Our team of vets will provide your rabbit with everything they need to live a healthy and happy life
Rabbits can make fun pets but choosing to keep a bunny is not a decision to be taken lightly.
Rabbits are prey animals in the wild and much of their behaviour can be linked to this. They have never become truly domesticated and because they don’t always behave like ‘pets’, people sometimes tend to lose interest in them. Correct husbandry is the key to keeping a healthy, happy rabbit.
Keeping your rabbit safe and warm
Your rabbit can either be kept outdoors or indoors. If your rabbit is going to stay outside, their hutch should be split into two compartments: one should have a strong double layer of galvanized wire mesh to let in air and light, and the other should have a solid door to give the rabbit protection from the weather and a retreat at night.
The hutch should be raised off the ground to protect the rabbit from rising damp and other animals. The hutch should also have strong latches to prevent foxes from trying to get in. The roof should slope backwards and be covered with overhanging roofing felt to protect it from rain.
Your rabbit’s hutch should be large enough to allow the rabbit to rise up on their hind limbs, to stretch out and perform at least three hops. It is also a good idea to place mosquito or fly mesh across areas that are exposed to the outside. This will prevent insects from entering your rabbit’s hutch and annoying them.
Always try to find a sheltered spot in your garden for your rabbit’s hutch. It should be positioned so it does not face directly into the midday sun or prevailing wind. In the summer the hutch should be place in a shaded area and in the winter should ideally be placed in a shed or outhouse.
If you are planning to keep your rabbit indoors, your house will have to be rabbit-proofed to prevent your bunny from chewing through wires etc. For more information you can always have a look on the House Rabbit Society’s website, or the Rabbit Welfare Association’s website.
Inside your rabbit’s hutch
The hutch should be lined with newspaper which will prevent grazes on your rabbit’s legs. Any bedding material should be dust-free: shredded paper and plenty of hay provide a warm and comfortable environment. Straw can sometimes have sharp ends, which can cause injury, and also provides little nutritional value if your rabbit decides to eat it! Soft white wood shavings can be used, but avoid pine shavings as these can cause liver damage if ingested, and sawdust can cause eye irritation and respiratory problems.
Your rabbit’s hutch must be cleaned regularly: the toilet area should be cleaned daily, especially in the summer, and the rest of the hutch at least twice weekly.
Keeping your rabbit fit and healthy
Your rabbit will need plenty of exercise: it should NOT be left in a hutch all day!
A covered garden run is ideal: it should be moved frequently to provide fresh grass but make sure there are no chemicals like weed killer on the grass. Exercise on a concreted area can help to keep your rabbit’s claws short, but too much time on abrasive surfaces like this can cause injury to the skin covering their back leg joints.
Make sure that the run is kept well away from poisonous plants such as chrysanthemums, clematis, cowslips, geraniums, hemlock, laburnum, laurel, ivy, poppies and yuccas. Do not leave your rabbit unattended outdoors; they are very vulnerable to predators, and it is not unheard of that foxes will attack in broad daylight.
Feeding your rabbit a nutritious diet
In the wild, rabbits live on a high fibre diet consisting mainly of poor quality grasses. Their teeth grow continuously and they have a complex digestive system to cope with this tough diet. They digest their food twice and have two different types of faecal pellets: the first are the soft, sticky caecotrophs which are usually produced at night and eaten straight from the anus. These should not be seen by you, the owner – if you do see them, it will usually mean that there is a problem with your rabbit.
The second type of faecal pellets are the ones which you will be used to cleaning from your rabbit’s hutch: they should be well-formed, round and hard; if you notice a decline in the production of these pellets, there may be a problem with your rabbit and you should seek veterinary advice. Most of the health problems seen in rabbits are a direct result of a poor diet.
Hay and grass should be the main part of any rabbit’s diet. They are hindgut fermenters, so thrive on a high-fibre diet. The hay should be good quality meadow hay, or Western Timothy hay: it is often better to purchase a bale of hay from stables or a horse feed merchant rather than the often overpriced, poor quality hay sold in pre-packaged bags. As far as grass is concerned, ad-lib grazing from the lawn is ideal: this is obviously not always possible, so hand-picking the grass and feeding it in the hutch is a suitable alternative. NEVER feed your rabbit lawn-mower cuttings.
Your rabbit should also be given some concentrated food: this should be limited to one tablespoon per kg of bodyweight per day. There are many concentrated foods available – the best are uniform nuggets, which prevent your rabbit from picking and choosing certain bits out from the diet (each of these different coloured bits can contain different minerals and vitamins which means that your rabbit could have quite an unbalanced diet if it decides not to eat all of them).
