Pet Rabbits and their care - Are you keeping yours correctly?
Updated: Jan 29, 2019
Pet rabbits and their care needs have evolved greatly since up to recently when it has been commonly accepted to keep rabbits in solitary confinement in tiny hutches at the bottom of the garden.
We now know this minimum standard has been wrong and outdated, the first known domesticated rabbits housed in a hutch was the Romans, and even now people think it is acceptable to keep a rabbit in this fashion.
Rabbits are social animals, and in the wild live in social groups in holes, they dig themselves and collectively called a warren. The wild rabbit is very social and lives in the same warren it's entire life, and doesn't do well in a solitary situation.
We know this. So why do we think it is ok to buy a pet rabbit from a pet shop then we put it in a wooden box in the bottom of the garden on its own with no enrichment?
The lifespan of a pet rabbit can be around nine years and they have anatomical requirements like rabbits teeth grow continually and in the wild, the rabbit will wear down its incisors naturally gnawing on trees and roots in its environment.
For a pet rabbit to exhibit the same behaviour that is vital to its health it requires access to an environment with this type of enrichment within it, we see so many hutch rabbits that have very poor teeth due to the neglect of its requirements and can prematurely end it's life.
A rabbits ideal environment would be living with another rabbit in a large enclosure and ad-lib access to the outside with an area it can toilet, wear down its teeth and graze, and large enough that they can run and leap about, all natural behaviours of a rabbit.
How does a rabbit digest it's food?
After a rabbit ingests food, the food travels down the oesophagus and through a small valve called the cardia. In rabbits, this valve is very well pronounced and makes the rabbit incapable of vomiting. The food enters the stomach after passing through the cardia.
Food then moves to the stomach and small intestine where a majority of nutrient extraction and absorption takes place. Food then passes into the colon and eventually into the cecum.
After as little as three hours, a soft, faecal "pellet", called a cecotrope, is expelled from the rabbit. The rabbit instinctively eats these grape-like pellets, without chewing, in exchange keeping the mucous coating intact. This coating protects the vitamin- and nutrient-rich bacteria from stomach acid until it reaches the small intestine, where the nutrients from the cecotrope can be absorbed.
The soft pellets contain a sufficiently large portion of nutrients that are critical to the rabbit's health. This soft faecal matter is rich in vitamin B and other nutrients.
The process of coprophagy is important to the stability of a rabbit's digestive health because it is one important way that which a rabbit receives vitamin B in a form that is useful to its digestive well-being.
You may observe your rabbit may leave these pellets lying about its cage; this behaviour is normal and usually related to an ample food supply.
When caecal pellets are wet and runny (semi-liquid) and stick to the rabbit and surrounding objects they are called ontermittent soft cecotropes (ISCs). This is different from ordinary diarrhoea and is usually caused by a diet too high in carbohydrates or too low in fibre. Soft fruit or salad items such as lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes are possible causes.
Rabbit General health
Disease is rare when rabbits are raised in sanitary conditions and provided with adequate care. Rabbits have fragile bones, especially in their spines, and need support on the belly or bottom when they are picked up.
Spayed or neutered rabbits kept indoors with proper care may have a lifespan of 8 to 12 years, with mixed-breed rabbits typically living longer than purebred specimens, and dwarf breeds are having longer average lifespans than larger breeds.
The world record for longest-lived rabbit is 18 years.
Keep an eye on your bunny's bottom area, a dirty bottom can indicate many issues. A healthy pet rabbit is very clean and will keep it's coat immaculately groomed, a dirty rear end and your rabbit needs to see a vet.
This could indicate issues like over weight( unable to reach it's bottom), to more serious underlying, painful conditions like arthritis or back problems, remember rabbits have fragile bones and require correct support of it's tummy and bottom when being carried.
A Healthy rabbit is a neutered rabbit, and the benefits of neutering your rabbit.
Animal care experts and professionals all strongly advise you neuter your rabbit for a host of various reasons. the data we have shows that a neutered rabbit lives longer as well as protects the female rabbit from a risk of ovarian and uterine cancers or of endometritis. Also neutering both sexes calms unfavourable behaviours like aggression, and dominance.
