‘Cute’ bunny breeds such as the Lionhead rabbit, the Netherland Dwarf rabbit and the Mini Lop, are at risk from long-term health problems
If you’re thinking of adding some bunny chums to your family, what are you looking for in a perfect bunny buddy? Something small and fluffy with a cute face and floppy lop ears? If so, you’re not alone.
“One of the most common requests we get when people are looking for a rabbit, is for a ‘Mini Lop’,” reveals the Hertfordshire based Rabbit Residence Rescue, which rehabilitates and rehomes rabbits. “There’s no denying those cute button noses, floppy ears and big eyes are adorable, but do you know what exactly you are taking on?”
The charity is referring to the various health issues that those endearing bunny looks are sadly associated with.
‘Cuter’ faces – but at what cost?
Dunstable based veterinary clinic, Noah’s Ark, states: “Breeds such as the Netherland Dwarf, the lop-eared breeds (especially the Mini, Dwarf and French Lops), and the Lionhead have been bred to have shorter, ‘cuter’ faces, becoming more and more brachycephalic (having a broad, short skull) in recent years. They are ultimately cute and therefore appeal to people. Sadly, there are lots of potential health and welfare problems for brachycephalic rabbits.”
The Rabbit Residence Rescue adds: “The skull of a lop, especially in the smaller lops, is vastly shorter than a natural wild rabbit shape. This has resulted in these rabbits suffering similar problems to brachycephalic dogs like Pugs and British Bulldogs.”
Just as with dogs, being brachycephalic can affect a rabbit’s ability to breathe properly, particularly in hot weather.
Noah’s Ark explains: “Rabbits are obligate nasal breathers and only breathe through their mouth when they can’t effectively breathe through their nose. This is often seen during episodes of heatstroke or when the rabbit is extremely stressed. Rabbits with a shortened face have squashed noses and therefore have a reduced ability to cope with heat since they are unable to inhale sufficient oxygen to oxygenate the tissues through nasal breathing.”
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The health risks of lop ears
As well as the shorter, rounder faces, lop ears often add to the adorable factor – but these are also associated with health issues. The Rabbit Residence Rescue reveals: “The lopped ears in these rabbits is a genetic ‘oops’ that we have bred into them and, unfortunately, it’s not without complications. When we have a problem with an ear abscess developing, most of the time it’s a lop-eared rabbit. They can also easily scratch or tear their ears when cleaning.”
“Lop eared rabbits have a high level of middle ear infections,” agrees Noah’s Ark. “Ear-base abscesses, which are almost always observed in lop eared rabbits, often extend into the ear canal and inner ear structures. They often require extensive surgery to attempt to relieve the infection.”
The need for on-going veterinary treatment
In fact, research carried out by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), has confirmed that lop-eared rabbits are more prone to ear problems than their erect-eared counterparts. It’s not only their ears that are affected though – their associated skull shape causes dental issues, such as misaligned and overgrown incisors and molar overgrowth. This mean that lop-eared rabbits can require frequent veterinary attention for both ear-cleaning and dental treatment.
Dr Charlotte Burn, Senior Lecturer in Animal Welfare and Behaviour Science at the RVC, who led the study says: “People now need to weigh up whether those cute floppy ears are worth the risk of pain, deafness, and difficulty eating for the rabbit, not to mention the extra vet bills.”
The Rabbit Residence Rescue advises: “If you haven’t kept rabbits before, don’t instantly fall for the lop-eared ones. Uppy-eared rabbits with their more natural skull shape, such as Dutch rabbits, may be a more healthy option and run up less vet bills in their lifetime.”
Find out as much bunny information as you can
Taking on rabbits as pets is a big commitment and it’s essential to get advice from your nearest small animal vet specialist or your local rabbit rescue before you take the plunge. Bunny experts will be able to answer your questions about rabbit health, nutrition requirements, setting up a suitable bunny home, as well as advising you on what type or rabbits would suit you best.
Leading animal welfare charity rehoming centres such as: Blue Cross, RSPCA and Wood Green have all sorts of rabbits looking for loving homes. Reputable welfare organisations will health check their buns and many do ‘temperament testing’ to match the most suitable rabbits to your home and lifestyle. They’ll also offer plenty of helpful advice on caring for your new bunnies and provide you with post-adoption support.
Burgess in-house vet, Dr Suzanne Moyes, says: “We recognise that rabbits remain one of the UK’s most owned but least understood animals. Across the board, rabbit experts agree that the more owners understand rabbits as a species, the more likely they are to give their pet bunnies everything they need to lead happy, healthy and enriched lives.”
THE MOST COMMON HEALTH ISSUES IN DWARF AND LOP-EARED RABBITS
Pet insurer Pet Plan has put together information on the health issues most commonly seen in Netherland Dwarfs, Mini Lops and Lionhead rabbits.
- Netherland Dwarfs and Lionhead rabbits are prone to respiratory conditions because the roots of their upper teeth sit just below their sinuses. If the upper teeth and gums become inflamed, this can lead to sinus infections.
- Netherland Dwarfs and Lionhead rabbits are particularly prone to dental disorders because of their smaller heads and slightly longer jaw, which can create misalignment problems. Because of dental problems, these rabbits may lose their appetite and therefore not eat the fibre they need to keep their guts moving. Symptoms include lethargy, a hunched posture, reduced bowel movements and diarrhoea.
- The Mini Lop can suffer from ear infections such as otitis, where the ear canal becomes inflamed and itchy. These breeds typically have an extra fold in the outer ear, which creates a build-up of wax and can lead to bacterial or yeast infections. A CT scan may be required to check if the inner ear is affected. Treatment usually involves antibiotics but, in some cases, surgery may be necessary.
- Most animals only take in the calcium they need from their food and expel it through their guts, whereas rabbits absorb all the calcium they eat and expel it through their bladders. This can sometimes result in an excessive build-up of calcium, known as bladder sludge. Some rabbits, including Mini Lop, may develop bladder stones.
- In warm weather, rabbits may be prone to flystrike – where flies lay eggs in their fur, leading to a maggot infestation. Lionhead rabbits may be more at risk of flystrike, as eggs can easily stick to their long fur or any tangles.
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Whether your rabbits live indoors or outdoors, the fundamentals of great rabbit housing are the same. Essentially, a rabbit hutch is not enough. Your rabbits need more space with constant access to their exercise area.
CARE MORE Find lots of useful advice on caring for your rabbits from Burgess, the pet experts. Training, nutrition, grooming and general care, it’s all here >>
Rabbits are herbivores and need a plant-based diet with lots of fibre to keep their digestive system healthy. Along with their rabbit nuggets and a few healthy treats make sure your rabbits have unlimited access to good quality, dust extracted feeding hay and fresh grass to graze on. Check out our tasty nugget varieties specially created for junior and dwarf rabbits, indoor bunnies, golden oldies, adult rabbits – there’s even a light recipe for buns who are watching their weight.
LET’S GET SOCIAL Sign up to the Excel Bunny Base – a safe Facebook community for rabbit guardians that are looking for advice and friendly discussions from likeminded owners – and there are lots of cute bunny photos and videos! Also join us on Instagram.
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