Bunny Behavior & Health
Bunny behavior and health issues are addressed in the Hot Cross Buns Blog. Check back frequently, as we plan to post information on diet, treats, exercise, spaying/neutering, and much more.
As winter approaches in northern Ohio, I often think about animals that face life dealing with the elements on a daily basis. Wild animals know how to seek shelter and find warmth where they can, whether by digging burrows, holing up in hollowed out logs, or snoring away in caves during the long winter nights.
But what about domestic rabbits? Are they better housed indoors or out? As the word "domestic" implies, these are not wild rabbits or hares who are in tune with their more basic instincts of seeking proper shelter at the right time. Some argue that a pet rabbit has the ability to grow a heavy winter coat and will spend the winter quite happily when housed outdoors in a cage or hutch. There is truth in the notion that rabbits do prefer colder weather over hot, but does that mean a rabbit can be safely housed outdoors any time of year because it will just adapt? It takes months for that heavy winter coat to grow in, so timing is a serious consideration. Those in favor of indoor housing will point to protection from the elements and predators as chief reasons to keep pet rabbits in the home.
If you look at a list of the pros and cons of both sides of the indoor/outdoor debate, it might look something like this:
Indoor Housing Pros:
Would you want to see a rabbit treated like this? Neither would we. We do understand that some families need to house their rabbits in a barn or shed and they take wonderful care of their barn-housed bunnies. While housing in a shed or barn is definitely preferable to an unsheltered cage, we are always going to prefer having bunnies housed indoors where they can interact with their families. Indoor bunnies almost always live longer, healthier, happier lives, and that is what we want for our precious bunnies and their families.
From time to time I am asked for advice about bunny behavior, especially what to do when a bunny suddenly nips or bites. Usually this question comes several days after the bunny comes home, or when the bunny goes into puberty and his or her behavior suddenly changes.
If this change in behavior comes shortly after bringing Bunny home, you can bet your bottom dollar that Bunny is testing his new boundaries. The uncertainty of his new environment has worn off. He realizes he is still getting fed regularly, people are talking to him nicely, he gets attention and new toys. He is living the high life and he knows it! Bunny might be given more freedom than he can handle in a short amount of time, like hopping around in the house, getting a feel for cozy carpeting under his feet, maybe even hanging out on the couch, watching TV with the family. When it is time for Bunny to go back into his cage, he may have a hissy fit and run away. When he is finally caught, he may bite or scratch in an effort to get away. He is acting like a toddler who doesn't understand that it's time to go back into his cage and he is going to tell you about it, by golly! Since rabbits can't talk, they have three options for voicing their displeasure:
Bunnies, like toddlers, thrive on routine. That's why they sit by the door of their cages at feeding time or when you come home from work. They like to know what happens next. When a bunny pushes the boundaries you are setting, you need to tell him that you are the Big Bunny in the house and that he has to listen to you and respect your authority. It's actually quite easy to get a bunny to do this, but it can take a few battles before the message completely sinks in.
First of all, DO NOT
as punishment for nipping, biting, scratching, or trying to run away. You will make things worse if you do any of those things. You need to think like a rabbit in order to get through to a rabbit. What do rabbits do to communicate displeasure to other rabbits?
When Bunny does something mildly displeasing, like hop towards an area that is off-limits, give a very loud thump with your foot. If that doesn't do the trick, give another loud thump with a deep, growling "NO!". If that doesn't work, it's time to put bunny back in his cage. No treats, no pets. Just pop him in his cage, close the door, and walk away. Bunny needs to learn to listen to the Big Bunny. No matter how cute he looks, with his sorrowful, pleading eyes, ignore him for a good 15 minutes. After he has time to feel really sorry (and not pretend sorry), you can go back to see if he will apologize by behaving nicely and giving you kisses.
