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An Introduction to Lionheads
The Lionhead breed of rabbit was first developed in Belgium. It arrived in the United States in the late 90’s and has recently been accepted as an American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) recognized breed.
Lionheads are named for their fuzzy heads that look like the manes that male lions have. They must weigh between 2.5lbs and 3.75lbs when they are full grown. Their ears must not be more than 3” long and their mane must be 2” long, and grow in a circle around their head. A really good show Lionhead has ears that almost disappear in their mane. The rest of the body is short fur, though some have a bit of a ‘frill’ on their hindquarters. A lot of rabbits that exhibit this trait have it come and go as they molt.
As the story goes, they were developed when Belgian rabbit breeders wanted to produce a woolly dwarf. They tried crossing Netherland Dwarf rabbits with small Swiss Fox rabbits. A mutation resulted, and the rabbits with the mutated gene had wool around their heads. Another theory that exists, says that Lionheads are a result of crossing Netherland Dwarves with Jersey Woolly rabbits, but this is unlikely because the ‘mane gene’ is different than the genes that cause rabbits to have long hair.
Lionheads were recognized in the UK in 2002, but the breed has taken longer to become part of shows in North America. Various colors are slowly gaining their recognition with ARBA, but it is a long process.
Housing and Breeding
Lionheads require good housing and care, just like any other breed of rabbits. They make excellent pets because they are small, and usually very friendly to humans. Occasionally, does will growl a bit, especially if they are pregnant or nursing, but for the most part, a Lionhead is a very laid back rabbit.
I have raised Lionheads for a few years now. I was intrigued with them the first time I saw them, and ended up purchasing a Mini-Lop/Lionhead cross doe from a poultry and small animal auction. I do not have her anymore, but she is still one of my all time favourite rabbits. She’s also the very first rabbit that I trained to rabbit hop. ‘Mini-Wheat’ herself, was not an overly brilliant rabbit, and was often grumpy, though she didn’t scratch or bite, just growled and made nasty faces. As my other Lionheads are pleasant tempered, I think this was more Mini-Lop influence than Lionhead.
When it comes to breeding, you would expect the Lionhead to have small litters, as this is more common with dwarf rabbits. In my experience, Lionheads have relatively large litters. My does average 6-8 kits per litter and are excellent mothers.
Despite their good temperament and adaptability, a Lionhead does better in a large cage. Their small size doesn’t meant they should be kept in a tiny cage. They also benefit from lots of ‘floor time’ out of their cage so they can exercise and interact with humans. Be sure any area you let your rabbit loose in is completely ‘rabbit proofed’. Tie up or remove and electrical cords, make sure poisonous plants are out of reach, and ensure that any incompatible pets can’t get into the room with the rabbit. If you have any concerns about your rabbit getting into trouble, or you are afraid you won’t be able to catch it again, put it in a safe rabbit harness and allow it to exercise on a leash. An ‘H’ Style harness is ideal because it is almost impossible for the rabbit to slip out of it if it’s adjusted properly.
My Lionheads love to eat fresh grass, and good quality hay. I also feed them free choice pellets and have not had issues with them getting fat. It’s important to monitor your rabbit’s weight though, because a fat rabbit is an unhealthy rabbit.
Choosing a Rabbit
When you are ready to choose a rabbit for yourself, try to buy from a reputable breeder. If you are looking for a purebred rabbit, and are hoping to show, make sure you get a rabbit with proper tattoos and a pedigree.
Learn how to do a proper health check on a rabbit before you go to see a prospective rabbit. When you meet the rabbit(s), see how they interact with their owners. Then pick up the rabbit you are most interested and check it over for bright eyes, clean nose and paws, dry bottom, and properly aligned teeth. You’ll also want to check the fur for parasites and run your hand over the rabbit to check for abscesses. Ask the seller questions so you know how old the rabbit is, if it’s ever been sick, and what temperament its parents have.
When you find the right Lionhead, be prepared for a lifetime of fun with your special new friend!