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Rabbits

Advice for taking care of your rabbit

Rabbits are now the third most popular pet in the UK.

They CAN make great pets, especially for children, BUT they do need a lot of looking after and sadly, we see many rabbits being neglected once the novelty of owning one has worn off.

The vast majority of the problems we encounter in general practice associated with rabbits are due to inappropriate housing and feeding. Below are some guidelines to try to help prevent such problems occurring.

Basic statistics:

  • Sexual Maturity - 16-24 weeks
  • Pregnancy Length - 30-33 days
  • Litter Size - 4-12 [average 7]
  • Weaning age - 7-8 weeks
  • Lifespan - 8-12 years
  • Adult Body Weight - 1-8 kg

Avoid keeping guinea pigs and rabbits together

We often hear of clients keeping rabbits and guinea pigs together. Years ago, this was considered perfectly acceptable as long as they got on together. However, we now know that rabbits carry a bacteria called Bordetella bronchiseptica. Whilst this rarely causes a problem in the rabbit, it can cause serious disease in guinea pigs and may even be fatal. Our recommendation therefore is that rabbits and guinea pigs should be housed separately.

Many of the problems we see guinea pigs for in the surgery are dietary related. Particularly they are often associated with a lack of adequate fibre in the diet that each animal eats. Many of the modern commercial diets allow “selective feeding” meaning that they only eat parts of the diet, often leaving the less palatable high fibre portions which are so important to help avoid dental and digestive problems. If you can get hold of decent quality hay (preferably Timothy hay), then the basic rule is to feed hay, hay and yet more hay!

With guinea pigs too, don’t forget that they need vitamin C in their diet. Adults require a minimum of 10mg/kg bodyweight of vitamin C per day. This can rise to 30mg/kg in a pregnant sow. Even feeding lots of fresh greens in addition to a good fresh proprietary diet may not provide enough. As a result, we now recommend that vitamin C should be added daily to a guinea pig’s drinking water.

  • Feeding
  • Housing
  • Exercise
  • Neutering
  • Vaccinations

Feeding

A rabbit is designed to eat nothing but grass, with a few extra leaves which it browses on the side. It will normally feed at dusk and dawn for 30 to 120 minutes each time. Because it is so selective in the wild state, the rabbit has an extremely poor capacity to cope with a modified diet. Incorrect diets can lead to life-threatening problems associated with overgrown teeth, digestive disturbances and obesity.

The correct calcium levels in grass are vital. Also the chewing action is essential to strengthen the jaw bones and wear down the teeth evenly [which grow throughout life]. Sunlight is important for Vitamin D production, which is essential for calcium absorption from the intestine, so allow your rabbit to run outside in daylight if possible.

Good quality hay [dried grass] is an excellent substitute when plentiful grass is unavailable. Other fresh foods such as carrots, broccoli stalks, cauliflower leaves, cabbage, spring greens, parsley, apples, sprout peelings, celery, pea pods, radish, carrot tops, cabbage and dandelion leaves can be fed in moderation. Turnips, spinach and kale can be fed occasionally. Dry rabbit mixes should be considered a "treat" food only. Light green foods such as lettuce and cucumber have little nutritional value and should not be offered. Foods such as biscuits, chocolate and cake should never be fed. The great bulk of the diet should be grass and more grass! Vitamin supplements are not required.

Ideally, place the rabbit's run on the lawn where he can select his favourite species of grass. Alternatively, freshly cut grass can be offered, but mower clippings are generally too crushed and should be avoided. If you have been feeding your rabbit a high proportion of dry mix, make the change to grass or hay over about 2 weeks, to allow the gut to adapt to the change.

Some rabbits produce red urine as a result of eating certain vegetables such as dandelions or cabbage. This is normal and not harmful.

Housing

Most rabbits are housed outside in a hutch with ready access to a grass run.

The hutch should be damp-free, draft-free but well ventilated and contain soft bedding such as hay. Rabbits are very susceptible to heat stroke, and so the hutch must be kept out of direct sunlight in the summer. A concealed "hiding" area in the hutch allows the rabbit to feel secure.

