So I'm a 30-something who has been keeping pets my entire life, I spent 18 years breeding, showing and judging rabbits as keeping a huge range of animals from reptiles to birds, rodents and invertebrates, and I've been researching and blogging about pets for 11 years... and guess what guys over that time I've made some tremendous mistakes.
I think as a pet keeping community it's time to talk about our mistakes.
This has come about due to the Taylor Nicole Dean situation on youtube. Although I'm not a part of the pet tube community I do watch many channels and saw this scenario unfold. If you are not aware of it a brief overview is Taylor is a VERY popular youtuber who has had some rather awful things thrown around lately and is now defending herself. You can find both for and against videos on youtube and I'm not going to get into it too much. I cannot say that I agree with everything she does regarding her pet care (but the same can be said about many of my own friends) and I certainly don't watch her videos avidly (I'm pretty sure I'm older than her target audience lol). But yes she has made some terrible mistakes in her pet keeping, some of which has resulted in the death of some of her pets...
But they are mistakes all the same and I'm sure she genuinely cares about her animals and that no one will be beating herself up about it more than herself... but its brought out a lot of people preaching a holier than thou attitude lately...
Well you know what, in the 30 years I've been keeping pets, I've made mistakes - and yes some of my animals have died as a result of those mistakes... have I openly talked about them - not so much because they are awful experiences... but perhaps thats the problem. Perhaps us as pet keepers do not share our mistakes enough.
EVERYONE who has kept pets has made mistakes at some point... any pet keeper who claims they have never made a mistake is either:
- still new to pet keeping, trust me with time mistakes happen
- using outdated guidelines - anyone keeping a hamster 10 years ago to the most appropriate guidelines would have been doing it wrong by todays standards - trust me what we know about pets changes so much in a short space of time.
- simply lying or living in denial....
So without further ado I'm going to talk about 10 of my biggest mistakes (believe me I could write a book about the mistakes I've made over the years, but decided to limit it to just these 'bottom 10' moments in pet keeping....
10 Hamster Housing
My last few hamsters and any future hamsters I own have had enclosures that have been measured in feet... however when I was 18 I took up breeding winter white dwarf hamsters... and do you know what I converted to keep them in... a set of plastic sliding drawers (like a snake rack)... those drawers measured about 1foot x 1foot and housed a breeding pair in each. They were tiny and poorly ventilated... but a similar size to most pet shop cages available at the time, so I didn't think anything of it. Now I'm horrified, and have never spoken publicly about it. My hamsters were healthy, friendly and long lived... but happy? I doubt it now. I'm very ashamed of this and will now always advocate large enriched enclosures for all animals... and yes I hate snake racks as they remind me of my poor little mammies living in a storage unit....
9 My Dog Got Ran Over
When I had Cassie and Hektor they were inseparable. We were having to take Hektor to the vet... getting him and a young toddler into the car was a marathon operation and then Cassie had to be shut in the house. At the time she was not left in the kitchen (as she climbed onto the units and ate everything in the cupboard) and my living room becomes too hot to leave her in while we are out, so she was left in the hall (where their beds/bowls were located)...
However as I was coming out and locking up, she squeazed past me and ran through the gap in the door, straight over the garden and into the road. Right in front of an oncoming car. My heart stopped and I was frantic - this was totally my fault, was it intentional - absolutely not, in that moment I wanted to die. I ran out expecting to find Cassie dead.
Fortunately she jumped up and ran into an alley, we managed to catch her (shaking and scared but otherwise ok), and luckily we were already on our way to the vets, she survived the ordeal with just two grazes on her inside back knees.
I was so lucky and thankful that day, the outcome could have so easily been far worse... and I only have myself to blame. Does this mean I am a terrible pet owner and should never keep another animal again... I don't think so, but I am however so much more careful and we now move the heavy bulky crate from room to room whenever we need to leave her behind instead.
8 I Bought Angora Rabbits Whilst on Maternity Leave
Even just typing that sounds stupid, and I wasn't a kid this was only just over 4 years ago... what was I thinking...
Like all new naive mothers I really didn't know what was to come. I was on maternity leave and had a relatively 'easy' baby... she slept well and was pretty good all round... I had a lot of time on my hands and had always wanted to own angoras... so I bought a pair...
At first I managed their grooming requirements readily (20-30mins each a day and then 2 hours or so a month for clipping)... then my baby started walking and the daily grooming became a few times a week... then I went back to work and it became just weekends.
When I had to change jobs and ended up working longer hours I was really struggling with their upkeep and felt like I was constantly having to cut out mats, I sadly had to admit defeat and with a heavy heart called the breeder who agreed to take the pair back.
Looking back I know that it was a stupid decision... but I really had no idea what parenthood was really going to be like and just how much work was involved in that... (note I never underestimated the work involved in angoras... lol)
7 The Leopard Gecko and Cricket Episode
When I was still living at home I begged and begged my parents to let me get some leopard geckos... eventually they agreed and I bought a beautiful boy named Tango. I loved him to bits and everything went well... however around 6/7 months into my gecko keeping adventure I had an accident with a box of crickets - I didn't shut the lid properly and obviously they escape...
