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What does it take to look after a Flemish Giant?
Maybe you've had wabbits before, maybe you haven't, but Flemish are quite different than many other breeds.
What do they eat?
NOT JUST CARROTS AND LETTUCE. WARNER BROS. CARTOONS FROM THE 1940s ARE NOT REAL LIFE.
READ THAT LAST LINE AGAIN.
Seriously. If you think Wile E. Coyote could survive getting an ACME safe dropped on his head, I don't want you owning a wabbit. Sure as shit, you're not gonna own one of mine.
OK, now that we have that out of the way...
Every Flemish breeder has a different opinion on this, but we mostly all agree on one thing: get good feed, good hay, and good water, and lots of it. An adult Flemish will eat anywhere from two to three cups of feed per day, and should have as much hay available to them as they want to eat. They shouldn't just get hay, or just get feed, but they can do OK for a couple of days with just one or the other, provided they have water. If you can't give both hay and feed, good hay is preferred.
I feed my Flemish Blue Seal Show Hutch Deluxe. It's a professional, 18% protein extruded feed, and while it can be hard to find, it's worth it. There are other, comparable high-protein professional feeds available from Manna Pro, Nutrena (Cargill), Pen Pals (ADM) and Purina. You may also find good, high-quality feeds at a local dealer such as Agway, a farmers cooperative, or a store specializing in livestock, horse and sheep supplies. A typical bag of these feeds at this level of protein will be anywhere from $16 to $21 for a 50-pound bag. If space is a problem, you can get a small trash can with a lid and put part of the bag in there as you feed it, then store the rest of the bag in a cool, absolutely dry space. Blue Seal sells a 16% feed called "Bunny 16" that comes in a 2-pound bag. It so happens that this amount of feed fits exactly into a 25-pound plastic bucket for cat litter you can get at WalMart. I actually found myself without a bucket like that, so I went to WalMart in Ottawa, Kansas, and dumped the useless cat litter along the Kansas Turnpike and replaced it with the extremely-useful wabbit food. You only have to do this one.
(PS: Kansas Department Of Highways: sorry about those 25lbs of scoopable litter in 2012. Really.)
NOTE: Feed that gets damp will get moldy rather rapidly, and mold spores can induce respiratory distress in rabbits that can kill them rapidly. If feed gets moldy, it will have a grayish haze on it. Throw it out.
Do not feed a Flemish -- or ANY rabbit, or that matter -- on the garbage "rabbit food" you can find at WalMart. That stuff is crap. Do not buy it. If you cannot or will not locate a source of good-quality feed, do not own a Flemish. I can and will assist you in finding a source of good feed. Typically, professional feed will cost you a lot less in the long run (I pay about $17 for a fifty-pound bag of high-protein, high-quality feed). The stuff at WalMart is usually over a dollar a pound and it's been sitting there for months drying out and getting rancid. Don't buy it.
Hay is another issue. If you're in an urban area, you may legitimately not have either a source of good hay, or a place to store it once you buy it. This is a pretty big problem. Hay has to be stored cool and dry, and while a big square bale only costs seven or eight dollars at a farm, it's a LOT of hay and not everyone can store it properly. Hay doesn't belong in a damp basement, for example, because hay that gets damp turns moldy, and mold spores can induce severe respiratory problems that can and will kill your Flemish. WalMart, Target and Home Depot sell good 30-gallon plastic totes with lids for under ten dollars that can store at least half of a bale of hay. I use them.
Again, do not buy the crap hay you may find at WalMart. And do not skip hay; your wabbit needs it!
There are hays available online in smaller quantities. While I don't personally buy it, Oxbow sells several varieties of hay through stores and online resellers. Be prepared for a shock, though... remember that seven or eight dollars a bale of fresh hay costs me? It weighs 40 or 50 pounds. For online-ordered hay, that same eight dollars will get you about three pounds of hay. An adult Flemish will go through that in about a week. If you are in the suburbs and have a cool, dry place to store hay (a big plastic tote from Target works), I strongly encourage you to drive out into the country somewhere and find a farmer who offers fresh bales of hay. If you live in an area with a lot of horses, you will find it. It's far, far cheaper and better than anything you can buy that comes in a bag.
