It’s been a long while since we’ve posted, but as many of you find, there’s just not that much time to spare these days. Rescue always gets harder when the economy is this bad. There are fewer people adopting animals, fewer people donating money, fewer people with time to foster, and many, many more animals being surrendered. The animals we do take in, stay with us longer and cost more money.
It’s unfortunate, but not surprising. With people struggling to make ends meet for themselves, they often find that they are faced with tough choices regarding their pets. People who have to work a second job find that they don’t have extra time to spend caring for their pets. People without a job don’t have money to put food on their own table, much less pay for pet food and vet bills. People are moving to smaller apartments, sometimes moving in with roomates, and their landlord either doesn’t allow pets, or they just don’t have room.
Unfortunately this also means that when an owner decides they have to rehome their pet, the prospects are not good.
Most people first try to find a new home through Craigslist or similar methods. From what we hear, this isn’t working any more – there are SO many animals available that it’s hard to find any takers, much less one you trust with a beloved pet. If your pet is older or has special needs, it’s almost impossible to find someone willing to shoulder the burden when there’s also so many babies available.
The next step is usually for the owner to contact a shelter. But most shelters are at or above capacity and are euthanizing at a higher than normal rate. The statistics are staggering: “Last year , at least 305,222 dogs and cats were dropped off at North Carolina shelters, and 214,475 were euthanized. The cost of handling all those animals is nearly $30 million. The real numbers are likely higher, because only 73 of 100 counties had reported their 2010 data to state government as of February.” (Source) Some shelters are outright refusing to accept animals, especially exotics like guinea pigs and rabbits, leaving owners seemingly without options.
So what can you do?
The first option is always to try to keep your pet. Fortunately, with a little ingenuity, it can be done! We’ve heard from scores of owners who have given up trying to rehome their pets and found many clever methods to keep them, and we wanted to share some of the ideas they’ve shared with us.
If space is an issue…
If you don’t have room for a grand 3′x7′ C&C cage anymore, that’s not necessarily a reason to give up your pets. Bigger is better, but if the choice is euthanasia, we’d rather see you keep your pets in a smaller space.
- For rabbits, use an expandable dog exercise pen as their cage. Fold it down to 2′x4′ or smaller when you’re home and need the extra space, but unfold it to give them room to exercise when you’re asleep or at work. Maybe you don’t have a rabbit-proof room that they can run around in anymore? Consider using a hallway, bathroom, or kitchen. Even though these spaces maybe aren’t as big as they were used to, as long as they can run back and forth a little, that may be enough for them. Again, just try to schedule their exercise for a time when you aren’t using that space. Jessica writes, “we hardly have any space in this apartment, but my husband lets me use his home office for the buns to run around in on Sundays while he’s watching sports. There’s tons of cords everywhere, so we just put a big fence around the edges and they can run around in the middle. It’s only once a week but they clearly benefit from it.”
- Guinea pigs can also accommodate to flexible caging that expands when you’ve got room. Sally writes: “I moved in with two roommates and one is allergic so I had to keep my guinea pigs in my bedroom, but it’s so tiny that I didn’t have anywhere to put their cage. Then I realized their C&C cage fits under the bed! When I leave for work, I pull it out, flip up the grids, and put them in it. They have to go back in a petstore cage when I get home but they get 8 hours a day in their old piggy palace.” Another owner wrote that she put her rat’s cage in a walk-in closet – “I just have to make sure I leave the door open when I leave so they get some sunlight.”
- If you can’t sleep with pets in the bedroom, we’ve heard of plenty of other creative cage locations. One adopter built a shelf above her front-loading washer & dryer for the pig cage. Another realized that they rarely use their dining room table, so the pigs are now underneath – “we almost always eat in the kitchen, anyhow. For holidays we just move the cage for a day or two.” One especially creative family assembled their kids’ old bunk-bed in the TV room above the television, and put their pigs’ C&C cage on the top bunk! “We have to use a stepstool to clean it, but it means they’re out with family and get more attention, and we enjoy watching their antics even more than watching TV.”
