Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Question from the Audience: Digging and Chewing

Of the seven or so emails I received last week, a whopping three concerned chewing behaviors, specifically carpet chewing. See Sarah L.'s question and answer here, and see below for the additional two:

From Tina S. in Maynard, MA:

Q: We recently adopted an unneutered 1 year old male rex rabbit. We let him have a few hours of fun in the evenings, but he keeps chewing the carpet up in one spot under our dresser. We have tried blocking it off with various things and he always finds a way to get it. I was wondering if you had any advice for us?

And from Allison F. in Arlington, MA:
Q: While my fixed male and female 1.5 yr old bunny pair have lots of a room to run and cardboard to chew, they still insist on digging and pulling out carpet
from time to time. Any ideas on how to discourage this activity?

A: Three primary factors influence chewing behaviors: age, hormones and personality. First, let's focus on the common denominator here: age. All three (including Winnie) are under 2 years old and therefore still in their teenage years. Younger rabbits not only have extra energy to burn, but tend to be more mischievous. Since all the rabbits involved here are still young, it should be reassuring to know that as rabbits grow older, the less trouble they will get into.

Getting your rabbit spayed or neutered is the single most powerful way to reduce their desire to chew and dig. Along with a multitude of health and behavioral benefits that come with fixing your rabbit, comes the lessened desire to burrow, dig, chew, and destroy. The change is most drastic in females, who might be chewing and digging in order to prepare for a (real or fake) pregnancy; however, a neuter surgery will calm a male rabbit as well, reducing a variety of destructive behaviors.

Personality is a large part of chewing and digging. Many rabbits are natural chewers and many are natural troublemakers and the combination of these two qualities can be perilous to your furniture! Here are a few rules and tips to decrease carpet chewing:

1) Strict supervision --> Consistent Discipline --> Smart discipline: Without strict supervision you can't have consistency in discipline. Your rabbit can get away with all sorts of shenanigans and since she will only be getting in trouble half the time, the message of "no!" won't get through clearly. Smart discipline is a large part of seeing results. If your rabbit is interpreting your negative attention (you running over to her every time she digs at the carpet) as play, your discipline is not only failing to get across but even serving as encouragement. Instead try a time-out (back in the cage!) for a few minutes. Time-outs work because they cut out the attention to negative behaviors, and they are less likely to get interpreted as games, thereby showing you mean business!

2) Distraction: Right after your rabbit has stopped the negative behavior, call her over for a fun game or treat. Positive reinforcement and distraction go a long way.

Distraction is the name of the game!

3) Alternatives: Chewing is an important bunny acitivity as rabbit teeth are constantly growing. Always make sure you've provided plenty of timothy hay- it's not only an essential part of their diet, it's necessary for tooth development.
You can try putting a spare piece of carpet or a cotton towel in your rabbit's cage to chew on (just make sure she's not ingesting the fibers), since it's likely the texture she's seeking. These mineral chews are also great. Most rabbits love them and the treats help your rabbit learn to chew only on acceptable items.

4) Repellents: Pet stores sell repellent sprays, such as bitter apple spray (though some rabbits actually like the taste, so test it first). Check out a hardware store for creative ways to block certain spots. Areas like under dressers or under couches are specifically prone to a good chewing because they mimic what digging would be like at the end of a burrow. Block these areas off by putting a large shallow tupperware under the furniture. Get creative!

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