Ever notice those tufts of fur poking out of your rabbit’s butt? Or did you know some rabbits need to have their ears cleaned regularly? Maybe their nails are getting so long that they accidentally cut you every time you pick up your rabbit. You are not alone. Many people find that their rabbits shed a lot more than expected and don’t really know how to go about clipping their rabbits nails.
Rabbits need to be brushed daily during heavy shedding seasons. This will help prevent hairball blockages in the rabbit’s stomach. Proper rabbit grooming also includes monthly nail clipping and at-home health checks in addition to ear cleanings for rabbits who are susceptible to inner ear infections.
But of course, just telling you to brush your rabbit and trim their nails is not very helpful. Rabbits are pretty finicky and usually don’t like to be handled, so it can take a lot of time and patience to groom your rabbit. I’ve put together this guide to help you learn the basic techniques needed to successfully brush your rabbit, clip their nails, and keep them clean and healthy.
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Brushing your rabbit
To prevent the buildup of hairballs and help your rabbit shed their coat faster, you’ll want to get in a routine of brushing your rabbit. Rabbit’s self-groom by licking themselves all over, so you’re never going to completely stop your rabbit from ingesting fur. The goal is to reduce the amount that ends up in your rabbit’s gut.
How often should you brush your rabbit? Most rabbit caretakers will recommend brushing your rabbit once a week during light shedding seasons, and once a day during heavy shedding seasons. This is not a perfect estimate though. You may have to brush your rabbit more or less often depending on how much they’re shedding, how long their fur is, and how much fur you’re seeing in their poop.
Long haired rabbits will need to be brushed more often, multiple times a week or even multiple times a day during a big shedding season. But some short haired rabbits hardly need to be brushed at all outside of their shedding seasons. If you don’t notice much loose fur and there are not many instances of fur-linked poops, then even once a month would be sufficient for these rabbits.
As you may have noticed, rabbits shed a lot. During their heavy shedding seasons, you’ll undoubtedly be faced with clouds of fur all around the house. If you’re wondering “should my rabbit be shedding this much?” The answer is yes. Excessive rabbit shedding is completely normal.
Rabbits will have 2 two 4 shedding seasons during the year. Usually they will have a very heavy shedding season twice a year in the spring and fall, when they are shedding their winter and summer coats. Then they will have a smaller shedding season during the summer and winter.
Every rabbit will have their own shedding schedule. It will vary based on the breed of rabbit and the climate that you live in. Even the indoor temperature that you keep your house at will affect the timing of your rabbit’s molts. So there is no way to know exactly when your rabbit will start shedding.
Some rabbits will go through their seasonal molts in just a couple fur-filled days, while others will take weeks, or even months. Some may seem like they never stop shedding at all, so don’t be worried if you can’t pinpoint any distinct shedding seasons.
As your rabbit is shedding you will notice a line going down their back separating the thicker and thinner coats. This is especially apparent in rabbits that have a different color undercoat, but you’ll also notice the line in one-color rabbits. Rabbits will usually start shedding from their forehead and cheeks and then over time shed the fur on their backs and down to their butt.
You may even notice the occasional bald spot during a shedding season. As long as the skin doesn’t look red and irritated and the fur grows back quickly, there is no need to worry about these temporary bald patches.
Most rabbits do not like to be brushed. They have very sensitive and delicate skin that can make the prickles of a brush uncomfortable. For this reason, you want to be extra careful and gentle when grooming your rabbit.
If your rabbit is extra fidgety about being brushed, you’ll need to experiment with different techniques to help them feel safe and comfortable during your grooming sessions. Most rabbits do like to be pet, so if they hate being brushed no matter what you do, you can always resort to using your hands to brush and pluck off excess fur as you’re giving them a massage.
What tools to use
To brush a rabbit, the only tool you’ll really need is a brush. The problem is that not all rabbits will remain still for all types of brushes. The more fine-toothed combs will do a more thorough job at brushing a rabbit, but they might not be comfortable with those tools. So you may have to try different types of brushes until you find one that your rabbit will tolerate. Here are some ideas:
- Flea comb: This is a very fine toothed option that will help get the loose fur from the the undercoat. It’s a great option if your rabbit will sit still, but it will often tug a little more on your rabbits fur and cause them to squirm or run away.
