To Neuter or Not

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

To Neuter or Not ?

Cats and dogs, our traditional pets, most often are neutered. An ovariohysterectomy or spay operation in the female and a castration in the male will result in a number of effects generally felt to improve their role as pets, living with us, in our homes. Some of these beneficial effects would include the following: an aid in birth control; reduce aggressive behaviour; lessen territorial marking behaviour; encourage stay at home behaviour; reduce overt sexual display behaviour; create more even temperament and personality traits. With non-traditional or exotic pets, surgical neutering is probably less an automatic choice by the pet owner. There are probably several reasons why this is the case.

The pet population explosion, affecting many countries around the world, pertains to dogs and cats, primarily. Although increasing numbers of pocket pets are ending up in humane societies these days, other non-traditional pets are less commonly a problem. Since birth control in these species seems less important, it may influence owners considering neutering. Some of the benefits of neutering are just less important for animals that are housed in cages or more controlled environments. It is not uncommon for some veterinary practices to choose not to offer care for certain exotic species. Hence, it may be more difficult for owners of exotics to receive anesthesia and surgical care for their pets. Finally, in certain species, especially avians, the difficulty to perform the surgery may make it impractical to consider. Despite these facts, neutering can, and sometimes should be a consideration for an exotic pet.

In ferrets, aplastic anemia, a serious, possibly life threatening ailment occurs in 50% of females experiencing prolonged heat cycles. A jill ( female ferret) not bred will remain in heat for the duration of the breeding season. Bone marrow depression due to prolonged exposure of blood producing organs to estrogens is the cause of the anemia. This can be avoided by spaying non-breeding females. The odour of ferrets comes primarily from the skin glands which are under hormonal control. Castration and spaying will reduce this skin odour and is probably as important as de-scenting or removing the anal glands to control unpleasant odour in this species.

 Castration in the male rabbit is performed to assist in birth control, control urine spraying in their environment, to reduce territoriality, and to lessen aggressiveness. In the female rabbit, spaying is a birth control measure, it will reduce aggression and territorial behaviour and it will prevent uterine cancer.

Cystic ovaries occur quite commonly in female guinea pigs. Often they may not cause problems. However some cysts are associated with a skin disorder called endocrine alopecia, and can cause endometriosis or endometrial hyperplasia, disorders of the uterus. Ovarian cysts may also cause intermittent bleeding in the urine. Ovariohysterectomy is the treatment of choice. Pregnancy toxemia is another disease that can be eliminated by spaying females. Castration is commonly performed in male guinea pigs. The surgical technique used to perform these operations in rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas is very similar in all three species.

Male iguanas may become very aggressive during their reproductive period. When they are kept as pets this may create serious problems. It is believed that castration will improve this behaviour in future periods.  Female iguanas, as well as the females of a number of other reptilian species, may suffer egg-binding disorders. If this happens, it may require removal of the ovaries and the uterus. In most cases these operations are done if medically necessary and not as routine preventive measures, in these species. The same would hold true for most birds kept as pets.

If you choose to have your exotic pet spayed or neutered, here are some things to keep in mind. Choose your veterinarian carefully. If your regular veterinarian does not deal with non-traditional pets, ask for a referral to someone who does. Be sure you understand the procedure being done, the risks involved, the after care required and the expected outcome of the surgery. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Remember, anesthesia and surgery is frequently done with exotic animal species. However, there are some risks with these procedures that can be better dealt with in larger, traditional pets. Pre-anesthetic screening tests, certain anesthesia and surgery support and monitoring techniques may not always be possible due to the size and different  anatomy of  non-traditional pets. Despite these limitations we should not deprive such pets of the benefits of these surgeries.