In this article, we discuss some of the most important points when it comes to owning a rabbit. If you have any additional concerns, please contact any of our three locations. You may also wish to take a look at our Nurse Clinics.
Rabbits are the third most popular pet in the UK and they can make fantastic pets. However, they do require a lot more care and attention than people think and unfortunately, without this, they can often become ill and neglected.
Rabbits are extremely social animals and are best kept in mixed sex, neutered pairs, but can be successfully bonded into groups. They can become close to humans and enjoy interacting with owners. House rabbits form a particularly close bond with the owner as they are free to roam and approach you when they are comfortable and feel safe.
Things to consider before getting a rabbit:
- Cost: although the initial cost of buying or re-homing a rabbit is relatively cheap, the cost for all the extras can soon mount up. This includes buying or making the enclosure, rabbit proofing the garden and house, vets fees (neutering, vaccinations, worming), food and equipment, and insurance
- Time: rabbits can live between 8-12 years (depending on the breed) so it is important to ensure you and your family members are committed for the whole of their lifespan. The estimated time taken to really care for a rabbit should be around an hour per day to include feeding, watering, health checking, cleaning, grooming, and interacting/playing with them. A five minute check and putting some food in the hutch is not enough
- Not necessarily the best pet for children: rabbits do not generally enjoy being picked up, especially by inexperienced children. Even small breeds of rabbits can still bite and kick with their powerful hind legs. Daily handling can improve this but children must be supervised by an adult.
All rabbits have different personalities and the bond with their owners can be enhanced by the correct care and attention given by yourself and family members. Rabbit’s behaviour can change with time and patience but remember rabbits are prey animals and often feel scared, so a relaxed and safe environment is needed.
Daily Health Check
As rabbits are a prey species, they rarely show signs of illness until they are very poorly, which is why they should be health checked daily, including their behaviour and eating habits.
By law, rabbits do not require microchipping but they can be chipped to ensure their safe return if they did manage to excape. The microchip is the size of a grain of rice and can be a little uncomfortable to be injected but will not cause any lasting discomfort.
Vaccinations are essential to protect your rabbit from life threatening diseases. They are a low dose, single, subcutaneous injection which should be started from 5 weeks of age.
We use a combined vaccination, which needs to be repeated yearly to protect against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease, both of which are fatal to rabbits.
- Myxomatosis (Myxi): This is a virus spread by infected fleas and flying insects, or from contact between infected rabbits and the environment. Early signs are spotted with swellings around the face and eyes and can then spread to the genital area. Eating and drinking is then reduced and then this can lead to death. Vaccinated rabbits can catch milder forms of myxomatosis and will often recover with intensive veterinary care. Unfortunately, most unvaccinated rabbits usually die from the disease, even with veterinary intervention.
- Viral Haemorrhagic disease (VHD): This is a very serious and deadly disease that rabbits can catch from contact with contaminated rabbits and the environment (spread by migrating birds droppings). It will cause internal bleeding, liver disease and a high fever. Most rabbits are found dead with no symptoms, others can experience bleeding from the nose or mouth. There is no treatment available so vaccinating yearly is vital.
All rabbits need to be vaccinated, even if your rabbit lives indoors. This is because Myxomatosis is spread by fleas and flying insects, which can be brought into your home by you and any other pets.
Rabbits can be prone to a parasite called Encephaliticozoon cuniculi (E. Cuniculi) which can cause neurological, kidney and even eye problems.
Symptoms include head tilt, seizure, blindness, hind limb weakness and not eating.
It is believed that 52% of rabbits have been infected or are infected with E.cuniculi. Diagnosis and treatment are often difficult, so prevention is far easier. It is spread by infected urine, or between mothers and babies and can live in infected areas for weeks so disinfecting the enclosure and worming will help prevent this.
New rabbits should be treated with Panacur paste once daily for 28 days and their home should be disinfected. We recommend routine worming with panacur rabbit paste, 2-4 times a year.
There are a wide range of rabbit insurance policies available and its tempting to go for the cheapest option, however, this may not offer you the best cover you need when your rabbit is ill.
The most important things to look for in a cover include lifelong cover for all conditions with the highest possible maximum limit of cover.
As a general rule, rabbits do not like being picked up. Some rabbits love to be stroked and cuddled but this is normally down to the individual and if scared, they can often deliver a nasty kick with their hind legs or bite.
