Rabbits make friendly, intelligent pets, but like all pets they require proper health care and attention. Although they are commonly bought as children's pets they have quite complex needs so an adult must always make the decision to acquire one, as it is a long term commitment.
Rabbits live on average for 8 - 12 years but many can live much longer if cared for properly. Medium sized breeds tend to live longer than the dwarf or giant breeds. There are over 60 breeds of domestic rabbit, in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colours.
CHOOSING A RABBIT
Rabbits are social animals, so if you are getting a rabbit for the first time, you may find that you actually need to buy two!
When choosing a rabbit, there are some things you need to look for:
- The eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge
- The rabbit should be curious and inquisitive
- It should not be thin. The backbone, ribs and hips should not be too prominent and should be covered by a reasonable layer of muscle
- Check for wetness or caked on droppings around the bottom
- Check for the presence of parasites such as fleas or mites by parting fur along the back, and check for redness, or excessive wax in the ears that may indicate ear mites.
- If possible, gently part the lips and examine the rabbit's incisor (front) teeth to check they are not broken or ingrown
- Find out whether the rabbit has been castrated to spayed; most won't until they are approximately 6 months old.
- Ask whether it has been vaccinated against myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (rhd).
Find out what the rabbit is being fed on, as a sudden change of diet when you get home may provoke a gut disturbance or diarrhoea.
Rabbits are intelligent, inquisitive, active and need to be able to hop, run, stretch out, dig and stand fully upright on their back legs, so housing should be as large as you can manage. Rabbits can be kept inside or out, but must always be provided with a secure living area where they can exercise freely and a shelter where they can rest and feel safe. Indoor house rabbits are easily litter trained but remember that they love to dig and chew, and can be destructive to furniture or carpets. It is best to supervise rabbits when they are loose in the house and have a secure pen for them to be kept in at night or when you are out. It is especially important to keep rabbits from chewing electrical cables!
Outdoor rabbits are usually housed in a hutch, but they should also be provided with a large exercise area such as a run or fenced off area of garden with access to grass.
Bedding - house rabbits can be kept on soft towels or shredded paper, while outside rabbits may be kept on wood shavings, straw or hay. Avoid dusty or mouldy straw as this can lead to respiratory problems. Sawdust should be avoided as it can irritate eyes. Bedding must always be clean and dry and soiled areas removed regularly.
Rabbits need many activities and toys to prevent boredom, but this can be something as inexpensive as plant pots, boxes or tubes.
Rabbits should be kept as clean as possible, especially during summer, and should be checked twice daily for signs of matted droppings or maggots around the rear end. The enclosure should be cleaned at least twice weekly, and any wet or dirty bedding removed each day.
Indoor rabbits should be kept in the coolest and least humid part of the house, ideally between 15-21 degrees. Rabbits cannot sweat or pant so can suffer heat stroke if the environmental temperature rises above 27 degrees. Outdoor rabbits must have access to shade in summer and the hutch should not be in direct sunlight.
Outdoor rabbits must also be kept free of draughts, wind and driving rain, and should be protected from dogs, cats and other predators. Plenty of straw bedding and a blanket covering the front of the cage in winter will prevent them getting hypothermia. In cold weather, check the water bowls and bottles to ensure they are not frozen.
LOOKING AFTER YOUR RABBIT
You should handle your rabbit every day from an early age, so they get used to it. A rabbit who feels insecure or frightened may kick out with its hind legs and can easily damage its spine causing paralysis. To help prevent this, always support the hindquarters when lifting your rabbit. NEVER pick a rabbit up by its ears or let its legs dangle freely. Don't lie a rabbit on its back even if it lies still and appears to be 'hypnotised'. This is actually a stress response and is not pleasurable for your rabbit.
Rabbits become sexually mature between 3 and 9 months depending on the breed. It is recommended that if you have rabbits of both sexes they should be separated by 3 months of age. Having your female rabbit spayed dramatically decreases her chance of uterine cancer in later life. In some breeds, this incidence can be as high as 80%. Spaying also prevents the doe from becoming territorial, being inclined to fight with other rabbits or people, and of course prevents unwanted bunnies! Neutered male rabbits are less likely to develop behavioural problems such as fighting, biting and urine spraying. However, neutered rabbits are more prone to obesity as they grow older so close attention should be paid to their diet.
