Sienna was perkier, and she went home.

It was “touch and go” for a few more days.  She wasn’t all that interested in food, so we suggested all kinds of tricks to encourage eating and drinking. After one week, Sienna was feeling much better.

This may sound like a happy story with a wonderful outcome, but it is important to understand that Sienna almost died. This ordeal could have been completely prevented if she had been spayed as a puppy.

This complicated disease involves bacteria and hormones. Unspayed pets who receive hormones (estrogens, progesterone) have an increased risk of pyometra. If bacteria arrive in the uterus at a specific time during the female cycle, the severe infection will develop. The bacteria are most often naturally found in the dog's vagina, intestine or bladder.  For example, Sienna’s culture showed a Strep infection.

Up to 25% of unspayed dogs can develop this disease.  And of course this can also happen in cats, although less frequently than in dogs.  In addition, early spaying (i.e. before the first heat) is the only way we know to virtually eliminate the risk of breast cancer.

Few diseases are completely preventable. Pyometra is. The best way to avoid this life-threatening condition is to spay dogs and cats.

To add insult to injury, Sienna's owner learned an expensive lesson, the cost of surgery and 3 days of ICU easily cost her 10 to 20 times the cost of a spay. Sadly, Sienna ultimately paid the price and had a brush with death.  Two weeks after surgery we removed Sienna's stiches and I am happy to report that she made a full recovery.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

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