Our beloved rabbits can sometimes feel like quite a mystery. Their behavioral patterns, nutritional needs, and care concerns can baffle even the most experienced of pet parents. Join small animal expert and veterinarian, Dr. Micah Kohles, as he tackles some of the most fascinating bunny-based questions received during Ask a Vet Live.
In this article, we’re going to cover:
How to handle selective eating when it comes to hay varieties
How to trim your bunny’s nails when they hate to be held
How to bond a male and female pair
How to travel in the car with your rabbit
How safe candles, wax melts, and other artificial scents are for rabbits
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Q: My nine-month-old bunny only likes alfalfa. I know it's not the best now that he's older, but I have tried all things and all other hays. Today he finally ate a couple pieces of orchard hay, but he's not getting that hay in his diet. Is it okay to continue with alfalfa or an alfalfa orchard mix and hope he just doesn't pick it out? – Angie Milner
A: We know that it's sometimes difficult to make nutritional transitions when dealing with rabbits, especially from a forage like alfalfa that tastes good and is very aromatic. Some rabbits will make this transition without much fuss, while others will say, “Mom, what are you doing to me by taking away my delicious alfalfa!?”
What we also know is that there are important nutritional differences between alfalfa and grass hays. Like grass hay, alfalfa contains a good amount of fiber. With that fiber, however, alfalfa brings added protein and calcium. In a young, growing rabbit, those extra nutrients are important and welcomed. They build those long bones and musculature. But, in an adult animal (which your munchkin is becoming), alfalfa offers more of those nutrients than we really need. And, unfortunately, this can actually lead to problems.
The key to success is being consistent in the transition from alfalfa to grass hay. Is eating some alfalfa for a couple of months or six months as you work towards it the end of the world? Absolutely not. But, it still needs to be the goal that we're actively working to shift the “daily forage focus” from alfalfa to grass hays. Once we’ve accomplished this, we don’t need to divorce ourselves and our bunnies from alfalfa completely; it can still be used as a treat.
One helpful tip that my clients have found over the years is to cut grass hay up into smaller pieces and mix it up with the alfalfa throughout the transition. Alfalfa strands are typically shorter, so this makes it more difficult for bunny to easily distinguish (and thereby discriminate) between the two forages.
You mentioned the Orchard/Alfalfa mix, which is a great option. A similar and super convenient option is Oxbow’s Timothy Meadow Hay which contains a natural mix of Timothy, Orchard, and Alfalfa. As you slowly increase the grass hay, slowly decrease the alfalfa content. Over time, they'll be less likely to notice as the alfalfa content goes down.
Another tip you might try is to puree a little bit of your bunny’s favorite green or veggie into a mash that you can mix in with their hay. This can help diminish their sensitivity to the textural differences between alfalfa and grass hay.
As a final word, if no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, the munchkin is that stubborn... alfalfa certainly still does provide some beneficial fiber each day and this is essential to the health of your bunny. But, don't give up! If you keep working at it, I suspect you're going to find a grass hay or some type of a mixture of grass hays that's going to work for you.
Q: We have a five-month-old Holland Lop who does not like to be picked up, which makes cutting her nails pretty impossible. We can't get her to do bunny burrito because she doesn't like to sit still and she's so quick. How else can we cut her nails? Or should we let the vet handle it? – Liam
A: At five months, it’s important for us to remember that your Lop is the equivalent of a crabby, stubborn, opinionated teenager. And, if she doesn't want to do it, she's probably going to battle with you tooth and nail to prevent you from doing it.
With that important detail established, I would first suggest that we step back and lay out a process for success. We can't go from here to bunny burrito overnight if she doesn't like it. We want to slowly work to desensitize your bunny’s sensitivity to her feet, especially in any type of confinement. Remember also that rabbits are prey species. In bunny’s mind, she is thinking, "I don't want to be wrapped up. I don't want to be pigeonholed in this corner because being in that position is a threat to me." So, understanding that natural behavior and slowly working through positively desensitizing her and getting her used to that is probably your best route.
In the meantime, we can focus on beneficial mechanical wear. The more active you can keep her running around on the floor, running around on harder substrates like concrete floors or tile floors, the more wear we’ll naturally accomplish on those toenails.
