Owning a Rabbit – Part 1

Did you know there are approximately 1.7 million rabbits kept as pets in the UK? This makes them the third most popular pet after cats and dogs. There are many different breeds all varying in size, shape and personality.  It is generally thought owning a rabbit is easy. However, as they need daily attention, have quite complex needs and can live for a long time (typically 8-12 years or even longer) keeping a rabbit is a major commitment.

Buying a rabbit

If you are looking to get a rabbit, going to a reputable breeder is a good option.  They will have planned the breeding carefully and the baby rabbits should have a good temperament. They will have handled them from a young age so they get used to being picked up. You will also know the exact date of birth which will give you peace of mind that you are not taking the baby rabbits away too young.

Another option is to go to a rescue centre. Every year many rabbits get abandoned because the owners either lose interest or can’t look after them properly.  If a rabbit goes into a rescue centre they will receive a vet check to ensure it’s healthy before being put forward for adoption. The rabbit’s temperament will be checked to ensure they will be safe for children to handle.  Also, many centres will ensure the rabbits are micro-chipped and neutered before you take them home.  You may need to fill in forms, have an interview and possibly have a home visit. This is done to ensure you are able to look after the rabbit properly.

A lot of people will get their first rabbit from a pet shop. However, very few of them will get their rabbits from private/reputable breeders. They will more than likely get them from commercial breeders and the rabbits have been born as part of a mass breeding programme.  These types of breeders are aiming for quantity rather than quality.  Also, the baby rabbits won’t have been handled before reaching the pet shop which means they may be more afraid of humans.  If you do go to a pet shop, ensure the staff know what they are talking about and are able to provide you with all the information you need.

When getting a rabbit there are a couple of other things to consider:

Rabbits are very social animals and do not like to be alone.  If possible you should keep your rabbit with another friendly rabbit unless your vet has told you otherwise.  Rabbits can get bored very easily and can suffer if they have no company or nothing to do. If you have been told to keep your rabbit on its own make sure you interact with it every day.

If you already own a rabbit and you are getting another one, introduce them gradually and do not leave them on their own at first. It may be a good idea to put them in a space that is new to both to them.  Normally, young rabbits that are bought up together will get on, but if they are introduced as adults they may fight.

If you have other pets, a cat or a dog, do not leave your rabbits unsupervised when they are around. Even if you know they all get on. It’s better to be safe than sorry

Finally, unless you are planning on breeding it would be advisable to get your rabbits neutered as this can reduce the likelihood of fighting in both male and female rabbits. Another advantage is neutering female rabbits also stops them getting uterine cancer.

In the next part of our blog we will look at diet and advise on where to keep your rabbit – indoors or outdoors.

As always, if you have any questions you can call us at the clinic or leave a question on our Facebook page. Also, you can pop in to get a free check up with one of our rabbit nurses who can give advice on diet, dental, neutering, vaccinations, housing and boredom breaking activities to help keep your bunny happy

Rabbits – Diet and Husbandry

RABBITS – Diet and husbandry

Water should always be available.

Avoid muesli based diets – it makes rabbits more likely to become selective feeders and not to obtain the full nutrition needed.

Pellets such as Excel should be fed but should make up no more than 10% of the rabbits total diet.

70% of a rabbit’s diet should be grass and hay – it is important that they chew grass and hay to prevent teeth overgrowth. A variety of hay types can be used as it encourages different chewing patterns and is better for dental health.

The rest of the diet should be made up of green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli, sage, basil, and carrot tops. Carrots and fruits should be fed as treats in small quantities and they contain a large amount of sugar that rabbits can digest very well and lead to obesity. Avoid onions, leek and rhubarb as these are toxic. For a comprehensive list see

https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-diet/

The amount fed should be modified to prevent obesity. An obese rabbit is unable to groom or to eat the soft faeces they have to consume to obtain vital B vitamins. It also leads to a ‘sticky bum’ and makes a rabbit more prone to fly-strike in the summer months. Obesity will make mobility more difficult in the older rabbit that may also have osteoarthritis. For weight clinics, please see one of our nurses.