If time is an issue…
“I just don’t have the time to give them the attention they need” is the most common reason we hear from people needing to surrender their pets. But really, as long as you have time to feed them, clean them, and give them once-a-week health checks, they’ll still be healthy and happy without daily cuddle time.
- Most small animals are usually perfectly happy without human attention, as long as they have a same-species companion. It may seem counter-intuitive, but maybe adopting a friend for your single piggy or bunny will lessen the time you have to spend with them, rather than increase it. One adopter wrote “I had to take a job where I travel every week and although my husband was good at keeping him fed and cleaned, [my bunny] Snickers just wasn’t getting any attention. Then I adopted Hershey to be his friend and I don’t feel so bad now because they have each other.”
- You can also save time by changing your petcare routine a little. Most people find that using cage blankets or fleece as bedding requires less cleaning time than using wood shavings. If you normally feed your pets in the morning when you’re already rushed, try doing their big feeding at night instead. Using an extra big hay manger or two water bottles may give you the peace of mind to skip an extensive morning routine. Rather than making their salad every day, spend an hour on the weekend cutting up veggies, and package it in multiple single serving tupperwares so it’s quicker to distribute during the busy work week!
If food bills are an issue…
Guinea pigs and rabbits mostly eat grass, so why does it seem like their food is so expensive?! Here’s some tips to cut food costs:
- Buy hay in bulk. It doesn’t go bad as long as you keep it dry so it doesn’t mold, and keep it cool and out of sunlight so it doesn’t go brown. A 50-lb box of hay costs $50, which is a dollar per pound. A 40-oz bag (2.5lbs) costs $8, which is over $3 per pound! 50 lbs should last two pigs or rabbits about 6 months so it’s not a frequent expense – that makes it worth the hassle of a long drive or ordering online if you don’t have a supplier near you who can get the big boxes.
- Start a hay co-op. Check with your local shelter or rescue – where do they get their hay, and can you buy some from them? Some rescues buy in bulk from local growers and are willing to resell at incredible discounts. You can also search for other owners in your area and go in together on bulk purchases from online retailers like Kleenmama’s Hayloft. This can often give you huge savings on shipping charges!
- Find veggies at your local farmer’s market or community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. Veggies are much cheaper when they’re locally grown, because there’s no transport or distribution costs; your money goes right to the farmer. You might even be able to exchange litterbox compost for veggies! Search for local CSAs here.
- Check the grocery stores for discount veggies. Grocers have to sort their produce at least once a day to remove items which are going bad or are too bruised to sell. Stop in on your way home and ask the produce manager if you can have some of what they’re throwing away! You may have to do a bit of sorting to find the peppers and romaine among the onions and cabbages, but it’s definitely worth it. Bagged salad mix is an especially easy thing to find – has to be thrown away by the printed expiration date, but it’s usually still perfectly fresh. Just don’t feed the kinds that have iceberg lettuce in them.
- Reduce pellets. Because pellets are the most “processed” of pig and rabbit foods, it’s the most expensive per unit. The more hay and veggies you feed, the less pellets you need. Reducing pellets can also reduce vet bills by reducing the incidence of bladder stones and tooth problems.
If vet bills are an issue…
Speaking of vet bills – the most expensive part of owning an animal, this is also the hardest cost to control, but these tips can get you started:
- Prevention is cheaper than treatment. It’s always cheaper to provide preventative care than to provide emergency care, so don’t let health fall by the wayside, even when times are toughest. Weigh your pets EVERY week to spot illness early. Feed a good diet to prevent the leading illnesses, which are obesity, tooth malocclusion, and bladder stones. If you think your pet is sick, get treatment immediately, rather than waiting to see if it will “just get better”. It usually won’t, and the treatment costs usually triple if you wait till the animal is visibly ill.
- Start an emergency fund. Put one, five, or ten dollars a week – whatever you can possibly spare – into an emergency vet fund. Giving up just one venti frappachino per week can give you a nest egg of over $250 in one year! If you’re crafty, you might find a unique way to raise a little money – several of our friends have started selling craft items on Etsy to help build up a little extra cash for their pets’ vet needs.
