What is a Rabbit?

Me, my mistakes, and how Advocates For Rabbit Welfare came to be.

 

The most common error among rabbit owners is not truly understanding what a rabbit is, and their needs.

I was certainly guilty of this when I was new to rabbit ownership… or more to the point, slavery!

I am still a fairly new bunny mum compared to many others, it must be just over 10 years ago that I welcomed Clumper bun into my life and home, and I made a few classic mistakes.

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Yes, she came from a pet shop, you know the one, the large out of town pet retail empire.

She was, or at least I was told, around 6 months old, the last one on the enclosure, left over from her litter mates.

I received very little care advice, I was only encouraged to buy the food she was already eating, which was a muesli mix. I don’t recall being asked how or where I was going to house her, and I was never steered towards the range of inappropriate housing items on display (cages/hutches). I was not asked if I was familiar with rabbit’s care requirements, or if I had any other pets that could potentially be problematic.

My reason for being there was for my weekly dog and cat food/litter shop, and for some reason this gorgeous girl bunny caught my eye.

So there we have it, in mid December during the run up to Christmas I popped in to carry out a few errands and within the space of 10/15mins, I came away with a gorgeous new bunny.

I have always prided myself on being a ‘good’ pet owner, making sure they were comfortable, well fed and saw the Vet when needed. However, I was not prepared for the complex needs of my new rabbit. Believe me I had a great deal to learn!

Health Care

Clumper was always a house bunny, free range, no cage and had her very own room, but with plenty of interaction from me, and in time, my cats, and eventually, my two dogs.

She was vaccinated shortly after purchase and, after a few weeks, neutered at my usual veterinary practice. My experiences here leave little to be desired, now that I look back.

I don’t recall them checking her teeth, ears, guts sounds, respiratory rates or hocks. Knowing now how a thorough health check should be carried out, I am fairly certain that none of these vital checks were in fact done.

When she was neutered, again she was released back into my care later that same day, still groggy from her experiences with no supportive medications to get her through the next few days. Only, I was informed, a long acting pain relief injection which should ‘see her through’.

She also had stitches in her tummy, not glue or internal soluble stitches, but the more common external ones which would be removed a week later during her follow on check. To my horror, Clumper had managed to pull out all her stitches within a few days of her neuter Op, leaving a gaping wound, which after rushing her back to the Vet, the advice was that this would ‘heal itself’ in time and I was given a course of antibiotics, if only to prevent infection.

Her appetite thankfully was good; although she was very reluctant to move from her bed area during the first few days after the procedure, and I spent a small fortune during this time on the only foodstuff she would happily eat, parsley.

Not a great experience, but then I had nothing to compare it with at the time and at the time, fully trusted my Vet.

Diet

I was unaware just how important hay was to her daily food intake; of course she always had access to large amounts of it, but I did, ashamedly, over feed her on muesli mix (as this was what she was used to and I simply followed the example shown by pet shops etc.) keeping her bowl topped up and also too many fresh greens, pieces of fruit and pet shop bought treats. She even had the odd piece of bread, and cereal. Again I simply thought, she ate it and it appeared to be doing her no harm, in addition to seeing other owners who did the same, it can’t be bad, right?

Wrong!!

Our domestic rabbits are NO different from their wild cousins; they require a nutrient poor diet which consists largely of hay/grasses in addition to a few wild plants, or as is often in the domestic setting, rabbit friendly leafy greens. This is what their digestive system was designed for, nothing else!

Quite simply, Rabbits do not eat commercial foodstuffs in the the wild, no dairy, egg, cereals etc. Their bodies are not designed to tolerate these foods. So why do we continue this trend at home?

The use of commercial foods stems from farming/laboratory practices where the longevity of the animal is of little importance, and the yield from meat/fur has a higher value then their life. As such, we continue this ‘trend’ with our domestic pets thinking we are feeding them correctly and the examples shown by the industry do little to change our thinking.

Commercial foods and treat items are highly profitable to retailers and manufacturers. They are made appealing to owners through the use of brightly coloured packaging featuring the ever cute bunny happily munching away. Often even the suggested amount of daily feeding quantities advised on the packages is often too high for their daily needs.

So, when faced with all these falsehoods, why would we think this is in any way wrong?

Hay/grasses should always make up the largest part of their daily food intake, followed by a small amount of rabbit friendly vegetables and fresh leafy greens alongside a small amount of high – extruded – fibre pellets, or as I often call them, nuggets. The recommended amount for an average sized rabbit equates to an egg-cupful each, daily.

We should give our domestic rabbits a small amount of a high extruded fibre complete pellet, this ensures they gain vital nutrients and minerals on a daily basis that the domestic setting may not always provide via the feeding of hay.

Additionally, feeding these hard foods can be a great indicator of any potential dental health issues. A reluctance to eat their once desired ‘hard’ food, can be a warning of discomfort with their teeth and as such should be checked by your rabbit-savvy vet, asap.