A correct diet is important to maintain health, particularly of the teeth and digestive system. Rabbit muesli, which can still be a popular means of feeding, can lead to dental disease, facial abcesses, sore eyes and conjunctivitis, obesity and intestinal upsets such as diarrhoea and gut stasis. It is vital to feed mainly fresh grass, good quality hay and green leafy vegetables, or the 'pellet' type of rabbit food. However, never feed commercial rabbit food by just topping up the bowl or you will end up with a fat rabbit! A good rule is 25g of pellets per Kg bodyweight per day, and grass and hay should still always be available.
High fat or starchy treats should be avoided, such as honey sticks, beans, peas, corn, bread, breakfast cereal, biscuits, nuts, seeds, crisps and chocolate. Fruit should only be given as a treat and only in limited quantities, as it is high in sugar and can lead to gastrointestinal disturbance and teeth problems. The best treats to feed are healthy treats such as small amounts of a favourite vegetable or herb.
Sudden changes in diet should be avoided, rather gradually change food over several days or weeks. Frosted or mouldy food, or lawnmower clippings should not be fed as these can also lead to severe digestive disturbance.
Fresh drinking water must be available at all times, and keep drinking bottles and bowls scrupulously clean.
VACCINATIONS AND HEALTH
Myxomatosis was introduced in the 1950s as a control method to help control spiraling wild rabbit numbers that had become a serious agricultural pest, this distressing and fatal infectious disease has plagued pet rabbits ever since. The disease in wild rabbits tend to be cyclical with very major outbreaks associated with ideal climatic conditions in some years.
Estimates of the number of cases of myxomatosis in pet rabbits being brought to veterinary clinics vary annually depending on the background prevalence but usually run into many thousands of cases in any year, making this the commonest preventable infectious killer disease of pet animals in the United Kingdom. Sadly the majority of pet rabbits that contract this disease do not survive and in most cases euthanasia is the only humane option to avoid suffering. Typical signs first appear within a fortnight of contracting the disease and include swelling of the skin and in particular of the face around the eyes, mouth and ears and genitals as well as a high fever, lethargy, progressing to anorexia. Commonly affected rabbits develop respiratory disease and discharges from the eyes and mouth. Without intervention and euthanasia affected rabbits typically suffer a slow and lingering death.
Fewer people are aware of another serious and more recent threat- that of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD)- also known as viral haemorrhagic disease. Originally identified in rabbits from the far east and since the 1980s endemic in wild rabbits in the UK, it is less recognized than the more familiar myxomatosis but in fact even more deadly whenever outbreaks occur. This is a particular frightening viral disease with a short incubation period of 1-3 days and a very rapid disease course. In acute outbreaks unprotected rabbits typically being found dead without prior warning.
There is no specific treatment for either of these fatal infectious diseases so prevention is vital. So how can we protect pet rabbits against these diseases? Keeping your pet away from wild rabbits is important to reduce the chance of direct transfer but insect carriage is the most important route of transmission. Because both these viruses can be transported by insects its really important that pet rabbits are also protected. Flea treatment can be given and nets and repellants can be used outside the immediate environment, however vaccination is vital to consider for all pet rabbits. Vaccination used to be fiddly with 6 month protection being the best that could be managed against myxomatosis and separate vaccines being needed to cover both diseases. But now it is easier than ever before with a single dose annually being all that required to protect against both diseases.
Despite the frequency of fatal infectious disease in pet rabbits, it is estimated that as little as 15% of the 1.6 million pet rabbits in the UK are protected by vaccination. The Summer risk period is approaching rapidly and its now simpler than ever to ensure your pet rabbit is protected against these two hidden killers so ring us now to make an appointment if your rabbit hasnít received a vaccine dose in the last 6 months.
Rabbits can suffer from other health problems, the most common being overgrown teeth. This can cause pain, mouth infections and ulcers, and signs can include weight loss, dribbling and abscesses. Rabbits teeth need regular checks and this is usually done at vaccination, however if your rabbit is prone to teeth problems we recommend you have them checked more frequently.
Rabbits suffering from Myxomatosis
Good housing is essential
Rabbits need green, leafy vegetables as well as fresh grass and good quality hay
Vaccination can prevent infectious diseases