Caring for rabbits
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Rabbits are very sociable animals, preferring to live in pairs or small groups. Being a natural prey species, they are most active at dawn and at dusk. They have several anatomical features enhancing their ability to avoid predators:
- Large, mobile ears for excellent hearing
- Good panoramic vision provided by eyes that are located on the sides of their head
- Muscular hind legs that allow them to achieve high speeds for short periods.
Rabbits can be housed indoors or outdoors./p>
A rabbit’s run should be a minimum of 3 hops long and tall enough for them to stand on their hind legs. The length should be multiplied by the number of rabbits you are housing together.
Remember to move your run around so that fresh grass is always available, as this will make up the majority of your rabbits diet (see section on Feeding). In the wild, rabbits would avoid the elements in the form of burrows. It is important to provide a good source of shelter for your rabbit – wind and rain can cause hypothermia in small rabbits. Rabbits are particularly predisposed to pneumonia. Remember that your rabbit needs shelter from the sun too. Rabbits are unable to sweat and so can be susceptible to heat stroke in the hot weather.
Indoor rabbits may be housed in a hutch or cage, or simply a rabbit-proof room. Whichever is chosen it is important that your rabbit has his/her own hiding place where he/she can spend time alone. Remember that rabbits are designed to gnaw and will bite through anything that is in easy reach – this includes telephone wires, the TV aerial and mains cables too! Rabbits should never be left unattended when electricity is involved. Rabbits may also decide to chew carpet, cloth or cushions, all of which should be discouraged as they may cause an intestinal blockage. Provide fruit tree wood for the rabbit to gnaw instead.
Exercise is important for house-rabbits as they are particularly prone to obesity due to inactivity. At a minimum they should have a play session once a day, but outdoor exercise is preferable. This may be in your garden, but if you don’t have one (or your garden is not escape-proof) rabbits can be trained to a harness and taken for walks!
Indoor rabbits can be litter-trained fairly easily. Your rabbit will usually pick one or two places for toileting needs, once you know where these places are simply put a tray in this area and after a while the rabbit will use this out of preference, even if the tray is moved.
All rabbit housing (indoor or out) should be regularly cleaned. Bedding may be wood chips, hay, straw, newspaper, artificial fur or towels (fur or towels should be removed if the rabbit chews them). Soiled bedding should be removed on a daily basis, as an accumulation of urine or faeces will increase the risk of health problems, particularly fly-strike.
It is a good idea to get your rabbit used to being handled, as it will make your visit to the vet for vaccinations far less stressful, and turn your rabbit into a great companion. Take things slowly, as sudden moves will frighten your rabbit and create an air of distrust. Many rabbits will resent being picked up initially, and this will be particularly apparent if you have taken on an adult rabbit.
If your rabbit does not like to be handled then try to minimise forced contact. Get your rabbit to trust you by using tasty food – like green leaves or fresh herbs – to encourage your rabbit to like you. It is a good idea to do this first thing in the morning, when the rabbit is hungry, and will be less able to resist the food. When your rabbit approaches confidently, put your other hand out so that he/she can sniff it. If your rabbit is happy with this you can try gently stroking their back – remember to move slowly. With time you will be able to get closer and closer to your rabbit and eventually will be able to get one hand under the chest and the other around their bottom to lift them up. Rabbits should always be picked up in this manner and never by the ears or scruff. Scruffing can be performed by an experienced handler for restraint, but should never be attempted if you are trying to gain the animal’s trust.
Rabbits are very delicate animals and can injure their backs easily from falling or kicking, so take great care when handling your pet.
Please note: Young kits, under the age of 5 weeks, should not be handled as this may cause the doe to abandon her young. Does generally only feed their offspring once or twice a day, and will not spend all of their time with their young.
Rabbit’s claws can grow very long, and so will need to be watched for overgrowth. They can be clipped quite simply – but the rabbit does need to be kept still. If you need any help with this please book an appointment with a Qualified Veterinary Nurse.
Most rabbits will need occasional grooming, particularly in the spring when the coat begins to moult. However longhaired breeds, especially the Angora, will need daily grooming to prevent matting.
