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.