- Pet Fur-buster: This is bigger than a typical flea comb, so it can cover a wider area. It’s fine toothed, but not quite as fine as a flea comb, so there is a little less tug from fur pulling.
- Fine-toothed comb: A fine toothed human comb can also work well. These are usually plastic and won’t tug on your rabbit’s fur quite as much, but the bristles are still thin enough that they can get the job done.
- Glove brush: If you rabbit can’t handle a comb, you could try using a glove groomer. While these won’t do a great job of pulling up loose fur from the undercoat, they will still get at the loose fur on the surface. The short rubber bristles aren’t as abrasive, so you might be able to convince your rabbit that you’re just giving them a massage.
- Rubber brush: You can try your hand at using a rubber brush. Usually these have very wide bristles that won’t pull on the rabbit’s fur so much. This type of brush is more for surface brushing, and won’t help much at getting at the loose fur from the undercoat.
- Lint roller: I have resorted to this on a couple of occasions. Most of the time, the rabbit won’t mind a lint roller much, since there are no bristles. You’ll only be able to get at the surface layer of your rabbits fur though, and you’ll have to go through a lot of lint roller sheets, since the fill up with rabbit fur pretty quickly.
How to brush your rabbit:
To have the most success brushing your rabbit, you’ll want to use a technique that is not abrasive and will keep your rabbit calm. Generally this will mean petting your rabbit with your free hand while you brush your rabbit with the other hand.
If your rabbit gets startled or skittish during any part of the process, just gently calm them down and then start again.
- Calm your rabbit. Before you start brushing your rabbit, you want to get them into a calm position, so they will be less likely to suddenly run away or panic during the brushing session. If your rabbit is okay with being handled, you can pick them up to groom them on your lap. I prefer to keep my rabbits calm by letting them stay on the floor while I give them a relaxing massage.
- Gently brush in the direction of the fur. Once your rabbit has calmed down you can start gently brushing them. If you are using a comb, you want to position the comb almost flat against your rabbit to avoid poking their delicate skin with the bristles. If you are using a brush or glove, avoid pressing too hard on your rabbits coat so you are brushing their fur, not their skin. Start by combing in the direction of the fur. If your rabbit will tolerate it, you can try combing against the fur, but most will not like that. Continue to pet your rabbit with your free hand to keep them calm.
- Pluck out some of the loose fur as it gets uncovered. As the fur starts to loosen, you will see some tufts make their way to the surface. Gently pluck these off as you’re petting your rabbit (I call this butt-plucking).
- Brush off excess fur with your hands. Once you’ve done a thorough brushing, pet your rabbit with a few long strokes down their back. This will help remove the loose fur that’s on the surface of your rabbit’s coat.
If it’s during a big shedding season, you may notice your rabbit’s coat gets ragged again after only a few hours. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you did a bad job. It’s just how rabbit shedding season works. You’ll want to brush them again tomorrow, and every day until their fur starts to be under control again. Brushing your rabbit multiple times a day during shedding season is also not a bad idea, if you can fit that into your schedule.
Sometimes a rabbit’s fur will get into a matted mess. This is especially common with longer haired rabbits, but it’s also a possibility for rabbits with shorter coats. It can be caused from wet fur, or getting urine on their fur. Long-haired rabbits can get matted fur just by running around or sleeping on it.
If you’re dealing with matted fur you have two choices:
- Detangle the fur.
- Shave or clip the fur.
If the section of matted fur is not too bad, then you have the option to detangle it. You can use a fur splitter to gently tease out the knots in your rabbit’s coat. It helps to have two people so one person can keep the rabbit calm while the other person works on de-matting the fur.
If the matted area has clumped up so much that the fur has basically formed into a sheet, you will need to get the area shaved. You can bring your rabbit into a professional groomer or rabbit vet to get their coat shaved, or you can choose to shave them at home with an animal trimmer. If you choose to shave your rabbit yourself, always have a partner and remember to be extra careful.
