Preventive Rabbit Care: Developing Safety Awareness

One night last fall, I put our four rescued bunnies to bed as usual, carefully locking all cage and pen latches. I re-entered the room once more at midnight for a final bed-check to detect, from the lighted hallway, a faint lagomorphian silhouette circling a cage to investigate what the occupant was up to. I thought, “Am I seeing things?” “Who is that?”

It was our foster bun, the black- and white-spotted Nanette (formerly “Princess,” who later turned out to be a boy). The bolting latches of his Gold Zinc Exercise Pen in place, he had apparently climbed over the top of the 36” enclosure only to fall in pitch-darkness onto a hard wood floor, where he could have broken a leg or bit an electrical wire hours before I found him. I learned I needed to clothes-pin a cover over the top of even very tall pens.

Learning safety rules

Feature-Safety HoneyBun
No real danger awaits HoneyBun, though she may worry over the hazard of posing for a portrait. Photograph by Continental Photo, Forest Hills, NY

Our first rabbit HoneyBun is a golden honey-of-a-bunny with a white-tipped nose and ears at attention. We rescued her after she was dumped in front of a pet store on a snowy night in New York City. So depressed she wouldn’t care for her babies, she was to be “sent back to the warehouse” if no one wanted her. I said, “Give me that rabbit.” We knew nothing about rabbits.

Soon after, taking our girl to meet her grandmother (the human one), we put HoneyBun in a three-foot tall box, from which she immediately jumped out before our eyes and fell over the top onto a ceramic tile floor. With her paw bleeding and me crying, we had to find an emergency clinic in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar town. Later, it took four family members to get her to take her medicine so that the broken toenail didn’t get infected. To accompany the process, her father Len even wrote a song for her to the tune of Tom Jones’ “She’s A Lady”: “She’s got style, she’s got grace. Antibiotics on her face. Oh, she’s our rabbit!”

I learned that human perception and reaction time are not quick enough to intervene. We have to think ahead to avoid disasters like what might have happened if HoneyBun had landed in a different position.

Feature-Safety Muffin
Muffin stays on high alert. She may sense some dangers lurking in an unfamiliar environment. Photograph by Continental Photo, Forest Hills, NY

Muffin is a dwarf agouti sweetheart. Once, I left the opening top panel of her supersized Marchioro cage unlocked, since I was not done cleaning it. Suddenly, I heard a scrambling commotion and found that she had leaped up and caught her neck between the bars of the two panels that adjoin for locking. In horror, I saw her struggling as she hung there by her neck and surely would have died had I not been in hearing distance. It would have been an “accident” that, no matter how well-intentioned, I allowed to happen in circumstances I created. In an instant, I freed her. Ever since, I have been as compulsive as TV-Detective Monk, checking repeatedly that everyone is in the right place and locked in safely.

Multi-tasking menace

It is when we are hyper-busy, preoccupied, or moving hurriedly that we must be the most conscious of preventing injury. As a professor of educational psychology, I learned that our brains cannot actually multi-task. What we really do is switch our focus back and forth rapidly but inefficiently, so it is best that we direct our attention to only one thing at a time.

Even this morning as I began to mentally compose this article,  I stepped into an exercise pen only to have Lenny, Jr.—a black and white Little Dutch Boy—dart directly under my feet during his hay delivery. To ensure I put my foot down nowhere near him, I stepped into and flipped his water bowl. “Slow down. Don’t take shortcuts,” I tell myself; or the rabbit will pay the price. When in a bun’s territory, I try to consciously check that every footfall is safe.

I have been lucky to learn from my mistakes without serious consequence. Over time, I have developed a deepening awareness of defensive caretaking and handling. But I must still maintain an alert, proactive stance 24/7 to prevent another freakish incident that could end somebody’s life.

