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Rabbit Care

All you need to know

House Rabbits

House rabbits are becoming increasingly popular with owners and there are benefits for both you and your rabbit in keeping your bunny indoors:

  • Rabbits are social animals and enjoy companionship with humans and sometimes other animals. You will find that you develop a much better bond with your rabbit.
  • Indoor rabbits with access to a room or rooms get more exercise than those kept outside, therefore making them fitter and less likely to develop osteoporosis and painful spinal arthritis.
  • It is much easier to be alerted to any changes in your rabbit’s health as you are constantly around them. This is important as rabbits are programmed to conceal illness and any changes in behaviour should be monitored.

Rabbits make ideal indoor pets because they are:

  • Easily litter trained and once trained will always use their litter tray
  • Clean – rabbits thoroughly groom themselves several times a day
  • Crepuscular – active at dawn and dusk (i.e. when you are around)
  • Affectionate
  • Entertaining

For more info, see our blog post about House Rabbits. 

Neutering

Every owner should think twice before any rabbit is allowed to breed. On the whole, routine neutering of both male and female rabbits is advisable. Rabbits become sexually mature between 4-6 months so we recommend separating rabbits into single sex groups around that time.

Castration of male rabbits usually occurs at 5-6 months (or once the testicles have descended). Males that aren’t castrated are more likely to develop behavioural problems, including fighting and urine spraying. In addition, of course it also stops successful mating if keeping a buck with an entire doe.

Neutering in females is important for health reasons. Unneutered females have a very high incidence of womb cancer (over 80%) which is often fatal. Neutering also prevents womb infections, phantom pregnancies and true pregnancy. They are generally spayed at 6 months. In addition, neutering stops seasonal changes in behaviour which can include aggression towards the owner and other rabbits. Fighting can occur within their own sex and produce serious injuries, even if they have been kept together since a very young age.

Vaccination

Your rabbit should be routinely vaccinated against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhage Disease (VHD). Both of these diseases can be fatal in an unvaccinated rabbit, therefore the only protection you can give is by vaccination.

Myxomatosis is a disease still widespread in wild rabbits and very common in this area. Myxomatosis is carried by fleas and mosquitoes, and the disease is contracted through the skin into the bloodstream from a bite from one of these insects. Myxomatosis can cause swelling of the head and genital area, nose and eye discharges, anorexia and depression.

VHD is a highly infectious condition. It may cause sudden death or may show clinical signs such as not eating, depression, laboured breathing, fitting and bleeding from the nose, followed by death. It can be spread from rabbit to rabbit; however, it can also be carried easily by owners so no contact with other rabbits may be necessary.

* VACCINE UPDATE *

Rabbits have previously been given a yearly vaccination which covers both Myxomatosis and VHD. A new variant of VHD has emerged over the past few years known as RHVD2. RHVD2 is particularly infectious and can survive for long periods in the environment. It is mainly transmitted via the faeces of rabbits; however, it can also be brought into the house on clothes or the feet of pets and people.

A vaccine to protect against RHVD2 is available and depending on the risk to your rabbit, will need to be given once or twice yearly. This vaccine will also need to be given at least 3 weeks apart from your rabbit’s usual yearly vaccine.

Flystrike

Flystrike is when flies lay their eggs on a rabbit's skin (usually around the bottom). Within 12-24 hours, the maggots hatch and bore into the host's flesh, usually proving fatal. This condition is distressing for rabbits and owners alike and unfortunately is often discovered too late.

Although a serious condition, it is one that can be prevented:

  • Twice daily checks should be made on your rabbit to ensure it is clean. In particular, check that the area under the tail is clean. A soiled and dirty coat is more likely to attract flies, leading them to lay eggs on the rabbit.
  • Hutches should be cleaned out regularly; in particular, the litter area should be changed every day.
  • Ensure that your rabbit is fed correctly. This will help to prevent diarrhoea and soft droppings.
  • Soiling is likely to occur in obese rabbits. It is normal for rabbits to produce softer droppings at night which they then eat (called caecotrophs). This is an important part of a rabbit’s diet. If it is overweight, it will be unable to reach around to clean these droppings away. This can also be a problem in older rabbits and ones with back problems.
  • Particular attention should be paid to long-haired breeds of rabbits, especially where grooming has become a problem.
  • If faeces are starting to gather, they should be removed, if they are not removed easily then it is best to take your rabbit to the vet for a groom as rabbit skin is very thin and pulling or cutting of faecal material off can result in injury to the rabbit.
  • Treatments can be used during the summer. This will need to be applied about every eight weeks and can help to repel flies. Certain treatments can be purchased at reception. A nurse will be more than happy to show you how to apply it. A fly strip hung just outside the hutch may also help to reduce flies.

