Certain breeds of rabbit are prone to serious health issues caused by human interference in rabbit genetics, the most common of which is dental disease in dwarf and lop eared breeds...
In the most recent edition of Hopping Mad! e-zine, Happy Hoppers published an excellent article titled 'Congenital health problems in domestic rabbit breeds which looked at the many health and behavioural issues that can arise purely as a result of what breed a rabbit is. This article looks at the most common problem, the prevalence of dental disease in dwarf and lop breeds.
Why is dental disease more common in dwarf and lop breeds?
Knowledge of dental disease in rabbits is still growing but there is no doubt that it is by far the most common problem seen in domestic rabbits today. There is also no doubt that it is much more common in dwarf and lop eared breeds. Why is this? Simply because they have been bred to have a smaller, rounder head shape which can result in the lines of teeth in their jaw not aligning correctly and therefore not wearing down evenly, leading to spurs, abscesses and associated eye problems.
Why is this a difficult subject to talk about?
Many rabbit owners are living with this problem in their beloved rabbits and the suggestion that they are in some way 'faulty' is difficult to hear. These owners wouldn't change their rabbits for the world, whatever problems they have, and this is perfectly understandable and very commendable - dental disease is arguably the most stressful and expensive health problem a rabbit can have. There is also the issue of diet which is the other major cause of dental disease - owners may feel guilty that they didn't feed their rabbit the correct hay based diet from the start, or cannot get their rabbit to eat hay, and that the problem is therefore 'their fault'. It's time to bring this issue into the open, provide support to owners of rabbits affected and try to stop it happening in the future.
What can we do about it?
Of course, not all dwarf or lop eared rabbits will have dental problems and of course there is a risk of it in other breeds too. However, as the risk is so much higher in dwarfs and lops, we would always advise new owners to avoid these breeds in order to minimise their risk. We can also promote adoption instead of buying; hereditary dental disease is likely to have manifested by the age of 1 so adopting a rabbit over this age, whatever its breed, minimises the risk.
What does the future hold?
Look around you at the rabbits in petshops, rabbits featured on petfood packaging, television ads and so on. You will see many dwarfs and lops. They look cute, after all! The problem with this is that other breeds get forgotten about or passed over in favour of the 'cute' bunnies - talk to any rabbit rescue and they will tell you it takes much longer to rehome an all black or all white/albino, upright eared rabbit.
Ethically speaking, it gets worse. We are doing a great injustice to these rabbits. We are condeming them to live a lifetime of niggling pain and discomfort, just so they look 'cuter'. We could blame the breeders but without demand there is no supply. It is getting difficult to find 'traditional' medium to large size breeds such as Dutch, English Spot, New Zealand, Californian and Himalayan in pet shops. And so the cycle gets deeper - owners buy dwarfs and lops with no other choice; they may even breed from them, deliberately or accidentally, and pass the problem on.
This a thorny issue with no simple solution other than the obvious one of banning these breeds altogether. Practically speaking, this is very unlikely to happen. Breeders of show rabbits of these breeds would of course object and rightly so. But we need to stop the influx of these breeds into the pet market. How? By education of the public and putting pressure on retailers. Like the campaign against small hutches, this will be an ongoing battle but at least we have started talking about it - the first step has been taken.