Average life expectancy is between 8 and 12 years. A female rabbit is called a ‘doe’, a male rabbit called a ‘buck’ and a baby rabbit is called a ‘kitten’. Rabbits have a short gestation period – it only takes one month for a litter to be born after the time of mating. A single rabbit can have approximately 30 young in one breeding season. Litter sizes are typically between 4 and 12. Due to a large number of unwanted and abandoned rabbits we recommend neutering of your pet rabbit at 4 months of age. Castration of males can also help calm behaviour issues towards owners or other rabbits. Female rabbits especially benefit from being spayed as it prevents two common health problems in the older rabbit; pyometra, a life-threatening infection of the uterus; and uterine adenocarcinoma (cancer of the uterus) the most common tumour in rabbits.
Rabbits have continuously growing teeth. The average rate of growth of the front teeth (incisors) is 3mm per week. The majority of a rabbit’s diet should be grass and hay. A wild rabbit spends around 70% of its time awake grazing. The continuous grazing allows for proper even wear of the teeth through the side to side movements of the jaw. Optimal nutrition is provided through a digestive process called ‘caecotrophy’. Caecotrophs are the first droppings a rabbit produces from its meal and are eaten directly from the anus. This allows them to extract nutrients, produced by the ‘good bacteria’ of the guts from fermentation of the low quality food, that would otherwise not be absorbed.
A high fibre diet is crucial to the normal motility of the rabbit’s gut and this helps to protect against bacterial infections (which can lead to diarrhoea). High fibre is also important in preventing obesity, which is becoming an increasing problem for rabbits. Obesity can lead to some serious health problems, so is best avoided.
Sounds a bit boring though doesn’t it? You can put some variety in your rabbit’s diet in the following ways, but remember not to overdo it – all they really need is grass!
Commercial rabbit food can be offered, but this should only be a small part of the total diet and a standard pellet food is recommended. This avoids the selective feeding that can occur with colourful variety foods which can lead to digestive problems.This is a good way of providing variety and interest for your rabbit. We recommend Russell or Excel Rabbit food. But remember this is not a complete diet, your rabbit still needs lots and lots of grass or hay. These prepared foodstuffs should make up no more than a quarter of your rabbit’s diet. You’ll know if you are giving too much, as your rabbit will become fat. This is easily corrected by reducing the amount of proprietary food and increasing the amount of grass or hay.
Give green leafy vegetables. These should be offered fresh – not as leftovers or the bits you don’t want to eat. Try to avoid lettuce as the high water content can cause diarrhoea. Never give rhubarb leaves, as these are poisonous. Broccoli has been associated with colic. If you are offering fresh greens, give them on a daily basis. If your rabbit has never had them before offer a small quantity to start with and increase this to a maximum of two large leaves a day per rabbit. Fresh herbs are a well appreciated tasty treat. If they still seem hungry after this, give them some more grass!
Hay contains calcium which is essential for your rabbit’s dental health. To metabolise the calcium your rabbit needs Vitamin D. This will often be available by exposure to sunlight but is also in the grey pellets in your rabbit mix – the part most rabbits choose to leave behind if they can! Without these nutritional factors your rabbit’s dental health will suffer. Once dental damage has occurred it is very hard to correct, so adequate early nutrition is essential.
Dental disease is commonly seen as overgrown teeth – this may apply to the front incisors, the back molars, or both. However there can be more severe consequences, from oral ulcers to tooth root abscesses.
This condition can also affect the health of your rabbit’s eyes. Oral problems often contribute to problems with the tear duct apparatus. These are tubes that run into the eye, supplying tears and removing overflow. If they become blocked the rabbit may have dry eyes – resulting in repeated eye infections, and tear overflow – causing skin sores. Flushing the tear ducts, usually under general anaesthetic can sometimes help this condition, but it is often an irreversible problem.
The key to solving both these problems is good nutrition. Feed a diet based on hay, with small amounts of rabbit mix and greens, and never refill your rabbit’s bowl until the rabbit has eaten everything in it. Also try to avoid giving fruit, bread or crackers, or high sugar treats as your rabbit will fill up on these rather than the things that are good for him or her.
Sometimes dental problems are congenital and rabbits who have malocclusion (poorly fitting jaws) at an early age should not be bred from.
