Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hoppy Holidays from The Rabbit Advocate

My good friends Kelly and Eric adopted Bunnicula from the Boston MSPCA about two years ago. She is a prime example of the underestimated tenacious, comical and entertaining side of rabbits.
Hope you enjoy as much as I did, and hope you all have a hoppy New Years!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Health Special: Malocclusion in Rabbits

Malocclusion, referring to the misalignment of teeth, is a common ailment of the house rabbit. As with dogs bred to have “cute” smushed-in faces, certain breeds of rabbit, like the dwarf varieties, are especially prone to congenital deformities of the mouth. What makes malocclusion so serious for bunnies, however, is that rabbit teeth grow continuously. Normally, their teeth match up perfectly, so they’re kept ground down by the action of chewing. (Just one more reason giving your rabbit unlimited hay is so important!) Since maloccluded incisors don't match up, the teeth don’t file down and instead continue growing endlessly. As the incisors become overgrown, eating and drinking become harder and harder for the rabbit, all the while causing significant discomfort inside and outside the mouth as the teeth grow into the roof of the mouth and dig into the surrounding skin of the face. Untreated, this malformation can cause a slow and painful death.
Trimming teeth is not recommended because microfractures, a common sequelae, can lead to tooth root abscesses. Grinding down the teeth every two months or so is sometimes the only viable solution for the cheek teeth; but maloccluded incisors can also be extracted, fixing the problems permanently.
Recently, a rabbit with malocclusion and severely overgrown incisors arrived at the local shelter. Due to his complicated and chronic medical condition, he was slated for euthanasia. 
I, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to give up that easily. After consulting with some fellow rabbit experts at House Rabbit Network, I learned that extracting the rabbit's incisors could give him a chance at being healthy, and therefore, adoption. It seemed simple enough—the defective six front teeth would be removed, and after the mouth healed, he would learn to use his lips to pick up food and use the rest of his 22 teeth to grind his food. I spoke with a fantastic veterinarian at the VCA Wakefield Animal Hospital who explained that the surgery was relatively straightforward, the recovery was minimal, and, she said, the rabbit would be as good as new when it was over. In fact, he would even have a slight advantage over rabbits looking for homes—with no front teeth, rabbit-proofing would be a breeze!
I immediately brought the rabbit, who I had named Charley, home. He was severely underweight and malnourished from weeks of eating difficulties, so I spent a couple days feeding him a high-calorie, high-fiber, easy-to-chew diet, which included Critical Care, oatmeal, canned pumpkin, vegetable medley baby food, chopped strawberries, collard greens and cilantro, and even timothy hay broken into small, bite-sized bits. He chowed down for two days straight, and proved his will to live by bouncing all over my house and spending hours sleeping in my lap. Fortunately, House Rabbit Network had offered to foot the bill for the surgery, so after he had regained some strength, we were ready. On an early Wednesday morning, we drove up to Wakefield and Charley had his six front teeth pulled (he was also neutered at the same time). I picked him up that evening, and he was, though drugged, already acting a little feisty. By the next morning, he was eating Critical Care and pumpkin mush and three days later was eating entire bowls of pellets, chopped up greens, and even his hay.
He’s now a happy, rambunctious little guy, and might I add, perfectly adoptable. I hope this story inspires other owners and shelters with rabbits with dental problems to consider this alternative. As Charley sprints around my living room like a maniac, I can say with full confidence, that incisor extraction is a fantastically helpful surgery, a procedure we would both recommend to anyone.

Charley Before

Charley After

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Question from the Audience: Paw Flicking

A question from Elsie C. in Manchester, UK:

Q: My one year old house rabbit keeps flicking his front paws, one at a time. It is a kind of flick/shake. Any idea why? He is also quieter than normal instead of running around.

