Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Question from the Audience: Cage Aggression

A question from Hayley I. in Seattle, WA:
Q: I currently own four rabbits, and I have one female named Luna and one male named Oliver who are cage aggressive. Oliver was neutered but it doesn't seem to have helped, Luna is not spayed. They are both five months old and out of the same litter. So, my question is how do I cope with it, how do I change their behavior?

A: Rabbits can be very possessive of their personal space and, of course, they have a right to be. As prey animals, bunnies need to know they have a safe place to escape to when they feel scared or threatened. To encourage confidence in the safety of Oliver and Luna's territory, make it a point to clean their cages only when they've hopped out on their own accord. Never forcibly remove the rabbits from their cages; doing so could weaken their view of their safe places. Don't even reach in the cage when they're inside, even for feedings, at least for a few weeks. You have to give them time to learn that your presence has positive connotations. If they do happen to get a nibble in, yell out a high-pitched "ow!," so they fully understand that this action hurts you. Or wear gardening gloves. Time, patience, space, a calm approach, and understanding can transform a cage aggressive bunny into a easy-going, sweet pet.

Also remember that spaying and neutering reduces territorial aggression. Getting Luna spayed may help greatly, and Oliver may still need time until all of the testosterone has filtered out of his system (it can take 4-6 weeks). The good news is that at five months, they're still very young. This is a good time to alter their aggressive behaviors-- be patient and don't give up!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mark Your Calendars...

Mark your calendars for the 1st Annual Rabbit Advocate Info Day at the Especially for Pets in Newton, Massachusetts from 12-3pm on Saturday, February 7, 2009.

There will be a nail cutting demonstration, Q&A session, available handouts, and a few adoptable bunny visitors from the Boston MSPCA. We'll also be raffling off a gift basket donated by Especially for Pets to benefit the Boston MSPCA Animal Care and Adoption Center. Be sure to stop by the EFP at 1185 Chestnut St. in Newton Upper Falls, MA on February 7. I look forward to seeing you there!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Importance of a Rabbit-Savvy Vet

Rabbits require very species-specific care that exotics inexperienced veterinarians are just not capable of providing, as certain medical conventions vary greatly between rabbits and their more conventional dog and cat counterparts. Rabbit-savvy vets know which commonly used antibiotics are dangerous for rabbits (especially Amoxicillin!); they know that rabbits cannot vomit and have highly sensitive gastrointestinal tracts, and therefore removing food and water before surgery is not only unnecessary but increases risk; and naturally, they know which diseases and conditions are specific to and more prevalent in rabbits.

Clearly, it's important to take the time to make sure your veterinarian has experience practicing rabbit medicine and surgery. When searching for a vet, don't hesitate to inquire about a potential vet's history, comfort-level, and experience. The House Rabbit Society has compiled a terrific list of experienced rabbit vets by state. If no one is listed close by, strongly consider commuting, or search for avian/exotic vets (rabbit knowledgeable medical professionals are most often classified as such) in your area and ask for recommendations. It might not be simple finding the perfectly qualified and dedicated vet, but when your pet's health is on the line, it's worth every effort!
The Rabbit Advocate friend, Augustus Cuddlesworth, belonging to Adrienne F. in Washington, D.C., is recovering from a broken front leg after getting it caught in the cage during a minor freak-out episode. Feel better soon, little buddy!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Question from the Audience: Getting to Know You

A question from Linda M. in San Jose, CA
Q: I have a 2 year old spayed female (Trixie) that I adopted about 2 months ago. Last weekend I took her to an adoption fair and there were two neutered male rabbits she liked so I adopted one of them (Jack). They have been doing really well and progressing quickly as I can tell from some of the other stories I read out there. I have only had Jack in the house for 4 days now and they already can peacefully co-exist in the same territory for the most part. Trixie has run of the house so I set up a pen for Jack, just so I could keep them separated if I needed to. I started out with the bathtub as neutral territory and moved from there. I didn't expect to be in common territory yet, but they kept approaching each other through the pen so I thought I would give it a whirl.
There is no aggression (no growling, biting, fisticuffing), but Jack is more interested than Trixie. He will nudge his head down looking for attention & sometimes she will groom him for 15 seconds or so and sometimes she will trot off to go find something more exciting. So then Jack follows her and nudges again. If she continues to ignore him then he gets persistent and will start to chase her or mount her. She is starting to hide and be more reclusive because she doesn't want to be bothered by him. So, is this a match that won't work because of their differing interest levels, or will one of them eventually come around to meet the expectations of the other? I hate to see poor Trixie uncomfortable or unhappy in her own home.