- Find a vet before you need one. If you aren’t already on a first-name basis with your vet, you should be! Just talk to them. Find out which clinics extend credit or offer payment plans. Find out which emergency clinics see small exotics, and which ones are cheapest for the initial consult. Don’t hesitate to look outside your immediate area – if an hour’s drive to a distant vet saves you $200, that’s more than worth the extra gas you spend!
- Check your local shelter for vetcare options. Some shelters and rescues offer free nail trim clinics, low-cost spay or neuter, and even free wellness checks. They sometimes don’t advertise these services except for cats and dogs, so you may have to do some phone work to find which ones also provide services to pocket pets. Some even offer low-cost euthanasia and cremation services, in case your pet is very ill.
- Take advantage of your vet school. If you live near a vet school you’re living on a gold mine. They frequently offer free or dramatically reduced care services if you’ll let your pet be treated by a student doctor. You may not feel comfortable with this if your pet has a serious illness, but use this resource for preventative wellness visits, it’s like getting a free checkup!
We hope this information is helpful to you, and we’d love to hear your other suggestions or stories of how you made these ideas work for you.
For years, we have lamented the fact that despite how popular small animals like guinea pigs and rats are for pets, the majority of pet retailers could literally care less about their actual needs. Take this “Guinea Pig Starter Kit” for example, which is made by “All Living Things”.
The cage itself measures 24″x14″. We have had several of these donated, so I can tell you from experience that that measurement is at the top lip of the cage, which then tapers in slightly towards the bottom. At the bottom, the cage is more realistically around 22″x12″. That is barely over 2 square feet. An adult guinea pig is typically around 10″ long. They barely have room to turn around, much less to run or express energy.
We frequently see health problem from substandard cages like these. Males, especially, suffer from impaction problems due to lack of exercise. These pigs also tend to be obese, having a mostly pellet based diet (you’ll notice that the “kit” doesn’t include any hay). And more nebulously, the pigs living in these sized cages seem to have a neurosis about them. They can’t live with a friend, they can’t run or exercise properly, and they really have nothing to do except for sit there, all day, eating, and watching the world go by. Sometimes they’ll entertain themselves by eating their own hair, sometimes by chewing the cage bars just for something to do, sometimes by draining the water bottle over and over again. These behaviors cause their own problems… broken teeth, fungal infections, bumblefoot, etc.
And most pet store cages run a gamut of sizes, but overall, we in guinea pig rescue have been forced to simply say “it’s better to build your own cage” because of these extreme size differences. Even those that were nearly the correct size (such as some of the “Ultra” or “Deluxe” sized pet cages, were misleading as to their measurements, and were particularly narrow, which we often found caused fighting amongst pigs who couldn’t get away from each other with much ease, and which left the entire cage nearly impassible once you added accessories.
When I purchased my first two guinea pigs (before I had any idea there was such a thing as a guinea pig “rescue”), I bought the largest cage they had, which was 41″x18″. Again, that was the top measurement, and the pan tapered down, so probably more like 39″x16″. Once I added in two pigloos (which are 10″ wide), I had a cage that my pigs couldn’t even run around in!
So I upgraded to building my own cage, with the information at Guinea Pig Cages. I’ve been extremely happy with my C&C cage, but there have been others that were not keen on them for various reasons. They’re difficult to transport, for one, since the coroplast is rigid. They can be a little difficult to get together (I’ve had my share of frankencages since — I’m terrible at measuring things like that). Sometimes the supplies can be difficult to obtain (Target, for example, recently changed their grid sizes, rendering them dangerous to guinea pigs.)
Surprisingly, one company stepped up to the plate, and has released a guinea pig cage that is 7.5 square feet! Midwest (who also makes the famous Ferret Nation and Critter Nation cages) has produced the Guinea Habitat. (Pictured to the right).
What I love about the cage:
- 7.8 square feet of space!
- Expandable — you can hook as many together as you want.