A: Rabbits usually flick their paws right before they plan to groom their faces or ears. Is he flicking his paws for a few seconds and then grooming himself? Is so, that is absolutely fine. If he is just flicking his paws repeatedly, then it would be worth it to have a closer look at his paws (is there something stuck to them? does he have a splinter or something of the sort? are they hurting? are they numb? do his nails need to be trimmed/getting caught in the carpet?). If you can't determine anything off about his paws, it might be a good idea to have a vet take a closer look at them.

I'd actually be more worried about him being "quieter than normal." Rabbits, being prey animals, really work to hide their symptoms. Once a rabbit is exhibiting unusual behaviors, you really want to pay close attention. Is he eating the same amount? Bathroom behaviors changed/droppings look the same? Acting depressed? Listless? If you said yes to any of these four questions, then don't wait to make an appointment with a rabbit-savvy veterinarian. These are surefire signs something is not right with your bunny, and when it's reached a stage with any of these symptoms, things can go very fast.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Free and Easy Way to Help a Shelter Bunny

One thing that always arrives with summer is the appearance of farmer's markets. And one thing that always comes with farmer's markets are leftovers! Ask a vegetable stand at your farmer's market about donating their unsold veggies, scraps, or even unusable parts (carrot, radish, beet tops) to your local shelter's rabbits. All you have to do is transport the goods to the shelter, as often as you like. It's an easy way to give a shelter bunny a healthy meal for free. Make sure to relay which veggies are okay, and which to avoid (ie tomatoes, beans, potatoes, rhubarb; and use carrots, bananas, (anything with high sugar) sparingly).

Atlas Farms has been donating their delicious organic vegetables to the Boston MSPCA for a few weeks, and it's turning out great for everyone involved. See pictures below for proof! (All of these bunnies are available for adoption through the Boston MSPCA; click on their names for additional information.)

Miss Bunny










Piper & Widget (Guinea pigs need greens too!)

Another idea: If you're baking/cooking with strawberries and have a ton of strawberry tops, save them in an airtight container and take them to your shelter. Strawberry tops make for a delicious treat!

Thanks for thinking of helping out a shelter or rescue in your area!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Are You Rabbit-Ready?

So you're thinking about getting a rabbit... Great! Rabbits make terrific pets, but they do require some specialized care and attention. As with any pet, you're going to want to do some preliminary research to figure out beforehand exactly what you're getting yourself into. Rabbits can live 8-10 years and are not low-maintenance pets, so it's especially important to know the specifics of their care before bringing one into your home.

Some facts about house rabbits:

1. Rabbits eat a highly varied diet. While they can eat a small amount of pellets daily, they must have unlimited access to a fresh grass hay and an assortment of fresh vegetables. Feeding a rabbit is definitely not as simple as throwing some dog or cat food in a bowl every morning.

2. Rabbits need to be seen by a rabbit-experienced vet, which is usually termed as an "exotics" vet. Exotics vets can charge more than regular dog or cat vets, so rabbit health bills can add up. While rabbits do not need vaccinations, they should be seen at least once a year by a rabbit-savvy vet.

3. Rabbits should be housed indoors, and this creates the need for rabbit-proofing. You will need to purchase a large dog cage or x-pen in which to house the rabbit while you are away or sleeping. While you're around, you can let the bunny out to explore--but certain dangers, such as poisonous plants or materials, electrical wires, and expensive furniture, must be moved, covered up, or protected.

4. It's strongly recommended that your rabbit be spayed or neutered. This makes a huge difference in litter-training and in curbing various behavioral and health issues.

5. As aforementioned, and now should be evident, rabbits are not low-maintenance pets. They require specialized care, daily attention, and a considerable amount of supervision. Rabbits also do not make good "starter" pets for children, as they are highly sensitive physically and mentally.

