Caring for your rabbit
Despite being the third most popular pet in the UK, rabbits are sadly still the most misunderstood and neglected; this vastly due to innocent ignorance on the owners’ part not having done enough research before purchasing their rabbit.
It is generally believed that rabbits are easy to look after and make great pets for small children; this is a very common misconception. Rabbits are highly intelligent creatures who require a lot of space, exercise, stimulation and companionship; they are often harder work to keep happy and healthy than a dog or cat due to their very specific dietary needs and their complex social structure. There are also the additional routine health costs to consider; your rabbit will need annual vaccinations and routine worming just like your cat or dog. They can sometimes be aggressive if not neutered or handled enough so a lot of time must be spent with them. If care is given correctly, a rabbit can easily live to at least 10 years old, providing years of companionship and joy for their owners.Vaccination
We recommend vaccination against both myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease. Both diseases are highly contagious and are fatal for rabbits that become infected.
The vaccine we use to vaccinate your rabbit protects them against both diseases and lasts for 1 year so your rabbit will have to come to the surgery annually to remain fully protected. It takes 3 weeks post vaccination for your rabbits immunity to build up properly and we can vaccinate from 5 weeks old.
It is important to note that both diseases can affect house rabbits, so just because your bunny lives indoors, does not mean it is safe. House rabbits should be vaccinated too!
Myxomatosis is caused by the Myxoma virus which is widely distributed in the wild rabbit population. You might argue that your rabbit never comes into direct contact with animals from the wild and so does not need vaccination. The problem is that the virus is carried by biting insects such as fleas and mosquitoes so the disease can be passed on without direct contact.
The first sign is the development of puffy eyelids and a purulent (pus-producing) conjunctivitis, this starts to develop within just 7 days of your rabbit becoming infected. Swelling under the skin extends around the eyes, ears and genital region. Unfortunately most rabbits succumb to the infection 18 days to three weeks later.
A milder form may be seen in partially immune rabbits. In these the symptoms are solid masses; they often appear as lumps over the ears and head. They may be single or multiple. In some cases lumps may appear on the rest of the body. With proper nursing they will normally survive but the masses may take over six months to disappear.
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease is caused by a calicivirus; it’s spread by consumption of food or water contaminated by infected wild rabbits or contact with birds or insects that can bring the virus to your rabbit on their feet or in their droppings. The virus itself is extremely tough and can survive for many months in the environment, and can even resist temperatures of 60C.
Infected rabbits will either start showing signs within 3 days of becoming infected or may die suddenly without the owner noticing a change.
If there are signs they include anorexia (not eating), pyrexia (fever), lethargy and collapse. There may also be convulsions and coma, dyspnoea (difficulty breathing), a mucoid foaming at the mouth or a bloody nasal discharge. Some animals survive this acute phase but succumb a few weeks later of liver disease and jaundice.
There are a number of parasitic worms that can affect the intestine of the domestic rabbit just like in cats and dogs, so routine worming of your bunny is of the utmost importance.
The signs of a possible worm burden include the presence of thick brown threads of mucus in the droppings, abdominal pain, impaction of the rabbits intestine (if there is a large number of worms), which causes stasis of the gut.
Treatment and prevention is with an oral paste which is administered to the rabbit for 9 days every 3 months.
Also, in order to prevent worm invasion in rabbits, it is essential that owners ensure that hay/forage is not gathered in areas where there are numerous dogs, cats, rodents. Good hygiene practice is also very important, so a rabbit owner must ensure that any fresh greens and vegetables be washed carefully with running water, hay and straw used as litter is changed regularly and hay that cannot be changed daily be given on a feed rack, where it cannot be soiled with faeces or urine. It is also important that the toilet areas are cleaned daily with hot running water and disinfectant.
E.cuniculi is a tiny single celled protozoal parasite, which primarily infects rabbits and is a significant cause of disease. It is also important to rabbit owners as just occasionally it can infect humans, especially if they are immunocompromised. A recent survey demonstrated that 52% of pet rabbits sampled in the UK were currently or had recently been infected.
