The Great Grainspiracy

What’s wrong with feeding grains?

Grain free diets have been increasing in popularity over the last decade, but is there a reason we should not feed grains to our dogs and are grain free diets healthy?

grain free diet

What are grains?

Grains, sometimes called cereals, are the edible seeds of grasses belonging to a family called Poaceae. They include: Rice, Oats, Wheat, Barley, Maize (also known as corn), Rye, Sorghum and Millet (of which there are several species).

Pseudo-grains are the edible seeds from other plant families. They are nutritionally similar to grains and can be used as alternatives to true grains: Amaranth, Quinoa, Buckwheat.

Are grain free diets more natural for dogs?

If you are feeding your dog a grain free dried dog food, then the manufacturer will have to replace the grain with another carbohydrate. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, dry diets need at least a small amount of carbohydrate in them to form the structure of the kibble, secondly meat/fish is expensive and most (but not all) carbohydrate sources are cheaper than meat. Thirdly, if the diet was majority meat or fish it may end up being far too high in fat and calories and too low in fibre. We already have an obesity crisis in the UK with nearly 50% of all dogs being classed as overweight. Therefore, grains are usually replaced with potato, sweet potato, or legumes. Is eating a potato more natural for a dog than eating rice?

Have dogs evolved to eat grains?

The theory behind many ancestral diets for dogs is that they have not evolved since their days living as wolves. However, dogs evolved from wolves 1000’s of years ago (the exact date is argued amongst scientists with estimates between 10,000 to 30,000 years ago). When we look at them, we can see they have evolved, a good starting place is comparing the chihuahua with the wolf. Dogs have floppy ears, smaller heads, and paws than wolves and through selective breeding humans have caused further changes in their physical features (not always to the benefit of their health). So, if their physical appearance has drastically changed, why would their digestive system not have evolved too?

Dogs have different genes than wolves when it comes to digesting starch (carbohydrate). Dogs have more copies of a gene called AMY2B. This gene is for amylase, the enzyme responsible for digesting starch. Wolves have 2 copies and dogs have between 4 to 30 copies. Interestingly, different breeds of dogs have different numbers of this gene, so there could be some dogs able to digest starch better than others. The same study showed that this gene is 28 times more active in the dog’s pancreas than in wolves. There also changes in the gene MGAM responsible for helping conversion of maltose into glucose. Dogs and wolves have the same number of copies of this gene but there are mutations in the dog genes leading to a 2 fold increase in the maltose to glucose turnover in dogs and 12 times more enzyme activity in the dogs pancreas. There are also differences between dogs and wolves regarding the gene SGLT1, which is used for the transport of glucose (Arendt et al, 2014).

This genetic evidence is supported by feeding trials. In one such study researchers measured the weight and consistency of faeces from dogs fed on oat groats, rice, wheat, barley, and corn to determine digestibility. They also looked at blood sugar levels after eating. It showed that dogs are highly efficient at digesting grains with rice being the most easily digested, followed by oats (Kempe et al, 2004).

Do grains cause allergies in dogs?

Despite there being a lot of talk around this subject, the science does not support the theory that a huge number of dogs are allergic to grains. In fact, only 5% of skin conditions and only 20% of skin and digestive problems in dogs and cats are a result of an adverse reaction to food (Olivry and Mueller, 2017 and 2018). Furthermore, some of these adverse food reactions (AFRs) are food intolerances not allergies. For more info click here.

A 2016 review (Mueller et al, 2016) of several studies on skin disease as a result of an adverse food reaction showed that the most common AFRs in dogs are to beef, wheat, dairy, chicken and lamb.

Prior to this, another review showed that most common food allergens in dogs were beef, cow’s milk and wheat (Hand et al, 2010).

Apart from wheat, grain allergies are not commonly associated with food allergies in cats and dogs.

Are grain free diets healthier than diets containing grains?

This really depends on the balance of the entire food. Healthy nutrition cannot be determined from one ingredient alone. Other considerations include (but are not limited to) fibre type and level, fat content, quality of protein and balance of minerals.

However, in the last year or two there have been some concerns about grain free diets. After over 500 reports between 2014 and 2019, the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) and several veterinary teams have started investigating a potential link between grain free diets and heart disease, more specifically Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). Veterinary cardiologists are reporting an increase in DCM, not only in breeds that DCM commonly affects (Boxers, Dobermans, Great Danes, Cocker Spaniels) but also in smaller breeds where it is not common. When the affected dogs are changed off the grain free diets, they improve. However, it is unclear if it is the absence of grains that is the issue or the use of large amounts of potatoes, lentils, peas, chickpeas instead. These diets also seem to have novel sources of protein (such as kangaroo) and the addition of less common fruits and vegetables, some even have small amounts of grains. Research is on-going with this.

I want to feed a gluten free diet, can I still feed grains?

Some dogs may react adversely to the gluten. For example, owners of Border Terriers with Canine Epileptoid Cramping Syndrome, also known as Spike’s Disease seem to be particularly sensitive to gluten (Lowrie, 2015) and a wheat-gluten enteropathy has been identified in Irish Setters, as well as being suspected in other breeds.

The good news is that rice, maize (corn), sorghum and millet are all gluten free grains. Interestingly, although oats contain gluten, many human coeliacs (people that have an autoimmune reaction to gluten) can tolerate oats and the same seems to be true for some dogs. Another option would be dog foods containing pseudo-grains, as these are naturally gluten free.

And Finally

Having said all this, there are some superb grain free diets out there and if your dog has an adverse food reaction and you cannot pinpoint what’s causing it, a grain free diet with a single source of protein can be a great place to start. The point of this blog is to get us out of the mindset that grains are all bad, after all vets have been recommending a highly digestible meal of cooked chicken and rice for upset dog tummies for years.


References & Further Reading

Arendt, Maja et al. “Amylase activity is associated with AMY2B copy numbers in dog: implications for dog domestication, diet and diabetes.” Animal genetics vol. 45,5 (2014): 716-22.

Axelsson, E., Ratnakumar, A., Arendt, M. et al. The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature 495, 360–364 (2013).

