Some considerations in the selection of pellets Part 1: Rabbit pellet nutrition analysis

Posted in Husbandry How-to at 12:09 am by ACR&S

Someone wrote saying that they were using a brand of rabbit pellet called Science Selective and wondered why I don’t list that among my “good” brands. Turns out, an analysis of the ingredients reveals that it’s a pretty sketchy choice.

Items in italics are fillers with no nutritional value except to provide bulk and calories to the pellet. Bolded items have warnings associated with them (below the analysis).

Science Selective Ingredients:
alfalfa, soy bean shells, wheat, wheat grist, pea flour, full fat linseed, vitamins and minerals, soy, sugar beet pulp, soy oil, yeast extract, natural aroma, lysine, methionine.

protein 14.0 %
fat 4.0 %
fiber 19.0 %
ash 8.0 %
moisture 11.0 %
vitamin A 10000.0 IU/kg
vitamin E (tocopherol) 50.0 mg/kg
copper 10.0 mg/kg
vitamin D3 1000.0 mg/kg

Alfalfa, particularly the tasty leaf part, is higher than most hays in calcium and protein and can, when fed in conjunction with high-calcium feed, cause dangerously high levels of calcium in the system.”

“excess calcium and vitamin-D is risking damage to our rabbits’ kidneys.”

“Rabbits possess neither the need for animal protein nor the capacity to process it, and their fat requirement is also low;1-2% is plenty for most.”

[all quotes from rabbit.org]

Compare to Oxbow’s Bunny Basic T, which is available through the internet as I mentioned above:

Oxbow BBT Ingredients
Timothy Grass Meal, Soybean Hulls, Wheat Middlings, Soybean Meal, Cane Molasses, Salt, Limestone, Yeast Culture (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), Vitamins & Minerals

Guaranteed Analysis
Crude Protein (min) 14.00 %
Crude Fat (min) 1.50 %
Crude Fiber (min) 25.00 %

Crude Fiber (max) 29.00 %
Moisture (max) 10.00 %
Calcium(min) 0.35 %
Calcium (max) 0.85 %
Phosphorus (min) 0.25 %
Salt (min) 0.50 %
Salt (max) 1.00 %
Vitamin A, IU/kg 20,000
Vitamin D, IU/kg 880
Vitamin E, IU/kg 140
Copper, mg/kg 20

Note especially the discrepancy in Vitamin D. According to Wikipedia, 100,000 IU = 2.5 mg. So 1000 mg = a whopping 40,000,000 IU. The upper end of the RDA for adult humans lacking sun exposure is a mere 4,000 IU. Science Selective definitely has a dangerous amount of Vitamin D.

Oxbow pellets are timothy based, have a far lower calcium and fat content, and no worrisome high-dose Vitamin D. If you must feed pellets, I can’t recommend these enough.

Keep in mind that pellets are not a necessary part of a rabbit’s diet. Pelleted food has been a part of rabbit husbandry for less than 100 years. It was introduced in the early part of the century as a cleaner, more efficient way to feed laboratory animals and breeding colonies (click for big):

1940\'s rabbit pellet advert

Pellets were designed only to keep the rabbit alive and relatively healthy for about 6 months – long enough to breed or to perform whatever science needed before they were “sacrificed”. They were NOT designed to keep a non-breeding, non-meat rabbit at optimum health for 10-12 years. Even the most modern pellets sacrifice nutrition for the necessities of the production line: Oxbow still needs those fillers & binders, otherwise the pellet would fall apart in the bag.

If you are willing to expend some effort, you can feed a pellet-free diet consisting solely of grass hay and vegetables, which contains all of the necessary vitamins and other nutrition needed. You primarily need to be sure you are feeding a WIDE variety of veggies, and weighing the nutritional value of each against the known needs of the rabbit.


Health updates

Posted in Day-to-day, Medical at 4:23 am by ACR&S

First, congratulations to our very own Dr Jhondra Funk-Keenan, long time volunteer and foster parent – she has won the 2008 Oxbow Veterinary Medicine Scholarship! We are very proud that Oxbow has formally recognized Jhondra’s skills and commitment to exotic animal medicine.

