A while ago I had a new rabbit owner inform me that the breeder from whom she got her rabbit at the state fair had told her never to let a veterinarian perform surgery on her pet because vets kill all rabbits with anesthesia when they perform surgery. The breeder had recommended having the rabbit neutered, but apparently this was something she did herself without the benefit of anesthesia. I cringed, but was glad that the owner was still willing to talk with the murderous veterinarian about neutering her rabbit humanely before subjecting him to what I can only imagine would have been tantamount to torture. At least the breeder and I could agree on something. Spaying and neutering rabbits is as least as important for protecting their health and longevity as it is for dogs and cats.
Female rabbits are very prone to developing uterine cancer by the time they become middle aged. There are few clinical signs outside of blood in the urine that might give us reason to think there is a problem until the disease has become very advanced. If we are lucky enough to catch them in time many rabbits can be cured with a spay, but if they had been spayed as young rabbits they never would have developed the problem to begin with, and the surgery would have been much easier on a young, healthy rabbit than it was on an older one with a health problem.
Male rabbits are less likely to develop disease as a result of being un-neutered, but what they lack in sickness they more than make up for in behavioral issues. There are many rabbit owners who could tell you that it can be difficult to have a polite conversation with the neighbors while your lovesick male rabbit is furiously humping your foot, or more embarrassingly your neighbor’s foot. Male rabbits also have a talent for arching their back and flinging urine high into the air to maximize coverage of their territory, which apparently includes all of the walls and floors within shooting range of the cage. Although there are those who would say that those are natural behaviors for a rabbit and if we are going to keep them as pets we should learn how to accept that, I do feel that most of an intact male rabbit’s mental energy is spent on finding mating opportunities and establishing and defending territory, and when neutered they can spend less time feeling frustrated and thwarted and more time being happy with their lives.
The biggest stumbling block for most people when deciding whether or not to spay or neuter their rabbit comes from a legitimate concern about the safety of anesthetizing their pets. It is true that rabbits are more difficult to safely anesthetize than your average dog, cat, or ferret. Some of the issues that were more prominent in the past were due to a lack of safe, gentle anesthetic drugs, but current veterinary medicine offers an abundance of very safe anesthetic agents that nearly eliminate earlier concerns about death while under anesthesia. These days the complication that would be most likely to claim the life of a rabbit occurs a few days after the surgery. In these rare situations rabbits develop gastrointestinal problems, possibly due to stress, pain, and/or low blood pressure during surgery that can result in fatal toxicity within a few days. A veterinarian who is familiar with rabbits will take precautions to keep their patient well supported while asleep, keep pain under control, and minimize stress while in the hospital.
A typical spay or neuter can be performed during the day with the rabbit sent home the same day. Unlike dogs and cats, rabbits are not capable of vomiting, so they do not need to be fasted before they come in for surgery. After the procedure most rabbits go home almost as if nothing had happened to them. Although we recommend taking it easy on the feeding with dogs and cats after the surgery, we want rabbits to eat again as soon as they are able, as this helps maintain healthy gastrointestinal movement. A little limited exercise is recommended during the week after the surgery, but male rabbits who have a frequent habit of humping things should be kept away from situations that may encourage that behavior for a week. Your rabbit will be up and around in no time and ready to carry on the rest of its long life, and as the owner you can be relieved of having to worry about many unpleasant issues in the future.