Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Question from the Audience: A mean bunny?

A question from Emily V. in Portland, OR.

Q: I have a lop eared bunny that I can only classify as "mean." I'm sure there is something that I could be doing to improve her behavior, but for the life of me I can't figure it out. We bought Bella from a farm where she had been stuck in a cage in a barn in some extreme heat for a couple weeks. We took her home and set her up in our guest bedroom. After she got mostly potty trained and met our two dogs (whom she adores!) we moved her out to the main living area where she got to spend most of the day running around the house, playing with the dogs. But she has never been nice to us humans.

I've read everything I can find on bunny behavior, I clean her cage when she leaves it on her own free will, she has an endless supply of food and timothy hay and she gets to run around all day. She gets carrot tops, radishes and every once in awhile, apple bits. I've sat on the floor and let her come to me. I stay still and ignore her like all the books say. And then she bites me for no reason! I shriek to tell her that hurts and she'll lunge at me again. Then, I'll get up to remove myself and she actually chases me around the house trying to bite me. I've worked with her for months to improve this behavior and nothing seems to work. I finally figured that she just wanted nothing to do with us humans and we should leave her alone.

I didn't want her to be stuck in her cage all day, but I couldn't let her run around the house biting me all day either. We set her up with a bunny run area in the garage where she has access to her cage, all her toys and a lot of running room, but she seems to only be grumpier. When I enter the pen area to clean it, she charges me and my little hand broom. I'm getting to the point where I'm pretty scared of her. Do you have any suggestions for what I can try? I don't want Bella to be unhappy, but I don't know what to do anymore!

A: I commend you for being so patient, understanding and accommodating with your difficult bunny, and for researching ways to improve the situation. No bunny is born mean, but rabbits do have varying personalities. These personalities are further shaped by experiences. It sounds like Bella may have had some negative human encounters early on, so we can't blame her for her behavior. It also sounds like some of her originally positive traits, such as friendliness, confidence and assertiveness, have been shaped by her environment into their negative counterparts-- aggressiveness and other characteristics interpreted by you as "mean." We need to reprogram, or re-mold her behavior to extract the friendly-bold version of her instead of the aggressive-bold variety. We also need to reinstate your presence as a positive association.

Positive connotations
In the garage, Bella will never develop a trust of humans, as she is too isolated, so move her back into the living room. Set up an exercise pen that encompasses her cage and a sizable play area; this way, you don't have to worry about her chasing you around. Initially, practice coming near her play area (I suggest sitting on the outside of it) and giving her treats, like apple bits or a stalk of cilantro, through the gate. When you give her greens in the morning, sit by the gate and hand them to her one at a time. Make her associate only good things with you; we're reprogramming her brain to view you as a positive presence. Gradually, you can enter the gated area. Wear protective gear, such as gloves, for your safety, and so you won't be jerking away and only further scaring her. (If she attacks your feet, wear shoes, thick pants, etc.)

Squealing at her bites doesn't seem to be working. Some bunnies, who instead of "getting" that nipping hurts you, become offended at your squeals. This in turn provokes further aggression. Likewise, ignoring her isn't achieving the desired effect either. While many bunny behaviorists do recommend ignoring a bunny during initial interactions, this is most helpful for shy rabbits who might be threatened by your movements. Because Bella seems very outgoing and friendly (she loves playing with the dogs), she may actually be biting in an attempt to get attention from you. (Note that nibbling is an inoffensive way rabbits communicate with each other.) So shower her with head pats, ear scratches and cheek rubs whenever you're near her, and you may be surprised to find that that's all she's wanted. If she seems agitated at first, start petting the top of her head, in a confident way, using your entire palm and pressing down just a slight bit--this action has a calming effect on rabbits.

Working with a problem bunny might seem like a lot of work, but these difficulties can be overcome. Gaining the trust of such a fragile creature can be trying, but that's what makes it so rewarding. Once Bella begins to trust you, I think you'll notice a real change in your interactions. Like with humans, communication is the key to a happy and healthy human-bunny relationship!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Question from the Audience: The New Bunny

A question from Murat D. in Crangston, RI:
Q: We just bought a 7 month old, male, neutered lionhead rabbit yesterday. He is so scared from us because whenever I leave him to go out from the cage, he hits his legs on the floor strongly and never come near us. Can you tell me what to do in the first days of adopting a rabbit? Do we need to keep him in the cage all the time or stay near his cage? I really do not know what to do. Also when I want to put him back in the cage do I need to follow and catch him or wait for him to go by himself.