Before acquiring a rabbit, strongly consider all the factors. And if you do decide to get one, always adopt from a shelter or rescue--never buy from a petstore!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Easter Bunny's Important Message

Every year, around June and July, animal shelters around the country are seemingly instantly flooded with rabbits that are no longer wanted. Countless well-meaning families buy cute baby bunnies as Easter presents for the children, only to realize a few months down the line what complex creatures these are, what complex care they require, and what a bad combination a skittish, unneutered rabbit and a rambunctious child can be. Read this article on why rabbits don't always do so well with children and vice versa and read here about the importance of spaying and neutering.

Buying a rabbit as an Easter present is a time-tested bad idea. Sure, baby bunnies are ridiculously adorable, but they also require a varied diet, not inexpensive vet care, a spay/neuter surgery, daily attention and playtime, and intricate rabbit-proofing (which in turn requires a watchful eye and sometimes infinite patience). Rabbits are excellent pets, but only in the right circumstances, which includes knowing full-well what you're getting into. And if you've done the research and still think you're ready to get a rabbit, don't ever buy from a pet store! Instead adopt from a shelter or a rescue and save a life!

Buy a toy rabbit for Easter-- adopt a real rabbit for life!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Question from the Audience: Hiccups?

A question from Travis J. in Long Island, NY:
Q: I have a 5 year old Dwarf Rabbit. She is in great health- she is spayed, has a healthy diet and goes in regularly for check ups with her exceptional vet. Every so often, usually after jumping out of the cage and running around a bit, when she sits down or relaxes for a moment- she begins to twitch (her entire body). It looks similar to when someone has the hiccups. Its usually about 10 twitches lasting about 15 seconds. If I walk to her and pet her during the twitches, she stops twitching. Sometimes she will continue twitching the moment I take my hand off of her. Have you ever heard of this?

A: You correctly identified this weird twitching behavior as hiccups, although it is strange because when a hiccuping rabbit is touched, she does stop twitching (suggesting the behavior is voluntary to a certain degree). It can be scary to see, especially the first few times, because it looks somewhat painful or like a seizure, but it's just regular old hiccups.

As usual, make sure your rabbit is eating and drinking normally, in case the hiccups are being caused by disturbances in the GI tract. Other than that, it's most likely nothing to be worried about!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Reflective Look at the Importance of Adoption and Spaying & Neutering

Here is a poem by House Rabbit Society Educator Amy Espie that is a poignant reminder of the importance of spaying and neutering our pets and adoption instead of purchasing animals from breeders, pet stores, etc.

Saying Goodbye Every Day by Amy Espie

Sunday. A friend and I take our dogs for a run
in the park. The late-afternoon sunlight is
pure gold, and a fresh breeze rustles the tall
grass. A family approaches us on the trail: a
man, woman, and two small boys. They are
accompanied by a large tan dog with the
distended nipples of motherhood and an adorable
pup who looks just like his mom. The pup
pesters his mom, taking five steps for every
one of hers. She patiently tolerates his

It's a heartwarming scene that totally
depresses me.

What has happened to me? I love dogs. I love
puppies. And yet the sight of puppies makes me
sad. Every time I see or hear of a litter of
kittens or pups, I also see cages full of
homeless ones and the bins full of dead ones at
the shelter where I work.

Monday. It's 8 PM, time to go home. I walk past
the cages in the Stray Cat Room. A calico cat
and her two kittens sit quietly on the shelf in
their cage. The mother grooms one of the
kittens. A pink card attached to the cage tells
me it's time to say goodby to these three. I
feel the familiar mixture of sadness, anger,
and bitterness.

A huddled gray ball of fur in an adjoining cage
catches my eye. In the farthest corner of her
cage, a bedraggled cat hides her head under a
sheet of newspaper. I peer between the bars.
"Hi, Kitty," I say softly. "Are you totally
miserable? I don't blame you." I chatter on,
more for my own benefit than for hers. I put
some treats into her bowl and leave.

Tuesday. A small, frightened black rabbit is
rescued from a cellar by one of our Humane
Officers. That evening she gives birth to five
babies. Four days later, when her stray period
is up, the babies are injected with sodium
pentobarbital. A few seconds later, they are
dead. The mother is put up for adoption.

