Month: July 2018

Firework fear

Although it appears to be rare in cats as compared to dogs, it is thought that they can often be afraid of fireworks. It is not surprising that animals are scared of fireworks since they are very loud (up to 150 decibels). Sounds this loud can be physically painful as well as inducing fear. Fear behaviour in cats is often more subtle (e.g. retreating and hiding) and may go unnoticed. However, hiding is an adaptive response for cats and allowing them to hide when they are stressed can make them feel better.

Problems with noises are grouped under the general term of noise sensitivities. A sensitivity is an extreme reaction that does not return to normal baseline levels or reduces more slowly than a standard response would, but which does not rise to the level of a phobia. Noise sensitivity generally occurs in response to loud and sudden noises such as thunder, fireworks, gunshots, etc. Animals exposed to such noises may show anxiety or fear responses.

Fear can be difficult to gauge in animals and is based on observation of body postures. A fearful animal will show an increase in heart rate, cower, and possibly urinate and defaecate in a stressful circumstance. On the other hand, pets may show withdrawal behaviour, being less active and hiding.

Fleeing, hiding and heightened reactivity are instinctive responses during which the animal may view approaches (including from their owner) as potential threats and so react aggressively when they would not otherwise do so. The likelihood of an animal perceiving something as a threat, and how it responds to that threat, depends on its genetic make-up and the stimulus from the environment. Your pet may learn which events predict the future onset of the noise that frightens and start to react to these events. This causes them to show fear responses earlier with repeated exposure. In phobic animals the fear response becomes extreme.

Fear is a normal reaction in many situations. Pets, when they are frightened, may become aggressive (fight reaction), run away (flight), stay still (freeze), or display appeasement or attention seeking behaviours (jumping up, licking, pawing at owner). Fear can become self-reinforcing and rather than helping your pet to learn that he or she can survive multiple exposures, they can actually become sensitised to the fearful stimulus.

Sometimes fear results from a traumatic experience related to exposure to the noise, in other cases there are less direct associations that become learned, for example being told off when they react. In some cases, the continuous, unpredictable repetition of sudden loud noises favours the development of the sensitivity.

Fearful responses can also result from any significant sounds that the pet has not encountered during its early development.

It is important to remember that all animals should be watched for untoward reactions to noise and any reactions that do not diminish on a second exposure should be evaluated. Early treatment of these is more likely to have a favourable outcome. Animals may be at particular risk of developing noise sensitivity if there are other stress-related behaviour problems or some form of physical disease, since their unease may decrease their level of tolerance to any unpleasant event.

Finally, be aware that your behaviour can influence your pet’s response as well. It is essential to stay calm at all times.

To help your pet you should immediately adopt measures to avoid further worsening of the condition in conjunction with starting treatment.

Restriction of the problem

There are some methods to help your pet in the short term, to prevent worsening of the problem until treatment can be effected. These routines will need to be continued during the specific therapy, and some of them should become part of the normal routine with your pet (e.g. avoiding involuntary reinforcements).

Avoid fireworks

If your pet is afraid of fireworks, you should try to avoid exposure to this situation. Being exposed to the cause of our fears with no chance of escaping can be very traumatic and it is likely that the problem will get worse. For this reason try to keep your pet inside the house if you know that fireworks are likely to be let off at a certain time – if your cat is allowed outside call him back before fireworks start.

Avoid involuntary reinforcement or punishment

Your behaviour can also influence your pet. If you try to comfort or soothe your pet, you may involuntarily encourage fearful behaviour. On the other hand, punishment may increase your pet’s fear. Ideally you should try to ignore your animal, once you have provided him with a secure place to stay. If however, it is too hard for you to ignore your pet when he is afraid, you can try to provide some distraction.

Try to be jolly and engage yourself in some activity that is very likely to interest your pet. Use a jolly voice and try to catch the interest of your pet without directly addressing him, you can then reward him after he has joined you and keep him engaged by playing games. The idea is that he chooses to join you without any direct encouragement from you, since this means he has changed his emotional  response.

Mask the noise

During the firework sounds keep your pet in a room with the curtains and blinds shut or a windowless room. You can try to mask the external sounds by providing plenty of background noise at a fairly high volume (although you should be careful if your pet is uncomfortable with loud noise). Compositions which have slow tempos and less complex arrangements (such as instrumental solos) can have a calming effect on animals.

Provide a safe haven

The safe haven is simply an area, a rug, or a bed where your pet can feel safe and secure. You should appreciate that it is not a bolt hole where your pet tries to hide until the fearful event is passed. It is rather a place where your animal spontaneously decides to go because it feels good, and is something that helps your pet to successfully cope with his fears. For this reason, the safe haven should be a confined area, with no previous negative experiences (e.g. if your pet tends to hide in one corner of the room, you can choose the same room but set the safe haven in a different corner).

You will need to build up several positive experiences associated with the safe haven in advance of any risk period. You can choose a new bed and put it in a crate (but only if you are sure that your pet likes to rest in crates). You may want to cover the crate with a blanket or place it under a table (this depends on your pet’s preferences for small confined places). The safe haven should be located away from windows.

Once you have the safe haven set up, you can teach your pet to use it. Initially you may encourage your pet to go into the safe haven by luring him with toys or some food treats. Your pet’s meals can also be given here. You can also hide toys and treats in the safe haven for your pet to find there (this will encourage him to visit the place when you are not around). You can also give chews or food toys for your pet to work on when it is there.

Every time you see your pet in the safe haven he should be allowed to relax there with treats tossed over to him if you like, but no direct contact. With time you may make these additional rewards less frequent, since the place itself has become an area for relaxation.

It is important that potentially unpleasant events are never associated with the safe haven; therefore, should you need, for example, to give medication it is important that you do it elsewhere. In the same way, if children or other animals bother your pet, you will need to teach them to respect this area or keep them at a distance using baby gates or doors flaps. The idea is that this is a place where your pet can be in control. Placing the safe haven in the room least exposed to the sounds will also help your pet to cope.

