People are breeding flat-faced rabbits - but there's a bigger issue

The Washington Post recently released an article titled People are breeding bunnies with flat faces - and possibly terrible health”.

That “possibly” in the title was pretty telling of the contents. The article contained some seriously incorrect information about the health of the Netherland Dwarf rabbit - one of the world’s most popular and beloved bunnies for the past three decades.

A particularly problematic statement from the Rabbit Welfare Association’s head veterinarian claimed that “the short face means the bottom jaw is longer than the top one, and the teeth do not line up. Teeth soon overgrow causing chronic pain, lacerated mouths, abscesses and in many cases death”.

Paisley Oak's Macaracoon. Netherland Dwarf. 1 grand champion leg. Flat face. Normal teeth.

What the vet was describing is a genetic abnormality called “Malocclusion”. This condition is not linked to or caused by the shape of the head, but by the placement of the jaw, so rabbits of any size or shape can be affected (including the “natural” wild rabbits used as a comparison against the flat-faced Netherland Dwarf).

Malocclusion (along with any sort of health issue) is an immediate disqualification from showing and registration in all 49 American Rabbit Breeders Association recognized rabbit breeds. Unlike the American Kennel Club, registration is not earned at birth - individual rabbits are inspected in person by a licensed “registrar” for health, type and temperament in order to be registered and earn a grand champion status.

Dwarf rabbit skull with healthy teeth.

And while there have been no formal studies on this issue, Netherland Dwarfs are one of the most popular breeds of rabbits for both pet owners and show fanciers - they simply could not exist in such numbers if a genetic condition like malocclusion (which is usually visible from a young age and does not allow the rabbit to eat) was connected to the length of their head.

This is common knowledge for anyone raising rabbits, and one of the most important things pet owners and show fanciers should check when buying a rabbit. This is not heavy veterinary science. This is “Rabbits 101”. 6 year old 4-H kids know this.

So how could a vet get something so wrong? What about the author? Why didn’t she reach out to the people who are raising these animals, rather than everyone but them? After all, breeders should know quite a bit about the health of the Netherland Dwarf as both a breed and a current population -  they have an active role in creating them.

It’s possible the author didn’t know any rabbit breeders, or how to find them. Although the American Rabbit Breeders Associationhas run humble rabbit shows since the early 1900’s, they're a little old school and don’t get much press, despite having over 20,000 rabbit-raising members.

It’s also possible that she didn’t think the people who raise rabbits could be an authority on the matter. Aren’t breeders all in it for the money and looks? Aren’t they the ones producing the rabbits with messed up teeth, just so they can have a flat-faced rabbit?

On the whole, it seems we’ve become suspicious of breeders. Is it because breeders have an “investment” that we can’t find trust? If so, why can’t we believe that they could be invested in a good way?  There is no incentive for breeders to create animals that cannot eat, that lacerate their own mouths or live in chronic pain. Creating healthy animals is the minimum requirement that must be fulfilled in order for breeders to show their animals.

Less than 50 years ago, breeders and farmers were seen as experts in their field. They literally wrote books on the care and husbandry of their animals. They had a lot of hands-on experience, having worked with a large number of animals and taken in the knowledge that comes from seeing generations of animals be born, grow up and age gracefully.

Today, breeders have been reduced to the ubiquitous producer of animals that no one actually knows personally but everyone knows they hate. The Humane Society of the  United States, PETA and other animal rights groups have been working long and profitable campaigns that demonize and dehumanize animal breeders, livestock farmers, and anyone else that raises animals either for their love or for their living. Most people these days don't know anyone that raises animals - except for maybe an irresponsible neighbor or acquaintance that lets their pets breed for no real reason. It's super important to differentiate between a "breeder" and the lowly "propagator".

Yikes. These were the less violent memes. Also, where's my check?!

The animal rights message is clear. Breeders are the source and cause of all the animals in shelters, or at the very least, stealing homes from animals in need - and the only socially acceptable place to get an animal is from a rescue or shelter. People love the idea, but it’s just that - an idea. It tends to fall apart in reality.