The rest of the family were not happy about finding crickets in their bed, the kitchen (everywhere....) and so I was banned from keeping crickets in the house.... at this point I probably should have found my boy a new home... but instead I decided to try and feed him purely on mealworms.
This was a bad idea... sadly over the next few months his health went down hill rapidly, he became pale, thin and lethargic... eventually I reached out to help and rehomed him via a forum to someone already keeping geckos.
I really hate myself for the state he got into. I do hope one day to keep geckos again now I have more knowledge.
6 Dog Medication
Sometimes our mistakes have more far reaching consequences and sometimes this even result in the deaths of our beloved pets... from here on down these are the mistakes I'm talking about.
Hektor was my beloved field spaniel... he did however have a wealth of health and behavioural problems (including fear of strangers, snapping, hormone issues, heart murmur, compression in his spine, early on-set arthritis and many many allergies)
We had persistant ear infections that were causing him a great deal of pain caused by allergies. After multiple visits the vet and operations, it was decided to refer us to a specialist.
My first mistake was not going with him myself to see the specialist as I was working, my parents took him down for me. He had allergy tests down and the vet prescribed a revolutionary new treatment made in the Netherlands that were steroid based anti-allergen injections.
Mistake number two was taking the word of the specialist and not researching or looking into this medication myself. We started his treatment plan and it cured his ear issues and reduced his allergy problems....
So we kept him on them for the next 3 years before we noticed more problems.
Hektor became incontinent and often had blood in his urine (which was put down to cystitis), excessive drinking and then we started getting neurological problems... he would sit and stare at the wall for 20-30 minutes at a time vacantly. He would bark, whimper and twitch in his sleep and randomly wake up snarling and growling.
One time he even woke up from sleep and launched himself off the sofa at my face - I had to physically pin him down while he snarled for a few minutes until he came round... this naturally terrified me, I had a small toddler at the time and worked from home as a child minder.
The next visit to the vet obviously brought up the inevitable in this scenario that we might have to start considering having him put to sleep. I decided I wanted to investigate further to be sure that there was nothing else going on before making that decision. The vet scheduled a MRI scan for him at a nearby pet hospital to check his brain and his liver/kidney function (the vet bill for him by now has run into thousands - that goodness for pet insurance).
It was also at this time that I stopped giving him the injections completely as I had noticed a correlation in the behaviour and symptoms. And I also FINALLY researched and looked into the injections...
I found out about the horrific side effects caused by these types of injections, the excessive urination, drinking, weight loss, hair loss, behavioural changes among others and a much high risk of cancer.
The MRI came and went... everything was fine and normal... following the stopping of the injections the symptoms did improve so we decided to see how things went and I was very hopeful for him.
Nine months later he collapsed, we rushed him to the vet and they diagnosed massive internal blood loss - it was not looking good for him. They decided to do an ultra sound which revealed a huge mass on his liver which had ruptured. We were then faced with a decision. Rush him to the animal hospital and get another dog in to give him a transfusion while they operated, or allow them to open him up at our own vets to take a look at what the mass was.
I opted for the second choice as I didn't want to get a donor dog involved if it wouldn't help. We returned home and waited for the vets to call... which them did about half an hour later.
Hektor had a massive tumour on his liver which had spread to his kidneys, intestines and pancreas. The tumour had ruptured and filled his abdominal cavity with blood. It was inoperable and he would only have hours left to live. The decision was made to not bring him back round from the anaesthesia... My beautiful boy passed away.
Bear in mind just 9 months earlier he had a full body MRI scan which shown his liver and kidneys to be normal... this meant the tumour grew very very quickly.... and pretty much as soon as his medication was stopped... something that was reported to be common with this type of medication.
Obviously his death was not entirely my fault and we genuinely believed we were operating in his best interested at every step of the way (and believe me money was no objective)... however I feel we went into an almost 'experimental' treatment without me even researching the consequences or the alternatives... so I hold this as one of my most costly and heartbreaking mistakes.
5 Assisted Hatching
When I was hatching out some pekin bantam chicks, two out of three eggs hatched well but the third had pipped and nothing else had happened for 12 hours... This was my first time hatching eggs, I panicked and decided to assist hatching. This is something that is very tricky and has to be done with precision... I rushed, I went to fast... the baby was not ready and it bled... It bled a lot. As a result the baby was very weak, it never ate, never stood, never opened it's eyes and passed away the next day.
Perhaps if I had left the baby in the egg longer it may have hatched naturally, on the other hand it might have perished in the egg... perhaps if I had gone slower with the assisted hatch it might have survived. I will never know, but I will never forget that baby. Since then I have assisted dozens of eggs to hatch successfully and have never had another bleed, it doesn't make me feel any better about this mistake however.
