By Ness Exotic Wellness Center, Dr. Robert Ness, DVM
CARE OF RABBITS
Our pet rabbits are direct descendants of the wild European rabbits. The scientific name Oryctolagus cuniculus means “hare- like digger”. The average life span for a rabbit is 8 –12+ years. Rabbits are intelligent, friendly, and quiet house pets.
Rabbits are herbivorous prey species and part of the rabbit’s anatomical design is geared towards detecting and escaping predators. For example:
Rabbits should never be housed outdoors. A domestic rabbit’s body is not suited for outdoor exposure to predators, parasites, and weather and temperature extremes. Housing a rabbit outdoors contributes to a greatly reduced life span.
A rabbit's environment is key to his or her happiness and health.
House rabbits should NEVER be kept completely confined to a cage. Exercise is vital for the health and well being of the rabbit. Rabbits are designed to run and jump and move over large areas. By placing a rabbit in a cage for most of their life leads to the possibilities of physical and/or behavioral disorders. To limit a rabbit to a cage exclusively can lead to obesity, pododermatitis (inflammation of the feet), poor bone density, poor muscle tone, gastrointestinal and urinary dysfunction, and behavioral problems. < note: WMCH recommends at least 4-6 play time hours in a bunny-proofed room each day> A house rabbit’s cage should be high enough so that the rabbit can stand on their hind legs without hitting their head on the top of the cage, plus provide a resting area and space for a litter box. The cage should be easy to clean, indestructible, well- ventilated, and kept in a cool area. The cage floor must be solid, as wire or grating can lead to foot abscesses. The optimum temperature for a house rabbit is between 60 - 70°F. If the temperature is in the upper 70’s your rabbit may start drooling and have a clear nasal discharge. If the temperature reaches the upper 80’s plus high humidity this could cause heat stroke and fatality. Always try to remember is you are hot in short pants and a short-sleeved shirt imagine how hot your rabbit is in a fur coat!
Your rabbit needs to be let out of his cage for exercise at least a few hours a day (2 -3 hours, and more is better). There are a few ways to achieve a safe play/exercise are for your rabbit. First you can use small animal play pens or fencing panels. Most pet stores carry these now for rabbits. They are linkable metal fence that is 3 feet high and the wire is close together so that the rabbit can’t get his feet stuck in between the wires. The pen keeps your bunny away from furniture, electrical cords, and toxic materials that can be found through out the home. The pen can also be used outside so that your bunny can graze on your pesticide- free lawn. Make sure to NEVER leave your rabbit unattended in the outside pen, because it takes only a minute for a dog, cat, raccoon or hawk to do harm to your rabbit or for a rabbit to jump or dig it’s way out of the pen. If you need to protect the floor under the pen you can use a sheet of no-wax flooring which can be found at
most hardware stores.
If you are going to allow your rabbit free access to your house you need to “bunny-proof” the house. Block all escape routes, cover or block access to electrical cords/phone cords/computer cords, cover furniture to protect it from being chewed on or scratched by the rabbit’s claws, and remove toxic plants, rodenticides, insecticides and other toxic materials/chemicals.
Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box. When you begin training your rabbit, confine your pet to a small area, either in their cage or a blocked off section of a room and place a litter box in the corner. When placing the litter box in the corner use the corner that your rabbit has all ready started using as a toilet area. Make sure the sides of the box are low enough so your pet can get in and out easily. Some people find it helpful to place some of the rabbit’s droppings in the litter box to help them associate the box with elimination.
Others have also found that hay in the litter box to help encourage defecation in the box, because rabbits will usually pass stool while eating. In the rabbits exercise area make sure to place extra litter boxes (one more than the number of rabbits) to help prevent accidents. Recycled paper litters such as yesterday’s news or carefresh makes the best substrate for your rabbit’s litter box. Recycled paper litters are non-toxic and digestible if eaten, draws moisture away from the surface keeping it drier, control odor well, and can be composted. Do not use clay or clumping kitty litter. This type of litter can cause intestinal blockage in your rabbit. Do not use pine or cedar shavings as they can cause respiratory and liver disease in your rabbit.
Rabbits like to chew, so give them branches from untreated trees (dry the wood for at least a month to prevent any reactions to the sap), wooden chew toys for birds, or unfinished/unpainted wicker or grass hay baskets. They like things that make noise such as keys, hard plastic baby toys, jar lids, empty plastic bottles or metal cans that have NO sharp edges. They like things that both move and can be chewed such as toilet paper or paper towel rolls, empty small cardboard cartons and small piles of shredded paper.
The main thing to remember when holding/carrying your rabbit is to ALWAYS support the hindquarters to prevent serious spinal injuries. Rabbit backbones are fragile and can fracture if the hind legs are allowed to dangle and the animal then gives one strong kick. Unfortunately these injuries are usually permanent and frequently result in euthanasia of the pet, so the best policy is prevention. Never pick up a bunny by his/her sensitive ears because it is excruciatingly painful and totally unnecessary! It is scoop up under the chest and then place your other hand under the back legs to lift your bunny from the floor.
When learning how to handle your rabbit and your rabbit’s temperament keep them as close to the floor as possible so that if he/she jumps out of arms there isn’t a chance for a fall. Ask your veterinarian or an experienced rabbit handler to show you the proper and safe way to handle your rabbit.
Loss of Appetite
Rabbits are eating machines and if you note that your pet has changed his/her eating habits, there is cause for concern. The most common reason a rabbit stops eating is in response to pain somewhere in the body. The rule of thumb regarding the seriousness of this is:
Uterine adenocarcinoma is a malignant cancer that can affect female rabbits over two years of age. Female rabbits over the age of two that are left unsprayed have a 85% risk of reproductive cancers. The best prevention for this disease is to remove the reproductive organs (ovaries and uterus) in a surgical procedure commonly called a Spay. Male rabbits can develop testicular disease, but this is not very common.
