March 2007

My wife and I foster rabbits for the House Rabbit Network (HRN). A few days ago, my wife and I took in three new foster rabbits, which were transferred from the MSPCA.

One of the new foster bunnies, Jasper, is underweight and lethargic. He’s close to a pound beneath the healthy weight for a rabbit his size, which on a bunny currently weighing 3 pounds, 6 ounces is a significant problem.

We’ve been trying to get him to eat. Yesterday, my wife noticed that he had molar spurs. These are points on a rabbit’s ever growing teeth that cut the tongue and gums. This makes it next to impossible to eat.

We’ve scheduled a dental appointment for Tuesday (The earliest they could see him) but we needed to get him eating in the mean time.

The problem is, he hasn’t even been paying much attention to liquid or mash foods. The teeth are so bad, that merely swallowing appears to be painful.

We tried syringe feeding him, but he would simply let most the food drool out.

We got some pain medication and when giving him the first dose, I got an idea.

The food syringe is rather large, but the medicine syringe is only a milliliter. I got him to take the medicine by pushing the tip of the syringe past his molars and towards his throat. This is an old trick that gets the rabbit chewing on the syringe, but renders them unable to do anything but swallow the medicine.

As an experiment, I grabbed some of the baby food carrots I’d picked up for him (The critical care is too chunky at the moment to go into the syringe) and was able to give him four milliliters of purred carrot. About an hour later, I gave him another four.

Remembering Fuzzface’s medical problems, I knew that two to three feedings of ten milliliters of Critical Care will be needed for him to start gaining ground. If I mix the Critical care with water instead of water and Pear Sauce, I should be able to get it into the smaller syringe.

The sum of all this?

I now have a way to get him to eat until the vet can trim his teeth Tuesday.

Liz and I have three new foster bunnies in the house, now that the two were were fostering have been adopted.

Amelia has a bit of attitude, but once you pick her up she just melts for some cuddles.

Jasper is the most relaxed of the bunch, and desperately needs to be adopted out as a bond mate when he finds a home, as he really thrives with a partner. He’s currently under weight, having lost some weight at the MSPCA. Fortunately, he’s already gained back most of the weight and just has a few ounces to go. They checked his teeth, checked for parasites and ran every test they could find to no avail. Eventually, they realized the weight loss started when he was in a cage where he couldn’t see or interact with any Rabbits or Guinea Pigs.

Jasper is also a good photo bunny. He has stunning blue eyes and seems to know when you’re taking a photo. The best description I can think of is that he poses for the camera.

So if any photographers in need of a resident model have a bunny who needs a a partner, Jasper may be the perfect choice.

Truffle is a little spitfire, with a tendency to not only dig at a surface, but kneed it as well, much like a cat.

In the time my wife and I have had pet rabbits, we’ve dealt with a variety of issues with our furry companions. From behavioral problems to life threatening GI stasis, we’ve been through a wide range of the things that can happen. None of it has deterred us from wanting to keep rabbits as pets. We love these curious, investigative, playful and exuberant creatures and wouldn’t trade them for anything. Below are things my wife and I wish we’d known about when we first started keeping rabbits as pets. I’m offering this as a resource for new rabbit owners, and I hope it helps.

My wife and I volunteer for the House Rabbit Network (HRN) They have a list of articles about rabbit care , including an excellent Bunny Basics guide that gives a brief and effective summary of bunny care. HRN also has a Blog with a variety of resources. It’s a good place to ask bunny related questions, as most of the people on the Blog are HRN members with experience fostering rabbits.
A lot of people will link to articles on the House Rabbit Society web site. HRS is a larger organization than HRN with more chapters nationwide. Both are rabbit rescue groups geared towards providing accurate information to rabbit owners.
HRS also has more articles and information on their site, including articles on keeping rabbits with dogs, keeping rabbits with cats. HRN has an article on Guinea Pigs as Rabbit Buddies
Rabbit Health in the 21st Century: A Guide for Bunny Parents is an excellent book on how to care for your pet rabbit, and includes a lot of information that isn’t readily available on the web.
How to live with an Urban Rabbit“. This book is a good overall look at bunny care. While a lot of the information it contains is available online, it’s convenient to have it in one place.

