What should I look for when selecting a rabbit as a pet?
Rabbits can be bought from pet stores or through breeders. When choosing your new pet, there are certain things you should look out for and don’t be afraid to ask questions:
- The eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge that might indicate a respiratory infection.
- The rabbit should be curious and inquisitive and it should not be thin or emaciated – run your hand along the backbone to check this.
- Check for any wetness or caking of droppings around the anus, which is abnormal and look for the presence of parasites such as fleas and ear mites (ear mites cause the production of brown wax in the ears).
- If possible, examine the rabbit’s mouth for broken or overgrown incisors (front teeth).
- Enquire whether the rabbit has been spayed or castrated (most will not have been until they are approximately 6 months old).
- Has been vaccinated against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease?
- Ask the seller if they offer any guarantee of health or return policy.
- Finally, find out what the rabbit is being fed on, as you do not want to introduce a sudden change of diet when you get it home – this may provoke gut disturbance and diarrhoea.
There are also many unwanted rabbits in animal rescue and charity centres in need of a good home. However, remember that these rabbits may have health or behavioural problems and little may be known about their history. Seek expert advice before taking such a rabbit on – you may face unexpected problems
Rabbits make good house pets and can be easily litter trained, but they love to chew and can be very destructive to furniture and carpets. It is best to supervise your rabbit whilst loose in the house and have a secure cage or pen to keep him in when you are out and at night. Outside rabbits may be housed in a hutch, but should always have access to a grassed run. Cages should be as large as possible and allow the rabbit to stand up fully on its hind legs and perform at least three consecutive hops. The minimum size required is 6 x 2 x 2ft with 8ft run. The hutch should be divided into an enclosed sleeping area where the rabbit can hide and a larger area for daytime use. House rabbits can be kept on soft towels, or shredded paper. Outside rabbits may be kept on wood shavings or straw. However, these substrates may be dusty and contain mould spores, which can predispose your rabbit to developing respiratory problems – high quality substrates should always be used to prevent this.
How do I litter train my rabbit?
Rabbits can be litter trained relatively easily. Initially the rabbit should be kept in a small area (either a cage or a blocked off area of a room) and a litter box placed in a corner that the rabbit has already used to soil. The sides of the litter box must be low enough so that your rabbit can get in and out easily. Newspaper or paper-based litter is best and avoid using cat Fuller’s earth products, these may be harmful if eaten. It may help to put some droppings in the litter box as well to encourage your rabbit to use it.
How often should I clean my rabbit out?
It is essential, particularly if it is outdoors in the summer, that your rabbit is kept as clean as possible. You should check it twice daily, especially in the summer, for any signs of matted droppings or maggots around its rear end. Clean out the hutch at least twice weekly and, if possible, remove any urine soaked bedding each day. The hutch may be cleaned with a dilute disinfectant.
What temperature should my rabbit be kept at?
Indoor rabbits should be kept in the coolest and least humid part of the house. The optimum room temperature range for rabbits is 60-70°F (15-21°C). If environmental temperature rises above 80°F (27°C), heat stroke will occur. Outdoor rabbits should have access to shade and be free from draughts, wind and driving rain. They should also be protected from dogs, cats and predators. Plenty of straw bedding in the winter and covering the front of the cage with a blanket at night will prevent your rabbit from getting hypothermia. Water bowls and bottles should be changed daily in the winter as they may freeze.
How should I handle my rabbit?
When picking up your rabbit always support its hindquarters, as this will prevent any spinal injuries – the spine is very fragile and will easily snap if the hind legs are allowed to dangle and the rabbit gives a strong kick. This will result in paralysis of the hind legs. One of the best ways to pick up a rabbit is to grasp a large scruff of loose skin behind the neck with one hand and scoop up the rear end with the other. Always hold a rabbit close in to your body so it feels secure. You can tuck its head under your arm. NEVER pick a rabbit up by its ears.
Diet is vitally important as a means of preventing ill health. A low fibre, high carbohydrate diet (e.g rabbit mix) can lead to dental disease, facial abscesses, sore eyes and conjunctivitis, obesity, intestinal upsets such as diarrhoea and furballs. It is vital to feed mainly fresh good quality hay or grass and vegetables as a source of fibre. For all your questions related to nutrition of your rabbit, please call the following freephone Customer Care Line 0800 413 969.
What should I feed my rabbit?
