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Spaying or Neutering a Bunny
Whilst this article is written specifically about spaying and neutering, most of it also applies to any time a rabbit has an operation, so it is a useful tool to have on hand, read and understand in case your rabbit ever needs and operation.
A spay or neuter is a very painful operation for a bunny, but one that is often necessary for a variety of reasons. A rabbit can often be happier after a spay or neuter, and it also eradicates some horrible potential health risks (such as the hormonal cancers in females, and less commonly, testicular cancers in males).
Before you choose which vet will do the operation it is important to find out if the vet is rabbit savvy, because if they are not, there may be unnecessary complications during, or afterwards. Please see the article on ‘Finding a Rabbit Savvy vet’ for how to do this successfully.
In the run up to the operation
There is a lot you can do to prepare both yourself and your rabbit for any anaesthetic.
~After the operation a rabbit will not have much appetite, so if you can work out what hays and what fresh foods are the rabbit’s favourites, then you know what to tempt him/her with after the operation. It also means you can get his/her gut used to different foods, and large amounts of them so that if they need them after the operation, you know it will not cause additional problems, like an upset gut.
~After an anaesthetic the rabbit will often be quite dehydrated, so getting the bun used to a bowl can be useful, because using a bowl will mean the bunny can drink more and quicker, therefore easing the dehydration quicker. Another tip to help encourage rabbits to drink, is to lace their water with something that they like. You can spend the time in the run up to the operation seeing if you can find what your rabbit likes. You can try lacing with a tiny amount of apple juice, cranberry juice, vanilla, or you can be creative and make ‘banana water’ or ‘herb water’ by soaking whatever the rabbits like in water and using that. Essentially anything that is rabbit safe can be used to lace water. When you do give flavoured water it is very important to also give plain water, so that you know that the bunny has a choice and can choose to drink what s/he likes.
~After a spay or neuter the bun will need restricted access, and also immediately after s/he will need to be kept inside, in a warm environment. You can get the rabbit used to the environment they will go into beforehand, so that it is not foreign and is less scary for the bun.
~A rabbit will certainly need painkillers after an operation such as this, and if complications and an infection occur, a bun may need antibiotics too. There are diverse ways to give painkillers (such as hidden in a basil leaf), however it can also be useful to syringe train your rabbit. This means getting your rabbit used to a syringe and learning that coming to the syringe means they get something nice. You can syringe train with anything rabbit safe, sometimes water with a little apple juice or cranberry juice can entice the buns over. If you get them used to a syringe then it can mean that giving meds is less stressful for both of you. You can get syringes from your vets, or from a regular pharmacy. 1ml syringes tend to work well for rabbits.
~One thing that is really important when your rabbit goes under any anaesthetic is that a rabbit does not need to be starved before hand. A rabbit does not have a gag reflex so therefore can not vomit. Also, a bunny’s gut is very sensitive and so needs to be kept moving for as long as possible, so feed the bunny right up until you leave for the vets. Having hay in the carry case also means s/he can keep eating as much as it wants.
Sending the bun to the vets
Different people do different things for their animal while it is at the vet, but the important thing is to make it as less stressful as possible.
~Some rabbits need their bonded friend with them as they go to the vets. This can ease the stress for the rabbit who is being operated on and also hopefully prevent any bond from being broken or stressed. Some vets encourage this, so talk to your vet about their practice before the day. Another option is, when they get home, to keep the bunnies next to each other, but not together.
~You can send the rabbit’s normal bowls/bottles to the vets as well as some of his/her regular pellets, favourite hay and also some of his/her favourite fresh foods for after the anaesthetic. The rabbit needs to be tempted as quickly as possible and having that food there might encourage him/her to eat quicker, and it will also mean s/he can smell his/her normal smell which should ease the stress.
When your bunny comes home
~When your bunny comes home s/he will often be very tired (more so the girls than the boys) and will need to sleep off the anaesthetic. This means s/he needs to be in a quiet, darkish place.
~If your rabbit is an outside rabbit then s/he will need to be inside so that s/he can recover, but equally so that you can monitor how your bunny is. The bunny needs to be inside at least 3 days for a boy and 5 days for a girl, but often more is preferable to avoid high risks of infection or injuring themselves, although some bunnies get depressed if they are not outside, so it is important to listen to your rabbit as well as common sense. When it comes to putting them outside again you will need to make a transition so as not to shock their system. Ideally they need to be put out during the day and brought in at night for a few days, lengthening the time each time to acclimatise them to the outside. The first night they are outside they could do with a heat source (see the following point) to ensure that they are not going to be too cold and do have somewhere to go if they need some warmth.
