by Dianne Cook, Licensed Veterinary Technician
As pet parents, we all want our fur babies to live forever. Though we have yet to stumble upon that fountain of youth, there are some steps we can take to help ensure our furry family members live well into their golden years. One of the ways we can do this is by having our rabbits spayed or neutered. For decades, veterinarians have been educating us about the benefits of spaying or neutering cats and dogs, but rabbit parents are often left wondering if these procedures are appropriate, or even safe, for their little ones. While no surgical procedure goes without risks, it is important to do your due diligence and learn all you can about these elective surgeries and how they can help give your little one the longest, happiest, healthiest life possible.
Why Should I Spay or Neuter My Rabbit?
Spaying or neutering your rabbit can significantly adds to their life expectancy and benefits their general health and wellbeing. The most obvious perk of these routine surgeries is eliminating the risk of reproductive cancers (mammary, uterine, ovarian, testicular) that are dishearteningly common in unaltered rabbits. Studies have shown that intact female rabbits have as high of a 65% chance of developing uterine adenocarcinoma by the age of 4 years which is an extremely high risk for neoplasia in any species. Spayed or neutered rabbits also tend to be more friendly and affectionate toward their pet parents (as well as other pets in the home) and are generally easier to litter box train. Another huge benefit is curbing, or reducing, unwanted behaviors. While your intact rabbit may find dousing you with urine to be the highest form of flattery, most pet parents are not overly receptive to this particular expression of love. Spaying and neutering often eliminates your bunny’s deeply engrained desire to propagate by altering their hormonal response, which is a giant step to improving unwanted behaviors. Additionally, without the desire to constantly procreate, altered bunnies tend to be much easier to introduce (Bond) to one another and are free to live in coed colonies without the risk of contributing to the pet population.
What Age is Best for Having My Rabbit Spayed or Neutered?
When possible, it is preferable to spay or neuter your little one before health concerns or problem behaviors arise. The best way to ensure this is to have the surgeries completed when your bunny is still young. Technically, once a female reaches sexual maturity or a male’s testicles have descended (usually between 3 and 6 months of age), they can safely undergo their respective procedures. Depending on your rabbit’s size, breed, and current health, however, your veterinarian may feel it best to wait until your rabbit is a little bit older. This is yet another reason why routine visits with an exotics savvy veterinarian are so important.
But what about older bunnies? Just like humans, as animals age, anesthesia can become inherently riskier. Though opinions vary, most exotics veterinarians agree the benefits of the surgery often exceed the risks, even in older adult rabbits. It is important to remember, though, that older rabbits will need more extensive pre-surgical screening and may take longer to recover. If your rabbit has already reached their senior years (5 – 6+ years old), make sure to have a serious heart-to-heart with your veterinarian about whether the procedure is safe for your particular rabbit, and whether or not the surgery will still provide the intended benefits (increased longevity, decreased aggression/spraying/humping, etc).
Is it Safe to Have My Rabbit Spayed or Neutered?
Any time a veterinarian performs a surgery, regardless of species and procedure, the goal is always a quick and efficient operation, smooth recovery, little-to-no post-operative complications, and a healthy patient. The unfortunate reality is that all anesthetic procedures include risks, and occasionally patients are lost, even during routine surgeries. This should be a rare occurrence, however, as a knowledgeable veterinarian and their highly skilled team will have plans in place to safeguard against risks and efficiently address complications should they arise. Before scheduling the surgery, make sure your veterinarian is well-versed in rabbit surgery and post-operative care, understands the risks and benefits of the procedures themselves, and answers your questions (below) to your satisfaction. To find a rabbit-savvy vet near you, check out the following resources: https://rabbit.org/vet-listings/ or https://aemv.org/.
What Questions Should I Ask?
- How long have you been seeing exotics animals, specifically rabbits?
- How many rabbits do you see in your office annually?
- On average, how many spays/neuters do you perform on rabbits each year?
- What is your success rate?