Pheromones

Pheromone therapy has proved useful for management of some behavioural problems as part of a behaviour modification programme in conjunction with counter-conditioning. Your vet may suggest that you consider this as part of the programme of control of your dog’s fears.

Diet and supplements

There are some veterinary diets and some specific nutraceuticals which may be used to help your pet feel generally more calm. The principle behind these products is that they contain chemicals which have a natural calming effect on pets. Although they are not medications, always use them under your vet’s guidance, especially if your pet needs specific diets or attention regarding food intake because of medical conditions.

There is no evidence that homeopathic remedies have a specific positive effect on firework related problems, and their use might delay the use of more effective interventions, so they should not be considered harmless. However, certain herbals have been found to induce calmer behaviour in dogs and can be use as a general help. But if you chose to give these products to your pet, it is important that you always use them under your vet’s direction. Indeed, these substances may have severe effects on your pet’s health if not appropriately utilised.

Medications

For some pets with a severe fear the only immediate solution is a short course of calming medication at the time the noise is likely to happen. These drugs should be given before your pet becomes upset for maximum efficacy, i.e. before the feared event starts. You should not be concerned about giving the medication when you are not sure whether the noise will occur or not, as it is better for your pet to have taken the medication on a false alarm than for him to experience another traumatic cycle of events without medication.

Always discuss medication issues with your vet and only use treatment under their guidance. If your pet has a particular problem your vet may wish to refer you to someone who specialises in treating behavioural problems for further advice.

Resolution of the problem

While the previous advice is very important to avoid worsening of the problem, they will not bring a resolution on their own as your pet will still be afraid whenever there are fireworks. Also, their fear may put your pet at risk of developing other behaviour problems and the stress can have a negative impact on their physical health. Therefore you will need to do something to make this fear go away.

Behaviour modification

Treatment for fireworks fear is mainly based on a type of behaviour modification called desensitisation and counter-conditioning. Desensitisation is the process of teaching your pet to be less sensitive to sudden loud noises. Counter-conditioning means to swap the fear response with a new feeling that is not compatible with the fear (e.g. play or the pleasure of eating food).

The basic principle is to let your animal experience the noises in a situation where he does not feel afraid, and at a volume that does not cause fear (this can be so low at the beginning, that you cannot hear anything yourself). He is then rewarded for being relaxed. Once your pet gets used to this process the level of noise is gradually increased, but only to a level where he still feels confident. If he is ever afraid of the noise the level is reduced until he feels safe again.

Ending each lesson in such a successful way and avoiding making your pet feel scared is a critical point – behaviour modification cannot occur if your pet is distressed and in most cases medication to calm the pet is required to facilitate the acquisition of new behaviours. Training sessions should always be short and regular to help get a positive outcome.

Pheromone therapy has proved useful for management of some behavioural problems as part of a behaviour modification programme in conjunction with counter-conditioning. Your vet may suggest that you consider this as part of the programme of control of your dog’s fears.

Medications

In some animals the fear of fireworks is so marked that pets may need medication to calm them so that they are able to learn during the behaviour treatment. These drugs are not intended to be used in the long term, they just help your pet to cope while you carry on the behaviour modification. Your vet will advise you on the best treatment for your pet and you should not give your pet any medication without consulting your vet.

Having a noise sensitivity is no fun for your pet and can be very distressing for you. Fears can get worse with time and they will not often go away unless you do something about it. In the first instance consult your vet who may refer you to a specialist for further advice.

Remember that there are strategies which help prevent the problem.

Selection of your pet

Selection is the first step involved in the prevention of behavioural problems. Some traits of temperament are inherited, but parents can also influence their offspring through their own behaviour. If you have any reason to think that your kitten is at particular risk of developing a noise phobia you should contact your vet immediately if they show any sign of noise sensitivity.

Stimulation during early life

As said, it is important that, during their early life, pets are exposed to the stimuli that they will encounter later in life. It is important that these first experiences are positive, so that it is less likely that future negative experiences leave a strong effect on your pet.

Nevertheless, given the other features of firework parties you should not try to take your pet to a firework display as the noise can be too loud and the other experiences too traumatic for your pet.

Destructive cats

Does your cat scratch at the furniture, chew your belongings, dig up your plant pots or steal food? If the answer is yes, your beloved pet might be trying to get your attention, creating its own fun, or expressing anxiety. As there are many reasons for destructive behaviours, you must first understand why your cat is being destructive if you are to stop it.

Feral domestic cats spend, on average, 8 hours hunting every day and therefore spend a lot of their mental and physical energy engaged in getting enough to eat. In contrast, pet cats get their food in a bowl, and often spend very little time getting it.

Because hunting is such an important activity for cats, those that have free access to the outdoors often engage in hunting activity even though they also get fed by the owner. Domestic cats that don’t go outside or have restricted access to the outside are therefore unable to show their full range of normal behaviours and may become inactive and depressed, or show signs of frustration. Cats may express their frustration through destructive behaviour.

Many owners react to their cat’s destructive behaviour by chasing them, squirting them with water or distracting them with a toy or food. This might temporarily stop the cat’s behaviour, but may actually reinforce the behaviour in the long term. Cats soon learn that if they are destructive their owner engages in an even more exciting game with them. In cats where this learning occurs, their destructive behaviour can become a strategy for gaining the owner’s attention.

To prevent cats becoming frustrated you must keep their environment as stimulating as possible. Try to replace all the things that your cat would do if it was outside – providing opportunities for play, maximising the use of three-dimensional space, and making it ‘work’ for its food.

Play is a great way of using up a cat’s energy and you can encourage your cat to use its natural hunting instincts by providing toys that stimulate stalking and chasing behaviour. Objects that are small, have a complex surface texture and move will be of most interest to cats. Independent play is good as it means that your cat can do things when you are out or busy, e.g. toys can be hung up in front of windows so any draught causes the toy to move about and get the cat’s attention.

You should also play with your cats as much as possible, e.g. with fishing rod toys. Toys should be changed regularly to keep them exciting. Do not play with your cat using feet or hands as this may encourage inappropriate play, where the cat will use the teeth and claws on parts of the human body.

