Spaying & Neutering Your Pet Rats

The decision to spay or neuter your pet rat depends on many factors. There’s not one right answer that fits all. Each individual rat’s health, behavior, age, and living circumstances help make the determination. For males, the choice to neuter is usually based on behavior. For females, spaying offers some wonderful health benefits often far outweighing the risks of surgery. Then, of course, choosing to have opposite sexes living together necessitates either neutering or spaying.

SPAYING YOUR FEMALE RAT

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Vera recovering post spay

Advantages of Spaying

  • Reduces occurrences of mammary and pituitary tumors
  • Eliminates ovarian cancer and/or cysts
  • Increases lifespan

These are all amazing benefits. I’ve had my last three female rats spayed and not one has developed a mammary tumor.

Spaying Makes Sense When…..

  • You’d like to introduce a new young female rat to your current unneutered males.
  • Your female rat needs mammary tumor removal surgery. This is an excellent time to spay to help prevent future mammary tumors from developing.

Note that spays are most effective for pituitary tumors when done between 3-6 months of age. Mammary tumors, however, can be prevented when spaying at any age.

When Not to Spay

  • If your rat has respiratory disease, your veterinarian will assess whether or not the surgery is too risky. If the respiratory disease is mild, your rat will be placed on an antibiotic prior to surgery.
  • If your female rat is in heat. Female rats usually go into heat every 4-5 days. Spay surgery performed two to three days post heat is ideal.
  • If you’re unable to find a veterinarian who’s experienced and competent with rat spays

For me, the trickiest thing with pet rat spays is that there aren’t always veterinarians who are comfortable and experienced with performing this surgery. For many years I’ve wanted to have my females spayed and each veterinarian with whom I spoke was very tentative about the procedure. They’s say something such as “Well, I’ll give it a try”. Obviously, this is NOT what you want to hear from a veterinarian who’ll be performing surgery on your rat.

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Twyla was spayed during her quarantine period before being introduced to Vera

I finally found someone who’s performed almost 1,000 rat spays and is completely confident about her skills when performing this surgery. This particular veterinarian has gained much experience partly because she’s quite active in the local community performing pro bono rat spays for pet rat rescue organizations.

A brief note on the characteristics of a good surgeon: You want to find a veterinarian who’s forthright, one who right away says OF COURSE she can spay your rat. Often it’s the vets with the most brusque personalities who are the best surgeons. They’re quite confident and deft with their skills….and not always so great at “bedside manners”. However, when they’re performing surgery on your rat, it’s better to have a vet with moxy than one who’s wishy washy.

Terminology

SPAY: Includes the removal of the ovaries (regardless of whether or not all or part of the uterus is removed)

OVARIECTOMY: The ovaries are removed, the uterus is left intact.

OVARIOHYSTERECTOMY: The ovaries and all or part of the uterus are removed. (Most often the uterine horns are removed.)

NEUTERING YOUR MALE RAT

Although neutering doesn’t offer the significant health benefits that spaying does, there are a few behavioral circumstances in which you’ll want to have your male rats neutered such as when…..

  • He’ll be living with a female AND you’re unable to have the female spayed (Note that a neutered male becomes infertile by three weeks post-surgery)
  • He’s very aggressive and/or exhibits a lot of urine marking. (It can take up to 8 weeks post neuter to notice a decrease in aggression. Urine marking will either be reduced or eliminated.)
  • He keeps trying to mate with your female even though she’s spayed and it’s too much for her to handle.

A side benefit of neutering is that “buck grease” is lessened. While this alone isn’t a reason to neuter a rat, the orange-ish oily secretions on a male’s skin (particularly on his back) are often decreased post neuter. This can, in turn, affect the scent of your male rat—he may no longer smell as musky.

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Three male litter mates I rescued who’d been living together peacefully in their previous home. Two were eventually neutered due to aggression. The third, who never became aggressive (or neutered), ended up living the longest.

Anecdotal Note: I rescued three male litter mates who’d been living together peacefully in their previous home. I adopted them when they were over a year old. One of the brothers became very aggressive, so I had him neutered. This helped them to all live together harmoniously until a second of the brothers became aggressive. After I had him neutered as well, all was peaceful again. Interestingly enough, the brother who was never neutered lived the longest.

