Friday, January 14, 2011

Rabbit Education

Animals are wonderful. Choosing an animal as a new family member is a big decision, a decision that not only affects your life but the life and well-being of the animal you choose. It is unfortunate when people acquire pets without properly educating themselves to what they are committing themselves to. Some pet owners become overwhelmed or frazzled when the animal they chose to be a part of their family grows too big, too out of control, too aggressive, the list can go own. The animal then becomes discarded, either through an animal shelter, let loose to fend for itself, or given away to the first willing individual. It breaks my heart to see animals in shelters without a forever home. If a person educates themselves before acquiring an animal, these unfortunate scenarios may not occur (Fox, Good Rabbitkeeping 19).
An animal that is commonly misunderstood is the rabbit (GlobalTV). Rabbits can be wonderful and loving house pets – if you understand the animal’s needs and it fits your lifestyle. Prior to adopting my own rabbit, I knew next to nothing about rabbits. After adopting my rabbit I could not believe or understand why someone would discard such an amazing, innocent, and loving soul – maybe it was a lack of education about rabbits? No matter what animal you decide to share your life with - may it be cat, dog, lizard, or rabbit – education is the key to happy co-existence. Let me share with you the education I have learned about rabbits.
Rabbits are lagomorphs, not rodents like many misconceive. Lagomorphs include the rabbit, pika, and hare (Fox, Rabbits 6,7). Pikas are small animals that only grow to about nine inches in length. Pikas’ physical characteristics are small rounded ears, a short tail, small limbs, and short grayish-brown fur. They live in cold climates throughout Asia, Europe, and parts of North America (Smith). The pikas have incisors like a rabbit but fewer molars. Hares physically look closer to a rabbit than pikas. Hares have long slender bodies with similar long upright ears, short tails, and long hind legs like a rabbit. Although the hare is similar to a rabbit, they have very distinct differences. A hare has longer ears and hind legs than a rabbit. The longer hind legs enable the hare to achieve a top sprinting speed of 45 miles an hour, while a rabbit with its shorter hind legs tops out at a speed of 35 miles an hour (Merial 983). The most obvious differences between a rabbit and hare appear at birth; the rabbit is born furless, blind, and ears shut, while a hare is born with fur, open ears, and sight. Rabbits and hares are often mistaken for one another or misnamed; for example, the jack rabbit is actually a hare and the Belgian hare is actually a rabbit (Rabbit 46).
Depending on the rabbit breed, they can be as small as two pounds to as large as seventeen pounds. Like other species of animals, the female (doe) typically grows larger and heavier than the male rabbit (buck) (Fox, Good Rabbitkeeping 10). Rabbits have long webbed toes that are covered in fur. The long webbed toes help a rabbit accurately jump and maneuver quick turns at high speeds. Unlike cats or dogs, the rabbit does not have fleshy pads on any of its feet, although like a dog they do have a dew claw located above their front paws. Rabbit eyes are located on the sides of their skull; because of this characteristic rabbits have nearly 360 degrees of vision with a two small blind spots located behind their head and directly in front of their nose. Rabbits have many long whiskers located by their nose, mouth, and eyes that help them feel for objects by their blind spot in front of their face.
Rabbits contain a keen sense of smell which they constantly use. A rabbit’s characteristic wiggly nose is a part of their natural instinct to survive; rabbits continually sniff the air for potential predators and danger. Even when a rabbit sleeps, its nose continues to wiggle and sniff. Rabbits contain two upper incisors and two lower incisors like rodents; unlike rodents, rabbits contain two small peg teeth that lie behind the upper incisors. Rabbits have thirty-two teeth. All thirty-two teeth continue to grow at a rate of 4 inches a year throughout its life (Wegler Dwarf Rabbits 9) – like a rodent. Because of continually growing teeth, it is crucial for pet rabbits to have an endless amount of hay and chew toys; without endless hay and chew toys, rabbits can develop painful dental issues (Harcourt-Brown 149). Sometimes the dental issue can be corrected by a vet filing down its teeth, which can be very stressful and painful for the rabbit to endure.