If Bunny bites you while in her cage (if you have a doe, she may become cage defensive when she reaches breeding age), quickly but firmly grasp the bunny around the neck/upper back (making a "C" shape with your hand) and push her head down to the floor for a solid 10 seconds. Combine it with a thump and a loud, firm "No!" You are putting the bunny in a submissive position while taking the dominant role. Bunny will try to kick and fight her way out if this method of discipline is brand new. Do not back down. You are not trying to hurt the Bun, you just want to tell her that you mean business and you are not going to tolerate being bitten. If bunny lunges toward you or acts aggressive in any way, the head to the floor is the quickest way of getting through to them. My toughest bunny required four "doses" of this discipline and now she is as sweet as can be.
Please note: if you have an expectant doe, she may become cage defensive due to hormones. This is not her fault and it is always best to handle pregnant does with extreme caution. I let my hormonally nippy does out to play (one at a time, of course) while I clean their cages, to avoid any situation where she could feel threatened. I do not use the head to the floor method on my pregnant does.
If your Bunny runs away and hides when you want to tuck him in for the night, you have a few issues to deal with. First you need to help him establish a routine. Feeding time is at 6pm, playtime in the exercise pen is from 6:30-8:00, snuggle time is from 8-10, and bedtime is at 10 (or whatever you want your bunny's schedule to look like.) Secondly, keep his world pretty small in the beginning. He lives in his cage and exercises in his pen until he knows you, trusts you, listens to you as the Big Bunny, and is using his litter box well. After he has these behaviors down pat, then start giving him small amounts of freedom, but stay with him at all times. He needs to associate you with the carpet, the couch, playing on the stairs, or whatever special things you like to do with him. If you simply open the door to his cage and say, "Go play," he is going to want to be in charge and make his own plans. Combine this with an independent-natured bunny and you could have quite the challenge to reign him back in again.
A boundary-testing bunny wants to know that you have his best interest at heart. He wants to know that it's ok to run, play, and binky, but that you are there for him to run home to, and that you share his joys and adventures with him.
***** IMPORTANT *****
If you have had your Bun for quite a while and he or she suddenly becomes aggressive, a trip to your bunny knowledgeable veterinarian may be in order. Sudden changes in temperament could suggest that your pet is in pain or not feeling well
Understanding the way your bunny's digestive system works will go a long way in safeguarding his health. Being aware of your bunny's diet and nutritional needs are the key to helping your pet live a long, healthy life.
First, be sure your bunny has full-time access to clean, safe drinking water. This applies to all animals but, as bunnies can't whine or whimper to tell you they're out of water, be sure to check their water bottles and crocks at least twice per day. Water bottles can leak and water crocks can get knocked over or contaminated with hay or fecal matter, so be diligent. Your bunny will thank you!
Second, it is important to remember that your bunnies are furry and they groom themselves regularly. You might think that I am pointing out the obvious but, unlike cats and dogs, rabbits cannot vomit. That means they are unable to cough up (or vomit) hairballs or anything else that needs to come out of their bodies ASAP. Everything they ingest has to go through their bodies and come out the other end. When bunnies groom themselves, they inevitably ingest fur. That fur, if not eliminated regularly, will begin to build up inside their tummies. Eventually the build up will grow so large that bunnies can no longer eat or drink. They are in pain, sitting hunched up in the corner, grinding their teeth. At this point it is often too late to help them.
In this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pond of cure. Do not let fur (or wool, as it is called on a rabbit) build up to the point of causing wool block in your beloved bunny. How do you prevent it? Well, it's actually pretty easy. Give your bunny high-quality hay, and lots of it. The hay, combined with high-quality food pellets, contains lots of fiber to keep your bunny's tummy humming along. Those nice, round poo balls he keeps leaving all over the place are actually a sign that all is well in his digestive tract.
Another handy tool in your toolbox can be papaya tablets. Papaya produces an enzyme that can help break down ingested wool and help your bunny to pass it. There is some debate as to the effectiveness of papaya tablets (or even dried papaya) in the bunny community, but I have always given it to the bunnies we have raised over the years (including 3 English Angoras) and have never experienced a case of wool-block. That decision is up to you. Some rabbit supply companies, like Oxbow and Sherwood Pet Heath, are producing their own Digestive Health tablets, which are also beneficial.