- Have you ever lost a rabbit during surgery? If so, what was the cause?
- Should my rabbit fast before surgery?
- The answer to this should be an emphatic “no” because rabbits are unable to vomit or regurgitate, there is no need to withhold food or water before surgery. Doing so could cause your bunny to go into gastrointestinal stasis making the entire situation much riskier.
- What are your anesthetic protocols?
- What precautions and supportive measures do you have in place before, during, and after surgery?
- Can you please describe the surgery?
- What is your typical post-operative plan? Do you provide pain control medications or antibiotics? Do you suggest feeding a recovery diet (like Critical Care) after surgery?
How Are Spay/Neuter Procedures Performed on Rabbits?
Both spay and neuter surgeries will require your rabbit to be fully anesthetized. Anesthetized animals’ vital signs (heart rate, respiratory rate/effort, blood pressure, temperature, and others) should be monitored closely by trained personnel throughout the entire procedure. A spay (ovariohysterectomy) is the procedure performed on females. For a veterinarian to properly and safely spay a rabbit, the hair is shaved from her abdomen, her skin is disinfected, and an incision is made through her abdominal wall. Blood vessels are tied off and her uterus and ovaries are removed before she receives several layers of sutures to close her up. To neuter (orchiectomy) a male is often a quicker procedure and therefore requires less time under anesthesia. After the hair has been removed from around your rabbit’s scrotum and the skin has been adequately disinfected, an incision is either made directly into the scrotum, or just before it, and the testes are tied-off and removed. The resulting incision can either be closed by the veterinarian or be left open to close on its own. It is important to remember that a male can store semen (sperm) in his body for up to 3 weeks after being neutered, so it is imperative to keep him away from any intact females during this time to avoid an unexpected litter.
Most rabbits do very well after surgery and heal without incident, but it is incredibly important to watch them closely, monitor their incisions and make sure they are eating. As prey species, rabbits are hardwired to hide any signs of illness or pain, so it is your job as a dedicated pet parent to provide them with a safe, comfortable environment and carefully watch them as they heal. Watch for any signs, regardless of how subtle, that may indicate your kiddo needs additional support (decreased appetite, decreased water intake, abnormal fecal output, behavior changes, etc). Though each rabbit is different, many males will come home hungry and ready for a snack. Because females undergo a more extensive procedure, they may want to be left alone and do not cherish the thought of being handled or moved around for several days. Other than making sure your little lady has access to plenty of fresh grass-hay and fresh water, and administering her daily prescriptions or suggested supplemental diet, it is usually best to respect her wishes of solitude. If you notice your recently altered bunny licking, chewing, or scratching at their incision, reach out to your veterinarian for suggestions on how to limit the behavior so the surgical site does not break open. Pain medication is essential so make sure they are receiving the full amount of what your prescribed by your veterinarian.
It is also important to remember that spaying and neutering may not be an instantaneous fix, especially if the procedure is being done to address problem behaviors. Hormone levels can take a while to stabilize, so less than desirable behavior patterns may continue for several weeks to a couple of months after the procedure. If your furry friend was altered well after reaching sexual maturity, some dominant behaviors (hair pulling, humping, circling, etc.) may have become engrained so it is important to discuss especially worrisome concerns with your veterinarian prior to the surgery and establish appropriate expectations.
While spaying or neutering your rabbit is not the key to eternal life (most regrettably), it has been proven to significantly increase overall health and longevity. These surgeries also often have the added benefit of making your rabbit a more affectionate companion and reducing problem behaviors. Though every surgical procedure comes with a certain level of risk, as a dedicated and knowledgeable pet parent, you can help decrease the risks by choosing a rabbit-savvy veterinary team that can answer all your questions and has a high surgical success rate. The decision to have surgery performed certainly isn’t easy, and should never be taken lightly, but by knowing what to expect and advocating for your fur baby, you can help ensure your bunny experiences a smooth procedure and quick, comfortable recovery.