Category Archives: Rabbits

Guinea pig wrapped in towel

Stress free handling for rabbits & small critters

Our small pets are naturally nervous creatures and it is very important that you learn to handle them in as gentle and as confident a way as possible. Rough and inappropriate handling is one of the most likely
causes of being bitten. This is a totally understandable reaction for our pets, as if they believe they are in danger and feel they cannot run away, then they have nothing to lose by attacking with tooth and claw.

When you first start to handle your pet, it is important that this is done at ground level, as nervous pets can jump in fear. Even a seemingly small fall can cause fatal injuries. It is best to place your pet’s cage on the floor and handle your pet over a container such as a washing up bowl with a towel inside. The towel will help to cushion your pet’s fall and the bowl will help to prevent your pet from escaping.

If you need to handle your pet before it has learned to accept being handled then it is important to make this as stress free as possible. Using a cardboard toilet roll tube, most pets need little encouragement to scuttle inside. Once inside the tube, you can then easily transport them from one location to another. If you need to examine your pet or give them some essential treatment, you can attach a sock to one end
of the tube with some holes cut in it. It is likely your small pet will run from the tube into the darkness of the sock, where you can then examine or medicate your pet through the holes cut into the sides.

You can build a larger version of this set up for guinea pigs and rats using a piece of pipe and the sleeve from a jumper or a tea towel sewed on the end of the pipe. Guinea pigs especially are renowned for their nervous nature and any device that reduces the stress of handling can only be a good thing.

Rats can be in handled in much the same way as mice but extra care needs to be taken to avoid being bitten. Although all animals can bite, rats have very large teeth that can inflict a very deep wound. Most rats would never dream of biting and you are far more likely to be bitten by a grumpy hamster than a rat but care should still be taken.

Rabbits require even more careful handling than the animals already covered. Due to their large size and power, the potential for them to injure you and themselves is great. Rabbits are bottom heavy creatures and are known to have a weak point at the base of their spine. This weak area can be easily damaged if your rabbit kicks too violently. Rabbits should only be handled if absolutely necessary as they find handling very stressful. It has been shown that rabbits become far more confident and trusting when all interaction is mindful and as much at ground level as possible. In this way they don’t learn to associate people with fear. Life isn’t all a bed of roses and there are times when you will need to handle your pet;
routine health checks and vaccinations are essential. Using a large towel, cover your pet completely, including its head. Wrap the towel under your pet so that it is enveloped in the towel completely. Pick up the bundle, hold it to your chest securely and transfer it to a fi rm but soft surface such as a large cushion. You can now medicate or check your pet’s health in as stress free a way as possible.

When placing your pet back in its enclosure, keep it wrapped up and place it down, hind feet first. It is important to place them down in this manner in order to minimize any potential for damage to the spine.

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Clicker Training for rabbits

Spike's World

Many people are familiar with the concept of clicker training for our canine friends but not many people are aware that rabbits and other small animals can benefit as well.

Clicker training was developed in the early 1970’s as a training method for marine mammals. The trainers realised that they would not be able to train whales and dolphins through force as they would simply swim away. They soon realised that if they ignored the wrong behaviours and gave appropriate praise and reward for the behaviours they wanted, the animals would quickly learn to do exactly what they wanted. The most exciting discovery was the fact that the whales and dolphins enjoyed the training sessions immensely and developed a love of learning.

Clicker training is a simple concept for both you and your pet to learn and is one that is sure to have many rewards in the future. Even if your pet has no behavioural issues and lives a fulfi lled and stimulated life, clicker training is a useful concept to teach your pet as you never know when it may be needed in the future. As an example, a good friend of mine owned an older rabbit that needed regular urine tests due to medical problems. Fortunately she had spent lots of time using clicker training with him and he was very familiar with the concept. Within a week she had taught her pet to urinate on command, making things so much easier for them both. It also prevented the extra stress that can be caused by the vet having to express his bladder instead.

 Clicker training rabbits

As rabbits increase in popularity, so does the understanding of their behavioural needs. It has come to light that rabbits are intelligent animals and as such need lots of stimulation. For those who keep their rabbits indoors, boredom can present itself in the form of destructive and antisocial behaviour.

Although teaching your rabbit to urinate on command would make an amusing party trick, there are many more savoury behaviours you can teach your pet to perform. As long as it is physically possible for your pet and does not risk injury then you can try pretty much anything. The most common behaviours to teach are, sitting, standing, running into an enclosure or carrier, jumping over a pole or through a hoop and nudging a ball.

Where do I start?