All vets are not equal; There are a lot of vets who are excellent with cats and dogs, but do not necessarily have all the specialized knowledge necessary to care for rabbits. Rabbits are considered “Exotics” and you need a vet who has an exotics specialist on staff. Check with your local rabbit or animal rescue group for vet recommendations. While your regular vet doesn’t need to have a 24 hour emergency care ward, you should find out where the closest one is, in case you need to get your pet to the vet at 3:00 am. Your regular vet is likely to have a 24 hour vet that they work with, if one is available in the area.

Health Insurance for Pets
My wife and I as well as other HRN volunteers have gotten health insurance for our rabbits from VPI. The basic idea is that you pay for the care up front. There’s a form that the vet’s office needs to fill out. You or the vet then fax it to VPI. VPI then reimburses you directly. All the vet has to do is fill out some paperwork and give you the necessary invoice. The first year my wife and I got it for our rabbits it paid for itself within six months. Rabbit care can be expensive. Be sure to read the fine print so you know what is and is not covered.

The Breeder is not necessarily the best source for information
There are a lot of people breeding rabbits who are caring, informed and knowledgeable people. Unfortunately there are also people who breed rabbits who don’t really know much about them, aside from the basics of feeding and housing them enough to reproduce and keep enough alive to turn a profit. I ask that the reliable, well informed breeders please ignore the next few lines, as they aren’t about you. I know HRN members who’ve been warned by some breeders to never take their rabbit to a vet, “Because the vet will just experiment on it.” Some breeders have also advised people to not give their rabbits hay or greens and just feed them pellet food. Anyone who gives that kind of advice doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. There is a lot of misinformation out there that, if followed, will damage the health and well being of your pet rabbit. Be aware of the source of your advice.

Rabbit Diets
Breeders will sometimes recommend feeding your rabbit an Alfalfa based pellet food. Pellets should be a significant component of your rabbit’s diet, but much of their food should come from hay and greens. The HRN article How to Choose a Good Pellet will get you started. The Calvin’s Care Corner – Rabbit Treats article gives the following advice:“An adult rabbit’s daily primary diet is basic; unlimited grass/timothy hay, restricted high-fiber pellets [apx. 1/4 c. per 5 lbs. body weight], fresh veggies [apx. 2 c. per 5 lbs. body weight], unlimited fresh water [especially in hot weather].” Anything else is secondary, and thus a treat. Rabbits are NOT omnivores. Most of the “treats” you see in the pet store are very bad for your rabbit, particularly the yogurt based threats or anything that contains sugar.

Pineapple and Papaya: possible life savers
I highly recommend getting your rabbit(s) accustomed to dried Papaya and fresh pineapple. Many people believe that enzymes found in pineapple and papaya help break down the fur that a rabbit ingests. This is one of those things that have been neither proven nor discredited and there’s debate upon it’s effectiveness even among vets, but at the very least, rabbits love both fruits.

If you like fresh pineapple you’re in luck, because rabbits are very happy to eat the fibrous core that humans generally avoid. Remember to only give your rabbit no more than a teaspoon or a tablespoon of pineapple during any given day. Too much fruit will cause diarrhea.

Lacking the ability to vomit, rabbits can’t cough up fur balls the way cats can. As a result, fur can build up and cause potentially fatal blockages. This can result in Gastrointestinal or GI Stasis. Not all cases of GI Stasis start with blockages and it’s possible that some blockages are caused by GI Stasis. The exact relationship between a blockage and Stasis is uncertain, but avoiding fur buildup is a good idea regardless.

This is also why frequent brushing is necessary, particularly during the major shedding periods.