Kempe, Riitta & Saastamoinen, Markku & Hyyppä, Seppo & Smeds, Kurt. (2004). Composition, digestibility and nutritive value of cereals for dogs. Agricultural and Food Science. 13. 5-17.

Lowrie M et al (2015). The clinical and serological effect of a gluten-free diet in border terriers with canine epileptoid cramping syndrome, Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine 29(6): 1,564-1,568.

Mueller RS, Olivry T. Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (6): prevalence of noncutaneous manifestations of adverse food reactions in dogs and cats. BMC Vet Res. 2018;14(1):341.

Mueller RS, Olivry T and Prélaud P (2016). Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (2): common food allergen sources in dogs and cats, BMC Vet Res 12: 9.

Olivry, T., & Mueller, R. S. (2017). Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (3): prevalence of cutaneous adverse food reactions in dogs and cats. BMC veterinary research, 13(1), 51.

Watson, T (2011) Breaking it down – measuring food quality and digestibility. Vet Times. 28 February 2011.


Understanding food allergies in dogs and cats


These days, it seems like everyone has or knows of a pet that has a food allergy, but how common are they?

When pets react badly to a food, it may not be caused by a food allergy. This is why the term adverse food reaction or AFR is more accurate.

There are many reasons a dog or cat may react to food. Some of those reactions involve the immune system (immunological reactions) and some reactions involve different mechanisms and do not involve the immune system (Non-immunological reactions).

As you can see by this diagram, there are several different types of reactions to food in dogs and cats. A food allergy is only a small part.

AFR diagram


Adverse food reaction symptoms

Dogs and cats may react adversely to food by showing signs of skin disease or gastrointestinal (GI) upset (or both).  Food allergies are more likely to affect your pet’s skin than digestive system. Neurological signs of a food allergy have also been suggested. Spike’s disease, now better known as Canine epileptoid cramping syndrome (CECS) has been potentially linked to a gluten allergy (Lowrie, 2015).

Dogs with a food related skin condition usually have itchy feet, ears and abdomen, whereas in cats it most commonly causes irritation around the head, face and neck. (Olivry and Mueller, 2019). In dogs, sometimes recurring ear irritation is the only symptom.

Common digestive signs include flatulence, soft stools, diarrhoea and/or vomiting.

Unfortunately, food allergies and food intolerances can have very similar symptoms, so it is impossible to tell which one your pet is suffering from.


How common is a food allergy?

Only 5% of skin conditions in dogs and cats are caused by an adverse food reaction (Olivry and Mueller, 2017). It is likely that the majority of this 5% have true food allergies (Olivry & Bexley, 2018). However, 5% is a low figure, more common causes of skin disease include atopy or parasites e.g. flea allergy dermatitis.

Reports of food allergies causing gastrointestinal disease (without skin problems) are rare. However, concurrent skin and GI symptoms as a result of an AFR can be seen in 20% of dogs and cats (Mueller & Olivry, 2018).


What are the main allergens that dogs and cats react to?

A 2016 review (Mueller et al, 2016) of several studies on skin disease as a result of an adverse food reaction showed that the most common AFRs in dogs are to beef, wheat, dairy, chicken and lamb. In cats, beef, fish and chicken were most common.

Prior to this, a review of fifteen studies, representing 278 dogs with skin lesions associated with AFRs and ten studies, representing 56 cats with skin/GI disorders associated with AFRs showed that the most common allergens in dogs were beef, cow’s milk and wheat and in cats; beef, dairy products and fish (Hand et al, 2010).

Therefore, apart from wheat, grain allergies are not commonly associated with food allergies in cats and dogs. A wheat-gluten enteropathy has been identified in Irish Setters and is suspected in other breeds.


Food allergies: How does the body respond?

An allergen is a substance that triggers an allergic reaction. In the case of food allergies, the allergen is usually the protein in the food item. An allergy occurs after the immune system mistakes the allergen for something harmful. The immune system then triggers the release of chemicals to fight off the invader and it is this reaction that causes symptoms. The first time your pet eats the allergen, he or she will not react. However, the next time they eat the food item the body will remember the ‘invader’ and send out chemicals to fight it. This is different to an intolerance, as a food intolerance can start the very first time your pet eats something.


Allergy tests

Intradermal (skin) or blood tests are available to test for food allergies. However, neither of them are reliable (there are too many references about unreliability to list here!) and the gold standard test for determining a food allergy is an elimination diet.

Allergy testing using a sample of blood works by measuring the amount of allergen specific anti-bodies in the blood. As a food intolerance/sensitivity does not involve the immune system, there will be no anti-bodies to measure. Therefore, your pet could be intolerant to dairy but not allergic to dairy products and the allergy test would come back negative. False positives can also occur. A false positive is when the results say your dog or cat has an allergy, but they do not.

There are a few companies that are diagnosing allergies in dogs by testing samples of their fur or saliva. The benefit of this is that it is often a lot cheaper than a blood test or skin scrape from your vet. However, when examined, two companies could not tell the difference between samples of saliva from allergic and non-allergic dogs and samples of real and fake dog fur (Coyner & Schick, 2019, Bernstein et al, 2019).


Elimination diets & Novel ingredients

An elimination diet or feeding trial is the only way to accurately determine if your pet has an adverse food reaction.

This involves cutting EVERYTHING out of your pet’s diet apart from a very limited range of ingredients for 4-6 weeks. This means, no treats, no table scraps, no tit-bits, no other brands or varieties of food. All family members and neighbours need to agree. You must feed only the food allowed in the diet trial.

Ideally, your vet will either recommend a home prepared diet or a commercial limited ingredient diet (one with only a few ingredients, as it is easier to determine what your pet is reacting to if you keep the diet simple). These diets usually consist of novel ingredients. A novel ingredient is one your dog or cat has not eaten before. If you think back to the part above about allergies…your pet cannot have developed an allergic reaction to something they have never eaten. This is why ingredients such as venison or rabbit may be used as they are not common ingredients.

