Thursday, October 30, 2008

How to Pick Up a Rabbit

Rabbits deserve a high level of respect and this includes the right not to be restrained by humans for our pleasure, for instance, by unnecessarily picking them up. (Look back here to read why rabbits don't like being held despite their stuffed-animal appearance.) However, there are instances, like a vet visit or a nail trim, that require a rabbit to be picked up.

Knowing the proper way to pick up and hold your rabbit is essential to avoiding serious injury. When picking up a rabbit, you'll need to be confident and slightly forceful. Meek attempts allow the rabbit to flail and kick out its hind legs, which could cause a disastrous spinal fracture. Therefore you must always support the bottom of a rabbit while they are being picked up and held.

The best way to pick up a rabbit starts with a few nice pats on the head for reassurance.

Then, move your hands down to its shoulders and wrap your hands around its back and sides, pushing down softly but firmly.

Move your right hand under the chest and lift up slightly.

Place your left hand on the bottom of the rabbit near its tail and lift her up, holding her firmly and tightly.

Place the rabbit to your chest, supporting her legs. Hold her firmly and securely, disabling her ability to jump. A fall from a few feet can lead to a leg or back fracture.
If your rabbit has a tendency to flail when held, wrap her in a towel to restrain her completely. This sort of wrapping technique can be helpful for nail trims as well.

She gets a treat for being such a good sport!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Question from the Audience: Urine Trouble and Pellet Trouble

A two-part question from Kelly S. in Boston, MA:

Q: Bunnicula is a large albino (New Zealand) spayed female rabbit. She is litter trained and I never keep her in her cage. She has free range of the bedroom. One of my questions is: although I mentioned that she is litter trained she's recently started peeing on my bed...not fun. We've been leaving a shower curtain over the bed now (when we're not in it) and she hasn't peed on the curtain yet...I'm just hoping that we can go back to our curtain-free bed soon. I'm not sure why she started this behavior, any ideas?

Interspecies Cuddling: Mouse, the cat, and Bunnicula, the bunnicula

A: With sudden changes in urinary behavior, you need to be suspect of a urinary tract infection. While these are hard to diagnose definitively without a sterile urine sample (note that its not impossible to get a urine sample from a rabbit...) the vet will usually prescribe a broad-spectrum antibiotic to see if the unwanted behavior goes away.

However, UTI-related changes usually result in dribbling in the cage or next to the litterbox; the fact that Bunnicula is jumping up on your bed to urinate leads me to believe this is more a territory-related issue. You mention that she has free range of the bedroom at all times. While you are retraining her to use only her litterbox, you will need to restrict her freedom by only letting her out when you are there to observe her. Additionally, you will need to prohibit her access from the bed. The idea behind this retraining is that you need to show her that you, not she, is not the owner of the bed. She will quickly get this once she is shooed off the bed a few times. When she understands that she's not the master of the bed, she won't feel the need to mark it as her territory. Once she starts behaving and staying off the bed, she can slowly have her freedom back, but it's possible she'll need some form of supervision permanently. Eventually, you can also experiment with letting her back up on the bed, but if the problem returns, you may just have to cut off bed access altogether.

Q: I'm also concerned about her much pellets should I be feeding her? She has unlimited timothy hay and veggies and I usually just make sure she always has pellets as well...but she's getting quite big! She loves her pellets though and I feel like I'm denying her when she runs out and I don't fill her bowl. She's quite a diva when she runs out of pellets, too, throwing her bowl around the cage, etc. I'm going to be such a push-over mom!

A: Originally, commercial pellets were created as feed for rabbits raised for slaughter. These rabbits didn't need to live long and healthy lives; they needed to plump up as fast as possible. Now you can understand why commercial pellets- while delicious- need to be restricted in the diet. It's like fast food for us.

