Dr. Baum’s articles on pet care: And you thought cats were weird! Take a look at these surprising bunny facts, and how rabbits share some intricate physiology with cats
I have always been amazed at the odd things that arise in the course of my association with rabbits during the thirty-three years that I have practiced veterinary medicine. Growing up in the West Bronx had never afforded me the opportunity to become familiar with these animals, and the thought of someone actually keeping them as pets had never even dawned on me.
What put rabbits on my veterinary radar screen was the information about their reproductive physiology. They were induced ovulators, a trait unique to only cats and rabbits. All other species of animals ovulate at a set time during their cycle; the induced ovulators release their eggs only during mating, thus assuring a very high rate of fertilization and reproduction. The facts that the does possess two cervixes and that immediately after mating, the buck stiffens and falls over on his side and remains in a catatonic trance for fifteen seconds, only served to enhance the mystique!
And that was pretty much the extent of my rabbit knowledge after graduating from veterinary school. The New York State veterinary licensing exam is a three-day written and practical test that I took upon graduation. Luckily, it didn’t expose my dearth of knowledge — there wasn’t a mention of a rabbit on the entire exam. However, the situation wasn’t quite the same a few months later when I took the California licensing exam. You can only imagine how surprised I was when I stumbled into twenty-five questions about — you guessed it — the reproductive physiology of rabbits! I answered all the questions by extrapolating my knowledge of cats, and I must have guessed well because my license was in my mailbox by the time I returned to the East Coast.
A discussion about the California exam wouldn’t be complete without mentioning yet an additional irony. There were four or five questions regarding false pregnancy in rabbits — questions that I answered by substituting the word cat for rabbit, but it was the final question that caused me to break with the pattern of cat-inspired answers. The true or false question simply asked whether false pregnancies were common in rabbits. I had never heard of or seen the condition in cats, but couldn’t understand why the exam would waste several questions on an irrelevant condition. So I broke with tradition and correctly, fortunately, answered “True.” The funny thing is that I have yet to see this condition in practice, and have been waiting expectantly for over thirty years.
Shortly after moving to California, I found myself living in Laguna Beach and practicing in Laguna Hills. I was befriended by Dr. Kopit, who was at that time, serving as president of the Southern California Veterinary Association. A significant portion of his practice was made up of exotic pets and he knew all the tricks that an experienced practitioner acquires through the years. On this particular afternoon he called me into the treatment area as he was about to trim the nails and clip the teeth on a very apprehensive rabbit. “Ever see a rabbit hypnotized?” he asked. I thought that he was kidding, but he proceeded to gently turn the rabbit on its back and slowly and rhythmically slide him back and forth on the tabletop. Amazingly, within fifteen seconds the rabbit relaxed and lapsed into a trance-like state. It was incredible to watch as the procedures were done without the rabbit reacting in any way. At first I thought that it was some type of trick and insisted on seeing whether I could duplicate the technique. It worked flawlessly and I realized what a valuable tool this would be. Restraint of rabbits can be a very precarious. Overzealous restraint can easily result in fractures of the back when a struggling rabbit kicks violently with its powerful hind legs, essentially causing the back to snap like a twig. I like the peaceful nature of the hypnotic restraint so much that very often I demonstrate it for clients just for the entertainment value!
Rabbits visit me at the hospital for a variety of reasons. Some come to be spayed or neutered. This is especially helpful in households that have more than one rabbit and there is the need for population control or to prevent fighting between same sex rivals. Others come for maintenance procedures such as nail trims and teeth cutting.
Because most pet rabbits spend lots of time in hutches with wire mesh flooring, they don’t get a chance to wear down their nails naturally, which often results in bizarre overgrowths. Teeth continue to grow throughout the life of the rabbit. If there weren’t a mechanism in place to prevent the unlimited elongation of the teeth it would ultimately be impossible to close the mouth and ingest food. One of the ways that the tooth surfaces are worn down is through chewing on hard fibrous food. The other is by having the opposing teeth in the mouth wear each other down during the chewing and grinding that accompanies eating. Rabbits whose teeth do not line up properly can expect a lifetime of visits to mechanically grind or cut the overgrown teeth. The front teeth, the incisors, are easily accessible and are cut with a nail trimmer. The molar teeth are hard to access and have to be done under a general anesthetic. Rabbits — an orthodontist’s delight or nightmare?
Illness also causes visits to the hospital. Snuffles is the cute name given to a not so cute, chronic bacterial respiratory condition. Ear mites are also common in rabbits. The parasites burrow under the surface of the ear canal causing the canal to secrete layers of earwax in an attempt to protect itself from the hungry invaders. When treating the condition, the ear is first cleaned of the wax formation, which can approach the size of a small pine cone! It is ironic that in seeking to protect itself, the ear secretes the wax that is used by the mites as their food. No wonder these parasites have survived over the ages — evolution in action.
More rabbits suffer from heat stroke than any other animal I see. Leaving them in unsheltered environments on hot summer days is a sure recipe for disaster. The grossest thing that that causes rabbits to wind up as patients is severe infestations with maggots. These infestations usually occur from under the tail to the groin and are usually the result of diarrheal feces that have adhered to the fur in those areas. Flies are drawn to the area, lay their eggs and presto, the hungry larvae emerge ready to eat anything in sight. Interestingly, the most common cause of diarrhea is the formation of hairballs in the intestine. The most effective way to prevent their formation is by feeding fresh pineapple two to three times per week. The acid in the pineapple acts as a Draino for Rabbits when used regularly!
During times of famine, rabbits become practitioners of an ancient survival technique, known as coprophagy. It is a trait that they share with elephants! Coprophagy is the act of eating your own feces in order to extract any remaining nutrients that escaped the first time around. Occasionally I get calls from distraught rabbit owners who report seeing this behavior. The solution that I suggest is simple — increase their food ration and this primal instinct will become dormant.
Yet, of all the amazing things that I have learned about rabbits, my biggest surprise had to do with my head groomer. When I bought the animal hospital twenty-five years ago, the former owner said to me that John was the best thing that I would inherit in the deal. Never were truer words spoken, for John is a true animal whisperer. He has never, ever needed any animal to be tranquilized. Even the meanest, nastiest cats and the biggest, most aggressive dogs melt in his presence. It is simply uncanny! So you can only imagine my shock, about ten years into our association, when I requested that a bath and grooming be done on a matted rabbit. John came to me and sheepishly said, “Doctor B, I can’t bathe that rabbit for you. I’m afraid of them, they remind me of big rats.”
So much for Peter Cottontail!
NOTE: For another fun look at the similarities between bunnies and cats, please read Dr. Baum’s article, “The Cat and the Diddle.” Pun intended, as you’ll see.