Beneficially, feeding small amounts of nuggets/pellets can act as a daily treat to reward bunny or even help with house training.

Muesli mixes must be avoided; they are high in sugars and only encourage selective feeding. Your rabbit will not benefit from these foods, missing the fibre they require to maintain both dental and digestive health.

Rabbit Behaviour

The behaviours of our domestic rabbits are no different from their wild counterparts; they are highly active, agile, intelligent animals who like to run, hop, explore, dig, stretch, forage, groom etc. and do so within large social groups. They also breed rapidly!

Rabbits are a prey species, open to threat from almost every predator out there, including man, so it is within their nature to breed on such a large scale so as their numbers do not dwindle.

Pregnancy lasts approx 30 days, and rabbits can also carry multiple pregnancies i.e. be pregnant with two litters at the same time, in addition to becoming pregnant moments after the give birth.

They reach sexual maturity at as little as 16 weeks old! Unlike dogs and cats, rabbits do not have ‘seasons’, it is the actual sexual act that triggers fertility.

Whilst social, they are also very territorial animals and can, and will do great harm to each other during a fight when coming into contact with a ‘strange bunny’; sometimes even causing injuries which can be fatal.

Rabbits are by nature Crepuscular, which mean they are most active in the mornings and evenings. This behaviour yet again stems from their wild roots, meaning as a prey species it is safer for them to leave the warren to forage for food and lessen the likelihood of them falling victim to their many predators.

These behaviours make them ideal companions for those who perhaps work most of the day as they will be rewarded with lots of bunny interaction during these times, thus leaving bunny to relax in the peace of a less active home environment when the owner is not around. Of course, bunny will adapt to your daily routines, but they will still largely stick to the morning/evening higher activity patterns of behaviour.

Therefore it is important to not only leave them be, but provide them with their own quiet areas where they can hide away and allow them to sleep the day away. They will of course, hop out of ‘bed’ on occasion to make use of the toilet facilities and have a quick munch of hay and perhaps demand a wee treat or quick rub from you should you be in the vicinity, before returning to their ‘warren’ for more of that much needed beauty sleep.

We often overlook what a rabbit is as we are so out of touch with their behaviours – more often than not, we continue to see them purely as a cute and cuddly pet, with the hutch at the bottom of the garden image weighing heavily in our long outdated viewpoints.

Rabbits need to trust you! They all come with their individual characters, and it is important from the outset not to make them fearful of you. A lot will of course depend on their age, background etc. some are from the outset inquisitive, friendly and trusting, others may be timid and need time to settle and relax to their new home, environment and family. Do not rush this. Get down to their level, on the floor and let them come to you; they are naturally inquisitive, they will come up and sniff you, maybe the more timid of them will sniff and quickly hop away – but that’s fine, allow them to do this, they will eventually come to know you as a friend, not foe. Give them positive reasons to like you, let them sniff, chin or have a wee dig at your trousers, maybe reward with a small treat during these positive interactions and in time, they will be climbing all over you, demanding Noms, rubs and more!

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Yes, they do look cute, however, as endearing as they are, they are often little monsters wrapped in gorgeous fluff! If you do not understand their basic needs, nor try to replicate their natural environment to allow their basic behaviours at home, you are simply asking for trouble and as such the once cute bunny is no longer wanted or becomes ignored. This is why so many are surrendered, whether to a rescue, or in classified adverts, online or otherwise; worse still, some are set free in the wild where Domestic Rabbits cannot survive!

The once cute rabbit, now neglected, has a big attitude and is growling and biting. The once caring owner realises they no longer have time for, what they considered to be, a cheap and easy pet. In reality, rabbits have BIG and costly, time-consuming care needs.

Modern Knowledge

We truly need to move on from outdated misconceptions. Sadly, the pet industry, whether on the high street or via private breeders, does little to rectify historic wrongs.

Rabbits are often bought for children, as a low maintenance, child friendly, cheap and easy pets. How wrong these pretences are! Rabbits are the most complex, expensive and time consuming pet I have ever had the pleasure of owning, or more to the point, being owned by!

If you have been at the receiving end of a friendly nip, you will know that those teeth are razor sharp! Why expose a child to that?

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We generally house rabbits wrong – but then why think otherwise?

Retailers freely sell small housing items and advertise them as suitable for rabbits. They wouldn’t sell them if they were unsuitable, right? Wrong!

Rabbit hutches stem from as far back as the Victorian era when they were first kept by people, not as pets, but to be fattened for the pot! Sadly the size and design of these items has changed very little through the years.

There is no legislation on the minimum housing needs of rabbits and many owners buy these overly small items believing them to be OK for their pet, when they are indeed far from it! Sadly more often than not, rabbits end up living in a small prison unable to express themselves naturally.

