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).

20160528_193807 (1)

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.

Health problems in Lop eared rabbits

I’ve always been aware that lop eared rabbits can suffer more from health issues with regards to their teeth than ‘up eared’ rabbits but I wasn’t prepared for my vet explaining how lops were basically the ‘Pug’ of the rabbit world.

Pugs are small dogs which sadly are plagued by health issues. They have eye problems, issues with their knee caps slipping, neurological problems and like dwarf rabbits and lops they have smaller skulls and flatter faces (brachiocephalic) resulting in breathing problems. The Pug’s teeth end up overcrowded because they have the same number of teeth as other breeds but they have to fit into a smaller area. This results in plaque build-up, gum disease and infections.

Teeth

Like Pugs, Dwarf rabbit breeds and lop breeds have been bred to have a smaller rounder skull (possibly because this makes them cuter). When the skull size is reduced the upper and lower jaws do not always scale down by the same ratio. This can result in malocclusion where the teeth do not align properly, causing uneven wear and overgrown teeth.

Nose

The smaller rounder skull of the lop rabbit also means that the face is flatter and there is a shortening of the nasal passages – as seen in the Pug. Even when healthy these rabbits may make snorting or snuffling sounds, however this is not currently thought to be risk factor for respiratory problems.[1]

Ears

 Lop eared breeds have a much higher incidence of a painful condition known as otitis media[2] (infection of the middle ear). The fold in their ear stops air flowing freely, dirt can accumulate and infections are more likely to occur.  If left untreated, ear infections can then spread to the upper respiratory tract. Ear mites are also more commonly seen in lop eared rabbits.

As lop eared rabbits become older they also appear to suffer from a condition called stenosis; a narrowing of the ear canal. This can cause the canal to become clogged with detritus leading to infection and possible hearing loss[3].

After the diagnosis that my own lop had a bilateral ear infection I was advised by our exotics vet that myself and all owners of lop eared rabbits should be routinely cleaning their ears at least once a fortnight. Ear cleaning is quite easy once your vet has shown you how to do this.

Conclusion

To conclude, if you are looking at getting (or already have) a lop eared rabbit be prepared for possible health issues relating to the teeth, ears and nose. Controversially, we should be asking whether it is ethically right to breed from lop eared rabbits at all.

CT scan right ear

References:

[1] Richardson, V (2000) Rabbits. Health, Husbandry & Diseases, Oxford: Blackwell Science Ltd.

[2] Eatwell, K. (2012). Approach to Ear and Nose Diseases in Rabbits. [PDF] Webinar Club, p.Exotics Club recordings 2012. Available at http://veterinarywebinars.com/assets/Study_Notes_Ear_Nose_Rabbits.pdf [Accessed 30 Dec. 2014].

[3] Lennox, A.M (January 2010) ‘Care of the Geriatric Rabbit’Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice,, 13(1), pp. 123-133.

Easy Bonding

Despite the title, this is not a Fifty Shades of Grey blog post!

Owners will know that despite rabbits being sociable animals, introducing them to each other (bonding) needs to be done carefully. If bonding goes wrong you can end up with injured and stressed rabbits rather the loving pair or group you’d hoped for.

Bonding is therefore often attempted with great trepidation from owners, me included. However, being fully prepared before you introduce rabbits helps a great deal. As does knowing the ‘personality’ of the bunnies involved.

Never attempt to introduce rabbits unless:

a)      Both rabbits are neutered, no matter what sex they are

b)      You introduce the rabbits on neutral territory (where neither rabbit has been before)

I’ve just bonded Hazel and my new rabbit Dobby (he’s gorgeous!). Hazel lost her partner George about 6 weeks ago and I gave her this time to come to terms with his loss. She’s a very timid rabbit and I was fairly confident that she would not ‘fight’ Dobby and things would be fairly easy. I was right. Dobby mounted Hazel a few times during the first five minutes (this is totally normal but you should intervene if the male tries to mount the wrong way around as his genitals can get bitten) and she was so scared she just froze. She nipped him a couple of times but soon learnt that if she hopped away he wouldn’t chase her. They’re both very greedy rabbits so lots of tasty food was put into the bonding pen with them and they quite quickly started eating together. This progressed to lying near each other, then lying next to each other and grooming.

All in all, it has been the easiest and least stressful bond I’ve ever done! However, it will take several months to fully be sure they are happy. In the meantime I’ve washed down Hazel’s shed and run with a 50:50 water and white vinegar solution to neutralise any smells and once it’s dry they will go to their permanent home (about 5 days after starting the bond).

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Hazel (brown) and Dobby (white)