A: A new bunny is going to be terrified when it's first brought home and will probably need a few days to adjust. The thumping behavior is indicating that he feels scared and threatened. The best thing to do is leave him alone, and never force him out of his cage. After a few days, he should calm down a little. When he looks more relaxed, open the cage door and sit down next to his cage. You don't need to initiate any interaction with him; in fact, it's best if you just ignore him, and read a book or watch TV. Eventually, your rabbit will come out and explore the area, and ultimately approach you. When he does, let him sniff around and wait some time before petting his head and cheeks. The key is to let him approach you while you wait patiently.

Mental stimulation is crucial for keeping your bunny happy, so make sure your bunny is getting plenty of daily free time out of his cage. As for getting him back in his cage, don't chase him in. Try using a treat (a raisin, a piece of banana, apple, a stalk of cilantro, or a commercial rabbit treat like Yogurt Drops) to lure him back. Or try to work feedings around the time you need to get him back in his cage. If you're having trouble, you can try "herding" him in, but it's not a good idea to pick him up and physically put him in his cage. For further advice on interacting with your pet rabbit, read "Holding and Aggression" and "The Essentials: Approach," which outline how various human behaviors can be interpreted by your bunny.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Question from the Audience: Bunny Slipper Love... The Importance of Spaying and Neutering

A question from Katie R. in Boston, MA:
Q: I have a male newfoundland dwarf bunny, Max. I was away this weekend and my brother took care of him. Anyway we got back to my apartment and an hour after returning home, he basically showed obviously signs he's "in heat" and has countless times tried to initiate sexual relations with my bunny slippers. Been following me around my apartment trying to get whatever he can. I've had him since July 08 and this is the first time I've seen him do this before. Any suggestions?

The Victims

: Congratulations! Max is becoming a man. Or at least, he's reached sexual maturity. The cute, funny behaviors that he's displaying are only cute and funny the first few times. Then, they get annoying quickly, and you'll soon start noticing behaviors that are by nobody's definition cute nor funny. While some behaviors, like territorial marking, are a hassle to clean up, other behaviors have far graver consequences. Max can and should get fixed at this point. Since the surgery is safe for males after 5 months (and safe for females after 6 months), you can go ahead with the procedure. Not convinced? Let's overview the benefits of getting your house rabbit spayed or neutered:

Fixed rabbits live much longer lives as they avoid an array of health complications, such as various reproductive cancers and injuries from raging-hormone-induced fights or aggressive sexual behaviors among one another. An unspayed female has a 70-80% chance of developing uterine cancer. Testicular cancer, while not as common as uterine cancer, is a possibility for intact males. 

Rabbits that have been fixed are calmer and more relaxed; they are also much less aggressive. (I have a scar on my forearm to prove that even the nicest bunny can take a vicious chunk out of your arm in the heat of the moment!) Spaying and neutering also reduces destructive behaviors, especially in females who may be digging and destroying your furniture in an attempt to prepare for (real or imagined) pregnancies. Many behaviors that accompany an intact bunny--humping, circling and chasing--start off being cute, but quickly turn annoying and overwhelming, and sometimes even aggressive and dangerous.

Litterbox Training
It's notably easier to litterbox train a rabbit who's been fixed. Additionally, unneutered males (and females) will oftentimes spray urine, sometimes to shocking distances, in an effort to mark their territory. Such territorial marking becomes an overwhelming hassle to clean up day after day.

Once your rabbit is fixed, she can have as many friends as she likes. Rabbits are social animals and the majority of them thoroughly enjoy the company of other rabbits. However, until the surgery, it's dangerous to put two rabbits together, for fear of fighting and the overwhelming risk of pregnancies.

There's a good reason rabbits crop up in all sorts of saying about procreating--they reproduce with mind-blowing efficiency and in great quantities. Putting an unfixed male and female together will inevitably result in litter after litter of baby bunnies. With so many homeless rabbits waiting at shelters across the country, it just isn't right to introduce any more animals into the mix. Even if you somehow are able to find homes for the babies, those babies are taking the places of shelter rabbits who may be put down for lack of space.