Once your pet is on this food, they must only eat this and nothing else for the time stipulated by your vet. If the condition improves then it is likely there was something in the previous diet that was causing a problem. In order to be sure, it is recommended that the suspected food items are reintroduced one at a time to see if they trigger a response. Although many owners don’t wish to do this once their pet is well again.

If there is no improvement after the elimination diet, there could be a few reasons for this:

  • The condition is not caused by an adverse food reaction
  • The pet ate something it wasn’t supposed to during the trial
  • The pet is intolerant to one of the food ingredients in the elimination diet


Hypoallergenic diets

Hypoallergenic is a term that was originally used by the cosmetics industry. It basically means that the make-up or in this case, food is less likely to trigger an allergic reaction. However, this does not mean it is impossible. Hypoallergenic diets usually avoid using ingredients that are commonly known to be food allergens e.g. beef, wheat and dairy. However, this is not going to help your dog or cat if they are allergic or intolerant to something other than beef, wheat or dairy. You could be feeding a hypoallergenic chicken and rice diet, but if your dog is allergic to chicken he will react negatively to this food.


Grain Free diets

As discussed above, allergies to grains (excluding wheat) are rarely documented. Allergies are triggered by proteins and therefore meat/fish is more likely to be the culprit. If a gluten allergy is suspected, there are a choice of gluten free grains available including rice, sorghum, maize (corn) and millet.


A last word on fat and fibre levels

This is especially important when it comes to gastrointestinal problems. Don’t assume that vomiting, diarrhoea or flatulence is always caused by a reaction to a particular ingredient. Diets excessively high in fat can cause a delay in gastric emptying from the stomach, the wrong level of fibre (too much or too little), an incorrect balance of soluble to insoluble fibre and over-indulgence can all cause digestive problems. In these instances, trial and error using diets with different nutrient levels may be necessary.



Bernstein, Tater, Bicalho, Rishniw. Hair and saliva analysis fails to accurately identify atopic dogs or differentiate real and fake samples. Vet Dermatol. 2019 Jan 24.

Coyner K, Schick A. Hair and saliva test fails to identify allergies in dogs. J Small Anim Pract. 2019;60(2):121–125.

Hand, S, Thatcher, CD, Remillard, RL (eds). Small animal clinical nutrition. 5th ed. Topeka, KS: Mark Morris Institute, 2010, p614.

Lowrie, M., Garden, O.A., Hadjivassiliou M, Harvey R.J, Sanders, D.S, Powell R, Garosi, L. (2015) The Clinical and Serological Effect of a Gluten-Free Diet in Border Terriers with Epileptoid Cramping Syndrome. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 29 (6). pp. 1564-1568.

Mueller RS, Olivry T. Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (6): prevalence of noncutaneous manifestations of adverse food reactions in dogs and cats. BMC Vet Res. 2018;14(1):341.

Mueller RS, Oliry T and Prélaud P (2016). Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (2): common food allergen sources in dogs and cats, BMC Vet Res 12: 9.

Olivry, T., Bexley, J. Cornstarch is less allergenic than corn flour in dogs and cats previously sensitized to corn. BMC Vet Res 14, 207 (2018).

Olivry, T., Mueller, R.S. Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (7): signalment and cutaneous manifestations of dogs and cats with adverse food reactions. BMC Vet Res 15, 140 (2019).




Why do dogs eat poo? (coprophagia)

If you’ve read any of my rabbit blog posts or you are a rabbit owner, you will know that for rabbits, eating poo is an essential behaviour to keep their digestive system healthy.

However, when it happens in dogs (when they eat their own or other dog’s poo) it becomes something that we find disgusting and difficult to understand. Sadly, eating dog poo is a reason for dogs to be rehomed and even euthanased.


matt image for blog

Copyright Clifford Art


What are the theories for coprophagia (eating poo)?

  • Boredom
  • Stress/Anxiety
  • Hunger/greediness
  • Poor quality diet
  • Overfeeding/Underfeeding (starvation)
  • Medical conditions (especially those involving the digestive system, g. food allergies, malabsorption, pancreatic problems)
  • Medicines such as steroids
  • Attention seeking
  • Isolation (in kennelled dogs)
  • Parasites

As you can see, there are many theories out there. Interestingly, some vets believe that a diet based on whole grains, with reduced levels of protein and fat, can stop coprophagia. I have looked for research and evidence to support this but I’ve not been able to find any.

Does changing their diet help?

I believe in most cases, diet plays only a small part, if any, in causing coprophagia. From personal experience of a dog with this issue, I tried the following diet variations and none of it made a difference:

  • High fibre diets
  • Diets high in whole grains, low fat, low fibre, low protein
  • Low carbohydrate, high fat, high protein diets
  • Novel protein diets
  • Grain-free diets
  • Wet food diets
  • Raw food diets
  • Feeding more food
  • Feeding less food

Even solving his previous digestive problem did not stopped him from poo-eating. However, I wonder if a digestive problem is what started the poo eating in the first place.

Nutritional health and coprophagia

Interestingly, the results of a study presented in 2012 in America by Dr. Benjamin Hart (a board certified veterinary behaviourist from the University of California, Davis) which had over 1400 completed surveys also found that diet made no difference at all. And for all those people that say dry food or grains are the cause, this is not true. I’m aware that there are several raw fed dogs (including my own) that eat poo.

Is there a breed trait?

From personal experience (working on a pet health helpline for 18 years) I have found that the most common breed to do this is the greedier type of dog i.e. Labradors, Retrievers, Beagles and Cocker spaniels. Of course this does not mean if you own one of these breeds they will definitely eat poo and other breeds can develop this problem too.

Dr. Hart’s study also conducted that Border collies and Shelties were most likely to eat poo and Poodles were the least likely. Bitches are more likely than male dogs and dogs in multi-dog households are more likely to develop this issue.

So why do they do it?

The conclusion of many behaviourists is that this is actually a normal behaviour in dogs – after all bitches will clean up after their puppies to keep the ‘nest’ clean. There is no evidence to suggest that it is caused by a dietary deficiency but may be a throw back to when dogs were scavengers and food was scarce. I personally believe the cause is not the same for all dogs and there is no simple cure.

