How to care for your rabbit
Rabbits need space and exercise – a hutch is not enough! – the hutch should be a minimum size of 6’x2’x2′ plus an 8′ run
Rabbits need vaccination every year against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic disease
Rabbits need a natural grass or hay diet
Rabbits need company – keep in neutered pairs
Rabbits benefit from interaction
Domestic rabbits are descended from wild rabbits, and are increasingly popular pets. They are social burrowing herbivores with a very efficient digestive system, similar to that of a horse. Kept in the house or outdoors, they make great pets, are relatively easy to care for, can easily be litter-trained, and even taken for walks on a lead. There are about 60 breeds, and over 500 rabbit varieties. Just bear in mind that dwarf breeds tend to be more nervous and therefore less suitable for children. Many of the problems we see in pet rabbits can be prevented by proper care. The information contained here is intended to help you care properly for your rabbit and avoid the common disease problems we see all too frequently.
A little anatomy…..
Rabbits’ teeth are open-rooted and so grow throughout their life, but are usually kept worn down by continuous grinding of food.
Their ears help with heat regulation, are easily injured, and should not be used for holding or picking up rabbits.
Their bones are relatively fragile, but they have powerful hindleg muscles. Rabbits may struggle when being picked up, and severe back injuries may result. Osteoporosis (lack of calcium in the bones due to inactivity or low dietary calcium) is common and will predispose to these injuries. It is vital to know how to restrain and carry a rabbit correctly.
Their efficient digestive system produces two types of faecal pellets; dry pellets (indigestible material), and caecotrophes (night faeces) which are soft, sticky, and normally eaten direct from the anus. These provide an extra source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Is my rabbit male or female?
It is important to know the sex of your rabbit as soon as possible if you are keeping more than one, to avoid unexpected surprises! Animals of the same sex will fight with each other, particularly males. The best time to sex your rabbit is around 12 weeks of age. We advise neutering your rabbit at 4-6 months of age. This will reduce aggression and will eliminate the possible development of cancer of the womb in the female.
What should I feed my rabbit?
In the wild, rabbits spend many hours each day chewing on grasses, plants, and roots. These provide nourishment, keep the teeth ground down, and the high fibre content promotes good bowel health. A large portion of the time is spent feeding, and so problems of boredom or behaviour rarely occur. Feeding your rabbit grass (not grass cuttings) is ideal but may be impractical. Your lawn should be free from weedkillers or other chemicals if you allow your rabbit to graze.
Quality hay is a good alternative. Timothy or mixed-grass hay is better than Alfalfa which has a very high calcium content. Rabbits should have unlimited access to hay, which should be stored in a cool, dry place with good air circulation (not closed tightly in a plastic bag). Discard wet or damp hay, or any hay which does not smell “fresh”.
Hay or grass will meet all your rabbits’ requirements but you can supplement it with small quantities of a good quality high fibre commercial diet. All-in-one pellets are preferable to mixed or “muesli” type foods as they avoid problems with selective feeding. We recommend Burgess Supa Rabbit Excel, which is available from the surgery, fed in small quantities each day (no more than 3.5% of your rabbit’s body weight per day) as overfeeding can lead to problems with obesity, heart and liver disease, chronic digestive problems, kidney disease, and bladder stones.
Fresh food can be fed daily. If your pet is not used to getting fresh food, you should start out gradually with green leafy vegetables, and add a new food item from the list below every 3-5 days. Young rabbits should be introduced to new foods gradually. Once your rabbit is enjoying fresh food, try to give a minimum of 3 types daily. They are all foods that you can try with your pet. The minimum amount of fresh food that can be given daily is about 1 heaped cup per 2kg of bodyweight. You may certainly give more if your pet is eating hay in addition to the greens. (We suggest up to 4 cups / 2kg bodyweight daily – this can be divided up during the day). Because fresh vegetables are not as concentrated in nutrients as the dry hay, you should not depend on green only to maintain your pet’s weight. Rabbits must have hay as well as greens!
