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Spaying and neutering, even for skunks and other small critters, extends animal lives and enhances health

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While a technician trimmed her toenails, Guinevere lay limp on a table, sleeping soundly throughout the procedure without a twitch or movement, perhaps for the first time in her life.

Guinevere, a Dutch rabbit — which generally appear to be wearing a tuxedo because of their black-and-white or brown-and-white markings — was spayed in early February.

She is among thousands of Quad-City pets that will be spayed or neutered this year. Some Quad-City veterinarians spay and neuter as many as 100 animals in a single week. Most of the procedures are still for typical house pets such as dogs and cats. But the surgery is also becoming commonplace for other animals too, such as rabbits and other “exotic animals.”

“When I started six years ago, I would do maybe one bunny or two a month," said Dr. Lauren Hughes, a veterinarian at Animal Family Veterinary Care Center in Davenport. "Last year, I did 75 bunny neuters and 50 spays. It’s definitely increased.”

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Veterinarian Lauren Hughes explains a spay procedure (ovariohysterectomy) on a rabbit at Animal Family Veterinary Care Center on Jan. 24.

People are often surprised that smaller animals, such as rabbits, skunks, guinea pigs and rats, can be altered, Hughes said. When altering small animals, veterinarians consider how they’ll respond to anesthesia and whether their behavior is that of a predator or prey.

Hughes has neutered a lot of Guinea pigs to decrease their cage aggression. Guinea pigs are susceptible to ovarian cysts, so she recommends spaying the females too.

“I’ve done a few mouse neuters, but I do rat spays relatively frequently because they have high risk for breast cancer," she said. Sometimes the reason the procedures don’t happen is that people aren't aware that the surgery is available for smaller pets. "It’s just not something that is common knowledge.”

Hughes also has spayed an iguana and a chameleon. Normally, reptiles are spayed in an emergency situation, such as when an egg gets stuck, she said. She also has altered several skunks.

Every small pet owner’s worry is anesthesia, she said. “The most important thing is finding a veterinarian that you trust that has experience doing these things.”

Predators and prey

According to dogtime.com, in 1969 the first low-cost spay and neuter clinic opened in Los Angeles. That led to discussions across the country about the benefits of spaying and neutering. Before that, advocates presented information about animal sterilization as a convenience to the pet owner instead of as an animal-welfare issue.

In 1972, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began requiring sterilization for all adopted animals. Shelter intake rates continued to drop, and feral cat trap-neuter-release programs emerged in the 1990s.

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Veterinarian Lauren Hughes finishes a spaying procedure on a rabbit at  Animal Family Veterinary Care Center Jan. 24.

Now the euthanasia rate has decreased to about 12.5 dogs and cats per 1,000 people, a drop of nearly 90 percent compared to numbers recorded 50 years ago.

Over the next several decades, shelters and rescue groups campaigned to create more awareness to change not only the language on spay-and-neuter literature but also the public mindset.

Now that the procedures are spreading to other animals too, it’s not just the physiology that makes spaying animals as rabbits and guinea pigs different from dogs and cats. For example, rabbits are prey species, while dogs and cats are predators.

The procedure

Bunnies have more of a “fight or flight” reaction if they are in pain or discomfort, and they are more susceptible to panic than some predators. “We give them special medication prior to surgery to lessen that risk,” Hughes said. Panicked bunnies could become scared and try to flee.

But the surgery itself is similar; surgeons enter the abdomen pretty much the same way as with a dog or cat.

Hughes uses a surgical laser that cauterizes blood vessels while it cuts. Meanwhile, Guinevere the rabbit is closely monitored on a breathing machine.

The linea alba, also known as the “white line,” goes down and connects the two layers of muscle together on the abdomen. “I like to enter through there because there is minimal blood supply,” she said. “When you suture it back together, it creates more of a permanent seal and less painful seal.”

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Using a laser surgical instrument, veterinarian Dr. Lauren Hughes makes an incision into the abdomen of a rabbit during a spay procedure at Animal Family Veterinary Care Center on Jan. 24.

After cutting into the rabbit’s abdomen, Hughes extends the incision both ways, cranially and caudally. Once the GI tract is out of the way, she pulls out the uterus.

“The body of the uterus is pretty darned large considering how small a bunny is,” Hughes said. “The ovaries look like Good & Plenty candies.”

Hughes uses a special suture that contains antimicrobial properties and dissolves over time. Some veterinarians use surgical staples.

“The younger they are, the better. I like them less than a year of age,” she said. “They haven’t gone through as many reproductive cycles, so the blood vessels and things aren’t quite as developed. They have not had as much of a chance to create as much fat around the uterus. Fat can hide things, like major blood vessels and ligaments. "

Younger is better for males too, she said. Youth decreases anesthesia risks and aids in recovering from anesthesia when the procedure is finished.