You can also make feeding time more active. Giving cats their dried food in puzzle feeders instead of in bowls means that they have to work to get the food out. Puzzle feeders can be bought from pet shops, or you can make your own by cutting holes, just bigger than dried cat biscuits, in a small plastic drinking bottle and filling it with dried food. As the cat taps the bottle across the floor bits of food drop out.

Alternatively, you can hide bits of food inside scrunched up pieces of paper around the house so that your cat has to search for and then manipulate them to get to the food. To get a cat used to this idea start by placing the dry food just next to the bowl and gradually increase the distance of the food from the bowl until it is eventually scattered throughout the house. Making your cat work for food like this will means they will spend much more time ‘hunting’ for food, rather than just eating straight from a bowl.

Cats also love to move around in three-dimensions (on all levels), so try to make your cat’s environment more exciting by providing shelves at different levels that they can jump onto. Most cats enjoy climbing and jumping and will spend a lot of time on elevated areas, which they use as vantage points from which to survey their surroundings. Being able to escape to a high place is especially important for cats in households containing more than one cat.

Constructions ranging from simple scratching posts with a shelf to complex structures with lots of shelves, beds and scratching posts will satisfy a cat’s desire to climb, jump, scratch and rest. Cats also like to explore and hide so giving them boxes, even cardboard ones, will provide extra stimulation and comfort.

Scratching posts should have a vertical grain as cats prefer to run their claws down the thread rather than across it. The scratching posts must also be tall enough to allow the cat a full stretch and be steady enough not to topple over when leaning into it. If the scratching posts fulfil these criteria then hopefully the cat will not feel the need to scratch the back of the sofa!

Scratching is a normal cat behaviour and is used for both marking and sharpening nails. However, some cats scratch the furniture or perform other destructive behaviours as a result of anxiety. Therefore, simply providing a more stimulating environment might not be enough to stop a cat from scratching.

Punishing a cat for being destructive will not necessarily stop the destructive behaviour. It is more important to address the reasons why the cat shows the behaviour in the first place. Punishment might also damage your relationship with your cat and cause anxiety when you are around.

Some punishments might even be rewarding for the cat; an under-stimulated cat might find it fun to be chased around the house or sprayed with water! Similarly, other techniques such as distracting a cat with a toy or food will only reward the destructive behaviour and teach the cat that being destructive is a good thing!

Cat behaviour

Cats are very special creatures and, despite the best efforts of humans, are not that far removed from their wild ancestors. They have a large range of behaviour patterns and a secret language of their own. So whilst we bring them into our homes and try to tame them they do tend to continue to know their own mind and ‘do their own thing’! Understanding why they behave the way they do can help you develop strategies to persuade your cat to do things the way you want.

Dogs are probably easier to train than cats because dogs are keen to please their owners. Cats, on the other hand, are highly motivated by their own pleasure. The key to cat training is to make sure that you make whatever you want your cat to do highly rewarding.

Behaviours that you don’t want should be unpleasant for the cat. Punishing cats does not work – they will just learn to misbehave when you cannot see them! Some cats misbehave to get attention and this attention is a reward that encourages your cat to continue this behaviour.

Cats are naturally very clean and litter training is easy in most cases. After feeding or waking take your kitten to a clean litter tray. When your cat gets to the box, scratch the litter to get her interested. The litter tray must always be kept clean so that your cat learns it is a great place to be. If your cat uses the tray let her know how pleased you are.

Many owners find it difficult to get used to the fact that their cute pet is also a cruel hunter. It is especially difficult to live with a cat that insists on bringing prey home. Hunting is a very strong instinct in cats and they will continue to chase and catch prey even when they are well fed. Kittens instinctively use hunting behaviour in their play and as they get older they develop the techniques through practice.

You will not be able to stop your cat hunting unless you keep them indoors all the time. Fitting a bell on a collar may reduce the number of animals that your cat catches.

Claws are an important part of the armoury of cats in the wild. They use them for hunting, fighting and climbing. It is important therefore that the claws are kept sharp and in good condition. Scratching conditions your cat’s claws by removing the old layers of the nails.

Cats may scratch at furniture in order to keep their claws sharp but usually you can teach them that this is unacceptable behaviour by making the experience unpleasant, i.e. by shouting when they do it. However, you will need to teach your cat where they are allowed to scratch and provide something for the purpose such as a scratching post.

Cats may also scratch furniture in order to mark it and define their territory. If your cat persists in this behaviour you may need to get some advice from your vet to help you deal with it.

Basic training for cats

Thousands of cats end up parting company with their owners every year, often due to behaviours that the owners consider problematic: such as scratching the furniture, jumping into places that owners would prefer them not to (e.g. the baby’s cot) and scratching and/or biting their owners. Basic training with your cat may help prevent such problems and improve your relationship with your cat. For a long time, many people thought it was not possible to train cats, but in fact they can learn in the same manner as dogs.

As with all animals, the best way to train your cat is through the use of positive reinforcement. This means giving your cat something nice when it performs a behaviour you like, and ignoring any unwanted behaviour.

The cat will learn to associate the desired behaviour with something rewarding and will therefore be more likely to perform that behaviour again. If the undesired behaviour has no positive consequence, the cat is less likely to repeat it. In this way, we ‘shape’ our cat’s behaviour to suit us.

A good place to start is to train your cat to perform a very simple task such as ‘sit’.

Using one of your cat’s favourite food treats, move the food over their head and as their gaze follows the food and their head moves back, their rear end will naturally lower into a sitting position. At this point give the food to your cat while it is sitting.

Move position so that the cat follows you and releases from the sitting position and try again. We often need to reward approximations of the behaviour we want (i.e. taking baby steps towards the desired behaviour). So if the cat does not sit on the first try, give it a helping hand to the correct behaviour by initially rewarding when it lowers its back end.

When the cat is reliably sitting when you use the food as a lure, you can begin to add the verbal cue ‘sit’ just as the cat is sitting. It will then begin to associate the word ‘sit’ with the action.