Micro-chipping your rabbit
Why should I microchip my rabbit?
Rabbits, both indoor and outdoor, are at risk of escaping and getting lost. As they do not wear collars, a microchip is the only way to definitively identify your rabbit – this means having your rabbit micro-chipped greatly increases the changes of your lost rabbit being reunited with you.
This can save a lot of heartbreak, and is of course much better for your rabbit too!
When can I get my rabbit chipped
Your rabbit should be micro-chipped as soon as you get them. The procedure is very quick and is considered relatively painless; it should be no more painful than an injection or having their blood taken for a test.
Some owners ask for their pet to be micro-chipped whilst they are being spayed or neutered– this means the microchip is implanted while the rabbit is under anaesthetic. This is a common practice, but does run the risk of your rabbit not having identification if they are accidentally lost before then.
Vaccinating your rabbit is a good idea, because the cost of treatment of your rabbit contracting a disease can far out way the initial cost of the vaccination.
Vaccinations exist for both rabbit hemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis. These vaccinations are usually given annually, two weeks apart. If there is an outbreak of myxomatosis locally, this vaccine can be administered every six months for extra protection
In the UK a combined vaccination exists for myxomatosis and VHD1 made by Nobivac called Myxo-RHD, this is given yearly. Due to increasing cases of VHD2 it is now recommended rabbits receive an additional vaccination for RHD2 one brand for this is filovac, the vaccination is given yearly 2 weeks apart from other vaccinations, it may be given 6 monthly at rabbit believed to be at higher risk.
Life threatening conditions to be aware of.
Gastrointestinal stasis (GI stasis)
A serious and potentially fatal condition that occurs in some rabbits in which gut mobility is severely reduced and possibly completely stopped. When untreated or improperly treated, GI stasis can be fatal in as little as 24 hours.
GI stasis is the condition of food not moving through the gut as quickly as normal. The gut contents may dehydrated compact into a hard, immobile mass (impacted gut), blocking the digestive tract of the rabbit. Food in an immobile gut may also ferment, causing significant gas buildup and resultant gas pain for the rabbit.
Symptoms include :
The rabbit will suddenly stop eating
Constantly banging it's foot or biting and licking at it's stomach/rear area.
This a pain response and this rabbit is in severe distress and needs to get to a vet ASAP for treatment.
Some rabbits are more prone to GI stasis than others. The causes of GI stasis are not completely understood, but common contributing factors are thought to include stress, reduced food intake, low fibre in the diet, dehydration, reduction in exercise or blockage caused by excess fur or carpet ingestion. Stress factors can include changes in housing, transportation, or medical procedures under anaesthesia. As many of these factors may occur together (poor dental structure leading to decreased food intake, followed by a stressful veterinary dental procedure to correct the dental problem) establishing a root cause may be difficult.
Dental disease has several causes, namely genetics, inappropriate diet, injury to the jaw, infection, or cancer.
Malocclusion: Rabbit teeth are open-rooted and continue to grow throughout their lives. In some rabbits, the teeth are not properly aligned, a condition called malocclusion. Because of the misaligned nature of the rabbit's teeth, there is no normal wear to control the length to which the teeth grow.
There are three main causes of malocclusion
most commonly genetic predisposition, injury, or bacterial infection. In the case of congenital malocclusion, treatment usually involves veterinary visits in which the teeth are treated with a dental burr (a procedure called crown reduction or, more commonly, teeth clipping) or, in some cases, permanently removed.
These are spurs that can dig into the rabbit's tongue and/or cheek causing pain. These should be filed down by an experienced exotic veterinarian specialised in rabbit care, using a dental burr, for example.
Osteoporosis: Rabbits, especially neutered females and those that are kept indoors without adequate natural sunlight, can suffer from osteoporosis, in which holes appear in the skull by X-Ray imaging. This reflects the general thinning of the bone, and teeth will start to become looser in the sockets, making it uncomfortable and painful for the animal to chew hay. The inability to properly chew hay can result in molar spurs, as described above, and weight loss, leading into a downward spiral if not treated promptly.