4 Fish Heater Malfunction
A few years ago, our beta fish 'Finn' died... the heater in his tank dislodged (it was attached to the glass with suckers) the heater fell and landed on a plastic plant... which melted, turning the water green and slimy. I have no idea how long the tank was like this. I said good morning that morning and when I went to feed him before bed he had perished. I have come to terms that I could not have done anything to prevent the heater from coming loose, but perhaps if I had checked soon, or not had tank items so close to the heater he could have survived.
3 Overheated Rabbits
We were attending an agricultural rabbit show, this meant a very early start and late finish. The rabbits remaining behind were fed and watered early in morning and we headed off to the show.
Unfortunately the day grew very hot, the temperature rose far about any forecast and prediction, and we were hours from home unable to leave the rabbits in the show.
By the time I returned home that evening, and went out to check on my rabbits, several were hot and panty, however one who lived in a top hutch was completely limp and floppy. I tried everything I could but he passed away shortly after. I will never forgive myself for the death of my beautiful boy Solo. What if I'd given them ice bottles that morning, what if I'd stayed home... things could have been different. I should never have left them so vulnerable and I will never underestimate the danger of hot weather to caged rabbits.
2 Hand Rearing Baby Rabbits
Over the Years I have hand reared NUMEROUS baby rabbits... only a few have ever survived (lucky, gerri, Felix, snoopy and harmony) and several of those were left with life long health problems or lived relatively shorter lives. There are at least 20 babies that I've attempted to rear that didn't make it.
Baby rabbits are very hard to hand rear (in fact they are impossible to hand rear successfully from birth without the use of a mother rabbit's milk)...
When you take on the hand rearing of any baby animal you HAVE to accept the fact that you are more than likely going to fail. Most do not survive that is a fact.
With rabbits for the first month they are fed EVERY 2 hours (all night long) for about 20 mins, you have to help them poo, clean them and make sure they don't inhale any milk.
It is exhausting and you put your all in to it. Of course you quickly become very attached to those little lives... and again most don't survive... despite your best efforts. I have about a 20% survival rate for baby rabbits and that makes me very successful at it, I have taken in babies in the past from vets/breeders for hand rearing and specialise in very young babies (under 3 weeks) after this age they have a very very good chance of survival and don't need such specialist care.
But every time one dies it breaks my heart, even after just a few days or a couple of weeks of investing your all into a little life to see it taken away. Sometimes it's my fault... I've increased the time between feeds too soon as I've simply been exhausted... I haven't got the heat pad just right, or the babies have become constipated... sometimes I just don't know why.
My mum has often seen me in the aftermath of loosing a hand rearer, holding it's little body and crying over the fact that I failed it. She tells me 'its not worth it' the chances are so low and that it's too much to put myself through... but I only look at the little ones that have made it and how special they were to me, to know that I would do it again and again... because even it only one out of every 5 survive... that makes it worth while... it doesn't mean I ever forgive myself for the ones that didn't.
1 My biggest single pet loss ever
My biggest mistake I ever made as a pet keeper resulted in the death of over 40 baby animals in one hour. And even now a decade later I am still crying to write this.
I had a beautiful spiny flower mantis girl Ayasha, she came to me as a previously bred adult so I knew the time we would have together was potentially very short. So when she laid an ootheca I decided to hatch it out... despite the fact that I lived at home and my parents had only allowed me to keep a single mantis in my room at any one time (this was after the gecko incident).
A few weeks later the ooth hatched... I was so excited to see the tiny ant like babies crawling around... I however didn't know how to broach the new arrivals to my parents. I purchased all the supplies to set them up individually, and set up 40 cups each with a paper towel substrate, twig, fruit flies, baby mantis and fly screen lid. I put the cups into a plastic storage box (without lid) with a heat mat for warmth, and the cricket box with the remaining smallest babies (probably another dozen or so) in the box as well. I then set them up in my pet shed (where my rabbits, gerbils and hamsters lived)... I assumed that if they were out there till grown on a bit they wouldn't mind. My intention was to keep a couple back for me and find homes for the rest (most likely through the insect groups I was in and exotic pet shops.)
When my parents arrived home a couple of hours later I told them about the babies and they were keen to see them... feeling rather happy about this turn of events I went out to fetch my babies in... only to find every single one of them dead, All laid on the floor of their tubs legs up.
EVERY SINGLE ONE OF OVER 40 BABIES
Then I heard a 'tsssch' noise and my heart sank. In my haste to work out a way to keep my new pride and joys that wouldn't result in my parents getting mad I had totally forgotten that in the pet shed I had a 'konk' machine set up. This was a small unit containing an aerosol that every three minutes set a puff into the shed... a puff of fly killer. I used it to prevent flies coming into the shed in the head and laying eggs in the rabbit waste and as a way of preventing flystrike....
It hadn't even crossed my mind that my precious new baby insects would be killed by the machine I used to keep away the pests... I felt like an idiot and a complete failure to my pets... I sobbed... I cried over bugs. In fact I'm sobbing now writing this.
