Today we welcome a guest post from Marlene Larkin, an HRS Educator in North Georgia. Marlene talks us through how making a small change in feeding organic produce to your rabbit can make a significant difference in their health (and yours!). Be sure to write down the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables that contain the highest amounts of pesticides, and make certain you get the organic versions when shopping for your rabbit’s veggies.
You Want Me to Buy Organic Food for a Rabbit?!
By Marlene Larkin, HRS Educator
A recent five day illness, culminating in an eventual trip to the hospital for what my physician diagnosed as pesticide poisoning from an unwashed mango skin, taught me a very valuable lesson. Although you can’t see them, smell them or taste them, the overuse of pesticides and failure to properly clean fruit and vegetables to rid them, including discarded skins, can have serious and in some cases lasting consequences to humans and animals alike.
Pesticides are active poisons which are purposefully added to our environment because of their toxicity and ability to kill undesired types of plants, insects or fungus. In 1939 only 32 pesticide products were registered for use in the U.S. By 1993 there were over 22,0
00! Today more than one billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the U.S. alone.
Misuse or accidental exposure to higher-than-safe amounts of pesticides may produce poisoning effects which range from slight to severe. Pesticides which are labeled with the word “danger” are considered to be highly toxic, capable of killing a 150 lb human with an oral lethal dose from only a few drops up to one teaspoon. Moderately toxic pesticides carrying the word “warning” need only one teaspoon to one tablespoon for the same lethal effects. If so little is required to kill a 150 lb human, imagine how little is required to be lethal to your small five pound bunny.
Although different toxins can produce different effects, in general animals respond similar to many toxins and have higher absorption rates than humans; thus they can be more easily poisoned by conditions which are considered safe to people.
Some of the effects of pesticide poisoning, from either chronic exposure or a single toxic dose, may not appear until years after the exposure. These are called delayed systemic effects, meaning it takes more than 24 hours for the effects to occur, and may manifest in the form of cancers, skin disorders, liver or kidney disease, respiratory illness, and negative effects on the brain and nervous systems in both humans and animals.
Although symptoms also vary by toxin, the most common symptoms of rabbits with acute pesticide poisoning may include loss of appetite, abdominal pain and distress, excessive salivation, coughing, difficulty breathing, fur loss, skin sores, lethargy, weakness, paralysis, or restlessness, hyperactivity, seizures and coma. Because individual symptoms can mimic many other illnesses in rabbits, if the real culprit is either chronic or acute pesticide poisoning the true cause may never be detected.
What can you do to reduce pesticide consumption?
According to a list compiled by U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, there are twelve fruits and vegetables which were the most highly contaminated with pesticides, occasionally referred to as the “dirty dozen” list. Of that list nine of the twelve are items which you may commonly feed to your rabbit either as part of their normal diet or in treat form. The “dirty dozen” list, in the order of their contamination criteria* include:
- Peaches 97% contaminated w/ pesticides (made worse by the fact that their soft skins allow pesticides to penetrate into the pulp)
- Apples 92%
- Celery 94%
- Sweet Bell Peppers 86%
- Strawberries 92%
- Pears 87%
- Grapes (imported) 85%
- Spinach 70%
- Lettuce 59%
- For those of you interested in the remaining list for human consumption nectarines, cherries and potatoes also made the list.
It is estimated that switching to organics in these fruits and vegetables alone could decrease pesticide consumption up to 90%, improving the health of both you and your bunny.
The regulations to label food as organic vary by country, but generally require the avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs including fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, or irradiation, as well as other storage, packaging and processing requirements. Because pesticides can also build up in soil over time, organic farms are generally required to also be free of synthetic chemicals for a number of years (three or more.)
Hay, which is the staple of the rabbit’s diet, is grown by most commercial farmers using pesticides. Since you cannot wash hay prior to feeding it to your bunny without some very funny looks, consider feeding one of the organic hay varieties grown specifically for pet consumption. Oxbow Animal Health is one producer which makes organic hay, pellets and treats.
Finding a local organic provider in your area is another economic alternative. Although in 2005 only 0.5 percent of total U.S. farmland was certified as organic, the demand for pesticide and chemical-free feed to produce organic milk and other products has resulted in increasing alternatives in many local communities.
What can you do if your budget can’t accommodate the cost of organic foods?
Many pesticides are intentionally designed to remain on during wet conditions, therefore rinsing with water alone may not remove them. Worse yet, waxes or other sealants may also be applied to make the produce appear more attractive to consumers while sealing in the pesticide residue and making it even harder to remove. One effective means to remove both waxes and pesticide residue is to use one of the many commercially available liquid produce cleaners sold in many grocery stores specifically designed for this purpose. A less costly alternative is to mix equal parts of vinegar and water in a bowl and to soak the produce for a few minutes, followed by a good rinsing with water. You can also mix two tablespoons of baking soda and two tablespoons of lemon juice per 2 cups of the vinegar and water solution to make your own produce spray.
Making even small changes in your purchasing and food preparation can have lasting benefits in the long term health of both you and your bun.
*Contamination criteria includes % of samples w/ pesticides, % w/ 2 or more pesticid es, average # of pesticides, average concentration of pesticides, maximum # of pesticides on a single sample, total # of pesticides found.
Marlene is a HRS Educator and HRS member since 1991. She shares her home withher husband and four beautiful bunnies adopted from the North Georgia House Rabbit Society.