The most important part of a rabbit’s diet is good quality hay and/or fresh grass. This is what they eat naturally, so it should make up the bulk of the diet and be offered all the time. Hay and grass provide essential fibre that keeps the teeth and digestive system in good health and nibbling throughout the day will keep your rabbit occupied and prevent boredom. Hay racks or nets can minimise any mess formed. Good quality meadow hay should be sweet smelling and not dusty. A good idea is to try and obtain hay from friends who keep horses, or from a farm – this is much cheaper too. Check that wild rabbits have not had access to stored hay. Dried grass products that retain the green colour and are highly palatable are also now available. A large number of rabbits will only eat certain components of mixed feeds, risking an insufficient uptake of protein, calcium and phosphoros. This is why high quality dry pellets, where all nutrients are present in each individual pellet is the preferred option. Overfeeding dry foods to adult rabbits is a common cause of diseases such as obesity, heart and liver problems, chronic diarrhoea, dental and kidney disease. Water should be available 24hrs a day and water bottles or bowls should be cleaned daily to prevent the build up of bacteria and contamination.
What about feeding fresh food?
You can feed your rabbit limited amounts of fresh vegetables, fruit and greens daily. Wild plants are also greatly enjoyed. If your rabbit is not used to getting fresh foods, then begin by feeding green leafy vegetables, adding a new type of vegetable every 2-3 days. If the addition of any item leads to diarrhoea in 24-48hrs it should not be fed. These fresh foods should not make up more than 20% of the rabbit’s diet. Items to try are Chinese cabbage, watercress, kale, parsley, spinach, radishes, celery, bramble, raspberry leaves, dandelions, chickweed, plantain, groundsel and clover.
What about feeding treats?
Do not feed your rabbit chocolate, biscuits or other sugary treats like honey sticks, bread, or fatty, salty foods like potato crisps. Be careful with feeding treats generally as they can lead to obesity and digestive upsets. Treats your rabbit may like include strawberries, pineapple chunks, apples, pears, melon slices, banana slices, raspberries, peaches and dried fruits. However, fruits are high in sugar and should only be fed very occasionally as they can lead to dental problems. For good tooth wear you may provide your rabbit with twigs or tree branches. They will enjoy gnawing and stripping the bark. A general rule is that you can offer branches from any tree that we eat the fruit from. Examples are apple, pear, plum, hawthorn, whitethorn and wild rose. Make sure the tree has not been sprayed with chemicals.
Should I neuter my rabbit?
Routine neutering of both male and female rabbits is strongly recommended unless you wish to breed. Rabbits become sexually mature between 4 months (in smaller breeds) and 6-9 months (in larger breeds). It is recommended that young rabbits be separated into single sex groups at 16 weeks of age. Breeding is prevented by castration of male rabbits at about 5-6 months of age (once the testicles have descended), or spaying of female rabbits at about 6 months of age. Having your female rabbit spayed at between 6 months and 2 years old dramatically decreases the chance of her developing uterine tumours later on in life. In some breeds the incidence of this cancer is over 80% in does over 5 years. Intact males are more prone to developing behavioral problems including fighting, biting and urine spraying. The urine may also become strong smelling. Neutered rabbits are more prone to obesity as they grow older, so care must be taken not to allow overeating.
Your rabbit should be vaccinated routinely against Rabbit Haemorrhage Disease (RHD) and Myxomatosis. Both these viral diseases can be rapidly fatal in an unvaccinated rabbit and there are no cures once infected. The only protection you can give your rabbit is by vaccination. RHD is spread by direct contact between rabbits (both wild and domesticated) but also via indirect contact such as from people, clothing, on shoes, other objects, fleas and other parasites. Myxomatosis is spread mainly by fleas or other biting insects and is transmitted in this way from wild to pet rabbits but can sometimes also spread via direct contact with other infected individuals. A combined myxomatosis-rhd vaccination can be given from as early as 5 weeks of age. Boosters are given every 12 months and cover both diseases.
Regular Health Checks
The best way of avoiding many medical problems in your pet rabbit is to have regular veterinary health checks. Your vet will do a full medical examination and check the teeth (particularly the back teeth) for any evidence of malocclusion which could lead to spikes and tongue ulceration. Rabbits with identified existing tooth problems should be checked at least every 6 to 8 weeks. A thorough dental check will require sedation.
If your rabbit gets ill, the last thing you want to worry about is the vet’s bill. Insurance is now available for rabbits and if the worst happens and your rabbit does get sick, insurance means your vet can dedicate their efforts into doing all that is necessary to diagnose and treat any illness, rather than worrying about doing certain tests or treatments because of the cost.
