PLAYMATE OF THE MONTH – Nikki White
This time we look at the STANDARD REX/MINI-REX, the original Velveteen Rabbit.
How many times have we been at displays over the past few years and found the Mini Rex or the Rex were the stars of the show with people falling over themselves to pat the dense velvet coats and going on about how patient they are? Rex come in two sizes, standard and miniature. An adult standard Rex should weigh between 2.72 and 3.62 kilos while an adult Mini Rex should be between 1.587 and 2.037 kilos. Their chief feature is the short, dense plush coat (one touch of which is guaranteed to reduce even the cockiest tough-guy teenager to a soppy heap telling his mates to "Feel this rabbit").
Rexing is a mutation wherein the guard hairs are either non-existent (as in cats in the form of the Cornish Rex) or the same length as the undercoat (as in rabbits or the feline Devon Rex). The result in a cat looks like chenille, in a rabbit velvet. The so-called Rex cavy is not a true Rex as it has guard hairs and is counted among the coarse coat breeds. In rabbits, too there is a coarse-coated Rex, the Astrex. I've never seen one but its written description makes it sound rather like the cavy Rex., It is possible to satinise the Rex (bunny or cavy) though one does rather wonder why in the latter case.
The distinctive Rex rabbit coat is so important they have their own division in shows (for those who don't show, the three divisions are Fancy which includes Netherland Dwarfs, the various Lop breeds, Polish, Angoras, Dutch, etc.; Fur which includes Satins, Argentés, Foxes, etc. and Rex). In the British Rabbit Council (BRC) Standards, the fur is worth 40 points out of a possible 100 with a further 40 on colour and just 20 on type. (This is in contrast with the Rex cavy where colour is worth squat and isn't even mentioned, it's all on coat and type) The Rex rabbit's fur, whether standard or miniature should be 1.27 cm in length, with a "fine, silky texture free from harshness and woolliness, intensely dense, smooth and level over the whole body, of a lustrous sheen, firm and plush like character, devoid of projecting guard hairs".
The trick is to get that density as some kits in a litter can have an open, rather longish coat while their siblings are fine. This was certainly a problem when I was breeding Mini Rex in the late 1990s when they were still new to Canberra. Without that dense plush coat you just have a rather ordinary bunny. A nice shape but…A.E. Ted Williams, in his valuable book, Rabbit Breeding for Perfection (Melbourne, A.E. Ted Williams, 1992, available through Fur Feather recommends using bucks with slightly harsher coats than the does to maintain the solidity of coat and to avoid longer coats. He notes further that if you continue to breed from animals with too soft coats you will end up with a generation with a coat so soft that it won't stand up as it should but lies flat.
Rex come in a variety of colours. The BRC recognises Ermine (which should be as white as possible with no cream or ivory tinge), Black (deep black with dark blue undercolour carried as far down the hair shaft as possible. Brown tinge a fault and white toe-nails a serious fault); Havana; Lilac; Nutria; Smoke Pearl; Seal; Tortoiseshell; Marten Sable; Marten Seal; Orange; Fox (Black, Blue, Chocolate, Lilac, Fawn); Otter (Blue, Chocolate, Lilac, Tan), Castor, Chinchilla, Cinnamon, Lynx, Opal, Dalmatian, Bi-colour, Tri-colour, Harlequin, Himalayan, Silver Seal. See the Standards for further descriptions and faults. The most common colours out here seem to be Ermine, Black, Blue, Castor, Otter, Lilac and Orange.
A problem, particularly in the Selfs is white hairs because in Rex with the intense colours the short dense coat engenders, foreign hairs stand up and scream at you in a way they don't in other breeds. So that is something to watch and try to eliminate through breeding. (I had a Siamese Sable Mini Rex doe who was White Hair Central but I put her with a very nice Black with no foreign hairs and none in his background and none of her kits had white hairs). But there is nothing like some of these colours in Rex - Orange is so much more "orangey", Chocolate and Black deep and intense like rich velvet and so on. Mr Williams recommends breeding like colour to like for best results and not crossing colours, especially in Ermines. (ironically in cavies, Rex is the one breed where mixing colours is fine - it's in the other breeds you ought to breed like colour to like).
