Lice in Dogs and Cats

Lice are an uncommon parasite in dogs and cats in the U.S. Lice infestations can occur in animals in any environment, but they’re more common in animals that live in crowded or filthy conditions, in animals that aren’t observed as closely or often, etc. (Frequent, close examination of the animal’s skin and hair helps prevent one louse from having the opportunity to turn into an infestation.) Lice are host-specific. Human lice affect only humans. Dog lice affect dogs. Cat lice affect cats. Rarely, a dog or cat louse might end up on a human, but it doesn’t stay there. Children who have head lice get them from other humans.

Lice are flat, six-legged, wingless insects that can be seen with the naked eye. (This makes diagnosis easy.) Lice don’t move much or quickly. They spend their entire 21-day life cycle on a pet. They lay eggs, which are called nits, on the shafts of the hair. Nits are easy to see. They attach only to the pet’s hair and look like white flakes on the hair shaft.

There are two kinds of dog lice. One (Trichodectes canis) chews skin; the other (Linognathus setosus) sucks blood. The blood suckers cause more skin irritation than the chewers do because they break the skin.

There is one kind of louse (Felicola subrostrata, a chewing louse) that affects cats.

What you will notice with either type of louse is severe itching and a scruffy dry coat with bald patches. Lice generally congregate around the ears, neck, shoulders, and anus, so those areas will be most affected.

Because puppies have a small volume of blood compared to adults, they are more likely to become anemic as a result of the blood sucking lice. In severe cases, a dog could lose about one-fourth of his blood to lice within a few months, and end up anemic or in shock.


Both types of dog and cat lice are transmitted by direct contact with an infested dog or cat, or by contact with nit-contaminated grooming equipment, bedding, etc.


Your veterinarian can diagnose a louse infestation just by looking at your pet.

Treatment and Prevention

Lice are usually fairly easy to eliminate because they haven’t yet built up any resistance to insecticides.

There are several treatment options your veterinarian may employ. The veterinary clinic employees may bathe your dog with an insecticide shampoo to quickly eliminate the adult lice, and then use an insecticide spray or powder to continue the job. They may use fipronil (Frontline) or Selamectin (Revolution). Whether insecticide powder, fipronil, or selamectin are used, treatment will be repeated to kill lice that have hatched from the eggs. Commonly, the pet will be treated every two weeks for three to four treatments. However, in some cases, treatments may be needed every seven days for two to four treatments. If your pet continues to have louse infestations after that point, your veterinarian may switch to another treatment, and may suggest environmental control.

If the coat is matted, the matted areas (or even the entire pet) should be shaved.

Clean grooming equipment after every animal. Places that have larger turnover, such as rescues, shelters, and boarding kennels, may encounter more animals that carry lice so sanitation is particularly important.

Dispose of or wash bedding.

Although it’s not usually necessary to use a fogger for environmental control of lice, it might be needed in a severe infestation.


Southern Hills Animal Hospital
3827 Hite St. SW
Roanoke, VA 24014-2377
Southern Hills Animal Hospital

Dental Care and What to Expect if your Pet Needs it

Root canals, dental x-rays, braces, crowns, caps, implants, and periodontal surgery for pets? You must be kidding! Not at all. Dental procedures are performed daily in veterinary practices. How does a loving pet owner know if dental care is needed, and where can a pet owner go for advanced dental care?

Examination is the key to diagnosis and helps determine the type of treatment needed. The veterinarian needs to know what to look for. A pet owner can help by examining their pet’s teeth and mouth at least monthly. First smell your pet’s breath. If you sense a disagreeable odor, your pet may have gum disease. Periodontal disease is the most common ailment of small animals and is treatable.  Gum problems begin when bacteria accumulates at the gumline around the tooth. Unless brushed away daily, these bacteria can destroy tooth-supporting bone, cause bleeding, and tooth loss. Usually the first sign is bad breath.

If your pet is experiencing frequent pain or refusing to eat, has changed chewing habits, or has moderate to severe mouth odor, then an oral problem is probably the cause.

When examining your pet’s mouth, look for tooth chips or fractures on the tooth’s surface. Contrary to their popularity, chewing on cow hooves, antlers, rocks, bones, or other hard materials may break teeth. If the fracture is deep you may notice a red, brown, or black spot in the middle of the tooth’s surface. The spot is the tooth’s nerve and inside vessels, which when exposed to the oral cavity may eventually lead to a tooth painful abscess.

