Neutering - why and when
Everyone knows that rabbits breed like, well.... rabbits! The number of pet rabbits born each year is far greater than the number of good homes that can be found for them. As a result, thousands of rabbits find their way to re-homing centres where they wait for adoption. Responsible rabbit owners realise that neutering (sterilising, castrating, spaying) will not only reduce these numbers, but will also safeguard their rabbit's health and welfare for the future.
What does neutering involve?
Both castration in the male rabbit (buck) and spaying in the female rabbit (doe) are major operations which need a general anaesthetic.
The operations involve a single cut, into the belly of the female to remove the ovaries and uterus (womb), or into each scrotal sac of the male rabbit to take out the testicles. Your rabbit should be ready to come home on the same day as surgery, as soon as the anaesthetic has worn off. The fur where it was shaved for its operation may re-grow slightly darker than the rest of its body, but the contrast often disappears when your rabbit moults its fur the next time.
What are the benefits of neutering?
The most obvious reason for having a female rabbit neutered is to prevent her from producing baby rabbits. A female rabbit will come into season more than 10 times a year and she could be having litters of baby rabbits (also known as kittens) almost constantly throughout her life. This is a lot of baby rabbits to find homes for - when there are already too many baby rabbits born every year!
Also, unneutered (or 'entire') female rabbits become very territorial when they reach sexual maturity (usually at 4-6 months old). This is demonstrated by aggressive behaviour towards other rabbits and even you. Your doe may bite, scratch, kick and growl at you when you open her hutch to feed her. An entire doe will also experience false pregnancies - during which her behaviour could become worse. Fortunately, these problems can all be resolved very simply by having your rabbit neutered. A neutered female rabbit is much less territorial and as a result is a more relaxed and pleasant-natured rabbit to have. Another advantage is that your rabbit will have a longer life expectancy - up to 80% of unneutered female rabbits will develop cancer of the uterus before the age of 5 years. This usually results in an early and painful death.
Uncastrated male rabbits can be aggressive with other rabbits and humans and they will also spray urine like male cats. Neutering a male rabbit produces a much calmer, relaxed pet. If you keep your rabbit indoors, neutering it will make it much easier to litter train!
When should my rabbit be neutered?
Neutering is generally performed in rabbits over 4 months of age, and there is no upper age limit for neutering.
You may wish to have your rabbit neutered if you acquire it as an adult or you may want to have a litter or two before your rabbit is retired as a breeding animal. Male rabbits can also be neutered later in life and this may reduce certain types of antisocial behaviour such as aggression and spraying.
Is neutering dangerous?
All operations requiring a general anaesthetic involve a certain amount of risk and on rare occasions there may be complications after the operation. However, in female rabbits these risks are far smaller than the risk of developing uterine cancer.
Will neutering make my rabbit fat and lazy?
Neutering will not have any significant effect on your rabbit's lifestyle apart from eliminating its sexual behaviour. Because it is not expending energy in finding a mate and defending a territory, your rabbit may need less food, but you should be able to prevent it becoming overweight by giving it slightly smaller meals. Most owners find that any changes in their rabbit's personality are for the better as many neutered rabbits become more relaxed, affectionate and playful.
Is neutering expensive?
Different vets may charge slightly different prices for a neutering operation depending on various factors such as the location, and the quality of the facilities at the practice. But all vets prefer to see as few unwanted baby rabbits as possible and they try to minimize their charges. If money is short then you can shop around and people on income support may get help from one of the animal charities. However, it is wise to balance the costs of neutering against the expense of having an unwanted litter of baby rabbits. A pregnant rabbit will need more food to support herself and her offspring, the babies will need veterinary attention and you may have to advertise to find them good homes.