- Canvas bottom (waterproof) folds up for transport (this would be a lifesaver at adopt-a-thons)
- Can buy a separate top for people who have children or other pets
What I don’t like so much:
- The “PLUS” has a kitchen area which I feel takes away a lot of running room, and I’m not particularly fond of.
- Not able to be stacked without an external shelving system (but most people are also not fostering animals and probably don’t have a need for this!)
Overall, the pros far outweigh the cons, and it’s a good feeling to know that a company is listening to what pet owners are asking for, and are trying to provide affordable ways to keep those pets happy! Overall, the Midwest line has shown exceptional quality and care for pets. The one product of theirs I would NOT recommend is the “Wabbitat”, which is smaller than this guinea pig cage, even though rabbits are easily 3-4 times the size of a guinea pig! However, this year has shown the launch of several new products, so I suspect they’re also gearing up to relaunch their rabbit line.
So kudos to Midwest, who are doing their best to provide stellar homes to our beloved pets!
We’ve got a few new residents up here at the Sanctuary. On June 19, I spent about 5 hours waiting for Midwest flight 2704 from Raleigh to Milwaukee, which had a special climate-controlled, pressurized cargo compartment carrying three new Sanctuary residents. I’m spreading their introduction over two posts, so today I’m pleased to introduce Gracie.
Gracie is a spayed female Californian rabbit, between 6 and 8 years old. She was owned for 5.5 years until a job transfer made her owner decide to give her up.
Californians are huge rabbits, in the 10lb range, having originally been developed for meat and fur production. Gracie’s size, age, and some fairly minor age-related health concerns would have made it nearly impossible to find an adopter for her, so although it’s not standard practice for owner surrenders, we agreed to a direct transfer to the Sanctuary.
This transfer would also be advantageous for us: we have an existing bonded pair of very large rabbits, Roo and BunBun. Roo is only 7 or so years old, but his partner BunBun is nearly 12. With BunBun clearly showing his age, we’ve been having to give thought to a future partner for Roo once BunBun passes. But we don’t have any other potential bondmates for Roo in the Sanctuary (our primary candidate, Jeannie, has proven beyond a doubt that she hates him and will murder him if given the opportunity), so practically any solution required bringing in another rabbit.
Ideally, it’s best to form a triple in a situation like this, so that there is no solitary grieving period when the eldest bunny passes; the other two can comfort one another. At the same time, making a triple is very difficult. The existing pair-bond is strained, and the difficulties of introduction and bonding are doubled. But I thought we might have a better than average chance with Gracie, Roo, and BunBun, because of some unique circumstances in their history:
Gracie has outlived two previous partners, both neutered males, so she has a proven track record of being able to bond with other rabbits. The members of the Sanctuary pair are both males, the most difficult pair to achieve, so adding in a female wouldn’t strain the relationship to the same extent as if they were a mixed-sex pair. Roo and BunBun also had a female third at one point early in their bond, when all three were still being offered up for adotion (Paula was later placed with one of our board members into a new pairing). Finally, since all the rabbits are members of large, mellow breeds, I didn’t expect the furious scuffling that can occasionally arise in introductions with smaller, more fiery breeds (Jeannie is an exception to this rule).
When planning an introduction, I always schedule it for a weekend when I plan to be home pretty much continuously. Rabbits do best when allowed to work out their dominance issues without too much human interference – one rule of thumb is, “don’t separate them unless you see blood”. Not strictly true, of course (see these pages for detailed HRS introduction techniques), but it gives you the idea that you want to interfere as little as possible. To do this safely, you have to be available to be home and to observe the rabbits carefully in case things turn sour.
So Friday night, I began the introduction. I decided to start by violating one of the main guidelines for intros: using neutral territory. Instead, I dumped Gracie into Roo & BunBun’s cage. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, KIDS. It’s an excellent way to end up spending your Friday night at the emergency vet.
Whether by intuition or luck, I was right: there were no major problems. Gracie decided to show that she’s the new boss, and for all her enormous size (she’s a few pounds bigger even than Roo!), she spent some time chasing and humping both Roo and BunBun. Fortunately, both figured out quickly that they could just go into a litterbox and hide from her, and she’s too lazy and fat to follow for very long.