When your home exam reveals dental problems or if you are still uncertain, a trip to the veterinarian is in order. The veterinary oral examination will begin with a complete visual examination of the face, mouth and each tooth. Frequently pet’s mouths have several different problems that need care. The veterinarian will usually use a record chart similar to the one used by human dentists to identify and document such dental problems.

A more detailed exam then follows. Unfortunately cats and dogs cannot point to dental abnormalities with their paws, and to determine the proper treatment plan, other tests are usually necessary. General anesthesia is essential for a proper tooth-by-tooth evaluation. There is a wide array of safe and effective anesthetics and monitoring equipment that make anesthesia as safe as possible.

Expect your veterinarian or dental assistant to use a periodontal probe to measure gum pocket depths around each tooth. One or two millimeters of probe depth normally exists around each tooth. When dogs or cats are affected by periodontal disease, the gums bleed and probing depths may increase, which require additional care to save the teeth. Unfortunately by the time some pets come in for dental care, it is too late to save all of the teeth. Your veterinarian may also take x-rays of the entire mouth. X-rays show the inside of the tooth and the root that lies below the gum line. Many decisions are based on x-ray findings. Usually the veterinarian will visually examine the mouth, note any problems, take x-rays under anesthesia, and then tell you what needs to happen to treat the problems found if any.

Plaque removal and preventative care with periodic check ups should help hinder the loss of additional teeth. Plaque and tartar preventative products can be found at the Veterinary Oral Health Council.

If your dog or cat needs advanced dental care, where can you go? Many veterinarians have taken post-graduate dental training in order to better serve their patients. Some veterinarians have passed advanced written and practical examinations given by the American Veterinary Medical Association, which certifies them as dental specialists. If you need one, your veterinarian can refer you.

Dogs and cats do not have to suffer the pain and discomfort of untreated broken or loose teeth or infected gums. With the help of thorough examinations, x-rays, dental care, and daily plaque prevention, your pet can keep his teeth in his mouth where they should be.


Southern Hills Animal Hospital
3827 Hite St. SW
Roanoke, VA 24014-2377
Southern Hills Animal Hospital

Secondhand Smoke Around Dogs and Cats

We all know the hazards of smoking tobacco in humans and that even secondhand smoke has been shown to cause illness and death in non-smokers.  Now, Veterinary News Network indicates there is a concern that secondhand smoke may cause severe disease in our dogs and cats.  Cigarette smoke contains many harmful and carcinogenic ingredients and these chemicals are found in high concentrations on the furniture and carpeting in the homes of smokers.  Pets will get these toxins on their fur and ingest them when licking their fur.  Also, pet’s noses are very close to the ground and they will breathe in a lot of toxins that have settled on the carpet.  Exposure to these toxins has been shown to lead to an increase in the number of dogs with nasal cancer who live with smokers in the home, and it may increase the risk of lung cancer as well.

Cats are especially susceptible to the toxins of secondhand smoke as they are very close to the floor and commonly groom themselves and ingest smoking toxins.  It has been shown that cats who live in homes with smokers are two to three times more susceptible to a malignant cancer called lymphoma than cats who live in a home without smokers.

Another serious cancer with links to secondhand smoke is one of the mouth called squamous cell carcinoma, which can occur in dogs and cats.

So obviously secondhand smoke causes a major problem in our pets and the best option is to quit smoking.  Of course this is difficult and if you are unable to quit and have pets and children in the house, at least smoke outside.  Don’t smoke in the car if your pets and kids are with you as rolling down the window does very little to decrease secondhand smoke.
If you note any masses in your pet’s mouth, or coughing, contact your veterinarian.


Southern Hills Animal Hospital
3827 Hite St. SW
Roanoke, VA 24014-2377
Southern Hills Animal Hospital

Nosebleed: First Aid

A nosebleed (epistaxis) is bleeding or hemorrhage from the nose. It is important to stop a nose bleed, but is equally important to get to the bottom of why it’s happening.   Stopping nose bleeds in pets is often the easy part, but finding out why a nose is bleeding may sometimes be more challenging.