Long haired rabbits
Grooming long haired rabbits, such as lionhead and angora rabbits, is much more work. Because of this, many people choose to keep their long haired rabbits fur trimmed to a more manageable length, especially the fur under their belly which can be harder to brush.
If you let your rabbit’s fur grow out, you will need to keep a daily grooming routine. You’ll need to brush your rabbit in layers. Start at the back and lift up the top layer of long fur and brush in the direction of the fur. Let another layer down and brush that one also. Keep going until you’ve brushed the whole rabbit. This method will help you get at the undercoat so you can prevent the build-up of matted fur.
Clipping a rabbit’s nails
A rabbit’s nails can get very long and sharp if you don’t clip them. For most rabbits, clipping their toenails every 1to 2 months is best, but it depends on how fast your rabbit’s nails grow. Indoor rabbits that live on mostly carpet will likely have nails that grow fast. And rabbits that have a lot to dig into will have nails that grow a little slower.
The anatomy of a rabbit nail
Rabbits have 18 toenails, 4 on each of their back feet and 5 on each of their front feet. Rabbit nails have a vein, called the quick, that runs into the base of each of their nails. When you clip your rabbit’s nails, you want to avoid clipping into this vein. Clipping into the quick will cause your rabbit a little bit of pain and there will be a surprising amount of blood.
You can see this vein in the nails if they are a lighter color, but it can be difficult to see on darker colored nails. For these darker nailed rabbits, many rabbit enthusiasts recommend using a flashlight in back of the nail to help you find the quick, but I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to try to hold the rabbit’s nails in front of a flashlight as you clip it.
Instead, to find the quick in a darker colored toenail, I put a squeeze of pressure on the clippers before I cut all the way through. If the rabbit flinches a little, this means I’m too close to the vein and need to cut a little further out.
It does happen on occasion that you clip into the quick. If that happens to you, it’s okay. You’re rabbit will recover in no time and wonder why you are making such a fuss. You can use a cotton ball with a little flour or cornstarch to help stop the bleeding.
How to clip your rabbit’s nails
It is significantly easier to clip a rabbit nails with a partner, but it is possible to perform alone. You just need to be very patient with your rabbit. The only tool you need is a pair of rabbit nail clippers. Wrapping your rabbit in a towel can also be useful for keeping your rabbit still.
Clipping your rabbit’s nails with a partner:
- One person should hold the rabbit. Either hold the rabbit with their paws facing outward, or put them in a half cradle in your arms. Your job is to keep the rabbit calm and as still as possible.
- The second person clips the nails. With all the rabbit’s nails facing outward, you can clip them one by one until you’ve clipped them all.
Clipping your rabbit’s nails by yourself (this is not easy so be patient with yourself and your rabbit):
- Place your rabbit on a table. Make sure they have a towel for traction so your rabbit will be more comfortable. Pet your rabbit and give them a massage so they will relax and calm down.
- Wrap your arm around your rabbit and gently pull one of their forepaws out. You want to hold your rabbit on the edge of the table against your body so they will feel secure. Putting your hand on top of your rabbit’s head can also help them stay calm during the next steps.
- Clip the nails on that foot. Try to get all five nails. The ‘thumbnail’ on the inside of the foot is always the hardest to find. This step will probably take a long time because your rabbit will keep pulling their leg back. If your rabbit will not cooperate at all, you can try putting them in a half burrito in a towel, with their front-legs sticking out in front of them. Repeat on the other front paw.
- Hold your rabbit up on their hind legs and clip their back feet. Hold your rabbit underneath their chest. Keep them pressed up against your body so they will feel secure. Slowly clip the nails on your rabbit’s hind legs. I find the hind legs are easier to clip than the front legs, but if your rabbit keeps getting out of your grip, rearrange how you’re holding the rabbit and try again.
If you ever feel that you can’t get your rabbits nails clipped on your own, or you’re afraid you’ll clip the quick, there is also the option to bring your rabbit to the vet to clip your rabbit’s nails for you.