Once their chubby butts were all tired out and the chasing had stopped, I offered some fresh hay and some veggies and pellets to see whether they fought for resources. Not at all. They contentedly shared hay, veggies, and pellets, occasionally grooming one another’s noses or ears as they happened to brush against them. This is a very excellent sign and indicated to me that they were probably not going to escalate beyond mounting.
[Aside: In the picture above, you can see tufts of fur sticking out all over all three rabbits. In young rabbits, this could be a sign that they had been fur-pulling or biting one another, but in these guys, it's just a result of their poor grooming habits. Failure to self-groom is a common sign of aging; BunBun in particular needs to be groomed by human hands every few days, otherwise he looks like a dandelion about to explode.]
After two full days and three nights, they’re still doing wonderfully. Mounting has almost totally diminished as of yesterday afternoon. This morning, I caught Roo and Gracie laying side-by-side (BunBun, as is his habit, was snoozing a few feet away in his hidy box). I think we have our triple, and now I have a little more peace of mind about Roo’s future when BunBun crosses the Bridge.
By this time, almost everyone “knows” that cedar is a dangerous bedding choice for small animals. The strong odor (which repels insects, making it a great bedding choice for dogs or horses) is known to be harmful to the lungs of smaller animals such as rodents, rabbits, birds, and reptiles.
Pine is often lumped in with cedar – they are both softwoods, and related, and have similar odors. But there’s still an ongoing “war” about whether pine is actually as dangerous as cedar, or not. The anti-pine people don’t typically cite references, so their evidence is considered anecdotal by the pro-pine people.
Someone recently posed the question: can the anti-pine people find real, scientific, studies demonstrating pine’s harmful effects on animals?
The answer is YES.
Here’s a mostly-well-referenced article which cites several studies which found ill effects due to pine phenols:
Pine and cedar toxins affect more than the respiratory tract (4). Several studies (5,8,14,15) have shown that rodents kept on softwood beddings have elevated levels of liver enzymes. The liver is the body’s detoxification system, and elevated liver enzymes indicate that the body is working harder to eliminate toxins.
Two studies are cited as saying that heat treated pine (kiln-dried) is better than regular pine, but kiln-dried pine still may have some ill effects:
If pine or cedar shavings are heat-treated or soaked in a solvent, so that some of the phenols are removed, the effects are not as great, but still occur (14,15).
Now, these studies seem to lump pine and cedar together. Do any studies differentiate whether pine is less harmful than cedar? Yes, but the study found pine is the second most dangerous bedding next to cedar:
Another study goes even further. It concludes that rats and mice kept on four bedding types were affected most by red cedar, but that white pine was the next most hepatotoxic bedding…(2)
Here are the references cited in this article. I’ve linked to the abstract/free full text whenever possible:
01. Ayars, G.H., Altman, L.C., Frazier, C.E., and Chi, EY.;1989; The toxicity of constituents of cedar and pine woods to pulmonary epithelium; Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology; 83: 610-18
02. Cunliffe-Beamer, T., Freeman, L.C. and Myers, D.D.;1981; Barbituate sleeptime in mice exposed to autoclaved or unautoclaved wood beddings; Laboratory Animal Science; 31 (6): 672-675.
03. Daly, C.H. (DVM); 2002; Rats A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual; Barrons; New York.
04. Ducommun, D.; ©1999-2002; The Toxicity of Pine and Cedar Shavings; The Rat Report; http://www.ratfanclub.org/litters.html; Retrieved on 28 Apr 2007
05. Ferguson, H.C. (1966) Effect of red cedar chip bedding on hexobarbital and pentobarbital sleep time. Journal of Pharm. Science, 55 p.1142-8
06. Harkness, J.F. and Wagner, J.; 1995; The Biology and Medicine of Rabbits and Rodents, fourth edition; Lea and Febiger; Philadelphia.
07. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS); Foster Volunteer Handbook, A Reference Guide for Rabbit/Small Mammal Foster Care Volunteers; http://www.petfoster.org/Documents/Rabbit_small_mammal_manual.doc; Retrieved on 4 May 2007
08. Jori, A. et al.;1969; Effect of essential oils on drug metabolism; Biochemical Pharmacology; 18: 2081-5
09. Safe Pet Bedding (FAQ); Originally created and posted by Emily Rocke; http://www.aracnet.com/~seagull/faq/beddingfaq.shtml; Retrieved on 4 May 2007
10. reference 10 missing
11. TeSelle, E.R.; 1993; The Problem with pine: a discussion of softwood beddings; AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales News-Magazine, July–October 1993; American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association; http://www.afrma.org/rminfo2a.htm; Retrieved 8 September 2007
12. Trees for Life; http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/tfl.aspen_entomological.html; Retrieved 9 September 2007
13. Perring, F.H. and WALTERS, S.M.; 1976; Atlas of the British Flora. Botanical Society of the British Isles. Second Edition; Wakefield
14. Vesell, Elliot S. (1967) Induction of Drug-Metabolizing Enzymes in Liver Microsomes of Mice and Rats by Softwood Bedding. Science, 157:1057-8
15. Weichbrod, Robert H. et al, (1988) Effects of cage beddings on microsomal oxidative enzymes in rat liver; Laboratory Animal Science; 38 (3): 296-8
Here’s another source, this one by a well-known and respected reptile expert. She goes so far as to recommend not using prey which has been housed on cedar. She also recently (2007) came to the conclusion that pine was not a good choice for reptiles, despite the fact that there are very few reptile-subject studies on the topic.
Here are her references (links to abstracts). Many of these are much more recent:
Ayars GH, Altman LC, Frazier CE, Chi EY. (1989) The toxicity of constituents of cedar and pine woods to pulmonary epithelium. J Allergy Clin Immunol 1989 Mar;83(3):610-8
Campagnolo ER, Trock SC, Hungerford LL, Shumaker TJ, Teclaw R, Miller RB, Nelson HA, Ross F, Reynolds DJ. Outbreak of vesicular dermatitis among horses at a midwestern horse show. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1995 Jul 15;207(2):211-3
Feron VJ, Arts JH, Kuper CF, Slootweg PJ, Woutersen RA. Health risks associated with inhaled nasal toxicants. Crit Rev Toxicol 2001 May;31(3):313-47
Kacergis JB, Jones RB, Reeb CK, Turner WA, Ohman JL, Ardman MR, Paigen B. Air quality in an animal facility: particulates, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds. Am Ind Hyg Assoc J 1996 Jul;57(7):634-40
Thomas JC, Carlton DL, Barzak PF. An improved method for evaluating hardwood animal bedding products. Lab Anim (NY) 2001 Jun;30(6):43-6
Pelkonen KH, Hanninen OO. Cytotoxicity and biotransformation inducing activity of rodent beddings: a global survey using the Hepa-1 assay. Toxicology 1997 Sep 26;122(1-2):73-80
Potgieter FJ, Wilke PI. Laboratory animal bedding: a review of specifications and requirements. J S Afr Vet Assoc 1991 Sep;62(3):143-6
Potgieter FJ, Wilke PI, van Jaarsveld H, Alberts DW. The in vivo effect of different bedding materials on the antioxidant levels of rat heart, lung and liver tissue. J S Afr Vet Assoc 1996 Mar;67(1):27-30
Torronen R, Pelkonen K, Karenlampi S. Enzyme-inducing and cytotoxic effects of wood-based materials used as bedding for laboratory animals. Comparison by a cell culture study. Life Sci 1989;45(6):559-65. Erratum in Life Sci 1989;45(24):2381
Vandenput S, Istasse L, Nicks B, Lekeux P. Airborne dust and aeroallergen concentrations in different sources of feed and bedding for horses. Vet Q 1997 Nov;19(4):154-8
Vogelzang PF, van der Gulden JW, Folgering H, Heederik D, Tielen MJ, van Schayck CP. Longitudinal changes in bronchial responsiveness associated with swine confinement dust exposure. Chest 2000 May;117(5):1488-95
Ward PL, Wohlt JE, Katz SE. Chemical, physical, and environmental properties of pelleted newspaper compared to wheat straw and wood shavings as bedding for horses. J Anim Sci 2001 Jun;79(6):1359-69
Welker JA, Zaloga GP. Pine oil ingestion: a common cause of poisoning. Chest 1999 Dec; 116(6): 1822-6
Weichbrod RH, Cisar CF, Miller JG, Simmonds RC, Alvares AP, Ueng TH. Effects of cage beddings on microsomal oxidative enzymes in rat liver. Lab Anim Sci 1988 Jun;38(3):296-8
Whelan G. The influence of cage bedding on the metabolism of sulphobromophthalein sodium by an hepatic cytosol-located enzyme system. Aust J Biol Sci 1975 Feb;28(1):25-9
Overall, it looks like there is a good scientific basis for the common belief that pine (and of course cedar) are potentially harmful choices for bedding. As in the past, ACR&S continues to recommend that owners are conservative in their bedding choices, and use aspen (a hardwood which does not produce phenols) or recycled-paper based beddings for guinea pigs and rabbits.