~Having an anaesthetic prevents rabbits from being able to regulate their temperatures so they need some help. This means you need to provide both a place where s/he can have some heat, but also where s/he can get away from it too. A good way to give heat is to provide a Snugglesafe (which can be bought at Pets At Home, and can usually be found in the cat section) which normally needs reheating every 5 hours or so, or providing a rice sock (regular uncooked rice in a sock, heated in the microwave until it is warm but not hot) which needs to be reheated every hour to two hours. This means that if the bunny wants to snuggle with some heat then the option is there but if the bun wants to be away from heat, it can do that too.
~It is very important after an anaesthetic that a bunny starts to eat, drink, poo and wee as soon as possible to avoid any sort of gut stasis problem. This means that your rabbit needs tempting as soon as possible afterwards, but not harassed. You can leave out a ‘bunny buffet’ of all the favourite foods, and swap them frequently to make sure they stay fresh. Normally a bun will start to eat a bit of hay before anything else, and then move onto the fresh foods, with pellets coming last. Normally a neutered rabbit will do all four things the evening following the operation, and a spayed rabbit will vary between that evening, but normally the morning or, if it is not doing well, later. If your rabbit is not doing all four within 24 hours (ie. eating, drinking, pooing, weeing), then it needs to go back to the vets quickly.
~Rabbits need pain medication after a spay or neuter. Many (non rabbit savvy) vets still don’t believe they do, but if you think about whether you would like that operation without follow up pain relief, you will realise it is not going to be comfortable. Rabbits are a prey animal, and so do not show pain until it is unbearable, which means it is up to us to know that and make sure that they are not in pain. Rabbits should have an injection of pain killer whilst still at the vets but they also need follow up pain killer. Metacam is a pain killer and anti-inflammatory and is often the medication of choice; however, some vets are happy to prescribe something stronger, especially for spays, and it is always worth asking! A neuter will mean that the bun needs it for at least 3 days, and a spay for at least 5 days. There are times when it is needed for longer, such as if there are complications. If you have any doubts, then make sure you contact your vets. Giving Metacam can be stressful, so you have to be creative. It can be given wrapped or hidden in food if the rabbit is willing to eat and take it, or, it can be given in a syringe, often with something like apple or cranberry juice. It needs to be given after food so that it does not irritate the gut.
~Rabbits can be inclined to chew their wounds. This is lessened with effective pain relief, but still may be a risk. An Elizabethan pet collar would be used in other animals to prevent this, but they are not suitable for rabbits because it prevents them eating cecotropes, or grooming, which can lead to them being depressed, thus making the problem worse. You can be creative and find something that works for your bun, but that keeps them safe.
~After an operation a vet may suggest a pre/probiotic for your bunny. This might be in the form of Critical Care, Biolapis, Fibreplex or something else. This can encourage your bun’s gut to stay healthy and may aid their recovery.
~There is a risk of infection after any operation. It is important that anything s/he sits on does not shed (using some fleece can be perfect because s/he can sit and snuggle on it, yet it does not shed) and nothing that might stick to him/her (like litter). Try and keep the hutch as clean as possible. If you see signs of redness, swelling, discharge, or anything else that concerns you, then you need to get the bunny to the vets ASAP because s/he may need antibiotics.
~Rabbits need restricted movement after these operations. Boys need it for a shorter time than girls. Given that the girls have their muscle wall cut, they need to be restricted until at least after the post spay check. Both boys and girls should not be allowed to jump for a while after their operation (again, for girls this time is longer).
At the end of the day it is important to remember that this is a guide, and that if you have any concerns at all to call your vets ASAP.
The following is a list of when to seek your vets help, but anything that concerns you warrants a vet call, just to be on the safe side. At the end of the day it is important to remember that this is only a guide, and that if you have any concerns at all to call your vet without delay.
~Not going to the toilet (pooing or weeing).
~Grinding teeth (this can indicate unbearable pain).
~Wound area chewed.
~Wound area red/discharging/hot/swollen.
~Excessive weeing/blood in urine/looking uncomfortable (cystitis can be very common in the days/weeks after a spay).
~Lumps on/around the wound area.
~Anything unusual that indicates your rabbit is not his/her normal self.
Once your bunny is neutered, the first short while might be stressful, but hopefully your bunny will quickly bounce back and it will all have been worth it.
(Copyright Tracy Hutchings. Written November 2008, revised April 2010)