The most common dental issue that afflicts rabbits that don’t have adequate chew toys or hay is known as Malocclusion. Malocclusion is when the teeth begin to grow at uneven rates which result in difficulty eating and drinking. If the malocclusion is not caught early the teeth can grow through a rabbits tongue and cheeks (Merial 991).
Rabbits rely heavily on their hearing (Mary 7). The large rabbit ears can turn in every direction and are very sensitive. A rabbit should never be picked up by its ears since there are many blood vessels and the skin is fragile and thin (Rabbit 48). In order to regulate its temperature, a rabbit will circulate warm blood through its long ears in order to cool down, in the same manner that an elephant uses its ears to regulate its temperature.
Rabbits are clean animals that constantly groom themselves like cats to stay clean. Rabbits usually do not get ear mites or fleas, but like any other animal, it is possible for a rabbit to catch them. Flea collars should not be used on rabbits since they usually chew on anything in sight and it can be toxic if ingested by the rabbit. If a rabbit develops ear mites or fleas, a quick trip to the vet can fix the problem (Fox, Good Rabbitkeeping 138, 142). Flea baths or sprays can be used, but you should consult a vet to ensure it won’t harm the rabbit.
Rabbits have sensitive digestive tracts. Rabbit digestive tracts are similar to a horse in the sense that it only flows one way and that they cannot vomit. When a rabbit is young, it needs more protein than an older rabbit – this can be found in alfalfa. However, as a rabbit surpasses the age of six months, it should not be fed alfalfa since the high protein levels can result with gastric impactions (unable to eliminate waste), kidney damage, and kidney stones. Rabbits can eat commercial timothy pellets, but it is not recommended since they are high in fat. Ideally a rabbit should eat fresh veggies twice a day in rations of ½ a cup per five pounds of rabbit weight. An endless amount of fresh hay is important to a rabbit’s daily diet; timothy hay or orchard grass is recommended. Lagomorphs are unique because they need to eat special droppings they produce called caecotrophs droppings (cecal droppings) (Merial 999) (Smith). Rabbits typically ingest the cecal droppings either early in the morning or at night.
Cecal droppings are small round dark dropping that closely resemble little grapes. Cecal droppings are important for multiple reasons; they contain thirty percent of a rabbit’s caloric intake, they contain important minerals and vitamins necessary for rabbit health, and they contain healthy bacteria that coat the intestines, keeping a rabbit’s digestive tract working properly (Smith). A rabbit should never be discouraged from eating its cecal droppings since it is a natural process.
A rabbit’s skeleton contains light fragile bones that can be broken easily if they are not handled properly. Rabbits are ground dwelling prey animals, and it is their instinct to not tolerate being picked up or handled. It is often misconceived that rabbits make good pets for children. Children are typically too rough with rabbits, and when they act defensively or out of fear with a warning nip or kick, it is misinterpreted as aggression (Wegler, Rabbits 21).
Rabbits are friendly and quiet animals that are not as affectionate as most pet owners might desire. Rabbits are social, curious, yet independent creatures that crave companionship. Rabbits are typically most active during the morning and evening hours; they are not nocturnal animals and will sleep throughout the night. Rabbit personalities vary as much as human personalities. Some rabbits might enjoy affectionate sits on the couch watching television or reading a book with you, while other rabbits prefer running around the house playing with cardboard boxes and nudging your feet when it wants a back rub. Whatever the personality might be, it is important to keep in mind that rabbits are not by nature animals you can carry around like an infant or have sit on your lap like a cat or dog.
Rabbits are quiet creatures. They do not vocalize like a dog with a bark or a meow like a cat; this is because they lack vocal chords. Rabbits can chatter their teeth and make a purr like noise when they enjoy a good pet or happily dream in their sleep. The only time you will hear a rabbit make noise it when it screams – this typically means a rabbit is dying (Wegler, My Dwarf Rabbit 16-17). Rabbits are fragile animals that can easily be frightened to death if they are startled or overstressed. This is another reason they do not make good pets for children.