The bottom line is that spayed and neutered rabbits simply make better pets. They are happier and more interested in bonding with their human companions once the undeniable and all-consuming urge to copulate is removed. With numerous behavioral problems and medical complications virtually eliminated, it makes sense to proceed with this safe and highly successful surgery. Get Max to a rabbit-experienced vet as soon as possible. With the irrefutable benefits, there's no way around it--it's the single best thing you can do for your pet, other rabbits, and you!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Question from the Audience: Eye Health

A question from Michelle A. in Quincy, MA:
Q: Our rabbit is a Siamese, sable dwarf-chocolate brown 4 year old. Buddie is a great rabbit and eats a good balanced diet. Occasionally his right eye has a wet discharge and can be a bit goopy. I bath it w/clean warm water and it seems to clear up. Have you seen this before?

A: As with all health concerns, the wisest course of action is to see a rabbit-savvy vet to rule out any serious medical complications. While the discharge could be from allergies or a temporarily lodged particle, it could also indicate a more serious problem such as an infection, which would require antibiotics. A blocked tear duct or congenital defect could also be the cause, which might require preventative or therapeutic treatment such as a nasolacrimal duct flush, anti-inflammatory eye drops, or antibiotics. It's best to be safe and get Buddie checked out. In the meantime, experiment with new types of litter and try shaking out his hay. Certain types of litter (see HRS's Litter Comparisons chart for specifics) can not only irritate the liver and respiratory system, but the eyes, nose, and mouth.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A House Rabbit is a Happy Rabbit

Up until relatively recently, most pet rabbits were relegated to backyards to be housed in wooden hutches. Now, we've realized how much these intelligent, humorous, and sensitive creatures (and we) benefit from their indoor residencies.

Health and Safety
Healthwise, indoor rabbits aren't faced with the same worries as their outdoor counterparts. Outdoor hutch rabbits have to contend with a variety of parasites, flies, and infections, not to mention prey animals, such as raccoons, domestic dogs, etc. Even if a hutch is physically secure, it's not enough—countless rabbits have died from shock or panic-induced injuries brought on by the mere presence of an outdoor predator.

Alongside predators and parasites, the outdoor elements pose significant risks. Heatstroke is one of the most relevant hazards, and it should come as no surprise considering the rabbit's inability to sweat, their permanent fur outfits, and elevated basal body temperatures (at around 102 ºF*). Outdoor (and indoor) temperatures of 85 ºF and above can be seriously devastating for rabbits; even if provided with fans, ice bottles, etc., such high temperatures are unbearably uncomfortable at best and deadly at their worst.

While comparatively less serious, cold weather poses its own variety of complications. Pneumonia and hypothermia (if the rabbit gets wet) are significant risks; and temperatures below freezing can (obviously) freeze the drinking water and cause dangerous dehydration.

In addition to the above mentioned health risks faced by outdoor bunnies, indoor rabbits are more carefully observed by their owners. Since rabbit illness symptoms are very subtle, (as to not alert prey to any weaknesses) a close relationship and acute awareness are vital to spotting changes in health and seeking prompt medical attention.

Exercise and Interaction
It's notably more difficult to provide an outdoor bunny with ample exercise. Whereas indoor rabbits can be allowed to roam around a room while you go about everyday activities, giving an outdoor bunny exercise requires the added effort of setting up an exercise pen and providing your undivided attention, and therefore will likely be neglected during busy times or in unpleasant weather conditions. With less out-of-cage time comes decreased mental stimulation and human interaction and increased boredom, destruction, and depression.

And with less interactive bonding time, you miss the opportunity to develop a profound and rewarding friendship. You also miss out the oftentimes hilarious and entertaining show that is a house rabbit: flying leaps, ninja kicks, head twitches, and over-flops!

Sadly, outdoor rabbits tend to get thought of as objects in the backyard, instead of sentient beings with individual personalities and extensive emotional lives. Outdoor rabbits are often neglected and as a consequence revert to a wild-like state; their owners never realize the rabbit's capacity for love, friendship, and humor.

All in all, indoor rabbits live happier, healthier and longer lives. If you currently own an outdoor rabbit, strongly consider bringing her indoors. A former hutch rabbit can just as easily be trained to use a litterbox as any other rabbit. You'll be surprised at how well an indoor rabbit complements your life. A house rabbit makes for a happy rabbit, and a happy owner too!

Trixie happily considers the advantages of being a cozy,
indoor house rabbit.
(Photo courtesy of Linda M. in San Jose, CA.)

* Dawson, Bronwyn, DVM. "Dealing With Medical Emergencies."
House Rabbit Society.