Remove That Wool!
by Susan Wiley
(The following article was originally solicited by Fiberfest Magazine, and subsequently accepted for publication. Unfortunately, Fiberfest Magazine is now out of business. We regret the loss of this excellent publication. There is no comparable publication that deals with fiber producing animals and the crafts and businesses built around the fiber they produce. Hopefully this article will be of use to IAGARB members, even though it is geared toward beginners.)
It has been 15 years since I began breeding Angora rabbits, and over the years I have sold rabbits to a variety of people; from serious breeders, to exhibitors, to 4-H children. I have always encouraged the new owner to contact me whenever they had any questions, knowing that problems were bound to arise. When asked to write an article on wool harvesting, I couldn’t help but reflect over these years, and come to the conclusion that the most important aspect of angora wool removal is the attitude and motivation of the rabbit owner.
Several years ago a friend of mine came to me in tears. Her Angora rabbits were dying, one by one. They would stop eating and die an obviously painful death. I suspected that most common of Angora maladies right away, but I held my peace until I could inspect each rabbit. Placing the rabbit on a carpet square on the table, facing away from me, I slid my hands underneath the rabbit and began palpating the abdominal region. With my fingertips, beginning just behind the front legs, I felt along the rib cage. As my fingers came to the end of the rib cage, I pushed gently but firmly into the stomach area. There it was, a large mass, where none should be. “Wool block,” I said. “They all have wool block.” I began to question her about her wool removal methods. Did she shear or pluck? How often? It turned out she was constantly removing wool; a little here, a bit there. Some wool she combed out, some she plucked. She timidly reached under the rabbit to remove belly wool, but never turned them over. She never completely removed the rabbit’s wool. The reason: she was afraid to hurt the bunnies she loved so much. The result: they ingested loose wool and died of wool block.
Another exhibitor purchased an Angora rabbit from me and was quite successful on the show circuit with this lovely creature. With wool 7 inches long and more, this huge wooly halo created a sensation wherever she went. After one show, I urged this person to shear the rabbit, but received a familiar retort, “Oh, maybe just one more show.” I learned a short while later that the rabbit had died.
What is the point of these two stories? Long, luxurious wool on the bunny may look beautiful, win compliments and swell you with pride, but it is a health hazard to the rabbit. That wooly coat you love so much can kill your rabbit. Here is a list of the possible negative effects of that long coat:
(1) WOOL BLOCK
The longer the wool is left on the rabbit, the more likely that some or all of the coat will loosen. As the rabbit grooms itself, it ingests wool, which combines in the digestive system with pellets to form a “wool ball.” This condition can kill a rabbit in days.
Angora is hot. If you haven’t tried wearing it, you should – just to see what your rabbit has to suffer through. Add to this some other stress, such as shipping or a crowded show, and it isn’t too surprising so many Angora rabbits will die suddenly, maybe a day or a week later.
(3) LOSS OF CONDITION
A long wool coat can restrict the rabbit’s ability to move around, and overheating can cause a loss of appetite. The rabbit loses weight and muscle tone.
(4) LOSS OF FECUNDITY
Rabbits that have been kept in full coat a long time are more apt to experience breeding problems. This is especially true of the Angora breeds with very dense wool, such as German Angoras.
(5) POOPY BOTTOM, FLYSTRIKE AND SORE HOCKS
Again, this problem is more common in densely wooled rabbits. As the coat grows longer and longer, the rabbit’s movements are restricted, and some rabbits can no longer reach behind to clean themselves off or ingest their night feces. As a result, their crotch area becomes impacted with feces. In warm weather, this provides the perfect breeding ground for flies, and the maggots can kill the rabbit in short order. Build up of feces in the rectal area often spreads to the feet, the reason why sore hocks are more common in Angoras with long coats.
So how frequently must the wool coat be removed? The answer varies with the breed of Angora, and even from individual to individual. English, French and Satin Angoras usually release their wool at some point, and that is when it must be removed, whether it is one inch long or 7 inches long. When the rabbit’s cage starts to look fuzzy, when the wool pulls out easily, or the bunny is off feed with fecal pellets strung together with wool: it’s time to pluck! There are several reasons to pluck, rather than shear these breeds (even though some studies have shown lowered wool production from plucking). First, plucking promotes growth of guard hair, and these breeds may need this stimulation to produce enough guard hair to support their wool coat, keeping it from matting. Secondly, there may be a second coat coming in, and if shorn this second shorter coat is mixed in with the longer wool, reducing the entire harvest to “felting grade” angora. Plucking allows you to remove the long fibers, leaving the shorter coat intact. However, the entire coat may not be loosened. In this case, the owner has two options: 1) only remove what is loose and wait to remove the rest of the wool or 2) pluck what is loose and then shear the rest of the rabbit with a scissors or electric shears. I strongly suggest the second option, especially for new owners, because it guarantees the entire coat comes off.