If you do find maggots on your rabbit, telephone the practice immediately. Flystrike is a true emergency - day or night - and treatment cannot wait. So long as it does not delay your trip to the vet, pick off any visible maggots with tweezers. Do not dunk the rabbit in water as fur in the affected area may need to be shaved and wet fur clogs the clippers. Flystrike is a very serious condition and is, sadly, often fatal. However, rabbits can make a full recovery if the condition if found and treated quickly. Flystrike rabbits are usually in pain and severe shock, and therefore need skilled veterinary and nursing care.

Dental Problems

Rabbit’s teeth are well adapted to grazing. They don’t have canines, just incisors to bite off vegetation and molars to grind their food. Rabbit’s teeth are continuously growing at a rate of 10cm a year; therefore, it is important that they have a diet which allows them to constantly wear their teeth down.

A common problem is for them to overgrow – this will generally happen if there is not enough fibre in the diet or if the teeth are not aligned properly (known as malocclusion). Overgrown teeth become spiked and will start to cut into the side of the mouth and tongue. This will lead to mouth infections, ulceration and an inability to pick up food and eat it. Signs to look out for include loss of appetite, weight loss and salivation/drooling.

Grass and hay make the rabbit chew in a complex, figure-of-eight lateral (sideways) jaw movement which enables the teeth to be worn away. In contrast, rabbits adopt a different eating pattern when consuming pellets; here they will chew in a horizontal movement and due to its composition, the food is easily broken down. This results in little being done to wear the teeth down. Rabbits that are fed on a muesli mix food tend to be selective grazers and will pick food that is higher in fat and calories and lower in calcium. A long-term risk of your rabbit not having enough calcium in their diet (known as hypocalcaemia) is dental abnormalities.

Treatment of dental disease:

  • In many cases, teeth might have become so overgrown that the only option is to give your rabbit an operation. If the incisors become overgrown, burring of these can be carried out on a conscious rabbit. You may find this will have to be repeated at regular intervals.
  • If the molars are affected, burring of these will require a general anaesthesia. As with incisors these may also require further operations.
  • Rabbits with mild dental disease may not need further dental work providing that the diet is addressed, while those with moderate dental disease can prolong further dental work by adopting a better feeding plan.
  • All rabbits will need regular teeth checks and these can be carried out at the time of vaccination.

Digestion

When your rabbit eats, food is passed down the oesophagus, into the stomach and then on to the small intestine. In humans, the small intestine is responsible for absorbing the nutrients from food by the means of enzymes; however, in rabbits the main component of their diet is fibre, which enzymes cannot breakdown. Rabbits therefore have a special digestive system, which allows them to process the fibre and extract the necessary nutrients from plant material. In the colon the fibre is sorted into two types - digestible (nutritional) and indigestible. The colon will send the digestible part of fibre to the caecum. The caecum contains bacteria which breaks down the fibre to release nutrients in the form of a special type of dropping called a caecotroph. The rabbit will then immediately eat these droppings so they will pass through the digestive tract again. Indigestible fibre is diverted into the large intestine to be eliminated – these are the dry, round droppings which you will often see.

Gut stasis – why won’t my rabbit eat?!

Normal movement of the digestive system is essential to keep food moving through. The fibre in your rabbit’s diet is essential for good gut motility as well as providing the ideal environment for producing caecotrophs. A low fibre, high carbohydrate diet (i.e. eating too many pellets and not enough hay & grass) will predispose them to gut stasis.

If your rabbit stops eating, gut movements will slow down until it halts. The lack of gut movement will then in turn worsen the problem, putting the rabbit off eating, so it’s important that this problem is addressed quickly.

IF YOUR RABBIT STOPS EATING OR HAS STOPPED PASSING DROPPINGS FOR 24 HOURS, THEY WILL NEED TO BE SEEN BY A VET ASAP

Ways to Get Your Rabbit to Eat More Hay

80% of a rabbit’s diet should be hay (or grass). Here are some tips on how to encourage your rabbit to eat more hay and grass if you feel they aren’t eating enough:

Some rabbits can be quite fussy about the variety of hay they like. When choosing hay look for green, long strands that smell sweet and aren’t too dusty. Try a wide range of different hay. You do not have to stick to one variety - mix and match to keep your rabbit interested.

Rabbits prefer to munch hay while they are resting and while they are using their litter tray/toilet area. Putting the hay in these places will catch your rabbit at a time they are most likely to eat it. If you don’t want to put hay in the litter tray, hang a hay rack above it.

Most rabbits like to play and throw toys around. Incorporating hay in to play activities can encourage them to pull, bite and chew at the hay. A willow ball or cardboard tube filled with hay can be hung from the cage or thrown around by your rabbit.