What can you do if your dog eats poo?

First of all, get your dog checked out at your vet for any medical issues. Make sure they are up to date with parasite treatment (as they can pick up worms and other bugs from faeces) and if possible try to restrict access to faeces as much as possible by removing it from your garden. Consider muzzling your dog when on a walk. Any type of punishment has been shown to make the issue worse (although at the moment I can’t find the reference for this). Try to ignore the bad and reward the good behaviour. If he/she sniffs a poop but doesn’t eat it make sure you go over the top with rewards by either offering a very tasty treat or playing a game. You may also wish to try a change in diet – it does work for some dogs but only occasionally in my experience. Try to increase mental stimulation as this will help to reduce boredom and anxiety. This involves things like puzzle games and scent work.


Thanks to Clifford Art for the illustration for this blog!

Further Reading:

Coprophagia: The Scoop on Poop Eating in Dogs by Dr. Sophie Yin.

POOP EATING (COPROPHAGIA) by Victoria Stilwell

Which Dogs Eat Poop and Why Do They Do It? By Stanley Coren PhD, DSc, FRSC, January 2018.

Breaking the bond

You are probably already aware that rabbits can be difficult to bond (introduce). Despite craving company of their own kind, they can be very fussy when it comes to who they are going to share their home with. I’m always saying to my husband that it’s probably a good thing they can be picky; if they were easy to introduce and got along with every bunny, then I’d have hundreds instead of just two.

We bond them because companionship prevents loneliness, boredom and stress. A partner rabbit can help with grooming, is someone to snuggle with for warmth and is there as support when they feel poorly or scared. For an owner, seeing a pair of rabbits cuddled up together or grooming each other is one of the best feelings.

But sometimes this bond can break. This might be because of illness or because of some stress or change to the partnership. For example, although building a group of rabbits sounds fantastic, if you are starting with a pair and adding more bunnies, there is always the chance that the original pairing may break down. Another example is an illness. I had a pair that had been together for 4-5 years. The older rabbit, Alice developed heart disease and was on medication for the condition. However, one morning I found her outside of the hutch and her partner George would not let her back inside (it was summer, and the hutch was always open and in a giant secure aviary). Alice had bite marks all over her where he had attacked her and kicked her out. She lived the rest of her life (a few months) as an indoor bunny.  It seems cruel to us, but this sort of behaviour is quite common in the animal world. A weak, sick or elderly animal can attract predators and threatens the safety of the whole group, so they will often be ousted.

Another problem is vet visits. And this is the focus of this blog.

I have always advised taking bonded pairs to the vets together. They should always travel together as it is less scary for the rabbits. If your rabbit needs to stay at the vet for a procedure or operation, then it is even more important to keep them together as they can support each other.


Dobby & Hazel at the vet together

When Dobby stopped eating in the summer (see my previous blog), I took both he and Hazel to the vets on the first day. I was able to bring them home overnight and continued to give him medication and food via syringe, but the next day he was no better, so I had to take him back. This is where I made a huge mistake. Hazel did not want to go back in the carrier and was running around and around getting stressed. She then hid in a tube and refused to come out. Instead of waiting for her or encouraging her out (I was getting a bit stressed myself) I decided I would take Dobby to the vets on his own as I needed to get there as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, he was then admitted to the veterinary hospital because he was not improving. The next day I asked if I could bring Hazel in to be with him, but because he was not eating, drinking or pooing by himself, they said at this stage it would be easier to monitor him if he stayed on his own. In the end, he was in the vet hospital for about four days.

When he came home

About a week after Dobby came home, when I knew he was eating properly, I tried to introduce him back to Hazel on neutral territory. He must have smelled very odd to poor Hazel; he was also lop-eared as his ears had dropped due to having catheters in them. He may even have still smelled ‘sick’ to her, but whatever it was she did not like him and she was aggressive towards him. He retaliated, and within a split second, they were having a proper fight. I separated them as quickly as possible but it wasn’t quick enough, and poor Hazel had two huge bite wounds in her side. It was straight off to the emergency vets to get them stitched up.

I was mortified. They had such a close bond before this, and I was so angry that I hadn’t followed my own advice. This would not have happened if Hazel had gone to stay at the vet with Dobby.

Mending the bond

I left Dobby and Hazel apart for six weeks. I had a spare hutch, and I swapped them around. So they would spend a day or two in the shed, then the hutch then back in the shed. I swapped litter trays on the days in between. I let them out into the garden one at a time so they could see each other through the mesh of the run. Initially, they tried to bite each other through the run, but this settled down.

Eventually, it was now or never. I decided to have one more go at bonding. I popped them both into their carrier (carriers are usually too small a space to fight) and took them for a short drive in the car. This may not seem ethical to some people as it is a technique known as ‘stressing’ and is used to encourage the rabbits to snuggle together, however in this instance I thought it was necessary and would be worth it in the end.

I used my front porch as neutral territory (space where neither rabbit had been) and to start with I used a partition, which was removed after about 15 minutes when I could see they were doing okay. I also had big welder gloves ready in case I needed to separate them – I was scratched the last time.

The body language was much different to before. Hazel was understandably very nervous and kept lunging at Dobby when he went near, but this settled down. After about 30 minutes my wonderful husband brought me a chair to sit on and a cup of tea. About 2 hours went by before I left the porch. I decided they were okay on their own as I had seen them sitting together closely. Dobby and Hazel stayed in the porch for a couple of days (we used the back door to get in and out the house!) and in the meantime, I scrubbed the shed and run with a mix of white vinegar and water to neutralise smells. When I reintroduced them back into the shed, I stayed with them for a while to make sure they were okay, and things have been fine ever since.

I have learnt my lesson! I won’t jeopardise their relationship again.

Gastric stasis (silent killer) in rabbits

I don’t know who coined the term ‘silent killer’ but it’s an unfortunately accurate description of this problem. It’s not being overly dramatic to state that gastric stasis can kill a rabbit in a matter of hours. Gastric stasis occurs when normal gut motility (movement) slows down or stops. It’s best to think of the rabbit digestive system like a conveyor belt, it must keep moving for them to survive. It stops moving if the rabbit stops eating and/or stops producing poo.

