The Sad Truth About Floppy-Eared Bunnies

Miniature lop rabbit. (Image: Peter Jung)

Floppy-eared rabbits, also known as lop rabbits, are more susceptible to serious ear and tooth disorders than upright-eared domesticated rabbits, according to new research. The findings are raising important concerns about the appropriateness of breeding lop rabbits, adorable as they are.

Floppy-eared rabbits don’t exist in nature. Rather, they are the products of artificial selection, in which breeders have actively selected for their drooping ears. The unperturbed processes of evolution would have never formulated the lop rabbit, in which a critical instrument of their survival — their radar-like ears — are rendered practically useless by virtue of their flaccid position.

Obviously, breeders aren’t trying to create rabbits fit for survival in the wild, but as new research published in Vet Record shows, lop rabbits aren’t fully fit for life in domesticated settings, either. The new paper, co-authored by Jade Johnson and Charlotte Burn from the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom, presents evidence showing that lop rabbits are far more likely to suffer from painful ear and dental conditions than domesticated rabbits with normal, upright ears.

Importantly, artificially selecting for drooping ears has had the effect of modifying the shape of the rabbit skull, making the jaw shorter than usual. Combined, the irregular ears and weirdly shaped skull are likely triggering a cascade of problems.

According to a British Medical Journal press release, lop rabbits have narrow ear canals, and the resulting reduction in airflow means excessive earwax builds up over time, which causes painful ear infections and even deafness. At the same time, changes to the shape of the skull have affected the lop rabbits’ teeth and jaw, leading to overgrown teeth, which in turn leads to pain and problems with eating.

Accordingly, the new results are raising concerns about the appropriateness of breeding lop rabbits. And as the researchers pointed out, this is a problem that’s not exclusive to purebred dogs.

“Breeding animals for extreme traits is coming under scrutiny, and has thus far mostly focused on dogs,” wrote Johnson and Burn in the paper. “However, the ethics of breeding extreme rabbit conformations, such as [floppy] ears and brachycephaly, is also starting to be debated.”

Indeed, research is increasingly demonstrating the suffering of purebred dogs, who, as a consequence of extensive inbreeding, are suffering from an array of physical and psychological problems.

An English lop rabbit is judged at the 2012 UK Rabbit Grand National. (Photo: Getty Images)

Like purebred dogs, lop rabbits come in various breeds, including the popular Holland lop, English lop, and American fuzzy lop. Lop rabbits are “among the most common pet rabbit breed groups,” according to the new paper. In the UK, for example, lop rabbits now represent well over half of all pet rabbits in the country.

Trouble is, the health concerns associated with lops have only existed as anecdotal accounts. Despite the fact that even Charles Darwin noticed their oddly shaped skulls, concrete evidence linking the features to suffering in lop rabbits has been lacking. The new study was an effort to overcome that shortcoming.

For the research, Johnson and Burn studied 15 floppy-eared rabbits and 15 erect-eared domesticated rabbits, all of which were rescue pets living in animal shelters.

The scientists found that lops were a whopping 43 times more likely to have narrow ear canals, which as mentioned can lead to a dangerous build-up of earwax. The floppy-eared bunnies were also 15 times more likely to exhibit signs of pain during routine examinations of their ears.

In terms of their teeth, the lops were 23 times more likely to have overgrown molars and were 13 times more likely to have sharper teeth than non-lops. They also had an increased predilection to molar spurs, in which molars develop sharp points due to uneven wear-and-tear. And while half of the lop rabbits exhibited these dental abnormalities, none of these problems were seen in the 15 erect-eared rabbits.

In terms of the study’s limitations, the researchers used a small sample size, and it was limited to observational analyses — that is, they were only able to detect correlations linking the physical abnormalities to the health complications.

It’s also worth pointing out that rescue rabbits may not be fully representative of rabbits living in loving homes. To be fair, these aren’t huge shortcomings, and the evidence seems fairly conclusive: Many floppy-eared rabbits are suffering because of the way they’ve been bred.

“This brings into debate the ethics of breeding and buying lop-eared rabbits, as they appear more likely to suffer from these conditions, which can be painful and often chronic or recurrent,” the authors concluded in the study.

Whether it’s a dog, cat, or rabbit, an animal’s health and comfort should always come before our aesthetic enjoyment. No doubt, it’s tough to resist the charm of those dropping ears, but buyers need to be cognisant of their future pet’s quality of life.

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