Important: wabbits do NOT live on lettuce and carrots, any more than humans live on M&Ms and Doritos. First, iceberg lettuce is garbage and has nearly no nutritional value other than its moisture content. If you're going to give lettuce as a treat, get Romaine lettuce. Kale is also good. Carrots should be very limited, as they're rather sweet and don't provide the right balance of nutrition. Here's a secret: Bugs Bunny cartoons are all wrong! Wabbits actually like the green tops of carrots better than the orange root part of carrots! When's the last time you ever saw a wabbit dig up a carrot? I've never seen it. They do like to eat the tops off, though. If you're buying carrots anyway, get fresh ones with the greens still on them. Slice the top off, with the greens, and give it to the wabbits. Use the orange part for yourself. Don't bother with those little "baby carrots," which are really just full-size carrots cut and trimmed to look like small carrots. Without the peel, they don't have much nutrition anyway. Sweet potato is good in small quantities. Dandelion is good, provided you know FOR A FACT it hasn't been sprayed with any sort of weed killer.
Young Flemish (under 5-6 months old) shouldn't get fresh greens. Their guts aren't quite set up for the extra moisture fresh lettuce, or even fresh grass or herbs, has in it. They can come down with rather hazardous diarrhea. Don't give them much fresh stuff till after they're six months, or 12 pounds, whichever comes first.
Water: all the time, as much as they want. If your water is heavily chlorinated, you might want to get a filter or use jugs of spring water. An adult Flemish will go through up to a quart of water a day. Wabbits can go without water for a few hours, but they don't like it and I try to avoid it. The most mine go without water available is six hours, on trips to shows.
Where should they live?
Two words: NOT OUTSIDE. In fact, if your plan is to keep a rabbit in an outdoor hutch, open to the elements year-round, close your browser, because I won't be selling you a Flemish. It's that simple. Outdoor wabbits get sick more easily, die in accidents, and do not live long. A simple test: if you wouldn't live there, neither should a Flemish. If you have a good shed or an enclosed garage that isn't really drafty, that's OK, but check on them in cold and especially hot weather.
Does this mean they can never go outside? Of course not. They like exploring. A small, fenced yard with no holes under the fence and NO DOGS is a good place to explore. I personally guarantee you that if you have a shed, a trailer, a car, a porch, or anything else that has a place the wabbit can go under, they absolutely will, and you'll spend a good amount of time trying to convince them to come out. I also personally guarantee you that if you have a dog that has never seen a big wabbit, they WILL chase the Flemish and you WILL lose the wabbit. Consider investing in a good, correctly-sized wabbit harness. A harness made for small dogs can work in a pinch. Do not leave a wabbit unattended in your yard.
Let me say that again: do not leave a wabbit unattended in your yard.
Indoors, good places are where they won't experience stupid dogs, stupid children, stupid neighbors, or loud noises. Laundry rooms and kitchens are pretty good. Wabbits need a home base. If they are let out to hop around when you're there, they should be able to get back into their hutch without you, which means a hutch on the floor, out of the way where they can feel secure. If they will mostly live in the hutch, it should be at least 4x3 feet and at least two feet tall, so that they can sit up and see what's going on. This means you will almost certainly not find such a hutch at WalMart or even most pet stores. They're sized for normal wabbits, and Flemish... aren't.
If you're handy, I can provide you with a hutch design you can build with simple tools for about $45 which will work perfectly well for Flemish. If you have a truck (and you pay me), I can build it for you, and you can pick it up.
Do they bite?
They certainly can. With almost all breeds, there are two kinds of bites:
- Nibbling, which wabbits do to explore what's near them. This almost never causes injury but can surprise you if you're not used to it. Flemish in particular do this, because their head and nose are so large that they have a huge blind spot down by their lips, and they can't see things that are directly in front of them. If you want to offer them a treat or something, show it to them so they can see it, then offer it down by their lips. They'll check it out, and if they like it, they'll taste some more.