Gastric stasis (or GI stasis) is not a disease itself, it is a secondary problem that is caused by something else – such as pain, disease, digestive blockage or bloating, poor diet or stress. Feeding a diet which is deficient in long fibre particles (i.e. a diet high in dry food with not enough hay and grass) can slow down the digestive system. Fibre is also required to push fur that has been ingested when grooming through the system.

The problem is that the symptoms can be very subtle, and it doesn’t take long for the condition to escalate from serious to life threatening.

Back in the summer, one morning as usual, I went out to the shed to feed and check on my rabbits Dobby and Hazel. Instead of running to greet me (to check what food I had) Dobby just stayed sitting where he was and only Hazel ran forward. This immediately set off alarm bells with me. Dobby is incredibly greedy and this was not normal. I picked him up and checked him over, I couldn’t see anything wrong. I put him back down and instead of hopping around he just hunched himself back up into a ball again and looked very uncomfortable. I tried to get him to move a little and he did a bit of stretching but he just looked ‘off’. With another animal such as a dog or a cat, you might leave them a little while to see if they feel better later but with rabbits every minute counts. I’m lucky enough to work at a veterinary practice and was on my way to work, so I took them with me.


Dobby with his bandage where the intravenous catheter had been placed.

The short version of this story is that Dobby ended up being admitted to the specialist exotics veterinary hospital and was in there for 4 days. He was given painkillers, prebiotics and drugs to get his gut moving again (once he was checked for blockages). He had blood tests, urine tests and his teeth checked (as tooth pain can be one reason for refusing to eat). He was syringe fed and put on fluids as he was beginning to become dehydrated. After 4 days he started eating by himself and pooing properly again and was cleared to come back home. However, we are none the wiser regarding what started the problem, I just know that had I have left him he would have died. Both rabbits were moulting heavily, and I wondered if he had eaten too much fur when grooming but no blockage was found. The vets could find nothing wrong with him and his routine the night before had been normal, with no stress or routine change I can think of.

So, I guess the take home messages from this experience are:

  1. If you think your rabbit isn’t quite themselves, acting slightly different, lethargic or not eating as much or pooing normally – get them to the vet immediately. You can’t afford to wait until the next day.
  2. Get pet insurance! I am extremely grateful I have insurance for him as the whole episode was over £1000 and I only had to pay an excess of £55. Phew!
  3. If you have a bonded pair of rabbits always take them to the vet together. I now have personal experience of what a disaster it can be if you don’t follow this advice. (see my next blog!).


PS. as a weird side note Dobby has ‘uppy’ ears and has never been a lop eared rabbit. When I went to pick him up from the vets I had to check they had given me the right rabbit as both his ears were hanging down!  I think the weight of the IV catheters into his ears caused them to bend. It took about a month in total for them to fully right themselves!


Dobby with his new ‘lop’ ears after returning from the vet.

Socialisation & habituation in rabbits

Socialisation in dogs and cats

Socialisation is a term usually used to describe a period of learning (up to 14- 16 weeks old) that puppies go through. During this period they learn how to properly interact with other animals and humans as well as experiencing different situations, objects and environments. Dogs that have not been properly socialised during this period can grow up to be fearful, anxious and potentially aggressive. During this socialisation period there is also a fear imprint period (also known as a sensitive period) and any negative or scary experiences during this time can have a lasting effect on the puppy. Interestingly, the age of onset of this period is different between breeds, with Labradors not starting the fear imprint period until 72 days old compared to German Shepherds at 39 days old. This could explain differences between breeds and their ability to deal with new situations or environments when older.

A socialisation period has also been discovered in kittens but is thought to be between 2-7 weeks old. This means that the breeder or rescue centre will have the sole responsibility of ensuring the kitten is exposed to as many new stimuli as possible during this period to ensure they make friendly, confident pets before they go to their new home.

Socialisation in rabbits

What about rabbits? There is a wealth of information about puppies and socialisation, a little about cats and even less about rabbits, however if we are to try and prevent the large number of rabbits being given up to rescue centres this is something that we should be focusing on. A properly socialised baby rabbit, that is used to humans handling them is much more likely to go on to become a more relaxed and friendly pet. According to Dr. Dyles (2006) the socialisation period in rabbits is between 10-21 days old and to ensure baby bunnies grow into tame, friendly and confident adults they must be handled before they are 21 days old (but it is also important for handling to continue regularly after this age). This means that breeders (and rescue centre staff) have the responsibility of making sure the rabbits they sell or put up for adoption are accustomed to being picked up and handled. If you are considering getting a rabbit from a breeder this is something you should ask – how much handling have they had? Along with what are the temperaments of the parents? Are they placid, friendly parents? Ask to meet them to see for yourself.

Baby bunnies that have not been handled when young are more likely to fear humans and may grow into timid, frightened adults. This fear can escalate into aggression, especially if they learn that biting or lunging makes the scary thing (perhaps a human hand) go away. Behaviours like this are just one reason rabbits become neglected or given to a rescue centre. Preventing this scenario from happening in the first place is the best option.

baby bunny 1

Photo credit – Thanks to Jayne Bethan Townsend; Friends of Animals Wales.

Habituation in rabbits

If, however you already have an adult rabbit that is fearful or aggressive (which is usually due to fear) it is still possible that they may be taught to become less anxious. This is usually through the process habituation. Habituation occurs when the rabbit is exposed to the stimulus enough times that it eventually gets used to it and stops reacting. For example, with enough time and patience, a rabbit that shrinks away every time you put your hand towards may start to realise that nothing bad is going to happen and instead of shrinking away they may stay still, eventually they may even let you stroke them and finally may offer their head for stroking. For this to work, an owner must be patient and move slowly so as not to startle the rabbit. This process may take weeks, months or longer and all interactions should be made as positive as possible, using a tasty treat may help or you may find that speaking to them calmly and quietly helps.  If you proceed too fast it could scare the rabbit and make matters worse.