Rabbit obesity is serious for several reasons. Bunnies have very sensitive stomachs and too many pellets (and consequently too little fiber) can cause all sorts of GI tract problems. Unrestricted access to pellets is linked to heart and dental problems; additionally, risk increases as the extra pounds go up when it comes to general anesthesia, if this ever became relevant for dental or surgical reasons.

Timothy hay should compose a large part of the rabbit's diet; rabbits can live off hay and vegetables healthily. But we've spoiled our rabbits with junk food and cutting it out completely seems harsh for us pushover Moms (or Dads)! But since you've noticed Bunnicula's unhealthy weight gain, she should probably go on a little bunny diet.

Follow this rule: Feed 1/8 cup food for every 4lbs. So, if your rabbit is 8 lbs, feed 1/8 cup in the morning and 1/8 cup at night, as to spread it out. Provide unlimited Timothy hay and an assortment of fresh veggies every morning. If you're unsure about anything, talk to your vet.

And if your rabbit is throwing temper tantrums, the best thing to do is ignore them (as with human kids!). If your rabbit has bowl-throwing temper tantrums, and a lot of them do, acquire these attachable bowls from PetSmart- they are a lifesaver!

Monday, October 27, 2008

How to Train your Rabbit

Training your rabbit to come when called can be a valuable tool. I use this command to get my rabbit into her cage and keep her mentally stimulated!
To teach your bunny this trick, start by crouching down a few feet away from her. Hold a treat, like a blueberry in your hand and make tsk tsk tsk sounds. If there's no response, move a little closer and let your rabbit smell the treat, making the tsk continuously. When she comes to you, continue making the sound and give her the treat. Move back and start the process over again. Your aim is to get the rabbit to associate the tsk sound with a treat. She'll likely catch on faster than you think, but the bottom line here is patience and repetition. Later on, you'll only need a treat half the time. Practice calling her over often to keep it fresh in her memory, and if your rabbit starts giving you that clueless look, increase the frequency of your practice sessions.

This sort of Pavlovian conditioning works well with rabbits. As we owners know, bunnies are intelligent creatures. Teaching them commands is an excellent way to mentally stimulate and keep them active, thinking, and happy. And teaching your rabbit to come when called can make your life easier. You'll never have to chase her into the cage at night again! She'll go in on command. This not only helps you, but since your rabbit is entering the cage seemingly at her own will, she'll view the cage as her own controlled territory, causing her to feel safer.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Question from the Audience: Bunny Friends

A question from Greg S. in Boston, MA:

Q: I currently have a male lionhead rabbit, and he lives alone, is an indoor rabbit and gets a lot of time out of his cage. However, there are still a few hours he is home alone and I was considering getting a bonding candidate for him. I was wondering whether there is any sort of sign that finding a mate would be good? He has been introduced to another rabbit before and seemed very interested and gentle, the other rabbit on the other hand was not interested and too dominant. Do you think this submissiveness would be with all rabbits or was that an isolated example?

A: If you ever observed a bonded pair of rabbits, you immediately understand that rabbits are social creatures who love and enjoy each others' company. And if you didn't think there was anything cuter than your bunny flopping down next to you, you have to see two bunnies cuddling up with each other. The cuteness increases exponentially!

Exponential Cuteness

But before you do adopt, you should first have your rabbit fixed. Neutering eliminates numerous medical problems, halts unwanted behaviors, and also reduces aggression and tension between rabbit companions. Unneutered males can be quite aggressive, though females can be just as violent, and the only sure thing you can do to ease a transition to two bunnies is spay and neuter. Also be aware that it takes roughly six weeks for the hormones to filter out of the body, so you'll have to wait a month or two after the surgery before the introduction.
The best combination for a neutered male would be a spayed female, though it's not impossible for two neutered males to get along.

While dominance and submissiveness are relative qualities, they do tend to stay consistent in individuals and seem tied to personality. Since your rabbit reacted calmly and gently during a previous introduction, you can mostly expect he will behave similarly in the future. However, if the introduction with the "too-dominant" rabbit took place in a non-neutral territory, such as on the "too-dominant" bunny's home turf, the meeting was biased, and the circumstances would have affected their personalities. However, their reactions could still resonate in general terms.