Rabbits cannot vomit, and so any hair, carpet fibres or indigestible bedding that is consumed can cause an intestinal blockage. This is a serious condition, but the incidence of it can be greatly reduced by regular exercise, a high fibre diet, regular grooming, and, if deemed necessary by your veterinary surgeon, a hairball preventative, i.e. an oral cat laxative.
A viral disease introduced into Great Britain in the 1950’s, designed to cull the overpopulation of wild rabbits. Since then, there has been a constant low level of myxomatosis infection in the wild rabbit population, which has occasional periods of heavier outbreaks. Myxomatosis is spread by biting insects, e.g. fleas and mosquito’s, so your rabbit can be infected even if it never directly meets another infected animal. Signs of the disease include swelling around the eyes, nose, anus and genitals, pus from the eyes and nose, lethargy, loss of appetite, and breathing difficulties. Unvaccinated rabbits will die from this disease.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease
This disease is very new, and was first recognised in the UK in 1992. Transmission of the disease can be by direct or indirect contact. The virus is known to be very stable in the environment, and can stay infectious on clothing for several months. Signs seem to vary greatly, from a mild temperature and feeling slightly off colour to fever, lethargy, severe diarrhoea and breathing difficulties. However, the most common ‘sign’ is sudden death with no apparent signs of illness at all.
Vaccination against these diseases is essential. Recently it has become even easier to protect your pet rabbit against these diseases as we are now able to offer a combined VHD/Myxomatosis vaccination which is given only once yearly. It is recommended to start this at 6 weeks of age.
A small protozoan that is now known to be widespread in the UK rabbit population. The route of infection is orally via ingestion of urine contaminated by E. cuniculi spores. One month after infection, a rabbit will start to shed spores in its urine. Shedding of spores continues for up to three months and possibly on and off for life. When a rabbit is first infected, the parasite is absorbed from the intestines. Once inside the body, it heads off to other organs, especially the kidneys and brain, where it causes lesions called "granulomas. A lot of infected rabbits go through life without having any problems from E.cuniculi but unlucky rabbits, especially older rabbits, may show neurological signs such as a head tilt or have kidney problems and weight loss. We recommend a nine day course of Panacur paste for rabbits every 6 months to help prevent the infection. Should a rabbit be suspected of having this disease we would extend the duration of treatment to 28 days.
To help prevent infection with encephalitozoon, tapeworms and pinworms we recommend washing of greens before giving to your pet rabbit.
Ear mites (Psoroptes cuniculi)Are a common parasite of rabbits. An infected rabbit will scratch at their ears and may shake their head. A brown crusty exudate is seen in the ears. Treatment can either be a series of injections or ear drops.
Fur mites (cheyletiella)Live on the surface of the skin. Dandruff and a flaky skin may be noticed as some patches of hair loss. This parasite doesn’t usually cause rabbits to itch. Treatment can either be a series of injections or a topical parasiticide.
FleasCan also affect rabbits so we recommend a monthly spot-on as a preventative measure.
Flies cause maggots. The common blowfly that we see every summer can be responsible for maggot infestation (known as flystrike) on your rabbit. Individuals at greater risk are those who are obese, have dental disease, arthritis, diarrhoea or skin wounds; but any rabbit can get flystrike. The flies are normally seen in hot and humid weather, and the season is considered to be April to October; but flystike can occur at any time of the year.
Flies are attracted to any area that is damp or odorous, whether that is urine or faeces on the rabbit, or dirty bedding and bowls. It is therefore vitally important to check that your rabbit and his environment is clean and dry. Rabbits should be checked at least twice a day for any sign of flystrike as maggots can hatch within 12 hours.
If you see any signs of fly eggs or maggots, contact the surgery and be prepared to bring your rabbit to us immediately. Flystrike can cause horrific wounding, shock, and ultimately death if left untreated.
If your rabbit has one of the conditions listed above that makes them more susceptible to flystrike, or they have had flystrike previously we would recommend preventative treatment. These include;
Xenex Ultra Spot-OnContains Permethrin (toxic to cats). This product is applied in the same way that spot-on treatments are given to cats and dogs. One application last 2 weeks, and not only kills the flies but will repel them too. One pack contains 12 weeks of treatment. This product also treats mites, ticks and lice.