Often overlooked but always important is exercise. A rabbit needs plenty of space to kick up his heels and get the blood flowing which will help his digestion, too. Regular exercise will increase his desire for water and hay, too.
Plenty of love, hay, fresh water, high-quality pellets, exercise, and regular grooming sessions should keep your rabbit's digestive system working beautifully, making a happy, healthy bunny.
*This article was originally posted to our website in September 2018 and moved to the blog 1/30/19.
RHD-2...at first glance it appears to be a typo of the beloved Star Wars character's name, but it most definitely is not. RHD-2 stands for Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease, Strain 2. This disease, along with the first strain called RHD-1, are common killers of beloved bunnies who live "across the pond" in the United Kingdom, but has only been found in the United States as of September 19, 2018. The first reported incidence was in Medina County, Ohio, which is very close to Hot Cross Buns' home. You can read the article from the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association here.
As stated in the article, the disease is transmittable only to rabbits; people, other animals, and food sources are not affected by it, although people and animals can carry the virus and unwittingly infect rabbits. According to the article,
"Transmission of the RHD virus over short distances can occur by the contaminated
clothing of people, biting insects, birds, rodents, wild animals, fur or vehicles."
Rabbits are very common house pets in the UK and the rest of Europe, where vaccines have been developed for protection against both strains of the disease. However, pet rabbits are not routinely vaccinated in the United States and these vaccines are not available for use here. The only ways to protect our beloved pet bunnies are through precautions and knowledge of the disease and its transmission.
What does this mean to our clients and the bunnies at Hot Cross Buns?
We have operated as a closed rabbitry for over a year now, meaning we don't allow people into our rabbitry to meet the Buns, nor do we allow anyone to walk in their living areas and play spaces. We will begin taking the extra precautions of asking clients to clean the soles of their shoes by stepping into a disinfectant solution prior to entering the premises, and to use hand sanitizer prior to meeting the Bun with whom they have been matched.
Going forward, we will have a waiting list and clients will reserve bunnies online, based upon their submitted information and conversations we have via email. Rather than meeting multiple bunnies, clients will come to Hot Cross Buns to pick up the bunny with whom they have been matched. This is to protect our Buns from any potential contamination.
We have never allowed the Buns to play outside, as we know how easy it is for them to ingest or attract parasites. This will continue to be our standard practice. Because RHD-2 can be transmitted to healthy rabbits through contact with wild rabbits' urine and feces, we urge our bunny families to be cautious and consider the risks of allowing out of doors playtime for their bunnies.
Hot Cross Buns will no longer be able to accept the return of any bunnies. In the past, bunnies waiting to be re-homed (when allergies developed or when other situations arose in their first families) were cared for in a special area of our home, but in order to protect the health of our breeding stock, we will no longer be able to do so. We will gladly post information about any Buns who need to be re-homed on our site and Facebook page, but we will not care for them at our facility.
We will be monitoring the RHD-2 situation very closely and will make further changes for the safety and well-being of all of our Buns as the needs arise.
***Since this article was originally written, cases of RHD-1 have been found in western Pennsylvania. No further cases of RHD-2 have been discovered at this time.
E. Cuniculi Experiences at Hot Cross Buns
Into every rabbit breeder's life a little rain must fall. Does fail to conceive, litters are lost, a beloved Bun may develop GI Stasis. With life comes death and illness. E. Cuniculi is an parasite that can cause health issues and even death in rabbits of any breed. As I researched the causes, treatments, and ways this problem is spread, I realized how much more we need to learn in order to care for our beloved Buns.
What is E. Cuniculi?
E. Cuniculi is short for Encephalitozoon cuniculi. Put simply, it is a parasite that infects approximately 40-80% of all domestic rabbits, but lies dormant (and the rabbit is not contagious) most of the time. A rabbit can be exposed to it and carry it within its body all its life, but unless it becomes an active infection and moves into the nervous tissue, the rabbit will not exhibit any symptoms. A blood test can be used to determine if the rabbit was ever exposed to e. cuniculi at some point in its life, but it will not tell us if the rabbit is fighting off an active infection or not, and the blood test itself is not always accurate.