Gray Cat clings to her corner, still facing the
wall. I notice that she's eaten the treats I
left, which encourages me. I talk to her again.
"I know it's hard to believe, but actually
you're pretty lucky. Decent food, a clean
litterbox, people who care about you; and, with
a little luck, one special person to appreciate
and adore you forever." Gray Cat is not

Wednesday. I talk to the people in my
dog-training class about spaying and neutering.
"Of the ten million dogs and cats who are
killed every year at animal shelters in the US,
nearly three million are purebreds," I explain.
"And the other seven million had a purebred in
their very recent past. Stand at our front
counter any day of the week and you will hear
the same stories again and again: 'We're
moving'; 'The landlord says no'; 'He barks and
the neighbors called the cops on us'; 'She
messes in the house.' An expensive dog with a
behavior problem is just as disposable as an
all-American mutt.

"Spend a day at the shelter and you'll also
hear the repertoire of reasons people give for
not having their animals spayed or neutered:
'We want the children to experience the miracle
of birth'; 'Neutering is unnatural'; 'It's
cruel'; "I wouldn't want anyone to do it to
me'; 'My cat is from champion stock'; 'We've
already got homes lined up for all the babies.'
But try to explain these reasons to a loving,
beautiful animal (or even an ill-tempered,
homely one) whose time is up, who is receiving
a death sentence when his only crime is that
some human let him be born instead of facing
the reality of the overpopulation disaster.
I've never heard a rationalization that didn't
fade into nothing in the face of even one

On my way out, I stop at Gray Cat's cage again.
"Hi, Gray C. Still memorizing that bit of wall,
I see." A miracle! She turns and looks at me.
Her emerald eyes size me up. Maybe I'm being
too optimistic, but she seems a little less
frightened, her body a shade more relaxed.
"Listen," I tell her, "you've probably met some
pretty unevolved humans out there. We're not
all like that. Give us another chance, okay?"
She blinks dubiously. This is progress.

Thursday. The animal care technicians at the
shelter are the bravest people in the world. I
watch them scrub kennels and clean litterboxes.
I see them take a moment to play with a kitten
or hold a lonely pup. I hear them calm the
frightened ones with a gentle word. And every
now and then I force myself to witness what
they must face every day. That same dog who
they cared for, petted, and talked to must
finally be given the only thing we have left to
offer: a gentle, respectful death. What have we
come to when the best we can do is to kill them

Jim puts a leash on the Labrador retriever. She
cowers in the back of the kennel, tail between
her legs. He tugs on the leash. She whimpers
and crouches down lower. He kneels beside her.
"It's okay, pup. Don't be scared." She stops
whimpering but won't move. He scoops her up in
his arms and carries her to the Euthanasia
Room. She's been at the shelter for two weeks.
She's so frightened that all she does is lie in
the corner. No one wants her. Now she will die.
Carol holds her while Jim shaves a small patch
of fur from her leg. She is quiet and
trembling. Jim continues to talk to her. He
gives her the injection. She slumps onto the
table. Carol carries her body to the Chill Room
and adds it to the pile.

In the Cat Room, Gray Cat is sitting in her
usual corner, but she's not facing the wall
today. The room is noisy. Adorable kittens fill
row upon row of cages. Friendly adult cats come
forward, asking for attention. I open her cage
to give her a treat. "It isn't fair," I tell
her. "You have every right to distrust people,
but if you don't act adoptable, how can you
compete with all these other cats?" I reach my
hand closer to her. I touch her. She lets me! I
thank her.

Friday. At home, a veterinary clinic calls me
to find out if I have room for another
unwanted. The owners brought a young mini-lop
in to be euthanized. Why? They're moving out of
state. They don't want to take the rabbit. They
haven't found any friend who will take him, and
they don't want "a bunch of strangers" coming
to their house to see the rabbit.