Every cat is different and each will prefer different activities and it can be a fun task finding out what your cat likes best. Consider whether your cat is motivated by food? Does he or she like certain treats such as special cat biscuits, prawns or small pieces of ham for example? If he or she is not very food motivated, what about a favourite toy or game? Do they enjoy playing with a fishing rod toy with you? Or do they like to be groomed?

Carrying out your training sessions when your cat is hungry or motivated to play or be groomed will help successful training by keeping the value of your reward high. Using a variety of rewards can also help.

Teaching your cat to use a target is often useful. This means teaching your cat to sit or stay or place a paw or nose on a certain object or location. Gradually increase the amount of time your cat stays with the target before the reward. The basics of targeting can be used to teach your cat not to jump on worktops (but sit on a target mat instead on the floor) or to enter the cat carrier (by placing the target mat inside the cat carrier).

You can train your cat to do many fun things. This will be mentally and physically stimulating for your cat, which is of particular importance for indoor-only cats who live in a more static environment. Such training tasks can include ‘fetch’, ‘paw’, ‘beg’, and even navigating mini agililty courses set up in the home.

While kittens and younger cats may learn certain tasks more quickly than older cats, it is never too late to start training. The important thing to remember is to keep training sessions short (no longer than a few minutes in the first instance and building up to a maximum of 10-15 minutes). Kittens and older cats are likely to have shorter attention spans and different cats will have differing tolerance to the length of training.

The most important thing to remember is always end the training session on a positive note, when your cat is still interested. Do not exhaust them. Integrate your training into your daily routine and make it as fun as possible.

No force is used during positive reinforcement training, therefore your cat is free to walk away from the training at any point. If your cat does abandon the session, the treat you are offering may not be appealing enough or your training session may be too long. Try changing the treat to something of higher value (e.g. tuna, prawns, ham, a more active toy) and remember to keep your sessions short.

A cat that is actively engaged in training may vocalize in a positive manner for the reinforcer (purr or miaow), will exhibit relaxed body language and will orientate its gaze towards you.

Aggressive cats

Living with a cat that loves nothing better than to ambush your legs, or attack you when you try to stroke it can be very unpleasant and often extremely painful! Treatment of aggressive behaviour can be very successful; however, it does require understanding of why the cat is motivated to show aggression.

The two main reasons for aggression to develop in cats are because of fear, or because they have learnt an inappropriate way of interacting with their owner. Fear aggression is a defence strategy, which occurs when the cat is feeling threatened. Play behaviour can be termed aggressive when it is directed at an inappropriate target, e.g. human hands and feet.

In order to learn that different situations are ‘normal’ and ‘safe’, cats have to experience them very early in life. Things that are not encountered early on will be more likely to be scary to a cat when it encounters them later in life. Cats that were not well socialised with people as young kittens (between 2 and 8 weeks of age) will be less likely to approach people and may feel threatened by contact with people.

Other cats may become fearful due to a bad experience with people later in life. Individual cats can feel threatened by different ‘levels’ of interaction with people, e.g. one cat might feel threatened by a person approaching, while another enjoys close contact but feels threatened when picked up.

If a cat shows aggression and the person moves away or puts them down, then that aggressive behaviour has been successful. Consequently, every time a person approaches and the cat shows aggression, the aggressive behaviour becomes increasingly established as a successful response to this ‘threat’.

Aggressive behaviour is often sudden and unpredictable and can include attacking people by grabbing them with claws and biting them. Sudden movement such as passing feet, or occasionally high-pitched sounds may trigger this behaviour. Generally this type of behaviour in adult cats develops through inappropriate play behaviour in kittens.

If owners allow kittens to play with their fingers or feet; the kittens will grow up thinking that this is the normal way to interact with people. This behaviour is further reinforced by the reaction of the ‘victim’, such as running around screaming; the movement and noise reinforces both play and predatory behaviour in kittens and adult cats. In addition to the excitement of the play, some cats find this behaviour a very successful method of getting attention from their owners – it certainly gets a response every time!

Aggression can also arise from frustration or ‘re-directed’ aggression. The latter occurs when a cat becomes aroused by something, e.g. another cat, but is unable to attack it and takes this aggression out on the closest moving object; commonly the owner.

Rarely aggressive behaviour is caused by a medical condition (such as seizure activity), and sometimes an underlying medical condition (such as high thyroid hormone levels) makes aggressive behaviour more likely. Cats in pain show a defensive response to being touched, which may appear aggressive.

If your cat is aggressive through fear you must be careful not to appear threatening to the cat when you interact with it or approach it. This will prevent further reinforcement of the aggression so that your cat learns that it can relax around people. Then it is possible to start a ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme’ using food rewards.

Place some tasty food next to your cat’s hiding place then sit far enough away that your cat will tolerate your presence, and venture out to eat the food. Slowly your cat will learn to associate your presence with something good. In very small stages, the food treat should be moved closer to where you are sitting so that your cat is encouraged to approach. Finally try to stroke your cat once before giving it a food reward then gradually build up the number of times you stroke your cat.

Cats that are poorly socialised to people are unlikely to ever become cuddly lap cats, but by following this programme the cat will learn to tolerate the presence of humans instead of being fearful and showing aggression if approached.

To stop cats from playing aggressively owners must change the consequences of the aggression. Because these cats find the reaction of their victim (screaming and running around) so rewarding they are likely to continue the behaviour. Therefore, you must not reward ambushes by being exciting, which means ignoring the cat’s attack.

You may need to wear protective clothing at all times in the house so you do not get injured and can easily ignore the attacks. You must also stay perfectly still when your cat is playing aggressively and must not talk to, or even look at it, as the cat may find any response rewarding. Your cat will soon learn that it no longer gets a response by pouncing on you so will gradually stop the behaviour.

You should also start to use your attention as a reward for good behaviour; praising your cat when it is playing with its own toys or in an acceptable fashion, e.g. with fishing rod toys. In this way the cat’s aggressive behaviour can be redirected onto more appropriate targets.

Environmental enrichment puzzle feeders, climbing and hiding spaces, and scratching posts may also help to reduce this behaviour by occupying the cat’s time in a more constructive way.