- Hard biting, which wabbits do when they feel scared, threatened or annoyed. A Flemish can actually do some pretty serious damage, and when you get bit for real, you will know it. It's like being grabbed with pliers, hard, and will result in a mark, sometimes a blood blister, and often, a v-shaped cut. Just wash it with soap and cold water, and remind yourself not to do whatever it was you were doing the wabbit didn't like.
With this in mind, tell your kids to keep their damn fingers away from a Flemish's face. They really, really dislike being poked. They really, really dislike sudden loud sounds (like what toddlers and dogs make). Over the years, I've come to think that Flemish are best for children over the age of ten mostly for this reason. If you wanna go ahead and have a big wabbit around a small, loud child, good luck.
Don't let your wabbit out unattended if you have a lot of expensive wood trim or furniture, or you will find chew marks on it. If you want to give a Flemish something to chew, a chunk of tree branch, such as apple, cherry or maple is just fine. It should be about a foot long and maybe an inch or two thick. They'll have a good old time gnawing through it.
How much do they poop and pee?
Well, a lot.
However much feed and hay they eat, that's how much they'll poop. However much water they drink, you can expect that much pee. Their poops are dry and round and odorless, and can be swept out pretty easily. Wabbits can be taught to use a catbox. In fact, they make a triangular version just to put in hutches. Flemish will generally seek out the furthest, darkest corner to use as a bathroom, which makes it a little harder to clean. The trick is, try not to let the shavings get mushy, for the poop, pee and shavings will form a pretty revolting muck that smells like a swamp. Dry, they have no smell. Wet, whether they're from pee or spilled water, they can get kinda gross, so keep after it and clean out every few days. This will help keep your Flemish healthy and good-looking.
Wabbit pee contains quite a bit of calcium and you may notice white stains on walls or floors near the hutch. You can clean it with vinegar, which will take the calcium deposits off. Carpets are a bad idea for Flemish. Not only will they sometimes pee on them, but they like to "dig" at them, which can cause pulls or tears, and if there's an edge (such as an area rug or oriental rug) they WILL chew on it.
If you DO have a wabbit whiz on the carpet (or elsewhere), regular old SHOUT! works very well. If you have a carpet cleaner such as a Hoover or Bissell that lets you clean your carpets yourself, add about two ounces of SHOUT! and a little powdered OxyClean to the solution you put in the cleaner, and it will work amazingly well, even on stains you don't find right away. For what it's worth, this solution should also work well for dogs, cats, ferrets, porcupines, small children or whatever else you have running around your house.
If you have your Flemish up on a bed or couch, and they start to "dig" rapidly with their front paws, get them back to their hutch immediately, or they will soon emit a lake of pee and you will be running for towels.
What happens when they get sick?
As big as they are, Flemish can be fragile. I've already mentioned the hazards of dogs, moldy feed and some digestive issues. There are other things that can afflict Flemish. Like all prey animals, they will generally not make it apparent they're sick. You have to watch carefully and notice small changes in their behavior, and be prepared to act when you sense something is wrong.
- If you don't see "normal" poops in their usual places, something is wrong. Wabbit poops should be almost completely dry when they come out, and they should be the size and shape of Skittles candy (but alas, not those bright colors). For adults, they can be somewhat larger, maybe like Junior Mints or Milk-Duds. If you see a runny mess, this means the wabbit's digestive system is fouled up and not processing things correctly. You need to act fast. Get them greens and hay and make sure they eat them. If they won't eat that, try plain old dandelion (just make sure it hasn't been sprayed with weed killer). Other things that can perk up appetite and get things going again are wild mint, catnip, wild grapevines and leaves, and even wild raspberry stems. They eat it all, even the thorns. If they still won't eat, get the wabbit to a vet quickly. For young wabbits, under 6 months, a fatal syndrome called "bloat" can set in within hours and kill them.
- Wabbit noses should be mostly dry. If you see a lot of whitish snot in their nostrils, particularly if you also hear wheezing and/or their eyes are runny, they may have picked up a respiratory ailment and should be seen by a vet as soon as possible. This can be corrected with antibiotics, but the dosage is tricky. Ignoring this sort of ailment can kill the wabbit in a matter of days, so move quickly on it. A medication called Sulmet in their drinking water every three months for a few days will help ward off respiratory problems, but ventilation and cleaning are important. Do not let wabbits near sources of mold spores. If feed or hay gets moldy, throw it out.
