Multiplying like rabbits: to spay or to neuter?

We’ve all heard the phrase, “multiplying like rabbits,” meaning reproducing like crazy, and that’s what bunnies tend to do when sexually mature female and male rabbits are housed together. So, if you have rabbits that have already reached puberty (the age of which depends on breed, with smaller rabbits maturing at 4-5 months of age and larger ones maturing at 5-8 months of age), unless you want more of them, you will need to separate the males from the females. And don’t think that being related makes it any less likely for them to breed. Mothers and fathers will breed with offspring, and siblings will breed with each other. Our social norms do not apply to the rabbit world.

So, if you have a male and a female, what should you do? Should you have your veterinarian spay (remove the ovaries and uterus) of the female or neuter (remove the testicles) of the male? While both procedures will accomplish the same end – prevention of breeding – spaying the female actually has some significant added benefits. Statistics show that depending on the breed of the rabbit, females over age 4 years have a 50-80% chance of developing uterine cancer if they are not spayed. Therefore, in addition to preventing your female rabbit from breeding, spaying her also eliminates the possibility of her developing a potentially life-threatening cancer. While it is ideal to spay bunnies while they are healthy and young (typically after 6 months of age), before they develop other problems (such as respiratory or heart disease or kidney problems) that make anesthesia for surgery riskier, as long as the rabbit is in good health overall, and your veterinarian has performed the appropriate pre-operative tests (such as blood work and x-rays) to minimize risk, there really is no such thing as too old to spay. Of course, older animals often develop diseases that increase the risks associated with anesthesia, so before suggesting any surgery, a good veterinarian will help an owner weigh these risks against the surgical benefits. But, in general, if a rabbit can be spayed with minimal risk by a veterinarian (such as those at the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics)  experienced with this procedure and with anesthesia in rabbits, the benefit of avoiding such a common cancer usually outweighs the risks of the procedure.  Of course, a rabbit owner and veterinarian should discuss all of these issues thoroughly before proceeding with any surgery.

So, when should you castrate a male rabbit? Certainly, a male rabbit should be neutered if he lives with an unspayed female who is too infirm or ill to be spayed. In addition, a male rabbit that is spraying or marking his territory with urine, “humping” everything and everyone in his environment incessantly, or acting aggressively would be a good candidate for a neutering. Although, some people may take offense at the idea of neutering a male rabbit that lives alone and is not able to breed, doing so may actually make him a less frustrated and aggressive pet in the end.

What is the take home message? If you have a pair of opposite sex bunnies or a humping, spraying, male ball of fur, you should speak to your vet about neutering. Your rabbit will likely be happier and healthier if you do, and you won’t have to buy a dozen or more rabbit cages.

 

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