Scanning – the inside picture

Until a few years ago, diagnostic imaging was limited to radiography (x-rays), ultrasound and endoscopy. Although these are still very useful diagnostic tools, there are now far more advanced diagnostic imaging methods, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computed Tomography (CT), that are being more commonly used in rabbit medicine.

MRI is also a non-invasive imaging modality that scans the rabbit using a magnetic field to produce high-quality images of the animal which can be used to evaluate anatomy, function and pathology of many structures.

In rabbits, MRI is usually used to look at soft tissue structures, including organs within the body, and is especially useful when diagnosing brain tumours.

An MRI scanner consists of a box-like machine with a tunnel through the centre that is open at both ends. Your rabbit will be placed onto the motorised table in the centre of the tunnel. This moves inside the machine to create the scan with a small receiving device placed behind/around your rabbit.

An MRI scan relies on a strong magnetic field to move around and react with different atoms within the body to create the image.

The operator is located in a different room, and the veterinary team will also monitor your rabbit from here.

MRI scanners are very noisy which is another reason why your rabbit is very likely to be sedated or placed under general anaesthesia, and can take around half an hour to complete, during which there must be minimal movement to prevent blurring of the scan images.

CT, also known as CAT scanning, is a non-invasive imaging modality that uses x-rays to scan the rabbit to create cross-sectional pictures of the animal which can be used to evaluate anatomy, function and pathology of many structures.

In rabbits, CT is particularly useful for viewing bony changes, such as those associated with advanced dental disease.

A CT scanner is a large box-like machine with a short tunnel or hole running through the centre. Your rabbit will be placed on the examination table which then moves in and out of the tunnel.

The x-ray tube and electronic x-ray detectors are located opposite each other in a ring, called a gantry, and rotate around your rabbit to create the scan image.

The CT scan is controlled from a separate room, where the information is processed and from where the veterinary team can monitor your rabbit.

  • Tumours, especially brain tumours
  • Abscesses within the body/skull
  • Fluid within the tympanic bullae or the ear (inner and middle ear disease)
  • Tumours within bone or the chest/abdomen
  • Central nervous disease, such as epilepsy
  • Assessing the vertebral column
  • Upper respiratory tract disease

CT scanning is normally the technique of choice for assessing the skull and calcified structures, whereas MRI is mostly used for evaluating soft tissue.

During the scanning process of both CT and MRI, your rabbit must stay totally still to get a good diagnostic image. Therefore, to ensure your rabbit is immobile during the procedure, your vet will need to either sedate or anaesthetise your rabbit. General anaesthesia is usually required, even in the most relaxed and well behaved rabbit.

Arthritis

Arthritis is a well-known, documented condition affecting humans, cats and dogs. R rabbits can often be affected too, especially as they get older, and sometimes this can go un-noticed.

Arthritis is a general term given to the inflammation of a joint or joints, and any joint within the body can be affected. Arthritis isn’t a single disease, but rather a group of abnormalities that can have different causes, all of which lead to inflammation of the joints. Arthritis is a progressive condition and can cause significant pain and discomfort.

Arthritis can occur naturally as your rabbit ages; however rabbits are particularly susceptible to arthritis if the joints are put under extra strain, i.e. large breeds of rabbit, fat/obese rabbits or those with missing limbs. These extra stresses cause the joints to wear more quickly than they would do under normal circumstances. Arthritis due to injury of the joint earlier in life is also common. These conditions are commonly referred to as osteoarthritis.

Other causes include bacterial infections causing septic arthritis. This can be caused by penetrating injuries where bacteria are introduced to the joint capsule leading to inflammation. This type of arthritis can occur at any age and in any breed of rabbit. If a rabbit contracts an infection, as a results of trauma, dental disease or upper respiratory tract infection, there might be an increased risk of bacteria migrating to the joint, causing septic arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritisis another type of arthritis caused by an over-reaction of the immune system; the immune system mistakes the body’s own protein for bacteria and attacks it leading to inflammation within the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis does not seem to occur spontaneously in domestic rabbits.

As your rabbit ages, you may notice your rabbit slowing down and isnt as active as it used to be. This can be a normal sign of aging, and may creep up very slowly, making recognising and diagnosing arthritis quite difficult on clinical signs alone.

You may notice that your rabbit has difficulty getting in and out of the litter tray, getting up or hopping around. Your rabbit may struggle to move around, present an abnormal gait or have difficulty grooming, leading to an unkempt coat or a mucky bottom. Your rabbit may not be able to scratch its ears, so excess amounts of earwax may accumulate. Urine scalding may develop in some cases.

Sometimes subtle behavioural changes, such as being quieter than usual or aggressive when handled, are also an indication of discomfort or pain. Less commonly, reduced appetite may also be seen. If you notice any of these signs, you should consider taking your rabbit to the vet as they may all indicate the onset of arthritis.

our vet will give your rabbit a full clinical examination. Radiographs will then confirm or rule out the presence of arthritis. On x-ray, arthritis joints will show a haze or fuzziness around the joint, which is diagnostic of the condition. Other more sophisticated diagnostic imaging techniques, including ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and arthroscopy, can also be used for a more accurate diagnosis. All these techniques can prove very useful to visualize the degree of bone and joint destruction.

Your rabbit will probably require sedation or general anaesthesia in order to achieve good enough images to be diagnostic.

Your vet may also do a blood test, urine test, or take a sample of joint fluid (joint aspirate) to test in the lab to rule out any underlying problems.

It is possible to treat arthritis in rabbits in order to try and ease some of the discomfort and difficulties that the rabbit may be experiencing, but it is not currently possible to cure the problem completely.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used in rabbits to reduce inflammation around the joints and to ease the discomfort that is usually present with the condition. Your vet may want to check your rabbit’s liver and kidney function to safely prescribe these medications, especially if long-term treatment is required.

Septic arthritis can be resolved if it caught and treated early enough.

There has been controversy regarding supplementation of joint problems in both humans and animals; however there are some rabbit foods that now contain added glucosamine, which is thought to benefit animals with arthritis and help with joint mobility.

