Give your pet rabbit the care they need to live a long and happy life
Rabbits are not only affectionate, but they can make great pets for children (preferably over the age of 8), too, providing they are handled in the correct way as a baby and given all the love and attention they deserve throughout life.
Rabbits need constant care and should not be left in their hutch at the bottom of the garden and forgotten. However, if you do allow your rabbit inside your home to play, just remember that they love to eat wires.
Accommodating your rabbit’s needs
A rabbit’s hutch should ideally be large enough for them to stand on their back legs and have a good jump around and, if possible, they should also have a run underneath, enabling them to have lots of freedom.
Their run should always have access to their hutch in case it rains, as rabbits do not like to get wet. Their hutch should also be covered with a waterproof sheet, especially at night; this can also help to keep your rabbit warm in winter.
Rabbits will use a corner of their hutch as a toilet and this area should be cleaned out daily. A rabbit less than 6-8 months of age can be litter trained and a small seed tray in one corner of the hutch works quite well.
Make your rabbit a comfortable bed
Your rabbit’s bed should consist of a layer of sawdust with newspaper on top, followed by a generous layer of straw. In winter, the bedroom can be filled right up with straw for extra warmth.
Did you know, 90 % of your rabbit’s diet should be grass?
Rabbits are herbivores (they do not eat meat) and should be fed a diet of mainly grass (or hay when fresh grass is unavailable). Cereals should be used in small quantities and a few vegetables can also be included.
They also need fresh water which should be changed twice daily. Rabbits should never be without food as they eat little and often. If they stop eating, their guts stop working which can have fatal results.
Protect your rabbit from infection and disease
There are 2 diseases that can affect rabbits; Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease, also known as VHD, HVD or RVD. However, there is no need to worry as your rabbit can receive an annual vaccination with combined protection against both of these diseases.
This virus is spread by blood sucking insects – especially fleas and mosquitos. It is nearly always fatal and there is no treatment available for it. It is highly contagious and can be found in both wild and pet rabbits in Sussex.
We even see cases where rabbits have been kept indoors their entire life, presumably because insects can fly in through windows or doors.
VHD or Viral Haemorrhagic Disease is like Myxomatosis in a several ways:
- It is caused by a virus, and there is no cure for it
- It is always fatal
- It is transmitted by biting insects, e.g. mosquitoes and fleas, not necessarily very nearby
- It is present in Sussex
However, unlike Myxomatosis, it kills extremely fast. People often find their rabbit dead one morning when it seemed perfectly healthy the night before. There is no time to get it to a vet for treatment, and no treatment that a vet can offer which would help.
However, there is now a very effective vaccine which will protect your rabbit from catching this nasty disease.
At The Mewes Vets you can join our
Pet Health Club
, which spreads the cost of vaccinations and parasite protection, while also giving you discounts on other services.
For more information ask one of our staff or see our website www.themewesvets.co.uk.
You may have to castrate your rabbit
Rabbits like the company of other rabbits and live in colonies in the wild. If you decide to get 2 rabbits, try to get 2 babies from the same litter. However, you may still have problems; 2 boys will fight; 2 girls may fight; and a boy and a girl will soon have babies.
One solution is to have a boy and a girl. They can be kept together until the boy is approximately 12 weeks old, at which time your vet will castrate him. They can then be allowed to live together in the same hutch.
Be a responsible and loving owner
If you find it difficult to look after your rabbit, either contact the RSPCA or your vet who will be able to put you in touch with a rescue/rehoming service. Be responsible and kind, don’t just abandon or neglect your rabbit.
Protect your rabbit from annoying parasites and worms
Rabbits are now the third most popular pet in the UK, after cats and dogs. They are great companions and make wonderful pets, but rabbits can also suffer for worms and parasites such as E.cuniculi.
At The Mewes Vets we recommend the use of Panacur Rabbit, which has been developed as a single answer to the problem of worms and parasites. Panacur Rabbit should be given 2 to 4 times a year.
What is E.cuniculi?
E.cuniculi is a microscopic parasite that is widespread across the UK. It is spread by infected urine or between mothers and babies, and can live in infected areas for weeks. Over 50% of apparently healthy pet rabbits have been exposed to it and, if left untreated, it may have very nasty consequences.
Symptoms of E.cuniculi can include:
- Head tilt
- Hind limb weakness
- Kidney disease
…. and even death
Looking after your rabbit’s favourite asset – their teeth
People often ask: “why do rabbits get tooth problems?” Recently some clever vets have found the answers. Amazingly it has been because, although we didn’t realise, we have been feeding our pet rabbits incorrectly!
What should I feed my rabbit to keep them healthy?
Consider wild rabbits. They survive incredibly well in the fields and woods here in England and never have to see a dentist. So why do so many of our pet rabbits need help with their teeth?
It’s because wild rabbits eat what evolution designed them to eat: grass, grass and more grass, with a few herbs on the side. For some reason, years ago – perhaps when our grandparents started keeping rabbits to eat in the war – someone decided that rabbits need to eat rabbit food. Ever since then generations of rabbits have been fed a commercial mix of concentrated dried food.
