Rabbits are self-cleaning animals, much like cats. Typically, they are very well groomed, and most rabbits will only need an occasional brushing out to remove loose fur and prevent matting. Some rabbits, typically older or obese rabbits, may not keep their bottom well groomed, and the fur may be come matted with fecal matter. If they stand in a dirty litter box too long, their paws may be urine-stained, and that will need to be washed off. Otherwise, a rabbit should be clean and have no need for a bath.
If your rabbit needs a bath, something is wrong. You should find the cause of the problem, or it will consistently reoccur.
Generally, rabbits will not mind a dry bath. Try a dry bath first to get rid of messes before resorting to a wet bath. Dry baths are great for cleaning urine stains as well as poopy butt. It also helps to neutralize any stinging from urine burns, which the rabbit will appreciate.
The only item you will need is baby cornstarch, available in the baby section of any supermarket. Scented or unscented is acceptable. Do not use baby powder with talc because talc is a respiratory irritant and may be carcinogenic. Regular cooking cornstarch can be used as well.
The following instructions have been obtained from Dana Krempel's bathing article.
- Liberally apply cornstarch to the soiled areas and gently work the powder around mess into the fur and down to the skin.
- Work the powder around any stubborn clumps of debris gently. As the cornstarch coats the mess, it will slide away easily.
- If necessary, use a fine-toothed flea comb to gently tease away dried poop or other debris. Don't pull too hard, as the bunny's delicate skin can tear surprisingly easily.
- Pat the powdered areas well to remove loose powder. If possible, have a hand-held vacuum close by to suck up the powder. Better than you and bunny inhaling it.
- Bathing with water can upset or stress a rabbit, causing him to panic and inadvertently injure himself. Any time you take a rabbit out of his comfort zone, your bun may go into shock which is potentially deadly. Rabbits can die from stress-induced heart attacks. Sudden death has been reported during or after bathing rabbits.
- If the rabbit struggles, because his hind legs are extremely powerful and the spine comparatively brittle and weak, he can break his back trying to get free.
- Improper soaps and shampoos may irritate a rabbit's sensitive skin and lead to infection.
- If water gets in the ears, the bun can get an ear infection, resulting in pain and medical bills.
- Most importantly, wet rabbit fur takes a long time to dry, and if left wet, the rabbit can easily get hypothermia, even on warm days. Also, when trying to dry fur, you may inadvertently burn the skin with the hair dryer.
By all means, a rabbit will not immediately die in the case that he gets wet to the skin for whatever reason, but it is important to understand why it can be very dangerous to a rabbit's health.
If a rabbit does need a wet bath, it is important to follow proper procedures. If the problem is feces becoming matted in fur, then only the affected area should be spot cleaned.
- Use a hypoallergenic, non-medicated shampoo to wash your rabbit with. Dana Krempels writes,
Most popular shampoos for humans--including baby shampoos--are not recommended for use on rabbits, as they can contain harsh ingredients that are rough on delicate rabbit skin. Pet shampoos containing pyrethrins and other "herbal" or "natural" insect-killing ingredients are not recommended, either. Plants make toxic compounds to kill their herbivore pests, and just because something is "herbal" or "all natural" doesn't mean it's safe for a bunny! The best shampoo (for you or your bunny) is an organic, environmentally-friendly (and cruelty-free) product with emollients to soothe the skin, with as few additives as possible. (Bunny-safe shampoos are easy to find at natural food stores or other vendors that sell environmentally friendly products. Read the label and be a smart consumer.)
- Use a small sink with around 2.5 inches of lukewarm water to bathe a bun. Have the water ready before placing the rabbit in so that he will not have to deal with the additional stress of seeing or hearing the water run with nowhere to go. If the bottom of the sink is smooth and slippery, place a towel so that the rabbit has some grip to stand on.
- Mix around a tablespoon of shampoo in the water.
- Being firm and gentle so that the bunny cannot jump and injure himself, lower his rear end into the lukewarm shampoo and water mixture, and gently lave the solution onto the soiled areas until they are clean. If the bunny is very messy, you may have to change the water and do this a few times. Do not get water on their heads or in their ears. Rabbits are not going to get dirty on their face to the point that you can not wipe it off with a damp paper towel, and ear infections are a serious danger that may permanently affect your rabbit.
- Rinse with clear lukewarm water very thorougly, leaving NO shampoo residue.
- Use a towel to dry the rabbit carefully and be sure not to rub too hard on irritated skin. Microfiber towels are excellent for drying as they are soft and absorb wetness better than conventional cotton or cotton blend towels.
- Use a hair dryer on low to medium heat so you do not overheat the bunny, and keep it at least 12 inches from its body. Do not use the hair dryer on the head, ears or privates. Having a hand close to your rabbit's skin will let you easily know if the airflow is too hot. Use a fine-toothed flea comb or a soft brush to separate the hairs and make drying time shorter. Continue drying until the undercoat is completely dry and fluffy.
- After the rabbit is dry, carefully use blunt-tipped scissors to trim away any leftover areas where the fur is matted as well as areas where the skin is irritated. If you cannot see the skin or are doubtful where skin ends and fur begins, then do not clip! Rabbit skin is very thin and stretchy and a small wound can easily tear into a more serious wound.
- Apply a soothing ointment such as Calendula or a rabbit-safe triple antibiotic where any skin is irritated. See First Aid Kit for Rabbits for specific options.
Try to keep the baths as short as possible to minimize stress. If your rabbit seems abnormally stressed by the experience, stop the process and do not continue. As Dana Krempels writes,
Whenever you handle a bunny, it's important to be firm, gentle and ready to release the bunny at ground level if she starts to struggle violently. As you probably know, one good kick can subluxate or even fracture the spine. Always keep the bunny's safety first in mind if you attempt a project like this.
- Dana Krempels, Ph.D., Bathing a Rabbit's Messy Bottom
- House Rabbit Society, FAQ: Grooming > Baths
- Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund, Claire King, Bathing Bunnies
- Answers, Can you give your pet rabbit a bath?
The following are some informative videos on the topic.
- Dana Krempels, Ph.D., Bathing a Rabbit's Messy Bottom
- AllExperts, Dana Krempels, Ph.D., stress-induced heart attack in rabbits
- Barbara L. Oglesbee, Blackwell's Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Small Mammals, 2e.
- Zooh Corner, The Well Groomed Rabbit