So a few health updates:

Blimpie went to the vet Monday for eye damage. He got a big piece of hay stuck in there (possibly as long as 12 hours before I saw it) and he scratched his cornea. He’s on medicated eye cream and looks much better.

Brownie, who had a broken tooth a few weeks back, has grown the tooth back but the four incisors are not meeting adequately. He goes back to the vet for another trim Monday. His weight is still way up, fortunately.

The other toothless pig Piglet had to go back in to the vet this past Monday to have her teeth trimmed again too. She has unfortunately stopped eating as many veggies, although she can now devour an orange slice right down to the rind with just her bottom incisors! She still picks at her alfalfa hay, but has plateaued at about 630g, which is far lower than I am happy with.

It was only three weeks between her first and second tooth trims. We have to make the decision about whether to extract her teeth by the time she’s due for her next trim. I’m going to be posting this question to GL to see whether anyone over there has any thoughts.

Pudge has made a surprisingly complete recovery from his skin condition. We still never got a real diagnosis or any firm confirmation on what caused this (nor on how we fixed it). Here’s a photo progression:

February 16: no symptoms yet. We took him to the vet for the initial hair loss just about a week later.

Pudge, 2/16/08

March 25: he had been sick for about a month and had almost complete hair loss on his sides and hindquarters.

Pudge, 3/25/08

April 3: Most of the original bald spots are showing hair regrowth, but he still had that scaly exudate covering patches on his back, butt, and cheeks. As that was removed (via scrubbing and medicated shampoos), those patches went bald.

Pudge, 4/3/08

Pudge, 4/3/08

Pudge, 4/3/08

April 23: Almost complete recovery, with just small thin spots. He does still have some scaly areas on his left cheek which I am working on. No apparent recurrence in the areas which have already healed.

Pudge, 4/23/08

Pudge, 4/23/08

I’m really not satisfied with not knowing what caused this, because it makes me feel like I can’t prevent a recurrence. But, as the prophet says, you can’t always get what you want.

We also did a very brief introduction between Pudge and Piglet. Unfortunately it didn’t go all that great. Pudge was more interested in defending the veggies from her perceived advances. Dummy. We’re going to keep trying – maybe once he realizes he’ll still have plenty of food, he’ll stop chattering at her.


Little Pig and her chinny-chin-chin

Posted in Day-to-day, Medical at 12:07 am by ACR&S

Three words (plus a conjunction) on the recent hiatus: taxes and kidney stones. What a week.

On Friday the 4th we got a call from our vet: could we possibly take in a special needs guinea pig? The owners brought her in for excessive drooling: an examination revealed she had no upper incisors – not just broken, but missing. She was supposedly three years old, but the owners could not afford the vetcare to treat or rehabilitate her, so they surrendered her. The vets and staff thought she was darling and couldn’t bear to just euthanize her.Even after seven years in rescue, you can still be shocked. Absolutely none of this made sense to me. How could she be totally missing her incisors? It can occur as a birth defect, for example in lethal whites, but if that was the case, how could she have made it to 3 years old with a non specialist owner and no previous vet care?

I went in expecting the vet to be wrong about the incisors, and the owner to be wrong about the age. Both were proven right.

PigletThis is the Piglet. She was originally named Cha-cha, which is too goofy even for me. We were going to call her Gummi Bear but that was sort of mean.

She’s incredibly underweight as the result of weeks or months of oral pain and difficulty – 608 grams on intake. Most of our sows are easily over 900, even the smaller ones. She’s very petite as well – easily fits in the palm of my hand. But she’s not just a dainty pig – you can feel the frailty that only comes with starvation.

Her nails do look like the nails of a 2-3 year old pig. She’s definitely not under a year old, which I would have guessed based on her size. I managed to talk to her owner – she had only ever eaten pellets, with occasional romaine and carrots, and vitamin C drops in the water. No hay, ever. She lived in a petstore cage, one of the medium-sized ones, with carefresh bedding. The owner confirmed that at one point she definitely did have upper incisors, this was not congenital.