When I get to work, Gray C. is not in her cage.
I look everywhere. I try not to be too hopeful.
I tell myself, Don't pursue it. I ignore my own
good advice. I go to the Chill Room. She is
there, in one of the bins, her body curled up
against that of a terrier. I touch her, for the
second and last time. Her body is getting cold.
She is gone. I mourn her. But who will mourn
the calico kitten underneath her, and the
angora rabbit in the next bin? Who will mourn
all ten million of them, one by one?

Please remember this poem the next time you think of buying that cute little puppy/kitten/bunny at the pet store. Adopting means saving a life!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Importance of a Positive Meeting

Initial interactions are crucial in establishing a rapport with your house rabbit or a bunny you're meeting for the first time. Because many people instinctively approach a rabbit as they would a cat or a dog--by placing a hand right in front of their noses for them to sniff--they are getting started off on the wrong foot, er, paw. As polite of an animal introduction as this would seem, rabbits are actually offended by this gesture, mostly due to their limited vision in front of their faces. Such offensive gestures often elicit fearful or aggressive responses, which leads the human to dismiss the rabbit as unfriendly, jumpy, or a bad pet. Instead, try coming down from the top and petting her forehead or scratching behind the ears. Or, you can even do as the rabbits do, and get down on their level and touch noses. With only your head in their field of vision, you suddenly don't seem so large and intimidating.

The differences between interacting with dogs/cats and rabbits don't stop there. While most dogs and cats love belly rubs, the stomach area is an exceptionally sensitive area for rabbits and very much off-limits. This makes sense considering as prey animals they must fiercely protect such vulnerable areas, whereas predatory pets--like cats, dogs, or even ferrets --might not be so sensitive about vital areas. Rabbits also prefer not to be touched on their paws, chin, chest, sides, tail, and genital region. But this is not to say that rabbits don't love being pet; they very much do! Spots that are just about universally enjoyed by rabbits include the top of her head, cheeks, ears, neck, shoulders, and back, though of course every rabbit is different. Try a nice relaxing massage for your bunny: move your hand slowly, with the an open palm, from the nose, over the forehead, over the ears and neck, and all the way down to the lower back, applying the slightest bit of pressure. Continue down both sides of the spine gently, but without applying direct pressure on the backbone, and note which spots she seems to particularly enjoy and which seem to be less than pleasant (if she stiffens). Repeat over the areas she seems to like. Most rabbits will flatten down, close their eyes, and even grind their teeth in ecstasy.

Positive interactions can set the tone for how a rabbit views you--whether she learns to trust you or avoid you. Conversely, it can also affect how a person will view a rabbit, or even rabbits as a species. A miscommunication during introductions can lead a human to fear rabbits or view them as unpredictable or aggressive creatures. And we, as devoted rabbit owners, know just how inaccurate this assessment can be, as long as we learn to communicate with them on their own terms and in their own language.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Question from the Audience: Blood in the Urine?

A question from Trish M. in Marion, OH:
Q: I am noticing that when I change my rabbits' litterboxes that there is a brownish tinge to it, almost looks like old blood, but I am wondering if this is due to the urine and pebbles mixing or if it could be something else? Does this sound familiar? I put down newspaper and pine chips, but then it has a grate over that so they don't get to the chips or anything. Any suggestions?

A: While it can be very troubling to see little puddles of dark reddish urine in your rabbits' litterbox, this is not necessarily anything worry about. Certain vegetable pigments can turn a rabbit's urine to a bright red, dark brown or even a dark yellow color. However, if the change in urine color is accompanied by a change in litterbox habits, a change in behavior (acting sluggish or depressed), or a change in dietary habits, then a vet visit is definitely warranted. A veterinarian can test for the presence of blood in the urine and check for kidney disease, reproductive cancers, etc. 