In about 10 minutes, it’s all finished. “I try to keep the procedure relatively short,” she said. “Neuters are about six minutes.”

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Veterinarian Lauren Hughes finishes a spaying procedure on a rabbit at  Animal Family Veterinary Care Center Jan. 24.

Guinevere breathes quietly and rhythmically, and her abdominal wall is closed. In bunnies, Hughes tries to bury the suture under the skin so bunnies are less likely to lick the healing incision and cause an infection or alter the suture.

Guinevere’s tiny incision is barely noticeable.

Managing rabbits post-surgery is different from most household pets because they generally don’t wear collars or belly wraps. “They’re already stressed out,” Hughes said. “

Wraps keep them from grooming and eating cecotrophs, a kind of night dropping that rabbits must consume to stay healthy.

For rabbits, neutering reduces the chance of testicular cancer in males and decreases female hormonal behavior. It also can decrease nesting behaviors and hormonal behavior toward litter- or house-mates. It eliminates the risk of uterine cancer in females.

“A lot of people don’t know this process even exists for small mammals, or birds or reptiles,” she said. “A lot of time they don’t realize what pain measures we take. Also, we do cold-laser therapy afterward on every animal."

A few hours later, Guinevere and her sister Merida, who was spayed the same day, are back home with their owner, Caitlyn Warner of Davenport.

Warner says spaying not only extends the rabbits’ lives but also helps with other behaviors that indicate aggression, such as physical bullying, nipping and other territorial behaviors.

“All my bunnies are altered — 100 percent, all the way,” Warner said.

A high-volume day

By 8 a.m. on a Thursday at the Quad-City Animal Welfare Center in Milan, Dr. Billee Rindsig is busily spaying a German shepherd. Right behind that dog, another is prepped for the procedure, and right behind her another pooch is being prepped.

More than 40 feline and canine surgeries were scheduled for that day. Dog spays were first on the docket, with bigger dogs taking priority. Dog neuters followed, and then cat spays and cat neuters.

The spay-and-neuter program is open to everyone with a pet. The waiting room became crowded with a line of people and animals.

One woman held a meowing carrier. Behind her, a man held a wriggling puppy in his arms as the line continued to form behind him. One by one, each pet owner checked, while staff members answered questions and tried to calm both the patients and their people.

“We do this every Thursday and Friday, offering spay and neutering to the public,” said Patti McRae, executive director at the Milan center.

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Delia Nordholm shaves the fur from the abdomen of a rabbit in preparation of a spay procedure (ovariohysterectomy) at Animal Family Veterinary Care Center on Jan. 24.

Among the groups with which the center works closely are Clinton Humane Society, King’s Harvest and Friends of Strays in Princeton, along with smaller rescue groups.

Kelli Horch and her wife, Karol Patrick, of Davenport, brought in three Chihuahuas to be altered.

“I don’t want to overpopulate,” Patrick said. “It’s crucial — absolutely imperative.”

“If you take your kid to the doctor, you need to take your pet to the vet,” Patrick added. “It’s that simple.”

The three little dogs were part of the lineup for Dr. Billee Rindsig, who has been in practice almost 31 years.

Rindsig appreciates the heavy-volume days. “You can do a lot of animals that aren’t under anesthesia for very long. I think it’s a safer way to go.”

A few minutes after she performed surgery on one dog, technicians brought another into the operating room. Her hands were seldom still while she performed surgery after surgery.

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Volunteer Rebecca Duffus looks after dogs post-spay and neuter at the Quad-City Animal Welfare Center clinic on Feb. 7.

All the animals were sent to recuperate in a recovery room, where they dozed on and off while being monitored. Like day care, owners began to pick up their pets about 4 p.m.

Among the volunteers on hand were Mary Vandevoorde, Milan, and Pamela Hildebrant, Davenport. Hildebrant has been doing some form of rescue 14 years and has been a volunteer at the clinic for six years.

“I’m an animal lover,” Vandevoorde said. “I have three special-needs animals adopted from here.” She volunteers to make things easier for the staff, she said. “They have so much on their plates.”

Four times weekly, Rindsig is at the Humane Society in Scott County or a facility in Aurora, Ill., spaying and neutering animals.

In this part of the country, she thinks people understand the importance of spaying and neutering. “(Quad-City) people do get it,” she said.

But “It’s a whole different world down south,” she said. “Shelters (in the Midwest) are drawing from shelters down south because they don’t spay and neuter. We’re getting stuff under control. We’re spaying and neutering colonies.”

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Film critic/reporter since 1985 at Quad-City Times. Society of Professional Journalists, Broadcast Film Critics Association and Alliance of Women Film Journalists member. Member of St. Mark Lutheran Church.

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