In a single day I had a death count of over 40 pets... was I abusing them, no... did I neglect them, I don't believe so, I gave them such rich enclosures... I just did not take the time to fully factor in the environment I was putting them into. Was it a horrendous mistake - absolutely... should I never be allowed to keep another animal again... I don't believe so... in fact their mother (who was already fully mature when I got her) went on to live another 8 wonderful months with me, and I've successfully kept many more mantids since... but I'll never forget that day... and no one can make me feel worse about it than I do myself
So what was the point of this thread... to show that we all make mistakes in pet keeping... small ones, bigs ones and ones that will haunt us for the rest of our lives... every time an animal dies we will question ourselves, double guess ourselves... wonder what on earth we could have done differently... and in these situations we as a pet community should try to build each other up not tear each other down. I firmly believe we should talk about our mistakes, share that everyone is only human (heck I've made mistakes as a mother....not just as a pet owner) and to know that we are not alone in our grief.
Well unfortunately I received an email this week from a reader, letting me know that my old blog (on blogger) has been deleted... :( this makes me sad that's a whole 3 years old information, blogging and the history and photos of my pets gone. I've transferred over as many of them as I can access over to here, but obviously there's now huge gaps. I do intend on trying to blog more frequently again, about how my guys are doing as well as reviews, projects and care guides.
The following articles pertain specifically to the care of the Indian star tortoise (Geochlene elegans) and its 3 local variations (northern star, southern star, Sri Lankan star), but with minor alterations could also be applied to the Burmese star tortoise. The information here could also be useful to people looking to keep other tropical grassland/woodland species such as leopard tortoise, sulcata tortoises or some of the Madagascan species, however further research should be undertaken. The articles below should under no circumstances be used to in conjunction with any of the 'Mediterranean' tortoise species.
Introduction to Star Tortoises
The Indian star tortoise belongs to a group of tortoises that bear a distinguishing radiating pattern on their carapaces. Variations of this pattern are quite common among African and to some extent Asian tortoises, and are - despite the eye-catching appearance in unnatural surroundings - a very efficient means of camouflage. Among the 'starred' group of tortoises are the Radiated, spider and flat-shelled tortoises of Madagascar, the geometric and tent tortoises of southern most Africa as well as the Indian and Burmese stars from southern Asia. All the starred beauties have since the early days of herpetoculture been much sought after among tortoise enthusiasts and commercial trade, legal as well as illegal has together with the ever present habitat destruction led to all these species becoming locally or regionally threatened. The starred species that traditionally has been the most common in captivity is the Indian star tortoise, much due to a historical extensive trade in wild caught specimens, mainly from Sri Lanka.
Indian Star Tortoises (Geochelone elegans) can be split into several unofficial sub-species or local population variants, the northern star (larger and duller), the southern star (smallest and brightest) and the Sri Lankan star (large with most complex and wide markings).
The base colour of the shell is a light cream to dark yellowish brown, and a number of wedge-shaped black fields on each scute form the characteristic star pattern. As star tortoises age they become increasingly yellow as the black sections are worn away.
The star tortoises can possess a shell with naturally raised scutes (usually referred to as pyramiding). This feature is highly variable among star tortoises - both smooth and bumpy individuals have been documented in the same wild populations.
The anterior part of the front legs are covered by large scales, while the hind legs lack this protection. The soft parts of this species are cream-yellow to yellow, with varying amounts of dark brown or black spots, often creating a speckled head. The star tortoise has 5 claws on each foot. The females claws are noticeably longer and more curved than the males.
The Indian Star is a medium sized tortoise. Females are much larger than males and have a shorter tail. They are much more rounded. Males have a longer tail and a concave plastron. This is possibly one of the tortoise species with the most striking sexual dimorphism. The largest known specimen measures 380mm but most are considerably smaller averaging about 280mm, while males seldom exceed 200mm.
As the name suggests these tortoises come from the Indian subcontinent, it ranges over large parts of Indian, south-eastern Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It is found in a number of different habitat types from semi-deserts in the north to the moist deciduous forests of the south, however most of it's range consists mainly in dry grassland habitats and sparse (brush like) forests.
The most distinguishing common feature of all star tortoise habitats is its dryness - it may be dry for 3 months or 10, but part of the year is always dry. The species also needs some sort of protection from the burning rays of the midday sun - this can consist of vegetation, rocks or hedges. In contrast to the dryness, star habitat often falls under the influence of the monsoons, creating warm, heavy rainfall and high humidity areas which generally stimulates breeding in the wild. Temperatures rarely drop below 18oC at any point of the year or area of the animals' range, therefore this species does not hibernate.
Research shows these animals have a 100% herbivorous diet naturally, although there are reports of them consuming carrion and insects this appears to be out of the norm and very rare. It would be safe to assume that the vast majority of these tortoises would go their entire life without consuming any animal matter.
