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!