Your pet should be kept calm, as excitement may cause an increase in blood pressure that will make control of the nosebleed difficult.  As a pet owner, you too must remain composed; if your pet sees you getting frantic, he will become further distressed.

Place an ice-pack over the bridge and on the side of the nose to help to control bleeding as that constricts the blood vessels in this area.  If possible, look in the mouth to see if there is blood or if the gums are pale.  In either case, your pet should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately.

What to Do

  • Notice if the blood is coming from one nostril (note which one) or both.
  • If your pet is sneezing, note how often.
  • Attempt to keep your pet calm. Encourage your pet to lie down and relax.
  • Place an ice pack (covered by one or more layers of clean cloth) or cold compress on the bridge and side of the nose.
  • If the nose is bleeding profusely and/or the bleeding lasts more than 5 minutes, seek veterinary attention.

What NOT to Do

  • Do not put anything up the nose, as this will likely cause your pet to sneeze. Sneezing will dislodge a clot (if one has formed), and the bleeding will resume.

A bloody nose in a cat or dog may be associated with foreign bodies (foxtail awns are common), polyps, infections, poisoning, bleeding disorders, or even cancer. It is a sign whose significance should not be underestimated, and veterinary medical attention should be sought as soon as possible.


Southern Hills Animal Hospital
3827 Hite St. SW
Roanoke, VA 24014-2377
Southern Hills Animal Hospital

Itch Relief for Dogs and Cats

The Itching Pet: Alternatives to Steroids

Excessive licking, chewing, and scratching can make a pet’s life miserable for month after month, even year after year. No one likes to see their pet uncomfortable; furthermore, the constant licking, chewing, and scratching can keep a pet owner up at night from the noise. Clearly, uncontrolled itching is a problem to solve before it gets out of hand.

For reliable rapid relief of itch and inflammation, nothing matches the corticosteroid hormones such as cortisone, hydrocortisone, triamcinolone, methoprednisolone, prednisonedexamethasone, and others. There are some animals that seem unable to live with any degree of comfort without these medications. Unfortunately, these hormones have widespread and potentially dangerous actions throughout the body when they are used for inappropriately long periods and it is generally desirable to minimize the use of these hormones when possible to do so. Ideally, corticosteroids are used for a few really tough itch weeks and other forms of itch management are used for general itch maintenance.

Of course, this is easier to write about than to actually do. When your pet is scratching and chewing raw spots on his skin, practical advice is what is called for. The following list includes assorted non-steroidal methods for relieving itch and reducing the amount of corticosteroid hormones needed.

Infection Control

When an animal becomes suddenly itchier, there is a tendency to assume there must have been a new or sudden allergen exposure. While this is possible, most of the time what has actually happened is an infection has taken root in the skin as a result of scratching and chewing. In many cases, controlling the infection will bring the pet back into its comfort zone and many allergic animals are managed by simply having their infections treated when they flare up.

The usual infections involve the Staphylococci bacteria and/or the Malassezia fungi that normally live on the skin surface. When the environment of the skin changes (allergic skin loses water and may have more oils), these organisms multiply and can gain access to deeper layers of the skin through abrasions caused by scratching and chewing. Soon there is a rash and/or an odor. Antibiotics generally handle these infections, though sometimes culture is necessary to determine what antibiotic is needed. Expect an itchy animal to have some skin samples reviewed under the microscope to check for infection. Some itchy pets need continuous management for these infections while, as mentioned, others only need periodic treatment.

Oral Medications

Antihistamine and Antihistamine Trials
Histamine, a biological chemical, is the chief mediator of inflammation in humans, hence the proliferation of antihistamines available for people both by prescription and over the counter.  Histamine is not the major mediator of inflammation in dogs, thus these medications are not as reliable for dogs as they are for us.

The International Committee on Allergic Diseases in Animals writes guidelines to manage atopic dermatitis, and they divide their recommendations in terms of two situations: itchy acute flare ups and more chronic daily levels of itching. They found little benefit from antihistamines for acute flare ups except for mild cases and consider that the drowsiness side effect may be responsible for any reduction in scratching. For more chronic cases, daily use of antihistamines fared better with the idea that regular use might be preventing flare ups even if antihistamines were not so good at actually treating flare ups. Responses were variable between individuals.