If your rabbit is becoming a selective feeder, it may be due to overgrowth of the teeth, which can make chewing some foods difficult or even painful. You may notice dribbling down the chin and your rabbit may not be eating the soft faeces (caecotrophs) or passing any faeces as normal. Some rabbits also develop watery/crusty eyes. If concerned, please bring your rabbit in to see one of our dental nurses who can assess the teeth

Exercise is important to prevent obesity. Digestion and gut motility are encouraged by your rabbit moving around and therefore it is important that your rabbit should have access to an area outside of their hutch every day that is large enough for them to run around. For more information, please see

https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-housing/

“The Vet Says……” – Myxomatosis in Rabbits

Perhaps one of the most well known animal diseases, it has had much publicity since it decimated the rabbit population after introduction to the UK in the early 1950’s. So virulent is the disease that 95% of rabbits in the UK had died by 1955. Since then it has gone on to be a major killer of wild rabbits over the years and can also be found in domestic rabbits. The disease is able to mutate and comes back with a slightly different strain making eradication very difficult. The severity of outbreaks tends to vary and there was quite a major outbreak in the South east of England in 2000. Myxomatosis is a threat to all rabbits but the greatest threat is to wild rabbits.

Those domesticated rabbits that live indoors are at least risk but they are still susceptible to it. Domesticated rabbits living outside in gardens and hutches are at an increased risk, especially if wild animals can get in to the garden, or they come into contact with a dog that hunts wild rabbits. The myxoma virus  is mainly spread by biting animals such as mosquitoes, fur mites or rabbit fleas. The fleas can go from one rabbit to another via contact with each other. The best way to protect your pet rabbit is to have it vaccinated against the disease. Myxomatosis  is a dreadful disease and the animals die a horrible long slow death. They can take up to two weeks to die and treatment is rarely successful, so the kindest option is usually euthanasia.

Symptoms

The first sign of the most common form of the disease is often runny eyes and can be confused with conjunctivitis. In myxi however, the genitals show signs of swelling & puffiness  while  the conjunctivitis worsens until it leads to blindness. Nodules can also start to appear on the head and body. Thick pus starts to discharge from the nose and swollen eyes  and death will follow. There are two other forms of myxomatosis and these have a better recovery rate if treated quickly. One causes pneumonia type symptoms and snuffles while the other is again nodular. Symptoms in vaccinated rabbits are much the same but less severe,  and the disease is potentially treatable in vaccinated rabbits.

Prevention

Domestic rabbits have no genetic immunity against myxomatosis and it is essential these rabbits are vaccinated to give them the best chance of survival. Boosters need to be kept up to date and owners need to look out for symptoms of the disease to catch it as early as possible. If it is thought a rabbit may have contracted the disease, it should be isolated from any other rabbits to prevent spread. If there is an outbreak nearby then it is safest to get a further booster if the rabbit has not had a booster in the last 6 months. Vaccinations can be given at 6 weeks of age and can also be given to pregnant rabbits. Regular 6 monthly vaccinations are recommended. Other steps you can take are to buy hay from farms not infested with Myxi, fit insect screens to hutches and runs & prevent standing water from accumulating nearby to reduce mosquito’s appearing. Check your rabbit regularly for fleas and fur mites and if found get treatment to eliminate them. The vaccination for myxomatosis is unusual in that part of the dose also has to go into the layers of the skin (intradermally) and for this reason it is best given by a vet to ensure it is done correctly otherwise the rabbit will not be properly vaccinated.

Treatment

This is as previously mentioned and is usually unsuccessful in unvaccinated rabbits. If a vaccinated rabbit contracts the virus then treatment can be successful with good veterinary & nursing care. This will likely include

  • Regular bathing of sticky eyes and genitalia
  • Keeping them in a warm environment
  • Fluid treatment
  • Feeding
  • Antibiotics to prevent secondary infections

Remember

As always, prevention is better than cure. Vaccination substantially increases the chances of survival and will reduce the pain and suffering a rabbit will have to endure from catching myxomatosis.