Health

These highly active animals suffer great emotional distress; they become fearful of owners as their living areas are small, with no place to hide, to run, hop, stretch out. It is no wonder they are fearful and protective against the big scary hand when it enters their home

If left (sexually) intact the drive to breed is great! This poses many problems as rabbits become sexually frustrated and the need to protect their territory increases.

We feed them incorrectly – rabbits spend large parts of their awake time grazing; when only presented with a bowl of dry food, it will be gobbled down in no time, leaving them bored, emotionally frustrated and lacking in natural stimuli. This behaviour will, eventually, seriously damage both their dental and digestive health.

As a prey species, rabbits hide illness well. Most general practice veterinary surgeries are not equipped to deal with a rabbit’s complex health needs.. Rabbits are considered an exotic animal. Many veterinarians have not studied this specialist subject and seldom have the knowledge or medicines available to treat them accordingly.

My Lessons

I have learned a great deal from my previous mistakes. Thankfully Clumper Bun was none the worse for my errors. Besides verging on the obese, amazingly her teeth were fine, however, it was her digestive health that suffered most and it took time to not only switch her from muesli mix onto a rabbit friendly diet of hay, greens and nuggets, with the odd small piece of fresh fruit or carrot as a treat.

During the ensuing year or so after slowly switching and adjusting her to a proper rabbit friendly diet, she suffered numerous bouts of Gut Stasis which required several vet trips – more often than not expensive – emergency out of hours!

I personally think these recurring bouts of Gut Stasis were caused by her body adjusting to a proper diet as no other health issues were discovered. However, this is just my suspicions were neither proved or confirmed by our vets. I have had similar issues with one of our other Buns, Loo-loo, who is nearing two years in our care and finally (touch wood) seems to have overcome much of her digestive health problems due to a poor diet by her previous owner.

It was only after I moved to Edinburgh that I came into contact with good, solid rabbit welfare advice, husbandry and care.

I registered Clumper at the Royal (Dick) Veterinary School’s Rabbit Clinic and still cringe with embarrassment to this day of her condition. I had no idea how ‘fat’ she was and that her diet was the cause. In addition, she suffered sore hocks due to her weight. I was, through my own ‘ignorance’, imposing on her some level of neglect.

Thankfully, her issues were ‘minor’ in the bigger scheme of things and under their guidance her diet was slowly changed over and weight lost.

I had acquired a single male bunny, in the hope I could bond them both as I knew they liked company of their own kind! Ha!

Another well intended novice mistake. I had no idea what was entailed, mainly through my own ignorance into bunny behaviours etc. My attempts to bond them failed, so I went off to our local rescue one day for help and to adopt friends for both.

From there I made many rabbit savvy friends, all the while learning and understanding more about Rabbit behaviours etc. whilst helping out as an unofficial volunteer and getting a glimpse into the wider, numerous problems and issues which surrounds rabbit welfare and the plight of our most neglected pets.

The rescue side of things was often pretty grim; it’s not only the issue of the unwanted pet, but the many health or welfare problems they each arrived with. If it wasn’t overgrown claws, it was dental disease, abscesses, matted fur/parasite problems, overweight/underweight, ‘aggression’  (I use this word lightly – rabbits are not naturally aggressive animals, but if they have been mishandled, housed in poor conditions and, or been unable to express their natural behaviours, on top of being left intact – i.e. not neutered – they will become territorial, fearful and act out).

The phone quite literally, never stopped!

So as someone who has always been passionate about Animals I simply had to do something and chose to speak out in an effort to try to, not only raise awareness but change things for the better. It was then our charity was born.

With an estimated 67,000 rabbits in rescue during 2012 alone – this figure does NOT take into account those re-homed via other means or ‘set free’ in the wild – it is becoming increasingly urgent that the many Rabbit Welfare issues are highlighted, tackled and acted upon in the hope that we can one day put an end to this hidden neglect.

If the health/welfare problems are not bad enough in themselves, then the general attitude to rabbits is in truth much worse. It is extremely difficult to get people to take the many welfare issues seriously.

As our 3rd most popular pets (after cats and dogs), Rabbits are the MOST neglected of our companion animals. I feel I summed this up quite accurately during a recent communication with another Animal Welfare body in regards to the numerous issues we face when trying to speak out for Rabbit Welfare, we are being left lingering in the shadows and not being heard, much like the bunny locked in its hutch at the bottom of the garden.”

Why people are so reluctant to take the issues seriously?

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I hope you now understand a little more about what a rabbit is and can identify common mistakes. It is never too late to change things for the better, for both you and bunny.

Always seek advice from a vet competent in rabbit health before making any changes, especially concerning their diet and or any health issues your rabbit may have, no matter how small.

We hope the  pages, links and information on our website can help you apply, adapt and provide for the welfare of your rabbits in a more natural and beneficial way, for both Bunny and owner alike!

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