While the chance of any one antihistamine being effective is small (about 15% on the average), trying several antihistamines sequentially often leads to finding one that works. It is important to note that many antihistamines have a drowsiness side effect. Antihistamines commonly used for such trials include:

Fatty Acid Supplementation
The discovery of anti-inflammatory properties of evening primrose oils and fish oils in humans has led to similar products on the market for our pets. These products are not analogous to the oil supplements that are recommended to make a pet’s coat shiny; instead these are true anti-inflammatory medications capable of relieving joint pain, cramps, and itchy skin.

They are not at all useful for acute flare ups of itching as they require weeks to build up in the body in order to exert an effect. Instead, they are used for long-term management in making the skin less able to generate inflammatory mediators. (Essentially, they make the skin less reactive to allergens).
The supplement alone is mild in its ability to prevent itch but it can be used to boost the effects of other anti-itch medications.

Cyclosporine (Atopica) 
Cyclosporine is an immuno-modulating drug originally developed for use in organ transplant patients but also useful in other immune-mediated diseases.  Since allergy is an immune-mediated condition, cyclosporine was investigated as an alternative to corticosteroids and found effective for most patients.  A good four to eight weeks are needed to see a good response to cyclosporine which makes it fairly useless for acute flare ups. Typically it is combined with a medication that yields rapid itch relief so that by the time the itch is controlled, the cyclosporine can take over. Cyclosporine tastes bitter and commonly generates a mild upset stomach when it is first used. Cyclosporine is available for both dogs and cats.

Oclacitinib (Apoquel®)
This relatively new medication represents a new approach to itch relief. It is called a JANUS- kinase inhibitor and it exerts its effects in the skin just as rapidly as do corticosteroids. This makes it helpful for both acute flare ups as well as long-term management of itching. It is important to realize that its effects seem to be only on the sensation of itch and, unlike steroids, there is no anti-inflammatory result. This means that the patient’s itch can be controlled in the face of even advanced skin infection. This might sound like a good thing but there is concern that if the patient is not itching, the pet owner may not be motivated to perform the therapy needed to control the actual skin disease. At this time, oclacitinib is a new drug with a side effect spectrum that is still being defined so most veterinary dermatologists recommend selecting cases for this medicine judiciously. Oclacitinib is for dogs only.

This medication works by making red blood cells more flexible so as to allow better oxygen delivery deeper into tissues. This medication turns out to have many disease applications and has been used in the management of chronic itch (but not useful for acute flare ups). It is best used in conjunction with omega 3 fatty acids.

Long-Acting Injectables

Lokivetmab (Cytopoint®, Canine Atopic Dermatitis Immunotherapeutic, Cadi)
Another new product is lokivetmab, a monoclonal antibody genetically engineered to target the canine version of a biochemical called interleukin 31. Interleukin 31 is a type of cytokine and is an important mediator of itching so when it is inactivated by antibodies, relief from itch is rapidly achieved (usually beginning 8 hours after injection and readily apparent after 1 day). For over 80% of dogs receiving the lokivetmab injection, results are sustained for at least 4 weeks. That said, it does not work for every dog and while some dogs experience more than 4 weeks of relief, others experience less.

Lokivetmab has no effect on pre-existing infections other than to make them not be itchy. It represents symptomatic relief only but for many itchy dogs, stopping the itch/scratch cycle is needed to curtail the vicious cycle and stop the perpetuation of skin infection.

Topical Therapies

We now know that topical steroids (cortisone crèmes, sprays, and related products) are absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream, but the systemic hormonal side effects achieved with topical use do seem blunted and probably only of significance for very small dogs. This makes topical steroid use a much safer long-term approach relative to oral or injectable steroids. Of course, the entire animal cannot be enrobed in topical steroid cremes but for small irritated areas (hot spots), topicals can provide excellent relief without the systemic effects of hormones. They are best used for acute flare ups.