Neutering/Spaying can be performed on males/females between four to six months of age. There are other reasons for performing this procedure such as prevention of pregnancy, prevention of false pregnancies, prevention of mammary gland disease, prevention of aggressive behavior, and prevention of urine spraying.
Hairballs are often cited as a reason for rabbits to stop eating. The problem is not hair but abnormalities in the rabbit’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract motility. A rabbit normally has hair in its GI tract due to grooming. A rabbit on a healthy diet of grass hay and dark green foods will not have a problem with this. The only exception is that sometimes the long haired breeds such as Angora or Jersey Woolies can accumulate an abnormal amount of hair in their stomach even on a good diet. These breeds need to be brushed regularly to help prevent the ingestion of large amounts of their long hair.
The normal color of rabbit urine can range from yellow to dark orange-red. The color comes from the plant pigments in the food or from normal pigments produced in the wall of their bladder. The urine can be clear or cloudy with a white precipitate (white solid substances in urine). This white precipitate is excess calcium excreted through the urine. Rabbits can develop kidney or bladder disease and may exhibit signs such as blood in the urine, straining to urinate, inappropriate or frequent urination, or the total inability to urinate. If your rabbit is exhibiting any of these signs you should make an appointment to bring them in to see a veterinarian immediately.
ROUNTINE VETERINARY CARE
The most important things in your bunny's diet is Water, Grass Hays, Dark Leafy Greens and Cecotropes (soft fecal pellets, that are ingested by your bunny to help aid in fermentation and provides nutrients)!
A basic healthy diet for a domestic rabbit should include the following:
Legume hays are made from alfalfa, clover, peas, beans or peanuts. These hays are loaded with nutrients but have more nutrients but have more calories, calcium and protein than a house rabbit needs. Feeding only legume hays may lead to GI disorders and obesity and for this reason we do not recommend feeding these hays. When purchasing your hay you need to consider the following:
Dark green foods are equally as important as hay in your rabbit’s diet. Green foods provide all the same benefits as hay. They also contain a wider variety of micronutrients and importantly provide water in the diet. Feeding green foods forces the rabbit to take in liquid and thus helps promote healthy gastrointestinal (GI) function. Greens are appropriate for any age rabbit! If your rabbit has never eaten greens before, we recommend starting him/her on hay first. This will help to make the appropriate changes in the GI tract. There are a huge variety of green foods that you can offer your rabbit. The darker green food is higher in nutritional values. You might even consider growing a patch of grass and dandelions in your yard just for your rabbit. But this grass must be free of chemicals and pesticides!
Here is a list of some recommended dark green foods:
Water should be always be available and changed daily. Use either a water bottle or a heavy bowl for your rabbit. Also remember that your rabbit may not be drinking a large quantity of water if they are eating a large amount of greens!
Rabbits are very successful at making the most out of the food they eat, food that other animals could not even digest. The key to their success is the production of cecotropes, which are a special type of dropping that, is eaten by the rabbit directly from the anus and then digested. These droppings are not made up of waste material but are rich in organisms that have come from the area of the intestinal tract called the cecum. These organisms are packed with nutrients such as amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), fatty acids and a variety of vitamins. In order for the rabbit to get these nutrients, the cecotropes, these organisms must be eaten and digested thereby extracting the nutrients. In this way, rabbits can extract the maximum nutrients from low energy food materials. Cecotropes are elongated, greenish in color, coated in mucous and have a strong odor. If a rabbit has a medical problem that prevents them from reaching the anus, then you may see cecotropes on the cage floor. Cecotropes are a vital part of your rabbit’s diet!
Fruits & Other Vegetables – Treat Foods
Depending on the time of the year, rabbits in the wild would have access to additional foods such as fruits, vegetables and flowers. Since these items do not make up the majority of the diet, we recommend feeding these special items in limited quantities. Commercial treats should be totally avoided because they are loaded with starch and fat and if fed in quantity can cause serious health problems. Follow the same guidelines as listed for selecting and using green foods with the exception of the amount. You can feed your pet a total of 1 heaping tablespoon per 2 pounds of body weight per day of any combination of the foods below:
Avoid high starch and/or fat foods for your rabbit. Examples of high fat and/or starch foods to AVOID include: any kinds of Beans, Breads, Seeds, Chocolate, Peas, Cereals, Oats, Refined Sugar, Corn,Nuts, Wheat, and any other grains.
Commercial Rabbit Pellets
We do not recommend that you feed your rabbit a commercial pellet diet. As mentioned before, rabbits gain all the nutrition they need from grass hay, dark green foods and their cecotropes. In addition, these foods promote a healthy GI tract in your house rabbit and proper wear for their teeth. Pellets were originally developed for rabbits in the meat, fur and laboratory animal industry to provide a uniform and highly concentrated food that could be easily fed to a large number of animals. The problems that a diet comprised primarily of commercial pellets can create in the pet rabbit can include: obesity, eating less cecotropes (decreases the natural flora in the rabbit preventing proper digestion) abnormal tooth growth, and decreased water intake causing urinary problems.
For more information about rabbit care, please visit rabbit.org.
Rabbits are wonderful pets but require some basic knowledge and understanding in regards to their actions and well being. They will bring you many moments of joy and happiness. If you have any further questions in regard to your rabbit, please contact us at email@example.com and we will be more than willing to help you in every way possible.