On a sidenote, you do mention that you use pine chips as the litter. Despite the prevalence and availability of these litters in pet stores, pine chips and other wood shavings have been shown to cause liver damage in rabbits. Switch to a pelleted paper litter, such as Yesterday's News and add a generous layer of timothy hay on top. (Yesterday's News, while being perfectly safe, also has unbeatable absorbency, odor control, and is environmentally friendly as it's made from recycled newspapers). The good news is that any sustained liver damage from the shavings can clear up once the litter is switched. And with using a safe litter, you'll no longer need a grate to cover the ever-so-fun-to-dig-in litterbox. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Question from the Audience: One or Two?

A question from Suzanna C. in Tampa, FL:
Q: I am thinking about adopting a pet bunny. I have been thinking and reading a lot about pet rabbits and now I'm fairly convinced that they would make ideal pets in my life right now. I just don't know if I should get one bunny or a bonded pair (of course neutered/spayed). We work full time so would be gone most of the day. My only concern with a bonded pair is that I don't know how affectionate they will be to us humans. What do you recommend?

A: It's great to hear that you're doing thorough research about rabbits before you adopt. Being completely aware of what to expect, knowing what you're getting into, and planning accordingly may be one of the most important steps in fostering a positive petcare situation.

As I frequently mention, rabbits are social animals. They are happiest in the company of others and since they are more occupied when in pairs, they're less likely to be destructive or get into trouble. Pairs also help groom each other, making for cleaner, healthier pets. And since you mentioned that you're gone for most of the day, I would especially recommend adopting a bonded pair. Pairs keep each other company while you're gone, and are therefore less bored and more happy!

Don't worry, it's not much extra care or effort to own two rather than one: a bonded pair can use the same cage, same litterbox, same food and water bowls, etc.

It's not uncommon to wonder whether or not a bonded bunny will like you the same way as a single bunny will. People often ask if their relationship with their single bunny will change once they get a second rabbit. However, because I've noticed that the relationship rabbits have with humans is separate from the one they have with each other, their status should really have no bearing on how they view you. Overall, the notion that the more attention you invest, the more attention you get back rings true regardless of how many rabbit friends are involved.

I recommend visiting some bonded pairs at a nearby rescue or shelter and seeing how you get along with them. Like all animals, rabbits have distinct personalities, unrelated to who they're already bonded with. All in all, bonded bunnies can be just as affectionate as single ones, and they'll sure appreciate having each other to snuggle with while you're gone during the day!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Introducing a Fantastic New Service for Rabbit Owners in the Greater Boston Area...

StressLess Groomers is a brand new in-home nail cutting service for rabbits in the greater Boston area. It was conceived after my good friend and MSPCA volunteer, Kelly, and I made several bunny nail-trimming visits to a few of our friends' houses. We realized some people weren't able to trim their rabbit's nails themselves, and some people just didn't want to impose the stress on their rabbit. Some were especially concerned with the stress of travel, and others were worried they would injure the rabbit. And that's where an in-home service like StressLess Groomers can come in handy!

Check out the website www.stresslessgroomers.com for rates, appointment times, covered areas, testimonials, and more. If you have any questions, or would like to make an appointment, email us at stresslessgroomers@gmail.com.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Petfinder Love

The incredible Petfinder, an online tool that allows users to search for adoptable animals in their geographic area by breed, age, and gender, mentioned The Rabbit Advocate in a recent blog post. Thank you to Petfinder for serving homeless and rescued animals and continuing to help educate the public!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Rabbit Advocate Info Day Was a Success!

Thank you to all those who came out for the 1st Annual Rabbit Advocate Info Day! We had a great time, met some awesome people, raised a little money for the Boston MSPCA, and got Tiny, Fluffy, and Thumper a little adoption exposure! Special thanks to Especially for Pets for their generosity, consideration, and dedication to educating the public about all types of animals.

