Grooming Long-Haired Rabbits
by Gretchen Kunze-Fahrney
First you need to find a spot where you have a bit of an advantage over the rabbit, where it is easy for you to groom all the necessary areas. You can choose the top of a dresser, the kitchen table, a sink counter, or somewhere similar. Slippery surfaces should be covered by a thick towel or rug and of course, never leave your rabbit unattended!
- Wire toothed comb (rounded tine ends)
- Mat rake
- Small animal clippers
- Nail trimmers for “small cats”
Long-haired rabbits have a thick undercoat that you cannot get at by simply combing the top of the rabbit. You need to lift up the top layers of hair to be able to brush the thick undercoat. The best way to go about this is to hold your hand against the rabbit’s body so that when you brush or comb that actual hair you are not pulling his skin up too much. Rabbits have very delicate skin and mats or the removal of mats can very easily tear it, so you have to be very tender while brushing so that you do not injure your rabbits skin. For this reason I recommend using a metal comb instead of a slicker brush. Because the wire bristles can easily poke into the rabbits skin.
Comb the rabbit’s fur starting from where your hand is holding the skin down and comb away from your hand. Work with thin layers of hair instead of thick ones. If you are going to be working through mats, the less hair you work with at a time the easier it is on your rabbits skin. Always start from the deepest layer if possible and work up or outwards.
To get the hair under the rabbits neck/chest you can sweep the hair to the side of their face and brush it on the side. Careful though, most rabbits don’t like to be touched under the chin.
For rabbits with very long hair we advise you to keep the hair on their belly and between their legs cut short or even shaved. This makes the grooming task a lot easier on both bunny AND you. The long hair can easily get tangled and matted and your rabbit could tear his or her skin just by hopping around. Tangled hair in these areas can also collect urine and feces and create an unsanitary condition. Urine or fecal-messed fur is a breeding ground for maggots, which can burrow into your rabbit, causing infection, pain and even death. This condition is commonly referred to as ‘fly strike’ and is easily avoided by proper grooming.
Hair in these areas can be trimmed with scissors (carefully) or with (electric) small animal clippers. You will generally need a second person to help keep the rabbit still. One person can hold the rabbit straight up and down against their chest – one hand under the front legs, the other supporting the back legs and keeping the rabbit’s back nearly-flat against you – to prevent twisting and kicking out, which could break the back. While I am in this position I usually check his scent glands, two slit-like pockets on located on either side of the genitals. If these are dirty (smelly), a Q-tip with a bit of mineral oil or dampened with warm water usually does the trick.
While mats can occur anyplace on the body, there are certain areas where they tend to build up on long-haired rabbits:
- under and around the chin
- along the sides of the rabbit (along the bottom)
- on the rabbit’s belly
- between the front and back legs
- along the rabbit’s back end
- around the tail
- on the bottom of his feet
If you can isolate a mat with your fingers and then comb it out it will be easier on your rabbit. Place your hand in between the mat and your rabbit’s skin and hold onto the fur which has the mat. Then proceed to comb out the mat, a little bit at a time, removing any loose hair. You can also cut out the mat with scissors, but again make sure to keep your hand in against the rabbit’s body (between the area you are going to cut and your rabbit’s skin) so that you do not cut the skin. Sometimes you can just use your fingers, instead of scissors, to pull out the mat if it isn’t too large. There is an item called a “mat rake” that can be used to help cut out mats, but I find it awkward to use and prefer scissors, a comb or my fingers.
If your rabbit is very matted, it may be necessary to have him or her clipped by a professional. Often a rabbit vet can help you with this, or at least refer you to a groomer with rabbit experience. After he has been shaved you want to start brushing/combing him regularly so that you do not have to have him shaved again.
When dealing with mats on the rabbit’s feet, you want to remember that they need the hair on their feet to protect them. They do get mats however, and those can usually be gently pulled out by comb or your fingers. Make sure to leave at least ¼ inch of hair on their feet and only cut off mats, don’t give their feet regular haircuts. If you’ve had to pull or clip of larger mats, always check the feet to make sure the hair is growing back in and that there are no [hock] sores. To get the mats and do normal brushing under the rabbits neck/chest you can sweep the hair to the side of their face and brush it on the side. Most rabbits don’t like to be touched under the chin.
When I am all done with the grooming session I pat the rabbit (patting and encouraging words can be helpful throughout a grooming session) and, if needed, reward him with a bit of malt flavored hairball remedy such as Petromalt. Petromalt (cat hairball remedy) and like products should be given to rabbits once a week for maintenance; and when shedding occurs or stringy fecal matter is seen in the litter box it can be given daily. If feces do not improve within 3 days or if they get worse/smaller or if there are no feces at all, contact your rabbit vet immediately, this is a sign of GI Stasis and could be fatal if not seen to immediately.
Once you get your rabbit’s coat into good shape, maintain a regular brushing schedule so that you do not let your rabbit accumulate a lot of mats. And remember: The more you brush your rabbit the less hair they will ingest.