Rabbits should not be kept in cages with wire floors for a few reasons. They can develop sore hocks. A sore hock is when a rabbit develops inflamed dead skin on the bottom of its feet. It is painful for the rabbit and can develop for a number of reasons, but the number one reason is standing on a wire floor (Merial 999). If a rabbit lives in a wire cage, the cecal droppings might fall through the wire of the cage, making it impossible for the rabbit to eat, resulting in digestive issues. Rabbits also need adequate exercise, they should have a large enough area to hop and play with toys – like a dog pen. A rabbit should be let out of its cage everyday to hop around and explore.
Rabbit toys can be anything from an empty cardboard box, paper towel roll, non-treated wicker baskets, pet friendly non-toxic stuffed animals. Rabbits are intelligent animals and can learn trick and commands. Training a rabbit is very close to training a dog – it takes time and patience; because rabbits are animals of routine, they can be easy to train. You can teach rabbits a variety of things like coming on command, fetch, the rabbit version of “tag”, and more.
Rabbits can be kept outside, but it is not recommended. Weather conditions can be too extreme for a domestic rabbit, and potential predators like cats and dogs can frighten a rabbit to death. A rabbit’s ideal life would be indoors. It is not recommended to let your rabbit roam free if you are not around to supervise. It is important to rabbit-proof the areas of the house that a rabbit has access too. Rabbits are curious creatures and use their whiskers, mouth, and teeth to acquire information about an object. Rabbits will chew on everything so it is important to keep electronic chords away from a rabbit. Rabbits can learn to not chew on certain items. Disciplining a rabbit should involve a stern voice and leading the rabbit away from the object it’s chewing on. Rabbits are smart creatures and will quickly learn. A rabbit should never be hit since their bones can easily break, they can become frightened of you, lose respect for you, or become aggressive.
There are more than 180 recognized rabbit breeds around the world. The American Rabbit Breed Association (ARBA) recognizes forty seven breeds. There are more than one hundred different coat colors, including white, black, brown, tortoise, opal, and more. There are only five eye colors for rabbit’s brown, blue-gray, blue, marbled, and ruby red.
ARBA has five body type categories:
Commercial – characterized by a large firm body. The highest point on this rabbit is the hips.
Compact- The same as commercial only smaller in stature and weight.
Full-arch- have closer body characteristics to wild hares instead of pet rabbits. The back of the rabbit has an exaggerated arch.
Semi-arch- the arch on the back is not quite as exaggerated as the full-arch breeds
Cylindrical- appear to have no tapering line on the back instead it is straight
Rabbit have four fur types:
Normal- This is the most common fur type. With both an under and over coat, this fur grows to a max of 1.5 inches. If a rabbit has a normal fur coat, it will grow in a designated direction on the body.
Rex- With both an under an over coat, the rex fur will grow to a max of .9 inches. There is a mutation that makes the undercoat grow to the same length of the overcoat which gives it a dense look that grows straight out from the body.
Satin- Similar to the normal fur type, the satin will look and feel shinier and softer. The length grows to the same max as the normal, 1.5 inches. The color of the rabbit will look more vibrant in a satin coat than a normal coat.
Angora- Usually grows to a max of five inches. This coat is extremely soft and fluffy (Fox, Good Rabbitkeeping 21 – 77).
No matter what rabbit breed you choose or what coat type it has, rabbits go through semiannual coat shedding. When a rabbit sheds, it can come out in handfuls. A pet rabbit needs help grooming the fur off of itself, so it doesn’t ingest it and create a gastric impaction.
Rabbits have a typical lifespan of ten years; most domestic rabbits do not live past the age of six, however, if they are not properly taken care of. If a rabbit receives the proper food, hay, water, exercise, and love, they can live well into their teens. Rabbits are generally healthy animals, but like other animals can develop cataracts, arthritis, and other age-related health issues as they age. It is important to understand the lifespan of a rabbit; unlike cats or dogs, rabbits require special things like hay, fresh veggies twice a day - every day, and hopping time. It is a big commitment that lasts many years (Moore and Smith 240-260). Rabbits are not the right kind of pet for some people because of the maintenance involved or because of their personality type, and for others they’re the perfect fit.