The Neuter Procedure

An incision is made in the scrotal sac, the testicles are extracted and then excised. Although it’s a much less invasive procedure than a spay, this surgery is still elective and only needed for rats with behavioral issues. Scrotal abscesses can occur post surgery and are easily resolved.

Male rats can remain fertile up to three weeks post neuter. Aggression can take up to six to eight weeks to resolve.

Pre & Post Spay/Neuter Surgery

Pre-Surgery

If your rat has respiratory disease, surgery will usually be fine as long as the respiratory symptoms are mild. Your veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics which should be started at a minimum of several days before the surgery. If your rat is older, your vet may also place your rat on antibiotics prior to surgery to ward off infections that may occur due to a weakened immune system.

Fasting your rat prior to surgery is not necessary. Rats are physically unable to vomit. Dogs and cats must be fasted prior to surgery because their gag reflexes are suppressed while under anesthesia which can result in vomited food or gastric juices entering their lungs.

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Cat carriers are helpful to use when it’s necessary to isolate one of your rats after a surgery

When bringing in your rat for the surgery, use a small carrier. An ideal size would be about 12″ X 24”. Line the enclosure with soft cloth such as cotton t-shirts. Using white or lighter colored cloth is helpful for monitoring blood stains.

Post-Surgery

Before bringing your rat home after his or her surgery, ask to take a look at the incision site with a technician or the doctor so you’ll know what “normal” is supposed to look like. (This avoids bringing your rat home and then wondering and worrying about whether or not s/he looks okay.)

Make sure you have contact information for an emergency vet who sees rats in case you need to contact them during the evening or weekend after your veterinarian’s office has closed.

In most cases surgical glue will be used so there won’t be sutures to monitor and then later return to the vet for removal. You’ll still want to check on the incision site several times a day to make sure there isn’t oozing, swelling or excessive redness.

Your veterinarian will prescribe a pain medication for you to give for the first few days after bringing your rat home.  Usually metacam, buprenex or butorphanol is prescribed.

I like to sleep with my rat the evening after surgery. I realize this isn’t a possibility for everyone. If you’re not able to be in close quarters with your rat post surgery, you’ll want to

  • Isolate them for the first night (at minimum)– set them up in a cozy carrier where they have fresh bedding, water and food.
  • Cat carriers work well as a “recovery room” for your rats during the first 24 hours post surgery
  •  Again, use soft white or light-colored cloth for bedding (so you can easily monitor for any bleeding)

Liquids such as baby food can help make meals more appetizing especially the first night. Your rat may not be interested in eating, however, until the following morning.

Other than being sleepy, tired and not immediately interested in food, contact your veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian immediately if you observe any of the following:

  • Bleeding
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Oozing from incision site
  • Re-opening of incision site
  • Abnormal breathing
  • Excessive lethargy – Your rat may be tired and sleepy but shouldn’t be completely limp and unresponsive
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It was easy to introduce Evan (left) and Hank (right) since Evan (my current rat) was already neutered even though Hank (my new rat ) was not.

If you have any doubt at all about your rat’s recovery, call your veterinarian or (if after hours) an emergency vet.

Sometimes your rat may start chewing on non-food items such as cloth bedding. If your rat is doing this during her recovery period at home, make sure s/he’s not ingesting any of the non-food substances on which s/he’s chewing. You may need to remove what s/he’s been chewing and replace it with something she doesn’t want to chew. If this continues for more than 24 hours, call your veterinarian.

Your rat should return to normal eating, drinking, urinating and defecating by morning next day. If not, let your veterinarian know.

After 24 hours, female rats can visit with their cage mates under close supervision. She’ll need to be in an environment, though, where there’s no opportunity to climb, jump, run or use a wheel for the next 7-10 days. As long as she is healing well without complications, she can live with her friends in their normal environment 7-10 days post-surgery.

Males can be fertile for up to three weeks after being neutered. The hormonal effects causing aggression can take as long as 6-8 weeks post-neuter to subside.

Both males and females often gain weight after spay or neuter surgery.