Calcium and your Rabbit
Rabbits metabolize all the calcium they eat. Because of this too much calcium can be very harmful to your pet. This can include various forms of Dental Disease and bladder sludge. In extreme cases kidney stones are possible. I also recommend you get Up Close and Personal with a Bunny’s Molars

Young, growing rabbits, or rabbits that are nursing, pregnant or are females being used for breeding need a higher calcium diet. That’s why high calcium foods such as Alfalfa hay an alfalfa based pellets are good for them. Adult rabbits who are not nursing or being bred however, should be on lower calcium diets. This includes Timothy hay and timothy based pellets used in place of Alfalfa. High calcium greens such as broccoli and spinach should be fed sparingly if at all.

Get your bunny fixed!
When my wife and I bought Beanbag into our home, we decided to get her four year old female rabbit Fuzzface fixed. This was done largely because the hormone reduction would make it easier to bond the bunnies and because we had a vague awareness that it would be better for her to be fixed. The vets found a tumor on her uterus when they spayed her. Fortunately, it was caught very early. In the vet’s words, “We don’t have any survival statistics, because we almost never find them this soon.” That was the first, but not the last time Beanbag saved Fuzzface’s life. We later learned that “Up to 85% of female rabbits develop uterine cancer by the age of four if they have not been spayed.” (HRN, Why Spay Your Rabbit?)
Neutered Male rabbits are less aggressive, less territorial and express fewer territorial behaviors, such as spraying.

Rabbit Litter
Picking the right litter for your rabbit can be a surprisingly convoluted process. Most clay based litter made for cats will clump around a rabbits fur. It may be ingested when the rabbit grooms which can lead to a fatal blockage. It should ONLY be used if you have a slat bottom cage that doesn’t allow your rabbit direct access to the litter. Litter made from Pine, Cedar or other aromatic wood shavings are bad for most small animals, rabbits among them. The pine and cedar oils can cause significant respiratory irritation. There is some evidence to indicate more serious ailments can result. There’s a cat litter on the market named SWheat scoop. It’s made, as the name implies, from wheat. The problem with this litter is that wheat expands in the stomach and can cause fatal blockages in rabbits. I know of two cases where a rabbit exposed to wheat based litter needed gastric surgery due to a blockage. This is major surgery and aside from being expensive, can lead to numerous health consequences down the road, assuming the rabbit even survives. Corn can have a similar impact upon a rabbit’s digestive system. Because of this I recommend against corn and corn husk based litters. Paper based litters are often a good choice, provided your rabbit doesn’t eat much if any of their litter. Fortunately, the two best options for rabbit litter are also the least expensive. Critter Country Litter ‘N Bedding is a compressed straw bedding. It shouldn’t matter if your rabbit eats it, as it’s essentially straw anyway. While it won’t provide much in the way of nutrition, it at least won’t do any damage. It’s generally cheaper per pound than most the other litters in your average pet store. You can also get Yesterday’s Mews, which is a pellet litter made of recycled news print pulp. Most of the HRN volunteers, myself included, have become fond of using the wood pellets made for wood burning stoves. These biodegrade as easily as straw and paper based pellets, which makes them a good choice for people who compost their rabbit litter. (The Magic Bunny Poo – A Composting Tale) It’s also costs significantly less than commercial pet litters. Most places that carry these pellets consider them a “seasonal” item, so stock up during the Fall and Winter so you have enough for the Spring and Summer. Your local Agway or other farm supply store will probably have them year round, or be more than happy to order them for you. Some wood burning stove pellets contain accelerants to make them burn faster. Avoid these like the plague, as the chemicals they contain will be very harmful to your rabbit. Litter should be changed every two to four days if you use a litter pan, depending on usage. You don’t need much litter in the bottom of the pan, perhaps enough to cover 90% of the pan’s bottom. Rabbits don’t need to bury their pellets the way cats do. You’re basically looking to absorb the urine and prevent their feet from being scalded by uric acid. Putting a little hay in the litter box will also be helpful. If you’re using a slat bottom cage that doesn’t let the rabbit come in direct contact with their litter, then the change frequency can be weekly, assuming you use enough liter to absorb all the urine produced in that time, and you don’t have any mold or fungal problems from the litter.