“The Vet Says….” Fly Strike in Rabbits – Part 4

This is part 4 of our The Vet Says series on fly strike in rabbits – you can read part 1 herepart 2 here, and part 3 here. There are generally two types of commercial rabbit food; pelleted and mixed, muesli type food. The pelleted foods are far superior to the mixed foods. I always advise owners feed pelleted foods rather than mixed foods. Pelleted foods are generally of higher quality and provide more balanced nutrients especially fibre. Most importantly, they do not allow the rabbit to selectively eat the parts of the mixed food that they like.  When presented with mixed food, rabbits will pick out the high sugar, low fibre components of the diet – leaving the healthier high fibre parts in the bowl. Often, owners will through these bits way and replace with a whole new bowl of food. Unsurprisingly, the rabbit then picks out the sugary parts out again and the cycle repeats itself day after day. This results in a rabbit with a very poorly balanced diet leading to dental disease, obesity, digestive problems etc. The advantage of mixed diets is that are cheap, tasty and easily available. Therefore, wherever possible feed a high quality pelleted  food. If this is not possible, feed very small amounts of the mixed foods and always ensure the bowl is completely empty before putting more food in. Whichever, commercial food you use, hay and vegetables should constitute most of your rabbit’s diet. A tablespoon of commercial food once a day is adequate for rabbits under 3.5kg. For larger rabbits feed this amount twice a day. Fruit is high in sugar and not routinely eaten by rabbits in the wild. Small amounts of fruit very occasionally is ok as a treat but do not overdo it. Treats should be kept to a minimum. Try and avoid the really sugary treats (which rabbits love!) and the ones made with honey. High fibre treats are best. Finally, rabbits are not designed to eat cereals so bread, cakes and biscuits are off the menu!

“The Vet Says….” Fly Strike in Rabbits Part 3

This is part 3 of our The Vet Says series on fly strike in rabbits – you can read part 1 here and part 2 here. The wrong diet can increase the risk of your rabbit suffering from fly strike in a number of ways. If they are fed too much food they will become obese which means they will not be able to groom themselves properly. Also, the wrong diet greatly increases the risk of them developing dental disease which again can lead to failure to groom and a soiled perineum. Finally, simply overfeeding can result in rabbits not performing caecotrophy and getting a soiled back end. As well as fly strike, many of the problems we see in rabbits every day is caused by poor diet. So what constitutes a good diet for your rabbit? Remember that domestic rabbits are no different from wild rabbits in terms of their digestive system, so mimicking a wild rabbits diet is a good place to start. The most important component of their diet needs to be hay. Rabbits in the wild are grazers and only eat grass and other plants. They are designed to eat lots of low quality, high fibre food. This is vital for the health of their digestive system and helps to wear down their teeth, that grow continuously throughout their life. You should feed your rabbit at least its own body size in hay each day. They also can eat grass but must never be fed lawnmower clippings as these can make them ill. Secondly, you should feed your rabbit fresh vegetables. A handful morning and evening is about the right amount. In the wild, rabbits do not eat fruit or root vegetables. Green vegetables are the best to feed such as broccoli, cabbage, asparagus, kale, celery leaves, parsley, spinach. Despite the common idea that rabbits should eat carrots, they are high in sugar and should only be fed sparingly. The green carrot tops are ideal though. There are some plants that are very dangerous to your rabbit and must be avoided. These include: Amaryllis, Bindweed, Bracken, Elder Poppies, Foxglove, Laburnum, Yew, Lily-of-the-Valley, Lupin, Most evergreens, Oak leaves, Privet, Ragwort, Rhubarb leaves. If in any doubt ask your vet. Finally, you can feed some commercial rabbit food. What are the different types of commercial rabbit food you can feed? Find out next time!