I worry about things less under my control, such as disease, stasis, parasites, arthritis, and aging. I am also meticulous about minor matters: HoneyBun consuming an extra calorie; The Muffinator growling beneath her breath as she stares Lenny down from atop her igloo; my bunsters enjoying every delight—all sizes of jingling balls, cardboard condos, the freshest of timothy-hay tunnels and huts, and a variety of occasional treats that includes peach, pear, and pineapple instead of overdoing the gold-standard banana.

However, after such near-misses, I realize that being ever-vigilant to prevent catastrophe in daily life is a lot more productive and necessary than worrying about the future or obsessing over details. In my profession of teacher education, we say educators need “overlapping skills” and “withitness” for classroom management. This means being able to do more than one job at a time and having “eyes in the back of one’s head” respectively. Of course this goes for parents too, and managers of rabbits’ lives need the same competencies.

Safety tips from experts

Dr. Jennifer Saver of Catnip & Carrots Veterinary Hospital of New Hyde Park, NY, consulted with me regarding the following safeguards. For environmental precautions, we need to supervise children with rabbits, keep doors and windows closed, and make sure buns don’t get caught up in things like reclining chairs, leashes, or our own clothing. We make sure nothing falls on them or is set down upon them, including ourselves.

We prevent ingestion of lethal substances, such as chemical cleaners, toxic plants, the polyester fill under the bed, and sheet rock in the basement. Like cats, rabbits make it their mission to pull in any plastic bag, pencil, or other hazardous item surrounding their habitats, so let’s clear their areas. Towels, the “safe” fabric, still have to be checked often for holes and thread loops that could tighten around a bunny’s neck as he pulls to get free.

For transport, we learn never to take a rabbit outside unless secured in a quality carrier, which should be buckled into a car’s back seat. In handling, we follow the steps of picking up a bun so she doesn’t “kick out” and harm her back, or have her delicate GI tract pressed upon. We keep a hand on her head when carrying her in our arms or in any container like a litter box, so she doesn’t leap. With rabbit care, we learn how to cut nails, comb to prevent stasis, and take a temperature properly. Thank you, Dr. Saver!

For free-roaming rabbits, I interviewed Damir and Rumiko, four-bun adopters and volunteers with Long Island Rabbit Rescue Group. Damir asserts that it is when living in open spaces that our little friends show more of their personalities; they come to play, doze, dine, and hay-up on their own terms as full household members. For bun-proofing, he urges that we cover vents and openings that lead behind furnaces and appliances, and keep appliances turned off with doors closed, along with toilet lids. IKEA sells covers for electrical wires.

Rumiko warns that some bunnies, like their lion-headed Izzy, will eat rug fiber if she doesn’t have enough access to natural fibers. Rabbits slip on slick surfaces like tile, wood, and marble, which are also bad for hocks. They will jump on couches and beds, so we need to be wary of access to higher dangers.

Keeping ourselves and others aware

Because we engage in almost automatic and constant co-mingling with our bunnies, we often forget that ominous possibilities lurk in our homes and in our own physical proximity to them even during caretaking. They are so small, their movements so unpredictable. House rabbits are still subject to plenty of ills: not as obvious as for those outdoors,  but sometimes just as threatening.

Our continual responsibility is to advocate for and inform others about rabbits. With so many treacherous misconceptions, we need to capitalize on every “teachable moment.” We might save a rabbit’s life with one utterance. I assess how many sentences a person will listen to and strategically gauge what knowledge is needed— whether on living indoors, vet visits, neutering, diet, exercise, contact with other animals, or general health, care, and handling. New York City’s Rabbit Rescue & Rehab offers buttons to wear that say, “Ask Me About My Rabbit!” Let’s create opportunities like this for problem-solving and adoption.

With the motivation to question, read, and engage within the community, we gain the knowledge to design and monitor safe house-rabbit environments. It’s like defensive driving. With an unflagging critical consciousness, we can prevent “accidents” and avert tragedies. Let’s do all that is within our power to give our rabbits long, healthy, happy lives.

By Nancy Montgomery, PhD

HRJ Vol. 5, No. 7, Winter/Spring 2011