Unbeknownst to us, this has had a number of bad effects…
The chewing action required to eat grass is totally different in rabbits to that required to chew pellets and hard food. Evolution made rabbits eat grass so their teeth are especially modified to do this.
Unlike ours, rabbit’s teeth grow continuously through their lives, more like an elephant’s tusks. Unlike an elephant’s tusks though, the upper and lower jaw teeth should meet each other and grind or wear each other down at exactly the same rate that they grow.
The result is that they appear to stay the same length, but in fact they are being constantly replaced and sharpened.
However, if the rabbit is offered the wrong sort of food and not grass, the chewing action is wrong. The teeth are ground down in the wrong pattern and overgrow. The result can be nasty sharp points or spikes developing, just like the elephants’ tusks.
These points appear on the upper teeth and dig into the flesh of the cheek, and on the lower teeth they appear on the inner side and dig into the tongue. It becomes painful for the rabbit to chew at all, and eventually they starve to death unless a vet intervenes.
The wrong food has also resulted in an insufficient calcium intake. Just like some old people experience osteoporosis for other reasons, this results in brittle bones and teeth that show poor enamel quality and loosening in their sockets. This loosening allows a wobbliness of the teeth, which contributes further to the lack of wear and so to the overgrowing process.
Sunlight is also essential for healthy bones. Without sunlight rabbits cannot convert the pre-vitamin D in their diet to the active bone building form. This is another reason why putting your pet out into a run every day – even in the winter or poor weather – is important.
Previous forms of rabbit concentrate feed have consisted of lots of different types of seed, pellets, etc. Just like one of us with a box of Quality Streets, some rabbits would pick out their favourites and leave their least preferred pieces.
This has resulted in rabbits not getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals, even if all the right things were originally mixed into the food. These days, new foods like Supa Rabbit or Excel are available, where all the goodness is mixed into one uniform pellet, so the rabbit cannot pick and choose and refuse part of its food.
Many owners tell me how much their rabbit enjoys its concentrate food, and some rabbits will not even eat grass, vegetables or herbs. It is almost as if they have become addicted to what is bad for them.
There is a very direct comparison with us humans. We know chocolate isn’t good for our weight, nor for our teeth, but we still prefer it to health foods! It is the same for rabbits, but they cannot be expected to understand what is good for them and what isn’t. We have to do their thinking for them.
The concentrate feed tastes great to them, but it really is dangerous to their long-term health.
Once a pet rabbit’s teeth crowns start overgrowing, the tooth roots also are forced to elongate backwards into the skull. This really hurts and blocks off the tear duct from the eye.
You will recognize this when the resulting infection causes a milky weepy eye, which fails to respond to antibiotic eye drops. It can also eventually result in abscess formation on the face or jaw.
All rabbits over 6 months old should be allowed only a restricted amount of concentrate food a day, or preferably none at all.
The bulk of their food should be grass and hay (which is after all just dried grass). Leafy vegetables are also acceptable in small amounts. Try to get back to a natural food for your rabbit and you will be doing it a huge favour.
An adult dwarf rabbit should get no more than 1 level tablespoon a day, and larger rabbits one heaped to two tablespoons a day. Put your rabbit out into the run every day for access to grass, and for the vitamin D activating sunshine. Ask your vet for specific advice for your rabbit.
If your rabbit is not keen on fresh food, start by ensuring unlimited access to fresh hay. This may be Timothy hay, grass hay or alfafa.
Timothy hay is considered best, alfafa is the most fattening, but some rabbits have a preference for one or the other. There is some concern that hay may be a source of mites and other parasites, following contamination on the farm or in transport by wild rodents or rabbits.
If this is a concern, try freezing and then defrosting all hay before feeding it to your pet.
Make sure your rabbit eats all of their vegetables
In addition to hay, start adding 1 new vegetable at a time, with a new one every 4-5 days. Only offer new foods in small quantities at first, building up to feeding a minimum of 3 vegetables a day.
About one heaped cup for every 2kg (5lb) bodyweight. If your rabbit develops soft stools, continue feeding the new food but only in very small quantities for 48 hours. The motions should then be normal.
If not, eliminate the new food from its diet. The same rules apply for their introduction to grass. Start with 10 minutes and build up over 5-7 days to a whole morning and later, all day out on grass.
We do not recommend fruit, root vegetables including carrot, bread or biscuits as foods for your rabbit.
Choose one vegetable a day. Each is rich in vitamin A
- Beet greens
- Broccoli including the leaves
- Carrot tops (not the carrot itself)
- Collard greens
- Pea pods of the flat edible kind
Other useful herbs and vegetables:
- Brussel sprouts
- Dandelion leaves and flowers
- Green peppers
- Peppermint leaves
- Radish tops
- Raspberry leaves
- Romaine lettuce (but not iceberg or light-coloured leaf)
- Spinach and kale can be given in small quantities but are toxic if given over a period time.
Please note that winter greens must not be fed to rabbits under 6 months old.