Fresh foods you can feed include:
- Non-poisonous flowers (no pesticides please)
- Beet tops
- Romaine lettuce (don’t give light-coloured leaf or iceberg lettuce)
- Broccoli (don’t forget the leaves)
- Green peppers
- Pea pods (the flat edible kind)
- Brussel sprouts
- Peppermint leaves
- Raspberry leaves
Because fresh vegetables are not as concentrated in nutrients as the dry hay, you should not depend on greens alone to maintain your pet’s weight. We recommend about 1 heaped cup fresh food per 2kgs of bodyweight daily, but you can give more if your rabbit is also eating hay.
Feeding just one type of green food only (especially broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts and spinach) may lead to nutritional imbalances. The readily available packages of premixed greens for salad are not usually sufficient for the bunny’s needs as they contain a lot of lower nutrient lettuces such as iceberg. You may use these premixes as no more than a third of the daily greens.
2 heaped tablespoons per 2kg of bodyweight daily
Banana can be “addictive” and we don’t recommend using it except as an occasional treat. Dried fruits may be used as an alternative to the fresh listed above but use half the amount.
NEVER GIVE salty or sugary snacks, nuts, chocolate, breakfast cereals, and other grains (including bread), as they lead to dietary upset and obesity.
WATER: Should always be available, and changed daily. If outdoors you should check the water several times a day during the winter months to ensure ice has not formed.
VITAMINS: These are not necessary if the rabbit is eating hay, pellets and fresh foods. Indiscriminate use of vitamins may lead to overdosage and serious disease.
Where should I keep my rabbit?
Your rabbit should be kept in a hutch or cage when unsupervised. Commercial hutches available from pet shops are invariably too small, certainly for use as sole accommodation. Hutches can be made of wood, metal or plastic; wood has the advantage of being cheap but can be gnawed and absorbs urine so can smell if there is insufficient bedding or infrequent cleaning. Hutch design can be variable but the essentials are a dry, draught-free secluded nest area and an area for exercise. A solid fronted nesting area and mesh fronted living area are usually provided. For a picture of a suitable hutch design, and more advice regarding positioning, please click here.
You should check your rabbit daily for any of the following:
Overgrown incisors (front teeth)
Wet chin/front legs (often caused by spurs on back teeth)
Weepy eyes (tear duct infection)
Scurfy coat (skin parasites)
Lumps and bumps (abscesses)
Soiled back end (unsuitable diet, obesity)
REMEMBER that rabbits are a prey species and their behaviour is very different from that of a cat or dog. They will tend to hide any problem as long as they can. You will need to be very observant to pick up subtle changes in your rabbit’s behaviour because the sooner we can tackle a problem the better.
Should I vaccinate my rabbit?
All rabbits should be vaccinated at the surgery against Myxomatosis and Haemorrhagic Viral Disease – both are deadly diseases easily preventable with a yearly vaccination.
Myxomatosis is a very serious, usually fatal, disease caused by a virus. It is spread by biting insects or rabbit fleas and therefore most cases are seen in the summer and autumn. Once infected, within 5-14 days rabbits will develop swellings around the eyes, base of the ears and elsewhere; they stop eating and feel very miserable and often develop pneumonia as time goes on. The disease may be very protracted and the rabbits can survive a long time with good care and nursing, although many will die within 12 days or so. Rabbits should now be vaccinated once a year, from the age of 5 weeks. Vaccination is particularly important in this area, as we see so many cases, mainly in the summer and autumn.
Haemorragic Viral Disease is also caused by a virus. It is spread rapidly by direct contact and via clothing, bedding etc. The disease takes hold very quickly and usually death occurs within 1-2 days. Rabbits should be vaccinated every year from the age of 5 weeks. Our combined vaccination is effective and economical. Specialist rabbit insurance policies are readily available please ask us for more details.
If you would like more information on any of the subjects mentioned do talk to our Veterinary Health Advisors at the surgery.
Good internet information sources for rabbits
Both the The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund and in the United States the House Rabbit Society have excellent websites. These websites are primarily designed by and run for pet rabbit owners, and both contain a wealth of useful information and links. Just click on the links to go there.