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Pyometra in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Pyometra is a serious, life-threatening bacterial infection of the uterus that requires immediate medical attention. This blog post explores symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention methods to be aware of for the health and safety of your female dog.

Written by Raquel Astacio. Published in March 2023.
Pyometra in Dogs

In this blog post, we will unpack the truths behind pyometra, shedding light on its causes, signs, and risk factors, as well as exploring the critical role of timely spaying in safeguarding your four-legged friend’s wellbeing. By delving into this complex and vital topic, we hope to not only raise awareness among pet owners but also arm you with the information needed to spot the red flags and act in your dog's best interest. 

So, grab a cup of your favorite steaming hot beverage, settle in, and let’s embark on this eye-opening journey of understanding pyometra together. A little knowledge today could make all the difference in giving your furry friend a happier, healthier, and longer life.

What is Pyometra in Dogs?

Pyometra is a term used to describe an infection of the uterus. A condition that primarily affects intact female dogs, pyometras usually develop as a result of the hormonal changes that occur during a routine heat cycle. But how exactly does this happen, and why is it such a big deal? Let’s take a closer look.

What Causes Pyometra in Dogs?

After an estrus period (also known as a heat cycle), an unaltered female dog’s body retains high levels of a hormone called progesterone. This specific hormone assists in the thickening of the uterine lining in anticipation of a potential pregnancy. But sometimes, if multiple cycles occur without pregnancy, the uterine lining will become too thickened and will begin to secrete fluids. This creates an environment where bacteria grow unchecked, thus resulting in a pyometra. 

Pyometra Types

There are two types of pyometra that a dog may develop: open or closed. With an open pyometra, infectious material leaks from the uterus, and the cervix remains open. This will usually result in abnormally colored discharge from the vulva and can be extremely uncomfortable. 

A closed pyometra, however, is one in which all infectious material remains trapped within the uterus, and the cervix remains closed. While equally uncomfortable, a closed pyometra may go unnoticed for some time as the symptoms are much more subtle. 

Both forms of pyometra are equally life-threatening and should be treated as an emergency. If left untreated, bacteria can quickly acquire access to the bloodstream, leading to a body-wide infection known as sepsis, shock, and even death.

Pyometra Symptoms in Dogs

Pyometras are extremely uncomfortable, and the signs an affected pet shows will not always be isolated to the urogenital system. The following is a comprehensive list of the most common symptoms of pyometra in dogs:

  • Lethargy or loss of energy
  • Anorexia or loss of appetite
  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Pale mucous membranes 
  • Vaginal discharge (usually yellow, cream-colored, or bloody)
  • Abdominal pain

Other frequently reported symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, abdominal distention, and ocular inflammation (of the eyes). However, it is possible for these dogs to be asymptomatic, showing no physical symptoms aside from purulent vaginal discharge. 

Diagnosing Pyometra in Dogs

Pyometra is a serious medical condition that should always be considered for any unspayed female dog who is unwell. In many cases, a veterinarian may be able to diagnose pyometra based solely on the findings of a physical exam and history. However, they may also recommend a few tests to confirm their diagnosis.

The most common diagnostic tools used to determine the presence of pyometra include the following: 

  • Abdominal X-Rays
  • Abdominal Ultrasound 
  • Bloodwork
  • Urinalysis
  • Vaginal Cytology

Each of these diagnostic measures serves a different purpose that can be essential in successfully diagnosing pyometra. 

Pyometra in Dogs Treatment

Surgical removal of an affected dog’s uterus is the go-to treatment for pyometra. This procedure, referred to as an ovariohysterectomy (or “spay”), is almost entirely curative and will generally result in a speedy recovery with very minimal recurrence. Plus, this procedure can also help to reduce certain types of ovarian or uterine cancer!

Dogs who are diagnosed in the early stages of infection will typically enjoy very minimal hospitalization and recovery time. However, most are diagnosed in the latter stages of infection and will require significant medical intervention in order to be stabilized for surgery. 

Typical measures used to stabilize a dog with pyometra include IV fluid therapy (to maintain adequate hydration), antibiotics (to rid the body of infection), and pain medication. 

This emergency surgery can save your dog's life, but it is crucial to act swiftly, as every moment counts once a dog is suffering from pyometra - the longer you wait, the more dangerous it will become!

What Antibiotics Are Used to Treat Pyometra in Dogs?

As we’ve learned, surgical intervention is the most effective way to treat pyometra. But for breeding or show dogs, this may not be a viable option. Instead, treatment will rely on antibiotics, such as Ampicillin, and supportive care. 

To choose the most appropriate antibiotic, your veterinarians may recommend culturing the vaginal discharge. A culture test is used to measure bacterial growth and can be a helpful way to determine which specific antibiotics are most effective.  

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, the success of treating with antibiotics alone is good if the cervix is open, maintaining fertility in up to 90% of cases. However, the prognosis is much more guarded if the cervix is closed.

It is also important to note that, though this course of treatment may be effective the first time, recurrence is very likely. In fact, studies show that 70% of females treated medicinally for pyometra had recurrence within just two years. Therefore, the best thing that can be done for these dogs is to have them spayed immediately after the completion of their last desired litter. 

Pro Tip: Consider giving your pet a probiotic after she has finished her course of antibiotics. Doing so will help to restore good gut flora and improve overall health. 

How to Prevent Pyometra in Dogs

Many pet owners will find themselves wondering how to prevent pyometra in dogs without spaying - after all, this type of surgery can be expensive and recovery a hassle. But the truth of the matter is that spaying your dog while she is still young could save her life - not only by reducing the risk of pyometra but also by reducing the risk of certain types of cancer. 

However, it is important to note that even a spayed dog can still develop pyometra if the uterine stump is not fully removed. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, this rare occurrence is usually the result of an “incomplete ovariohysterectomy which allows a segment of the uterine body or horn to become infected.” To prevent this, just be sure to choose a credible veterinary surgeon whom you trust so that the spay procedure is done correctly.

FAQs About Pyometra in Dogs

“How common is pyometra in dogs?”

Experts estimate that 1 in 4 intact female dogs will develop pyometra at some point in their lives - nearly twenty-five percent! 

“Who is at risk for pyometra?”

Pyometra can happen to any intact female dog, with the youngest reported case being that of a four-month-old puppy. However, the vast majority of pyometras develop in older dogs between the ages of six and ten. 

“Is pyometra hereditary?”

Pyometra is not a hereditary condition, though there are certain risk factors that owners ought to be aware of - one of which is breed. Breeds that are predisposed to developing pyometra include:

  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Rough-Haired Collies
  • Rottweilers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Irish Terriers
  • Chow Chows
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniels

“Can a dog die from pyometra?”

Unfortunately, yes, a dog can die from pyometra if it is not treated in time. The fatality rate for this condition depends on a few different factors, including when it is diagnosed and how quickly treatment begins. If the infection is caught early and treatment begins immediately, the fatality rate may be low. 

However, if left untreated, mortality rates for pyometra are extremely high. For this reason, timely detection is critical in order to resolve the pyometra itself as well as to prevent any systemic spread, which may require more intensive medical care to address. 

Conclusion

Pyometra is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that can affect any intact female dog. Fortunately, spaying early on can dramatically reduce the chances of developing this dangerous infection, and it can also be treated using the same procedure. By understanding and proactively addressing the risks associated with pyometra, we can ensure that our loyal companions thrive by our side for many years to come.

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