There are an estimated 2 million pet rabbits in the UK. This makes our hopping friends the third most popular pet after dogs and cats. There are many breeds of rabbit varying in size, body shape, coat texture and personality.
The rabbits lifespan ranges between 8-10 years but some may live for longer.
Rabbits are social animals and in the wild live in family groups within a large warren. Pet rabbits benefit from being with others, therefore, owning a bonded pair is something to consider when looking into owning a rabbit. The best combination for keeping rabbits is a neutered male with a neutered female. This prevents unwanted babies and leads to a reduction in fighting. Neutering will also help in the prevention of medical problems later in life – especially uterine cancer in does.
Rabbits can be a challenge to handle and look after and are not always suitable as a children’s pet. They are often skittish, readily scratch human skin with their claws and can be harmed by inappropriate handling.
If you’ve decided rabbits are the right pet for you, it is well worth considering local rescue centres. Many rescue rabbits are already settled into bonded pairs and are neutered and vaccinated prior to rehoming.
Try to make eating as much fun as possible. Put food into willow toys which are readily available hang some from the hutch roof and the pellet diet can be scattered over the floor. Fruit wood can be offered to encourage gnawing.
Access to outdoors is very important allowing exercise and grazing. A predator-proof garden or run is required for their safety. Some plants are poisonous to rabbits. These include deadly and woody nightshade, poppies, ragwort, buttercups, daffodils, mistletoe, St John’s wort, dahlias, lupins, lily of the valley, tulips and irises. Please check for these before letting your rabbit roam around the garden.
Always ensure your bunny has access to fresh water. If using a bottle, remember to regularly check that it works correctly as chemicals in the water can stop the metal ball from moving.
House rabbits: You may like to keep your rabbit(s) in the house. This can be a good way to keep rabbits but requires more planning to provide a natural healthy diet. Remember to protect any wires and valuable furniture from your rabbits reach as they will chew them. Rabbits are readily litter-trained, particularly once neutered. It is also important to remember to give your house bunny some garden time.
Rabbits can become ill very quickly so daily handling is essential to detect signs of ill health. Handling should be done by lifting under the chest and supporting the hind limbs. Take care not to pick your rabbit up by the ears and always be around when children are handling rabbits. For handling information come in and have a rabbit check with one of our friendly nurses.
Wild rabbits spend much of their time eating grass and wild herbs. Grass is abrasive, low in calcium, with a high fluid and poor nutrient content. Wild rabbits spend most of their waking time chewing this high fibre material, ensuring good consistent wear of their teeth. When deciding what to feed our pet rabbits we must try to emulate the properties of fresh grass as accurately as possible. Where possible, access to grazing in a secure outside run is ideal. Hay should always be available in the hutch/cage. Fresh vegetables, predominantly leafy green varieties, should be fed once to twice daily. Avoid fruit and starchy vegetables such as parsnip, swede and sweetcorn. Feeding of a good quality concentrate food (extruded pellet food or a muesli style mix) is optional and should be kept to a minimum. Concentrate foods are high calorie, require minimal chewing and therefore provide little abrasion for the teeth. They can be relatively high in calcium. Pellets are favoured over muesli type foods to prevent rabbits selecting only their favourite bits.
Rabbits have teeth that continue to grow throughout their lives. The front teeth (incisors) grow several mm’s every week, while the back teeth (cheek teeth) grow approximately 3mm every month. Correct diet will help to keep the teeth healthy and many rabbits will live their whole lives without requiring any dental treatment.
Incisor disease can occur due to poor conformation at an early age (congenital malocclusion) or due to acquired malocclusion caused by a deficiency of abrasive foods and things to gnaw. Lifting the upper lips and checking your rabbit’s incisor teeth should be possible at home and form part of a regular home health check. If the incisors look long or irregular then a check-up with the vet is recommended.
Cheek teeth are hidden at the back of the mouth and can’t be examined at home. Too little grass and hay in the diet can lead to elongation of the crowns of the cheek teeth within the mouth and damage to the tooth roots deep in the bone. The longer crowns often grow in altered directions as the tooth roots become damaged. The lower cheek teeth usually tilt inwards and lacerate the side of the tongue, while the upper cheek teeth usually flare outwards into the cheek lining. Cheek tooth disease is suspected when rabbits alter their food preferences to softer foods, stop eating, lose weight and dribble saliva onto their chin and bib. If your rabbit suffers from any of these symptoms, seek veterinary assistance as soon as possible. The vet can use a special scope to get a look at the cheek teeth during a consultation.
Prevention is far better than cure as many rabbit dental diseases are recurrent for the rest of the rabbit’s life. A good grass/hay based diet will help to prevent dental disease.
Vaccinate your rabbit against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorragic Disease (VHD). Both of these diseases are fatal in rabbits and require yearly vaccinations to reduce the risk of your rabbit catching them. Booster vaccination reminders will be sent out to you one month prior to vaccination date, giving you time to call to make a convenient appointment.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD)
At the Cat and Rabbit Care Clinic we recommend the neutering of all rabbits. We have neutered over a thousand rabbits – approximately equal numbers of bucks and does. With such a wealth of experience, neutering has become a very safe procedure and carries a mortality rate of less than 1%.
Male rabbits can be castrated from four months of age. Castration helps with bonding rabbits into pairs, stops unwanted offspring, facilitates litter training and reduces anti-social behaviours such as spraying urine and mounting toys/rabbits/feet!
Female rabbits can be spayed from five months of age. The procedure involves the surgical removal of both ovaries and the uterus. Spaying has many of the same advantages as castrating male rabbits including the prevention of breeding, spraying, mounting and improved toilet training. It also reduces dominant territorial behaviour common in female rabbits and prevents malignant cancer of the uterus which otherwise affects over fifty percent of senior female rabbits.
Fleas are an important carrier of diseases between rabbits and can become serious infestations of the house if present on house rabbits. There are several flea preparations available which are safe to apply to rabbits and can be used to treat and prevent flea infestation. Treatment of other pets within the household, especially dogs and cats, will help reduce the risk of fleas (and therefore the risk of myxomatosis and VHD) from infesting our pet rabbits.
Rabbits can suffer from intestinal worms. Often these worm infestations go unnoticed by the rabbit but can be significant where multiple rabbits are grazing the same patches of grass, especially in the case of young rabbits. Worming paste containing fenbendazole administered via an easy to dose syringe can be given two to four times yearly.
The parasite Encephalozoon cuniculi, frequently cited as a cause of neurological disease (head tilt, back leg weakness) in rabbits, can also be prevented and/or treated using the same fenbendazole worming treatment.
In the summer months, blow flies can lay their eggs on your rabbit. The eggs hatch into maggots which start to feed on the skin and underlying tissues of the rabbit. They can cause horrific injuries often resulting in death. Flies tend to be attracted to rabbits soiled around their bottoms – usually obese, elderly, and ill rabbits. Daily checks of your rabbit will help you to spot signs of fly strike and a clean hutch is less likely to attract flies. Please ask about fly strike at your next appointment for more information and to discuss treatments available to minimise the risk of flystrike for high risk rabbits.
We strongly recommend insuring your rabbit in case of illness or injury. Click here for further details.
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