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.

References:

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

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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.
img_2421

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

References:

PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report https://www.pdsa.org.uk/get-involved/our-current-campaigns/pdsa-animal-wellbeing-report (Accessed January 8th 2017)

House Rabbit Society: Liver (Hepatic) disease in rabbits (2013) http://rabbit.org/liver-hepatic-disease-in-rabbits/ (Accessed January 8th 2017)

Mancinelli, E (2016) Taking a bite into rabbit diet research, www.vettimes.co.uk/article/taking-a-bite-into-rabbit-diet-research (accessed January 8th 2017).

Marsden: Our survey suggests over half of pets are overweight (2016) http://www.marsden-weighing.co.uk/index.php/blog/blog/2016/07/18/survey-suggests-half-pet-obesity/  (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 https://www.proplan.com/dogs/dog-care/purinas-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.

drying-plantain-and-yarrow

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: http://rabbit.org/faq-warm-weather-concerns/

Rabbit Welfare Association – It’s summer http://www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk/pdfs/Cooldudeorhotcrossbunfinalforwebsite.pdf

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.

Vaccination

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.

RHD2

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 http://www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk/pdfs/RVHD2FAQv2July2-16FINALOWNERS.doc

Frances Harcourt-Brown: About rabbit haemorragic disease and its variants (lagoviruses) –    www.harcourt-brown.co.uk/articles/infectious-disease/rabbit-haemorrhagic-disease

The British Rabbit Council factsheet: http://www.thebrc.org/Facts%20Sheet%20RHD-2.pdf

Nobivac Myxo-RHD http://www.msd-animal-health.co.uk/products_public/nobivac-myxo-rhd/010_overview.aspx

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

Goosegrass

Spring is definitely here! And that means lots of tasty treats for the rabbits. A firm favourite is Goosegrass (also known as Sticky Willy, Cleavers, Sticky weed and by many more names) which is just starting to grow in the hedgerows.

At school we used to enjoy picking this weed and sticking it to each others backs! But it actually makes a delicious bunny treat either freshly picked or dried.

As with all plants that you forage, please make sure you avoid areas where dogs foul and where traffic fumes are prevalent.

Goose grass.png

 

Fibre in pellets

If you’re a member of RWAF (and if you love rabbits you definitely should be) then you should have received the latest issue of Rabbiting On. On page 5 of this issue (Spring 2016) I discuss whether the fibre level of dry food is important, when it is fed at the recommended level.