No teefsThe veterinary exam showed the upper incisors to be missing, or at least, broken beneath the gumline. In this picture (taken after all her dental work) you can see a pink flap of supportive gum tissue which is normally behind the upper incisors. There was no sign of infection or swelling in the gums, and no obvious “holes”, all of which usually happens in broken teeth. Her lower incisors were so overgrown that her mouth could not close completely, and she had spurs and malocclusions on all her molar teeth, causing sores in her cheeks and tongue.

They sedated her to trim down the lowers and to plane the spurs off the molars. I asked them to also do an X-ray to verify whether the teeth were actually missing (including the roots) or just broken with an odd presentation. There are no roots. The teeth are actually completely missing.

You can also see in that picture that they shaved her chin, which was caked with dried saliva – she has a reverse goatee now.

According to Guinea Lynx, tooth loss can be caused by vitamin C deficiency. I think this is the most likely cause. The vitamin C in both water drops and in poor quality pellets degrades too quickly to provide adequate amounts like dietary C does. Occasional supplementation with romaine was simply not enough. C deficiency could also explain her small size; her growth overall was stunted.

Our primary goal was to put some weight on her. If we could keep her from dying of malnutrition, she might learn to eat without uppers and be able to live a fairly normal life, except for needing frequent trims on the lowers. We did assisted feeding using Critical Care, which Piglet took with gusto. She put on about 15 grams in the first two days; a very good sign that there was hope for her.

The next step was to see if she would eat at all on her own. Pigs who have lost their front teeth eventually learn to pull food into the mouth and chew it primarily with the molars. Could she learn to do this? We were also faced with the problem that she’d previously had a very limited diet; pigs tend to have neophobia about novel foods and it’s often difficult to tempt them into trying anything they aren’t familiar with or haven’t seen another pig eating.

Piglet’s dinnerSo twice a day, we feed her a large bowl of Critical Care mixed with applesauce, and a huge bowl of of greens cut into tiny 1/4″ pieces (she has shown a preference for romaine, kale, and fancy baby herb salad mix). She also gets a bowl with a variety of other fruits and veggies, cut up small, but all of them are hit or miss. She’s shown no interest in watermelon, apple, carrot or pepper; but loves tomatoes. Other greens like cilantro, basil, wheatgrass, and parsley have also been rejected. We continue to offer all of these veggies in rotation, just in case she changes her mind about any of them. She likes gumming a slice of orange, although mostly I think she’s licking at the juice rather than ingesting any of the pulp.

We’ve also been offering two types of hay, alfalfa and bluegrass. In her situation, the alfalfa is unlikely to do any damage. Fortunately, she loves it! She won’t eat the stems yet, but I crumple it up so all the tiny leaves fall off, and she eats them. I’m also offering the crumbles from the bottom of the bluegrass bag, which are short enough for her to eat, but I haven’t seen her making any great inroads into them.

Possibly because of the Critical Care, she has not shown much interest in her pellets, only eating one or two small pellets a day. The CC is much tastier and easier to gum. But in the nearly two weeks that we’ve had her, she’s gone from 608 g to 667. That’s an excellent recovery rate.

The next step, this weekend, will be to transition her from the Critical Care mash to a mash made with ground pellets. Once she’s eating the mashed pellets, it’s much more likely that she’ll eat the hard pellets as well – incisors are not used in pellet eating anyhow. We also need to keep assessing her for oral health; this diet is not the most conducive to normal tooth wear patterns. She goes back in Monday for a follow up dental and possibly re-trimming of her lower incisors.

We are also going to try to pair her with a companion in the coming days. I’m thinking about Pudgie, who is still arthritic, but who has recovered wonderfully from his bizarre skin condition. Pics of him will come next week!


Tips on hand feeding rabbits and guinea pigs

Posted in Husbandry How-to, Medical at 3:00 am by ACR&S

Guinea pigs and rabbits share a basic design flaw: a sensitive digestive system that reacts to stress and illness by shutting down (stasis), and which, once shut down, will kill the animal unless restarted.