If you have an aggressive rabbit the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund have a great leaflet called Biting the Hand that Feeds. However, if more people are made aware that rabbits, like dogs, also have a socialisation ‘window’ this may help to prevent behavioural problems later in life – resulting in happier rabbits and owners.

baby bunnies 2

Photo credit – Thanks to Jayne Bethan Townsend; Friends of Animals Wales.


Breeding pet rabbits health & welfare considerations: 23 Jun 2006 / Dr. L. Dyles. .

Different dog breeds, different sensitive period: 2015

COAPE: Critical Periods (Sensitive Periods) in Puppies – Revisited  2015

Nicky Trevorrow (2012) Kitten Socialisation: The Cat, Summer 2012. p46-47

Is my rabbit overweight?

During the last few months of my rabbit George’s life he became very thin. Increasing the number of dry pellets often gave him an upset stomach and his partner bunny Hazel, who was younger would eat quicker, often eating a bigger share of the calorific food. This meant that maintaining a healthy body weight for George was difficult and consequently Hazel became quite overweight. Not only was she eating more but it was winter so she was less active (she digs a lot in the spring and summer) and because George was poorly and less active she tended to sit with him to keep him company. I resorted to hand feeding George to prevent her getting fatter.

Hazel had physically changed shape and was ‘rounder’ so I could see she was too heavy, however, once George passed away I could control Hazel’s diet to help her lose the weight she gained. If you want to check your own bunnies weight then check out the PFMA rabbit size-o-meter here. A rabbit is classed as being overweight if they carry 10-20% more body weight than they should for their size. If they weigh 20% more than they should then they are classed as obese. It can be hard to tell what their ideal weight should be, especially if they are a crossbreed so a body condition chart is a great guide to identify their weight.

Why is being overweight a problem?

Obesity has been linked to many health conditions such as heart disease and arthritis. Being overweight causes the heart to work harder and puts pressure on the joints causing extra pain in individuals already suffering arthritis. In dogs, studies have shown that being even moderately overweight can shorten their lifespan by up to 2 years and although there are no longevity studies in rabbits there is little doubt that obesity affects quality of life and more than likely lifespan too. There are many other issues associated with being overweight:

  • Overweight rabbits are more likely to suffer from pododermatitis (sore hocks), a painful condition of the feet.
  • Overweight rabbits cannot reach their anus to eat caecotrophs. If they cannot eat these ‘night faeces’ to get important nutrients they can develop life threatening digestive problems.
  • Overweight rabbits are more prone to developing cystitis and sludgy urine (Varga, 2014).
  • Overweight rabbits are more likely than those rabbits of an ideal weight to suffer from a fatal liver disease (hepatic lipidosis) should they be fasted or become anorexic for any reason.

Why are rabbits overweight?

Pet obesity has been in the news quite a lot over the last couple of years with the most common figure being quoted of a third of UK pets are overweight. However, last year Marsden, supplier of veterinary weighing scales did their own survey of over 2500 vet practices and found that 58% of pets are overweight – more than half! Yet only 16% owners believe their pet is overweight (PDSA, 2016). One possible reason for the huge discrepancy between overweight pets and owners being able to identify weight problems is that there are now so many fat pets that we may have lost sight of what is ‘normal’.

The 2016 PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report highlighted many reasons that rabbits (and other pets could be overweight), for example owners tend to feed treats and extra food for a variety of reasons including to make up for feeling guilty for the lack of exercise their pet gets. The study also showed that many rabbit owners are still not feeding the recommended diet of 80% hay and grass, 15% greens and 5% dry food.  Only 68% of owners feed hay and for many of these rabbits hay was not available 24 hours a day, as it should be. 24% owners were still feeding muesli style dry food which is generally lower in fibre and higher in calories than pellets and promotes selective feeding (rabbits tend to pick out the higher calorie bits like the flaked peas).  Studies into rabbit nutrition support this claim that muesli should be avoided, for example Prebble et al (2014) found that rabbits fed ad-lib muesli food became obese when compared to rabbits fed muesli with hay, pellets with hay or just hay. The best body score was for the 4th group that were just fed hay but the study did not examine if the rabbits fed hay only suffered any nutrition deficiencies (Mancinelli, 2016).

Helping your rabbit lose weight

It can be difficult to get your rabbit to lose weight once they have put it on. However, fine-tuning the diet and encouraging exercise is the best way to do this. Keep in touch with your you vet or vet nurse so you can monitor progress and ensure the rate of weight loss is safe. Many practices now offer free weight clinics.

You can encourage exercise by:

  • Providing a run that is permanently attached to the hutch so your rabbit has access to it 24 hours a day.
  • Hide food around the run or hutch for your rabbit to forage for.
  • Hang food from the roof of the run or ceiling so your rabbit has to stretch to get it.
  • Use feeding toys or balls to encourage your rabbit to move and work for his/her food.

You can change the diet by:

  • Increasing the amount of hay you offer and cut down on the dry food.
  • Cut out the dry food completely if you are able to and instead offer a variety of vegetables/herbs or wild plants daily to ensure your rabbit is getting a balanced diet.
  • Change to a high fibre, low calorie monocomponent dry food such as FibaFirst by Supreme.
  • Avoid high sugar vegetables such as carrots and do not feed fruit.
  • Cut out sugary, high calorie treats and chews from the pet shop e.g. seed bars and yogurt drops.

Hay is essential for dental health, digestive function and preventing obesity


PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report (Accessed January 8th 2017)

House Rabbit Society: Liver (Hepatic) disease in rabbits (2013) (Accessed January 8th 2017)

Mancinelli, E (2016) Taking a bite into rabbit diet research, (accessed January 8th 2017).

Marsden: Our survey suggests over half of pets are overweight (2016)  (accessed January 8th 2017)

Prebble JL, Shaw DJ and Meredith AL (2014). Bodyweight and body condition score in rabbits on four feeding regimes, Journal of Small Animal Practice 56(3) 207-212.

Purina’s Landmark Life Span Study in Dogs (accessed January 8th 2017).