 

Clicker training a rabbit - Adam the vet - Vetschooldiary - vet school diary - student - Adam Rogers

Rabbits are highly intelligent creatures that crave mental stimulation. Clicker training can fulfill this need as well as helping to develop a bond between rabbit and owner.

 

To start clicker training, you need some tasty treats, in small enough pieces to be just one mouthful,

and a clicker (you can even use the clicker part of a pen!) The clicking noise made by the clicker or pen is a method of marking the behaviour that you want. In your pet’s mind, the click grows to mean “Yes! That’s exactly what I want you to do! Well done!”

Your pet does not instinctively know what the clicker means, and therefore before anything else, you must teach it what it represents. This is known by some as ‘charging the clicker’.

To begin with, prepare twenty bite sized treats. Click the clicker and feed your pet a treat. Once your pet has finished the treat, give another click and feed it another. Repeat this exercise until all the treats are gone. Whilst teaching your rabbit the meaning of the clicker, it’s important to watch out for signs of recognition that they understand that a click means food. This can be as simple as looking at you expectantly, a change in the ear set or with some greedy rabbits, jumping at you like a wild beast in order to get the treat as quickly as they can. If you feel your pet has not learned the meaning of the clicker during the first session then continue with this training until you are sure your pet has got the idea.

At your next session, start as you did previously by giving a treat and a click at the same time. After a few treats, give a click and pause for two seconds and give the treat. Hopefully, your pet will by now associate the click with the treat and upon hearing the click, will look at you expectantly. Don’t be tempted to wait too long before giving the treat. Rabbits are not dogs and can become incredibly offended if they feel they are being teased. An offended rabbit will stamp its feet at you or worst still, hop away whilst kicking out its hind feet as if kicking dust in your face.

Once your rabbit has reached this stage and you are confident it knows what the clicker means, you can then move on to putting this into practice.

The next step I call ‘teaching your rabbit to love to learn’. Up to now, your rabbit has learned that a click means a tasty treat is on the way, but he simply sees you as a treat dispenser. We now need to teach your rabbit that he needs to do something to get a treat and to persuade him this can be just as fun as eating!

We can all remember how stressful hard exams were and equally how much fun pre school was! Rabbits are just the same. If they are to develop a love of learning, clicker training must be kept fun, and to start with, the behaviours must be very easily achievable.

The first behaviour to teach is known as target training. Take a piece of dowel, some tissue, a square of brightly coloured cloth and an elastic band. Wrap the tissue around the end of the dowel so it forms a small round ball, cover with the brightly coloured cloth and secure with the elastic band. , cover with the brightly coloured cloth and secure with the elastic band. You now have a target stick.

Your aim is to teach your rabbit to touch the cloth end of the target stick with his nose. Start by holding the target stick just in front and slightly to the side of your rabbit’s face. The reason you should start to the side is that rabbits have very poor eyesight to the front and behind them. When your rabbit looks at the stick, click and then treat. Repeat this twenty times, moving the target stick to the other side and to the front of your rabbit’s face. Every time your pet looks at the clicker, click and treat. In no time at all, your rabbit is likely to touch the stick with its nose. At this point, give your rabbit a treat and from that moment, begin to reward your rabbit only for touching the target stick.

 

When your rabbit is making an effort to touch the target stick at least 85% of the time, start to move the target stick a little further away. Continue to click and treat until you can move the target stick even further away. If your rabbit starts to appear to forget the behaviour then you have moved too far too quickly. Take a step back and start again. In no time at all, your rabbit will learn to follow the target stick. This is great for moving your pet from one place to another!

Once your rabbit has learned to follow and touch the target stick at least 90% of the time, you can begin to use it to teach other behaviours.

Teaching your rabbit to sit is a fun and rewarding behaviour that can give you both a sense of achievement.  Start by raising the target stick upwards, click and treat your rabbit for stretching up to follow the stick. Due to their physical build your rabbit will naturally fall into a sitting position once the target is lifted high enough. Ensure each step is given a click and treat.

Repeat this exercise with the stick until your rabbit is moving into a sitting position with no hesitation on almost every occasion. Then, start to introduce the clue word ‘sit’. Each time your rabbit follows the stick into the sitting position, say the word sit in a clear and calm voice as he moves into position.

Ensure you still click and treat. In no time at all your rabbit will learn what ‘sit’ means so you will no longer need to use the target stick.