The bulk of the diet is made up of grasses, the tortoise will spend much of its time grazing, they will also eat smaller quantities of leafy weeds and flowers. They do not appear to often eat fruit or other high moisture content foods.
In drier habitats types of fresh grass are only available during the short monsoon period. During the long periods of drought and relatively cool weather the tortoises will graze on dried grasses and be rather inactive, they can go without food for long periods of time.
Reproduction in the Wild
The mating season for the star tortoise correlates with the monsoon, which is around June to September. Unlike most species males seldom engage in combat or butting towards the female, (in fact it is often reported to find star tortoises in small 'herds' although how much of a social group this is remains to be studied). Around 60-90 days after mating the female is ready to lay the first of several clutches of eggs.
A female ready to lay is restless and aggressive towards companions, stars can be particularly choosy when finding a nesting site. She will lay 1-6 eggs in an excavated nest. Incubation times vary from as littler as 4-7 days to as long as 223.
Hatchlings are around 35-45 mms long and either completely yellow or yellow with black 'butterflies'. Hatchlings grow rapidly for a few months and then settle down to a slow rate of growth. Males tend to mature at around 6-8 years while females take 8-12, stars continue to grow in size slowly until around 30 years. The average life expectancy in the wild is around 30-40 years.
Although not one of the most endangered tortoises of the world the Indian star tortoise is placed on CITES appendix II (regulating international trade, but not trade within this country). No paperwork is currently required to own or purchase an Indian star tortoise but one should be careful to obtained captive bred individuals.
This is caused by the increasing Indian population demanding more land, more exhaustive uses of forests and other natural resources as well as farm land. Tortoises are also used as food in some parts of India, but as the people become wealthier other food is preferred.
The commercial trade of the star tortoise also has had a big impact on wild populations, often illegally young animals are taken from the wild and transported in poor, cramped conditions to be sold on the pet or food market throughout the world. It is estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 juveniles find their way onto the Asian pet market each year and 70% of those die in their first year.
There has been no legal large scale exportation of this species for many years, and it looks unlikely that this will change, hopefully protecting this species in the wild. However while animals are taken in such large numbers illegally the future of the star tortoise appears uncertain.
There comes a time in any breeding program where you need to search for an outcross naturally the best option is to source a well bred, good example of a British Smoke Pearl that is sufficiently unrelated to your own stock. However due to the small gene pool we have to work with and the limited number of breeders keeping the breed this may prove to be very difficult. So below I have outlined some of the other options that have been suggested to me over the years as well as a quick summary of their pros and cons of using them.
Sable - Our known parent breed, sables have a wide gene pool to choose from and generally finding a rabbit with a coat or type to complement and improve your line should be fairly straight forward. However the drawback is that your first generation crosses will all be sables (which can be somewhat disheartening), you will need to breed these crosses back to a smoke pearl which will then produce a mix of both sables and smoke pearls.
Smoke Pearl Satin - Smoke pearl satins generally stem from smoke pearls at some point so may not provide the new blood required in an outcross, but the main drawback is the availability (harder to find than normals) and are often not of the same quality.
Ivory Satin - Ivory satins certainly carry a lot of benefits in their coat and type, and depending on the background may even produce normal smokes (or sables, sable agoutis) first generation. However you will introduce the recessive satin gene into your line which can and WILL hide for generations, so if you do not want to randomly be popping out satins in your normal litters in the future, satins are best avoided.
Beveren - Some have suggested that using a beven would be a good outcross as it is believed beverens were used in the creating of the smoke pearl and passed on some of their coat qualities. As a dilute it means introducing less undesirable colour genes but the two breeds are vastly different types. I have not seen the outcome of this outcross.
European Zobel (blue or smoke pearl variety) - Another option open to us now is to import a smoke pearl from another european country. This has the added benefit of completely new blood to the gene pool and babies produced will be smoke pearl straight away. Consideration should be given to the difference of standard for type and coat and further selection then can be taken, but many positive qualities can be found here (especially to improve colour).
Lilac - I’ve heard a number of fanciers say that lilacs used to be a popular outcross for smoke pearls. Personally i’m not convinced that it would be a good choice as the breeds differ so much in coat and type and it would also introduce the undesirable chocolate gene into smoke pearl lines and i’m sure a more suitable outcross from the list above could be located.
A number of years ago now, I got into an interesting discussion with a well known rex judge at the London Championship show. We were talking about the progress of the breed, and in particular my line. I had some nice rabbits on show that day and was pleased with them, however still concerned with how far they had to go to reach the standard. I remember saying that it always felt like one step forward and two back.
He then extolled the virtues of ‘the old rex way of breeding’, explaining that I was trying to correct too many faults at once and that I would progress faster by focusing on the individual aspects of the breed. This involved starting with my best rabbits and basically outcrossing them, then selecting from the youngsters those with the best coats and those with the best colour. Using these rabbits with each other two separate lines could be created, one selected for their colour attributes and one for their coat. Once the features were fixed the lines could be combined.
