Grooming is an important part of a domestic rabbit’s life, taking up between 10%-20% of its time (Gunn & Morton 1995, Hansen & Berthelsen 2000). Rabbits moult twice a hear in a continuous process that starts at the head and goes down the body.
Rabbits that cannot groom themselves because they are obese or because a small hutch makes it impossible for them to turn round or sit up (like the wild rabbit above) will develop mats in their fur. It’s important, if things have got this bad, to take the rabbit to a vet (Harcourt-Brown 2002).
Don’t try to do it yourself as rabbit skin tears easily. Washing a matted rabbit will not work, unless the mats have been cut off. Some rabbits die of shock in baths or dips (Harcourt-Brown 2002 citing Harvey, 1995).
When a rabbit kept in good conditions stops grooming itself, it may have teeth trouble. If a rabbit starts overgrooming itself or pulling out its fur, it may be suffering from boredom, stress or poor conditions (Hansen & Berthelsen, 2000). So a visit to the vet is almost always a good idea.
All rabbits should be groomed weekly – long haired ones more frequently. Ask an experienced rabbit owner or your veterinary nurse to show you how. There are also videos on YouTube to show you how to do it. An ordinary plastic human comb or soft brush is what many rabbit owners use. If your rabbit is shedding its winter coat, groom more often. Be very gentle and careful.
Rabbits dealing with a lot of fur may develop fur balls. As they cannot vomit these up (like cats do), the fur balls may bung up their intestines and even bring the gut to a complete halt. Gut stasis, also more likely with the wrong diet, is a veterinary emergency. So help them groom when they are shedding and make sure they have plenty of fibre to eat, which will help propel any hair along the gut.
Check for mats. If any mats form, you need to groom more often. Either tease mats out gently with your fingers or cut them out with blunt scissors while somebody holds the rabbit. If you pull out mats with a comb (which hurts), your rabbit will cease to tolerate grooming. Comb your rabbit’s tummy, armpits, and underneath its back legs. Pay special attention to its backside. If this is dirty you may be feeding too rich a diet. Read the article on Dirty Bottom. Rabbits with dirty bottoms risk death from fly strike in summer. Grooming your rabbit regularly means you will be able to spot any lumps, bumps or problems. Be very gentle since rabbit skin tears easily.
Long haired breeds need daily grooming for between 10 to 30 minutes every single day. If you don’t do this, they will develop knots in about 24 hours. Knots then turn to mats, these tighten, and sores can develop on the tender skin beneath. Be gentle and thorough. If the rabbit has already matted badly, a vet should be willing to take off the mats under anaesthetic. Some people clip long -haired varieties – check with the Rabbit Welfare Fund before you do this and make sure you have the right equipment and good advice on how to use it.
Check your bunny’s face, eyes, ears, paws, and nails every week. Look for bumps, lumps, dirt or parasites. Also check for sore hocks, clean ears and no patches of missing fur. If your rabbit has weeping eyes, a runny nose, a dribbling mouth or chin area, or permanently wet paws, take him to a vet. These may be symptoms of tooth problems. Check his bottom every day to make sure it is clean and dry. Wet or dirty bottoms put him in danger of fly strike – read the article on Dirty Bottom on how to change his diet. Nails will need trimming every few months – get your veterinary nurse to show you how to do this.
Hansen, L. T. & Berthelsen, H., (2000),’ The effect of environmental enrichment on the behaviour of caged rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 68,163–178
Harcourt-Brown, F., (2002) Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, Oxford, UK, Butterworth-Heinemann.
Gunn, D., & Morton, D. B., (1995) Inventory of the behaviour of New Zealand White rabbits in laboratory cages, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 45, 277-292