Cleaning rabbit ears
Many lop eared rabbits have an increased risk of developing an ear infection. It might be necessary for you to perform weekly or monthly ear cleanings. Before you ever clean your rabbit’s ears, you should check with your rabbit savvy vet to see what they recommend.
With my mini-lop Tenshi, my vet recommended I clean her ears out once every other week. She had a tendency to have a buildup of wax in her left ear. If left unchecked this had the potential to cause a serious ear infection, so my vet gave me an ear cleaning solution with instructions on how to clean Tenshi’s ears at home.
Regardless of whether or not you need to clean your rabbit’s ears, you should do a weekly check to make sure there is no build-up of ear wax. Also make a note of your rabbits behavior. If they are scratching at their ears excessively or shaking their head a lot, it could mean there is something irritating their ears.
What tools to use
To clean your rabbit’s ears all you need is:
- A vet-recommended cleaning solution (it will have a squirt nozzle at the top)
- A couple of towels with one large enough to make a bunny-burrito
- A few cotton balls
Make sure the cleaning solution and cotton balls are within arms length as you’re cleaning your rabbit’s ears out. It will make the whole process a lot easier.
How to clean your rabbit’s ears
You’ll want to do this in a bathroom or a room that is easy to clean because the ear-cleaning solution will get everywhere. This process is easier with two people since one person can hold the rabbit while the other cleans out the ears, but it’s possible to perform alone as well.
- Wrap your rabbit in the towel and hold your rabbit in your lap. Try to get your rabbit into a secure burrito so that they won’t be able to hurt themself or jump out of your arms while your cleaning their ears. If you are cleaning their ears by yourself, use your legs and one arm to hold your rabbit securely in your lap.
- Hold your rabbit’s ear upright and pour in the solution. Pour the solution into the ear until you can see the liquid pooling. You may want to place a cotton ball on the entrance to the ear canal so your rabbit will not be able to shake the liquid out of their ear.
- Massage the base of your rabbit’s ear. For 20-30 seconds massage the base of the rabbit’s ear. It will feel weird for your rabbit and they will most likely try to shake their ears. Do your best to keep their ear upright so the solution won’t splash everywhere.
- Use a cotton ball to gently clean out the ear. Use as many cotton balls as you need to gently wipe the inside of your rabbits ear and clean out any loosened earwax. Now you can allow your rabbit to shake their head (and expect any leftover solution to spray everywhere).
- Gently dry the area around your rabbit’s ear. Use a towel to dry off your rabbit and fluff up their fur a little bit.
- Repeat on the other side. Some rabbits will only need one ear cleaned, but if necessary you should repeat the process on the other side.
Bathing a rabbit
For the most part, you should not be bathing your rabbit. Rabbits do a pretty good job keeping themselves clean and there are actually a lot of hidden dangers to giving your rabbit a bath. If your rabbit does get dirty, there are other ways you can clean them off that don’t involve a full bath.
Option 1: Spot cleaning
You should spot clean your rabbit if they are only messy in a specific spot, maybe they managed to get a spot of sticky syrup on their fur. To do this:
- Try to spot clean your rabbit with a dry towel first.
- If that doesn’t do the trick, use a damp towel (NOT dripping wet), and gently rub the area to wash off the mess.
- Make sure to dry them thoroughly afterward.
Option 2: Dry bath
Dry baths are useful if your rabbit has managed to get themselves thoroughly dirty. All you need for this are cornstarch and a fine-toothed comb.
How to give your rabbit a dry bath:
- Sprinkle some cornstarch on the soiled areas of your rabbit. Be careful, and try to keep your rabbit from inhaling the cornstarch.
- Gently massage your rabbit, working the cornstarch through their fur. This will be a little tedious, but after a while the cornstarch will help the dirt and debris in the messy spots clump up.
- Use the comb to remove the clumps of debris as they start to form in the rabbit’s fur. You may need to add more cornstarch if the dirt on your rabbit’s fur is being particularly stubborn.
- Use the cloth to pat down and wipe off any excess cornstarch. Using the comb can also help remove the cornstarch from the rabbit’s fur.
- And you’re done. Now you just have to wipe down and clean up all the cornstarch from the bathroom floor.