Bunny bonding, Love is in the air – sorta
Introducing two new rabbits and trying to get them to live happily together or “Bond” them can be a problematic process. A “Quick” bond is two weeks. Three Months is not unusual. Don’t get discouraged. Remember, YOU are the primate with higher brain function and opposable thumbs. Most rabbits can be bonded, given enough patience and effort on your part. These references should help:Love Match: A Guide to Bonding Your Rabbits HRN Blog: Bonding You may be advised to take the rabbits on a drive in the car. The general idea is to stress the rabbits so that they turn to each other for comfort and forget their territorial and dominance disputes. Using a car for this purpose is falling out of vogue for two reasons. First, it’s dangerous as the rabbits are harder to mange in a moving vehicle. Second, it requires two people, one to drive and the other to handle the rabbits. Finally, there are easier ways to do the same thing at home. If you have a cloths washer, you can put the rabbits in a basket on top of the washer during the spin cycle. Keep a towel handy to throw over the rabbits if they start to panic, and keep a tight grip on the basket.

An even easier trick is to put them in a cold dryer.  No, you won’t be turning it on. You’ll just out them in the dryer, and if they start to make a fuss, turn rotate the drum slowly by hand. This will be enough to keep the rabbits on an uneven footing and will allow you significant control over the situation. As a bonus, the steel drum of the average dryer will be easy to clean in the event of territorial wetting or pelleting. Side loading washers are generally too damp for this purpose, and rabbit claws can catch, bend or break in the drainage holes that line a washer’s drum. Simply putting the rabbits in a clean, dry bathtub will also provide a slippery footing and neutral territory.

Winona and Tatum got love, affection, and romp time from us for 2 weeks before a family called interested in adopting. To my surprise and delight, the family was interested in adopting both of the girls, even though they weren’t bonded to each other. I asked if they wouldn’t rather look at some of the already bonded pairs, but they were stuck on these two, having read my adoption profiles of them both. I told them that I would be happy to have them consider adopting the girls so long as they understood that bonding isn’t always an easy process. With that assurance in mind, we introduced Tatum & Winona face to face for the first time. While there was some circling and fur pulling, for the most part, the signs were positive. We quickly found that the girls got along well and were peaceful together if they were sharing snuggles in my lap. I spent time with them over the next few days beginning to bond them and hoping for the best.

This past Saturday the family came to our house bearing a gift basket for our bunnies and a beautiful set of tulips for us to plant in our garden. The 2 boys, 8 and 9 years old, got down on the ground and gently approached Tatum & Winona. Within a few minutes, both bunnies were stretched out flat soaking in the attention. The family took the girls home that day, sharing a carrier in the car to increase their growing bond by sharing the stress of the journey.

Over the past few days as they’ve been settling into their new home, I’ve received a number of emails from the family. They are all thrilled to have Winona and Tatum in their home. The buns have large adjoining pens for their homes and ultimately will be allowed to be free range once they’ve gotten comfortable in the house. The husband has taken to relaxing with Winona and a book on the couch. The 2 boys love to lay on the ground and watch both of the bunnies as they tear around and kick their heels up during romp time.

All in all, I couldn’t have asked to play host to a sweeter set of foster-rabbits. And I know that I couldn’t possibly have dreamed of a better outcome.

After they’d been adopted, I found out from a contact at the SPCA that Winona had been wounded when she first came to their shelter. One of their own surgical interns had actually fostered Winona for a while during her recovery. To that intern, I can only offer my sincerest thanks and hope that reading this story makes you feel as satisfied by the role you played in Winona’s life as I am by mine.

Thanks for doing what you do every day and for going beyond what’s expected of your job. As you can see from this story, that single act of kindness has had far-reaching ripples.
Winona & Tatum with two of the members of their adoptive family