Why We Spay and Neuter
All rabbits adopted out by the Wisconsin House Rabbit Society are neutered or spayed, unless there is a severe medical reason not to. This is a requirement we impose upon ourselves and it is an attitude we try very hard to teach all people learning about rabbits.
Although the surgery is by far the most expensive part of most fostering and we would easily cut our expenses to eliminate this requirement, we have never considered it. Altering rabbits is too fundamental to our philosophy to give up. Many of our members are asked the same question though, “Why do you bother altering rabbits?” This article is intended to help our membership understand our purpose and to help them answer such questions from other people.
The House Rabbit Society believes that a rabbit’s general health is improved if they are altered, live indoors, and properly fed. It is difficult to separate these issues, since no one in the House Rabbit Society wishes to risk shortening the lives of our companions in order to see which of these three factors is most important.
In general, stress is a major problem in all species. Rabbits are no exception; in fact, they appear to be more susceptible to stress. Stress decreases the immune system’s ability to cope. Stressed bunnies are more likely to get an infection. Most of the illnesses our bunnies tend to get are considered opportunistic infections, infections that are caused by a drop in the body’s ability to fight off that infection. Maintaining a low level of stress plays a large role in warding off many types of bacterial infections. Unfixed rabbits are permanently “on” sexually. This state creates a substantial amount of the stress on their system and makes them more susceptible to illness.
Unspayed female rabbits are especially prone to health problems. Their permanent “on” state is something humans have bred into them, and it gives them an extraordinary risk for uterine cancer. It was shown as far back as the early 1950s that by the time female rabbits reach age five, 80% have uterine cancer. We have seen uterine cancer in rabbits as young as six months.
The number one killer of foster rabbits coming into the Wisconsin Chapter is uterine cancer. Spaying essentially removes this risk. Our bunnies live 8-12 years; it is against the odds for an unspayed female to live that long. Spaying female bunnies will literally add years to the happy life of your rabbit. I want my girls around as long as possible and the cancer risk alone is sufficient reason for spaying. I have dealt with end stage cancer in rabbits and it is not a pleasant end. Spay your girls and you will not have to worry about this heartbreak.
There is no similar hormone related cancers in males. Testicular cancer is not anywhere near as common as uterine cancer. However, having an unfixed male around leads to behavioral problems.
I moderate for the behavior list-serve of the National HRS Website. I answer questions about everyone’s bunny problems. The most unfortunate aspect of this is that most of what people find troubling about their rabbit’s behavior is hormone driven. “My bunny sprays; My bunny bites my ankles; My bunny runs circles around me and sprays me down; or Why does my bunny charge my boyfriend when he comes over?” Usually these questions are accompanied with a statement that bunny was sweet until a month ago. My response is, “Any idea the sex and age of your rabbit?” The universal answer is a male between 4 and 8 months of age. My universal answer is, “Have him altered.”
Male bunnies can be aggressive toward people if they feel their territory is too crowded. Unfixed male rabbits have more of an odor. They will mark their “space” with urine. My 11-year-old mini Rex is about 3 pounds; when this little dude hit puberty he sprayed urine 20 inches up the wall! After a boy is neutered, all the hormone-driven activity will stop AND you do not see a change in personality.
Unspayed female bunnies can also exhibit negative behaviors. “My bunny is so mean she won’t even let me change the litterpan in her cage.” The age and sex question usually gives me a female that is 5-9 months old. Again, the hormones are driving her to defend her cage against all comers. This is her nest spot and she will fight to keep it. Many of these girls will only be nasty around the cage or sleeping spot.
Since this kind of behavior is a major factor in the abandonment of rabbits at animal shelters, spaying or neutering is one of the easiest ways to get people to keep a bunny. Not all behavioral issues are related to sex hormones running rampant, but many sweet affectionate bunnies become a combination of Bugs Bunny and Mr. Hyde when they hit puberty, with major mood swings and unpredictable reactions.
Altering rabbits has also been noticed to improve litterbox habits. It makes pairing rabbits easier. In the case of single sex pairs it is the only way to make them consistently work. Neutered male-male pairs are the most difficult combination of altered rabbits, but it is impossible with intact male rabbits.
Today’s veterinary system has the potential to do a great job with altering rabbits. The anesthesia, the techniques, and the skills can be found. Over the years I have been amazed with the increased rabbit knowledge in vet practice. It might be a little hard in some places to find the right person, but a little perseverance on your part will go a long way. It is a cost, but just like dogs and cats, this is a cost that should be factored in when you think about getting a pet rabbit. I remind the prospective owner that rabbits do not need shots like dogs and cats, usually making them less expensive in the long run.
If you have pet rabbits, they do not have the need to breed in order to maintain the species. I have yet run into an animal shelter that did not have an overpopulation of all species! Unwanted baby rabbits are not easy to find homes for. It is not easy to make money breeding rabbits. If this is what you want to do, then your bunnies are no longer just pets. A common argument is that breeding bunnies shows children the mysteries of life. Even if you are experienced in rabbit breeding, many bunnies will die during birth, both mothers and babies. Children do not learn Mom and Dad’s intended lesson when this happens. I have fielded many phone calls from distraught parents looking for a replacement rabbit after such a catastrophe. Sometimes they are just replacing the mom, other times they are trying to hide the fact that bunnies died with a surreptitious replacement of the mom or babies. What lesson is being taught here? And why did the bunny have to pay with his life?
One of my least favorite arguments is the human telling me that the rabbit’s life is not fulfilled if it is neutered. Okay, let us look down the road. Short of breeding the rabbit, it still is not fulfilled. Rabbits are meant to be social animals, yet an unaltered rabbit cannot live with another rabbit, since same sex, unfixed rabbits tend to fight. One altered rabbit and one unfixed rabbit is also a poor combination as the pair will be prone to fights and frankly, it does not seem a “fulfilling life” for the altered rabbit. Thus we are relegating the poor rabbit to a lonely existence in the backyard hutch if its hormone driven behaviors are difficult to live with. Does that sound very fulfilling?
Our goal is to make our lives and the lives of our pets as wonderful as possible. Frankly, I find that when my bunnies are happy so am I. No matter how I have looked at the issue of spaying and neutering, it is a series of compromises on both sides. I want a long life for my bunnies and I assume they do too. Thus spaying females is a compromise made for a longer life of a cherished friend. Neutering males makes them able to have friends, both human and lapine. I have to live with the vet bill and cleaning up a few accidents of pellets on the living room floor. The final outcome is the best for everyone.
Wisconsin House Rabbit News, Vol. 9, No. 2, June 2002