Spaying in Rats

By Laurie Hess, 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 the ovaries and uterus are removed completely in order to sterilize or render a female animal infertile. Some veterinarians will perform an ovariectomy, in which just the ovaries are removed.

Why should I have my rat spayed? 

There are many behavioral and health benefits associated with spaying your rat.

  • The obvious is the elimination of unwanted pregnancy if your female rat is housed with male rats. Although raising baby rats might be a wonderful family experience, finding homes for the new rats might prove more challenging than one would anticipate, and unspayed rats breed often!
  • Spaying significantly minimizes the risk of ovarian, uterine, breast, and pituitary gland cancers in Breast cancer is quite common in rats.
  • Once the uterus is removed, there is no chance of the rat developing a uterine infection (referred to as a pyometra) or a uterine tumor.
  • Spayed rats are much less likely to display undesirable hormone induced behaviors such as mounting and aggression.
  • Spayed rats may be calmer and easier to handle, as they are not experiencing the stresses of sexual frustration.

When should I have my rat spayed?

Ideally, most rats are spayed between four and six months of age. The older the rat, the longer its body is exposed to hormones produced in the ovaries, and the greater the chance of developing tumors.

What does a spay surgery involve?

This surgical procedure is done under general anesthesia. Rats are typically not fasted the night prior to surgery, as is done with other animals, because rats are grazers, rather than meal eaters, and their metabolism and digestion are much faster than that of other mammals.

"Rats are typically not fasted the night prior to surgery, because rats are grazers."

Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination on your rat prior to the surgery and may recommend pre-surgical blood tests. These blood tests allow your veterinarian to assess your rat’s overall health, ensuring that your rat is a good candidate for anesthesia. If preanesthetic bloodwork shows any abnormalities, these abnormalities can be addressed by making any necessary adjustments to your pet’s treatment plan. The operation is performed through a small incision into the middle of the abdomen. The hair in this area will be shaved and surgically prepared prior to surgery.

The ovaries and uterus are removed. If an ovariectomy is performed in which only the ovaries, and not the uterus, are removed, there will be a small incision on either side of the rat, just behind the last rib. The surgical incision will be closed with several layers of fine sutures that dissolve and do not need to be removed. Most rats go home within forty-eight hours after surgery.

What post-operative care will my rat need?

Your rat will likely be given pain medication in hospital and may be sent home with several days' worth of the same. Keep your pet in a clean, quiet environment and try to minimize excessive running, jumping, or hard play that may compromise healing of the incision. Separate this rat from any others at home for 5-7 days to minimize suture chewing by the other rats. Feed as usual, as a rat should be eating and drinking normally within 12-24 hours of the operation. If your rat is not eating well, you may need to syringe feed her according to your veterinarian’s instructions.

Inspect and assess your rat and the incision several times daily, and report any concerns regarding behavior changes, appetite, drinking, urination, and defecation to your veterinarian. Occasionally, rats will chew the sutures and open the surgical wound. This needs immediate veterinary attention. Otherwise, your veterinarian may want to check on the healing of your rat’s incision 7-10 days after she goes home.

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 associated with being anesthetized. To minimize risks, it is important to follow all your veterinarian’s pre-operative instructions and to report any sign of illness or previous medical conditions to your veterinarian prior to the day of surgery.

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 from cutting and manipulating internal organs and blood vessels. Post-operative internal bleeding is very rare and is more likely to occur if your rat 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. If you see any of these signs in your rat, she should be checked by a veterinarian immediately.

Post-operative infection. Although rare, this may occur internally, where organs and blood vessels were handled, or externally, around the incision site. Infection typically can be managed with antibiotics and applying warm compresses to the incision if it is swollen. Infections most commonly occur when the pet licks the surgical site excessively or is kept in a damp dirty environment. Monitor the surgical site several times daily for swelling, redness, re-opening, and the presence of pus or other discharge.

Suture reaction or sinus formation. This is extremely rare but occurs in some animals that are sensitive to certain types of suture material used during surgery. Their tissues react to the suture and often develop draining wounds or tracts that appear up to several weeks after the surgery was performed. Further procedures may be required to remove the suture material and correct the issue.

Will spaying have any adverse effects on my rat?

The majority of rats will experience no adverse effects following spaying, and in general, spaying is recommended for all healthy, young rats to prevent future health problems. There are many myths and beliefs about spaying that are not supported by facts or research. Your pet rat will not become fat and lazy.

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