Gentle massage over the muscle of the affected area can help decrease the degree of muscle tightness. Gently flexing and extending the affected joint for a few minutes several times daily may help as well, but always remember that physical therapy may be detrimental in cases of trauma. Always follow your vet’s recommendation in these cases and be careful and gentle when handling your rabbit.

Acupuncture has also been reported to help in some cases by reducing the amount of pain medication used, and providing relief for many patients.

Ensure that you do not allow your rabbit to become overweight, and encourage them to exercise regularly to build up muscle mass.

If you think your rabbit may be developing arthritis (symptoms can be attributed to other conditions), then take your rabbit to see your vet as soon as possible.

If your rabbit is diagnosed with arthritis then keeping the hair clipped around the perineum and applying a barrier cream will help with any urine scalding, deep and soft bedding to prevent pressure sores is also recommended.

Keep your rabbit on a soft absorbent bedding to prevent soiling and further complications.

Your rabbits litter tray will need to have a low entrance if it is having difficulty hopping in and out, and if your rabbit has a ramp in their hutch/run or stairs, then you may need to make other arrangements as they may struggle to use these.

Some rabbits may not be able to reach their caecothrophes, so it is a good idea to collect them and place them in, or near to, their food area as most rabbits will eat them on their own.

Cerebrospinal nematodiasis

Cerebrospinal nematodiasis is an invasion of the central nervous system by nematode (roundworm) larvae and a cause of neurological disease in rabbits that have access to the outdoors. Infected rabbits may show a variety of clinical signs. These can also be attributed to many other disease processes.

Cerebrospinal nematodiasis occurs when rabbit ingest material, e.g. grass, that is contaminated with faeces containing the eggs from Toxacara canis (canine roundworm) or Baylisascaris spp eggs.

When the eggs are ingested they migrate through the central nervous system and damage surrounding tissues, causing encephalomalacia, a degenerative disease of the brain which causes softening of brain tissues. The eggs can remain dormant in the environment for months or years at a time before being ingested.

Signs can vary and may have a slow onset (chronic) or be acute (have a sudden onset). The signs will vary depending on the level of infection, the damage done and the route which the larval migration takes.

Clinical signs may include:

  • behavioural changes
  • torticollis (head tilt)
  • circling
  • seizures
  • vertical nystagmus (eye flicking/twitching)
  • swaying
  • falling over
  • paralysis
  • ataxia (loss of co-ordination).

There seems to be no evidence that sex, breed or age of the rabbit makes it more predisposed to the effects of the parasite.

Diagnosis is made on blood sampling. Toxoplasma serology and examination of the rabbit’s faeces are the normal way that a diagnosis is made. Samples for these tests will normally have to be sent to an external laboratory.

Anti-parasitic medications, such as albendazole or fenbendazole, together with anti-inflammatory medications, to help inflammation is the usual treatment of choice.

Rabbits that are not eating well will also require supportive feeding, intravenous fluids and prokinetic (improves gastrointestinal motility) medication to ensure they do not go into gastrointestinal stasis.

The prognosis for successful recovery is poor, although some rabbits may have a resolution of clinical signs. Treatment can be expensive and on-going so cost considerations should be discussed with your vet.

Rabbits act as the end host for the parasite and do not shed the parasite in their faeces. However, if the rabbit contracted the parasite from an infected host in an environment shared by humans, then there is a risk that humans could contract the infection from a similar means, although not directly from the rabbit. Therefore, cerebrospinal nematodiasis is classed as a zoonotic risk to humans.

If an infected rabbit is eaten after death, the risk to predators consuming the rabbit (potentially humans), and other vertebrate predators who may therefore contract and spread the infection, is a serious risk.

Cancer in your rabbit

Sadly, from time to time, rabbits can be affected by cancer, which can take many different forms. Some cancers are more common than others and this factsheet will aim to look at those more commonly seen in pet rabbits.

Cancer is a general term used for a class of diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues. Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems destroying other healthy tissues in a process called metastasis.

There are many types of cancers, some more common than others. Most cancers are named after the organ in which they originate or type of cell that is initially affected. When the damaged cells start dividing uncontrollably they can form lumps or masses called tumours which can then interfere with the function of organs, or they can release substances, e.g. hormones, that can alter the way the body functions.

Symptoms related to cancer can be quite variable depending on where the cancer is located, if and where it has spread, and how big it is.

The main categories of cancer are:

  • Adenoma: usually arise from glandular tissues.
  • Carcinoma: begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs.
  • Sarcoma: begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels or other connective or supportive tissue.
  • Leukaemia: starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the bloodstream.
  • Lymphoma and myeloma: begin in the cells of the immune system (white blood cells).
  • Central nervous system cancers: begin in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.

Uterine adenocarcinoma

This is undoubtedly the most common tumour seen in female rabbits and is reported to affect up to 80% of unspayed female rabbits by the age of five.

Some breeds, including Dutch, Dwarf lop, English, Netherland Dwarfs, Tan, French Silver, Havana, and Polish rabbits seem to be more predisposed, but rabbits of all breeds could be affected. There is no evidence to suggest that does who have had litters in the past are any less likely to be affected.

Affected rabbits may show clinical symptoms of reproductive failure such as abortion or still-born young. As the disease progresses the doe may become anorexic, depressed, lethargic and begin to lose weight. Blood in the urine (haematuria) may develop as well as bloody vaginal discharge. Once advanced, secondary tumours in the lungs may develop leading to problems breathing (dyspnoea).

Sometimes this process may take place over a period of 1-2 years as the tumour is normally slow growing, so owners may not notice anything wrong until the disease has reached an advanced stage.

Mammary carcinomas and adenocarcinomas

Again these tumours are common in unspayed adult female rabbits.

The clinical symptoms are similar with benign and malignant mammary tumours. The development of irregular-sized discharging nipples might be indicative of the disease. These tumours are not normally painful, although secondary infection and ulceration can sometimes be seen.

Testicular neoplasia

Although reported in rabbits, testicular neoplasia is a rare clinical finding.