The best way to determine how your bunny would react to others is to find out. Many shelters, such as the Boston MSPCA, allow potential adopters to bring in their current pets for a meet and greet. This is a good neutral ground for an introduction and a good way to see which rabbits your pet would get along well with.

While considering a second rabbit, don't forget that you will need a neutral space for them to have their first few interactions, a second cage, and a separate area for the second cage. It will reduce stress levels greatly if the rabbits can get used to each others' smells before the new one moves into your first bunny's territory.

All in all, since rabbits are social creatures, your bunny would most likely greatly enjoy having a pal to hang with. And with adopting another rabbit, you are saving an another life! What could be better than that?

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!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Quick Tip: Litter Box Trouble

Digging litter out of the litter box is a hugely annoying problem. My rabbit, Graysie, did this for most of her young life, and I tried all sorts of unsuccessful methods (huge covered litter boxes, different types of litter, clapping, yelling, etc. etc.). Finally, this surprisingly simple solution ended my frustrations: I purchased metal mesh/chicken wire and metal snips from a local hardware store, cut the chicken wire in the shape of the litter box, and after pouring in the fresh litter, I placed the tight-fitting metal wiring on top. The urine and droppings fell right through the wire and Graysie wasn't able to dig the litter out. Success!
Feel free to leave comments about how you solved one of your stubborn bunny's naughty habits!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Question from the Audience: Adoption

A question from Michelle O. in Brooklyn, NY:

Q: Dear Rabbit Advocate: I am considering getting a rabbit...I just don't know if I have room for it in my apartment. Plus my apartment has a cat and I don't know if that would be a good combo. How much time and care do rabbits need? I work long hours but I would love to have a friendly rabbit. Also, could you tell me where I should look for one?

A: These are all important questions that you should think about before deciding to adopt a rabbit. It's hard to think logically when you see that fluffy adorable little furball, so make the informed decision to adopt or not before heading down to your local shelter.

The actual space that rabbits require is not much, though your living quarters do have to accommodate a sizable cage. Different rabbit breeds require different cage sizes--a dwarf mini-lop will have different requirements than a Flemish Giant. (Speaking of Flemish Giants, Murph is an upstanding gentleman at the Boston MSPCA, looking for a forever home. With big size comes a big heart!) But if you have the space for it, a bigger cage gives your rabbit more freedom. You will also need a space for your rabbit to run around. Your bedroom can work just fine for this, or a living room/family room. For a skittish rabbit, bigger isn't always better. Shy rabbits will feel more comfortable in smaller spaces. Otherwise, a moderate-sized playing area should be fine, as long as your rabbit has room to check out different things and do her morning sprints!

Mr. Murphs, the Flemish Giant

One thing rabbits need more of than space is interaction. Rabbits are not hamsters or guinea pigs. They are more on par with cats and dogs in terms of the level of companionship they seek. But just because you work a 9-5 job, you can still have a pet rabbit. On a daily basis, you will need to let your bunny run around a larger territory for a few hours and spend at least half hour bonding. The more you interact with her, the more she will trust you, and the more rewarding your friendship will be. There's a direct correlation here!

Regarding interspecies rabbit introductions, they are not to be taken lightly. However, the House Rabbit Society reports a high level of success between cats and rabbits. Read this literature to learn all the details of a cat/rabbit introduction.

The best place to find an adoptable rabbit will be at your local animal shelter. You can use to locate a nearby animal shelter or rescue organization and even see the available pets online. Look back here to find out exactly how petfinder works or just go straight to their website!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Question from the Audience: Digging, Treats, Holding

And now, a three-part question from Sarah L. in Boston, MA. She writes:
Hi Rabbit Advocate! About a month ago, my boyfriend and I adopted Winnie from the MSPCA in Boston. She is doing absolutely wonderful. We love her so much and she is such a great bunny! However, we have a few questions:

Q: 1) Winnie loves to poke around and explore but sometimes she gets into the corner of the room and pulls and digs up the carpet! We've tried to clap and say 'no' when she does it and sometimes she'll stop, but sometimes she's pretty stubborn and completely ignores us and continues digging. Are there any other alternatives to prevent her from digging up the carpet? Or should we just continue to clap loudly and hope that she stops?

