Have you ever noticed that flap of skin hanging from your rabbit’s neck? That’s the dewlap, and it’s so much more than just a flabby flap! The rabbit dewlap is a remarkable multifunctional feature critical for communication, heat regulation, fat storage, and protecting kits during nursing. But dewlaps require proper care to avoid issues like skin infections, fur matting, and parasite infestation. Join us on an in-depth hop down the rabbit hole to explore the mysteries of lop ears, territorial chin rubbing, and all things dewlap! We’ll share fascinating facts about the structure and function of the dewlap, as well as tips for keeping your bunny’s dewlap healthy and happy. Let’s flap on!
What’s the Purpose of a Dewlap in Rabbits?
The dewlap is the loose flap of skin that hangs from the neck of domestic rabbits. While it may look like just a flap of fatty skin, the dewlap actually serves several important purposes for rabbits. Here are some of the main functions of the dewlap in rabbits:
Cooling and Temperature Regulation – The dewlap is filled with blood vessels that allow increased blood flow to help dissipate heat. When rabbits get too warm, the blood vessels in the dewlap will swell with blood, allowing the rabbit to release excess body heat through the skin surface. This helps prevent rabbits from overheating in warm environments.
Communication – Rabbits use their dewlap to communicate with each other. An aroused or aggressive rabbit may quickly flick its dewlap to signal dominance or as a warning. Mother rabbits may flash the dewlap to summon their young back to the nest. Sniffing each other's dewlaps is also part of rabbit greeting rituals.
Chest Protection – When nursing, the dewlap helps protect the mother rabbit's chest area and milk supply from the sharp claws of nursing baby bunnies. It creates a fleshy barrier between the chest and the kits' feet.
Territorial Marking – Rabbits have scent glands in their chin area right below the dewlap. Rubbing their chin and dewlap on objects helps mark territory and identify family members.
Fat Storage – The dewlap consists of skin, connective tissue and fat. It serves as an energy reserve that rabbits can draw from in times of hunger or high energy demand.
Species Identification – The large dewlap helps distinguish domestic rabbits from small wild cottontails and jackrabbits that lack a dewlap.
So in summary, the dewlap helps rabbits stay cool, communicate, nurse, mark territory, store fat, and identify their species. While it may look like a strange flap of skin, the dewlap is an important multifunctional structure for bunnies.
Rabbit Breeds with Dewlaps
Most domestic rabbit breeds have a dewlap, however some breeds are especially known for having very large, prominent dewlaps. Some rabbit breeds with notably large or distinctive dewlaps include:
Flemish Giant – This very large rabbit breed has a huge dewlap that hangs down several inches below the neck. The Flemish Giant has very loose skin to allow for its massive size.
English Lop – The English Lop is one of the lop-eared breeds with extremely long, floppy ears. They often have a large dewlap flap below their ears.
French Lop – Another lop-eared rabbit with a large drooping dewlap. The loose skin helps support their heavy hanging ears.
Belgian Hare – An old rabbit breed with a prominent dewlap and very muscular hindquarters for jumping and agility.
Harlequin – The Harlequin breed is spotted like a Dalmatian dog. Their spotted skin pattern extends down into a distinctive dewlap.
Silver Fox – The Silver Fox rabbit has a roll of loose skin extending from jaw to chest, almost resembling a double chin.
Himalayan – With their very fine coat, the dewlap is often visible swaying as these rabbits hop about.
Dutch – While not oversized, Dutch rabbits have a distinctly wide dewlap under their short faces.
So while all rabbits have a dewlap, certain breeds are specifically characterized by having an exaggerated or very visible dewlap flap. The dewlap has been selectively bred to be more prominent in these lop-eared and larger rabbit breeds.
Do Male Rabbits Have Dewlaps?
Yes, both male and female domestic rabbits normally have a dewlap. However, dewlaps do tend to be larger and more prominent in female rabbits, especially mature, unspayed females.
The reason female rabbit dewlaps are often larger is due to the influence of hormones. When a female rabbit is spayed and has her ovaries removed, her dewlap will shrink and become less prominent.
Intact (unspayed) female rabbits may enlarge or flex their dewlap as a territorial display or when nursing kits. Their dewlap also enlarges as they age. The extra skin prepares them for nursing litters of kits by protecting their abdomen and milk supply.
So while male rabbits do have a dewlap flap, it tends to be smaller and tighter to the chest compared to females. Larger dewlaps don't serve much function in males beyond cooling, marking territory, and species identification.
The most exaggerated dewlaps are seen in mature, unspayed female rabbits due to the effects of hormones on the skin and fat deposits. But both sexes are born with a dewlap fold under their neck.
Does a Dewlap Mean My Rabbit is Overweight?
Not necessarily. While obese rabbits can accumulate fat deposits in the dewlap area, a dewlap by itself is not an indication that a rabbit is overweight. Lean, healthy rabbits of breeds like the Flemish Giant still have loose dewlaps due to their skin structure and genetics.
However, in breeds with smaller or tighter dewlaps, the presence of a large, sagging dewlap flap can be a sign of excess fat deposits. This is especially true if the dewlap seems to enlarge rapidly over a short time.
