Caring for your Rabbit Advice from New Lodge Vets
Hay and grass are the most important part of your rabbit’s diet and MUST be provided at all times. Rabbit Diet should consist of 99% Hay/Grass and 1% other foods. The fibre in it keeps the digestive tract working normally and chewing it helps to prevent the teeth from becoming too long. Handfuls of fresh long grass can be given if the rabbit doesn’t graze in the garden but DO NOT feed lawn mower cuttings.
Fresh Foods are the second most important of a rabbit’s diet and should be given daily. In the summer let your bunny graze as much as possible. If you have not fed greens before, introduce your bunny to hay first so that the digestive system gets used to the higher level of fibre. This will reduce the risk of diarrhoea. Introduce greens gradually, adding a new variety every few days – if one causes diarrhoea then eliminate it from the diet. Feed at least three leafy green foods daily, about ONE tightly packed cup per Kg of rabbit. Try dandelion leaves and flowers, kale, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, pea pods, sprouts, basil, Bok choy, Broccoli leaves (stems or tops can make rabbits gassy), Carrot tops (carrots are high in calcium and should be given sparingly), Celery, Mint, Mustard greens, Parsley and Water cress Rabbit Mix is the least important part. These are high in calories, low in volume and fibre, and do not need much chewing. How many wild rabbits have you seen down the pet shop!
Rabbit Mix can cause obesity, which is now a serious problem amongst the rabbit population, liver, dental and kidney disease, and soft faeces. Ideally, they should not be fed at all and kept only as spare. Offer only small amounts for limited periods of time so your bunny still has plenty of space to eat hay and greens, and do not keep topping up the bowl or he will only eat his favourite bits! The fibre pellets are preferable to the mixes for this reason.
Do not feed your rabbit items high in carbohydrates like breads, crackers, pasta, pretzels, cookies, chips, or cereal. Although branded for rabbits, many commercially-sold bunny treats are high in fat and sugar, such as yogurt chips, and should not be given. Fruit is the best option for a treat, but again you should give it only in small amounts because of the sugar content. Like vegetables, be sure that they are thoroughly washed. Some fruits that rabbits enjoy include Strawberries, Raspberries, Bananas, Pineapple, Apples (no seeds).
Water must be available at all times, changed daily, and kept defrosted in winter and should be offered in a bowl and bottle away from their sleeping area.
Branches of apple or other fruit trees are also useful for rabbits to gnaw on. You can tell if your rabbit has a suitable diet by the droppings which should resemble dark, plump raisins.
Housing your rabbit
Hutches must give the bunny plenty of space to move around, be well ventilated and sheltered from rain and direct sunlight (heat stress can be rapidly fatal). Exercise is vital. Either in a run ideally attached to the hutch or in the house – but any wires, which the rabbit might chew, need to be rabbit-proofed with plastic tubing. ‘House bunnies’ are becoming very popular. They are easy to litter train (do not use clay litter as it can block the gut if the rabbit eats it). They still need their own home cage where they feel secure. This should be left open at all times.
Always support the hind quarters to prevent serious back injuries. It is best to grasp the scruff or under the chest and place your other hand under the back legs. Practice near the floor so if your bunny jumps he does not have far to fall.
Pet rabbit insurance
‘Pet Plan’ offer an insurance policy for rabbits, which may be worth considering.
Rabbit medical problems
Dental Disease is what we most often see at the surgery. The most common complaint is that the rabbit is not eating, but eye infections and abscesses are also found. Incisors (front teeth) can be trimmed or removed if they become overgrown, but the molars (back teeth) often cannot be treated successfully and may require repeated general anaesthetics to try to enable treatment. Rabbit teeth are continually growing and proper diet i.e. hay/grass is vital to keep them worn down. Many rabbits eventually have to be put to sleep because of tooth problems.
Please note that if your rabbit is coming in for an anaesthetic then it should NOT be starved overnight (unlike a dog or cat).
Fly strike prevention
In the summer, flies may lay eggs on the bunny especially if he is dirty around the rear end.
The maggots, which hatch very quickly, cause serious, sometimes fatal, wounds. It can take as little as 24 hours for this condition to develop so try putting a net curtain in front of the hutch to keep flies out, and check your rabbit thoroughly at least twice a day by picking them up and checking the area around their bottoms.
Diet (lots of fibre) is important in reducing the risk of soft faeces sticking around his bottom. There is a product called ‘Rearguard’ which is a liquid containing an insect growth regulator, which prevents maggots developing to the stage that causes damage to the rabbit. A single application to the rabbit’s hindquarters gives 10 weeks protection, the whole of the bottle must be applied from the middle of the back to tip of the tail concentrating on the areas under the tail and between the back legs.
Rabbit speying or neutering
FEMALES can be speyed from 4 months of age. Female rabbits are very prone to developing tumours of the uterus which can be fatal – speying eliminates this risk, as well as reducing the risk of mammary cancer, uterine infections, and false pregnancies. It also reduces the aggression which can be associated with being ‘in season’ (which is nearly all the time), and which may get worse if a tumour develops.
MALES can be castrated from 4 months old (once the testicles have descended) and this can decrease aggression and spraying of urine. Rabbits are social animals and best kept in pairs. The ideal situation to avoid fighting is a speyed female with a castrated male. Rabbits and guinea pigs should not be housed together due to their different dietary requirements – and they can bully one another.
Neutering can result in weight gain so this should be monitored closely. Other Problems include respiratory infections, abscesses, hair balls, urinary disease, skin disease, and digestive problems. If your bunny seems off colour, you notice something unusual, or he stops eating, then contact the surgery.
Myxomatosis is a common disease in wild and pet rabbits which is spread by biting insects. Vaccination is recommended, this can be done from 6 weeks of age. Flea treatments are available for rabbits and are applied on the back of the neck, just the same way as for cats and dogs.
VHD (Viral Haemorrhagic disease) is a new disease that was first reported in Britain in 1992. It is highly contagious and can be spread by contact with infected rabbits, or indirectly by infected foodstuffs or people who have been handling infected animals. The virus is rapidly fatal. Vaccination is recommended annually.
Worming a rabbit
Rabbits can suffer from intestinal worms and a nasty parasite, E. Cuniculi, but a simple worming paste can be used twice a year to prevent infestation.