Varga, M (2014) Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, 2nd Edition, Butterworth-Heinemann p54-55, 313

How to dry wild plants as winter food for your rabbits and guinea pigs

This blog is a little late in the year as usually I would suggest collecting plants before the autumn starts when wild foliage is most abundant and high in nutrients. However, there are still  several plants available, including plantain, that you could gather for drying and feeding during the winter.

The ideal rabbit diet consists of approximately 80% hay & grass, 15% greens (this can be vegetables, wild plants or herbs) and 5 % dry food (i.e. pellets). I have personally found that feeding wild plants to my rabbits instead of cultivated vegetables such as spring greens, cabbage, broccoli etc. suits their digestive system better, but it is far more difficult to forage in the winter due to the lack of vegetation. By drying weeds and herbs you can continue to feed natural, wild plants throughout the winter.

Herbs and wild plants that air dry best are the ones with a low moisture content such as rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage. Wild plants such as ribwort plantain, blackberry (brambles), goose grass and even nettles can be dried quite easily. Below is a photo of some plantain and yarrow hanging from the roof of my rabbit shed.


How to dry plants:

Step 1. Pick your herbs or wild plants (forage) when they are dry. So ideally after a couple of dry days and after any morning dew has evaporated. Wet herbs & plants are more likely to go mouldy.

Step 2. Remove any insects!

Step 3. Sort into bunches of 5-10 stems and tie the ends together with string.

Step 4. Hang upside down in a warm, well ventilated area with plenty of air flow and allow to dry. A warm shed is ideal. You can also spread your forage out along wooden shelves to dry.

Step 5. Check (and turn if using a drying shelf) your forage frequently and remove any parts with signs of mould.

Step 6. It may take several days for your forage to be completely dry. Once dry, seal in air tight bags or containers.

Step 7. When opening your container check visually for any signs of mould or insect infestation. Do not feed if you spot mould or the forage smells musty.

By drying plants you can supply your rabbits or guinea pigs with tasty, healthy food throughout winter.

However, if you’ve not had time to gather and dry anything this year you can buy dried forage for winter feeding from several sources. The Hay Experts sell a variety of dried herbs as does Burns Pet Nutrition and Galens Garden.

B&M stores are also selling dry herbs at the moment for quite a good price, I don’t know how long stocks will last though so it might be worth a visit soon. Have fun drying!

Keeping rabbits cool

Apparently, there is a heat wave coming to the UK next week. The forecasts are estimating that it will be as high as 30 degrees C… for at least a day anyway!

I’m making sure I’m prepared for the hot weather so that my rabbits, Dobby and Hazel can keep as cool and comfortable as possible.

In the wild, the underground burrows that rabbits live in stay at a fairly constant temperature, remaining cool in the summer, warm in the winter and free of draughts. However, above ground rabbits are exposed to much larger fluctuations in temperature and they can struggle to tolerate hot weather.

Rabbits cannot sweat or pant to lose weight like humans and other animals. Instead, they use their large ears to dissipate heat.

There are several ways you can keep your rabbits cool:

  1. It sounds obvious but make sure you provide plenty of shade and ensure that as the sun moves there will be shade no matter what time of day it is. I use old linen sheets or old shower curtains but parasols and boxes or hiding places inside the run would also be suitable. It’s important that you don’t restrict airflow to the run or hutch when you put up sheets for shade.
  2. Keep your rabbits well groomed. A thick coat will help them retain heat, furthermore brushing out dead hair and making sure that there are no mats in the coat helps air flow to circulate around the skin.
  3. Hutches can get very hot. Sadly, earlier this year there were reports of guinea pigs and rabbits dying in their hutches due to the heat. These hutches had their waterproof covers over them, reducing ventilation and trapping heat like a greenhouse. Move hutches into the shade and remove plastic covers to increase air flow.
  4. Water bowls. You can read how rabbits prefer to drink from bowls not bottles in my previous blog here. Water bowls have been shown to help the rabbit drink more water at a faster rate. Offer extra bowls and bottles on hot days and keep the water cool by adding ice cubes.
  5. I encourage water consumption by offering foods with a higher liquid content such as cucumber. You can also spray their veggies/greens with cool water before feeding too.20160814_120803-1
  6. Get with the science and try evaporative cooling! In humans, we keep cool as our sweat evaporates. This is because heat is used to turn water (sweat) from liquid into water vapour. You can use a cool damp cloth or plant mist sprayer (previously unused, you don’t want any chemical residue) to wet your rabbit’s ears. As the water on the ears evaporates it will help cool them down.
  7. Use an electric fan. Don’t have the fan so it’s blowing right at your rabbit but improving airflow in the general area your rabbit lives in can help keep them cool. Some people use a fan in conjunction with cold wet towels draped over the run. The idea is that the fan blows the towels and as the water evaporates from the towels it helps the air stay cool. I’ve never used this method personally but if you decide to try it, make sure any electrical cords are kept out of the way or are safe from being chewed.
  8. I do however, have two of these Scratch & Newton Ice pods. Freeze them overnight then put them in with your rabbit for them to lie on or near, to keep them cool. As an alternative you can fill 2 litre plastic bottles with water and freeze them. Wrap in an old pillow case and pop them in your rabbit run for them to lie against.
  9. Another recommendation is to freeze an old ceramic wall or floor tile for them to lie on.
  10. Be aware that overweight rabbits and those that are poorly or elderly may suffer more in the heat. Warm weather also increases the incidence of fly strike which you can read about here.
  11. My final tip is to offer a digging pit/box. Rabbits like to burrow but this is not usually practical for most owners. However, Dobby and Hazel like to lie on bare earth. They scrape away the warm top soil and lie on the cooler earth below. Providing a box or tray of soil will give them somewhere to dig, and like my rabbits they may like to lie in the cooler earth.


Hopefully, these tips will help you keep your rabbits nice and cool. However, below are the signs of heat stroke. If you suspect heat stroke you should contact your vet immediately. Whilst contacting the vet try to reduce the rabbit’s body temperature by wetting the ears or body in cool (not cold) water and get them into the shade. Do not submerge your rabbit in cold or freezing water as they may go into shock. An electric fan (again not pointed directly in their face) can help increase air flow to help cool the environment down.