You can make hay more interesting to your rabbit by mixing in food they like best. This could include dry food, fresh vegetables or dried herbs. Whilst searching through the hay for the good bits, hopefully they’ll eat some hay too.

Many rabbits have bad hay eating habits because they eat too much dry food. A healthy adult rabbit should only be fed a small quantity of dry food (an eggcup-full per day should be sufficient). Dry food tastes good but it doesn’t provide all the fibre levels and chewing action needed to keep your rabbit healthy.

Nutrition

Hay and grass are the most important elements of a rabbit’s diet. Providing unlimited amounts of hay forms the basis of a healthy diet because of its fibre and protein content. Buying good hay is essential and meets some of the nutritional requirements of a rabbit's unique digestive system. As a good rule, your rabbit should eat its body-size in hay per day, every day.

Hay and grass also have other vital benefits. Chewing hay for hours every day will reduce boredom and can even solve some behavioural problems. Chewing strands of hay maintains the rabbit’s teeth. When a rabbit is eating grass or hay, it will chew in a sideways movement, wearing the teeth surfaces down. Also a constant supply of both hay and grass helps the rabbit to maintain good gut movement.

It is a good idea to supplement your rabbit’s diet with a pelleted-grass based food. There are numerous ready-made feeds that are available. Pressed pellets are ideal as they contain virtually everything needed for a balanced diet for your rabbit. The disadvantage of mixed feeds is that the fussy rabbit will only eat the bits it likes and will leave the rest. As a guideline, a 2kg rabbit will only require a dessertspoon of pellets. REMEMBER! The best diet is one that resembles the diet of a wild rabbit!

Rabbits will also need a further meal each day consisting of green stuffs and vegetables.

Suitable fresh foods include:

  • Basil                                
  • Broccoli                            
  • Brussel sprouts              
  • Cabbage      
  • Carrot tops                                        
  • Celery                            
  • Clover                              
  • Dandelion                      
  • Kale

A variety is necessary in order to obtain the necessary nutrients. Add one vegetable to the diet at a time and eliminate if it causes soft stools or diarrhoea.

Do not feed your rabbit sugary treats such as chocolate or biscuits. Treats they will enjoy include strawberries, pears, banana slices and dried fruit. However, fruits are high in sugar and so should only be fed very occasionally as they can lead to soft stools, as well as obesity.

You may also want to provide your rabbit with twigs or tree branches. They will enjoy gnawing and stripping the bark. As a general rule, any twigs from fruit trees and willows are suitable, although make sure they have not been sprayed with chemicals.

Always ensure that fresh water is made available to your rabbit.

Weight Issues

Unfortunately, a growing problem that we see at Lowesmoor House Vets is the obese rabbit. An overweight rabbit causes many health problems; therefore, it is important to stress just how vital a good diet is for your rabbit.

Weight Loss Tips for Your Rabbit

How many treats does your rabbit get? Treats should only be given every so often and not form part of your rabbit’s daily diet. Also remember that sugary vegetables (i.e. carrots) can be very calorific, so quantities of these will also need to be reduced.

Are you feeding your rabbit too many pellets? If so, you will need to reduce the amount you are giving. Many brands of pellets have a obesity version which you can switch to. Remember to slowly switch to the healthier pellets by reducing the old ones and replacing the reduced amount with the new ones. When you do reduce pellets, ensure that your rabbit is eating good amounts of hay and grass and is not losing weight too quickly – proper weight loss will take some time.

Monitor their hay intake. If your rabbit eats little hay, see our tips on how to encourage your rabbit to eat more.

It is extremely important that your rabbit has exercise every day to keep their bones and muscles healthy. Without exercise, rabbits can develop problems such as arthritis and can also become obese. Whether outdoor or indoors, rabbits need plenty of space to exercise and stretch - in the wild, rabbits can utilise the space of seven football fields in one day!

To help alleviate boredom and provide environmental enrichment, you need to provide lots of hay and chew toys such as a gnawing block, or toilet roll tubes filled with hay and herbs. Fruit tree twigs such as apple and blackberry are safe for rabbits, as are hazel and willow twigs, which you can buy from most pet stores. Hide food under cardboard boxes, in empty plant or yoghurt pots, or in different areas of the animal’s hutch – your rabbit will be forced to hunt for food. This will keep them occupied for many happy hours and prevent boredom.

If you are worried about your rabbit’s weight, you can book in for a free consultation with one of our nurses. Here we will discuss the ways in which we can help your rabbit get down to a healthy weight.

Practice information

Lowesmoor House Veterinary Centre Ltd

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    9:00am - 7:00pm
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