- Fleas? Sure, it can happen. If you see fleas, or if another animal in the house has fleas, treat for them as soon as you can, as fleas can carry microscopic parasites and bacteria that can cause harm. One thing to remember: FRONTLINE IS FATAL. Do not ever use FrontLine on a wabbit, as it will die. Period. Advantage works, at about the same dose you'd use for a cat of similar weight. If you have any doubts, take your wabbit to a vet to be treated. If you mix up FrontLine and Advantage (do not use generics), and your wabbit gets FrontLine, it will die. F=F. Frontline=Fatal.
- Fur mites. Sometimes, you may notice a patch of loose fur with a lot of dandruff at the bottoms of the hairs, particularly under the chin and between the shoulder blades. These are fur mites, a tiny parasite that causes the fur to fall out, leaving a bald patch behind. These can be treated with a medication called ivermectin, which comes in generally three forms: an injectable liquid that's about as thick as corn syrup, a topical form that's really not much different than the injectable except for packaging, and a flavored gel that comes in tubes. All of these are commonly sold in farm and feed stores. The flavored gel is often sold for horses, and all you need is a tiny blob of it about the size of the eraser on a pencil. Often, the wabbits will eat it because they like the flavor, but if they don't accept it, you can wipe it on their lips or paws and they'll eventually clean it off. I often use the injectable form as a topical, drawing it out of the bottle and then dripping a few drops (never more than 1cc) onto the affected area and wiping it around. If you're at all unsure, take it to the vet and explain that your wabbit has fur mites. There isn't always anything you can do to avoid fur mites... they can be transmitted between animals, they can exist in hay, they can exist in shavings, they sometimes seem to just appear out of the air. Once the mites are killed off, the fur will grow back. Expect some shedding thereafter.
- Injuries: you need to watch out for things that can get Flemish in trouble. If they get stuck in a tight place, they can panic and injure themselves and sometimes die. If they fall off something, they can break a leg or their back. Cuts can be serious, particularly if they get infected.
- Sores and infections: if you don't keep their hutch clean, Flemish can get serious sores on their butts from their rather powerful pee. Keep things clean, keep a lot of dry pine shavings around for them to sit on, and they'll be all right. If they do get a sore, take them to the vet. Open sores or wounds can easily get infected, the infection will stress the wabbit out, and they can die. Flemish should NEVER be on an all-wire hutch floor. Always cover the wire at least partially with a board. Pet stores and online dealers sell plastic things specifically for this, but you can use a chunk of wallboard (gypsum board), which will also neutralize some of the smell of their whiz.
Other random things
All wabbits "thump" when they're agitated at something. With Flemish, it's loud and you can't miss it. It's like hitting a tabletop with a croquet mallet. Find out what's annoying them and fix it.
Adult Flemish are nearly silent. In fact, if you do hear an adult "crying" (it's sometimes called "screaming"), there is serious, serious trouble, and you had better find out what's going on damn fast. In my experience, if you hear a full adult make that sound, they are within minutes of dying or something is biting or pinching them hard enough to cause serious pain. Do not ignore it. Once you hear it, you never forget it.
Flemish like toys. Simple plastic balls and cups will keep them amused for hours. If they're annoyed at you, they will sometimes pick up all their toys and throw them in the water dish. Toys that jingle can be great favorites, or they can bug the hell out of you at 4am.
If you have an intact senior buck, he will spray. He'll spray the walls. He'll spray the floor. He'll spray your other pets. He'll spray you. It comes out looking like looking like butterscotch and reeking to high hell. Fortunately, it doesn't have the staying power of cat whiz, for example, and doesn't have the same ammonia content. Just wash the target and make a note to yourself to get him neutered once you aren't showing him any longer. Neutered bucks cannot be shown in ARBA competition. Does do not spray, but a doe you don't intend to breed or show will live a longer life if you get them spayed. For cleanup, see the section above on how to clean up wabbit whiz.
I'll add more to this as it occurs to me, and if this hasn't scared you off yet, maybe a Flemish is for you.