As for desensitizing bunny to the elements of the process over time, make a habit of playing with the toes. Get her used to the towel first and lying on the towel. Work slowly through the process.
Now, if the nails aren't truly overgrown (which can happen even at a young age for some animals) I would recommend working with your veterinarian to get them trimmed and under control in a safe manner. Rabbits have a delicate skeleton and a strong natural response to run away. With this dangerous combination of factors, I've unfortunately seen traumatic issues (such as fractures of different bones) when rabbits attempt to escape.
We want to trim the nails, but we certainly don't want to risk serious injury in the process. So, keep working at it. Desensitize her slowly. Get her used to different steps and I suspect that eventually, you'll get there.
Q: We have a female who's fixed and a male who's fixed. They currently live in separate areas near each other, not touching, but visible. The female has been spraying over her litter box in the corner towards the male. How can I make the bond more smoothly for both of them? What can I do for her? - Corinne Waelbroeck
A: First, I’d like to compliment you on taking the right steps for success. Next, I would ask how long the process has been occurring. We want your male and female to hear and smell each other first. Then, we want them to see each other and actually be able to interact in a protected environment. A lot of times I'll take literally three, four, five weeks just what I call the "Howdy do" process. We want to get them used to each other.
Just because your female is spraying urine doesn't necessarily mean that she's mad or upset or that she's going to go in there and try to kick his butt. This could just be her social cue and interaction. And, if you haven't gradually put them together, I would think about doing that if they're not exhibiting other negative behaviors toward themselves.
I have found a lot of success in taking them into an environment that is new to both of them. For example, if they're in one room in the house, maybe we can take them into the washing room or the mudroom or the kitchen... a new, small environment in a small environment they can explore together. Sometimes this provides positive distractions as they encounter a variety of new stimuli. “You’re new, but so is this room! Oh my gosh, what is that over there?!” This can diminish the likelihood of a negative interaction.
As I mentioned, the urine spraying could just be another method of her communicating and going through that bonding process. If they've seen each other without overtly negative interactions, I would strongly consider moving to that physical component and seeing how they work with each other. Just remember to keep the interactions supervised, short, and direct.
I applaud your efforts to get them to bond. The sooner we can get them to bond (which they'll eventually figure out), the happier and healthier they're both going to be.
Q: I have to take a 10-hour car ride with my rabbit roommate for Thanksgiving. But I'm worried she won't eat her poop because she's so scared. She hates the car and freezes up when she's in her carrier. How can I make sure she doesn't go into stasis?" – Alison Renee Mansfield
A: As we look at introducing our pets to new experiences (such as travel), it’s definitely important to be proactive and plan ahead. The sooner you can get your rabbit acclimated to longer periods of time in the car, the better. If you never got much of a car ride and then suddenly you went 11 hours, that's challenging for anyone. So, we want to do everything we can to begin to desensitize her to that car ride.
Start taking your rabbit on car rides now. As much as she may dislike it, the experience of traveling in the car really can’t be replicated; she will need to grow acclimated and desensitized to it (in a safe manner, of course.) The more frequently we can expose her to this experience, the sooner she will begin to learn that it’s not the end of the world and that she gets to come home eventually.
With that said, we need to work diligently to diminish the outside stresses of that car ride. Start by minimizing her exposure to light, sound, and any other extraneous factors she may perceive as a threat. Once we’ve accomplished this, we can then focus on the things that provide comfort to your bunny. For many rabbits, being surrounded by their favorite hay is a great first step. This will provide physical comfort as well as her favorite essential comfort food. Next, make sure to include her favorite chews, toys, and accessories.
It may not be feasible, but I always recommend placing the entire habitat in your vehicle if space allows. If not, be sure you’re transporting her in a safe carrier that affords as much space as possible but be sure to keep that space cozy with her favorite creature comforts.
To reiterate, the single most important step for success in your situation is to take as many short car rides as possible in the days and weeks leading up to your longer travel. When the day comes, some rabbits benefit from breaks during the drive, while others prefer not to be disturbed any more than possible.
Before you travel, plan ahead with a checklist for everything your bunny will need during the trip, including food, water, hay, accessories, etc. If you’re concerned about GI Stasis, I suggest you take a packet of Critical Care and a syringe along as well. In the unlikely event that she truly does shut down and stop eating, this will ensure you've got what you need to keep fiber and hydration going into her system.