Quote of the day:
I am sometimes asked ‘Why do you spend so much of your time and money talking about kindness to animals when there is so much cruelty to men?’ I answer: ‘I am working at the roots.’
- George T. Angell, 1823-1909, MSPCA founder and humane education advocate
For many people considering adopting a rabbit, they’ve never heard of rabbits living indoors and using litter pans. Their only experience with litterpans is from cats, so they are often at a loss as to what a rabbit needs for its litterbox, and what cat products can and can’t be used. I’d like to offer this post to helping folks understand the various options available and how to make a good informed selection.
There are two parts to a litterbox: the box, and the litter.
The most commonly sold type of rabbit litter box is a triangle-shaped box with a high corner. They are sold in the small pet section of stores, and typically come in two sizes – an 8″ diagonal, or a 13″ diagonal.
Both versions of this pan are too small, even for dwarf rabbits. The high back looks attractive because rabbits do tend to back up and squirt urine behind them – but in these small pans, it’s just as common for the rabbit to face the corner, and hang their butts over the back and pee or poop on the floor next to the litter box! Rating: UNACCEPTABLE
Another version of this pan also has a high back, but is a square, about 13″x13″. These pans are a little better than the corner pan, but still too small for large bunnies, and the very low front may mean that even small rabbits end up peeing over the side onto the floor. Rating: POOR TO FAIR
In general, I find it better to choose a cat litter box instead of one marketed for rabbits. A rabbit’s litter box needs to be large enough that he can get totally inside it and turn around comfortably. I also recommend high sides so that even a big bunny can pee without going over the edge. The only thing you might want to avoid is a covered box – most rabbits will treat a covered litter box like a den, and use it for napping and not as a toilet.
This cat litter pan is an excellent choice for bunnies: it’s available everywhere, is large enough for most rabbits at 14″ by 10″, and is 3.5″ tall which is tall enough for all but the largest or most directionally challenged bunnies. It’s also only about $3, which is about a third of the cost of a pan marketed for rabbits. Rating: EXCELLENT
Some rabbits will still have trouble with any commercially available box, and you’ll need to get creative.