The type is described as "Well proportioned and graceful carriage, the body sloping up to well rounded quarter set on strong hind legs, medium bone. Head bold and broad, ears erect and to be in proportion to the body, dewlap should not be excessive, eyes and toenails should preferably match the body colour." What that means is an elegant, svelte rabbit with hindquarters rising up into a nicely rounded rear. Of course, when they are babies or juniors they seem to be all ears and eyes, especially the standard Rex. They have to grow into them. They shouldn't have narrow heads or squared off backs. The Mini Rex should not have Netherland Dwarf characteristics - cobby body, bull nose, short ears but be nice and 'snakey'.
Because of their soft fur, they are prone to bald patches on the soles of the feet, especially the standard Rex. This can be avoided by not running them on wire and not letting them get overweight. They can be run on carpet, rice hulls, meadow-hay, etc. Rex are not a bulky rabbit and shouldn't be allowed become so. Sometimes their ears droop which is a fault. and Mr Williams suggests using a small splint on youngsters with this problem. (If I seem to quote A.E. Ted Williams a lot it's because of all the books I have access to he deals the most with Rex and he had over 80 years in rabbit breeding, getting his first rabbits in 1908). However, in 2003 A Fancier’s Guide to the Rex Rabbit by John Hodgkiss (Coney Publications, ISBN 1898015058) was published. This comprehensive, well illustrated book is available through Fur & Feather.
Standard Rex. The breed originated in France when in 1919 a peasant brought to Abbé Gillet an almost hairless baby rabbit he'd found in a nest of wild rabbits. Seeing some potential in this mutation, the Abbé mated a brother and a sister and got a litter of short-coated fluffy bunnies. When they matured, the fluff fell off leaving a magnificent short coat of chestnut brown. By 1924 he had enough to show a collection at the Paris International Rabbit Show. They were a big hit and Rex were sold as fast as they could be bred for thousands of francs each. John C. Fehr, an American judge and breeder, bought a number of them (at $350 each - big bickies now let alone in 1924) and introduced them into the United States. These early Rex were Castor only. In 1925 coloured Rexes appeared thanks to Professor E. Kohler of Alsace. These were exported to England at mind-boggling prices. In Germany work on the breed was also carried out. In England Lady Layland Barratt and Lady Watson worked hard to improve the breed. The Rex was first exhibited there in 1927 and people thought its coat had been shorn and not naturally like that. Incidentally, you will find the term 'Castor Rex' glossed as meaning 'king of the browns'. Now I may not be an expert in Rexes but I do know Latin. 'Castor' means 'beaver' ('rex', of course, does mean 'king'), so 'beaver king' would be a more accurate translation. Presumably the bunny was named 'castor' or 'beaver' because of the colour or it could be a reference to the short-furred beaver hats of the 17th to early 20th centuries. The 1920s Rex were considered ugly rabbits, resembling kangaroos with long thin arching bodies, often devoid of ear covering and bald at the nape of the neck. It was the fur structure that held the fascination.
Mini Rex This breed originated in America when Monica Berryhill of Texas was given a dwarf Rex in 1984 which she bred to an undersized Lynx Rex doe which resulted in a litter of seven miniature Rexes the does of which were bred back to their sire. In 1988 the breed was recognised by the American Rabbit Breeders' Association. In Australia the breed was probably started by Theresa Piggotti in 1990. The first Mini Rex here were bred from Netherland Dwarfs and standard Rex so tended to look a bit Neth. but the breed has improved dramatically since then.
WHY A REX?
A good Rex is a thing of beauty and a joy if not forever, at least as long as the rabbit's life. The very first rabbit I ever owned was a black Rex doe, named Janette. Until I saw her sitting like a large black velvet cushion in her cage with her sisters in my neighbour's yard (she bred Rex for a while), I hadn't thought rabbits were particularly interesting visually - cute, but not beautiful. Not only are the Rexes unbelievably soft and plush, they are an elegant rabbit with their classic Watership Down rabbit profiles. The Elle McPhersons of the rabbit world they are. Those big ears are so expressive, one swivelling forward interrogatively when you pass their cage as if to say, "What are you bringing me today?" or simply, "How are you?" The big eyes on that aristocratic head (so different from the rather cobby bull-nosed look of most other breeds such as Netherland Dwarfs, Lops, or Satins), the wriggly whiskers are also distinctive.
Most pictures you see of Rex in books are not quite the same animal bred out here as those books are American and the ARBA standards call for a somewhat heavier animal with ever so slightly longer fur.