I went away and spoke to other fanciers and found references to this technique in various books and old fur and feathers. So off I went, I started selecting two separate lines and often wondered to myself what on earth I was playing at… Well 5 years later, I thought it was fair to report on what i’ve found during that time.
My coat line developed quickly and was the easiest, I used outcrosses to sables and then bred back to the smokes, without worrying too much about the correct shadings on the rabbit, I have found that I can now consistently produce really good, dense coats that feel exquisite.
The colour line was harder to establish - I think mainly because there were less options for me to select from to begin with. However over the years i’ve seen dramatic improvements each generation in the rabbits selected purely for their colour. I did my first little happy dance when the fawn belly colour came through, and another when the saddles started appearing - i’ve since been selecting for the best shadings and depth of colour on the saddle, and feel that I am finally starting to make progress in this area - although I’ll be the first to admit, there’s still a long way to go.
I was pleased to recently cause a judge a dilemma by presenting him with one of my best examples from my coat line and another very pleasing youngster from my colour line. While he happily expressed his surprise and appreciation of the features that have taken so much work to achieve, he also despaired over the fact they occurred on two separate rabbits - which brings me to my final point.
I feel that I have progressed on both aspects of my line and I’m now ready to start trying to combine them - that however is easier said than done. My first crossing of the two lines produced just two babies - one a white and the other a young smoke doe, who developed into the worst coloured and coated rabbit I have ever had the misfortune to breed.
I will be continuing to cross the lines going forward in the hopes that genetics may be kinder next time around, as well as continuing to develop the lines separately. My plan is to choose the best from the crosses and then breed these back to whichever line they need improvement upon. I’m hoping that with this method I will eventually get a rabbit with the beauty of both lines rather than the faults. However if any well meaning ‘old school’ breeders want to offer any further advice on the combination of these two lines - i’m all ears.
In recent months I have been asked many times by new breeders and aspiring judges just what it is they should be looking for in the ‘perfect’ smoke pearl, too often the wrong qualities are praised and pushed.
Colour is the single most important feature of the breed with a massive 45 points allocated (there are only 2 other fur breeds that equal or exceed this the New Zealand Red and the Pointed Beveren). The flanks of the rabbit should be a beautiful pearl-grey to beige shade, the more delicate the better, maintaining this colour while also successfully producing the desired shadings is a constant challenge for breeders.
The smoke pearl is a shaded rabbit and needs to display beautiful smoke grey saddle and points. Unfortunately the saddle is almost completely absent in the breed at present, but breeders are striving towards it. The saddle should be the same shade as the nose, ears and feet and stretch from the nape of neck to the tail. Some breeders are now beginning to produce exhibits with the start of saddles, however at present these are what would be considered a short saddle and are often held back by judges in favour of a rabbit with no saddle at all, which I feel is a backward step for the breed, surely a short saddle is worth more points than an absence of one. While on the note of saddles I find they are also often lacking in depth of colour, a trick I was shown by a well respected rex judge was to lay the rabbit’s ears flat, the saddle should match the ear colour, in most cases I find the saddle is still much lighter. So we still have plenty to develop on our saddles.
Next, the shadings, if the desired amount and colour has been achieved on the nose, ears, feet, tail and saddle, the colour must then gradually shade to the pearl-grey colour as described above. The change needs to be even and free from blotches and streaks, unfortunately moult lines and watermarks are all too common in this breed - and even more common in a correctly coloured specimen than one without body shadings. On top of this the rabbit needs to be free from white hairs and patches - pay particular attention to the ears and nose area as these do seem prone to go ‘frosty’ as is often the case with dilute series rabbits.
The three shades of smoke pearl: the light version (this is the colour most commonly seen shown today), the medium colour (this is what we should be aiming to produce, a correctly shaded rabbit although I have yet to be so lucky) and the dark variation or slate (not suitable for showing but can be put to use in the breeding program).
The under colour on the smoke pearl should match the top colour as closely as possible throughout the rabbit, the further down the hair shaft the better. I have known some rabbits in the past to suffer from pale or almost white undercolours. The only exception to this is the on the belly of the marten rabbit, when blown into the white fur should reveal a warm fawn-beige colour not white or grey - this again is another breeding challenge to produce, but I am starting to see this come out on the table.
Consideration should be given however to the fact that smokes develop their shadings gradually, U/5 rabbits will not be fully coloured up,the points up to their eyes and ear bases are usually not coloured until 5-6 months old.
In the marten pattern the rabbit should have white around the eyes, inside the ears, under the jaw, inside the nose, legs and feet as well as a white belly and underside of tail. The white triangle behind the ears should be as small as possible. The marten pattern itself seems to be well understood as it replicas that of the marten sable and silver fox breeds. Two additional points of note however are to the nose flash. What would be considered a serious fault in the breeds mentioned above (a small white flash on the nose) is perfectly permissible in the smoke pearl, I’ve seen many a good rabbit pushed down the table for this acceptable feature. The standard does say that excessive white flash is a fault, and it is left up to the judge to determine what is excessive. Another marten feature is the white ticking which should be present along the flanks, chest, rump and feet. This is often restricted purely to the feet on a Smoke Pearl and as breeders we should be striving to extend the range of the ticking to bring it in line with the standard.
