Neutering – it’s not just about babies…
…it’s vital for a long and healthy life.
It’s important to your rabbits’ welfare that they live in pairs or groups and neutering allows them to do this. It prevents life-threatening health problems (especially in female rabbits) and, of course, prevents unwanted pregnancies. There are thousands of unwanted rabbits in rescue centres already, please don’t add to this by breeding from your pets.
It’s worth saying again:
Neutering is vital for a long and healthy life.
Vital for bonding
If you have a mixed-sex pair of rabbits, they both need to be neutered so that they can live together happily. Even if your female rabbit is spayed, an uncastrated male will still try to mount her which can trigger fighting and it will cause stress to both rabbits. If you neuter your male rabbit but leave your female rabbit unspayed, she will have repeated false pregnancies, is likely to become aggressive, and will be at risk of early death from uterine cancer. While mounting may still take place between neutered pairs, it will be due to dominance behaviour rather than reproduction, and this is a completely natural behaviour. In fact you will sometimes find female rabbits mounting their male companions because they are the dominant partner.
Male rabbits can be castrated at any age. If you have taken on young rabbits, it’s best to have them castrated as soon as their testicles descend (10–12 weeks) although take advice from your own vet – some may prefer you to wait a little longer.
The operation is fairly straightforward and recovery time is quite quick, provided there are no complications. Some vets perform rabbit castrations via the scrotum and some via the abdomen.
If you have a young male rabbit castrated within a few days of his testicles descending into the scrotum, he won’t have the chance to become fertile and he can remain with a female littermate or companion. If castrated any older, be careful. Male rabbits aren’t sterile immediately after castration (mature sperm may have already left the testicles, and can live a surprisingly long time!), so keep him away from unspayed adult females for up to six weeks after his operation.
For females, the spay is a major operation. Her uterus and ovaries have to be removed via an incision in her abdomen. Females are sterile as soon as they have been spayed, but if they have a male companion, you need to check he is gentle with her until the healing process is well underway. If you think he might mount your female rabbit, keep them apart for a few days, where they can see and smell each other through wire mesh.
Females can be spayed from a similar age, but the uterus is very small at this point, and an age of 16-20 weeks is generally preferred. Spaying a rabbit over approximately 9 months can be more challenging due to the amount of fat which surrounds the uterus and its blood supply, and so not leaving it too late is best for her. Waiting till the classic 6 months risks her becoming pregnant, and at least 1 unwanted litter. The physical size of the rabbit is not usually a surgical challenge, but rabbits under 1kg become progressively more difficult to intubate, and so this weight is a useful cut off to await before surgery, where possible (ie some rabbits will be barely 1kg at adulthood, in which case there is little to be gained by waiting past 20 weeks.)
Advantages to having male rabbits castrated
- Uncastrated males can breed. Neutering/castration prevents this.
- Uncastrated male rabbits often spray urine like tom cats over their territory, their possessions (including their rabbit companions) and very often over you, too.
- Unneutered males occasionally develop cancer in their testes and prostate gland. Although the risk is small, castration removes that risk completely
- Neutering usually make litter training much easier.
- Some unneutered males are aggressive. After castration, testosterone levels will fall dramatically which should reduce aggression or get rid of it completely.
- Uncastrated male rabbits can’t live bonded with any other rabbit safely.
Advantages of having female rabbits spayed
- Unspayed females are at very high risk of two potentially fatal conditions. uterine cancer and pyometra (infection of the uterus/womb). These can both be fatal.
- Less commonly, they may develop mammary tumours
- Some unspayed females are aggressive and territorial. Many have repeated phantom pregnancies and may growl, lunge at, scratch or bite their owners or other rabbits, particularly in spring and summer.
- Keeping two unspayed females together, even if they are sisters, is very likely to result in serious fighting and the risk of injuries.
- Female rabbits are able to have kits from about 4-6 months of age.
Rabbit pregnancies are short – around 31 days – and there are several kits to each litter. Females are able to mate again immediately after they have given birth, so if the dad is still around, it’s obviously very likely that you will have a population explosion.
Is it safe?
Even 10 years ago, rabbit surgery was regarded as high risk and many vets were reluctant to perform planned surgery on rabbits. Nowadays there are far safer anaesthetics available, anaesthetic techniques have advanced enormously and veterinary training is more available, so rabbit neutering operations are much safer.
However, low-risk surgery doesn’t mean no risk surgery. Surgery on any animal can have unexpected complications, including a small risk of death, but for most rabbits the benefits of neutering far outweigh the very small risk.
Older rabbits and those in poor health are more difficult to neuter safely. If your pet rabbit is more than three or four years old, or has medical problems (such as obesity, dental disease or ‘snuffles’ and related disorders) you must discuss the risks and benefits with your vet in order to choose the best option for your pet.
Choosing the right vet to neuter your rabbits
It’s important to choose a suitable veterinary practice to neuter your rabbits. Like any other specialist field, vets vary in their interests and expertise in rabbit medicine.
Questions to ask your vet
If you already use a veterinary practice, ask whether they neuter rabbits. Most small animal vets are happy to neuter both male and female rabbits these days, but some practices do still refer rabbit surgery – especially spays, or higher-risk rabbits – to specialist exotics practices.
The cost of having rabbits neutered varies from one veterinary practice to another. Spaying a female is always more expensive than neutering a male because it is takes longer and is a more complex operation. Ask vets for quotes, but if you can afford to do so, choose your vet based on their rabbit expertise and track record in rabbit anaesthesia and surgery, not on their price-list. And don’t forget, that expertise may not be at the most expensive veterinary clinic!
Take your rabbit to the vet well before the operation date for a health check and to discuss the procedure. Ask whether any pre-operative blood tests are advised. Don’t change the diet in the week or so before surgery. Rabbits cannot vomit, so they don’t need to be fasted before surgery. They should be offered food and water right up to the time of surgery and as soon as they wake up.
Your rabbit should be awake, alert and preferably eating when you collect it after surgery. Remember to check:
- Has the rabbit been given pain-relieving drugs? If not, request some – you are unlikely to find any rabbit-savvy vet these days who doesn’t routinely pay great attention to pain relief after rabbit surgery, but always check.
- Who should be contacted if there are any problems?
- Do you need to book an appointment for a check-up, or for stitches to be removed?
- How long should the rabbit be on cage rest?
(Usually 2 days for males, 5 or 6 for females)