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Chewing behaviour in rabbits

The fact that rabbits chew is obvious. On walks in the country you can see the evidence of rabbits having chewed the bark of young saplings, or the crop in the field. At home your pet rabbit may have nibbled his hutch, or worse your furniture, books or electric wiring. What is less obvious is why rabbits chew and what you can do about it.

Your questions answered

Why do rabbits chew?

Rabbits chew for a variety of reasons: to eat, to remove roots that are in the way of their tunnelling activities and out of curiosity - perhaps to find out whether a novel item is edible! All rabbits, wild or domestic, need to chew. Rabbit teeth grow continually throughout their lives and as a consequence they need to be worn down. In the wild this is done primarily by the rabbit feeding on grasses which it slices with its incisors and grinds with its molars. Wild rabbits spend some 60% of the time they are awake eating, that is chewing.

Whether you keep your rabbit outside, in a hutch or hutch and run, or inside as a house rabbit it is important that it is provided with a constant supply of suitable objects that it can chew. If not, it is highly likely to end up with mis-aligned teeth and you will end up with many trips to the vet to have their teeth clipped.

What should I feed my rabbit?

Provision of an unlimited source of grass hay (preferably organic) and a daily supply of fresh vegetables is the easiest and most natural way of satisfying your rabbit's need to chew. Vegetables can include radish tops, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, dandelions, clover, spinach, parsley, pea plant stems and leaves, celery and slices of carrot. Also small twigs and branches of fruit trees that have not been sprayed with insecticides will help keep your rabbit's teeth healthy and your rabbit appropriately occupied and out of mischief.

Of course all of this can be made more entertaining, for both you and the rabbit with a bit of creative thinking. For example, put the hay and some dried or fresh herbs or a bit of apple or banana (not too much, as the sugars in such fruit can promote tooth decay) into a paper bag. Tie the bag shut with some sisal or raffia and then punch a few holes in it so the aroma of the herbs comes out. Now give it to your rabbit who will have great fun tearing the bag open for the goodies inside and the whole thing can be eaten! A similar idea is to put a nice scented treat into the cardboard tube of a toilet roll and close the ends, or stuff the tube of a kitchen roll with hay.

What should I provide for my rabbit to chew and play with?

Rabbits enjoy things to chew and play with and providing them with such mental stimulation will help keep them healthy and happy, and your belongings safer. Toys such as cardboard tubes and boxes, baby teething keys or balls with a bell or rattle inside are sure to be a hit.

As well as providing suitable objects for your rabbit to chew it is important that you ensure that access is denied to the unsuitable objects. This is especially true for the rabbit kept indoors where prized furniture, books, curtains and carpets can become ruined by a rabbit's attentions. Even the inside of chairs and sofas are not exempt from a bit of chewing and digging! Electric wiring can be even more hazardous as the rabbit may be literally shocked to death or set off a spark that can cause a fire. Electric wires should be chased into the wall or enclosed in plastic tubing. Move other objects out of rabbit reach. Prevent access to wood or walls covered with lead-based paint and do not allow your rabbit to chew linoleum to prevent lead toxicity. This will probably mean that your rabbit only has access to one or two rooms that you have bunny-proofed. It is a good rule that your rabbit should only have free access to the rooms when it is supervised, the rest of the time keep it safe in an indoor pen (an indoor dog kennel suits well) with a litter tray and plenty of things to chew.

While denying access to unsuitable objects is most important, it is also possible to reinforce the idea that some things are out of bounds with some training. Proprietary chew repellents designed to deter puppies can be effective. Teaching your rabbit 'NO' can also be helpful. As the rabbit approaches the object, say its name and 'No' firmly and immediately spray it with some water from an indoor plant watering spray. The rabbit will soon associate the word 'No' with the unpleasant, but harmless outcome of getting wet.

 

  • Dr Anne McBride BSc PhD FRSA, Animal Behaviour Clinic, New College, University of Southampton, The Avenue, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK.

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