Rabbits are a prey species so they become scared when approached, especially from above, it is best to get down to the rabbits level so that you are not seen as a predator to them. As their eyes are on the side of their head, approaching the rabbit from the side, rather than directly in front, allows them to see you coming and not be startled.
You should use both hands to lift the rabbit, one to support their chest and the other to support their bottom. The rabbit’s bottom should be slightly tucked in, to prevent the rabbit from kicking out. This method should be used to simply lift the rabbit from one place to another, not for long distances.
If you need to carry the rabbit for a longer period of time, you should use the same method to lift the rabbit and then hold them close to your body with all four feet facing your chest and your hand over their shoulders.
When putting the rabbit down, they will often try and leap out of your arms. This could cause them to injure their backs if jumping from a height. To avoid this, it is best to put your rabbit down backwards, facing you so they are less likely to jump.
The ideal pairing is a spayed female and a castrated male of similar sizes. It is a good idea to keep the rabbits in next-door pens for at least a week, so they can get to know each other through a barrier first.
It is a good sign if they choose to start sitting next to each other on either side of the barrier.
To introduce a new rabbit, the existing rabbit should meet the new rabbit in neutral territory as rabbits are very territorial and may not accept an unfamiliar rabbit in their territory. It should be a small penned off area, such as an outside run or a sectioned off area of your house. Humping and nipping are both normal and expected behaviours that they may display.
The existing rabbit would ideally ‘choose’ a partner themselves and many rescue centres encourage the rabbits to meet before they are taken home.
This way you are more likely to choose a rabbit that is likely to bond to your existing one.
Rabbits should be fed a diet mainly consisting of hay and grass; in fact this should make up 80% of their daily intake.
As you can see in the diagram, a rabbit should be having as much hay as their body size every day. Feeding hay from racks or nets helps to minimise contamination and also increases the time spent feeding, which decreases boredom and aids normal dentition.
Concentrate food (pellets) are not an essential part of a rabbit’s diet: if ad-lib hay, grass and greens are provided, rabbits do not require any concentrate. If you do feed concentrates, it is recommended to only give 1 tablespoon to small-medium breeds and 2 tablespoons to giant breeds per day. When choosing a concentrate it is important to feed a pellet form as rabbits have a sweet tooth and often pick out their favourite parts of a muesli diet, therefore feeding a pellet diet prevents selective feeding and ensures they are receiving all the nutrients and fibre. Overfeeding of concentrates can lead to gastrointestinal problems and dental disease. It can also lead to obesity, boredom & behavioural problems.
Treats can be given in very small amounts but avoid any treats that are high in fat and carbohydrates, such as commercial treats, beans, peas, corn, bread, breakfast cereal, nuts, seeds and chocolate.
Green foods, such as fruit and vegetables, are an important component of a rabbit’s diet so it is advisable to feed a variety of these daily (about a teacup size portion or the size of the rabbit’s head). Fruit should be limited as it is very high in natural sugars. Most fruit pips are poisonous and should therefore be avoided. Introduce new foods gradually to help minimise digestive upsets. Below is some examples of fruit and vegetables safe for your rabbit but please ensure they are washed and pesticide free.
General feeding tips:
- Never feed mouldy food or lawnmower clippings as they can cause serious gastric upsets
- Always allow ad lib access to clean, fresh water. Drinking bottles or ceramic bowls are suitable depending on your rabbit’s preference
- Nutrient deficiency can occur easily in rabbits as they have a very specialized digestive system. They produce two types of faeces, droppings and caecotrophs:
- Droppings should be dry, slightly larger than pea-size, light in colour and crumble easily
- Caecotrophs are a group of faeces that are moist, soft and sticky and resemble a bunch of grapes. Caecotrophs should be ingested by rabbits as they are passed to absorb more nutrients.
Rabbits need a habitat that is as similar as possible to their natural environment.