What happens to a rabbit with an active E. Cuniculi infection?
From the reading I have done, the parasite infection can move to the eyes, causing blindness or, more commonly, attack the nervous tissue and cause paralysis, seizures, and/or head tilt (wry neck). If left untreated, the rabbit may die.
How is e. cuniculi spread?
In most cases, e. cuniculi is spread from mother to babies through the placenta. A breeder may have an apparently healthy mother lose a litter of kits that failed to thrive, or have kits die, one by one over a course of time (usually between 4-7 weeks of age). A kit may suddenly develop wry neck close to weaning age. These are all heart-breaking things I have experienced in my own rabbitry. Although the kits that we had necropsied did not show signs of e. cuniculi, their mother later tested positive for the parasite.
E. cuniculi spores are shed through the urine of the rabbit, so any contact with an infected rabbit can lead to the infection of another rabbit. This is why we clean and disinfect our exercise pens thoroughly between each use and have stopped allowing bunnies from different litters to play with each other. If one litter is infected, we want to keep it from spreading to a different litter.
The parasite itself seems to be active for approximately three months after infection, during which time symptoms may develop. A rabbit may suddenly begin drinking more water than normal. This is a good thing because the rabbit is trying to shed the parasite out of its body. Usually after three months, the parasite appears to become dormant. There are some rabbits, however, who do shed e. cuniculi spores throughout their lifetime.
How do you know when your rabbit has e. cuniculi?
A strong, healthy rabbit with access to fresh water and a good diet usually does not exhibit any symptom of carrying the parasite at all. According to a study done in the United Kingdom (where much more research on rabbits and their care has been conducted) only 6% of pet rabbits ever develop symptoms, while 52% are infected with the parasite.) (This article is linked below.)
As a breeder, I have lost one entire litter of four kits, (and lost four out of seven kits from the same doe). They were developmentally on target, playful, and well-fed. One day the smallest kit became lethargic. We tried syringe feeding, but it died the following day. A few days later, a second kit suddenly stopped eating and failed. We took the last two kits to the vet, who could find nothing wrong with them. They were reportedly in excellent health and were gaining weight at an appropriate rate. Within two weeks, they were both dead. We had them necropsied and nothing definitive was found, but e. cuniculi was suggested as a possibility. Their mother had been tested but the test was negative, although she tested positive about 4 months later. She never had symptoms of the parasite, and is still very healthy. She was spayed and is living the high life as a pampered pet.
I have had three kits develop wry neck (or head tilt) during my past two years as a Holland Lop breeder. Oddly enough, all three were does, although that is most likely coincidental. We have successfully treated two of them, and the third is coming along nicely, albeit more slowly than the first two, but we hope to find her a pet home very soon.
The first Bun came from a litter of seven, from a believed to be healthy mother and father. Both parents were true dwarf Hollands, and two of the seven kits born were peanuts, dying shortly after birth. Two kits gradually wasted away, believed to be not strong enough to compete for milk from their stronger litter mates. The remaining three kits, two bucks and a doe, grew to be strong and healthy. Shortly before weaning at seven weeks, the doe developed head tilt. She could not eat, was obviously very dizzy and disoriented, and would "roll" to her back each time she was lifted off the ground. She was taken to a very reputable rabbit veterinarian immediately, who prescribed a 10 day course of Baytril and a 30 day course of Safe Guard goat wormer. We also gave her Bonine chewable motion sickness tablets (1/4 tablet) and Bene-Bac. She was syringe fed baby food pumpkin twice per day (which she loved!) Within a week, she had stopped rolling and was able to find her way to the food bowl, but we did continue with the pumpkin for the extra nutrients. Although she was of weaning age, we decided to leave her with her mother, as the two has always had a very close bond. I credit her mother's tender loving care with the speedy recovery of our first rabbit with wry neck caused by e. cuniculi. She continues to live with us and is a beloved member of the family. She has never shown further symptoms of parasite infection to date.