The hutch must be of adequate size - the rabbit should be able to lie down fully stretched in any direction and to stand on his back legs without hitting the ceiling. Minimum requirements are listed below:

  • Small rabbit (e.g. Netherland Dwarf) 3' x 2' x 1½' high (90cm x 60cm x 45cm)
  • Medium rabbit (e.g. Dwarf Lop) 4' x 2' x 2' high (120cm x 60cm x 60cm)
  • Large rabbit (e.g. New Zealand) 5' X 2' x 2' high (150cm x 60cm x 60cm)
  • Giant rabbit (e.g. English Giant) 6' x 2½' x 2½' high (180cm x 75cm x 75cm)
  • Multiple rabbits Add 1' (30cm) in width per rabbit
  • Exercise pen 4' x 8' (120cm x 240cm) minimum

Rabbits can also make excellent indoor pets, but should never be allowed to run loose in the house unattended for fear of injury such as chewing an electric cord. Rabbits will quickly learn to use a litter tray, just like cats.

Exercise

The ancestor of the domestic rabbit maintained a territory of about 2 acres, within which heshe would wander looking for food and mates. Great distances were covered each day.
Rabbits are also very athletic in order to escape from predators. Adequate opportunity to exercise is vital for pet rabbits, as lack of activity can lead to:

  • Obesity - also caused by excess calories in the diet.
  • Sore Hocks - also caused by damp flooring.
  • Poor Bone Density [Osteoporosis] - can lead to leg or spinal fractures.
  • Constipation and Urine Stagnation
  • Behavioural Disorders - such as lethargy, aggression, destructiveness.
  • Poor Muscle Strength - this includes the heart and can lead to "heart attack" if the rabbit is stressed.

Toys provide your rabbit with mental and physical stimulation, and also help to protect your home.

Indoor toys:

  • Closed cardboard box with 2 or 3 doors for hopping in and out, climbing on, chewing, etc. (may also be lined with newspaper, a towel or carpet for digging)
  • Seagrass mats to chew on (available from import/household goods shops)
  • Any item made of untreated straw, e.g. broom, coasters, beach mat
  • Willow baskets of all shapes and sizes for chewing, climbing on and dozing under
  • Large paper bag to crawl in
  • Plastic dog bed or litter/storage box lined with newspaper, hay and straw for digging, nibbling, etc. (may also double as a litter tray)
  • Hard plastic rattles (e.g. keys) to pick up and toss
  • Cat wire ball with a bell or pom pom inside
  • Cardboard rolls from toilet paper to chew, roll, toss, knock down, etc.
  • Toddler stacking cups or empty yoghurt pots (put one inside the other with a treat in between so the bunny has to work out how to get to it)
  • Hard plastic ball to push and roll
  • Parrot toys made of wood/hard plastic that can be hung from the top of the cage
  • Old bunch of keys for throwing
  • Old magazines, telephone books, cereal/tissue boxes and junk mail to tear up
  • A towel to spread out, dig in and sleep on
  • Cat toys with ramps, platforms and tubes

Outdoor toys:

  • Wooden tunnel made with 4 boards of weather-proof plywood measuring 1' X 2' (wooden ramps and 'bridges' are a welcome addition)
  • Large litter trays or plastic storage boxes filled with soil, sand or peat for digging
  • Football to nudge and roll
  • Large upturned plant pots to hop up and down
  • Potted edible plants, e.g. lavender, chicory, parsley to nibble on.
  • A clay pipe to run in and out
  • A log or tree stump to jump on or over
  • Pine cones for nibbling
  • Apple or willow twigs that haven't been sprayed with pesticides
  • Large flat stones to climb on and smaller ones for sniffing and chinning

Outdoor Safety

Before you let your bunny out for the first time it's essential to take some precautions:

  • Fence the garden with wire mesh.
  • Beware toxic, mouldy or thorny plants
  • Indoor pets are more sensitive to the cold and your rabbit too may need time to adjust to outside temperatures. Don't let your rabbit go in the garden when it is very cold/windy or when it is raining.
  • Never use slug pellets or spray chemical weedkillers, pesticides and fertilisers on your lawn and plants.
  • Beware of predators, including neighbours' cats and dogs, large birds, foxes, rats and even squirrels. Make sure you have plenty of time to supervise your rabbit while she is outside. Consider using an enclosed pen with a wire mesh floor to allow grazing. Move the pen every 1-2 days.