Q: What is safe to use around my house for scents as in candles or wax smells for my bunny, Luna (free roaming)? Are just soy scents the best? I've been trying to figure this out for awhile. I know my bunnies have way more sensitive scent receptors. So what can I do to make sure it's safe? – Megan
A: I'm not aware of any research that's specifically looked at the different ingredients that go into these candles and potential risks to the animal. If we take a general look at different popular aromatics (e.g. essential oils, scented wax melts, etc) I would not not personally recommend using any of the above in an environment where your rabbit will be exposed. The reason for this is that these items can be quite potent and, as we know, rabbits can be quite sensitive to aromas.
When it comes to common household candles, I don’t have significant concern (assuming they’re safely positioned in the ambient environment and not placed in or near the rabbit’s habitat or reach.) If you’re unsure about the ingredients of a specific candle, I would recommend contacting the company directly and asking them the pertinent questions.
Pet Parent Tip:
Do you want more tips and tricks to keep your free-roam rabbit safe? Learn more by checking out our blog.
Want to learn more about bunny care and nutrition? Watch the entire Rabbit Edition episode below!
Pet parents of small herbivores such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas spend a lot of time thinking about hay, and with good reason. This amazing, fiber-packed forage is the cornerstone of every small herbivore’s diet and should be available 24/7. Hay is essential to the daily health of your pet and offering it can be as easy as making sure a big pile of fresh hay is in your little loved one’s habitat at all times. However, the fun news is that feeding hay can be fun and enriching for both pet and pet parent. Here are five of our favorite ways to add fun to hay feeding time.
1. Mix It Up Each Day
The digestive system of rabbits, guinea pigs, and other small herbivores is designed to have food passing through it at all times. This action facilitates constant motion called peristalsis which is essential to digestive health and health overall. The ideal material to facilitate this constant motion is grass hay. That’s why it’s so essential that fresh hay is available at all times for your pet.
Some rabbits and guinea pigs will gladly gobble up any variety of hay you serve up at mealtime. Others…not so much. Just like their human counterparts, all pets are unique and some herbivores, in particular, can be quite picky. Unlike a child who may be finicky around their veggies at supper time, however, a pet who is picky when it comes to eating hay can have serious and more immediate consequences.
If your small herbivore stops eating hay, even for a short amount of time, it can result in a dangerous and life-threatening condition called gastrointestinal stasis. We’ve provided a comprehensive look at gastrointestinal stasis (including why it occurs, how to avoid it, and how it’s treated) in this article and encourage every pet parent to take the time to learn more.
Prevent Picky Eating (and GI Stasis in the Process)
One important step every pet parent can take to avoid having to deal with GI Stasis is to practice habits that prevent picky eating. If you’re pet parent to a picky eater (or two), there are some surefire tricks to help build a less picky palate:
Offer multiple varieties of hay each day. Regularly munching on multiple flavors and textures will help expand your pet’s palate which prevents picky eating in the future. If your bunny or piggie is accustomed to eating Western Timothy every day, try mixing in a little Orchard Grass for a soft, sweet touch. For some additional inspiration, check out our fun hay recipes. Better yet, make your own!
Use a plastic tote to make mixing a breeze. A regular old plastic storage tub makes a great hay storage container for hay and will keep your house or apartment clean when mixing hay varieties together. Use a cordless drill to add a few air holes in each side for ventilation. This will prevent hay from retaining too much moisture and becoming moldy.
No two bags of hay are exactly alike and some variation in texture, color, and taste is natural and common. With this in mind, it’s a great idea to always mix between bags, even if you’re feeding a single variety. Before finishing up a bag, mix in some hay from the new bag. This will help your pet handle the
2. When in Doubt, Accessorize
It’s fun to get creative when it comes to making sure your pet is consuming an adequate amount of hay. One super fun (and enriching) way to keep hay on the top of your pet’s mind and menu is by adding some enriching hay-based accessories to the habitat. There are several great hay-based options available to help you turn your herbivore’s habitat into a veritable hay palace. Some great options include:
Woven Hay Bungalows & Mats
Items like our Timothy Club Bungalows and Mats are a versatile, enriching option when it comes to adding more hay to your pet’s life. These all-natural, hand-woven accessories are made of 100% premium Timothy. Because they don’t contain any wire or string (or anything other than hay), they are completely safe if consumed. Best of all, these items provide your natural prey species pet a place to rest and relax throughout the day.