It is critical that GP and rabbit owners know how to hand feed their animals. Hand feeding (also called syringe feeding or force-feeding) can be the life-or-death difference for an animal who is in stasis. It can also be a useful way to prevent stasis when you have an animal who is unwilling to eat for other reasons (pain, surgical recovery, etc).

Hand feeding can be VERY confusing, scary, and troublesome when you first do it. Later, it’s not so scary, and you find yourself making this huge production to prepare for it, but the feeding itself seems over in seconds.

You might find yourself more comfortable approaching hand feeding if you have specific tips to rely on. Guinea Lynx offers some excellent suggestions, especially with regards to amounts and transitioning back to regular food. But I wanted to offer some slightly more practical tips on the actual act of feeding itself:

Choose your product.
The two best options are Oxbow’s Critical Care (CC), or ground-up pellets (whatever your pet normally eats). I prefer the CC, only because it is MUCH easier to push through the syringe than pellets. The pellets don’t mix perfectly with the water, so the water gets pushed out and you end up with a syringe full of compressed pellet dust. However, on the negative side, some people report that an animal on long term assisted CC feeding will refuse to eat anything else once they’ve gotten addicted to CC. So for practical reasons, I use CC when I just have just one or two feedings to do (like nursing an animal post-surgery), but I do use a mix of CC and pellets, or alternate between them on different feedings, if I’ve got someone whose being fed 4x-daily for a week or more.

If you do choose to grind pellets, a cheap coffee grinder works wonders.

Preparing the slurry.
You’ll probably need to feed about 20 mL per feeding per kg of body weight, repeated between 2 and 4 times per day. Your vet will give you explicit instructions based on your pet’s weight. An animal who is eating a little on her own and is just getting a supplement to jump start her gut, probably only needs 1-2 feeds per day. So I prepare about 20 mL at a time, and throw away what I don’t use. A heaping 1/2 tablespoon of CC makes about 30 mL depending how much water you add.

You’ll need a spoon (for stirring and putting the slurry into the syringe), a small bowl (a shallow teacup works well because of the handle), and a 10 mL syringe.

Prepare the slurry by adding first the powder, then a warmed liquid – not hot, but slightly warm. You can use water, or Pedialyte, or cranberry or orange or apple juice. I typically use water for occasional feedings, Pedialyte for severely ill animals.

The directions on the CC aren’t very helpful. I think it recommends a 1:3 mix of powder to liquid, but this is usually pretty chunky, still. Too thick, and it’s hard to control when you push it through the syringe. Too wet, and the animal is getting more liquid than nutrition. I like my CC mix to be wet enough to be runny, but still form lumps when I drip a spoonful back into the bowl. Think thinish pancake batter. Brownie batter would be too thick.

When you’ve mixed your slurry, pull the plunger completely out of the syringe and hold the other part upright with your finger covering the pointy hole. Then use the spoon to drip slurry into the butt of the syringe till it’s full, then add the plunger. You’ll get some overflow at both top and bottom, but if you did it right, the syringe will be totally full and ready to go. If you get air bubbles, tapping the side of the syringe will move them upwards and you can expel them.

Set up the feeding station.
I find that I can do this best when the animal is about level with my shoulders, so I typically place the animal on the edge of a bed or table, and I sit on a low stool next to it. Sitting on the floor with the animal on the coffee table or couch might work too. The point is, you want to be able to curl your arm around the animal to help control her movements.

Be SURE you put a towel on the surface under the animal. Possibly several towels. She’s going to bitch and fight and slobber and shake her head and everything will be covered in flying CC. I also like to make a little wall of pillows around the towel (covered with more towels) so she can’t get away too easily. And you probably also want a spare towel for wiping up accidents or wiping the syringe on. And don’t wear nice clothing.