Contains Cyromazine. A topical treatment applied to the skin in the areas of the rabbit that may attract flies (generally the hind quarters). One pack gives a single application that will last 8-10weeks, but must be applied thoroughly. This product does not repel the flies, but prevents maggot development
Even if you are using these products, please check your rabbit regularly.
Rabbits and other animals
Contact with cats and dogs must be closely supervised if allowed at all. Rabbits should ideally not be housed with guinea pigs for a number of reasons.
- Rabbits may carry bacteria that can be harmful to guinea pigs
- The two animals have different dietary requirements
- Rabbits may kick or bite guinea pigs, even if they have lived with them for years. Male rabbits are particularly renowned for this. If you must keep rabbits and guinea pigs together, the rabbits must be neutered to reduce any aggressive tendencies.
- Never put a rabbit hutch in sight, or smell, of ferret hutches or falconry birds.
Neutering your rabbit
- Prevent pregnancy - if you are keeping, or wishing to keep a male and female rabbit together, this is probably the main reason for neutering your pet rabbits. We would recommend neutering both pets, but remember… males can remain fertile for up to 2-3 weeks after castration and females should be kept away from males 10 days post-operatively! This will obviously mean housing them separately for a short period of time.
- Prevent or treat behaviour problems. Inter-rabbit aggression can occur with male/male, female/female, or female/male pairings, even if they are related. Early neutering of both pets will prevent any aggression problems from occurring, and may help with these types of problems in older rabbits. Aggression toward people can occur when rabbits are left entire and become very territorial. This is shown by biting or scratching when handled, or in more severe cases when the owner enters the area of the run. Neutered rabbits do not have this hormonal stimulus and are therefore often more relaxed, and easier to handle. Urinary spraying may be performed by entire males or females, and can be stopped by neutering at any age.
- Prevent hormone-related tumours. Unspayed females are susceptible to a number of hormone related problems, including uterine cancer and mammary tumours. Up to 80% of unspayed does develop uterine cancer by the age of 5. Rabbits spayed at a young age are less likely to develop mammary tumours.
- Prevent pyometra. This is another hormone-related problem for the female. Pyometra, or womb infection, is a condition likely to occur in the older unspayed female rabbit.
- Prevent pseudopregnancy and mastitis. Unspayed does that are not mated will often have repeated false pregnancies. This not only causes a significant change in temperament (i.e. an increase in aggression), but also leaves the animal susceptible to mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands, a condition that is difficult to treat.
- Anaesthetic risk. Rabbits have gained a reputation as being difficult to anaesthetise. However, the risk to these pets has fallen greatly in recent years, with advances in anaesthesia. With experienced nurses and veterinary surgeons, this operation is as safe as performing the same surgery on a cat.
- Surgical risk. As with any operation there is a small surgical risk, however the benefits of spaying or castrating far outweigh this very minimal risk. Older or unwell rabbits are obviously more difficult to neuter safely, and we would therefore recommend neutering your rabbit as soon after the age of 4 months as possible.
- Pre-operative checks. This check will include a thorough examination performed by a veterinary surgeon on the day of the surgery, this is to assess your rabbit’s physical condition, as well as checking the heart and lung function.
- The consent form. As with human medicine, we will require a signed consent form before your rabbit undergoes surgery. This will be sent to you a few days before your rabbit’s operation and we recommend you read it carefully before signing, and remember to bring it with you on the day. N.B. Unlike cats and dogs, rabbits should not be starved prior to surgery.
- The operation.Your rabbit’s surgery will be performed in our surgical theatre, where he or she will be constantly monitored by one of our trained nurses. As rabbits are more prone to heat loss than other anaesthetised patients, he or she will be provided with direct heat from a heat-pad during surgery. All our rabbit surgical cases are given post-operative pain-killers to reduce any discomfort. If you would like to view our surgical facilities, please let us know. Although it may not be possible on the day of your rabbit’s operation, we would be happy to arrange a time for you to visit us prior to your rabbit’s surgery.
If you are considering adopting a rabbit as a pet, do not hesitate to get in touch to discuss any questions you may have.