And if a Rex seems a bit big, you have the Mini Rex which combines the compactness of a dwarf breed with the softness of the its parent stock.
Personality wise I've found them characters. Janette wasn't one to be picked up or patted but she liked to come out of her hutch to the front of her run when I came by and when I opened her cage to feed her, she would reach up and kiss my hand. Claudius, my Black Rex patting bunny who sadly passed away in December 1999, would lick me when I fed him, again stretching up on his back legs. He was very gentle, placid and patient no matter how many people wanted to pat him or even pick him (something I tended to discourage). He also was a regular Houdini in getting open the slide on the roof of his old cage and had no trouble opening a sliding door that buffaloed an Oriental cat I had. He also used to stalk the Siamese. I have mentioned a friend's Black Rex who sat on the cat who got into the rabbit run and the Castor Rex doe who washed the cat once it extricated itself from such a humiliating position. One of my current patting bunnies, the Black Mini Rex Marcius, was another escape artist and another soft soppy bunny who will lie in the arms of strangers like a baby. Then there was Aurelius a standard Orange named Aurelius, who within 24 hours came up to the door to be patted when I fed him and had a long career as another soppy patting bunny (he also made up to champion on the show table).
They seem to be among the tidier rabbits, keeping most of their pellets in the litter tray and not urinating outside it, either. One Mini-Rex doe I had was a martinet about cleanliness and made sure her kits learned to use the litter tray PDQ or else.
On the other hand, it should be mentioned that Rex can be very territorial in their own cages, especially the does. If you reach in to feed them they can launch themselves like trap-door spiders and nip you. This might be what the owner of Ziyadah Rabbit Stud (a Mini Rex breeder on the Central Coast of NSW) meant when she said on her website she doesn't recommend them as a pet for children or the inexperienced because they can be unpredictable. However, it should be said that once out of their cages these 'nippy' bunnies are as sweet as pie. I have had two Mini Rex like that and no Rex. A friend has had one Rex out of four like that. You just need to distract them - toss a carrot or piece of apple in first and while plush bunny is dealing with that, reach in and take out the bowl to fill it. Some Rex does can be "scrabbly" and I've seen one or two cut up a treat on the show table. Anyway, not all are like that, it's an individual thing.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
It's best to go to a registered breeder. For breeders, see the Breeders Directory.
A breeder will advise you and you know their stock is good. But should you pick up a Rex in a pet shop (after all, Claudius came from a pet shop in Cherrybrook in Sydney), you should run your hand over the back from the tail to the neck to check for density and softness. The coat should remain upright and not fall flat once your hand has passed. There shouldn't be any bare spots such as on the ears or at the nape of the neck or the root of the ears. Nor should there be bald patches or sores on the pads of the feet. The hindquarters should be well rounded and not too square. The head should not be sheep shaped or a narrow wedge, nor bull-nosed like a Netherland Dwarf if a Mini Rex. The coat should not be woolly, wavy or harsh. The rabbit should not be overweight (folds of flesh, heavy dewlap), have crooked legs, odd coloured eyes or putty nose (that is have flesh coloured markings on the nose or very little hair there). Even if it's just going to be a pet, you want a nice specimen, especially given what pet shops charge.
HOUSING & CARE
A standard Rex is a medium-sized rabbit and will need a cage of between 110-120 cm long, 60cm wide and 50-60cm high. Don't cramp him/her. A Mini Rex is a dwarf breed of rabbit and 80-90cm long by 60cm wide by 50 cm high is sufficient. As they tend to suffer from the heat more than other breeds (except Satins) because of their dense coat, they will need plenty of ventilation and a cooling fan in the summer. Direct sunlight isn't good because it fades the fur.
Otherwise they don't need any special attention other than the usual for the rabbit - a proper diet (pellets, mix, lucerne chaff, fruit, vegetables, water), grooming when in moult (about twice a year), regular cleaning of the cage, and lots of TLC.
Mr Williams recommends not breeding standard Rex does until they are eight months old.
National Castor Rex Rabbit Club
National Himalayan Rex Rabbit Club
National Rex Rabbit Club (USA)
British Mini Rex Club
National Mini Rex Rabbit Club (US)
Hodgkiss, John, A Fancier's Guide to the Rex Rabbit. Ipswich, Coney Press, 2003