These may involve enlargement of one or both testicle(s). The affected swollen testicles are normally non-painful and firm. Reproductive failure may be seen in breeding bucks.

There is the potential for secondary metastatic spread of these tumours to other organs, especially the lungs, with breathing problems becoming apparent if this is the case.

Symptoms may be very indicative in some cases. Uterine adenocarcinomas are often suspected by your vet palpating a lump in the caudal abdomen. Imaging techniques such as x-rays or ultrasound can then be used to detect the mass in the abdomen. Advanced imaging, such as computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging scans are also diagnostic, although rarely used due to high cost.

Diagnosis of mammary carcinomas and adenocarcionmas can be made by obtaining a small sample of the cells from the mass(es) by fine needle aspiration, and looking at the cells under a microscope. Confirmation of the diagnosis can only be obtained by removing the tumour and sending samples to a specialised laboratory to perform a histopathological examination. Before embarking on treatment of these types of cancer, a full clinical workup should be carried out, including x-rays of the chest, to ensure no spread of the disease has already occurred. Chest x-rays should be repeated 3-6 months after surgery to check the cancer hasn’t spread to other organs.

If detected in time, most types of cancer can be treated with surgery.

Ovariohysterectomy (spaying) is advised for all female rabbits at an early age to prevent uterine neoplasia from developing. Spaying is also usually the best treatment option in cases where a tumour is already present, as long as secondary tumours have not become established within the lungs. If this is the case, the prognosis is very poor as appropriate chemotherapy has not been reported for this type of tumour in rabbits; under these circumstances the kindest thing for your rabbit is to have them put to sleep.

When mammary carcionmas and adenocarcinomas are involved, a partial or complete mastectomy (surgical removal of all mammary gland tissue) and spaying is the treatment of choice. Benign tumours may not require treatment but are often removed due to the size to which they can grow. If the neoplastic tumours have spread into bone marrow, the lungs or lymph nodes, this carries a very poor prognosis and surgical intervention will not cure the disease.

Castration is the treatment of choice for testicular neoplasia; if there is no spread of the disease into the lungs then this should be curative of the disease. As with other primary tumours, if there is a spread into the lungs then treatment is often futile and euthanasia is in the best interests of the rabbit. To prevent the disease, castration of all non-breeding male rabbits is advised.

Other types of tumours that have been reported in rabbits include:

  • Papilloma: benign growths which can have a cauliflower appearance and can sometimes bleed. Papillomas that develop in the mouth are considered non-cancerous.
  • Basal cell carcinoma: a type of skin cancer which can be benign or malignant and looks like a reddened patch of skin. They are often slow growing and appear over a period of time. Although they can spread locally, they rarely metastasise and spread to other parts of the body.
  • Osteosarcoma: tumours that affect the bone and are considered rare in rabbits. Clinical symptoms may include lameness and hard swellings on the legs.
  • Lymphoma: cancer of the lymphatic system.
  • Tymoma: these tumours are found less frequently in rabbits. The only clinical symptom might be protrusion of the eyes from the globe. These cases are usually complicated because the eye is secondarily involved, but the primary cause might be somewhere else. A thymoma may, in fact, be slowly growing in the chest, compressing the vessels that transport blood to the head resulting in this particular clinical symptom.

The key to eliminating the most common types of cancers seen in rabbits is to get them neutered at a young age, as most cancers seen in rabbits are those affecting the reproductive systems.

Of course, your rabbit may be affected by other types of cancer but treatments are constantly advancing, so always be advised by your vet.

Aggressive rabbits

Rabbits have a reputation for being cute and cuddly, and certainly don’t give an outward impression of being capable of aggression. However, aggressive behaviour towards people can be a common problem amongst domestic rabbits, and has many possible causes, with treatment aimed at improving the trust between an owner and the rabbit.

In order to begin to understand why a rabbit may be aggressive you have to look at both wild and domestic rabbits lifestyles and put yourself in the rabbit’s position. Wild rabbits rank towards the bottom of the food chain as they are prey to many predators (including humans). This explains why they are always on their guard for the first sign of danger and can react adversely when threatened.

If a rabbit senses danger it has a choice of 3 options, commonly known as the three Fs. It can either freeze in the hope that the potential danger will go away. If this fails the next option is to take flight and run away from the danger. If this fails and the rabbit is caught, then its last line of defence is to fight. Rabbits in fighting mode are formidable opponents; they will strike with their front feet, often growling and using their very sharp teeth and claws to inflict as much damage as possible in an attempt to escape.

Although domesticated, the natural behaviour of the rabbit has changed very little from that of its wild relatives. This means that pet rabbits retain the instinct of survival, so when faced with any situation which they perceive to be a danger, they will behave as a wild rabbit would.

Common examples of aggression in pet rabbits include:

Handling problems

Apart from the fact that the some rabbits don’t like to be picked up, if you were a rabbit with huge hands approaching you from above, which to you resembled a bird of prey, how would you feel? Putting this into concept and how a wild rabbit would react when faced with what it believes to be an attack from above, its first option is to freeze, but this wont work, as you will still attempt to pick the rabbit up. It cant always take flight as in a hutch or run where there is limited space and even in a house, there are only so many places to run and hide. Sometimes the rabbit’s only option is to fight for what it believes to be its life.

After a while the rabbit begins to associate approaching hands with being picked up (which it doesn’t like), so may attempt to bite at any opportunity when a hand is presented. If the action of biting stops you from picking the rabbit up, it will learn that whenever it doesn’t want to you do something to it, it just has to bite and you will stop.

Territorial aggression

Rabbits, even after they have been neutered, can be very protective of their territory (hutch, run, pen etc) and their possessions (food bowl, litter tray, toys etc) and any attempt to invade this territory may be met with aggression. In the wild, rabbits have to keep their territory safe from neighbouring groups of rabbits so it is a very natural instinct to protect and defend.

Some pet rabbits that are perhaps feeling that their territory is insecure, may display aggression towards their owners when they try to feed them, clean them out or put their hand in the cage to stroke them. This form of aggression is the often linked with possessions; if the rabbit thinks we are going to take something away from them, they will defend it.