A: I know how hard it is to see your rabbit uncomfortable in her own home, especially when you feel the newcomer is picking on her, but it sounds like these two are progressing perfectly. After only four days, they are still in the "getting to know you" phase and even though Trixie seems slightly less interested in becoming friends, this is part of the process of determining dominance and finding a balance. Grooming, ignoring, and lack of true aggression are all positive signs in this initial phase. These behaviors all constitute the process of finding the perfect balance for their relationship. Your method of using the neutral territory of the bathtub was ideal—you probably avoided some aggression because they were introduced in a neutral space.

For the time being, make sure Trixie doesn't react aggressively to Jack's chasing; it's actually better if Trixie is willingly running away. Keep a close eye on mounting behaviors; stop it immediately if Jack mounts Trixie head-first (this could be very dangerous for the male) and intervene with prologued regular mounting. If Trixie's reclusiveness increases dramatically, slow down the bonding process by reducing the amount of time they spend together.

Keep supervising them and you should see the overall mood of their interactions slowly improving. Rabbit bonding can take months in some cases, so patience is important. However, these two already seem to be doing excellent and so just keep up the great work!

Jack (left) and Trixie (right), just days after Linda's initial email.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rabbit Talk: Bunny Noises

While bunnies are known mostly as quiet, passive animals, they actually produce quite an array of sounds. Some sounds are discreet and you have to pay close attention to catch them, others are loud and unmistakable. It's important to know these noises and what they might mean in order to better understand your rabbit or know if she is in pain and needs attention.

These happy little grunting sounds, called "honking," are like a love song. Often loudest and most prominent in intact males and females as they circle your feet or perform other amorous behaviors, but fixed bunnies also can make this cute noise to express affection or admiration.

Rabbits purr by quietly grinding their teeth or chewing air when they are being pet and are happy and content with life.

Loud teeth grinding
A rabbit that is lying on the ground with her arms and legs drawn in close to her body, making clearly audible chomping sounds is in severe pain and needs medical attention right away.

A shrill, high-pitched scream that comes for an injured rabbit right before death. I've never heard this, nor do I ever want to!

This unmistakable sound is produced by rabbits right before they attack or bite. Could be at a human, another bunny, or another animal. Often accompanied by a double front paw lunge forward. Rabbits with attitude growl when defending themselves or their territory or when expressing general disdain toward a variety of situations.

Also done right before an attack and in correlation with lunging. This rabbit is angry!

Thumping or drumming with the hind legs means the rabbit is aware of some apparent danger and is trying to either warn it off or warn others. The sound of the thump and the resulting vibrations in the ground would be felt by other rabbits in the wild, who would perceive it as a warning sign. When this occurs at home, simply tell your rabbit "everything's okay," in a reassuring voice. Rabbits may also thump to express disapproval or disgruntlement.


I've heard multiple stories of rabbits squeaking, but I've yet to come across it myself.

Some rabbits snore or moan in their sleep. These bunnies are usually on the portly side.

Every now and then a rabbit will emit a surprisingly loud snort.

Yes, rabbits can hiccup! They make little hiccup-like noises and look as if they are spasming for a few minutes.

It's fun to try communicating with your rabbit through their language. For instance, whenever my rabbit, Graysie, is lying on the couch with me and purring, I grind my teeth too. Often, she responds by licking my face and grinding back. I don't have to tell you this nonverbal exchange undeniably means, "I love you!"

Monday, December 8, 2008

Question from the Audience: Angora or not?

A follow up question from Tara D. in Chicago, IL:
Q: I am still waiting to adopt, and I literally can't wait. I'm hoping on getting two buns, a mini lop, and maybe an Angora. If I do decide on an Angora, how do I tend to its grooming needs? What it the right way to brush, cut, pull out the hair? I’ve seen YouTube videos of owners pulling out their tummy hair and I am a little confused if that’s safe or not, knowing that their skin is very tender. Another question is how much noise do buns make at night in their cages? Is it tolerable while you’re asleep?

A: Again, it's great to hear you are doing so much research before adopting—being informed and having appropriate expectations is the best start for developing trusting relationships with your new friends. Since you are planning on getting two rabbits, I would look for a pair that is already bonded. Because it is harder to find homes for them, there are usually many pairs available at animal shelters. Contact the Chicago House Rabbit Society or look up bunnies on petfinder to meet available pairs in your area.

Typically, I would discourage first-time rabbit owners from getting an Angora, as their care is notably more complex and involved than short-hair rabbits; Angoras require intensive brushing and grooming that is best reserved for experienced rabbit owners. I recommend sticking with a short-hair variety that requires only minimal biweekly brushing.