This can be reversible and treatable. A veterinary formulated liquid calcium supplement with vitamin D3 and magnesium can be given mixed with the rabbit's drinking water, once or twice per week, according to the veterinarian's instructions. The molar spurs should also be trimmed down by an experienced exotic veterinarian specialised in rabbit care, once per 1-2 months depending on the case.
Signs of dental difficulty include difficulty eating, weight loss and small stools and visibly overgrown teeth. However, there are many other causes of ptyalism, including pain due to other causes
Rabbits are subject to infection by a variety of viruses. Some have had deadly and widespread impact.
Myxomatosis is a virulent threat to all rabbits but not to humans. caused by the myxoma virus. It was first observed in Uruguay in laboratory rabbits in the late 19th century. It was introduced into Australia in 1950 in an attempt to control the rabbit population.
Myxomatosis is a severe, usually fatal, viral disease. In some countries, it has been used as a way of reducing the number of wild rabbits. It first reached the UK in the 1950s and decimated the wild rabbit population at the time.
The disease remains a risk today, to both wild and pet rabbits.
The acute form can kill a rabbit within 10 days and the chronic form within two weeks, although some rabbits do survive this.
How does myxomatosis spread?
Myxomatosis is spread easily between rabbits by blood-sucking insects, such as fleas, ticks, mites and mosquitoes. It spreads rapidly among wild rabbit populations and can easily be passed on to domestic rabbits in the vicinity by the parasites.
Myxomatosis is found throughout the UK and no area is safe from the disease.
What are the symptoms of myxomatosis?
Depending on the strain of the virus, it can take up to 14 days for an infected rabbit to begin to show symptoms. During the incubation period, a rabbit’s behaviour and eating habits may change. When the virus takes hold, the eyes, nose and genitals are usually the first parts of the body to be affected. Symptoms include:
Swelling, redness and/or ulcers Nasal and eye discharge.
Blindness caused by inflammation of the eyes.
Loss of appetite.
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD)
What is RHD2 and why should I be worried?
There are two strains of rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD) – or viral hemorrhagic disease (VHD) – and both of them are highly contagious, have few to no symptoms and are fatal in most cases. The second, and most recent, strain of the disease, RHD2, is affecting more and more pet rabbits in the UK, and its strongly recommended to get your rabbit vaccinated against it urgently.
The new strain was first recognised several years ago but over the past year it has become increasingly prevalent.
Some 1.3million pet rabbits are thought to be at risk in the UK and many are likely to have already died. Protection against the first strain of RHD, along with other diseases, is included in the standard vaccinations which every pet rabbit should have already had.
What are the symptoms of RHD2?
RHD2 presents even fewer symptoms than the initial strain of the virus. It can result in sudden death, although there are many other causes of this in rabbits. Consequently, the real incidence of RHD2 is unknown, especially as most cases are suspected rather than confirmed with tests. Little can be done to save other companion rabbits from suffering the same fate thereafter and the disease can spread even further without careful decontamination.
If there are symptoms present, although rare, they can include fever, lethargy, loss of appetite and spasms
How is RHD2 spread?
The RHD2 virus is spread very easily between rabbits and on surfaces, human clothing and things like hay bales. If a rabbit owner is unaware that their pet has the virus, it will continue to spread rapidly. There is an incubation period of three to nine days, during which time the virus is already highly contagious. Research on the effect of the disease on wild rabbits and transmission between them is limited.
What do I do in the event of a RHD2 outbreak?
Anywhere or anyone that has an outbreak of RHD2 will need rapid decontamination and will not be able to house another rabbit until measures have been taken to ensure the virus has been completely eliminated.
Fly strike, or blowfly strike, (Lucilia sericata) is a condition that occurs when flies (particularly botflies) lay their eggs in a rabbit's damp or soiled fur, or in an open wound. Within 12 hours, the eggs hatch into the larval stage of the fly, known as maggots.
Initially small but quickly growing to 15 millimetres (0.59 in) long, maggots can burrow into skin and feed on an animal's tissue, leading to shock and death. The most susceptible rabbits are those in unsanitary conditions, sedentary ones, and those unable to clean their excretory areas. Rabbits with diarrhoea should be inspected for fly strike, especially during the summer months.
