Guides for rabbits
Rabbits are social animals who live in large groups. Within the group a hierarchy forms amongst the males and females and those of a similar rank form pairs throughout the breeding season. Outside the breeding season rabbits live communally in large warrens. In the breeding season (January to September) the female digs a blind ending nest and she lines this with hay and fur from her dewlap. Rabbits have a 29-35 day gestation period.
Rabbits can be kept indoors or outside. They can make excellent house pets but you must protect your wiring and allow them regular access to the garden for exercise, food and sunlight. Rabbits are more susceptible to heat than cold and can easily die from heat stroke in their hutch on a hot day.
Rabbits are very social animals and it is nice for them to have the companionship of another rabbit, but in the wild only a female and a male live together. Two males together will fight as will two un-neutered females. If you plan to get more than one rabbit it is important to think carefully about which sex to get and whether to get them neutered at the vets. Castration and spaying is strongly recommended from the age of 4 months for health and social reasons.
Whenever you pick up a rabbit make sure to support the hind legs. These legs are so strong that if the rabbit kicks in the air and there is nothing to give support then the rabbit could damage his spine.
Never pick a rabbit up by their ears!
Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease [RHD] previously called Viral Haemorrhagic Disease
This disease was first noted in the UK in 1992, and because of the rapid spread, it was a notifiable disease. The disease is airborne and can kill rabbits a long way from an outbreak area. RHD causes blood clots in the lungs, a severe nose bleed, and often an agonising death in just 1-2 days.
This terrible disease was actually introduced into many countries in an attempt to control the rabbit population and it was very effective. Although wild rabbits are gradually becoming more resistant, many still die a horrible death each year. The disease is spread by biting insects such as the flea and mosquito and it has a peak incidence during the summer months when there are the largest number of these insects around.
We strongly recommend regular vaccination against these diseases.
For the best possible protection your rabbit will previously have required vaccination against Myxomatosis every six months and an additional vaccination, once a year, for protection against RHD
The good news is that a new combined vaccination has been produced, to replace the old ‘3 injections a year’ protocol.
Now, to protect your rabbit against these terrible diseases, your rabbit will receive 1 injection a year instead of 3!
A lot of the problems vets see in pet rabbits are diet related. The best diet for your rabbit is one consisting of grass, hay and suitable vegetables in small quantities. A small meal of dry pellets (available from the surgery) can also be fed.
Rabbits should be fed on good quality /dried grass and this should provide 80% of their diet. They can also be given some fresh grass and vegetables, in moderation and once vaccinated for myxomatosis and RHD they can go outside to graze.
All changes to your rabbits diet must be done gradually.
The correct calcium levels in grass are vital as is the grinding action of the back teeth when chewing it. Brittle bones and overgrown teeth are almost always associated with feeding too much rabbit mix and not enough of their natural diet.
Ideally your rabbit should be living outside on the lawn so that it can select the types of grass it likes. If it just isn’t possible to let your rabbit out then collect some blades of fresh grass yourself. Mower clippings and lots of lettuce can cause a build up of gas which can be quite uncomfortable for your bunny. Keep your rabbit off the flower borders as some plants are poisonous. If you need to supplement the hay and grass over the winter or to give your rabbit a treat then feed the pelleted food such as “Excel” [available to buy in our waiting room] rather than ‘rabbit mix’.
At night rabbits eat soft faeces directly from the anus. This then passes through the gut again and the rabbit extracts much more nourishment the second time. When a rabbit fails to perform copraphagia then the sticky faeces starts to accumulate around the bottom. The commonest reasons for a rabbit not performing coprophagia are that the rabbit is either eating a diet too low in fibre or that they are too fat to reach!
Foods that can be fed safely to rabbits, in moderation are;
Basil, spring greens, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrot tops, cauliflower leaves, celery, coriander, clover, dandelions, green pepper, mint, parsley, pea pods, radish tops, watercress, sweetcorn, saw thistle, plantain, docks, brambles, chickweed, spinach and kale (small quantities).
1 tbsp fruit per 2kg body weight can be fed per day such as apple, banana, pineapple, melon, peach, pear and strawberry.
All the teeth continue to grow throughout a rabbit’s life so they need to be in constant use to prevent them becoming overgrown. Overgrown molars can dig into the sides of the mouth causing a rabbit to start dribbling and stop eating.
We see lots of rabbits here because of “malocclusion”. This means the teeth don’t meet properly and as a result they need burring down at the surgery…sometimes every 3-4 weeks!
There is a lot of evidence that problems like this start early on in life and that they are preventable. If a young rabbit is fed a correct food when it is weaned then this will help the teeth to grow normally so that they are strong and correctly positioned in the jaw. A young rabbit needs to have plenty of jaw exercise chewing and grinding coarse plant material to allow the teeth to form correctly as the rabbit grows.
Problems with the rest of the bowel
Rabbits need a good diet to keep the rest of their bowel in good working order. If a rabbit is fed a diet too low in fibre then gut bacteria and the bowel won’t be able to function properly. Problems which lead on from this are obesity and diarrhoea which can make the rabbit prone to “fly-strike” in the summer.
Exercise and grass are both vital to produce a rabbit with strong healthy bones. A wild rabbit hopping about outside will have bones more than twice as strong as one kept in a hutch. Encourage your rabbit to play. Create a playful and interesting environment. One which requires them to work both physically and mentally.