If it cannot be helped, and an Angora is who you end up falling for, you will need to talk with the adoption counselor or foster parent to discuss all elements of Angora grooming.

A few pointers:
1) Angoras must be brushed daily.

2) It’s a good idea to trim their fur with electric clippers to keep it short (a few inches) and manageable.

3) When molting, which occurs roughly every three months, the rabbit completely sheds its outer layer of fur. During this time, Angoras should be plucked, that is, the loose chunks of fur removed with your hands. If done properly, this should not be painful since this fur is no longer attached to the skin.

4) While plucking should not be painful, the process can be very stressful. Constantly monitor how your rabbit is handling the ordeal. If she stresses easily, only pluck a few minutes each day. Rabbits are prone to stress and stress-related medical problems, including death, so please take this very seriously.

5) I would not recommend taking your rabbit to a pet groomer, unless they have extensive experience working with rabbits.

6) Angora owners often give their bunnies fresh papaya or papaya supplements, as the enzymes are believed to break down the fur in the gut. There's no proof to these claims, but most rabbits love the taste of papaya! Overall it is most important that Angoras receive plentiful amounts of fiber-rich grass hay. They also have higher caloric needs and should receive more pellets than the non-wooly breeds.

All of this grooming and brushing serves an integral purpose—a neglected Angora coat will become matted, painful, dirty, and susceptible to infection. If minor mats do occur, cut them out carefully with safe scissors. Additionally, grooming is important so that the rabbit is ingesting the least amount of fur possible. Ingested fur can create a blockage in the digestive tract, which can lead to anorexia and consequently death. This sort of complication must be treated surgically. As with most animals, grooming is not purely aesthetic!

Regarding noise level, rabbits are active at dawn and dusk, so they are often awake when you may want to be sleeping. How much this affects you depends on how light of a sleeper you are and the personality of your rabbit. Some rabbits will chew on the cage bars, some will dig around in their litterbox. I’ve used ear plugs for the past four years because my rabbit Graysie snores like a 300 lb old man, though I believe this is relatively rare. If the option is available, I'd recommend keeping the cage in a living room or family room, and giving your rabbits plenty of daily exercise, mental stimulation, and interaction to ensure they are calmer in their cages.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Thumper and Letter need your help!

Thumper (black neutered male) and Letter (black and white spayed female) have been patiently waiting for their forever homes at the Boston MSPCA for almost a year. They are two of the absolute greatest rabbits--sociable, intelligent, calm, affectionate, and sweet, and they are in their 11th hour at the shelter. This means that if they don't find homes within the next few weeks, or even days, they will be put down. This would be a travesty as these adorable little guys are truly great; they have mostly been overlooked because they love sleeping in their cardboard boxes and therefore oftentimes not in view of visitors.

Both Thumper and Letter are fixed and expertly litterbox trained. They'd be ready to go home with anyone who could take them and provide the forever home they so desperately need and deserve.

If you or someone you know are possibly interested, please contact me (via therabbitadvocate@gmail.com) or the MSPCA Boston (617-522-5055) to inquire about them. Thank you!

Thumper and Letter were transfered to a foster home with the House Rabbit Connection this morning and are therefore safe from euthanasia. They are still looking for a loving home in which to live the rest of their long, happy lives, so please contact the HRC at 413-525-9222 or check their website to see about meeting this amazing pair. Thanks again!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Making Sense of Scents

Rabbits use two types of scent glands to mark their territory and communicate vital stats among one another—one under their chin and the other in their vent area. You may have noticed your bunny rubbing her chin on furniture, toys, food, or even you. It's her way of claiming ownership and proudly declaring, "That's mine!" You can sometimes observe rabbits, as well as various other mammals, scratching their chins with their hind legs and running around their (sometimes invented) territory, distributing their scent around the perimeter.

While the chin scent glands serve as subtler hints, the scent glands in the vent area, called inguinal scent glands, located on either side of the genitalia of both males and females, excrete a strong smell detectable even by humans. The rabbit is able to attach this scent to specific kinds of territorial droppings. However, rabbits frequently do not clean themselves properly, either due to weight or laziness, and the glands can become impacted and require your assistance.

When the inguinal scent glands are noticeably odorous, it’s time for a cleaning. I'll preface this by saying that you can't expect every part of owning a pet to be pleasant and great fun. Inguinal scent gland cleaning likely ranks high up there with the world's less pleasant pet ownership duties, but it's truly not that bad (besides the unpleasant odor). Your veterinarian can show you how to do it the first time, or you can just have them do it at quarterly vet visits. It's possible to do it at home as long as you can get a good grip on your rabbit, or wrap her in a towel, and are able to secure them on their backs or bottoms. If you're really skilled, you can do it by yourself, but the first few times you'll want to ask a (really) good friend to help out.