Shampoo Therapy

There are many benefits to shampoo therapy: luke warm water is inherently soothing, crusts and dandruff that could be inherently itchy can be removed, pollens and other allergenic substances can be washed away, the skin can be either moisturized or stripped of excess oil depending on what is needed and, of course, medications can be delivered in the shampoo lather itself. Skin can be moisturized with shampoo therapy, which reduces the sensitivity of the skin to itch stimulation. (The itch threshold is raised through skin hydration). As technology advances, new products are introduced and ways to prolong their effects are developed. Here are some general choices that might be helpful:

  • Colloidal Oatmeal Shampoos and Creme Rinse – At first, these products were only available for human use, as powdered soaks to pour into bath water.  Once their value in itch management was determined, their use quickly spread to the veterinary field.  Colloidal oatmeal has an unknown method of action but generally yields one to three days of relief. The creme rinses are meant to yield longer acting relief. They are available plain or combined with local anesthetic formulas (usually pramoxine) to soothe itch.
  • Phytosphingosine-Containing Products Recently a French company called Sogeval® has brought its Douxo® line of products to the U.S. These products contain phytosphingosine, a natural skin biochemical important in maintaining the skin’s natural barrier to infection and inflammatory substances. Phytosphingosine is moisturizing, anti-inflammatory (both directly and by fortifying the skin’s barrier function), and has antimicrobial properties (preventing and treating bacterial as well as yeast infections). The Douxo® line is available in shampoos, sprays, and a top spot formula. Generics are also on the market as well.
  • Lime Sulfur Dip – This product kills parasites, ringworm fungi, and bacteria.  It also dries moist, weeping skin lesions and helps dissolve surface skin proteins that are involved in itchiness. Many veterinary dermatologists recommend it regularly to control itch; however, it has several disadvantages. IT SMELLS TERRIBLE.  The sulfur ingredient smells like rotten eggs and this is how your bathroom or bathing area will smell during the pet’s bath. This dip can stain jewelry and clothing and will temporarily turn white fur yellow.
  • Other Shampoos – Itchy skin can be the result of skin infection, excess oil accumulation, yeast infection, even parasitic infection. The list goes on. The shampoo products listed above can be used against any itchy skin disease but it should be noted that there are many other shampoo and creme rinse products that can be used against the specific conditions.


Respect the Steroid

Severe itching amounts to a reduction in life quality. It is important not to develop the mindset that corticosteroids should be avoided at all costs. This would not be fair to the itching pet. Steroids are valuable tools in the relief of pain and suffering and have an important place the therapy of the itchy pet.

The goal is not to avoid steroid use if possible but to avoid long term dependence on steroids if possible.  Despite all of the above management tricks, some pets will still require long term steroid use to achieve any reasonable comfort. There are monitoring protocols in place for such cases.  It should also not be forgotten that underlying allergies and recurring skin infections can be addressed specifically and that as these conditions are managed, the itch is also managed.

Steroid hormones have many side effects and, as helpful as they are for allergic skin diseases, it is best to reserve them for only the most itchy episodes.

A Few Words about Flea Control

We receive email on a daily basis from people with itchy pets who are convinced that fleas are not involved in the problem. When we examine such pets, we find fleas actually are contributing to the itching in at least 50% of cases and the owner is invariably surprised to see the live fleas when they find them. Since any itchy skin disease is made worse by fleas, good flea control is imperative and it is important not to assume that not seeing fleas means they are not there. For example, if your pet’s itchiest areas include the lower back, this is a strong indicator that he has fleas whether you see them or not. Often, becoming diligent with flea control is the least expensive and least labor-intensive way to control a pet’s itch symptoms.


Southern Hills Animal Hospital
3827 Hite St. SW
Roanoke, VA 24014-2377
Southern Hills Animal Hospital

Arthritis in Pets: What can be Done?

Susan G. Wynn DVM, RH (AHG)

Key points

  • Signs of osteoarthritis may be subtle and easy to miss
  • Early treatment is critical to slow progression of the disease
  • Maintaining lean body weight  is absolutely critical for arthritic patients
  • Newer concepts of arthritis management involve proper exercise to maintain muscle mass and decrease pain
  • Structure-modifying agents are most effective when started early and maintained long term
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs, acupuncture, and physical therapy may be recommended for later stages of the disease

Exactly what is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a chronic degenerative disease that may affect any joint but is commonly found in a pet’s  hip, elbow, shoulder, stifle (knee) , carpus (wrist), hock (ankle) or intervertebral joints (in the spine).  It occurs when cartilage in the joint is damaged, either following a traumatic event or with wear and tear that increases in athletic animals, obese animals, or when the joint is congenitally abnormal.