Oxbow Bunny Basics and Burgess Supa Rabbit Excel are probably the best two concentrated foods currently available for rabbits.
Rabbits also need a good selection of fresh food: leaf green vegetables are the best e.g. kale, spinach, cabbage, parsley. Occasional treats of apple, pear or carrot can be given 2-3 times weekly. Avoid apple seeds, potatoes, lettuce, rhubarb and tomato leaves, and bread and cereals.
Most treats sold in the pet shops are unsuitable for rabbits as they are very high in simple sugars and additives. Just because they like them doesn’t mean that these treats are good for your rabbit!
Fresh water should be available at all times and the food bowl and water bottle should be cleaned daily.
Protect your rabbit against medical conditions by getting them neutered
Neutering is not just a means of population control: it is important for ensuring long-term health, especially in females, and both sexes make better pets after neutering. It also means that rabbits can be easily kept together without fighting or breeding.
Females: a female rabbit (doe) can come into season more than ten times a year and she can have kittens almost constantly throughout her life. Neutering a doe will obviously mean that you don’t have to find homes for a lot of baby rabbits! More importantly, female rabbits are prone to getting adenocarcinomas – very nasty tumours affecting the uterus (womb) which occurs in up to 80% of un-neutered females below the age of five. This is a painful condition which often results in death.
Un-neutered female rabbits also become very territorial when they reach sexual maturity (around 4-6 months of age), and can become aggressive towards other rabbits and humans. Female rabbits can be neutered (spayed) from six months of age, depending on their size; this can be discussed with your veterinary surgeon.
Males: un-castrated male rabbits (bucks) can be very aggressive with other rabbits and humans, and will also spray urine like male cats. Bucks reach sexual maturity at around 3-4 months of age and can be castrated from this time, depending on their size; this can be discussed with your veterinary surgeon.
There is no upper age limit for neutering your rabbit, although the risks of anaesthesia can be increased in very young or older rabbits. General anaesthesia always carries a risk, although with advances in veterinary medicine and modern anaesthetic agents, the risk of general anaesthetics in small furies has been greatly reduced.
If you have any concerns, please discuss these with your vet, who will be able to give you informed advice and hopefully put your mind at rest.
Protect your rabbit against fatal infections and diseases
There are now three diseases that we can vaccinate your rabbit against: one is myxomatosis and the other two are different strains of the viral haemorrhagic disease (now called rabbit haemorrhagic disease or RHD1 and RHD2). Previously, myxomatosis and RHD1 had to be vaccinated against separately, but now there is a single vaccine for both which can be given from five weeks of age, with a booster given annually. There is no licensed vaccine in the UK against RHD2, but your vet can apply to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) for a Special Import Certificate (SIC) and import a vaccine from France which contains both RHD1 and RHD2.
Myxomatosis: This disease is caused by the myxoma virus and is spread by blood sucking insects, most notably the rabbit flea Spilopsyllus cuniculi: the incubation period varies depending on the strain and virulence encountered, but it is typically at least 5 days.
Clinical signs include bulging eyes with lots of white discharge, and localized swellings around the head, face, ears, lips, anus and genitalia.
Treatment is limited to supportive therapy only, and success rates are low: many rabbits have to be euthanased on welfare grounds. Traditionally, the disease occurs between spring and autumn, so an ideal time to vaccinate would be March/April.
It is still important to check your rabbit regularly for fleas, since these are the most common vector of the disease.
Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD1): This disease is caused by a calicivirus and is spread by both direct contact between rabbits and indirect contact such as with people, contaminated bedding or hutches, as well as insect vectors such as fleas and flies. The incubation period is 1 – 3 days and the virus can survive in the environment for up to 105 days.
Symptoms include depression, collapse, difficulty breathing, convulsions, high temperature, lethargy and bleeding from the nose. The mortality rate is 90 – 100% with death usually occurring within 12 – 36 hours.
Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease 2 (RHD2): also caused by a calicivirus, and also spread by direct contact between rabbits and indirect contact with people, contaminated bedding or hutches and insect vectors, it is thought that one of the main forms of transmission is through bird faeces: the birds feed on the cadavers of infected rabbits and then the virus passes out in their faeces. The incubation period is 3 – 9 days and there is a prolonged period of illness of up to 5 days, with the virus being able to survive in the environment for up to 200 days.
This disease can cause sudden death, but more commonly is slow onset and often has no clinical signs, but weight loss, anorexia and jaundice are commonly seen: the mortality rate is less than for RHD1 at 5 – 70%.