Germans, Giants and other angoras that tend not to release their wool may be shorn at any time, theoretically. The ideal wool length for spinning is 3-4 inches, so it is length of wool that dictates timing of wool removal. Since the wool grows faster during the first month or two, wool production over the year can be increased by shearing as frequently as possible. It is in the owner’s best interest to shear about every 3 months, when the coat is 3 inches long, first grade wool. It is only by this timely removal of wool that the breeder can get an accurate gauge of wool production. After three months of growth, wool production slows down, and harvesting at this point gives an unfair picture of how much the rabbit could produce, if it were sheared more frequently.
For show purposes, a 4 inch coat may be desired, and the animal allowed that extra month before wool removal. But beware: this is a time of stress on the rabbit, and precautions should be taken. Removing loose wool with a high powered blower is a good idea, as well as careful monitoring of feed intake, and avoidance of other stresses.
We now understand why it is so important to remove the rabbit’s wool in a timely fashion. All the motivation a spinner really needs is the sight of that lovely angora ready to be harvested. The main problem still facing the new Angora rabbit owner is timidity. Perhaps the owner tries to pluck some wool out; the rabbit twitches, turns around and nips. No rabbit likes to be plucked or shorn, and they sense fear and indecision and react to it by nipping, kicking and being uncooperative. You must approach the rabbit with confidence and keep him firmly under control at all times. No kicking , nipping or struggling can be tolerated. You are the boss. You are saving the rabbit’s life. How is this accomplished? Short of strapping the poor thing to a shearing board, the best place to shear or pluck the rabbit is in your lap, where you can use not only your two hands to hold and control the animal, but also your arms, knees, thighs, stomach, whatever! Place the rabbit on a carpet square or towel in your lap. The firm footing will help the rabbit feel secure, and there is no place to go, short of leaping off. A few rabbits will take that leap, but if you remain firm, gently forcing them to stay put, almost all will calm down. Once in a blue moon one encounters a rabbit that is a holy terror, and the shearer will be forced to restrain the rabbit with one hand, and shear with the other. It can be done.
To remove wool on the underside of the rabbit, he must be turned over. The rabbit is grasped firmly by the loose skin at the nape of the neck (the lower portion of the ears can be included with a particularly unruly animal), and with the other hand supporting the back, the rabbit is rolled onto his back, in your lap. The rabbit’s shoulders are positioned between your knees, and the rest of the body held firmly by the thighs. Some rabbits will just lie there, and others object strongly to this unnatural position. Use as much pressure as necessary to keep him from escaping. Very wild rabbits may need to be further restrained by holding the nape of the neck and base of ears with one hand, and shearing with the other hand. Even if you pluck the top, sides and bib of your rabbit, you will probably want to shear the rest of the rabbit with a scissors. Remember to shear the entire rabbit: the legs, stomach, tail. Half an inch of wool should be left on the feet for padding, but dirty, matted and excessively long wool should be removed here, too. Remember the powerful hind legs of hte rabbit can deliver a nasty kick, and keep your face out of reach. The hind legs can be held back with one arm, while the belly wool is removed, and a hand can hold the front legs back toward the body, while the bib wool is removed. When shearing each individual leg, hold the foot firmly in one hand and extend the limb, while shearing with the other hand. Be persistent. You can do it. And every time you do it, it gets easier.
When I walk down the rows of cages in my rabbit barn, I like to see my rabbits shorn. I swell with pride at the raggedy looking creatures. They are healthy, eating like pigs, and hopping energetically about. The rabbits with long coats, on the other hand, are frequently uninterested in food and lethargic. My point: a healthy rabbit is a plucked/shorn rabbit, no matter what the time of year. You should think to yourself, “I am saving this rabbit’s life,” each time you remove that coat. It is false love to delay shearing because it is too cold out, or you fear cutting the rabbit, or because the rabbit doesn’t enjoy the wool removal process.
Reprinted from IAGARB News, Winter/Spring 1996