A: Unfortunately, this is a common complaint among rabbit owners. The chewing and digging instinct is very strong in bunnies, but it is markedly stronger in some individuals than others. I've lived with both varieties, and let's just say one is a little less stress-inducing than the other! So I can share in your frustration in this matter.
If the stern "no"s and clapping are being ignored (how rude!) gently push your rabbits nose away from the carpet and distract her with a game. Distraction and positive reinforcement are key. Rabbits also oftentimes view your negative feedback (clapping, verbal warnings, etc.) as a game. Discourage this, as it feeds into the bad behavior. Remove the rabbit from the situation or enforce a time-out to show that you're being serious!
Unfortunately, digging and chewing carpet is super-duper fun for rabbits. One option is getting a small square of carpet to put in her cage (unless she's ingesting the carpet fibers), thereby removing the novelty of the corner carpet. Or, if there's a specific place she consistently visits to dig and chew, move a heavy piece of furniture over it. Removing access to the spot may lessen the urge to destruct!

Lastly, as a note of reassurance, I am currently living with a former carpet enthusiast. After a long (loooong) time of repeated clappings and distractions, she rarely even notices the carpet anymore. Keep in mind that rabbits can be taught, but the process will likely not happen overnight.

Q: 2) I've read on a few websites that it's okay to feed your bunny cheerios. I've fed Winnie a few cheerios here and there and noticed that she loves them and gets extremely excited when she knows I have them in my hand. I just want to know if cheerios are okay to continue giving her.

A: I would recommend against feeding your rabbit any processed or high-carb human foods (Cheerios are both). You're right in questioning this snack. Of course, one Cheerio a week isn't going to kill your rabbit, but there are healthier alternatives out there, intended specifically for rabbits. Yogurt drops have a 100% success rate with every rabbit I've known and I've even been tempted on more than one occasion to try a nibble. (They smell delicious.) While these aren't on the health par with a cilantro bunch or basil leaves, they can safely be offered in half-servings. Or try small bits of apple as a treat. And if you do choose to keep on with the Cheerios, be on the lookout for diarrhea, or in the long-term, obesity. In these cases, cut the cereal.

Q: 3) Winnie loves to be pet but she absolutely hates being picked up. I'm pretty sure we're properly picking her up -- one hand under her bum and the other under arms and we when we pick her up, we hold her close to our body so she feels secure but she still gets really scared. Should we just stop trying to pick her up?

A: It sounds like you are picking Winnie up in the proper way. However, picking your bunny should be reserved for vet visits or other necessary times. Look back here for detailed advice on why rabbits prefer to be on the ground and alternative ways to interact with your bunny. Good luck with Winnie!

A picture of Winnie herself, courtesy of Sarah L. How festive!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How to Find Your New Best Friend

When I hear someone talking about wanting to get a dog from a breeder, I always interject with my usual "Forget the breeder! Adopt!" lecture. One of the most common responses I get is, "Oh, but I want a [insert breed name here]. I've had [breed name] my entire life and that's what I want!" Well, my friends, there is a better option. It's called Petfinder is an online directory of virtually all adoptable animals currently at shelters, rescue groups and fosters. The site also allows users to search animals by breed, age, size, and gender. So, if dachshunds are your thing, you don't have to go to a breeder. You can locate one at a nearby animal shelter or find a breed-specific rescue organization. By adopting, you're no longer contributing to pet overpopulation, but instead ameliorating the situation and saving lives.