The topical treatment Rearguard® (from Novartis) is approved in the United Kingdom for 10-week-per-application prevention of fly strike
Are rabbits good pets
Rabbits are a popular choice for many families with an estimated 1.5 million rabbits kept as pets in the UK. And it's no surprise as rabbits are highly intelligent, inquisitive animals. Owning rabbits' can be extremely rewarding.
Rabbit's come in a variety of breeds, shapes and sizes and each bunny has there own unique personality.
Rabbits are intelligent.
Pet rabbits can be taught to respond to commands using positive reward-based training.
Rabbits have strikingly distinctive personalities. They can be as playful and silly as puppies or kittens, as independent and fascinating as cats, or as loyal and openly affectionate as dogs. And long-time rabbit owners claim that domestic rabbits are, in their own way, every bit as smart as cats and dogs.
Rabbits can easily learn to respond to their names, as well as to simple words, and they learn to use litter boxes readily
Rabbits are fragile
Young children and rabbits do not mix, and this fact cannot be emphasised enough.”
Many rabbits are accidentally dropped by children, resulting in broken legs and backs. When mishandled, rabbits who scratch or bite to protect themselves are often surrendered to rescues, where they may be euthanised for “bad behaviour.
But this doesn’t mean that rabbits and children can never coexist happily. It does expect that an adult should always be the primary caretaker and should supervise any children who interact with the rabbit. Children who learn from adults how to interact appropriately with rabbits often form lasting bonds with these small family members and develop a respect for animals that carry into adulthood
Choosing a bunny friend
Naturally sociable, rabbits like companionship and prefer to live in pairs or compatible groups and their behaviour will reflect this.
Never place a rabbit with a guinea pig. The animals are different species, do not “speak the same language”, and often a rabbit will inflict severe injuries on a guinea pig. Some pet shops display these animals in the same cage when they are available for sale. Despite this, they should not be bought as a pair.
There are many breeds to choose from, although a rabbit of mixed breeding can offer just as much fun and companionship. Rabbits with long fur take much more looking after as the coat can become matted quickly and therefore requires daily grooming.
Most rabbits are happy living either indoors or outside but, if choosing to keep them as house rabbits, extra care must be taken to keep them safe in their indoor environment. All cables must have a protective covering, and house plants should be removed as they may be poisonous.
It is essential that rabbits are able to exhibit their natural behaviour, so they must be kept in accommodation which allows them to hop, stretch and play. Think carefully about whether you have the time, money, facilities and knowledge to care for rabbits as they can live for up to ten years.
Getting to know you
Rabbits are individuals – some will enjoy being stroked while others prefer to be left alone. As they are prey animals, rabbits always prefer to interact with you on ground level, where they will feel far happier and safer. If you sit quietly, most will happily come over and see you – especially for the occasional treat!
Rabbits that are regularly and correctly handled from an early age can learn to tolerate the experience, but remember that most will never feel comfortable, as it is not natural for them to be lifted up with their paws off the ground.
When you do need to pick up your rabbit, the safest way is to slide one hand underneath the body and in-between the front legs, with your other arm around its hindquarters, supporting its body weight. Place the rabbit against your body with its head towards your arm. Never pick a rabbit up by its ears or by the scruff of its neck. Always put a rabbit down gently, hind legs first, on a non-slip surface.
Before deciding to buy/acquire rabbits, make sure you find out how they have been bred, what they have been fed and how they have been cared for. Also, check out if any of them they have had (or may be prone to) any health or behaviour problems before you take them on and always ask a vet for advice if you are unsure about anything.
Benefits of Adopting a Pet Rabbit
You are saving a life
You are providing an animal with the second chance they deserve. Many have been rescued from horrific circumstances such as cruelty, neglect and abandonment, or quite commonly their owners were no longer able to look after them due to illness or a change in the situation.
Continually overrun with abandoned rabbits, local shelters and rescues are the best places to find a new pet bunny. Not only will you save an animal needing a home, but there are also several additional benefits.
Choice and known health issues
Rescues often have rabbits of varying sizes, breeds, and ages. So, if you were looking specifically for a young, agouti mini lop, you will most likely find a good fit at the local rescue. But, you also might surprise yourself and fall in love with an older mixed breed rabbit once you start looking.