Once we have fully appreciated the colour of the Smoke Pearl next we turn our attention to the fur qualities of this breed, the standard allocates 40 points to a description that takes up just over 3 lines of text. The description of the texture and density of fur is exactly the same as found in the sable standard, so this should be our aim when breeding. The only difference is that the smoke pearl’s coat is listed as slightly shorter (1in as opposed to the sable’s 1-1½ in). The coat should be very dense, silky and soft. The coat should move slowly and not fly back, the overall impression should be exquisite. The breed does have a tendency to sway towards shorter coats and sometimes a little harsh (often in the siamese pattern). It is not often that a smoke displays the wealth of coat found on a sable, but when they do combined with the beautiful colouration they really are a sight to behold.
According to the standard the final consideration is type and condition, allocated a mere 15 points, however I feel still vitally important when assessing stock, a correctly typed rabbit will display the coat and colour to perfection. The smoke pearl has a ‘chunky’ but ‘moderate’ appearance free from physical extremes. It is generally described as medium bone, medium size, moderate length. The breeds slightly arched back is best shown off when the rabbit is trained to sit up on its front legs rather than lay flat to the table. The head should not appear snipy but also should not have a shortened or flat face, the ears should be small but proportionate.
One of my main bug bears is so many judges discount a rabbit for being too small, when it is in fact within the desired limits of the breed. At just 5-7 lbs the smoke is a rather small rabbit within the fur section. The current trend is often for placing rabbits nearer (or even in excess of) 8lbs. I prefer my smokes nearer 6lbs and favour fit over fat. But for judges, before penalising a rabbit for its size, perhaps check its weight… as surely a rabbit of 6lbs (right in the middle of the ideal weight) is more correct than one of 7½lbs and over the ideal limits.
Faults described in the standard have mostly been covered above with the exception of a few type faults like, lopped ears and excessive dewlap. The last thing to consider but what really makes the rabbit stand out is condition and presentation, a rabbit that is fit, finished and shown to perfection really will sparkle.
Below are some examples of daily feed rations for my rabbits (fed alongside hay and additional grass if needed to provide a constant supply)
A days winter feed...
Wild Meadow Forrage: mixed grasses, cow parsly, hogweed, sow thistle, dandelions, dock, ribwort platain, blackberry leaves.
Cultivated Vegetables: Romaine Lettuce, Curly Kale, Spinach, Celery, Parsnip, Barley Grass
Branches: Fresh Willow Stick
Dried Feed: Mixed Weeds, Grunhopper Adult, Apple Ring, Handful of Barley Grain, Dsp of Seed Mix, 2 fibafirst sticks as a treat.
I will admit, one of my main fears when switching to a natural diet with my rabbits was providing the enough and the correct nutrition without feeding pellets, however early on in the process my vet offered reassurance that pellets really were surplus to requirements. I read more into the subject and came up with the following guidelines. If you are following the natural diet plan, you will already be providing unlimited access to forage/greens so the doe will be able to perfectly regulate her intake and ensure that she is eating enough throughout her whole pregnancy.
Providing a wider range of collected forage as well as cultivated vegetables during this time will help the doe select the exact nutrients she requires. Ensuring that there is always access to fresh grass available will balance out the diet nicely. You can also increase the dried forage offered during this time as well as the added calcium will benefit a pregnant doe.
You will also find that does will produce far more milk when fed on a natural diet, I personally believe this is down to the fluid intake from fresh greens rather than the dehydrating properties of commercial pellets. Babies will grow strong and hardy with this abundance of nutrient rich milk, giving them an excellent start in life.
With all this considered it seems that feeding pregnant does on a natural diet should offer no issues, however care must still be taken as some plants have medicinal properties that will negatively affect pregnancy:
Lavender - is a strong medicinal herb that has long been used to cause females to violently expel the contents of their uterus, it is often used to trigger a miscarriage. It can be used on rabbits that have miscarried a litter or only partially miscarried. With this information kept in mind, lavender should be avoided completely for expectant mothers.
Shepherd's Purse - similar to lavender but the effects are not as strong, historically it has been used to induce labour. It is therefore reasonable to assume that this plant is also best avoided during pregnancy, although I heard of it being offered to does that have gone beyond their due date.
Mint - can be used to dry up milk, so while it is safe to offer in the early stages of pregnancy it should not be given during the last two weeks of pregnancy or while the mother is feeding her young. However it makes a welcome addition to the does diet post weaning to help keep her comfortable, stem the milk flow and prevent mastitis.
Sage - generally has the same milk production properties as mint with the added property of being a muscle stimulant. It is often reported that sage may stimulate the uterus so again is best to avoid during the whole of pregnancy through to weaning.