Timothy-Based Chews & Treats
Herbivores love the taste and texture of hay, so it’s no surprise that Timothy hay-based chews are some of their absolute favorites. With so many options available, it’s fun and easy to regularly offer a new and exciting hay-based option for your rabbit, guinea pig, or chinchilla. Some fan favorites include Timmy Pops, Timbells, Timothy Popsicle, and Timothy Lollipops.
Similarly, all of our baked treats are made with premium Oxbow Timothy hay. This helps health and happiness-minded pet parents ensure that even treat time includes an element of essential nutrition for their beloved bun or piggie.
3. Create an Enriching Foraging Experience
By definition, foraging means “to search widely for food.” When foraging in their native habitat, prey species such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas are accustomed to searching far and wide for adequate nutrition. In the process, they are wired to obtain the largest amount of energy in the least amount of time. In the wild, this opportunity would be likely to change daily, with many factors including weather, season, presence of predators, etc.
While you may not have even realized it, your small herbivores retain their foraging instincts even as domesticated pets. With that said, not all foraging opportunities are created equal. Rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas are expert foragers and enjoy searching for tasty morsels in hard to find places. Hay makes the perfect “hiding spot” for rewards such as appropriate types of fresh fruit, healthy, appropriate veggies, or healthy treats. Simply hide one or two pieces of your pet’s favorite snack deep inside a pile of hay, sit back, and enjoy watching those instincts at work.
4. Just Add (Even More) Enrichment
To create an even more tactile and entertaining experience, you can offer hay (and your foraging treasure of choice) using one of multiple enriching feeder options. The following enriching accessories are designed to nurture your pet’s instincts to explore and play.
Hide & Chew Roll
Pets love this simple, interactive chew and it’s even more entertaining and enriching when stuffed with your pet’s favorite hay and treats. The Hide & Chew Roll is made of pet-safe corrugate, offering an attractive and ideal chewing texture for small herbivores. Your pet will have hours of fun rolling this item around their environment and you’ll have just as much watching and even joining in the fun with them.
Do you love seeing your pet’s mind at work? This forage pot is a must-have for any small herbivore habitat. The high-quality clay pot easily attaches to habitat walls and can be filled with small pieces of hay, pellets, or treats for a mentally engaging addition to every habitat. Simply fill the pot, place on the lid, and watch your pet forage away!
Apple Stick Hay Feeder
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – the more hay, the better! In addition to free-standing piles in various locations throughout the habitat, it’s always great to offer your pet’s favorite hay in various unique locations. Our all-natural Apple Stick Hay Feeder is an enriching favorite when it comes to feeding hay. In addition to providing a vertical hanging option, your chewer will delight in chewing on the natural apple stick!
Another natural hay feeder your pet is sure to love! Our hay forager attaches easily to the habitat and is made with natural burlap and untreated wood for your little loved one’s safety and enjoyment. Just load the front opening with your pet’s favorite hay (or, better yet, a mix!) and attach it to your location of choice.
Timothy Club Hay Barrel
This accessory is a fun hay feeding option with the added benefit of being made of 100% hand-woven Timothy hay. Simply stuff the Hay Barrel with long strands of grass hay and enjoy watching your pet forage and play throughout the day. For extra enrichment, hide a few treat pieces in the center of the hay bundle.
5. Keep The #1 Forage in the #2 Location
Eating in the bathroom may sound like a slightly strange (okay, very strange) concept to us as pet caretakers, but many small herbivores fancy munching on their favorite grass while doing their business. And, while this may not technically qualify as a “fun” way to offer hay on most lists, providing a steady supply of fresh hay in the litterbox is a tried and true way to make sure your small pet is consuming adequate amounts of hay each day.
Grass hay is the simple, high fiber foundation to your pet’s daily nutrition. The most important rule every herbivore pet parent should follow is to offer unlimited amounts of high-quality hay each day, in as many locations as possible. With this basic need met, it’s easy to realize to offering hay can a fun and enriching activity for pets and pet parents alike.