Rabbits and Grooming
By Chandra Moira Beal
Rabbits are relatively low maintenance pets, but they do require occasional help from their humans to keep them in tip top shape. They are fastidiously clean creatures that groom themselves, just as cats do, by licking their fur. Grooming techniques can be done by your veterinarian, but many things are easily handled by the layperson. Get in the habit of giving your rabbit an overall exam once a month. Most things can be easily checked while you are petting them. Let's proceed head to toe:
Wax builds up inside the rabbit's ears on a regular basis. It can be cleaned out using a long, dry cotton swab. Be careful not to push wax further into the ear canal. You can also use ear drops such as Nolvasan Otic to soften the wax first. Squirt a few drops into the ear and massage around the outer ear base to spread it. Most rabbits hate having their ears cleaned because it tickles, so be sure to restrain them in a towel or by some other means first. Or enlist your vet to do the job!
Rabbits don't need any active maintenance for their eyes, but they do need to be monitored. Get familiar with what is normal for your rabbit, and watch for tearing, redness, or discharge. If you see any changes in the eyes, your rabbit needs to be diagnosed by a vet.
Rabbits have two sets of upper and lower incisors, one row behind the other. These are the visible "buck" teeth. They also have cheek teeth and molars for grinding their food. Their incisors grow continuously and must be worn down through everyday chewing activities. While you're petting your rabbit, gently pull back their lips to see their teeth. The incisors should be straight and aligned. If they are growing crooked, your rabbit may have malocclusion. If treated quickly, malocclusion is sometimes correctable. Unluckier rabbits must have their teeth trimmed on a regular basis so that their crooked teeth don't interfere with their ability to eat. Most people cringe at the thought of trimming a rabbit's teeth, but their nerve roots aren't as long as humans and, if done properly, they won't feel a thing. Your vet can trim teeth or show you how.
Fur and Coat
Rabbits shed their coats several times a year, alternating light and heavy sheds. Most have a distinct pattern that begins at the head and gradually moves toward the tail. Some rabbits will shed their fur down to the skin, leaving patches of skin exposed. This is normal! Because they cannot vomit as cats do, rabbits are especially vulnerable to hair balls during their moult. It is very important to brush your rabbit weekly in between sheds, and daily during a shed. Most rabbits like to be brushed, and it's a great way to bond. Some people "pluck" their rabbits by gently pulling loose hair out with the hands, or use a grooming glove with textured dots to grab the fur. You may want to give your rabbit a bit of Laxatone or fresh papaya or pineapple during their heavy sheds to help prevent hair balls. If you find that your rabbit's fur is matting, use a pair of short, blunt scissors to remove the mats.
Baths are not necessary for rabbits (don't let the "bunny bath" products fool you). In fact, bathing a rabbit is very stressful for them. Their fur takes a long time to dry, and soaking them in water can lower their normal temperature. You should avoid flea dips or baths at all costs. If the fur is dirty, it is better to spot clean it using a washcloth and warm water.
Feet and Nails
Rabbits' nails grow just as their teeth do. House rabbits that spend all of their time inside on carpet or tile need to have their nails trimmed about every other month. They have five nails on each of their forepaws, including a dew claw (like a thumb), and four nails on each of their hind paws. There is a "quick" or vein that can be seen when held up to the light or backlit by a flashlight. It is more difficult to see in rabbits with dark nails. Be careful not to clip the quick. Use "guillotine" type clippers that have a hole that slips over the nail and a blade that cuts it when the handles are squeezed (the same type used for cats or dogs). If you cut into the quick and it bleeds, use Kwik Stop or styptic powder to stop it, or press a cotton ball to the nail and apply pressure.
Rabbits should never be declawed because they don't have retractable nails as cats do. Removing their nails is actually removing the first joint of the toes and is totally unnecessary. Rabbits' feet look like they're well padded because of all their fur, but in reality they have no padding on their feet. This makes them susceptible to sore hocks if they sit on thin cage wire or have urine-soaked fur or broken skin. Keep litterboxes and rugs clean and dry, and always give your rabbit a soft place to put their feet up.
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