Rabbits are easily litter box trained. It is a rabbit’s instinct to use the facilities in the same place every time (Wegler, Rabbits 30-31). A rabbit cannot use the typical cat litter – crystal clumping formula. Using a typical cat litter can be fatal to a rabbit if it is ingested. Rabbit litter should be similar to non-scented original formula Yesterdays News by Purina. It is one hundred percent recycled newspaper that is formed into hard, absorbent, cyndricals shapes that are non-toxic if a rabbit ingests them.
Rabbits should have annual veterinary check-ups to ensure health. Rabbits are considered exotic pets, and not all veterinary practices see rabbits as patients since exotics are usually a veterinary specialty. It is important to make sure a doctor regularly treats rabbits, has experience with rabbits, and understands rabbit needs – they are not the same as a cat or dog. Spaying or neutering a rabbit is important to its mental and physical health (Merial 992, 998, 1003).
If a rabbit is not spayed or neutered, it can display aggressive behavior due to hormonal levels, and it can develop testicular or ovarian tumors if it’s not regularly breeding. A pair of rabbits can birth eleven or twelve litters of rabbits a year. This is due to the thirty day gestation period. Spaying or neutering a rabbit can also extend its lifespan from a few years to ten (Merial 992, 998, 1003). It is difficult to gender rabbits. My local veterinarian told me that when she gets a new litter she tries to gender them before spaying or neutering – half of the time she is wrong because a rabbits genitalia does not “hang down” or “show” like other species of animals. This is another reason it’s important to spay or neuter a pair of rabbits; someone may gender both animals as the same sex and be wrong.
Rabbits can live side by side with other rabbits or other animals of different species. An animal that most people associate as a good companion is a guinea pig. This is not necessarily true. Rabbits are typically larger than a guinea pig (depending on the breed). If the rabbit is larger than the guinea pig, it can become dominant and “bully” the guinea pig or unknowingly hurt the guinea pig by rolling on the guinea pig (Wegler, My Dwarf Rabbit 60-61).
Other animals like cats or dogs can live side by side with a rabbit but can prove to be difficult since dogs and cats are predators and rabbits are prey - sometimes instincts take over. The best companion for a rabbit is another rabbit (Wegler, My Dwarf Rabbit 61). It is important to take the rabbit’s personality into consideration. Are they dominating or submissive. Will they become territorial if another animal is brought into its environment? Sometimes introducing another animal into the environment is stressful and should not occur.
Choosing a rabbit as a pet is a big decision that does not fit every person’s lifestyle. If a rabbit seems like a good fit, the next big decision is where to acquire it. Adoption is always the best decision. Adopting an animal of any species is the always rewarding; you not only save an animal’s life, but you enrich yours. Buying an animal from a pet store can contribute to backyard breeders that have no regard for an animal’s physical or mental well-being. Either decision holds its own set of consequences that need to be considered. There are many great sources that can help educate what true rabbit ownership is like. is the house rabbit society – they are dedicated to spreading the word about responsible rabbit ownership.
To recap on the important - rabbits are amazing, intelligent, and cute animals. There are many breeds, sizes, colors, and temperaments. Rabbits typically live anywhere from 6 to 10 years of age. Affection is not a rabbit’s middle name – it may take time to build a relationship. Rabbits are easy animals to take care of as long as you supply them with sufficient quarters and food. Spaying and neutering is a must for a rabbit to live a long and healthy life. Rabbits are happy, quiet animals that can provide unconditional love for a person, but no matter what animal you choose to share your life with – may it be a cat, dog, lizard, or rabbit - please educate yourself on the good, the bad, and the reality. The decision to own an animal not only affects you but the life of an innocent animal.

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