Cartilage decreases joint stress by reducing impact on the ends of the bones in joints, like a gelatinous shock absorber.  When cartilage is damaged, a cascade of inflammatory changes occurs, eventually leading to destruction of the cartilage and subsequent damage to the underlying bone.  Cartilage contains no nerves – if your pet is showing any signs of pain, the damage and changes in underlying bone have already begun.

Signs of arthritis include:

  • Reluctance to take walks of usual length
  • Stiffness (that may disappear once the pet has ‘warmed up’)
  • Difficulty climbing stairs, climbing in the car, on the bed or a sofa
  • Difficulty rising from rest
  • Limping
  • Abnormal gait
  • Licking of a single joint
  • Acting withdrawn, spending less time playing with family (which is often misunderstood as a sign of ‘aging’)
  • Soreness when touched
  • Rarely, aggression when touched or approached

Exactly what can I do?

  • Weight Reduction: Ask your doctor about your pet’s body condition score (BCS), which should be normal (5/9) or slightly underweight (4/9).  If your pet is overweight, discuss a weight loss diet with your veterinarian.
  • Controlled Exercise:  Low-impact exercise is best; swimming or walking through shallow water is ideal.  Leash walking and controlled jogging are also acceptable.
  • Nutraceuticals:  Synergistic combinations of nutraceuticals such as glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate contain compounds that support cartilage structure, prevent further deterioration, suppress inflammation, and reduce free radical damage.
  • Injectable Chondroprotective Agent: Talk to your veterinarian about an injectable agent that may also help preserve cartilage in the joints.
  • Acupuncture and Massage: Both of these therapies may provide additional non-drug pain control.
  • Prescription Drugs: Drugs are available that can reduce inflammation and suppress pain in dogs with more advanced disease.  Side effects can be minimized by monitoring your dog’s blood work regularly.


Southern Hills Animal Hospital
3827 Hite St. SW
Roanoke, VA 24014-2377
Southern Hills Animal Hospital

Rabbit Natural Behavior

Much of the information for this article came from a superb book called Why Does My Rabbit…? by Anne McBride (Souvenir Press, Revised edition September 1, 2003) who is an animal behaviorist. This is the finest and most complete book I have seen on rabbit behavior to date. It includes not only extensive background information on rabbits, but specific remedies for specific behavioral problems. I would highly recommend reading this book from cover to cover. It is available at some bookstores, veterinary clinics and online book sites.

Our pet rabbits are direct descendants of the wild European rabbits, which originally inhabited the area around Spain and Portugal. The scientific name Oryctolagus cuniculus means “hare-like digger” (an appropriate name if you ever had a rabbit take a liking to your carpet!). They were originally bred in captivity at least 3000 years ago as a source of food and fur. Not until the 19th century did “fancy” rabbit breeding become fashionable and thus the proliferation of the many shapes and sizes of rabbits we have today.

Rabbits were never bred primarily for behavioral characteristics – as dogs are – but rather for size and color. Therefore the behaviors we see in the domestic rabbit today vary little from their wild ancestors.

Rabbits are herbivorous prey animals, meaning they are low on the food chain and must be on the constant lookout for predators. Even though we don’t like to think about it, in nature they provide food for a whole host of other animals and thus have a prolific rate of reproduction. Thus the three main purposes of the prey animal are to stay alive, reproduce and eat enough to accomplish the first two purposes.

Twitching Nose – Part of the rabbit’s anatomical design is geared towards detecting and escaping predators. Even when rabbits are sleeping they must constantly be monitoring their environment for danger, hence the constant nose movement. As they wiggle their nose and pull in air they also part the split in the upper lip to moisturize the air and improve the ability to pick up scents.

Large Moveable Ears – Rabbits have a large ear surface area for two reasons. The most important is to allow more sound waves to be collected and thus detect potential danger in the area. The other reason, particularly in warm climates, is as a natural “air conditioner” for the body where heat can be released quickly. Rabbits will move their ears independently of each other to further maximize their hearing ability. Only the poor lop-eared rabbit, which of course was genetically altered by man, cannot use his ears in the proper manner.