Neutering

It is recommended that all rabbits not intended for breeding are neutered, for the following reasons:

  • Prevention of Pregnancy
  • Prevention of Testicular Disease.
  • Prevention of Uterine Cancer. This is the most compelling medical reason to neuter female rabbits. Up to 80% of female rabbits over the age of 2 years may develop this disorder.
  • Prevention of Other Uterine Disease, such as infection and bleeding.
  • Prevention of False Pregnancies. Although this is not medically harmful, it can be very stressful for the rabbit who goes through all the motions of being pregnant including nest building, milk production and aggressive protection of her territory. This aggression can be taken out on the owners and other rabbits.
  • Prevention of Aggressive Behaviour. Both male and female rabbits can display aggressive behaviour when they reach sexual maturity.
  • Prevention of Urine Spraying. Both male and female rabbits can spray urine on vertical surfaces to mark their territory.

The best age to neuter is 4-6 months of age, but slightly older in giant breeds.

Vaccinations

AlphaPet recommends the vaccination of rabbits against 3 diseases:

  • Myxomatosis
  • Rabbit Viral haemorrhagic Disease 1 (RVHD1)
  • Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease 2 (RVHD2)

This can be provided by 2 vaccinations given annually. The combined myxomatosis and RVHD1 vaccination can be given from 5 weeks old. The RVHD2 vaccination, must be given at least 2 weeks after the myxomatosis/RVHD1 vaccination and can be given from 10 weeks old. Both require annual boosters.

All three diseases are highly contagious and rapidly fatal in unvaccinated rabbits. Please see below for more information. If you have further questions, or would like to book a vaccination, please contact your local branch.

Myxomatosis

A rapidly fatal, viral disease.

Symptoms:

  • Swelling, redness or ulcerations. Commonly of the eyes, nose and genitals.
  • Discharges from the nose and eyes
  • Reduced appetite and lethargy.
  • Rapidly fatal

Transmission:

Myxomatosis is a virus which is spread by biting insects including fleas, mites and mosquitoes.

Treatment:

Unfortunately there is no specific treatment. In unvaccinated rabbits it is rapidly fatal.

Vaccinated rabbits can still develop a mild form, but recover with good supportive care, under veterinary guidance.

Prevention:

Vaccination – highly effective vaccinations are available. These are recommended annually.

Even with vaccination, rabbits may get a mild form of myxomatosis. However this has good recovery rates with the correct supportive care.

Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease 1

Viral disease, rapidly fatal.

Symptoms:

  • Internal bleeding. Bleeding from the nose/mouth/bottom may be seen
  • Sudden death due to internal bleeding
  • Usually fatal within 1-2 days

Transmission:

  • Highly contagious virus.
  • Direct rabbit to rabbit contact or in the urine or faeces
  • Passed on surfaces and bedding, or contaminated clothes or hands.
  • Wild rabbits, wildlife including birds/insects can carry it on feet/legs to other gardens.

Treatment:

Unfortunately there is no specific treatment. In unvaccinated rabbits it is rapidly fatal.

Prevention:

Vaccination – highly effective vaccinations are available and recommended annually.

Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease 2

New strain of RVHD. Rapidly fatal. Geographically widespread throughout the UK and has been seen in the AlphaPet area.

All rabbits are considered at risk.

Symptoms:

  • Sudden death is the most common presentation.
  • May see fever, lethargic, reduced appetite and spasms.

Transmission:

  • Highly contagious virus
  • Direct rabbit to rabbit contact or in the urine or faeces
  • Passed on surfaces and bedding, or contaminated clothes or hands.
  • Wild rabbits, wildlife including birds/insects can carry it on feet/legs to other gardens.
  • Has an incubation period of 3-9 days, where no clinical signs are seen, but it is still contagious and may be spread to other rabbits.

Treatment:

Unfortunately there is no specific treatment. In unvaccinated rabbits it is rapidly fatal.

Prevention:

Vaccination – highly effective vaccinations are available and recommended annually.

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