As all rabbit owners are aware, rabbits moult (often referred to as shedding) regularly. Initially when rabbits are young, their baby coat is replaced at around 5 months by a transitional coat. After this, the rabbit’s adult coat will develop and from here on, rabbits generally moult twice a year (Spring and Autumn). However, domestic rabbits are kept in very different conditions to wild rabbits. Therefore domestic rabbits seem to have a more variable moulting pattern. Some rabbits and especially house rabbits will appear to moult almost constantly!
When rabbits moult, they typically start by shedding fur from their head, which spreads down the neck and back and then down the sides of their body, finishing on their rump. However, some rabbits seem not to have any set pattern and will lose fur in patches from all over their body at the same time. Sometimes a tide line becomes apparent, which looks like a line across the rabbits fur, where the moult is progressing, and often you can observe the skin as being darker where the new fur is growing through. You should get to know what is normal for your rabbit, so you are able to spot potential problems quickly, and helping your rabbit through their moult is a sensible idea.
Get your rabbit used to bring brushed, so when they are moulting and need more frequent grooming, it isn’t so stressful for them. When brushing your rabbit sit with them on the ground. Rabbits are ground-dwelling creatures and do not like being placed at a height.
During a moult is may be necessary to brush your rabbit more than once a day. Often breaking the grooming sessions up into smaller sessions is less stressful than one long session of grooming. Ensure that when you brush the rabbit you brush down to the skin, parting the fur as you go along. You need to remove all of the undercoat that is being shed, and not just the fur that is sitting on the top, otherwise you will get matts within the fur.
There are a variety of brushes and combs that can be used on rabbits. Slicker brushes, which have sharp ends, are often too harsh to use on rabbits, since they easily scratch their skin, so should be avoided. Wide-toothed combs are very useful, as are the flea combs that are marketed for cats. Brushes with metal prongs with blunt ends are also handy. You will get to know what tools you find the easiest to use and your rabbit prefers.
Unless you have been shown how to and you are confident in doing so, you shouldn’t attempt to cut matts out from your rabbits coat. Rabbit skin is very delicate and easily torn and cut. If you notice any matts that you are not able to tease out with careful brushing and combing, you should take your rabbit to your vets so they can clip them out.
Moulting rabbits need daily grooming to reduce the amount of hair passing through the digestive system. In years gone by, hair balls used to be diagnosed as a cause of gastro-intestinal stasis (gut slowing, commonly known as GI stasis). However, rabbits are constantly ingesting hair through grooming and it is therefore perfectly normal to find some hair in the rabbits’ stomach. Problems occur when the hair ‘dries out’ due to a sluggish GI tract and/ or dehydration. Therefore hair balls are a secondary problem and not usually a cause of GI stasis. Constant access to hay/grass is absolutely vital to keep the guts moving normally, even more so when the rabbit is moulting. Get into the habit of checking droppings daily.
Droppings that are small and dry, or becoming hard with less being produced should ring alarm bells and you should take your rabbit to see a vet as soon as possible to try and prevent a bout of GI stasis. Droppings strung together on strands of hair show that the rabbit is passing the hair through the GI tract and as long as they are eating well and passing large droppings in large quantities then this is perfectly fine to monitor. However, if your rabbit is subdued or unwell in any way then he may be developing GI stasis which needs urgent veterinary attention.
Sticking in moult
The moulting process can get “stuck”. This usually happens on the flanks, just above the tail, and on the belly. Use a cat moulting comb to remove the dead loose hair. House rabbits living in centrally heated homes often moult incessantly, especially heavy coated breeds. This is an annoying side effect of keeping pets indoors (heavy-coated dogs living indoors do the same) and there is nothing you can do except groom your bunnies and vacuum your home daily!
Cheyletiella parasitovorax is probably the most common mite in rabbits, and often just referred to as the rabbit fur mite. It is a non-burrowing mite that is just visible to the naked eye, so is sometimes known as the “walking mite” or “walking dandruff”since you can often see them moving. Many rabbits carry the mite with no clinical signs. Problems and infestations occur when the rabbit is unable to keep the mites numbers under control, which can be for a variety of reasons.
If your rabbit has any condition that restricts their ability to groom:
- dental problem
- sore hocks
- poor balance
- during other illnesses when their immune system is under more strain
- at times of stress (bonding, loss of a companion, house move, moulting, sudden change in environmental temperature etc)
Check particularly carefully for mites and seek veterinary advice about tackling the mites and the underlying problem/s.
The hallmark of Cheyletiella infection is areas of dense, flaky, encrusted skin particularly on the back, either above the tail, in the nape of the neck or down the spine, although occasionally it can become much more extensive.
The sources of Cheyletiella infection are often debated but the common consensus is that most rabbits have low grade infestations that are not detectable until either something triggers the mite population to flare up from time to time, or the rabbit can no longer keep the mite population in check by effective grooming. Cheyletiella mites can travel on hay, and can potentially act as a Myxomatosis vector.
Cheyletiella infestations can be treated with a course of ivermectin injections given at 7 to 10 day intervals and repeated for 3 -5 weeks depending upon the severity. Spot On topical vermectin or selamectin treatments are also available. It is important to finish the course of treatment even if the condition seems to have disappeared. Although ivermectin isn’t licensed for use in rabbits, it has been widely used for a number of years without any reported problems, and is an appropriate treatment in spot on or injectable form under the Cascade legislation.
Never use dog/cat “spot on” treatments without consulting your vet; they may be dangerous to your bunny. The active ingredient Fipronil has been cited as causing deaths in rabbits. Equally, permethrin based products used in rabbits can be highly toxic to rabbits.
Effect on humans
Cheyletiella can affect humans, especially those with compromised immune systems. If you are worried you should speak to your GP. Cleaning of the rabbit’s environment, consisting of removing and changing all substrate, washing bedding etc is also recommended after each ivermectin treatment.
Revision History This article first appeared as a Q&A in the “Rabbit health matters” supplement of Rabbiting On. It was revised when it first appeared on the RWA website in November 2001, and again in November 2004. It was revised in 2005 and reviewed and edited in December 2012 by Claire Speight RVN. Reviewed by Richard Saunders BSc BVSc CBiol MSB CertZooMed DZooMed (Mammalian) MRCVS in April 2017.