Target stick - Clicker training a rabbit - Adam the vet - Vetschooldiary - vet school diary - student - Adam Rogers

Many rabbits learn to touch the target stick in a very short space of time. Don’t be disheartened if your rabbit takes a while to learn, remember clicker training is supposed to be fun for both you and your pet

 

Many people, especially those that have clicker trained dogs, will fi nd it awful that a treat is used throughout the process and that the treat has not been phased out and replaced with a stroke or affection. Rabbits are not dogs and as such, most have very different motivational factors than our canine friends. As much as they love to learn, they need a reason to. How many people choose to go to work for free? Rabbits are more like people that dogs. They love a challenge but most will not work hard if the reward at the end is not worth their while.

The principles of clicker training can be used for any situation your rabbit is physically capable of. These can be both practical and just for fun but all help to develop a deep bond and rapport between you and your pet. I encourage all rabbit owners to teach their pet to run to its hutch on command as a safety measure and to be rewarded for eating from hand also. Rabbits are prone to digestive problems and can stop eating. A well trained rabbit will often be tempted to eat even when not hungry. This can be a lifesaver! Clicker training can prove an invaluable way of teaching your rabbit to accept medical examinations and routine nail trimming and grooming.

There are also lots of fun uses for clicker training, from teaching your rabbit to play fetch, to jumping an obstacle in a rabbit agility course. The possibilities are endless, just remember to make sure you both stay safe and that everything is kept as much fun as possible.

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Feeding rabbits the natural way

Spike's World

Rabbits LOVE to eat, this is a fact; however as pet parents, we must ensure what we feed is the best for them. A rabbit is designed to eat grass first and foremost and this should be the basis of their diet in the form of hay or specially prepared dried grass, straw doesn’t have the nutritional value of hay.

Should I feed rabbit pellets or mix?

There is a baffling variety of dried foods available on the market for your rabbit, but some are certainly better than others. They can be separated into three groups, mixes, pellets and extruded foods. Many people are familiar with rabbit mix but not so familiar with its risks and downfalls. Rabbit mixes contain just that, a mix of different ingredients for the rabbit to choose. Although every rabbit is different, most will have a favourite ingredient and one they dislike; this can cause the problem of selective feeding.

Rabbit mix is only ‘complete’ (that is containing all of the required protein, carbohydrate, vitamin and mineral levels) if all the ingredients are eaten at once. When a rabbit has the choice it will often pick and choose the bits it likes best whilst leaving bits it finds less tasty. We as rational human beings can understand we need to eat a balanced diet with some foods we prefer to eat more than others; a rabbit however simply does not understand this concept. Imagine giving a child a plate of chocolate and a plate of boiled cabbage and allowing it to choose which they would like for dinner; I’m sure you can imagine the outcome! Rabbits with their continually growing teeth, need to have the correct levels of calcium and phosphorous to prevent dental problems which makes the issue of diet even more important.

The high cereal content of these mixes can cause digestive upset in rabbits due to their high carbohydrate content. This carbohydrate can not only contribute to obesity but can upset the delicate level of bacteria in the rabbit’s gut, causing it a host of troubles, as can having too much protein. Remember, rabbits were designed to eat grass which is generally low in nutrients.

Rabbit mixes also sometimes contain whole seeds such as grain or locust beans which, when swallowed whole, have caused death in some rabbits. The exit of the stomach is smaller than the entrance, these seeds can therefore be swallowed whole with ease but then get stuck resulting in a blockage and eventual death as the hard seed is unable to be digested or leave the stomach via the intestines.

Pellets were originally designed for laboratory and meat rabbits and do provide a more balanced diet than the mixes. However unless they are specifically for pet rabbits, they often contain far too much protein and fat and can act rather like rocket fuel for rabbits! Rabbits fed entirely on an unbalanced pellet risk being obese with all its associated health problems. Obese rabbits are unable to clean themselves properly and can quickly become caked in droppings. This is especially dangerous in hot weather as flies will lay their eggs on the soiled fur. Within hours these eggs can hatch and the resulting maggots will start eating your pet alive!

Extruded foods are a relatively new arrival on the rabbit food market and in my opinion, are the best option to supplement your rabbit’s diet. They are extruded, meaning they are rather like a rabbit biscuit. Being designed for pet rabbits means they have been made with your pet’s longevity in mind, having a suitable ratio of nutrients. Don’t be put off by the fact that they appear boring. Rabbits are grazing animals by nature and do not have the same need for a variety of different ingredients as do other small pets. Extruded foods are as a rule, loved by most rabbits.

Whichever food you choose to use it is important to remember to give your pet free access to hay at all times, I really cannot stress this point enough. Hay provides fibre, both of a digestible and indigestible form, this in turn helps to keep the gut running smoothly, preventing hair balls, feeding the ‘good’ bacteria in the ceacum (the rabbit version of our appendix), preventing blockages and helping to keep the teeth in trim. I really believe that rabbits should have a diet containing 90-95% hay!

