Information on choosing and caring for rabbits.
Choosing your Rabbit
Rabbits can make very good pets, but they have some important husbandry needs that must be addressed in order to provide adequately for their health and welfare. As well as social interaction with other rabbits, they also enjoy being friendly with humans too. They need to be given attention every day and require regular gentle handling to establish and maintain that human:rabbit social bond, although this must be on their terms. The daily contact also allows an opportunity to check them for any health problems. Like all pets, they require proper health care and attention including occasional visits to the vet for essential vaccinations. Also, given that a well cared for rabbit may live for around eight years, a decision to buy must be viewed as a long-term commitment.
There are many different breed of rabbits offering a wide range of colours and sizes from big Lops and Flemish Giants to compact Chinchillas and Dwarfs. Whichever breed you choose, make sure your rabbit comes from a well-run shop or reputable breeder, is in first class health, and has been properly weaned. Key health points to look for include freedom from runny noses or weeping eyes, clean ears with no build up or foul smells, teeth which are not overgrown or abnormal in appearance, a clean perineum (the area around the reproductive organs and bottom) and a healthy coat. If in any doubt about any of these points, don’t buy.
All pet owners have a responsibility to provide suitable care for their pets, and you can find some examples of such requirements for rabbits below:
A suitable environment and housing
Your rabbit will need good housing in which to live. If you choose a hutch, it should be large enough to allow your rabbit to move around freely and high enough to allow it to stand upright on its hind legs. They should have a secure, well insulated and ventilated hutch providing plenty of room to move around and stretch out, ideally a minimum size of 6ft long by 2ft wide and 2ft high. It should be strong enough to withstand unwanted attention from cats, dogs, foxes etc. Raising the hutch off the ground will reduce the risk of diseases being brought in by rodents. Check that there are no sharp wire mesh ends or any other part of the structure which could harm your rabbit.
The hutch should contain a nest box in which your rabbit can feel secure. It should always contain clean, fresh bedding. In addition, your rabbit may choose to improve its comfort by lining it with fur, plucked from its own chest. Don’t be alarmed at this behaviour.
It is a good idea for your rabbit to have some exposure to direct sunlight as, like any animal which lives off plants, it needs UV light from the sun to manufacture its own vitamin D3 which helps to build healthy teeth and bones. However, don’t over expose your rabbit to the sun as it could suffer heatstroke.
Straw is a safe and effective bedding for your rabbit. Shredded paper is a cheaper option but is a poor absorber of urine and would need to be changed more often than straw. Wood shavings are also commonly used but care must be taken to avoid any sharp pieces which may cause injury or irritation. Bedding should be changed twice per week and the entire hutch should be emptied and cleaned once a week (except when breeding). A disinfectant solution should be used to prevent the build-up of potentially harmful bacteria.
Many rabbits will make their toilet in a selected part of the hutch and will normally use only that one area. This make it easy to remove droppings on a daily basis. Although cleaning out your rabbit’s hutch frequently may seem like an unrewarding chore, it is one of the most important contributory factors to your pet’s good health.
A suitable hutch provides a sheltered space for rabbits to use as their base, and they should ideally have constant access to a grass run area which is a minimum size of 8 feet by 4 feet, alternatively a minimum access of 4 hours per day. Indoor rabbits need the same space allocation and may be enclosed within a pen or run, alternatively they may have free run of a room as space to run around helps to provide exercise.
Don’t let your rabbit become overweight. As it will spend the bulk of its time in its hutch you will need to create some opportunities for it to exercise. The easiest option is to allow your rabbit to exercise in your garden, if you have one. Any exercise area must be thoroughly fenced and your rabbit will need to be supervised during exercise. As an alternative to fencing you could use a harness. Many rabbits are quite happy with this. Cat harnesses are usually adequate, but make sure it fits snugly. Don’t use a collar. It’s also vital that you don’t let your rabbit onto areas of lawn which have been treated with pesticides or chemicals that may be harmful.
To exhibit normal behaviour
To do this, they require adequate space, opportunities to run, jump, dig and forage. Try to make their environment interesting with tubes, hides, cardboard boxes, and objects to stand on and look around. Beware that rabbits burrow so an outdoor run area should have buried wire sides, or be checked or moved frequently. Neutered rabbits are less prone to digging deep burrows, but, being part of their normal behaviour, digging should be accommodated, even indoors. Trays or earth, shavings, hay, cardboard chips etc provide good digging boxes.
Interaction with other rabbits, in compatible pairings or small groups. Rabbits are social animals, and solitary confinement is unnatural to them. To avoid rabbits breeding like, well, rabbits, and to prevent potentially fatal uterine cancer in the females, both sexes should be neutered.
The more frequently your rabbit is handled and stroked, the tamer it will become. Use both hands when you pick it up and hold it firmly, but gently. Always support your rabbit’s weight with a hand under its hind quarters and keep it close to your body.
Rabbits are natural vegetarians and should never be offered dairy or animal products to eat. Also, avoid supposed ‘treats’ such as sweets and chocolate. Most pet rabbits are fed a commercial rabbit pellet and cereal grain mixture, mainly for convenience. While this is fine, you should make the diet more interesting and natural by adding plants such as dandelions and clovers. When selecting a pellet, choose one which is fresh and green looking, avoiding excessive amounts of coloured additives. Unfortunately, rabbits don’t always know what’s best for them. If given a choice they will select tasty flakes and cereal grains, leaving fibre and calcium rich pellets uneaten in their bowl. For this reason, don’t give your rabbit new feed until the bowl is nearly empty.
Vegetables can be added but only on a limited basis and not to very young rabbits. Once your rabbit can cope with vegetables, a good choice would include carrots, clover, parsley, peas and green peppers. Don’t feed excessive amounts on an occasional basis as they can cause stomach upsets.
The best item to add to your rabbit’s diet is a good quality hay, the type available from a supplier of horse feed. Hay is rich in natural fibre and calcium. Make sure any hay you buy is clean and dry, however, as dust, mould and moisture can cause problems.
Don’t worry if your rabbit also eats some of its own droppings, this is perfectly normal. Make sure fresh water is always available, ideally via a drinking bottle.
To be protected from pain, injury or disease means that they should be vaccinated, treated for any parasites as directed by your veterinary surgeon, and regularly (daily), checked for any signs of ill health by their owners. Regularly checking the teeth, ears, skin, claws and underside, around the back end, in particular, are vital.
Myxomatosis and Haemorrhagic Viral Disease are two serious infectious diseases which affect pet rabbits, almost always resulting in death.
Myxomatosis is spread by blood sucking insects, such as fleas. The disease causes puffy swellings around the eyes and genitals and death usually occurs about 12 days later.
Vaccines exist for both conditions and are the main means of providing your rabbit with protection. Vaccinations are usually recommended annually, but may be required more often. In addition to getting your rabbit vaccinated it is an opportunity for our vets to give your rabbit a full health check.
Other health problems to be aware of include dental disease, eye problems and stomach upsets. There are several signs that your rabbit may be ill and require veterinary attention. Among these are:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- looking depressed
- skin trouble
- runny faeces and/or urine soaking into the back legs
- discharges from the nose, eyes or mouth
- difficulty breathing
As before, rabbits are excellent pets and if you look after yours carefully they should bring you a lot of enjoyment.
Please contact the clinic to make an appointment for vaccinations and a health check.