Signs that a dewlap may reflect obesity or weight gain issues include:
Dewlap has rapidly enlarged over a short period of time
Dewlap feels thick, dense, and fatty vs. thin and pliable
Rabbit has poor muscle tone and feels flabby overall
Rabbit appears lethargic and inactive
Rabbit breathes heavily or cannot clean dewlap fold well
Diet is high in calories or animal fat/protein
Lack of exercise opportunities
To determine if enlarged dewlap is due to fat or just skin, feel the dewlap and check for thick fat deposits. Monitor for other signs of obesity like inactivity, poorfitness, and respiratory signs. Discuss any concerns with your rabbit veterinarian.
Some dewlap enlargement is normal with aging, pregnancy, and breed characteristics. But a sudden increase in dewlap size in breeds not prone to large dewlaps should be evaluated for potential weight and diet issues.
Hair Pulling in Rabbits
Some rabbits will pull fur out from their dewlap area due to grooming habits or health issues. Reasons for dewlap hair loss include:
Molting – Rabbits shed their coat and molt several times per year. The dewlap is a spot they readily groom and pluck out old hair. Molting usually happens seasonally and is normal.
Parasites – Mites, fleas or fungal infections can cause itching, irritation, and hair loss in the dewlap. Parasites must be treated to resolve itching and fur pulling.
Dewlap Infections – Bacteria or fungal infections in the moist dewlap folds can cause crusting, ulceration and itching that prompts fur pulling.
Cysts or Tumors – Abnormal growths in the dewlap can lead to skin irritation and hair pulling. Biopsies or removal may be needed.
Self-trauma – Some rabbits self-mutilate due to boredom, stress or psychological issues. Removing causes of anxiety can help.
Sore Hocks – Rabbits with sore hocks unintentionally pull dewlap fur out when grooming their wounded feet. Sore hocks must be treated to resolve the underlying issue.
Excessive Grooming – Overzealous grooming and nibbling habits can lead rabbits to clean their dewlap excessively.
If your rabbit is pulling dewlap fur out, inspect the skin for signs of infection, irritation or parasites. Address sources of pain, anxiety or boredom. See your vet if the cause isn't obvious. With treatment of the underlying issue, most rabbits will stop excessively grooming or pulling their dewlap fur.
What Are the Different Health Issues with Dewlaps?
1/ Improper Grooming
The folds of skin that create the dewlap can be prone to a few health issues if not properly cleaned:
Dermatitis – Bacteria and yeast on the skin can proliferate in the moist, folded dewlap area leading to crusty, infected dermatitis.
Abscesses – Bacterial infections in the skin and tissue can cause painful abscesses in the dewlap.
Mats – Dewlaps can collect food, water and urine residue leading to matted, dirty fur. Mats pull on skin and harbor infectious bacteria.
Flystrike – Flies may be attracted to lay eggs on soiled, matted dewlaps, leading to maggot infestation.
To prevent dewlap health issues, keep the area clean and dry:
Gently lift and separate dewlap skin folds to clean and dry thoroughly each day.
Check for and remove any stuck debris in the dewlap.
Clip matted fur around the dewlap to prevent skin irritation.
Keep housing clean and dry to discourage bacterial/yeast overgrowth.
Ask your veterinarian to show you proper dewlap cleaning techniques. Check for any signs of infection and treat promptly. With proper daily dewlap hygiene, most issues can be avoided.
2/ Wet Dewlap
It’s not unusual for rabbits to get their dewlap area wet from drinking water, wet grass, or a water bowl spill. But prolonged moisture in the folds of the dewlap can lead to potentially serious health issues including:
Dermatitis – Yeast and bacteria thrive in a moist environment and can infect the skin, causing crusty scabbing.
Fur loss – When skin gets infected, rabbits may pull out wet fur leading to bald patches.
Abscesses – Bacteria penetrating deep into the dewlap tissue can create painful skin abscesses.
Flystrike – Flies are attracted to lay eggs on moist areas like the dewlap, and maggots can infest the skin.
To help keep a wet dewlap from becoming a health problem:
Gently blot dry any wet fur on the dewlap. Work to separate folded skin and dry thoroughly.
Comb out matted fur which can trap moisture against the skin.
Apply a thin layer of diaper rash cream to the dewlap if the skin is reddened or irritated. This creates a barrier against wetness.
Check for signs of maggots if the dewlap had prolonged exposure to moisture. Flystrike can appear within hours.
See your vet promptly if you notice crusting, wounds, fur loss or foul odor indicating infection. Oral or topical medication may be prescribed.
Withprompt drying and good hygiene practices, minor wet dewlaps can be managed. But rabbits can develop serious skin infections quickly, so always monitor for any signs of illness. Preventing the dewlap from getting soaked or chronically damp is key to avoiding health issues.
The dewlap is an important multifunctional structure for rabbits that aids in communication, temperature regulation, nursing, fat storage and territory marking. Both male and female rabbits have dewlaps, but unspayed females tend to have the largest dewlaps. An enlarged dewlap itself doesn't necessarily indicate obesity, but a sudden increase in dewlap size should be evaluated by a veterinarian.
Rabbits may groom, nibble or pull fur from their dewlap which can lead to irritation or infection. Proper daily cleaning of the dewlap folds is important to prevent issues like dermatitis, matted fur, and parasite infestation. A chronically wet dewlap also requires particular attention to avoid bacterial or fungal skin infections. With good hygiene and monitoring for signs of illness, rabbit owners can help keep their bunnies healthy and happy!