Aside from the ability to choose from a wide selection of different kinds of rabbits, adopting from a rescue is also very convenient. Volunteers at rescues take the time to acclimate rabbits to living in houses. In this way, the time you would have to take to train the rabbit is cut down considerably.
Furthermore, because a lot of rescued rabbits live in foster homes, many are accustomed to living in households with children and other pets. So if your household situation is similar, adopting a rabbit who is already comfortable in that environment makes the transition easier for both you and the rabbit.
You will save money
Shelters often microchip, spay, neuter and vaccinate the animals that come into their care. This saves you a lot of money because you don’t have to pay for the procedures yourself and it ensures the pet you are taking home is healthy. Also, the prices of adopting a pet from a shelter are often a lot lower than the rates charged by breeders.
Home comforts for rabbits
Rabbits Living in a draughty, damp, hot, poorly ventilated or dirty environment can cause them to suffer and become ill. Providing housing that meets rabbits’ complex environmental and behavioural needs is an integral part of responsible ownership.
Outdoor rabbits need plenty of room with a hutch large enough to be able to stand on their hind legs, have the opportunity to stretch out, and hop around. There must also be a private compartment for them to retire to when they wish for some privacy. The minimum hutch size for small or large rabbits is 183cm x 90cm floor space, by 90cm tall. Gone are the days when rabbits were kept at the end of the garden in a hutch with no facility for exercise.
A good choice of accommodation for rabbits is a small wooden Wendy house with either a large run attached or a fenced area surrounding it to allow the rabbits to exercise as and when they feel the need. Benefits of this type of accommodation are it gives owners the opportunity to observe them exhibiting more natural, happy behaviours. Rabbits kept in a housing which is too small often become ill-tempered and challenging to handle.
This may be because they are suffering from skeletal pain as a result of being confined. If your rabbit’s behaviour changes in this way, consider their accommodation but also seek veterinary advice.
If you are going away, try to find someone to care for, and meet all your rabbits’ welfare needs within their familiar home. If boarding your rabbits, try to ease the move by keeping paired/grouped rabbits together and leave them with familiar-smelling items, such as toys.
When you transport your rabbits make sure they are comfortable and safe at all times. Putting familiar smelling items in the carrier and the new environment can help make your rabbits feel at more ease.
Rabbits that live together and are friends should be transported together to give reassurance and ensure the same scents are transferred to all rabbits, helping to avoid the potential problems associated with reintroducing rabbits after a period apart.
Care for your rabbit
There is no one ‘perfect’ way to care for all rabbits because every rabbit and every situation is different. It’s up to you how you look after your rabbits, but you must take reasonable steps to ensure that you meet all their needs.
Under the Animal Welfare Act, pet owners are legally obliged to care for their pets properly – as most owners already do – by providing the following five basic welfare needs.
A suitable place to live.
A healthy diet, including fresh, clean water.
The ability to behave normally.
Appropriate company, including any need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals.
Protection from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
A cosy bed
Your rabbits will need enough bedding to keep them comfortable and warm – it should be safe for them to eat so provide suitable insulating bedding materials such as dust-free hay and shredded paper.
Rabbits are very clean and will only toilet in one area
Your rabbits’ toilet area(s) should be cleaned every day. The whole home should be thoroughly cleaned regularly, approximately once a week. Cleaning is potentially stressful for rabbits so after cleaning, a small amount of the used bedding should be placed back into the toilet area and shelter as this will smell familiar to the rabbits and help to reduce the stress caused by cleaning. Only non-toxic cleaning products should be used, and the housing should be dry before the rabbits are replaced in it.
The toilet area which should be separate from where they sleep. If you provide litter trays, provide a tray for each of your rabbits (with ideally one more besides) and use absorbent materials such as newspaper, hay, shredded paper and/or natural wood or paper-based non-clumping, non-expanding litter.
MAKE SURE YOUR RABBITS HAVE A HEALTHY DIET
Rabbits are grazers, and in the wild, they eat only grass and other plants – in fact, your rabbits’ digestive systems must have hay and/or grass to function correctly.
Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously throughout their life and need to be worn down and kept at the correct length and shape by eating grass, hay and leafy green plants – if they don’t eat the right sorts of food they can suffer from serious dental disease.
They produce two types of droppings – hard, dry pellets, and softer moist pellets which they eat directly from their bottom and which are an essential part of their diet. Rabbits tend to eat for long periods, mainly at dawn and dusk when they like to graze, forage for food and be sociable, so try to feed your rabbits during their active period.
How much an individual rabbit needs to eat depends on his/her age, lifestyle and general health. But if a rabbit eats more food than he/she needs, he/she will become overweight and may suffer.
Your rabbits need fresh, clean drinking water at all times – without access to water, they can become seriously ill. Check their water supply twice a day and make sure it doesn’t freeze if they live outdoors in winter.
Good quality hay and/or grass should make up the majority of your rabbits’ diet and should be available at all times. Each rabbit needs at least a ‘rabbit-sized’ bundle of good quality hay every day which should be sweet-smelling and dust-free.
Feeding some hay from a hay rack or hanging basket keeps it clean and above floor level. Placing a hay rack above your rabbits’ litter tray may encourage them to eat more hay.
Find out which plants are safe to feed your rabbits. Offer them a variety of safe, washed leafy greens or weeds every day – ideally five or six different types. Safe plants include cabbage, kale, broccoli, parsley and mint.
Don’t feed them lawnmower clippings as these can upset their digestive system and make them ill.
A rabbit’s diet doesn’t naturally include cereals, root vegetables or fruit but you can give apples or root vegetables like carrots, in small amounts as an occasional treat.
Avoid feeding any other treats as these may harm your rabbits.
You can also feed a small, measured ration of good quality commercial rabbit pellets or nuggets to help to ensure your rabbits get a balanced diet but remember that hay and/ or grass are much more important and must be available at all times. Make sure that any pellets/nuggets you provide are high quality and contain high fibre levels.
If you feed pellets/nuggets, for a healthy adult rabbit, allow 25g (an eggcup-full) of pellets per kg of each rabbit’s body weight but take care to adjust the amount given according to individual rabbits’ needs, based on their lifestyle, activity levels, age and state of health. Growing, pregnant, nursing or underweight rabbits may need a more substantial portion of pellets/nuggets.
Make sure your rabbits have finished the whole portion before giving them more, i.e. don’t keep topping up the bowl/food dispensers, as this may result in them not eating enough hay and/or grass.
Muesli-style foods are associated with health problems in rabbits and should not be fed.
Take note of the amount each rabbit eats and drinks every day, and watch out for any changes in an individual’s eating, drinking or toileting habits. For example, if the number of droppings gets less or stops, or if soft droppings are sticking to his/her back end, talk to your vet straight away as your rabbit could be seriously ill.
Don’t make any sudden changes to your rabbits’ diet as this could make them very ill. Introduce new foods and make any necessary changes gradually to avoid upsetting their digestive systems. By keeping a careful eye on your rabbits, you will be able to adjust how much you feed them to make sure they don’t become underweight or overweight.
MAKE SURE YOUR RABBITS ARE PROTECTED FROM PAIN, SUFFERING, INJURY AND DISEASE
Rabbits feel pain in the same way as other mammals, including people, but they are not very good at showing outward signs of distress and may be suffering a great deal before you notice anything is wrong.
A change in the way a rabbit normally behaves can be an early sign he/she is ill or in pain. If a rabbit is not eating or is more quiet than usual, he/she is highly likely to be sick, or in pain, in which case you should talk to your vet immediately.
Rabbits are vulnerable to many infectious diseases and other illnesses, especially dental disease. They can catch deadly contagious diseases from wild rabbits so you should prevent your rabbits from having contact with wild rabbits or areas where wild rabbits have been.
Some breeds of rabbit have been selected for exaggerated physical features which can cause them to suffer and reduce their quality of life, while certain breeds are particularly prone to inherited disorders and diseases.
If you are thinking of looking after rabbits,
So you’ve really researched their welfare needs, and you’re committed to taking care of them for the whole of their lives, please think about giving a home to some of the many rescue rabbits available for adoption.