This disease often causes a prolonged underlying condition in rabbits, with active disease being characterised by neurological signs such as weakness, head tilt , paralysis and even seizures. It may also cause kidney failure (the organism is shed via the urine), lens changes, and heart disease. It may also be carried by rabbits with no clinical signs!
Regular doses of the worming paste Panacur (Fenbendazole) is recommended for prevention of the parasite. This dosing is incorporated into the rabbit’s regular worming treatment. We strongly recommend that if you have bought/adopted a new bunny, that all of the rabbits in the household (including the new one) be treated with the paste for 28 days.
Having your rabbit neutered is one of the most important steps you can take to help your pet enjoy a happy, healthy and long life. The main reason for neutering is to keep more than 1 rabbit together, which is very important as these are very social animals and require company to thrive. It also ensures that they are less likely to become aggressive and territorial.
Rabbits reach sexual maturity at 4-5 months of age depending on the breed. We advise males be neutered from 4 months old and females from 5 months old. Neutering prevents any unwanted behaviour associated with sexual maturity, unwanted pregnancies where males and females are housed together, and prevents certain health problems, for example, uterine cancer in female rabbits which affects up to 80% of the unneutered population of over 5 year olds. If necessary we can neuter rabbits earlier but this is on a case-by-case basis.
Correct feeding is of paramount importance in rabbits!
In the wild rabbits spend many hours chewing grass. This is a tough fibrous material that also contains abrasive silicates. In winter they consume dried grass that they have stored in their burrows. All year round they will top up their diet with dark green leafy weeds as well as fruit and roots that they come across.
In captivity we have developed commercial rations that are low in fibre and minerals and high in protein. Rabbits enjoy these diets and grow quickly. However, they are calorie-rich and do not require nearly as much chewing/grinding as the natural diet. Even if grass and hay are provided the rabbit will preferentially eat the wrong foods resulting in dietary imbalances and deficiencies.
It is therefore best to keep the diet as natural as possible as most rabbit illnesses are as a result of inadequate nutrition. Their intestines rely on a high quantity of indigestible fibre to function properly and to grind down their constantly growing cheek teeth effectively. The bulk of the diet of the pet bunny should consist of grass and good quality meadow hay; this should be available at all times. Hay can be fed from racks or nets to minimise contamination by urine and faeces and this also increases time spent feeding.
Green foods are also important and a variety should be fed daily to all ages of rabbits. They should be introduced gradually. Examples are broccoli, cabbage, parsley, watercress, celery leaves, dock, basil, kale, carrot tops and beet tops. Wild plants can be given if available, e.g. bramble, groundsel, chickweed, and dandelion but remember to wash them. It is important to note that some plants are toxic to rabbits, so if you are unsure, please do your research first!
Commercial concentrate rabbit diets are not essential if a rabbit has hay, grass and greens available at all times. Commercial rabbit diets can be too low in fibre and too high in protein, fat and carbohydrate. It is advised that rabbits have a very limited amount of concentrated food (approx. 1 egg cup daily for adult rabbits and 2 egg cups for young bunnies).
Rabbits will selectively feed if given a muesli type diet and often leave the unappetising grains at the bottom of the bowl. It has been scientifically proven that muesli type rabbit foods cause long-term gut and teeth issues and so should be avoided completely The best type of concentrated food is a pellet formed diet e.g. Burgess Suparabbit Excel Lite which is higher in fibre than most others on the market which is essential for a healthy gastrointestinal system.
Fruit and high fat or high carbohydrate treats should be avoided completely e.g. shop bought treats, beans, peas, bread, breakfast cereal, crisps etc. as they can lead to gastrointestinal disturbances.
Sudden changes in diet must always be avoided. Any change in diet needs to be made gradually over several days to weeks. When purchasing a rabbit it is important for a new owner to be informed of the rabbit’s diet so that any changes can be introduced gradually.
It is important to remember that fresh drinking water must be available at all times, ideally from a bottle.
Rabbits should be housed in enclosures where they have enough room to stretch up fully on their hind legs and should always have a run attached to the enclosure to allow daily exercise.