Large Protruding Eyes – The position and size of the eyes allows excellent vision almost 360 degrees around the head. Rabbits cannot see well directly in front but together with smelling and hearing they can accurately pinpoint where danger is coming from.

Eating Patterns – Rabbits evolved to exist on a wide range of plant materials, including plants of low nutrient value to other animals. Therefore they were designed to be grazing a good portion of the day, which means they may have to travel some distance to obtain food. During any eating behavior, a rabbit will periodically raise its head to scan the area with all its senses, which gives rabbits a “nervous” look when eating.

McBride describes three types of eating behaviors that agree with my own observations of rabbits. Casual feeding is when the rabbit is feeding in a “safe” area such as near the burrow and is comprised of relaxed nibbling here and there. Voracious feeding is when the rabbit is feeding rapidly on anything in sight in a straight line as quickly as possible. It is suggested that this feeding may be seen when there is bad weather or danger that precludes the rabbit being out very long to feed. Normal feeding is what would be seen most regularly within a rabbit’s established territory consisting of a zigzag pattern where there is selection of only the tastiest food items.

Rabbits tend to defecate as they are eating, particularly with the casual or normal patterns. These waste droppings then fertilize the area and keep things growing!

Digging – The European rabbit lived in interconnected burrows called warrens so the main reason for digging is to create a safe place to hide, sleep and reproduce. McBride also describes a second reason for digging, which is to produce a horseshoe-shaped depression called a scrape. The scrape may provide a place to roll in dry earth or it may be where a food item was uncovered. However, she concludes that the most common reason is to provide a place for male rabbits to make small deposits of feces to mark their territory, acting as she states, “like a billboard at the side of an open highway.”

Jumping – Although jumping is not a part of normal locomotion for the rabbit it can be essential when there is a need to escape from danger. A rabbit running for her life can leap not only over obstacles, but also straight up into the air and then twist around so she lands going a totally different direction, thus throwing the predator off guard.

Vocalization – Since rabbits are prey animals they by necessity do not want to draw attention to themselves with a lot of noise. Therefore most of their vocalizations are quiet. Content rabbit noises might include a low purring sound, soft clicking, or slow, quiet grinding of the teeth. Aggressive noises include grunts, growls and loud teeth grinding. Pain and fear can be expressed also by loud teeth grinding. Rabbits have a piercing scream that is given out only when the animal is in extreme fear or pain. It is so startling that is likely serves to shock the predator into hesitating long enough for the rabbit to get away, or as a warning to other rabbits in the area.

Scent Marking – Rabbits can use their feces to mark their territory and to communicate with other rabbits. In addition rabbits of both sexes have scent glands under their chin. They will mark important items in their territory, including other rabbits, with the clear secretion from this gland, which is undetectable to humans but interesting to other rabbits.

Urine – There are two methods by which rabbits urinate. One is simply to empty the bladder in a normal position. The other is lifting the hindquarters and spraying urine on a vertical surface. Most often spraying is done by intact male rabbits to mark another male rabbit or during courtship proceedings with a female rabbit. Animals neutered before or shortly after sexual maturity do not usually spray urine.

Visual Communication – As McBride points out, visual communication is not a large part of rabbit communication. However there are certain postures that are significant.

Body Language

A relaxed rabbit will lie either on his side or belly with the hind legs stretched out or alternatively squat down on the ground with the ears folded against the head.

A submissive rabbit makes himself look small by crouching as flat as possible and staying still, but the eyes still look fairly relaxed and not tense. A fearful rabbit will look similar to the submissive rabbit but the eyes will look tense and “bugged out,” and the body and ears will be pressed tightly in a downward fashion so as to appear invisible to the predator. When a rabbit encounters something distasteful but not necessarily dangerous in his environment, he will shake his head. (Of course constant shaking of the head most often is a medical problem.)

And we all know that when a rabbit thumps the ground energetically, he is warning other rabbits of danger. He will then dash off with the white underside of the tail raised as a warning signal to all rabbit buddies within sight.

Have fun with your bunny and enjoy the species you have chosen to take into your home. We are lucky to be able to share our space with a creature that is in reality little changed from its wild ancestors, but has adapted to life with us crazy humans in spite of it all!


Southern Hills Animal Hospital
3827 Hite St. SW
Roanoke, VA 24014-2377
Southern Hills Animal Hospital