The second Bun, unrelated to the first, was born approximately one year later to a false dwarf mother and true dwarf father, in a litter of four kits. One kit died within 24 hours of birth. The kit that contracted wry neck was approximately 5 weeks old, so considerably younger than the first kit. Her litter mates were both strong and healthy, but the affected kit had always been tiny. We had intervened with syringe feeding and trips to the vet prior to the development of wry neck. Her weight gain increased and, when she developed wry neck, it was a mild case, treated only with Baytril and Safe Guard goat wormer. She showed significant improvement within days and remained with her mother for another two months. We eventually separated them and continued to keep the affected kit until she was nearly five months of age, at which time she was placed in a pet home and spayed. She continues to thrive.
The third kit, also unrelated to the previous two, was born approximately 5 months ago, to Mango (a second time mother who had, most likely been exposed to e. cuniculi through spores shed in urine when fostering kits from the aforementioned doe who lost a total of eight kits in two litters. We believed the litter of seven was too large for her, so fostered three kits to Mango. Although she took excellent care of her fostered babies, Mango was only able to keep her own kit and one other alive.) Mango's second litter produced two doe kits. Both were large and healthy looking. The first was placed in a pet home and the second, Blackberry, suddenly developed wry neck. We began with the usual treatment of Baytril and Safe Guard. A month went by with worsening symptoms, rather than the improvement we had been expecting. She began rolling during the second month of treatment. We tried again with another new bottle of Safe Guard, but each day she became weaker and weaker. I began praying for a merciful end to her suffering while I researched different treatments. I finally stumbled upon some information that helped. This article proved to be a game changer in Blackberry's life. https://barbibrownsbunnies.com/wryneck/
After reading this information, I felt better prepared to treat Blackberry in a different way. I gave her the recommended doses of Ivomec and then started feeding her heavily twice a day. Within a week we saw the first glimmer of improvement. We had given her a food bowl that sat on the floor of her cage, rather than using the hanging stainless bowl that she had grown up with, to make it easier for her to eat. And eat she did. She was ravenous and started stretching her head towards the hanging food bowl in her cage, looking for more. I started filling both bowls twice a day, and she was able to clean them out every time. In time, she stopped rolling when we picked her up. She filled out, became stronger, and has developed a beautiful, glossy coat. She still has a slight tilt to her head, but is often able to hold her head perfectly normally when she has some neck massage and playtime to distract her. I think the tilt she currently displays is more the result of habit than any actual issues with her head and neck. Blackberry is pictured above and below.
*I believe the first line of defense in helping a rabbit with e. cuniculi recovery is food and lots of it, Our first rabbit recovered fairly quickly because she was receiving pumpkin via syringe, as well as her mother's milk during her treatment. The second rabbit recovered very quickly as she had already been receiving supplemental feedings due to her size. Blackberry began to recover only when we gave her additional food.
*Adding Apple Cider Vinegar to drinking water is an easy way to encourage rabbits to drink more fluids and flush the e.cuniculi spores out of their bodies more quickly. I add about 1 Tablespoon per 32 oz. bottle of water.
*Ivomec, Baytril (needs a prescription), Safe Guard, Bonine, Bene-Bac, pumpkin, and syringes should be in every rabbit breeder's medical supplies so treatment can begin as quickly as possible.
*Given that conventional wisdom stated 40-80% of all domesticated rabbits carry e. cuniculi, I think it's safer to assume that all rabbits have been exposed to the parasite and to treat them as though they are carriers. I believe the actual number is on the higher end of the spectrum.
*There is still so much to learn about e. cuniculi and other rabbit diseases and ailments. My limited experience has been solely with young rabbits and never adults who developed symptoms in later life. I have never had a rabbit that became blind, developed paralysis, or had seizures as a result of e. cuniculi infection, so I am unable to add any insight to these aspects of care and treatment.
