At A+G Vets, we have written this leaflet to ensure you and your rabbit get the most out of each other. We hope that you find this information useful & informative and it helps keep your rabbit happy & healthy.
As pets, we keep rabbits in hutches, we provide a bowl of food and little bits of veggies and hope this keeps them happy! Wrong! In the wild, rabbits would spend around 80% of their day foraging for food, eating grass, grass and more grass – they do not need variety and certainly any changes in diet can cause gut upsets.
The best way to feed a pet rabbit is to mimic the diet of their wild “cousins”, so if your rabbit already eats a lot of grass & hay, then you’re on the right track straight away. If not, it is easy to change to rabbit’s diet, although it should be done gradually over a course of 2 weeks.
The bulk of your rabbit’s diet should be made up of grass – either fresh, kiln-dried or hay. This should make up at least 75% of their diet. The best hay is either Timothy or Meadow hay; these have long strands which encourage proper chewing & grinding which is beneficial for their teeth.
The next part of the diet should be green vegetables – such as curly kale, broccoli, cabbage, (not lettuce) – this should make up about 20% of their daily ration.
Finally, you can supplement their “green” diet with a commercially produced feed. We would recommend Supa Rabbit or Supreme Selective. These diets have the correct portion of vitamins & minerals to ensure a healthy gut. This food should only make up a tiny amount of your rabbit’s daily ration, less than 5%. An egg-cupful daily would be enough for a Dwarf rabbit, split into 2 feeds. With commercial muesli diets, the rabbit needs to eat every single piece of it, to ensure a balanced diet – that includes the little barley husks, which are always left at the bottom of the bowl!
Caecatrophs – because a rabbit’s natural diet (grass) is quite difficult to digest, rabbits have developed a very clever way of utilising all the vitamins & minerals from their diet. They produce small, soft pellets encapsulated in a mucilaginous coating, called caecatrophs. The rabbits re-eat these and reabsorb more nutrients. These caecatrophs should be eaten at night and straight from the rabbit’s bottom, so should not be seen by humans.
If caecatrophs are present in large numbers or are not being re-eaten, this often means the diet is too high in protein, carbohydrate & sugar and low in fibre. If a rabbit is eating a muesli mix, this can have all these problems in one small bowl. This is easily changed by slowly altering the diet back to a more natural grass based one.
Other reasons for an inability to perform caecatrophy would be:
§ Overweight – not able to reach its backend to remove the caecatrophs.
§ Small hutches – unable to stand upright to reach its backend.
§ Large dewlaps or folds around the backend.
§ Arthritis or spinal pain.
§ Dental problems such as incisor or molar malocclusion.
Most owners still opt for the traditional wooden hutch for their rabbits. This need to be large enough to allow the rabbit upright on its back legs and unfortunately, most “starter hutches” from pet shops are not large enough. The minimum size for a hutch should be 6ft x 2ft x 2ft and a run should be 6ft x 4ft x 4ft, although a hutch & run can never be too big. Hutches need to be raised on legs to give protection from damp and to deter vermin. The roof should be sloped, to allow water to run off and covered with waterproof felt. Rabbits do not tolerate draughts very well, so it may be wise to purchase a “space blanket” which will protect against this.
You could also convert a Wendy house or shed with a cat flap to allow free access to the garden, remember to have adequate ventilation, as these buildings can overheat rapidly in the summer.
You should never keep a rabbit in a hutch permanently; they are very active animals and need a minimum of 8 hours exercise per day. If you do not have a run and wish to allow your rabbit free access to your garden, you must be prepared. Rabbits are natural diggers and chewers, so nothing in your garden will be sacred! The fence needs to be rabbit-proof; chicken wire dug 2-3ft underground, will prevent your rabbit from escaping.
As rabbits are naturally prey animals, they like places to hide. Items should as plastic tunnels, plant pots or boxes are ideal for them to hide in. Ensure all edges are safe and not sharp, which could cause injury.
If you prefer to allow your rabbit outdoor access in a run, this should have a wire mesh floor, to prevent the rabbit from digging out. It should also be mobile so the area can be changed daily to allow the grass to grow naturally. A shelter in the run will provide your rabbit an area to hide in, if necessary.
Rabbits get bored very quickly and keeping them occupied is very simple. Varying the places which they get fed or even scattering their food around will encourage them to forage. Hiding food in toilet rolls or special food balls will also prevent them from becoming bored.