Things to look out for:
- A regular output of large round, fairly hard faecal pellets indicates a healthy digestive system. A decrease in faecal output may be one of the first signs of disease.
- Consistent eating of all parts of its diet. If your bunny starts to selectively eat or leave parts of its diet, this may indicate a problem with its teeth.
- A glossy, healthy coat. If your bunny starts to get matted or soiled, this may indicate underlying dental disease or obesity.
- Check for fleas or other skin problems, not forgetting the feet.
- Check for soiling around the genitalia and anus: especially check that your rabbit has not got any caecotrophs (the soft, sticky faeces) stuck around its anus.
- Check your bunny’s front teeth (incisors) to see that they are wearing down evenly.
- Make sure your bunny is not getting overweight.
Something to remember
A rabbit must continually eat and defaecate to maintain a healthy digestive system. Rabbits are prey animals in the wild, so showing signs of disease means showing weakness and would put them at risk of being caught. Therefore if you notice any difference in your rabbit’s behaviour or any signs of disease, take your bunny straight to the vet.
Some rabbit facts
- Life expectancy: 5-13 years
- Gestation period: 28-32 days
- Litter size: 4-12
- Weaning age: 4-6 weeks
- Sexual maturity: variable, but can be from 12 weeks
- Body temperature: 38.4-39.6ºC
- Respiratory rate: 30-80 breaths per minute
- Heart rate: 130-300 beats per minute.
Make sure your rabbit is in tip top condition
In the wild rabbits are prey animals and often do not show any signs of illness until the disease is progressed quite far, but did you know that many health problems rabbits face are generally a result of an inappropriate diet?
Health problems your rabbit could face
Below is a list of common problems your bunny could face. If you have any doubts about your rabbit’s health you should always seek advice from a member of our experienced team. The most common signs of illness is a decreased appetite and a decrease in faecal output: if your bunny is exhibiting any of these signs, it is important for one of our vets to give them a thorough examination.
Overgrown teeth are due to malocclusion and is a very common problem in rabbits. Their teeth grow continually, so unless they are worn down in an even manner, they can develop spurs on the inside or outside of their molars (cheek teeth) which dig into the tongue or cheeks respectively.
The incisor teeth (front teeth) can also become overgrown and in extreme cases will curl and grow into the roof of the mouth or lower jaw. Rabbits can also get dental caries (rotting teeth) if they are fed a diet high in simple sugars such as lots of treats and too much fruit.
Other signs of dental problems include selective eating. For instance, preferring to eat certain foods, usually the softer ones, saliva dribbling, staining around the chin, a decrease in faecal output, an accumulation of caecotrophs around the anal region, and matted fur.
Ensuring that your rabbit has a proper diet, high in hay and low in fruit and treats, will help to prevent dental problems. A gnawing block can also help to keep your rabbit’s incisors nicely trimmed, and a varied environment will help to stop your rabbit damaging its incisors by chewing at the bars of its cage.
Dental problems should be dealt with as soon as they are recognised. If your rabbit’s teeth become too overgrown, they will not be able to eat properly and will therefore not be getting a complete nutritious diet.
Your rabbit, as a result, could lose a significant amount of weight, and the longer the teeth are left, the worse the chances of being able to correct the problems.
In extreme cases, abscesses will form at the root of your rabbit’s teeth. These are very difficult to treat and carry a poor prognosis. Your vet will be able to see your rabbit’s front teeth with it awake, but it is not always possible to get a good look at its cheek teeth. This may require anaesthetizing your bunny.
Flystrike is generally a problem in summer and is caused by flies laying eggs in your rabbit’s fur. These eggs will then hatch within 12-24 hours into maggots, which bore into the rabbit’s flesh, eating away at it. If the maggots are left your rabbit will soon go into shock, and will ultimately die.
It is absolutely imperative to check your rabbit at least twice a day during the warm months. If you notice any soiling around the rabbit’s back end, you should clean this off immediately and dry your rabbit thoroughly. The combination of soiling, moisture and the warmth from your rabbit will encourage flies to land on it and lay their eggs.
The fly eggs look like very small grains of rice and are laid in clutches. They can be easily missed, and unfortunately sometimes the first sign of flystrike is when the maggots have started to cause severe damage to your rabbit.
Flystrike requires IMMEDIATE veterinary attention. The best cure for this horrible condition is prevention. Checking your rabbit regularly is the first step – make sure that there is no soiling, and check regularly for fly eggs and maggots.