Hormonal aggression

Hormones can play a factor in aggressive rabbits, particularly female rabbits. Such aggression is usually apparent at sexual maturity (between 3-6 months of age depending on breed) and may occur in territorial situations or be linked to sexual behaviour. Neutering will help with any aggression that is motivated by the hormones (such as territorial aggression) and should take place as soon as is medically safe. The benefits may take a couple of months to become fully apparent. Neutering will not help with forms of aggression that are caused by fear.

Pain

Rabbits who are in pain, may display aggression. Any aggression in a rabbit should first be checked out by a vet to determine that there is no medical cause or discomfort responsible for the change in behaviour.

Many rabbits are aggressive through fear which is usually linked to a lack of appropriate handling and socialisation at an early age. There are things that can be done to try and lessen the aggression, although you may not be able to totally eliminate it. If the aggression started at puberty and seems to be linked with possession or territory, then neutering may be the first option. If the aggression is linked to handling then you need to adopt a gentle programme to begin building up the trust your rabbit has in you, to show it that you aren’t a threat to it. This can be achieved by the following methods:

  • Stop attempting to pick the rabbit up. Obviously you still need to feed your rabbit and it still needs exercise from its hutch, cage, etc. but you can get around these problems by having two food bowls. Before taking the empty one away, give the rabbit its food in the other bowl, so it is eating that before you take the empty bowl away. Try to alter the rabbit’s living environment, perhaps by placing their hutch in their run, so they can go in and out as they please, so there is no need to pick them up. If they are a houserabbit, try and coax them in and out of their pen with their favourite treats. Never chase the rabbit and don’t clean out their hutch/cage when they are in it.
  • Offer the rabbit its favourite treats in an attempt to get it to come to you. Don’t make any sudden movements or attempt to pick the rabbit up at this stage. If the rabbit tries to bite you or wont take the treat, then you may need to spend more time trying not to invade the rabbit’s space. There will be no set timescale as each rabbit is an individual.
  • Once the rabbit will come to you to take a treat and doesn’t seem nervous of you, try stroking them with your hand or a long-handled soft brush (if they attempt to bite you then they bite the brush and not you. The brush can also be kept still so that they do not learn that aggression works). Gradually build up the areas that are being touched. If your rabbit has a particular area where it doesn’t like to be touched, avoid this area in the early stages.
  • Once the rabbit is happy and accepting of being brushed you can attempt to replace the brush with your hand.
  • The final stage is to pick the rabbit up. Only raise the rabbit a couple of inches off the ground, perhaps onto your lap and then offer them their favourite treat. Repeat this exercise several times a day, gradually increasing the height you lift the rabbit up to, until you are able to pick them up and carry them a short distance, say from their hutch to their run.

This whole process may take many months and you may have to stay at any of these stages for weeks or even months until you feel that the rabbit is able to move on to the next step. Sadly there are no quick wonder cures for this behaviour problem.

Rabbits are ground dwelling animals and are most happy when they have all four feet firmly on the ground. Picking up rabbits should only be done when necessary (to give medication, examine the rabbit, clip claws, put the rabbit in its run/hutch etc), and not just for the sake of it. Adults or older children should pick up rabbits – younger children are often too small to confidentially handle rabbits, especially if they struggle or attempt to bite or kick, which can result in the rabbit being dropped and suffering potentially fatal injuries. Rabbits have very fragile skeletons, with their lumber spine especially prone to dislocation or fracture from incorrect handling or struggling.

The best way to pick up rabbits is to place one hand over the loose skin on the neck (scruff of the neck) and one hand under the rump (bottom) of the rabbit. The rabbit should be lifted from underneath using the hand on the rump to lift the rabbit and the hand on the scruff of the neck to support the rabbit. Once you have lifted the rabbit quickly bring the rabbit into your body for support. Always ensure their hind quarters are supported and if the rabbit begins to struggle put it on the floor or in a safe area as quickly as possible.

Never lift a rabbit using their ears or the scruff of the neck and don’t attempt to wrestle with the rabbit if you lose control. These actions will cause the rabbit to avoid all contact with you next time.

When rabbits bite, it can be very painful, and can be hard to remember that they bite usually out of fear, rather than nastiness. It is also wise to ensure that your own tetanus protection is up-to-date. However, whatever you do, never punish the rabbit by shouting or smacking it, as this will only make a fearful rabbit fear you even more and just compound the aggression problems.

You have to be realistic with the aims you set. It is hard to turn an aggressive rabbit into a cuddly, docile bunny, but you can often improve the situation, with months of hard work and dedication so be prepared to be patient and committed. There are lots of options for aggressive rabbits; from having them neutered, to adopting a socialising programme; perhaps adapting their living quarters to give them more space and stimulation and getting them another rabbit for company.

Undoubtedly there are rabbits that don’t respond to treatment and these rabbits pose a huge problem. The best option is to get them a bunny friend and allow them to literally live free range in a secure and safe enclosure in the garden, with minimal human contact, but under many circumstances this may not be possible. You can ask your vet for a referral to a qualified behaviourist familiar with rabbit behaviour to see if they are able to suggest any treatment aimed specifically at your rabbit.

Rehoming centres are always full to capacity with rabbits looking for new homes and understandably there aren’t many people who want to take on an aggressive rabbit, so getting a rescue centre to take the rabbit may be impossible. Rabbits are more than capable of inflicting very nasty injuries on both people and other animals and if you have tried everything then sadly the only option may be to have the rabbit put to sleep. However, this option should never be taken lightly and should only be carried out after immense thought and discussion with your vet and a behaviourist.

For behaviour advice, contact the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors at PO Box 46, Worcester, WR8 9YS, UK. Tel: 01386 751151Website: www.apbc.org.uk .

Further reading

  • Magnus E (2002) How to Have a Relaxed Rabbit. The Essential Handbook for Rabbit Owners. Ed: Appleby D. The Pet Behaviour Centre. ASIN: B009C5HDYK.
  • McBride A (2000)Why Does My Rabbit…? Souvenir Press. ISBN: 978-0285635500.