Like every responsible pet owner, you want your rabbit to live a long and happy life. There are two main diseases which rabbits should be vaccinated against – Myxomatosis andViral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD). Both diseases are fatal and all rabbits are at risk, even house bunnies. Myxomatosis is spread through biting flies, so direct contact with infected rabbits is not necessary. VHD can be spread by contact with infected items, such as hay, grass or infected droppings (which may come from your shoes or clothing). The virus is surprisingly resilient and can survive in the environment for months. To ensure the virus is not caught from hay, you must purchase kiln-dried grass or dust-extracted hay. For further information on vaccinations, please read our leaflet entitled “Rabbit Vaccination”.
The next preventable problem is flystrike. The proper term for this is “myiasis” and it occurs when flies lay eggs upon your rabbit and the eggs then rapidly hatch into maggots, sometimes within 6 hours. The maggots then bury into the rabbit, causing pain and shock. Flystrike is often fatal and the rabbit should be brought to the surgery as soon as possible, even out with normal surgery times.
Rabbits which are at a higher risk of flystrike would be:
· Overweight – not being able to clean properly
· Large dewlaps or folds around the backend
· Arthritis or spinal pain.
· Ones whose environment is not cleaned regularly.
It is very important to keep your rabbit’s living quarters clean and dry – flies are attracted to damp, smelly conditions. Although even rabbits which live in clean conditions may develop soiled hindquarters and may attract flies. It is important therefore that your rabbit is checked twice daily, in the summer, including turning them up to look at their bottom.
Dental problems affect a large majority of rabbits. Rabbit teeth never stop growing and require a high fibre diet to keep their teeth trim.
Unfortunately, many rabbits do not get that diet and their teeth become misaligned. Normally the back teeth are the first to become a problem, lack of fibre in the diet causes the teeth to become long and develop sharp edges, this then cause the front teeth to change position, and possibly start to grow long & curl. Usually owners think that this is the only problem and ask the vet to “clip the teeth”, when really the main problem is at the back of the mouth. A good diet should prevent this problem and hopefully your rabbit will be able to avoid an anaesthetic and dental treatment.
Rabbits’ nails should be checked regularly, as they will grow rapidly if they are on a good quality diet. If your rabbit has access to the garden, then the nails may be worn down by digging. If they are mainly in a run, then placing the run on slabs will help to keep the nails down.
Rabbits don’t really get colds but they can develop respiratory problems, often called “snuffles”. If your rabbit develops a runny nose, then you should make an appointment to see the vet. Runny eyes can be the sign of dental problems, as rabbits teeth can grow inside their jaw causing an impaction on the tear ducts, preventing the tears from being washed away properly. It can also be the sign of eye infections or even something like a scratch or ulcer – whatever the reason, your rabbit needs to see the vet. Rabbits can develop ear mites, like cat & dogs. The main signs of ear mites are crusty areas within the ear, head shaking or scratching. If you see any of these signs, then your bunny needs to see the vet. Do not be tempted to pick the scabs out of the ear – it is very painful and your rabbit will not thank you for it!
It is a very good idea to get your rabbit neutered, whether they are male of female. Neutered rabbits are happier and easier to handle. You can also keep rabbits in multi-sex households when they are all neutered. It also helps if your rabbit is aggressive to yourself or other rabbits. Female rabbits (does) are susceptible to uterine cancer and this is a common reason for death in does over the age of 4 years. Please see our leaflet “Neutering Your Rabbit” for more information.
Rabbits are very social animals and crave attention, either from other rabbits or humans. Ideally they should be kept in pairs or acceptable groups. If you have a house rabbit, then human contact is very important. A male & female combination works best, providing they are both neutered which removes the risk of unwanted litters. However, neutered same sex pairs can live quite happily too. Many people keep guinea pigs with their rabbits, as a companion, this can lead to problems due to size difference, and it is very important to have an area which the guinea pig can escape to if it feels threaten. Guinea pigs also have a high requirement for Vitamin C, which is not found in rabbit food. Therefore it is best to feed the rabbit, guinea pig food.
Introducing rabbits to each other can be a difficult time. Rabbits are very territorial, so don’t expect to be able to put the new rabbit in straight away. Put the rabbits in cages near each other, so they can sniff through wire – this will help them get used to each others’ smell. Swapping litter trays will also help and placing face-cloths with the rabbit’s smell, in the hutch can also help. Once this step has been completed, then the rabbits can have short periods of supervised play, in neutral territory, whether neither has been before. Each day, the time can be lengthened until the rabbits are relaxed together. The whole process could take weeks or months and some rabbits may never take to their companion. Some rabbits will develop an instant bond and this can be recognised by mutual grooming.
Rabbits are not a cheap & easy pet for the children – they require dedication and time. Rabbits are now the third most popular pet, although many people are ignorant of their needs. Societies, such as the Rabbit Welfare Association, are a wealth of information.