Spaying in Rabbits

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

What is an ovariohysterectomy?

An ovariohysterectomy is often referred to as a spay or spaying. It is a surgical procedure in which both ovaries and uterine horns are completely removed to sterilize or render infertile, a female animal.

Why should I have my rabbit spayed?

There are many health and behavioral benefits associated with spaying your rabbit:

•Spaying eliminates unwanted pregnancies. Although raising baby rabbits might be a wonderful family experience, finding homes for the new rabbits might prove more challenging than one would anticipate. A single female can produce up to 14 baby rabbits with each litter, and she could have a litter every month - up to 168 rabbits per year!

 "A single female can produce up to 14 baby rabbits with each litter, and she could have a litter every month - up to 168 rabbits per year!"

Spaying significantly minimizes the risk of ovarian, uterine, and mammary cancers. Reproductive cancers are quite common in rabbits. Also, there is no chance of uterine infections (pyometra) if there is NO uterus.
Spayed rabbits are much less likely to display undesirable hormone-induced behaviors such as mounting, urine spraying (or territorial marking), and aggression.
• Litter box habits are more predictable in spayed rabbits.
• Your rabbit may be calmer and easier to handle, as she is not experiencing the stresses of sexual frustration.
• An intact female rabbit may experience a condition called "pseudo-pregnancy", also known as a false pregnancy, in which she will start nest building, produce milk, and experience maternal aggression towards people and other animals. In some cases, this condition can lead to mastitis (infection of the mammary glands).

When should I have my rabbit spayed?

Most rabbits are spayed between four and six months of age; however, many veterinarians prefer to spay between six and twelve months of age. Female rabbits reach sexual maturity between four and six months of age. If there is an intact male in the house and the female is over four months, the female must be kept separate or one of two things need to happen: either she should be spayed after four months of age or, if the male is over four months of age, he should be neutered.

What does a spay surgery involve?

This major surgical procedure is done under general anesthesia. You must NOT fast your rabbit the night prior to surgery as is done with dogs and cats. Your rabbit will be given a physical examination prior to the surgery. Your veterinarian may recommend some pre-operative blood tests to ensure your rabbit is healthy enough to have surgery performed and that there are no pre-existing problems that may compromise her health. The operation is performed through a reasonably small incision in the midline of the abdomen, just below the umbilical area. The hair in this area will be shaved and surgically prepared prior to the surgery. Both ovaries and uterine horns are removed. The surgical incision will be closed with several layers of sutures (muscle and skin). Most veterinarians place dissolvable sutures under the skin so the patient will not be able to chew the sutures out.

"You must NOT fast your rabbit the night prior to surgery as is done with dogs and cats."

A general rule for most veterinary practices is to keep the patient overnight and to ensure she is defecating on her own before going home. In some cases, additional pain medications and syringe feeding with Oxbow Critical Care® will be administered to help keep the digestive tract moving and functional.

What post-operative care will my rabbit need?

Your rabbit will likely be given pain medication in the hospital and may be sent home with medication. Keep your rabbit in a clean, quiet environment and try to minimize excessive running, jumping, or hard play that may place stress or strain on the surgical incision. Feed your rabbit like you normally would. Your rabbit should be eating, drinking, defecating, and urinating within 12-24 hours of the operation. Inspect and assess your rabbit and the incision daily and report any concerns regarding behavior changes, appetite, drinking, urination, and defecation to your veterinarian.

Occasionally, rabbits will chew the sutures and open the surgical wound. This needs immediate veterinary attention. If sutures are placed on top of the skin, many rabbits will chew them and open the surgical wound. If sutures are placed outside the skin, they will need to be removed in seven to ten days. Sutures placed under the skin should dissolve in 14-21 days.

Are complications common with spaying?

In general, complications are rare with this surgery. However, as with any anesthetic or surgical procedure, in any species, there is always a small risk. To minimize risks, it is important to follow all pre-operative instructions and report any sign of illness or previous medical conditions to your veterinarian prior to the day of surgery.

"...as with any anesthetic or surgical procedure, in any species, there is always a small risk."

Potential complications may include:

Anesthetic reaction. Any animal may have an unexpected adverse reaction to any drug or anesthetic. These reactions cannot be foreseen, but are extremely rare.

Internal bleeding. This may occur in association with any of the cut or manipulated tissues. This is very rare and is more likely to occur if your rabbit is too active in the days following the surgery. Signs to watch for include weakness, pale gums, depression/listlessness, lack of appetite, or a distended abdomen.

Post-operative infection. Although rare, this may occur internally or externally around the incision site. Infection can usually be managed with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication. Infections most commonly occur if the pet licks the surgical site excessively or is kept in a damp dirty environment. Monitor and observe the surgical site daily for swelling, redness, wound breakdown, pus or other discharge.

Suture reaction or sinus formation. This is very rare but occurs when the rabbit’s body reacts to the type of suture material used during surgery. This results in a draining wound or tract that may appear up to several weeks after the surgery was performed. Further operations may be required to remove the suture material and correct the issue.

Address any concerns with your rabbit’s veterinarian ASAP.

Will spaying have any adverse effects on my rabbit?

The vast majority of rabbits will experience no adverse effects following spaying. There are many myths and beliefs about spaying that are not supported by facts or research. Your pet will not become fat and lazy. Be sure to discuss the pros and cons or any concerns you may have with a veterinarian familiar with rabbits.

Related Know Your Pet Articles