If you’re right handed, place the animal facing towards the right and sit facing towards her, turned slightly right yourself. Curl your left arm around her butt so that your left hand can have control of her shoulders and head, but if she backs up she is stopped by your arm and elbow. I typically keep my left hand on her head or back, patting her, unless I need to hold her still – then I keep my hand turned upright – thumb on top of the head, fingers curled around the cheek and under the jaw (hovering but not touching except to exert control if she tries to move). Keep her close to the edge so that she is close to your body, to prevent her from jumping off or turning around that way.

Take the syringe in your right hand and “start” it – get a small bubble of slurry ready on the tip. Approach her mouth from underneath – you want to touch the right corner of the bottom lip, rather than the nose or upper lip, so that the syringe slides behind her incisors – but keep the syringe mostly horizontal and aimed at her left cheek (if she’s facing 3 o’clock, you’re entering at 5 o’clock and aiming at 11 o’clock). Do NOT aim straight down the throat, animals have been known to aspirate on slurry.

Now the unpredictable part starts. She may grab the syringe and start sucking like a crack addict, or she may growl and whine and back up and box you, or she may duck her head and avoid the syringe, or she may bite it and not let go. To avoid all the negative things, you want to try to get in the mouth, push the plunger very gently and just a little, and get out quickly. Don’t try to give too much slurry at once – I give between .5 and 2 mL per jab (a line about 1-2 cm long), depending on the size of the animal, the plunger barely moves. Yes, it takes forever this way, but I once had an animal aspirate and I am not freaking risking it again. If you do it right, you should see her chewing – give her a moment to chew and swallow before you jab her again.

Another reason for the small mouthfuls is that if she gets too much, she’ll just spit it out and then you have an animal covered in brown drool. You can practice making small movements with the plunger to be sure you are able to jab in just the right amount and not too much. If she loves it, you may find she will just slurp it up in huge 5 mL mouthfuls, or even eats it from a spoon. If so, fantastic!

If she’s ducking her head or turning or backing away, you can use your left hand and arm to aim her at 3 o’clock again, but try to do it very gently. It’s hard to explain – you need to not be afraid of forcing her into position, but also don’t want to ACTUALLY force her if you can help it. Two fingers resting lightly on the jaw should be the maximum amount of force you actually need to exert. In between jabs, be sure to pet her head and nose and let her settle down if she’s very agitated.

Let the animal’s manner guide you on when it’s time to stop feeding. If she willingly takes a whole syringe, go ahead and make another one and start that. If she gets 5 mL or so and she starts to slow down and it gets harder and harder to get in there, push her as far as you can, but don’t do another 10 mL. You don’t want to make her hate the feedings, and you can always try again in a few hours.

If she’s eating willingly, it’s important to take advantage of her interest in food to offer her the opportunity to eat on her own. I often take a break between syringes and offer melon, wheatgrass, hay, etc; anything that might tempt her into eating on her own.

One last tip: get a GOOD scale, and weigh your pet both before and after every feeding. A steady pattern of weight loss, despite frequent and successful assisted feeding, indicates that you’re losing the battle. And you cannot see this without actually tracking the weights.


Random updates

Posted in Memorials at 5:24 am by ACR&S

Oreo (rear) and Nini (front)On March 22 we lost another of our longest-term residents: Nini. Her name is an affectionate diminutive of her original name, Conina – she came to us in January 2003 (born December 2002) – the largest and bossiest of a litter born to the unsuspecting purchaser of a petstore pig. Her and her brother Oreo were both Peruvians – they have long, thick hair which required frequent brushing and trimming. They were both altered and we had them in the rescue for the longest time, but nobody wanted to adopt them because of the grooming requirements. Fortunately, late in 2004, adopter and foster parent Cyndi agreed to take them in long term. They’ve been with her ever since.

A few weeks prior to her death, Nini developed bladder stones – one became lodged in her urethra and had to be surgically removed. She was already weakened both by pain and just from being so elderly, and never really recovered. She is dearly missed by her mom Cyndi, her brother, and all of us at ACR&S.

We’re working with the local vet to take in a three-year-old piggie who was surrendered by her owners because they didn’t want to pay for treatment. They took her in because she was drooling, and it turns out she’s missing her upper front incisors. Poor kid. Fortunately, they should grow back if the roots are intact. Updates when I know more.

