Paws for Thought

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paws for Thought columnist Dr. Janice Mitchell is a veterinarian with Island Animal Hospital and Little Current Veterinary Service.

That “Wascally Wabbit”

by Dr. Janice Mitchell

Growing up I had pet rabbits and one of my most favourite novels of all time was ‘Watership Down.’ From the white rabbit in Alice’s Wonderland to the Velveteen Rabbit, bunnies have been pervasive in our North American culture—they are just plain charming! However, since my childhood and through veterinary medicine, I have learned that there is more than just hutches, hay and carrots with regards to care of these delightful pets. Since Easter is just around the corner, I thought a little ‘Peter Cottontail 101’ was in order.

There are 49 different breeds of rabbits according to the American Rabbit Breeder Association, ranging from the miniature Netherland dwarf rabbit weighing in at 2.5 lbs to the Flemish giant rabbit weighing in at over 20 lbs. Rabbits can live eight to 12 years with proper care. This decade commitment is something to keep in mind before one makes a hasty purchase or adoption after being mesmerized by those adoring eyes and cute little twitching noses. Before one considers purchasing or adopting a bunny, one should educate themselves on proper nutrition, husbandry and health care. As well, it should be noted often humans are allergic to bunnies, whether it be their dander or even the hay that these little guys live off. This was something I unfortunately discovered when I rescued a lab rabbit in vet school.

A bunny’s ideal diet is represented in a food pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid and moving our way consecutively up to the peak, the food order is respectively as such: fresh hay, fresh vegetables, pellets and fruit. It is most important to follow this guide so that a rabbit gets enough fibre for its intestinal system to work properly and so that he/she does not get overweight. 

Hay ho! The key ingredient in a rabbit’s diet is just this: large, unlimited amounts of good ol’ fresh hay. Starting as a young bunny, alfalfa hay should be introduced eventually switching over to Timothy hay as the bunny ages as it is less in calories and calcium than alfalfa.  Next up on the nutrition list is fresh vegetables. We are all familiar with Bugs Bunny and his carrot, but it is important that rabbits get at least three types of vegetables daily in order to obtain the necessary nutrients. Ideally, one cup of vegetables for each four lbs of body weight, introduced gradually so as to not cause diarrhea. Leafy greens (no iceberg lettuce), sprouts, carrots, dandelions, clover, celery, parsley, and broccoli are just a few veggies that one can select.  A good quality Timothy-based pellet makes up only a small portion of a pet rabbit’s diet—only an eighth to a quarter cup per five lbs of body weight. An example of a good quality pellet is one made by the Oxbow Animal Health company, which focuses entirely on rabbit and small pet nutrition. Finally, one must limit the fruit consumption to one to two Tbsp per five lbs of bunny weight. Bunnies, like me, have a sweet tooth and if left to their own devices will devour sugary foods to the exclusion of healthful ones. Some of the more fibre-laden acceptable fruits would include apple, berries, orange, pineapple, pear, peach and melon. Rabbits should never eat chocolate, cookies, crackers, breakfast cereals, or bread as these items would cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria in their gut. 

Should you spay or neuter your rabbit? The answer is 100 percent yes! Spayed female rabbits will live longer than their unaltered selves as the risk of reproductive cancers (ovarian, uterine, mammalian) will be virtually eliminated. Unneutered males rabbits will spray urine, and both males and females are much easier to litter train, and much more reliably trained, after they have been altered. Altered rabbits make better companions as they are calmer and more loving once the urge to mate has been removed. They are less prone to destructive (chewing, digging) and aggressive (biting, lunging, growling) behaviour after surgery. As well, altered rabbits won’t contribute to the problem of overpopulation which has become a problem in some Canadian communities, such as Canmore, Alberta which is being overrun by unwanted abandoned bunnies that are multiplying at astronomical rates.  

To chew or to chew…yes, that is the rabbit’s prerogative. They are, after all, lagomorphs, the definition of which is ‘the order of gnawing herbivores.’ Rabbits’ teeth are always growing and it is important that they chew on appropriate items to keep these growing incisors and molars filed down. Again, hay is a good item to have on hand at all times, but other dental aides include apple, willow, aspen branches; pine firewood; cotton towels; untreated fresh pine lumber attached to the cage; hard cardboard; and compressed alfalfa cubes. Bunny proofing your home is important as rabbits will chew electrical cords and can get burned or electrocuted. There are numerous cable/cord plastic wraps (ie. CritterCord Protector) that you can purchase either through pet stores or online that are laced with bitter tasting compounds that will deter the majority of avid chewers.  

There are a few excellent rabbit care resources online. The Ontario Rabbit Education Organization (www.ontariorabbit.org) has informative articles and for a list of rabbits that need adopting. Check out www.rabbitrescue.ca, the largest rabbit rescue in Canada based out of southern Ontario. Finally, for just a wonderful documentary on rabbits, both wild and domestic, CBC’s The Nature of Things just aired “Remarkable Rabbits” which is also accessible online. 

So, what did the Easter Bunny say to the carrot? “It’s been nice gnawing you!” Hoppy Easter!