Rabbits up to 6-8 months old may have free access to dry food/pellets as they are still growing. After that, they should be severely restricted as above.
Make sure your rabbit keeps a nice clean bottom
The vast majority of owners assume a dirty bottom means diarrhoea, but in fact this is rarely the case. It is more likely to be because the rabbit has been unable to reach its bottom to clean it.
Rabbits have to eat their food twice to get any goodness out of it. This is known as coprophagia and is perfectly ok and natural. The first time they eat their grass it is partially digested and then passed out of the anus as soft, pale brown, wet faeces.
We humans should never see this, as it is immediately re-eaten by the rabbit and this usually occurs in the night. This food is then digested a second time and results in the hard black pellets we are familiar with.
So a dirty bottom is usually occurring where, for one reason or another, the rabbit is unable to reach its mouth to its anus, and eat its “night faeces”. They seem to refuse to take it once it has got onto the bedding.
Sometimes it is so sticky that the next pellets get all glued together onto the tail and this gets worse and worse, day by day, building up into a solid smelly lump.
To prevent this happening, we need to find out why the rabbit can’t reach properly. Most often it is because the rabbit is overweight. Their huge saggy stomach gets in the way. Sometimes it is because it is unwell or in pain, or has arthritis in its back. A vet would need to assess whether this was the case.
At the first sign of a dirty bottom, arrange to see your vet at once to reduce the risk of fly strike (see below). Meanwhile, wash away all the faeces yourself if possible, and keep the bottom area clean.
But if the problem was just porkiness, what could be done to prevent it? Quite a lot!
Start the natural diet discussed above, preferably cutting out concentrates altogether in the summer when grass is lush and nutritious. Please note that this is the total opposite of previous advice vets were giving to solve this problem. We used to stop all wet foods, but now we understand that this was wrong.
Insist on lots of exercise for your rabbit. Make it hop about the garden or run looking for its food, rather than taking its food to it.
Avoid all those yummy titbits we know we shouldn’t feed, like choc drops, milk drops, toast, etc. As the rabbit slims down, the dirty bottom will miraculously disappear.
Protect your pet from a horrible disease called fly strike
This is the terrible disease we mainly see in summer, where flies lay their eggs on the rabbit’s bottom and maggots hatch out. The maggots want to eat the rabbit’s faeces, but will continue to eat the rabbit’s flesh and can cause terrible damage, pain and suffering within just a few days. It is particularly horrific both for the rabbit and for its owner, but it can be prevented:
- Avoid letting your rabbit get a dirty bottom. The flies are attracted to the smell and love to lay their eggs on dirty fur. So follow the advice above
- Don’t let your rabbit get too fat to groom itself
- Use an insect repellent directly onto the rabbit. Ask your vet for advice on which to choose. (Do not use Frontline Cat and Dog flea spray or Spot-on for your rabbit as these products can be toxic.)
- Keep the hutch clean and change dirty bedding regularly, as flies are attracted to the smell of the rabbit’s toilet
- Consider a mosquito net over the rabbit’s hutch, which effectively keeps the flies out
- Check your rabbit’s bottom is clean and free from flies’ eggs or maggots every 12 hours from May to September. If there is dirt or eggs, wash them off in a warm bath, and if there are maggots, contact a vet at once
It has to be twice daily checking, as once maggots are hatched they very quickly cause severe damage. Sometimes the rabbit cannot be saved, so prevention is far better than cure with this problem. Twice a week or once a day checking just isn’t enough.
How to take care of your older female rabbit
Now that veterinary care for rabbits is so much more advanced than it used to be, many of our pet rabbits are living longer. We are now recognising diseases that formerly were only seen in the senior citizens of other species.
In particular, it has now been recognised that an incredible 40% of all female rabbits who live to 4 years old will suffer problems with their uterus or womb. This is a remarkably large number of rabbits likely to be affected.
The most common trouble is cancer of the womb or adenocarcinoma. This can be treated, but would be expensive. Again, prevention is better than cure.
For this reason, vets are now being advised to recommend the routine spaying of all young female rabbits at 6 months old.
This operation, also called an ovariohysterectomy, not only has the advantage of permanently preventing breeding, but also prevents any chance of this sad problem of cancer of the womb later, too.
We also recognise that aggressive females usually become more docile and friendly after being spayed. Spaying only requires a day in hospital.
- Vaccinate your rabbit against Myxomatosis and VHD
- Protect your rabbit against annoying parasites and worms
- Avoid tooth troubles by feeding mainly grass and only a very little concentrate feed, or none at all
- Avoid dirty bottoms by feeding a healthy diet, and encouraging exercise, and so preventing obesity
- Avoid fly strike by keeping your rabbit’s bottom and hutch clean, using insect repellents and regular checking
- Consider spaying your female rabbit to avoid ladies’ troubles as she gets older
For more information on how to look after your rabbit, visit The Mewes Veterinary Clinic’s Facebook page www.facebook.com/themewesvets or visit www.themewesvets.co.uk. Alternatively you can ring 01444 456886.