Overgrown Teeth or Dental Malocclusion
This is the most common problem encountered by vets and may result in the rabbit having to be put to sleep if not treated at an early stage. Rabbit’s teeth grow constantly throughout their life and if there is not enough fibre in the diet, or if the teeth are not aligned properly, then they will overgrow. Overgrown teeth become spiked and will start cutting into the side of the mouth and the tongue causing mouth infections, ulcers and inability to pick up food and eat it. Clinical signs include anorexia, weight loss, salivation/dribbling and abscesses around the face and jaw. Also eye infections and matted droppings around the tail base may be an indication of dental disease. In some rabbits, malocclusion of the incisor (front) teeth is congenital (present from birth) and these rabbits will need vigorous treatment and possibly tooth removal. Acquired malocclusion occurs in older rabbits and is thought to be primarily diet related. A correct diet is essential to your rabbit’s wellbeing (see earlier section on feeding) and problems occur particularly if your pet is not eating enough fibre in the form of hay, grass and vegetables, to wear down the teeth at a sufficient rate. Problems can also arise if your rabbit refuses to eat the pelleted part of the dry diet since these contain calcium and phosphorus essential for good bone and tooth growth. Rabbits need regular teeth checks and these should be carried out at the time of vaccination.
Common medical problems
Ear mites are small parasites that live in the ear canals. They may stimulate excessive wax production that can lead to clinical signs such as head shaking, ear scratching and blood around the ear canal. They are seen most commonly in the lopeared breeds. Mites may also infect rabbits on the back and shoulders causing dry skin and dandruff. These mites can also cause a mild rash in humans, so treatment is vital. If bedding is not changed regularly (at least once a week) rabbit feet can become ulcerated and infected. Feet should be checked regularly and toenails clipped if necessary.
Rabbits can develop eye infections that may be difficult to treat. These present as a milky white discharge from the corner of the eye and may result in sore reddened skin just below the lower eyelid. Tear ducts often become blocked and will need to be flushed. Tear ducts also become blocked when molar tooth roots grow abnormally.
Diarrhoea is a common problem in pet rabbits. It is a very serious condition and veterinary advice should be sought immediately. Some gastrointestinal infections that result in diarrhoea can be fatal in less than 24 hours. Rabbits with diarrhoea become rapidly dehydrated and will need fluid replacement. A high fibre diet (hay or grass) has a protective effect against diarrhoea and soft droppings. Occasionally obese rabbits, older rabbits with back problems and rabbits with dental disease become matted with droppings around the tail base. It is normal behaviour for rabbits to produce softer droppings at night, which they then eat. This is an important part of the rabbit’s diet. If very overweight, or if it has a painful mouth or back, the rabbit may be unable to reach round to clean these droppings away. In the summer, diarrhoea or matted soft droppings may attract flies which lay their eggs around the tail base and these hatch out into maggots. You should check your rabbit twice daily in the summer and always make sure the bedding is clean and dry. A fly strip hung just outside the hutch may help reduce the flies.
Many rabbits have bacteria living in their nasal sinuses called Pasteurella. These bacteria will not cause a clinical problem for a rabbit with a healthy immune system. In certain situations, if the rabbit becomes stressed, these bacteria will multiply rapidly causing a disease known as Pasteurellosis or ‘Snuffles’. This disease may affect the respiratory tract, uterus, skin, kidneys, bladder, tear ducts, middle ear or spine. Clinical signs include discharges from the eyes and nose, loss of appetite, lethargy, head tilt, loss of balance, hind limb paralysis and laboured breathing. The infection cannot be eliminated but it can be controlled with antibiotics and you should consult your vet at once.
Obesity is a common finding in rabbits, especially in females and may lead to other problems such as matted droppings and maggot infestation or fatty liver syndrome. Prevention is important and strict attention to diet, and plenty of exercise is essential. Seek veterinary advice before putting your rabbit on a diet.
Anaesthesia of rabbits
Many owners worry about the risks of anaesthesia in rabbits. In the past, rabbits have gained a reputation for being difficult to anaesthetise safely. However, with modern drugs and veterinary expertise there is no reason to be any more concerned about your rabbit than any other animal. All anaesthetics carry a small risk, whatever the species, and every effort is made to make your rabbit’s anaesthetic as safe as possible.
Rabbits can make wonderful pets – quiet, clean, inquisitive, entertaining and responsive.
The main keys to good health are:
- feed a correct diet that is high in fibre – this will help to prevent many of the common diseases
- have regular veterinary check-ups, during these check-ups make sure you discuss when to come back for your rabbits next vaccination and ask for advice about flea control, the main insect transmitting myxomatosis.
- vaccinate your rabbit regularly
- have your rabbit neutered (especially females)
Your rabbit will give you many years of companionship and rewarding pet ownership, if cared for properly.