My favorite litter box – one I use for almost all my rabbits – is a 10 gallon Rubbermaid brand “Roughneck Storage Box”. It’s 23.9″ by 15.9″, and nearly 8.5″ deep – perfect even for my 10 lb New Zealand white. At $5 each, they are quite affordable even for households which need multiple pans. The bottoms aren’t perfectly smooth, so they are a little harder to clean – I recommend scraping them out with a small dust pan, then wiping them clean with paper towels and white vinegar every time, so that crud doesn’t build up in the indentations and corners. For smaller rabbits, such as Flax here, I cut a “door” in the side using a sharp box cutter. The bunnies have 4 deep corners to pee against, and the door is still 4″ deep so it still contains most of the mess from even the most industrious diggers. One thing to note – some bunnies just can’t resist nibbling those crisp edges, so I cover them with split lengths of 1/2″ or 3/4″ PVC pipe or plastic tubing. Rating: EXCELLENT
Special needs or elderly rabbits may have trouble getting into litter boxes with tall sizes, yet may still need the deep walls to contain accidents. I recently found some very nice litter pans marketed for dogs. They have one side with a very low door (about 2″ high) but the inside is spacious and deep. They come in a variety of sizes. The only disadvantage is that they are very expensive – about $20 for the large 24″x30″ size that I use for my large elderly lop. Rating: VERY GOOD
Whichever litter pan you select, keep in mind that rabbits prefer to have a choice, so offering multiple boxes is always a good idea. If your cage is not large enough for two litter boxes, your cage is too small! Putting hay inside the litter box, or in a rack above it, is also a good way to encourage good litter box habits.
For the most part, cat litter products cannot be used for rabbits. Rabbits almost always eat a portion of their litter, so clay-based, mineral-based, or “natural clumping” cat litters can all cause blockages and death.
There are one or two products sold for cats which are acceptable for rabbits. I’ll mention these below. Usually, one version of the product is packaged for cats, and another for rabbits. However, keep in mind that the cat version will almost always be cheaper than a version packaged specifically for rabbits, but the product inside is identical.
Over the years I have tried almost every litter product there is. I’ve used shredded paper, Carefresh, Yesterday’s News (YN), Cell-Sorb, Feline Pine, pine stove pellets, aspen shavings, and kiln-dried pine. My ratings are as follows:
Aspen and pine shavings are pretty cheap ($11 for a month’s worth), but they are TERRIBLE as rabbit litter. They don’t really absorb much urine, they don’t cover the odor at all, they easily get kicked out of the box, and they are very dusty. When I’ve used wood shavings, I had to clean the boxes twice a day and everything in the room had a thick layer of dust by the weekend. Rating: POOR
Shredded paper is free, but it has no absorbency and no odor control, and it gets everywhere. Using this is about the same as using pure hay, which some people also do. I only use this when I’m in dire need of a litterbox change and the stores are closed, but I’ve never found it acceptable for more than overnight emergency use. Rating: POOR
Carefresh is a product made of compressed paper, shaped into flakes and very soft. has almost zero dust, and great absorbency/odor control. However, as it’s so soft, it can stick in the fur of longer-haired rabbits, and it’s very light and fluffy so it can easily get kicked around and out of the box. It’s also the most expensive product ($17 for 4-5 box changes). Rating: EXCELLENT
Yesterday’s News and Cell-Sorb are equivalent products. Both are made of compressed paper, but formed into cylindrical pellets. Cell-Sorb pellets look like crushed YN pellets, like the YN factory rejects. They both have great absorbency and odor control (but slightly less odor control than Carefresh, I feel). Since the pellets are heavier than the Carefresh flakes, they tend to stay in the litterbox better than Carefresh which makes them less messy. They are slightly more dusty than Carefresh, but still miles better than wood shavings. Cell-Sorb is way cheaper if you can get the biggest bags, but both are still fairly expensive (around $20 for 50lbs). Rating: EXCELLENT
Feline Pine (or pine wood-stove pellets) are compressed pine sawdust pellets. They are made with a process that eliminates the dangerous phenols of pine. They are exactly the same thing, but the former is $15 for a 20lb bag, and the later is $5 for a 40lb bag. Absorbency is great, possibly even better than for YN/Cell-Sorb, because the wood pellets break into sawdust which sorta clumps together when wet. Odor control is slightly less than for the paper-based products, but the slight pine smell (if you find that pleasant) seems to mask any urine odor. Both are more dusty than YN/Cell-Sorb but still less dusty than wood shavings. Rating: VERY GOOD TO EXCELLENT
Due to the costs of having so many buns, I use the stove pellets right now ( Marthwood brand in WI) and am pretty happy with them, but if cost was no object, I would use YN/Cell-Sorb exclusively to cut down on dust. Read the rest of this entry »
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
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):
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.
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.