Rabbits are social animals and should be provided with a companion wherever possible. The ideal combination is a neutered female and neutered male. All introductions should be supervised and should be carried out on neutral territory. It is not recommended that rabbits be kept with guinea pigs, as bullying by the rabbit often occurs. Rabbits can also harbour Bordetella bronchispetica which causes disease in guinea pigs.
House rabbits should have a secure cage area where they can be restrained when the owner isn’t present. Wire cages and plastic boxes are suitable. Exercise around the house should be encouraged. They will readily learn to use cat flaps to gain indoor/outdoor access.
Rabbits can be easily trained to use a litter tray, by repeatedly placing them in it. It may be necessary initially to place some droppings in it.
Electrical cables must be protected from chewing, and poisonous house plants avoided.
Chewable toys are enjoyed, such as cardboard boxes, telephone directories, commercial cat or bird toys and even towels which they like to burrow into.
It is important that your rabbit has adequate ventilation if housed indoors as poor ventilation could cause respiratory infections.
Rabbits are generally hardy and can be outdoor all year round but must have adequate shelter from extremes of weather e.g. rain, strong draughts, snow and also extreme heat. Direct sunlight should be avoided as heat stress occurs easily. The hutch should be raised off the ground. A waterproof roof and panel to cover the mesh-fronted area in bad weather should be provided.
A solid fronted nesting area and a mesh fronted living area should be provided, and they should be bedded on wood shavings and hay or straw (avoid barley straw as it is very coarse and can cause injury to the eyes). Good ventilation is essential to prevent respiratory disease.
Rabbits need daily exercise and to graze. The hutch should be placed within an enclosure, or an ark or run should be attached so the rabbit can always have access.
Rabbits will burrow so precautions should be taken to prevent escape. Rabbits can jump well and covering the run or pen with a mesh top will prevent escape, as well as providing protection from predators.
Rabbits should always be provided with bolt holes such as empty cardboard boxes, or drain pipes to use if alarmed.
Contact with wild rabbits should be prevented to prevent disease and fly and mosquito control should be considered in the summer months.
During the summer months, pet rabbits may be affected by maggot infestation. Different terms are used for this but fly strike is the most common.
Healthy rabbits are generally not affected by fly strike. There are three main problems that lead to the condition. First, a wound to which the flies are attracted and on which they lay their eggs is an obvious site where maggots can cause damage. More commonly, a rabbit that cannot take and eat its soft faeces ‘caecotrophs’ (either due to arthritis or obesity) will quickly have matted and soiled fur around its anus. This, from the fly’s point of view, is an ideal opportunity to lay eggs. When the maggots hatch they spread from the area (commonly up the abdomen) and may cause a tremendous amount of damage as they eat through the tissues while the rabbit is still living. Thirdly, damp bedding is an ideal environment for egg-laying and maggot growth and development; these may then migrate onto the rabbit. This is a fatal condition if not treated.
The key factors in preventing fly strike are to ensure that bedding is clean and dry, and that daily cleaning of toilet areas is carried out; the whole accommodation should be completely emptied and disinfected 1-2 times weekly. Checks of your rabbit should be carried out twice daily, if you find any wounds or ulcerated areas of skin then please seek veterinary attention. A rabbit owner should also make sure that their rabbit is able to keep its bottom clean, if the rabbit keeps soiling itself, then there is usually a health reason as to why e.g. obesity or arthritis. If your rabbit is unable to keep itself clean, then please seek veterinary advice.
Rabbits are prey animals and therefore prefer to be on the ground or underground so this must be taken into consideration when handling them. They need to feel secure so the aim is to keep all 4 feet on a secure surface. They can be scruffed or held between their fore limbs with one hand, and their bottom supported at all times with the other hand to prevent them kicking out with their powerful hind limbs and causing back injury. Never pick up a rabbit by its ears.Insurance
The aim of pet health insurance is to provide for that unexpected expense. Procedures and techniques unheard of a several years ago are now commonplace in rabbit medicine. Unfortunately few pet owners are aware of the true cost of medical or surgical procedures. Pet health insurance is designed to cover such situations and the policy cost per month is minimal. For example, the insurance company Pet Plan offers a rabbit policy that covers rabbits for the entirety of their lives and costs approximately £5 per rabbit per month.
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