When you have pet rabbits, you will notice that they occasionally shed their fur, also known as moulting. But, did you know that the quantity of fur your rabbits lose and their grooming behaviours can also provide an insight into their overall wellbeing?
In the wild, rabbits moult in the spring and autumn. Domestic rabbits tend to live more sheltered lives and may establish their own moulting patterns or shed continuously throughout the year.
Why do rabbits moult?
Rabbits moult to adjust to changes in temperature. As the weather warms up in spring, they need to shed their thick winter fur in favour of a lighter coat. When the temperature drops in winter, rabbits will need thicker fur.
It is worth noting, however, that rabbit moulting may also be a sign of health issues such as arthritis, fleas, fly strike, lice, mites, skin infections, tumours and hormonal changes during pregnancy. Moulting can also be the result of stress - such as the loss of a companion or a house move - or of one rabbit pulling on another’s fur to show dominance.
How do rabbits lose their fur?
Shedding usually starts from the head, spreading down the neck and back, towards the rump, and can often be quite heavy. You might notice the skin is a little darker where the new fur is growing through.
Why do rabbits groom themselves and their partners?
Rabbits love to be clean and watching them groom is fascinating. They will usually spend a large chunk of their day grooming themselves and when they live in groups, they will groom each other as a sign of affection. Grooming patterns can also reveal which rabbit is dominant in a group – the one that receives the most grooming from other rabbits is the boss!
Keeping rabbits well groomed
Rabbits are expert self-groomers but they still need a little help from you to keep their coats in good condition, especially when they are moulting, so it pays to learn how to groom rabbits. Long-haired breeds may require brushing more than once a day to prevent them from ingesting too much hair which can cause dangerous digestive blockages.
How to groom a rabbit
Ask your vet or veterinary nurse about your rabbits’ specific needs, and what brush and comb would suit them best. There are a variety of different rabbit grooming brushes and combs that you can add to your rabbit grooming kit, such as wide-toothed combs and flea combs designed for cats. Make sure combs have blunt ends to avoid scratching the skin.
To ensure that grooming sessions don’t cause stress to your pets, aim to keep them short. Sit on the ground with one bunny at a time or use a rabbit grooming table and gently brush down to the skin, parting the hair to ensure you remove all the loose undercoat and prevent tangles within the fur. Rabbits have very delicate, sensitive skin, so never attempt to cut out tangles yourself – visit your vet, who can easily deal with the problem in the surgery.
Moulting problems in rabbits
Occasionally, rabbits can get ‘stuck in the moult’. Changes in temperature, day length and daylight can all affect your rabbits’ moulting patterns. So, too, can your rabbits’ ability to groom themselves. Older bunnies may struggle to reach all parts of their body, so watch to see if they need a little more help.
If you notice that the hair on your rabbits’ flanks, belly and just above the tail isn’t falling away easily, it’s important to help remove dead hair with daily brushing. Offering your rabbits plenty of fibre to eat, such as fresh grass in summer and hay in winter, may help prevent the condition.
Underlying health problems in rabbits
If your rabbits show little, or no, sign of grooming themselves, it could indicate an underlying health problem such as:
- dental pain
- a sore mouth
- poor balance
- other illness
At the other end of the scale, if your rabbits are excessively grooming and shedding, they may have mites, which irritate the skin, causing scaling and dandruff. Always consult your vet if you notice any significant changes in your rabbits’ grooming or moulting habits.
Ingesting too much hair as they groom can cause rabbits real problems. An uncomfortable furball may build up in the stomach, slowing the digestive system and causing gastro-intestinal (GI) stasis. Rabbits suffering from GI stasis often show symptoms of colic, including a loss of appetite and reluctance to move, or they may press their belly on the floor. They may also produce smaller, drier, hair-filled droppings.
The best way to prevent gut problems is to give your rabbits constant access to hay or grass and plenty of fresh water to drink. Helping them groom will also prevent them ingesting large amounts of fur – and it means you get to spend quality time bonding with your fluffy friends, too.