What is it?
Rabbit groom themselves regularly to keep their coats clean and skin healthy. They ingest small amounts of hair which pass through the stomach and intestines undigested and can be seen in the faeces.
Overgrooming is sometimes called fur pulling, plucking or barbering. This often results in skin damage and the ingestion of large amounts of hair, which can form a hairball or trichobezoar.
What causes it?
Hairballs can occur in any rabbit, there are many possible causes:
As kindling (giving birth) approaches a female rabbit will pull fur from her dewlap, chest and flanks to line the nest. This is usually an obvious cause of overgrooming as the fur is placed straight into a nest. Nesting is normal and transient behaviour.
Rabbits may nest in false pregnancy. This may be elicited by a dominant female or neutered male mounting the doe causing ovulation but without triggering pregnancy. It can also happen spontaneously. Neutering your doe will prevent this.
Dirty or matted fur
In dirty conditions a rabbit may struggle to clean their coat properly and may become frustrated pulling fur out. Long haired breeds need help to manage their fur and should be groomed daily. Short haired rabbits may need grooming weekly. Fur loss is usually worse in the Spring when the winter coat is shed.
Rabbits are energetic, social creatures and are easily bored. Ideally, rabbits should live with a companion or group. Rabbits housed alone are much more likely to fur pull through the stress of isolation. Giving your rabbit lots of attention, time to play and explore and toys can help.
Overcrowded or unsuitable enclosures cause stress and fur pulling. Living in a permanently bright or noisy area can cause frustration and stress. If dogs. cats or foxes have access to the hutch, your rabbit may fur pull because of fear.
Rabbits will fur pull if their skin is irritated by flea, mite or tick infestation. Dermatitis and allergies can also cause barbering.
Rabbits who lack fibre in their diet will fur pull as fibre modulates normal gut movement. Feeding a diet made up of 80% hay or grass will prevent this. Pelleted food should make up 5% of their diet with fibrous vegetables completing it. This diet will provide the minerals and vitamins they need as well as fibre.
Why is it important?
Rabbits cannot vomit, so ingested hair mixes with undigested food and can cause an obstruction. The rabbit cannot eat, develops bloating and gut stasis – a life threatening condition. Rupture of the gastrointestinal tract can occur causing peritonitis which is usually fatal.
Barbering can also cause skin damage leading to infection. This skin infection can make the rabbit unwell.
How do you know what’s going on?
You may notice a patchy coat, sore inflamed skin or see the rabbit barbering. Their hutch or enclosure may be littered with fur.
If hairball is present, loss of appetite and weight loss may be the first sign of disease. They may become lethargic, disinterested, irritable or aggressive.
You may notice that they are not passing faeces, there are no pellets or caecotrophs in the cage. If pain is severe, they may sit in a hunched position and grind their teeth. The abdomen may appear swollen. This is a veterinary emergency.
What can be done for fur pulling?
If you notice that your rabbit is fur pulling or grooming excessively, visit your vet. The vet will ask you about your rabbit’s behaviour, diet and hutch and carry out a full examination to determine the cause of the fur pulling.
If your rabbit has made their skin sore or there is infection present, he or she will need topical or oral medication. Parasite infections can also be identified and treated, along with other skin diseases.
Your vet may confirm your doe is pregnant and assure you that her fur pulling will stop after kindling. In cases of false pregnancy neutering the rabbit will prevent recurrence and associated barbering.
If your rabbit is having difficulty grooming then the vet will check for dental disease and arthritis. Both conditions can be treated.
Your vet may make recommendations about your enclosure to reduce stress. Sometimes rabbits can fight. Bonding advice or a break for the two warring rabbits may help. A companion may be recommended if your rabbit lives alone. Puzzles or toys can be added to the environment to prevent boredom and more exercise, digging and burrowing may be a useful distraction.
If a low fibre or deficient diet is suspected your vet may advise a dietary change.
What can be done for hairball obstruction?
If your rabbit is unwell, sitting hunched with a distended abdomen, no appetite and not passing faeces then a hairball could be causing obstruction. Take your rabbit to the vet as soon as possible.
If your vet can feel a hairball or identifies one on ultrasound or x-ray then treatment will be intensive. Your rabbit will be hospitalised and intravenous fluids may be used to rehydrate them.
Pain relief and medication to increase gut movement will also be administered. Most small hairballs will pass into the faeces and these patients usually go home with medication. Larger hairballs may not move with this treatment. The rabbit may need surgery if conservative treatment is not effective. This can carry increased risk as the rabbit is unwell and the stomach or intestine may be fragile because of the obstruction.
It is wise to take your rabbit to the vet if you suspect this condition. Home remedies may be suggested but none are proven to be effective and may delay essential treatment.
What can I do to protect my pet?
- Observe your rabbit for signs of overgrooming behaviour, exposed skin or a patchy coat. Note the amount of hair in the hutch and passed in the faeces. There will always be a small amount of hair in both but an increase suggests a problem.
- Groom your rabbit regularly, particularly when he or she is moulting.
- Clean the hutch and/or enclosure often. Ensure that it is in a peaceful area, safe from predators.
- Provide companionship, toys, exercise, an appropriate diet and fresh water daily.
Fur pulling may be a symptom of illness or boredom and stress. Identifying and treating the cause will effectively prevent skin damage and hairball disease.