By JC Burcham, DVM
Rabbits and guinea pigs are often underrated in terms of their attractiveness as pets. They poop a lot and smell, right? In fact, frequent stool production is a sign of a healthy digestive tract in these animals, but most rabbit and guinea pig owners would agree that when properly cared for, they make excellent companions and do not stink at all!
I first fell in love with rabbits during one of my externships in veterinary school. I’ve never had one as a pet, since I start sneezing and my eyes turn red and itchy if their fur gets in my face. As long as I wash my hands after handling them, I thoroughly enjoy working with them.
In veterinary medicine, any pet that is not a dog or a cat is considered an “exotic”. This means that, as an exotics veterinarian, I see a wide variety of birds, reptiles, and small furry critters, such as rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs, rats, hamsters, etc. Some people find it amusing to call a rat “exotic,” but in my world, they are!
In this article, I will describe some important aspects about handling rabbits and guinea pigs in a veterinary setting. As prey species, the importance of low-stress handling becomes even more vital. Improper handling of a sick rabbit could prove life-threatening.
Let’s start with rabbits.
Rabbits arrive at the veterinary clinic in a variety of containers. I’ve seen rabbits in:
- dog and cat kennels (most common)
- canvas shopping bags
- cardboard boxes with and without lids
- wire hutches
- plastic tubs
- wicker baskets
- compact carriers with doors far too small to reach hands inside.
I usually leave the rabbit in the container until I’m ready to examine it. The exam room should be rabbit-proofed, with no rabbit-reachable hiding spaces. Then I’ll usually reach into the carrier to pet the rabbit and see how it reacts. Most well-socialized and friendly rabbits won’t jump, flinch, or scramble away.
I’ll then slide my right (dominant) hand under the chest and start lifting up while my left (non-dominant) hand simultaneous slides down the back and under the rump to support the rear end. With a nervous bunny, I usually lean over while doing this, so I can bring the rabbit’s backside close to my chest, thus providing more support and security for the bunny. As I straighten up, I keep the rabbit’s back against my chest and am now holding the rabbit in “C-position.” This is called C-position because the rabbit’s body is basically in a curved “C”, one hand holding the front end, the other hand supporting the rear end.
Next, I’ll weigh the rabbit on our portable scale. The scale we use is made for weighing infants—we use it for cats, small dogs, and rabbits. It’s coated with a slick, non-porous plastic, and some rabbits don’t like the slippery texture. Sometimes, it’s necessary to burrito-wrap a rabbit in a towel so I can safely weigh it without dangerous scrambling as it tries to escape.
The Bunny Burrito Towel Wrap
Many thanks to our model, Mr. Maple, for his excellent cooperation in demonstrating towel wrapping.
Maple was placed in the center of a regular-sized bath towel.
The front edge of the towel is pulled back over his front feet and snuggly under his chin.
While keeping an arm over his back, one side of the towel is wrapped over his body.
The hand on his back holds the towel snuggly around his neck, while the other hand pulls the rear edge of the towel up over his back.
The side part of the towel is folded in on itself to reduce bulkiness.
The opposite side of the towel is pulled snuggly over the body.
At this point, I can perform a thorough oral exam, inspect ears and eyes.
When I’m done with this stage, the rabbit is turned away from me and “unswaddled” from the burrito. I usually like to cover the rabbit’s face with a towel to reduce visual stimulation and keep it calm while I perform auscultation of the thorax and palpate the abdomen.
The last part of my exam requires picking the rabbit up in a C-position again, so I can inspect the rabbit’s underside. It’s especially important to verify whether the rabbit is male or female and make sure the fur is clean and free of mats. I also make sure the plantar aspects of the hocks show no signs of redness, pain, or swelling. If the owner has requested a nail trim, I usually prefer to have the rabbit in a C-position. If the rabbit squirms, I set it down and finish the nail trim on the table.
Once in awhile, a rabbit is so extremely skittish, one cannot safely pick the rabbit up. This has been rare, in my experience, and requires sedation to avoid injury to the patient. Even experienced rabbit handlers and veterinarians can tell you horror stories about rabbits that have panicked and broken their back.
Low-Stress Handling of Guinea Pigs
The principles of handling guinea pigs are very similar to those of rabbits, but their shorter bodies and less-powerful hind legs means the risk of injury from handling is significantly less.
Many guinea pigs don’t need to be towel-wrapped for a safe, low-stress exam. A savvy owner may even bring along her piggie’s favorite treats for him to nibble on during the exam. I recommend saving these food items until after you’ve examined the teeth!
When guinea pigs are stressed in the veterinary setting, towel wrapping can be very helpful. Avoid using a towel that is too thick, and don’t keep them wrapped so long that they become over-heated. I will most commonly wrap guinea pigs in a towel for the oral exam (their least favorite part of the exam), and do the rest of the exam without much restraint. If they are extremely nervous, I may cover their face lightly with a towel to reduce visual stimulation.
Towel-wrapping for Guinea Pigs, step by step
Start with the guinea pig in the middle of a medium-size towel that isn’t terribly thick.
Pull the rear edge of the towel (neatly folded) over the patient.
Pull the front edge up under the chin.
Neatly fold one side of the towel to prevent it from getting too bunched-up. Pull it over and around the patient.
Repeat the process with the other side of the towel.
Your nicely-wrapped guinea pig burrito.
(Thanks to our most amiable and willing model, Ellie, and her adoring owner!)
Another tip: In some squirmy or jumpy patients, I find it helpful to make a V between your index and middle fingers and straddle the patient’s neck and shoulders. You can gently apply pressure, thus preventing them from bolting away and potentially hurting themselves.