Parsley - is a hugely popular herb among rabbit keepers, however it is important to realise that it can cause uterine contractions, which can obviously put a pregnancy at risk. Parsley should not be offered during pregnancy, and shortly afterwards (while the doe's uterus is still recovering from pregnancy) but is safe to feed while the doe is feeding.
Yarrow - I haven't been able to find any exact details or references to the properties of yarrow except that it is often linked to miscarriage so again it would seem best to avoid feeding during pregnancy.
On top of the considerations above there are some plants that can offer huge benefits if fed during pregnancy:
Blackberry & Raspberry Leaves - provide cooling properties (by increasing blood circulation) which will be greatly appreciated by pregnant does in the hot summer months, they are also believed to aid milk production.
Comfrey - is known to have calming affects which will benefit pregnant does but is also very high in vitamin A which is vital during pregnancy.
Nettle, Goats Rue & Milk Thistle - are all very high in calcium which in tern aids milk production, ideal to feed in the latter stages of pregnancy and while does are feeding.
Dandelion - is a very popular plant to feed during pregnancy it is high in calcium and vitamin A.
It seems a common belief at present that rabbits should not be fed seeds of any kind. I believe this is a misconception from a number of different sources, the campaigning that a museli style diet is bad for rabbits (rightly so) and mono-component feeds should be fed instead (an easy option but not necessarily better than creating a varied natural diet - see the selective feeding article for more info). Secondly from the fact that rabbits cannot digest wheat grain (however many other forms of grain and seed are safe), and finally from the unhealthy - 'seed treats' that many shops market, it is in fact not the seeds themselves that make these bad and indigestible but the sugary honey or molasses substances used to bind the seeds together.
It has become common place (especially in continental Europe) to provide a seed mix when feeding a natural diet as it is simply not possible to provide as many of the vitamins and minerals that a rabbit requires - seeds are an excellent way to make this up. These mixes are nearly always home-made (there are no suitable ready made mixes available) from straight seeds, the mixes are made up of at least 5 different seed varieties (remember variety is the key to a balanced natural diet) from two different categories: oil seeds - for vitamins, minerals and supplemental qualities, and hot seeds - for energy and fattening properties.
The following guide gives you a rough indication as to how much of a seed mix should be fed daily to rabbits in different situations, this however is a guide only and you should adjust based on observations of your own rabbits weight and energy level. This guide is what I use to determine how much seed mix and the proportion of oil seed to hot seed in the mix for my own rabbits, you will need to adjust accordingly for your own.
The top ration represents how many parts oil seed to hot seed i.e. 1:1 would be 1 part oil seed to one part hot seed (or a 50/50 mix in other words) 2:1 would represent twice as much oil seed at hot seed.
The measure below is the amount of seed i feed in either tsp (tea spoon), dsp (desert spoon) or tbsp (table spoon)
To the left you can see my finished seed mix. I include as many of the seed varieties on this page as I can in each mix - although not all of them in every mix, and obviously not all will appear in each feed - but will balance themselves over time. I am constantly researching new seeds and further information on the seeds listed, so keep checking back to see if I've added any more information.
You can find straight seeds from many health food suppliers or pet food suppliers (often in the bird section). I purchase many of my seeds from 'Rat Rations' a pet food supply website - find the link on our links page.
Oil seeds are usually small seeds and are primarily 'oily' rather than 'fatty', these seeds are used to add a wide range of trace minerals and elements into a rabbit's diet that you cannot provide from hay and greens alone. I've tried to include many of the known benefits and considerations of each seed to help you tailor your mix to the requirements of your individual rabbits. When mixing oil seeds with hot seeds make sure you include at LEAST 3 different varieties of oil seeds. If you plan on feeding oil seeds exclusively include a minimum of 5 varieties.
'Hot' seeds (sometimes known as 'flour' seeds and often as 'grain' - although neither are complete descriptions for this group) are ones that give off extra energy when been digested. These seeds are useful in the winter, for rabbits raising babies, those needing to put on weight and growing youngsters. They need to be carefully regulated in the maintenance diet of adult rabbits, and completely absent from the diet of indoor neutered house pets. Feeding too may hot seeds can lead to health problems and obesity. When including them in a seed mix you should make sure you include a minimum of 2 different varieties. Many of the grass or grain seeds can be fed 'on the plant' for example when picking grass, choose seed heads as well, pick or grow barley or oat heads - these can be hung up and the rabbits will love stretching for them.
Including a wide range of fruits and vegetables are important in any diet that does not include manufactured pellets. These will be the rabbit's main source of vitamins and minerals, I recommend offering different options each day to help ensure a balanced diet.
These vegetables can help a rabbit gain or loose weight, offer more roots in the winter and less in the summer, or more during a time when rabbits need to gain a little extra weight.
Melon (Gala / Cantaloupe / Honeydew)
There are a wide range of flowers that can be included in your rabbits diet as special treats.
Pansy / Violas
Echinacea / Coneflower
A Note on Fruit Sugars
A Note on Fruit Pips