“The Vet says…” Fly Strike in Rabbits Part 2

In Part 1 we talked about what fly strike is, in Part 2 we talk about what signs you should be looking for and how to prevent fly strike. The first thing an owner must do to prevent fly strike is regularly check their rabbit. This may seem like a very obvious statement but it never ceases to amaze me how many people do not handle and interact with their rabbits on a daily basis. Just putting some food in the cage once or twice a day is not properly caring for your rabbit! It is essential that the rabbit’s perineal area (area underneath the tail around the bottom and vulva/penis) is checked on a daily basis. In a healthy rabbit, this area should be completely clean and free from faecal matter and urine. Any urine soaked fur or faecal material is abnormal and should not be ignored. If the perineal area is found to be dirty then it is a real concern. As a minimum the owner should clean the area by bathing, but ideally the rabbit should be checked by a vet to determine why it is not grooming properly.

Other signs of fly strike that may be noted on examination include smell. The skin lesions associated with fly strike exude a characteristic and unpleasant smell. Also, fly strike is painful and irritating for the rabbit. Therefore, they are often restless and off their food. Careful examination of the soiled perineal area can reveal tiny white fly eggs before they have hatched. More often than not though, fly eggs will hatch to produce maggots that are not initially visible because they are concealed by the matted soiled fur. Signs of fly strike only become apparent when the rabbit gets ill. If you have any suspicions your rabbit is suffering from fly strike get an urgent vet check. As well as careful monitoring of their rabbit for signs of perineal soiling, owners can also prevent fly strike by regular cleaning of the rabbit’s cage to reduce the risk of attracting flies. Also, there are insecticidal products on the market that can be applied to the rabbit to reduce the risk of fly strike. These can be very useful – especially in rabbits where underlying disease makes prevention of perineal soiling difficult. However, they are poor substitute for actually treating the underlying causes of perineal soiling and certainly do not replace regular owner monitoring. Finally, the rabbit’s diet is a vitally important part of prevention of fly strike in rabbits. Why do you think diet is so important and what constitutes an ideal diet for a rabbit?

“The Vet Says…” Fly Strike in rabbits

Summer has arrived and we’re seeing the usual flurry of cases of fly strike in rabbits. Fly strike (proper name myiasis) is an extremely distressing condition for the affected rabbit and can be very challenging to treat. Due to a variety of possible reasons, the rabbit’s perineal area (back end underneath the tail) becomes contaminated with urine or faeces. In the summer months, this will attract flies – especially bluebottles and greenbottles. They lay their eggs in the contaminated fur and when these hatch out the maggots infest the rabbit and literally start eating them alive. It is a dreadful condition and still so common. Healthy rabbits do not get fly strike. There is always an underlying reason for the urine and faecal soiling of the perineum. The most common underlying reasons are diseases that stop the rabbit from grooming itself normally. These include dental disease, inappropriate diet, obesity and spondylosis (spinal arthritis), other forms of arthritis and sore hocks. Normally food passes through a rabbit’s digestive tract twice. The first passage of food through the digestive tract does not produce the typical firm hard pellet that we associate with rabbit droppings. Instead a soft, sticky capsule of material called a caecotroph is produced. A healthy rabbit on an appropriate diet will eat these directly from its anus- a process known as caecotrophy. Although it sounds revolting it is vital that the rabbit performs caecotrophy. Otherwise, they do not obtain all the nutrients from their food and their back ends becoming caked in soft faeces that are ideal for flies to lay maggots on. Caecotrophs are produced several hours after feeding when the rabbit is quiet and undisturbed. This is usually at night time for a domesticated rabbit and hence caecotrophs are sometimes called “night faeces”. The term coprophagia is still used by some people to describe the process of caecotrophy but this is not strictly accurate as coprophagia strictly means eating waste products such as dung and faeces – caecotrophs are rich in vital nutrients for the rabbit so are not waste products. Once caecotrophy has been perfomed, they pass through the digestive tract for the second time and then hard pellets are passed by the rabbit. These will not stick to the fur. Coming up in the next “The Vet Says…”; what steps can an owner take to prevent fly strike in their rabbit?