DAVENPORT — 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, was spayed in early February, one of the thousands of Quad-Cities pets that will be spayed or neutered this year. Some local 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.
“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."
People are often surprised that smaller animals — such as rabbits, skunks, guinea pigs and rats — can be altered, Hughes said. She has neutered a lot of Guinea pigs to decrease cage aggression. Guinea pigs are susceptible to ovarian cysts, so she also recommends spaying females.
“I’ve done a few mouse neuters, but I do rat spays relatively frequently because they have high risk for breast cancer," she said. She also has altered an iguana, a chameleon and 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.”
In 1972, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began requiring sterilization for all adopted animals. 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.
It's not just the physiology that makes spaying animals as rabbits and guinea pigs different from dogs and cats. Bunnies have more of a “fight or flight” reaction if in pain or discomfort and are more susceptible to panic.
"We give them special medication prior to surgery to lessen that risk,” Hughes said.
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. 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,” Hughes said. “When you suture it back together, it creates more of a permanent seal and less painful seal.”
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 with antimicrobial properties that 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. 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.”
Hughes said that, in bunnies, she tries to bury the suture under the skin so they 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. “
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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 female hormonal behavior. It also 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, spayed the same day, are back home with their owner, Caitlyn Warner of Davenport. Warner said spaying not only extends the rabbits’ lives but also helps with other behaviors.
“All my bunnies are altered — 100 percent, all the way,” Warner said.
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; right behind her, another pooch is being prepped.
More than 40 feline and canine surgeries were scheduled that day. Dog spays were first, with bigger dogs taking priority. Dog neuters followed, and then cat spays and cat neuters.
The shelter's spay-and-neuter program is open to everyone with a pet.
“We do this every Thursday and Friday, offering spay and neutering to the public,” said Patti McRae, executive director at the Milan center.
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,” she said. “It’s that simple.”
Rindsig has been in practice almost 31 years. She appreciates the heavy-volume days.
“You can do a lot of animals that aren’t under anesthesia for very long," she said. "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.
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 were Mary Vandevoorde, of Milan, and Pamela Hildebrant, of 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.”
Four times weekly, Rindsig is at the Humane Society in Scott County or a facility in Aurora, Illinois, spaying and neutering animals. In this part of the country, she thinks people understand the importance of it.
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.”