Thumper and Fluffy being charming, as usual

Tiny makes a new friend

Fluffy getting some bunny love

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Essentials: Health Care Overview

A good owner should constantly be aware of any changes in their rabbit's behavior and digestive habits, as differences in these areas are the most telling about overall health. Symptoms that rabbits exhibit are subtle; acting lethargic or suddenly disinterested is a sign of trouble, while anorexia and changes in droppings and urinary habits are surefire signs of medical problems. A rabbit in pain will lie with its extremities pulled in tightly, eyes half-shut, will want to be left alone, and sometimes grind its teeth in pain. If your rabbit is acting this way, seek immediate medical assistance.

Rabbits should get a thorough look-over about once a month to make sure everything is running smoothly, though preventative care is key to keeping your rabbit happy and healthy.

Different breeds have different grooming needs. Angoras and other long-haired breeds require daily grooming, while most short-hair breeds need just a weekly to biweekly brushing. During molts, increase the grooming frequency and make sure to remove loose fur so that the rabbit does not ingest too much of it.

Rabbits should get their nails clipped once every two months. You should also check their teeth, eyes, nose, and ears for any abnormalities or changes, and look over their bodies for any signs of lumps, abscesses, infection, scrapes, or parasites. Approximately every two-three months, you should check the genital area to see if the scent glands need to be cleaned.

Feeding your rabbit a healthy, balanced diet can eliminate many of the health problems domestic rabbits face. Offer unlimited hay, a variety of vegetables, and a restricted amount of pellets, about 1/8 cup per 4 lbs of rabbit. Rabbits have highly sensitive digestive tracts, so monitor their intake and output very carefully and note any changes. As aforementioned, abberations in this area are the largest indicators of a serious medical problem.

Spaying and neutering is an essential part of rabbit health care. The surgery eliminates a variety of health problems and adds years to a rabbit's life.

Make sure to clean your bunny's litterbox and food and water bowls frequently, providing clean, fresh water on a daily basis. Rabbits should be housed indoors to ensure they remain physically and mentally healthy. Inside, watch out for poisonous plants, electrical cords, lead-tainted paint. During the summer months, pay close attention to the temperature in your house, as temperatures above 85 ºF can be disastrous to a rabbit's health.

The more you bond with your bunny, the sooner you'll be able to detect changes that may indicate a medical problem. In the case of rabbit health care, love just might be the best medicine.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Question from the Audience: Fur Loss

A question from Adam B. and Maggie H. of Boston, MA:

Q: We successfully adopted Gus, previously Murphs, from the MSPCA a few months ago, and have been having a great time with him ever since! There is one thing we have noticed recently: in front of his ears on the top of his head, and right behind the base of his neck, he has some patches of shorter hair. The skin looks fine underneath and he doesn't mind us touching them, is there anything to be worried about? He stayed with a friend in VT for a few weeks and she had a black lab pup, but they always interacted well. Could it be that he lost the hair there from stress? Or did we just not notice this short patches before?

Family Photo with Adam, Maggie, and Gus, formerly known as Murphs

A: Rabbits do stress shed, like dogs and cats, but it sounds to me like Gus is probably just going through his semi-annual molt. During a molt, which can last for varying periods of time, rabbits lose a lot of fur, and it can often fall out in clumps, creating bald spots or spots with very short fur. It really isn't anything to worry about.

During a molting period, make sure you brush Gus frequently or remove his loose fur by hand, so he doesn't ingest too much of it, as rabbits can get hair ball blockage in their GI tracts that requires surgery. (Rabbit's cannot throw up, like cats can, to expel hairballs.) Especially during a molt, make sure he is eating a good amount of Timothy hay and drinking plenty of water; the fiber in the hay and the moisture in the water will keep the fur moving out of his system.

You definitely want to be concerned if the area includes dry flaky patches, red irritated skin, open sores, or if he seems to be constantly scratching at it. These symptoms could indicate parasitic infection, like mange or ear mites, and he should be checked out by a veterinarian for treatment. But since Gus isn't presenting with any of these signs, it's sounds like all he needs is a thorough brushing.

Gus making an eat.

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.