Symptoms of heat stroke in rabbits

  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Mouth breathing (always a bad sign in rabbits)
  • Anorexia
  • Problems with coordination
  • Weakness
  • Seizures


References & Further Reading

Virginia Richardson (2000) Rabbits: Health, Husbandry and Diseases, : Blackwell Publishing Limited. p137

Varga, M (2014) Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, 2 edn., Elsevier. P400

House Rabbit Society:

Rabbit Welfare Association – It’s summer

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD & RHD2)


Rabbit Haemorrhagic disease (RHD) and RHD2

Most people have heard of the disease myxomatosis and how it can affect rabbits, but there’s another disease in the UK that our rabbits need protecting against. Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) – also known as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus or Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (RHDV and VHD) has been in Europe since the late 1980’s after being first discovered in the People’s Republic of China in 1984 and spreading rapidly.

What is RHD?

RHD is a disease caused by a virus called the calicivirus. There is a 90% mortality rate for unvaccinated rabbits infected with RHD, however young rabbits under 4 weeks old appear to have a natural immunity and will be protected for their first few weeks of life. The disease causes blood clots within the blood vessels of body organs such as the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. In turn these clots lead to a haemorrhage, where the vessel bursts and blood leaks from it. Death quickly follows and there is no known cure.

What are the symptoms of RHD?

Once infected, the rabbits will usually die within 3-4 days. With some rabbits there may be no symptoms and they may appear to be eating and acting normally just a few hours before being found dead. In these acute cases in the hours leading to death rabbits can show lethargy, fever and an increased respiratory rate. They will have very low blood pressure making it difficult for your vet to find a vein. Other rabbits may be found dead with blood from the nose, mouth and anus.


Thankfully, there is a vaccination against RHD in the UK. Up until a few years ago there were separate vaccines for Myxomatosis and RHD. Now there is a combination vaccine (Nobivac Myxo-RHD) which covers both diseases. Vaccines work by introducing (usually by injection) a weakened version of the virus into the body. The weak version is not enough to trigger the disease but it allows the body’s immune system to recognise the virus so that it is able to protect itself and mount a response should it come across the virus for real (immunity). The combination vaccine should be given to rabbits annually and can be given from 5 weeks old onwards.


Unfortunately, the calcivirus can mutate and there is now a new strain of RHD in the UK. RHD2 was first identified in the UK in 2013 but retrospective studies suggest it has been here for longer. The Rabbit Welfare Association has been monitoring the cases of RHD2 and in the last few months there has been an increase in cases. The current combination Myxo-RHD vaccine DOES NOT offer protection against RHD2 so an additional vaccine is being recommended.

RHD2 is different to RHD1

Unlike the original strain of the disease RHD2 can affect young rabbits under 4 weeks. The incubation time is longer at 3-9 days and the mortality rate is lower at 5-70%, which sounds like a positive thing. However, at the recent RWAF conference (which I was lucky enough to attend) Dr. Richard Saunders, the RWAF Specialist veterinary advisor stated that the longer incubation date with the lower mortality rate meant the RHD2 virus was more likely to spread that the original strain, which would kill rabbits before they could spread the virus. He believes that within a few years RHD2 will be the more common of the two viruses in the UK.

How RHD and RHD2 are transmitted

The RHD virus is very hardy and can survive in the environment for months. It can survive freezing temperatures and those up to 50 degrees C for an hour. It can be transmitted between infected rabbits via discharge from the mouth, nose or eyes, via biting insects and the virus can live on inanimate items such as food bowls and bedding. Scavenger birds that have eaten the carcass of an infected rabbit can pass the virus on in their droppings and humans and other pets can track the virus around on their feet, shoes and clothes. This means that even indoor rabbits should be vaccinated and good hygiene and biosecurity measures put into practice. If you forage wild plants for your rabbits these should be thoroughly washed before feeding – although it should be pointed out that the benefit of this type of diet far outweighs the risk. Vaccinating your rabbits is the most effective way of protecting them.

RHD2 Vaccination problems

Some vets, especially those that don’t see a lot of rabbits still seem to be unaware of the increase in cases of RHD2. There are reports of some vets refusing to order in the vaccine deeming it unnecessary. However, there has recently been a lot of information in the veterinary press, as well as email alerts to vet practices from the RWAF so there is no excuse not to be up to date with information. On top of this, the RHD2 vaccine is manufactured and imported from abroad and the sudden demand for the vaccine has left some vet practices struggling to get hold of it. However, three veterinary wholesalers (NVS, Centaur and Henry Schein) are now able to supply Filavac vaccine against RHD2.

Vaccination key points

  1. The Nobivac Myxo-RHD vaccine does not protect against RHD2 but is still essential because it protects against Myxomatosis.
  2. Annual vaccination against RHD2 is recommended unless in high risk areas where 6 monthly vaccination is advised.
  3. Nobivac Myxo-RHD and Filavac should be given at least 2 weeks apart.
  4. For more information on Filavac click here.

If the worst happens…

If your rabbit dies and RHD/RHD2 is suspected, then unfortunately the only way to tell for sure is by a post-mortem. As the virus can live in the environment so successfully, cremation is the best option for your rabbit after they’ve passed away. If you have remaining rabbits, then thorough cleaning with a rabbit safe disinfectant is essential. In theory bonding/introducing a new rabbit should be safe after 200 days (as this is how long the virus is known to survive in the environment) however, not enough is really known about this aspect of the disease transmission and bringing a new rabbit in before this time may be safe (assuming the environment has been scrupulously cleaned and your remaining rabbit(s) has stayed healthy).

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Dobby & Hazel are going for their RHD2 vaccination later this week.


References & further reading:

Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund FAQs on Filivac

Frances Harcourt-Brown: About rabbit haemorragic disease and its variants (lagoviruses) –

The British Rabbit Council factsheet:

Nobivac Myxo-RHD

Varga, M (2014) Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, 2 edn, Elsevier.