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Small Mammal FAQs

Bunny Grooming
by Tanya Hulsey (Minnesota house rabbit society), originally published December 2003

What exactly does it take to groom a rabbit? This may seem like a silly question, but I find that most people miss at least one item in the following checklist when I talk with them. More importantly, perhaps, is that many people think of grooming as a dreaded chore and can't understand why their rabbit doesn't enjoy being groomed.

Rabbits are sensitive creatures. In general, they are very good at picking up on the moods of those around them and reflecting those moods. So, if you go into a grooming session thinking that it is going to be a challenge and not very fun, you are probably right. On the other hand, if you make the effort to think of grooming like a spa treatment, you may find that your rabbit reacts a bit better to the whole process.

Eyes

Your rabbit's eyes should be clear and bright. Most rabbits do a poor job of grooming their eyes. You will usually find a small deposit of fur at the corner of each eye. If the deposit can be easily removed, you can do so either with your fingers or a tissue. Sometimes, the deposit will have dried into the fur. In this case, gently moisten the area and then wipe the deposit away.  Check the skin under the eyes for any scalding or discoloration.

Toenails

Like their teeth, a rabbit's toenails grow continuously. Some rabbits need their nails trimmed every 2 weeks while others can go 2 months before needing a trim. Trimming rabbit toenails is technically very simple, but it does require the cooperation of the rabbit.

You can use whatever style nail trimmer you choose. Some very small rabbits can have their nails trimmed using a human toenail trimmer. Personally, I prefer the scissor-style trimmers to the guillotine style, since my hand is moving in the same direction as the blades and I seem to get a cleaner cut.

Gently hold the rabbits paw so that you can see at least one toenail. If your rabbit has light nails, it will be very easy to see the quick, a pink/red vein down the center of the nail. With darker nailed rabbits, you may need a second person to hold a flashlight behind the rabbit's nails so that you can see the shadow of the vein in the nail. Your goal is to clip beyond the end of that vein without clipping the vein itself. That said, most people nick their rabbit's quick at least once. The rabbit will undoubtedly treat you to a stellar guilt trip, but the reality is that it probably doesn't hurt much more than nicking your own quick. When you do hit the quick, you can use flour, cornstarch, or styptic powder to help clot the blood. If at all possible, do not put the rabbit down after you nick a nail. The rabbit then goes away with the memory that nail trimming equals pain. If you can trim even a couple more nails, the memory changes a bit and the rabbit will still remember the pain but also that it's once in-a-while occurrence.

When trimming nails, don't forget the dewclaws that are located on the inside of both front feet. With many rabbits who live or lived on wire cage floors or who have formerly not had their nails trimmed, we find that some nails are badly enough damaged that they no longer need to be trimmed as they no longer grow. These nails will usually, but not always, look more rounded on the ends that the other nails. This is because the damaged nail usually does not touch the floor or ground when the rabbit hops, and is not subject to the same wear and tear as the other nails.

If you aren't feeling very confident about trimming a rabbit's nails, start by simply going through the motions without the trimmer. Hold the rabbit so that you can access her feet and then hold each foot and toe in turn as if you were going to trim the toenail. This will help you gain confidence in your handling skills and it will help your rabbit to know that it isn't going to be bad everytime you pick her up and handle her feet. Then, once you are both feeling more confident, introduce the trimmers. You may need to start out doing one foot at a time, but there is nothing wrong with that.

Feet

While you are trimming your rabbit's nails, gently feel between her toes to make sure that there  are no mats, cuts, or scabs. In addition to checking between the toes, you will also need to check between the base of the toes and the sole of the foot.

You will also want to check the soles of the back feet for sore hocks. This condition is usually only seen in rabbits who live on wire cage floors, but can show up in rabbits with better housing, too. Using a finger, gently brush the fur on the bottom the foot from side to side checking for any red, irritated-looking skin. Some rabbits who have had fairly severe cases of sore hocks in the past will  have bare patches on the soles of their feet, but so long as the skin is intact and not red or inflamed, you don't need to do anything besides be sure that the rabbit has access to something soft to sit or lay on so that she can give her feet a rest. 

Scent Glands

The scent glands are perhaps the most overlooked part of your rabbit. Located on either side of the rabbit's genitalia, the scent glands produce a musky liquid. Unfortunately, this liquid tends to dry or clot while it is still in the glands. Using a moistened cotton swab, gently clean any accumulated gunk out of the opening. You will probably notice a strong, somewhat skunky odor when you do this. Don't worry; it will disappear fairly quickly.