First, grab some Vaseline, Q-tips and tissues. Make sure you are sitting on the floor, so if the poor thing does wriggle out, she is safely close to the ground. Make the vent area accessible and expose the two slits on either side of the genitals. With a Vaseline coated Q-tip, wipe out the dark brown waxy substance.* Keep in mind to do all this very carefully because the area is very sensitive and be aware that many rabbits get quite offended by all the activity down there, so keep them calm by talking soothingly and petting their heads. That's pretty much all there is to inguinal scent gland cleaning. I hope it's not as terrible as you imagined!

*Hold your breath while doing this.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Question from the Audience: Rabbits and Kids?

Question from Paige J. in San Jose, CA:
Q: I am seeking information regarding a bunny/rabbit for my 5 year old daughter. I don't know what types are the best for a younger child. We are looking for a rabbit that is social and likes to be cuddled/ held. Any information or resources would be greatly appreciated.

: One of the great misconceptions about rabbits involves the belief that they are starter pets— animals used to teach young children about responsibility or as a transitional step before a dog or cat. In reality, these perceptions are just not true and ultimately the root cause for a large part of the shelter rabbit population. Rabbits require a great deal of responsibility, an even greater amount than cats (though probably less than dogs). A pet rabbit needs several hours of daily exercise outside of its cage, fresh vegetables every morning, thorough cage cleaning a few times a week, possibly substantial medical expenses, and a serious time commitment, as they live an average of 8-10 years. Perhaps most importantly, rabbits require a large amount of love and personal attention.

The combination of rabbits and children tends to make for unhappy relationships, as the two have exceedingly opposite wants and needs. As prey animals that terrify easily, rabbits require a special kind of gentle understanding and interaction. Children are loud and their sudden movements combine uncomfortably with the rabbit's lifestyle. And rabbits, active at dawn and dusk, sleep during the day when children are interested in playing; like with humans, repeated sleep disturbances can elicit cranky and even aggressive responses from a rabbit.

On the other hand, children want soft, cuddly animals that they can pick up, hold, squeeze, etc. While the world might perceive them as stuffed animal toys, rabbits are in fact not suitable for child's play. Young children often restrain their pet rabbit, thereby encouraging the rabbit's "child-as-predator" perspective, which can incite aggressive behavior such as biting, kicking and scratching. Conversely, rabbits often suffer spinal fractures or even stress-induced heart attacks when they are improperly handled or picked up. Since many adult rabbit owners struggle with correctly and safely picking up and holding rabbits, the process is even harder for young children.

In addition to physical injuries, neglected or mistreated rabbits live their lives in fear and will often revert to a wild state. Unfortunately, this resulting common scenario—unhappy child, unhappy parent, unhappy rabbit— usually ends with the rabbit being dropped off at the shelter or worse, released into the wild. Rabbits are also abandoned when the child becomes bored with their pet, can't handle the responsibilities, or the daily or medical care gets too expensive. This is especially unfortunate as shelter life and abandonment takes a serious toll on these ultra-sensitive animals.

While it is somewhat dangerous to use specific animals as "starter pets," I can see the value in getting a hamster before a dog, etc. Instead of a rabbit, though, a younger child would be better off with a guinea pig, rat, fish, or even a calm, outgoing cat.

All that being said, there may be children who are calm, responsible, attentive, and compassionate enough to own a rabbit, though I wouldn't recommend it to a child under eleven or twelve. Even then, a parent will have to be the primary caretaker, meaning they must themselves be willing to dedicate a few hours to the rabbit's daily care. It is the adult's responsibility to understand and then convey to their children the theories behind approaching and interacting with rabbits, especially making it clear that picking up the rabbit is only for adults. One last thing to consider is that countless rabbits are returned to shelters when it is realized that a family member is allergic to the animal; please make sure to test for this before adopting.

To sum up, I would advise waiting a few years, until your daughter is a little older, at which point a trip to your local animal shelter will allow you to meet a variety of rabbits. There, you will be able to decide which individual (or individuals) seems best suited to your specific character needs. I wouldn't categorize any particular breed of rabbit as friendlier than others; there is a behavioral range in all types, though there are certain other factors to consider, such as the fact that some breeds (for example Angoras) require extensive grooming. Other than that, I don't advise choosing a rabbit based on it's breed or look, but rather by its individual character and personality.