Petfinder also works for people seeking specific breeds of rabbit. It's hard to not take home all the cute little baby bunnies you see at pet stores, but we must resist supporting this abusive industry. There are many, many rabbits available at shelters, looking for loving homes. Stay away from pet stores and adopt!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Adoption Anyone?

LoveBug is looking for a loving forever home! She has been a terrific foster bunny and boasts some enviable qualities. She's three years old, spayed, litterbox trained, super friendly, and loves human company. She was dumped at the animal shelter when her previous owner moved and was no longer allowed to keep her.
She is an adorable and affectionate little girl just looking to find her place in the world.

Email me at if you are interested in meeting her!

Adoption procedures must follow MSPCA guidelines, which includes a small adoption fee that covers spay surgery, medical examination, and a carrier.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Question from the Audience: Allergies

Our first blog-emailed question comes from Angy K. in Baltimore, MD:

Hello Rabbit Advocate! I recently adopted a bunny named Toby. Overall he seems to be doing well in my house, he hops around, stays out of trouble and seems to be adjusting well. However, I noticed that he seems to now be sneezing a lot. At least, thats what it sounds like to me. Is it possible he has an allergy?

A: If your rabbit is experiencing frequent sneezing, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian to check him for an upper respiratory infection (colloquially "snuffles") or pneumonia. If these tests come back negative, your rabbit could have allergies.

Believe it or not, rabbit allergies are actually quite common. And I'm not referring here to the kind humans develop to rabbit fur or pet dander. Rabbits get allergies too! Some rabbits are much more sensitive to dust particles in the air than others and will develop recurrent sneezing, runny nose, and teary eyes.

Here are some things you can do to alleviate your rabbit's symptoms:

1) Experiment with a different type of litter. Dusty clay cat litter is a common irritant and the clumping kind should be avoided at all costs because it is dangerous when ingested. Cedar chips can also cause allergic reactions in your rabbit. The best litter I've found is
Yesterday's News cat litter. Very absorbent, odor-reducing, affordable and non allergenic. It's also good for the environment, as it is made from recycled newspapers.
2) The hay that you're feeding to your rabbit is covered in dust and could be the culprit. Try buying a higher quality hay, as these are fresher and less dusty. Another thing you can do is shake the dust out of the hay before giving it to your rabbit.
3) If your rabbit's cage is right under a window and it's summer or spring, your rabbit could be reacting to allergens in the air, just like we often do. Moving your rabbit away from the window or door is one preventative measure. Talk to your vet also about the possibility of administering a low-dose antihistamine.4) It's also possible your bunny is allergic to a new toy/treat/or food. Eliminate any new objects or edible items you've recently introduced and see if the sneezing stops.

Rabbit allergies are quite annoying for your pet and can even be worrying to watch, but they're not causing permanent damage. Adjusting certain environmental factors is your best bet in alleviating symptoms. Good luck!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Essentials: Approach

How you approach a rabbit is more important than you might think. As we all know, rabbits are prey animals and this fact should guide you as you interact with your bunny. Accordingly, if your rabbit is relatively skittish, don't walk up to her too quickly. A big, dark object quickly coming at a bunny can be quite scary! Instead sit down on the floor (or get even smaller and lay down) and your curious rabbit will approach you. This is a much less threatening way to interact with your pet and leads to a stronger, more trusting bond.

Another thing to keep in mind is eyesight. Rabbits' eyes are located on the side of their heads, (evolutionarily, for a higher range of sight, to escape those predators!) so naturally they cannot see well right in front of them. You may have noticed your bunny tilting her head to the side when trying to see something in front of her; this is to compensate this blind spot. It's important to be aware of this challenge in visibility, so you don't scare your bunny by coming at her from the front. Rabbits can even react aggressively if they can't make out exactly what is in front of them, so teaching your children about this blind spot can help avoid an accidental scratch.
The best advice on approach is to move slowly, make yourself seem small, and to encourage your rabbit come to you instead of the other way around.