In the past, many female rabbits which were assumed to have died from 'old age' were actually killed by reproductive cancers, such as breast, uterus and ovarian cancer. Unless they are spayed (the neutering operation for female animals), up to 80% of female rabbits naturally develop these cancers by the age of five years. As soon as they are old enough to breed - at around four to six months - they will start having repeated pregnancies, or false pregnancies, and will probably become moody and aggressive. However, spaying eliminates or reduces the behavioural problems, and prevents the possibility of your pet developing these fatal cancers.
Male rabbits benefit from being neutered, too. Boy bunnies have gained a somewhat unfortunate reputation for being 'bruisers', but if they are neutered, they will be less likely to fight.
Neither will the operation affect your rabbit's personality - except for perhaps making them calmer and easier to live with, both for you, and any rabbit companions they may have. Neutered rabbits have a much more laid-back attitude, and are much less likely to bite or scratch their owners, or attack even when a hand is put inside their cage or hutch, or be destructive in the home.
Some owners transfer human emotions on their pets, and worry that it may be 'cruel' to neuter their pet, but this simply isn't true - the rabbit won't miss a thing.
Rabbits enjoy the company of their own kind, but un-neutered rabbits cannot practically or safely have a rabbit friend, either of the same or opposite sex. Their male or female hormones lead to aggressive and sexual behaviour.
If they are not neutered, a male-female pair will breed like, well, rabbits! Sadly, just as there is with dogs and cats, there is a pet rabbit overpopulation problem, and all too many bunnies - around 24,000 each year - end up at rescue shelters looking for new homes.
Neutering one member of a mixed-sex pair is not the answer, either - the un-neutered rabbit will be frustrated and may turn on his or her companion. Even if the pair are of the same sex, there may still be hormone-induced aggression.
Neutering is particularly important if yours is one of the growing number of 'houserabbits' who live solely indoors. A houserabbit needs to be trained to use a litter tray if it is to be a pleasant companion, and neutered rabbits generally have better litter training habits. Un-neutered male rabbits are prone to mark their territories by spraying urine, and neutered males will generally stop doing this.
Neutering and spaying is a safe veterinary procedure, provided the animal is young and in good health, but ask around to find a vet who is experienced with rabbits, and used to performing this operation. Male rabbits can be neutered as soon as they are ten to twelve weeks old (though most vets wait until the age of four to five months), and females can be spayed from around six months. Unfortunately, spaying is a riskier operation for older rabbits, and if your rabbit suffers from ill health, or is over three years old, you should discuss this with your vet before going ahead. Females who are not spayed at an early age may have to have the operation when they are older as an emergency measure in an attempt to save their lives, if they develop a uterine disease such as cancer of pyometra (infection of the uterus).
After the operation
Try to plan the operation for a Friday, or a day when you will be home for the next couple of days, so that you can keep an eye on your rabbit as he or she recuperates. You will need to ensure that a female rabbit does not try to pick out her stitches, and if she does attempt this, bind up the wound with a wide crepe bandage.
Neutered male rabbits can still make a female pregnant for two to three weeks after their surgery. Spayed females should also be kept away from any males for at least 10 days after their spaying operation.
For more information on houserabbits, contact The British Houserabbit Association, PO Box 346, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE99 1FA