*As always, your rabbit knowledgeable veterinarian should be the first person to consult when you believe something is wrong with your beloved bunny.
Wait! Put down that carrot! Before you feed your young bunny any treats, it is important to know how much damage they can do to his digestive tract if he's not ready for them yet.
So why can't I feed my baby bunny a treat?
A rabbit's digestive tract is a very delicate system that must be kept in balance. Too many treats, too little hay, poor quality food, lack of water, too much ingested fur, parasites, all of these things can lead to an upset bunny tummy and lead to expensive vet bills or even death.
A very young rabbit is still developing the good bacteria in its gut. The good bacteria helps digest the food properly, absorb nutrients, and make the most of the bunny's diet. When this system is not properly established before introducing treats, it often means disaster and diarrhea for them. Fruits, vegetables, and other produce can introduce parasites including coccidiosis to the bunny's digestive system. Parasites are awful little creatures that absorb all of the nutrients from the food, leaving very little for the bunny. The bunny grows thin, listless, and can die if it isn't treated early. Even if he is treated, the damage is often already done, The bunny's coat can be permanently left dry, brittle, and dull. She may not thrive and her growth may be stunted, leaving her small and frail. It's better to wait until they are stronger, healthier, and better able to tolerate the treatment for parasites, before risking your bunny's health and well-being.
But wild rabbits live on the very things that you are saying my pet bunny shouldn't eat. What's up with that?
Wild bunnies are generally parasite-laden and don't live very long. Trust me, you want a better life for your pet bunny.
OK, how about some packaged treats from the pet supply store?
These treats may not carry parasites, but they often contain sugars, seeds, additives, and preservatives which can be harmful to rabbits of all ages. Giving a young rabbit sugary treats is another surefire way of upsetting the balance in the bunny's intestinal tract.
You keep talking about "young bunnies." Are the rules different for older bunnies?
Yep. Bunnies under six months of age are called juniors. Bunnies six months and over are called seniors. Once he hits six months of age, you can start to give your pet tiny amounts of bunny-safe fruits and veggies. By tiny, I mean tiny. Like a tablespoon or less, no more. Give treats no more than twice a week. Introduce only one new treat at a time and stick with it for about three weeks before trying something else. Watch your bunny carefully for signs of tummy upset, like diarrhea, lack of appetite, or change in energy levels. If you see any signs of something amiss with your bunny, stop giving that particular treat, wait a couple of weeks, and then try something new.
Ok, that seems reasonable, but is there any treat I can give my baby bunny now?
Yes, there is! You can feed him raw, old-fashioned rolled oats. Not the quick cooking kind. We prefer to give our bunnies organic rolled oats. We like to hand feed a few little flakes to each bunny when they are really little and then sprinkle a bit over the top of their food pellets when they are able to nibble from a bowl. Just a pinch, mind you. There's no reason to go overboard because too many oats can put too much weight on a bunny. Fat bunnies are not healthy bunnies. A little goes a long way.
Plain old raw oats may not seem very exciting, but all of our bunnies love them. When our doe Plum Bun was pregnant, our youngest daughter left the container of oats sitting on the floor of her room while she was tidying up Plummy's cage. Plummy jumped out of her cage and absolutely LUNGED for those oats, inhaling as many as she possibly could before her oats eating ecstasy came to a screeching halt. Literally. That child could screech the paint off the walls if she tried. Poor Plummy. She was carrying quite a litter, and deserved an extra serving of oats for all those babies she was growing. :)
Amy, the Big Bunny at Hot Cross Buns, enjoys raising the Buns (of course!), writing, crafting, woodworking, Bible studies, reading, gardening, being a wife and mom of five. Does she really have time to do it all? No, but she tries her best and drives her husband crazy in the process. She wishes to point out that she never said she enjoyed interior decorating (hopeless!) and organizing (that's her younger daughter's gift). Please don't expect a home worthy of a spread in House Beautiful when you arrive to pick up your Hot Cross Bun.