Here’s an example - just one of many "heartwarming/disturbing combo" stories across the web. This rabbit was “rescued from a bad farm” where the farm owner was going to euthanize it for its poor health and maloccluded teeth. The rabbit's owners are celebrated for their emotional decision to buy the rabbit, despite teeth clipping sessions at the vet every two weeks and constant pain, while the farm owner is demonized for their logical decision to put the animal down - to spare its suffering, to ensure that the genetics would not accidentally be passed on, to take responsibility for the animal they had brought into this world and its quality of life.

Would the owners be so celebrated if we re-framed this for what it really was - that they simply bought a rabbit from a questionable farm? Is that what we have come to as a society? We still want cute flat-faced dwarf bunnies, but we want to feel good about it - so we rescue sick animals that don’t need to be rescued, from the worst version of what we claim to be against?

That is how someone could write an article about the health status of a breed of rabbit, and not think to reach out to someone who raises them. That is how the head vet of a rabbit rescue organization could come to believe that all rabbits of a certain breed have teeth issues despite the facts.

We praise those who rescue the sickest animals, guilt free, without thinking hard about the animal’s quality of life and how the constant medical care might affect them. We forget that they are not humans and cannot speak to us, that they can easily slip into becoming spoiled, beloved prisoners of our emotions. Some of these poor animals are living manifestations of our deep fears of mortality, and a belief that we, as humans, exist above and outside nature, rather than within it.

My issue with this is not that these animals are saved, although the ethics of some of these cases are questionable. My issue is that, while we commend the above, we dismiss the people who understand that we are always playing God in keeping animals, and do what they can to push them in a direction of thriving, not just surviving. People that put their hearts on the line to make good decisions for the future of companion and working animals.

I see this constantly, and as a rabbit breeder who cares deeply about my own rabbits and animals in general, it’s incredibly frustrating.

Adopting an animal is a noble thing, and there are always going to be animals that pull at our heartstrings. Animals that maybe aren’t the strongest in health or perfectly standard bred but they wiggle their way into our lives and we love them (ironically, the same people that celebrate the "bad farm bunny's rescuing" don't like it when good farms do the same). 

But that route shouldn’t be the only option. It's okay to want an animal that needs extra love and care. And it is okay to want an animal who will not suffer. It is okay to want an animal that is healthy. It is okay to want an animal of a certain size, look or temperament. It is okay to buy an animal you love (and the years of hard work behind it) from someone who cares, rather than buying it from someone who doesn’t and calling it a rescue.

 

Now, more than ever, we must support the people who are working hard to care for the health and future of our animals, because it's a hard job and they seemingly have the world against them. We will always need working animals, service animals, animals of a certain size, type and personality to fit (and stick) with our varied lifestyles. Our world has been built with purpose-bred animals at our side. Just because we don’t “need” them now, doesn’t mean we won’t need them again, and it certainly doesn’t mean we forget the work of the draft horse, the stock dog, the barn cat, the meat rabbit, the family cow. As breeds, we owe them careful preservation, and as individuals, we owe them dignity and quality of life.

Partners for life, don't forget it. Also, have you seen fuel prices lately?

Maybe flat-faced bunnies aren’t a critical need in this world (although Dwarf lovers would beg to differ) but a population of healthy, well-bred animals is. Let’s not blind ourselves into believing that the two are mutually exclusive.

PS My fun fact credentials, just to confuse generalizations further.

- Volunteered at donation-based, open-admission, small town no-kill animal shelter for 4 yrs while breeding rabbits for show and pets
- "Rescued" a meat rabbit, because I am an emotional human. Her name was Chica. I get it.
- Currently raise heritage meat rabbits, because farming, food security, heritage breed preservation, accountability, and animal welfare are some of the most important issues of our time.
- Volunteered and worked for San Francisco dog rescues for 5 yrs, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations as a marketing person. It didn't feel as good as I expected.
- Fostered dogs and cats for years. Cried when they went to new homes, very similar feeling to placing my rabbits in new homes.
- My current dogs are all mutts, and I'll probably buy my next dog from a breeder.
- Vegetarian for several years after seeing a PETA video, now learning to be a livestock farmer and have never been more at peace with my role in nature, our food system and life/death.

Live in the grey area. Fact check, follow the money. Information over agendas. Love animals and people. Live within nature, not above or below it. Have a question, ask someone who lives in the answer. Be kind.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published