Option 3: Butt bath
Some elderly, disabled, or obese rabbits are unable to clean themselves properly and end up developing poopy butt. This is a condition where mushy poop starts to stick to your rabbits bottom and form into a smelly ball. This is really difficult to remove without soaking it in water, so you will probably need to perform a butt bath with your rabbit. For a more detailed step-by-step, check my post on how to bathe rabbits.
You should find a partner to help you with this. This way one of you can keep the rabbit still and calm, while the other focuses on cleaning their butt:
- Get a small bin and put a folded towel along the bottom.
- Fill the bin with a couple inches with warm water.
- Gently pick your rabbit up and place their butt in the water.
- Swirl the water around and soak the soiled area around your rabbit’s butt.
- Use your fingers to gently pull the poop off of your rabbit’s butt.
After you clean the poop off of your rabbit’s butt, you need to dry them thoroughly. As I mentioned earlier, wet fur and wet skin can be dangerous for rabbits, so this is a really important step.
As you are grooming your rabbit, you should keep an eye out for any signs of illness, injury, or parasites. Rabbits are prey animals. They have a tendency to hide their weaknesses so they won’t be singled out by any predators. That means we have to be vigilant in our health checks, so we can catch any symptoms early.
What you should look for in your health check:
- Anything that looks like dandruff could be a symptom of mites or fleas.
- Check for crusting or excessive ear wax in the ears, this could be a sign of ear mites.
- Check your rabbits feet for sores.
- Make sure your rabbit’s bottom is dry and clean of poop.
- Check to be sure your rabbit is not dribbling urine or suffering from urine scald.
- Check the inside of your rabbit’s front paws. Matted fur here could be the result of snuffles.
As part of your grooming routine, you should perform a weekly tooth check. Tooth problems are common among rabbits since their teeth never stop growing. It’s easiest to perform this check while petting your rabbit and giving them a pleasant massage. Check here for more detailed information on rabbit tooth health.
The rabbit teeth check:
- Check around the rabbit’s cheeks. When you pet your rabbit put a little gentle pressure on their cheeks. Feel for abnormal bumps or abscesses along the jawline. Also pay attention to your rabbit’s behavior. If they keep flinching away when you reach a certain spot, it could be a sign that the spot is painful and should be checked out further.
- Check the front teeth. As you are petting your rabbit, position yourself in front of them. Gently pull their lips back and check their front teeth for any signs of overgrown or chipped teeth. You should also check at this point to make sure the gums are pink and not red or purple, since those are signs of inflamed or unhealthy gums.
- Check for signs of trouble with the back teeth. The cheek teeth are too far back to see without using specialized equipment. So the best that we can do is look for external signs that something might be a problem. Signs your rabbit may be having trouble with their back teeth:
- Swelling jawline
- Change in eating habits (eg. stops eating hay and will only eat pellets)
- Trying to eat a piece of food but continuously dropping it out of their mouth
- Looking interested in food, but not eating it
- Weight loss
- Loud teeth grinding, a loud grating sound instead of the normal soft purring
- Bad mouth odor
- Grumpy behavior
Check rabbit eyes
As you groom your rabbit, check around their eyes for any sign of illness. While most eye conditions are not serious by themselves, they could be signs of illnesses that need to be addressed. Some conditions to look out for:
- Watery eyes
- Red-eye (the whites of a rabbit’s eyes, not rabbits who naturally have red eyes)
- Bumps or abscesses around the eyes
- Crusted eye-gunks
- White cloudy eyes (cataracts)
- Irritation or swelling around the eyes
Most rabbits do not like to be picked up or cuddled. Rabbits are prey animals and their life depends on being able to run away and hide from predators. When they are being cuddled or held, rabbits don’t have the option to run away so they get scared.
Rabbits stay clean by licking themselves all over, just like cats. Rabbits will clean hard to reach spots, such as their face and ears, by licking their front paws and scrubbing them that way (it’s the cutest!). If you have more than one rabbit, they will also groom each other.
- Harvey, Carolynn Ph.D. DVM. “Grooming.” House Rabbit Society. rabbit.org/faq-grooming