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Why should I have my pet rabbit desexed?

Desexing has numerous benefits for both male and female pet rabbits including reducing problem behaviours, facilitating easier bonding with new rabbits joining the family, preventing unwanted pregnancies and minimising health issues in the future such as cancer of reproductive organs.  

A female rabbit is called a ‘doe’, a male rabbit is called a ‘buck’, and baby rabbits are known as ‘kittens’. Desexing a female rabbit is known as spaying where the entire reproductive tract is removed including the ovaries and uterus. Desexing a male rabbit is known as castration where both testicles are removed. Desexing is also referred to as ‘neutering’ or sterilisation. Non-desexed female or male rabbits are referred to as ‘entire’.  

Urine spraying is normal territorial behaviour seen in rabbits. It can become a problem behaviour in pet rabbits if continual spraying is occurring outside of their litter box. It is seen particularly in entire bucks but it can occur in entire does and can also be seen in desexed rabbits. Desexing may assist with preventing or reducing this behaviour and can contribute to successful litter box training [1]

Entire does may display behaviours associated with hormonal changes. This can include aggression towards other rabbits, pets and humans or other behaviour such as building a nest by pulling out tufts of hair from the dewlap (loose skin under the neck) and reacting aggressively if approached in the nest [1]. Pulling fur from their dewlap is a normal behaviour in entire does and this behaviour may take some time to cease after desexing, especially if she is desexed later than six months of age. It can occasionally be seen in desexed does, especially if kept with entire males, or if does were desexed later in life. If an entire doe is kept with a desexed buck, she may experience ‘phantom pregnancies’ where she displays pregnant doe behaviours, which can even initiate lactation [2].

Entire bucks can also show behaviour due to hormonal changes undergone during maturation, such as mounting and aggression. Desexing can reduce the incidence of these behaviours as it decreases testosterone levels which play a key role in these behaviours [3].

Bonding

Rabbits are social animals and, so, having more than one is important for their wellbeing, refer to What Companionship do rabbits need? [4,5]. When bonding rabbits of the opposite sex, desexing is imperative to prevent unwanted litters. Desexing can also prevent unwanted behaviours that can be seen when attempting to bond two entire rabbits which include fighting and urine spraying [4]. Desexing can help to reduce the hormones that influence these behaviours, thereby reducing the incidence of these problem behaviours in same sex or opposite sex pairs. Households with only one rabbit should still desex their rabbit as there are numerous health and behaviour issues associated rabbits remaining entire (covered in the sections below on Behaviour and Health). In addition, pet rabbits who have outdoor access may breed with wild rabbits. For more information on bonding rabbits please see the following article: Why is rabbit bonding important and how is it done

Health

Does are likely to develop ovarian cancer if they are not spayed. There is up to an 80 percent chance of ovarian cancer in does over three years of age but it can also occur in much younger does [4]. Does can also develop infections in the uterus known as pyometra, which is a painful disease that can be fatal if left untreated. If detected early, desexing can be an effective treatment. However, rabbits often hide signs of pain which may result in diagnosis being too late for treatment to be successful [2]. Bucks can also develop testicular and/or prostate cancer, although this is less common than ovarian cancer in does. Desexing can entirely prevent these potentially life-threatening diseases.

Does can have kittens from as young as four months old with large litter sizes of at least several kittens. Does can breed nearly every month meaning they could have up to 12 litters a year – that’s a lot of rabbits! [3]. Pregnancy can take a huge toll on does, impacting their general wellbeing and overall health. Desexing your doe will prevent health issues associated with pregnancy.

Additionally, there is the question of what to do with all these baby rabbits. Desexing will prevent the birth of unwanted rabbits and, considering the high number of rabbits currently in shelters, they may not have homes to go to. 

When should I desex my rabbit?

Desexing is best performed at a young age (16 to 20 weeks), so talk to your veterinarian when you first acquire your rabbit to find out more about the procedure and the recovery process to allow good planning [3]. Generally, rabbits should live as part of a bonded pair of rabbits and desexing will assist with the bonding process. When planning to bond rabbits, it is best to have your rabbits desexed at least four to five weeks before introduction [2]. You may also like to consider adopting a rabbit from a rescue organisation as these rabbits will generally already be desexed, and in many cases bonded pairs may be available [5]. For more information about rabbit care, please see the following articles: Can you give me some general advice on caring for my rabbits, How do I keep my pet rabbits happy?

References

[1] Crowell-Davis S (2007) Behaviour problems in pet rabbits. Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, 16: 38-44. doi:10.1053/j.jepm.2006.11.022, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1557506306001807  

[2] Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund (2022) Neutering – Castration and Spaying https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-health/medical/neutering/   

[3] Sayers I (2010) Approach to preventative health care and welfare in rabbits. In Practice 32:190-198. doi:10.1136/inp.c2228  https://bvajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1136/inp.c2228

[4] Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals UK (2022) Neutering of Rabbits. https://www.rspca.org.uk/documents/1494939/7712578/Rabbit+Neutering+Factsheet+%28PDF+176KB%29.pdf/4866daf9-8cd9-c129-4844-1c74914ef185?version=2.0&t=1559139035285&download=true

[5] All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (2021) Good Practice Code for the Welfare of Rabbits. https://apgaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Rabbit-CoP-2021-1.pdf  

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Updated on August 16, 2022
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