- They should be kept in a large enclosure which provides enough room for them to fully stand up, hop, run, jump and dig
- They should have a sleeping area that is warm, dry and free from draughts
- They require hiding areas to ensure they feel safe: these can be provided by having boxes, tubes and a hutch. The whole area should be predator-proof
- Small hutches would compromise their welfare as they cannot exhibit normal behaviour. A hutch area should be seen as their bedroom only and attached to a run at all times to allow exercise 24/7
- Each rabbit should have enough space to be away from each other if they want and also be able to run and jump at the same time as each other
- The sleeping area should be lined with newspaper and have plenty of dust-free hay or straw for them to burrow a nest
- It should be cleaned out daily to prevent attracting any flies. The dropping and urine patches should be scooped out daily, with a weekly total clean
- Rabbits generally like to defecate in one area so once they have established that area, you can provide them with a litter tray and substrate to help with daily emptying
- Rabbits should be checked minimum of 2 times per day and 3 times a day during the summer, due to the increased risk of illness such as fly strike
- House rabbits are becoming more popular as they can be easily litter trained (defecate/urinate in one area) and they normally enjoy the human interaction! The house should be rabbit-proofed by providing a pen area or by covering all wires. Make sure there isn’t too much hard flooring as this can cause sore hocks
- Rabbits don’t like extreme temperatures. In the winter it is advisable to bring the hutch and run inside the shed or garage, or cover with a warm think blanket and waterproof sheet to protect them from the elements. In the summer they are known to get heat stoke when the temperature reaches over 80°F (27°C) so providing shaded areas is very important
- Rabbits need stimulation to prevent boredom; this can be achieved by using inexpensive toys such as cardboard tubes, boxes, or a litter tray filled with soil for digging
- Rabbits are very clever and they can be clicker trained just like dogs! They love searching for their food and running through tunnels, their nuggets can be put in a treat ball to encourage exercise and slow their eating down. It is important to rotate toys regularly as they can get bored quickly!
Common Health Problems
Dental disease is very common in pet rabbits: this can be due to poor diet or breed disposition (such as Netherland Dwarves). Rabbits have continuously growing teeth that are worn down through eating, if a rabbit does not have an appropriate diet they may get spurs on their molars which can be painful and cause them to stop eating.
- Urine scalding and cystitis can be caused by a dirty hutch or if the rabbit is unable to groom or direct their urine away from the folds of skin and fat. It can result in urine burning the skin and causing and infection which can then track up to cause a bladder infection. This is more common in obese rabbits and rabbits with poor living conditions
- Faecal scalding is where a rabbit does not eat their caecotrophs. It can be down to a dietary problem but more likely due to rolls of fat covering their anus, or arthritis resulting in back pain that makes them unable to bend round to their bottom. The faeces can get stuck to the fur and result in discomfort and/or flystrike.
- Fly strike (Myiasis): Flies are attracted to the smell of ammonia in urine, the odour of faeces and any damaged tissue (from sores and wounds). The flies lay eggs on the rabbit that will later hatch into maggots. The maggots will then feed on dead and living skin tissue and release toxins into the rabbit’s body. Fly strike is extremely painful and uncomfortable and if it’s not dealt with immediately it can be fatal. It can happen very quickly and can be prevented by cleaning the rabbit’s enclosure daily, checking their rear end at least three times a day in the summer, feeding a high fibre diet and encouraging exercise. Pet-safe insecticides such as ‘rear-guard’ can also be applied to keep flies away. Rabbits should be taken to the vet immediately if any maggots are seen
- Gut stasis: rabbits have a very complex digestive system, meaning that they need to eat constantly throughout the day to keep their guts moving. Gut stasis is a lack of gut movement which can be fatal. If your rabbit stops eating or they stop producing or have smaller faeces then they should be taken to see a vet immediately.
- Arthritis: this is inflammation of the joints and can be common in the spine, elbows, knees and hocks. This can be exacerbated by obesity and can lead to knock-on effects such as inability to groom leading to faecal and urine scalding, which can then lead to discomfort, cystitis or flystrike
- Eye problems: rabbits can get eye infections, milky eyes and blocked tear ducts
- Pododermatitis: also known as sore hocks/pressure sores. Rabbits have thick guard hairs covering the soles of their feet to protect them. However, a variety of reasons such as weight gain, long nails or incorrect substrate can wear down these hairs. This can cause the skin to become swollen and sore. This will cause pain and infection
- Skin: Small areas of intense dandruff may develop which can result in loss of fur and dermatitis caused by a skin parasite called ‘Cheyetiella parasitovorax’. This will require a specific anti-parasite treatment and it is best to get it check out by a veterinary surgeon
- Hepatic lipidosis: Obese rabbits have high cholesterol levels which leads to excess fat being stored in the liver. This puts extra pressure on the liver, making it fragile and reduces its function, which can be fatal
- Heart disease: Obese rabbits tend to have high resting heart rate and blood pressure, which can result in them developing heart disease when put under stress
- Obesity: it is estimated that one in three rabbits are obese, this can lead to a variety of problems (many listed above) and should be treated very seriously by adjustment to their diet (but never withhold food) and an increase in exercise. Please book a nurse clinic to discuss in more depth.