Using insecticides such as Rearguard or Xenex spot on is also advisable: ask your veterinary surgeon for advice, if they do not stock these products, they will be able to order them in for you. Placing netting over the front of your rabbit’s hutch could help to prevent flies from entering.
Did you know that many rabbits are clinically obese? The most common causes of this are lack of exercise and being fed an excess of concentrated food. Rabbits should have no more than one tablespoon of concentrates per kilogram of bodyweight per day. For most rabbits this will mean about two tablespoons a day.
Obesity can lead to many other health problems – overweight rabbits are unable to reach their back ends to clean themselves or to eat their caecotrophs, which means they are prone to flystike and to gastrointestinal problems.
As with humans, being overweight will put a lot of pressure on the heart, and increases the risk of anaesthesia. To help your rabbit lose weight, reduce thier food intake and increase their daily exercise until the right bodyweight is achieved.
Encephalitozoon cuniculi is a protozoan infection that targets the nervous system. It is transmitted via urine and causes a wide variety of clinical signs, depending on which nerves have been affected. The most common signs are ataxia (uncoordinated movement), head tilt, urinary incontinence: if your rabbit displays any of these signs, seek veterinary advice as soon as possible.
Ectoparasites rabbits can be affected by fleas, lice and mites. A common sign of these is scratching and/or fur loss. Mites can also affect the ears, generally causing a build up of scaly discharge and redness of the inside of the ear canal. Your vet can treat these problems in your rabbit and give advice on preventing them. Please also note that fleas can transmit the deadly myxomatosis virus.
The most common cause of breathing problems in rabbits is a bacterium called Pasteurella multocida. Many rabbits carry this bacterium and have what is called a ‘subclinical’ infection, which can become a full blown infection in times of stress. Clinical signs include snuffles, sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge and pneumonia. Immediate veterinary care should be sought.
Constipation can be a simple dietary disorder, cured by feeding more greenstuff: if it persists or is combined with other symptoms, it may be due to something more serious, e.g. a blockage due to furballs: this needs to be detected early so it is very important to check your rabbit’s faeces.
Diarrhoea may be cured by withholding greens for 24 hours and feeding only hay and water. If the diarrhoea persists more than 24 hours, it is important to seek veterinary advice as it may be a symptom of something more serious: baby rabbits with diarrhoea should always be seen immediately.
Coccidiosis is a very serious disease which has two forms: one attacks the intestines and the other the liver. Symptoms include loss of appetite, dullness, persistent diarrhoea and a yellow jaundiced look: suspected cases should be isolated immediately and have prompt veterinary care. If diagnosed early, the disease can be controlled, otherwise death is inevitable.
Gut Stasis, a condition in which the guts stop moving adequately to push the ingesta (food) downwards, is a fairly common condition in rabbits. It is often secondary to other problems, such as painful teeth or infections, which stop the rabbit from eating properly and decrease the throughput of the guts. It is an incredibly dangerous condition, and if left untreated will inevitably lead to death. It is also a common post-operative complaint.
Pododermatitis: this is an extremely painful condition of the skin covering the metatarsal region of the foot. It is usually caused by spending too much time on an abrasive surface and overweight rabbits are more prone. It is an extremely difficult condition to treat, and if left too long, carries a very poor prognosis. It is important to check the underside of your rabbit’s feet regularly: the sooner this problem is treated, the more hopeful the outcome. Rex rabbits are particularly prone to this condition.
Abscesses: these can occur after fighting or, more commonly, around the jaw line due to severe dental problems. Rabbit pus is very thick and these abscesses form a very thick wall which can become calcified: immediate veterinary attention is required to ensure the best outcome.
Myxomatosis: caused by the Myxoma virus and transmitted by biting insects, this is a deadly disease of rabbits. Clinical signs include swelling of the eyelids and genitalia, with a profuse purulent ocular and nasal discharge. This disease has an extremely high mortality rate, with death occurring within one to two weeks. Vaccination is available, but relies heavily on the rabbit’s individual immunity to the disease, and is therefore not always 100% effective. Checking your rabbit regularly for fleas, and placing a mosquito net over your rabbit’s hutch can help to prevent this disease.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD): this deadly disease has claimed the lives of several thousand rabbits since 1992. It causes severe internal haemorrhaging and by the time the owner realizes there is something wrong, it is often too late. Symptoms range from a loss of appetite to sudden death. Direct contact is not needed to infect your rabbit: the virus can be transported via people, clothing, accommodation and animals which have been in contact with the disease.