Extruded foods or pellets do make up an important part of the diet and should not be left out, as a rule of thumb, feed ¼ cup of food per 2 kilograms of your rabbit’s weight. As with all animals, metabolism can vary from one rabbit to another, if your rabbit appears to be losing or gaining weight, vary the ration of this food accordingly, and NEVER ration hay.

Lastly, hay provides mental stimulation. Much of a wild rabbit’s waking hours would be spent grazing, to obtain sufficient nutrients. An average pet rabbit will eat its daily ration of commercial food in a few minutes. A hay based diet gives your rabbit something to keep it occupied as nature intended, grazing, helping to prevent boredom and its associated behavioural problems.

Feeding young rabbits

Young rabbits, up to 7 months of age, need free access to your chosen pellet or extruded food AS WELL as hay as they require the extra nutrients to fuel their growth.

Feeding adolescent rabbits (from 7 months to 1 year old)

From 7 months onward, it is now time to reduce the number of pellets or extruded food you feed your rabbit, whilst continuing to give unlimited access to good quality hay. The amount you feed will depend on your rabbit’s size and breed, ideally feed twice a day. As a guide give around ¼ cup of food per kilogram in weight divided between two meals.

Feeding adult rabbits (1 year onwards)

Adult rabbits must be fed a primarily hay and grass based diet with a small amount of extruded food or pellets daily. Feed ¼ cup of food per 2 kilograms of your rabbit’s weight. As with all animals, metabolism can vary from one rabbit to another, if your rabbit appears to be losing or gaining weight, vary the ration of this food accordingly, and NEVER ration hay.

 Old rabbits (6 years onwards)

Some older rabbits may need to be fed a larger amount of extruded food or pellet than they were when they were younger. If necessary, give free access to as much as they would like, just like when they were babies. If your rabbit is losing weight then it must be checked by a vet.

Vegetables and other tasty treats

We love to spoil our pets, rabbits with their doleful eyes have an ability to melt our hearts, and you can’t help but want to make them happy! On visiting any pet shop you are bombarded with a huge variety of different treats for your rabbit with bright packaging telling you how good they are for your pet. Sadly as a rule, they are far from healthy, being more like junk food than a healthy snack, with some being potentially dangerous!

The brightly coloured processed cereal treats or the fruit, nut or popcorn sticks (often held together with sugar and honey) contain high levels of sugar, starch and fat and very little fibre.

As mentioned earlier, the rabbit’s delicate digestion relies on bacteria to digest food. Near the end of the intestines is an extra part known as the ceacum, this is similar to our appendix but much, much larger and full of bacteria. These bacteria help to break down the fibre in the grasses eaten. When a rabbit eats a food high in starch and sugar, these enter the caecum and cause chaos. The sugar and starch quickly ferment giving food to the bacteria at an extremely high level. The bacteria multiply and release gasses causing the rabbit to bloat and its intestines to stop moving. Once a rabbit’s intestines have stopped moving they can prove very difficult to get going again. Sadly, many rabbits die of this condition (known as gastrointestinal stasis)

Rabbits also appear to have difficulty in metabolising fat often suffering from a condition known as fatty liver disease, this is far more common in rabbits fed a diet rich in seeds.

As you may have guessed, I’m not a fan of processed rabbit treats and believe there’s nothing better than a piece of fruit or veg. Fruit should be rationed due to its high level of fructose (a type of sugar) but many types of veg can be given as a healthy treat. The occasional raisin will be welcomed and be extremely useful in training as a reward. I had a fantastic house rabbit that would almost do back flips for a raisin!

It is important to note that kale and spinach should be fed a maximum of once or twice a week as they contain high levels of oxalates, which can accumulate in your rabbit’s system.

Rabbits assimilate calcium in a different fashion to people. We tend to only absorb the calcium we need from our diet, whereas a rabbit will absorb most of the calcium it consumes and then excrete the excess in its urine. A diet too high in calcium can cause kidney and bladder stones. Cabbage, kale, broccoli, watercress, chard and endive are all high in calcium and therefore should be fed in moderation.

Grass may also be given or your rabbit and they will enjoy some time in a secure run so that they may graze. Be sure that any grass you provide is free from contamination, whether with chemicals or the urine or droppings of other animals. If grass is picked and given to your pet it must not be left to wilt as fermentation can quickly set in, partially fermented grass is very bad for your pet; for this reason, never give lawn mower cuttings.