Pudge is still with us. His new pain med seems to be really helping with his arthritis, and the new antibiotic shampoo is making a huge difference on his skin. He’s regrowing fur in all the original bald patches, and we got the last of those giant scabs off his face. He lost a ton more hair on his back and but, but the skin looks clean and doesn’t appear irritated.We still have no idea what the problem is. I found a report in the literature of a half-a-dozen females in a breeding colony who spontaneously developed the same symptoms – crusty exudate or scabbing at the base of all the hairs, followed by hair loss. All progressed through the disease and then their hair grew back. Another source describes a similar situation and labels it as dermatitis caused by Staphylococcus. This is also the bacteria that causes bumblefoot in pigs, and he does have some of that (due to the arthritic deformation of his front feet). If that’s it, it’s pretty amazing that a simple staph infection didn’t show up on any tests, nearly killed him, and yet he’s recovering from it.


Guest Post: Dr. StrangeRescuer or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pain.

Posted in Day-to-day, Philosophy at 12:27 am by ACR&S

As most of the readers of this blog know, ACR&S is based in NC, but I’m up in Wisconsin. I do the email/website/admin stuff and the Sanctuary work, but the greater burden of daily rescue work down in NC is done by the Amazing Jenn. She joined us first as a random stranger interested in pigs, then as a foster home/adopter, and is now the boss of everything in NC.

Jenn’s been flying solo for just over a year now, and recently I asked her how she was handling all of it. This is what she said:

All the traveling is kind of a pain in the ass — but on the other hand, I think it’s good to be there at the home to let the pigs settle in. It’s amazing how people can sound great on paper, and look great in pictures, and then you get there and they’re feeding a seed mix. Or they’re just doing something really stupid because they didn’t have someone to tell them any different. On the other hand, I feel we’re succeeding because 90% of our adoptive homes, even with the really stupid added in, are probably better than where the pigs would end up if left in the shelter, since we have screened these folks to a degree and educated them somewhat.

I do feel like I’ve become more cynical. I feel like what we’re aiming for is not so much perfect care, but just somebody that gives a damn and will try their best. More and more, I think we are just trying to buy a good death. Someone who doesn’t let the pig die after a week of starvation because they didn’t know pigs went to the vet, but who will let them die at the vet, or after having had a course of antibiotics and Critical Care. I haven’t lost belief that good husbandry is important, because I do think everything deserves as optimal a life as possible… but on the other hand, GL is full of people giving near optimal husbandry and still beset with bladder stones, heart problems, etc.

The worst part of the traveling is the money. Gas is expensive. I would love to get a mountain person and a beach person to anchor rescue branches in that area. I dread driving to Charlotte tomorrow to pull that sow. Three hours one way. Yeesh. But that’s about the worst of it. On the other hand, I LOVE driving to Virginia. I love the Bojangles’ restaurant that looks like a houseboat. I like meeting pig people, overall. Most are pretty nice. I really liked meeting Vicki at Cave Spring, she’s super-nice, and very unassuming. And her pigs are always ridiculously friendly. And potato shaped.

Probably the toughest part is being the only rodent person down here. People really thinks I’m silly when I insist on quarantines for animals, vet checks, or insist on helping people bond two pigs, etc. Dog and cat people just seem to have it easier. But cavy adopters are ridiculous, and flip out at the least bit of rumbling. Good thing they don’t have big pigs: Penny [head of the local pot belly pig rescue, and an ACR&S foster parent] says they just have to let them fight until they stop, and then go stitch both of them up.

Long rambling short, the work is simultaneously very rewarding (I left Popcorn and Peanut’s adoption and sat in the car and cried because it was such a good home), and the most depressing thing I’ve ever been involved with (I left the home of one surrender where the children *cheered* as their shit-caked, starving, mite-infested pigs left, and had to pull over and cry there, too).

A huge gold star and a big hug to Jenn for shouldering this incredible burden. Anyone who wants to contribute some gas money or Bojangles’ gift certificates, it would be much appreciated!