Fur

Rabbits shed four times per year; two major sheds and two minor sheds. For some rabbits, each shed lasts about three months. In most cases, however, the majority of the shed happens in a two- or three-week period. Unlike cats, rabbits do not have the ability to regurgitate, so any hair that they swallow while grooming must go through their system. Since this can cause problems, the best option is to groom your rabbit regularly. By brushing her even when she is not shedding, you can turn brushing into a pleasurable experience for both of you instead of a chore.

You have many options available to you when it comes to choosing a brush. The only right answer is the one that works for you and your rabbit. Breeds with longer coats, like Woolies and Angoras, require special handling and are not dealt with in this article. For the average short-coated rabbit, simply choose a brush that fits your hand well and that will feel good to the rabbit. Because of the delicate nature of rabbit skin I generally try to stay away from the wire cat slickers, but the plastic-tipped ones are a good choice for some rabbits. Other options include Zoom Grooms, or other brands of rubber curry brushes, and flea combs.

The Zoom Grooms seem to work well for most rabbits and do a very good job of gently but thoroughly removing undercoat. For rabbits who seem to explode when they shed, you can gently pluck the loose fur. If you have to use any pressure at all to remove the fur you are probably pulling too hard.

In addition to brushing your rabbit to remove excess fur, you should pay attention to the condition of the fur and the skin, as both are good indicators of the general health of your rabbit. Any lumps or bumps should be closely monitored and brought to the attention of your veterinarian if they do not disappear within a few days. Flaky skin can indicate a need for a dietary change or can indicate mites. Even if your rabbit has not been exposed to other animals and has not been outdoors, it is still possible for her to have mites.

There is some debate in the rabbit community about the benefit of products like PetroMalt and Laxatone. These products are basically an oilbased product that is designed to make any fur in the digestive tract easier to pass. While neither is a cure for an actual blockage, they may help keep your rabbit healthy, but only if used in addition to regular grooming. In addition to these products, you may have heard of the benefit of pineapple or papaya. Again, neither product is going to reverse a blockage, but they may be helpful additions. The key here is that the useful part of the papaya or pineapple is an enzyme that is only at its most useful in the fresh product. Once the fruit has been processed the enzyme begins to break down and will not be effective at aiding the rabbit's digestion. The best aid is making sure your rabbit has lots of hay available during sheds. 

Nose

While the occasional sneeze is nothing to worry about, frequent sneezing or visible mucous is a cause for concern. Rabbits are subject to allergies, sinus infections, and several other illnesses that can manifest themselves through frequent sneezes or excess mucous. Check with your veterinarian if your rabbit exhibits these symptoms.

Teeth

A rabbit's teeth grow continuously. If her teeth are properly aligned, you will never need to worry about this since the simple act of eating and chewing on toys will wear away the old growth and keep the teeth at a good length. Some rabbits, however, have what is known as a malocclusion; either the incisors or the molars (or both) do not line up and the teeth do not wear down when the rabbit chews. In these cases, it may be necessary for a veterinarian to trim the rabbit's teeth or, in more extreme cases, to remove them. Usually, only the front teeth are badly enough maloccluded to require removal.

Have your veterinarian check your rabbit's molars at least once a year. You can check your rabbit's incisors or you can have your veterinarian check them. 

Putting It All Together

So, does all of this mean that you need to spend an hour every day checking teeth, ears, eyes and so on? Of course not! It simply means that you need to be aware that all of these parts need attention on a regular basis. You can work much of this into daily play and petting sessions. I often check noses and ears while I'm cuddling with them and their teeth and feet while I'm working with them on being handled. I'll check the length of their toenails when I check their feet or sometimes simply by listening to them as they hop past on the wood floor / if the rabbit clicks it's time for a trim.

As with most things, practice and repetition make these chores easier for both you and your rabbit. If you check your rabbit's feet even once a week, she will soon begin to feel more comfortable having her feet handled, and since you won't be trimming toenails every time you touch her feet she will learn that touching feet does not equal bad things like trimming toenails.

If you haven't spent much time grooming your rabbit in the past, take it slowly and add one new piece of the puzzle at a time. Soon, both you and your rabbit may find that grooming time is actually enjoyable!

(C)2005 Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society