Rabbit Awareness Week (RAW) was founded in 2006 by Burgess Pet Care to try and educate owners about the welfare needs of their rabbits – one of the most misunderstood animals in the UK. Over the years they have focused on highlighting key welfare issue to help improve the lives of UK rabbits – from companionship to environment needs and nutritional needs.
Rabbits are now more popular in the UK than ever before and we now have many devoted bunny owners visiting the practice each week. They make wonderful pets in the right hands and come in many different sizes and colours, so there is something for everyone; in fact the British Rabbit Council recognises 50 different breeds and over 500 varieties!
Rabbits are social, intelligent and inquisitive creatures who need loving, devoted and patient owners who are prepared to spend plenty of time with them, provide plenty of space and lots of opportunities to play. Although rabbits are not generally expensive to buy, they are not cheap to look after properly and often cost at least as much as a cat or small dog in terms of routine healthcare and vaccinations; they can also live for 8–12 years so they are definitely a long-term commitment.
What To Feed Your Rabbit
The 2018 RAW campaign message is: Move Away From Muesli Diets
Providing the correct nutrition for you rabbits is very important and many of the health problems that we see in rabbits are caused by or related to poor nutrition. Did you know that 80-90% of your rabbit’s diet should consist of good quality feeding hay? For more
information see our blog on Feeding Rabbits for Good Health.
The following three foods are listed in order of importance:
- FEEDING HAY/DRIED GRASS – low in calories, high in fibre.
- FRESH VEG – medium calories, medium fibre.
- DRIED Food Pellets/Nuggets – high in calories, low in fibre.
Muesli-based diets have been proven to increase the risk of many harmful conditions for rabbits by published, peer-reviewed research undertaken by The University of Edinburgh. The study showed that muesli-based diets encourage selective feeding, where rabbits eat some (high starch/sugar) components of the muesli diet while rejecting the more fibrous pellets.
Selective feeding in this way increases the risk of:
- Dental problems
- Reduced faecal output, which could lead to gut stasis
- Uneaten caecotrophs, which can lead to flystrike
All of these conditions are damaging to a rabbit’s health and welfare and can be fatal.
The 2017 PDSA PAW Report shows that 25% of owners still feed muesli as part of their rabbit’s main diet, which means 280,000 rabbits are being fed a potentially harmful diet!
Rabbits are very social animals and live in large groups in the wild, so it is very important for them to have the company of at least one other rabbit. they should be housed in groups of 2 or more of the same sex or neutered males and females.
Guinea Pigs and Rabbits are NOT good company for each other and should not be housed together
Rabbits and guinea pigs do not make good companions for each other mainly because they are different species but also because
- They have different dietary needs
- They communicate in different ways,
- The rabbit may bully and/or injure the guinea pig
- Rabbits carry bacteria which can cause respiratory disease in guinea pigs
Handling Your Rabbit
Most rabbits love human company, gentle handling and stroking, but remember that because they are a ‘prey’ animal so being picked up and held can sometimes be very scary for them. When you pick your rabbit up, make sure you place one hand under their chest and use the other to fully support the hindquarters while cuddling them to you; if you have children it is always a good idea to have them handle the rabbit while they are sat on the floor so the rabbit will not get injured if he or she jumps out of the child’s arms.
In all honesty the best way to handle a rabbit is not to pick him or her up unless you absolutely have to. The best approach is to sit on the floor nearby and let your rabbit come to you for strokes, cuddles and treats; this gives him or her the opportunity to move away when they have had enough and will mean that they trust you more.
Housing Your Rabbit
Traditionally rabbits have always been kept in hutches in the garden, however they are just as happy (if not happier) when kept indoors. In the wild, rabbits can live in an area equivalent to 30 football pitches so they are not designed to live in a confined space; they need to be able to run, jump, explore and share companionship with their own kind, so their accommodation must be big enough to allow them to display these natural behaviours.
The RWAF (Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund) recommends a minimum hutch size of 6′ x 2′ x 2′ for a pair of medium-sized rabbits. As a guide, your rabbits need to be able to stand up fully on their hind legs and have enough space to do 3 big hops from one side of their hutch to the other; there also needs to be space for the food and separated toilet and sleeping areas.
Your rabbit should have access to a secure exercise area or run measuring at least 8′ x 4′ and be high enough for them to stand up fully on their hind legs.
There are a wide range of hutches and indoor accommodation available for rabbits, but bear in mind that most of what is available is often far too small. Bigger is better where the hutch and exercise spaces are concerned so our advice is to get the biggest for your budget.
Hay and straw are generally good materials for bedding and the bottom of the housing can be lined with newspaper. Wood shavings and sawdust are not recommended as they have been linked to respiratory problems. Other popular bedding materials include
- Fitch – recycled perforated paper, it is very absorbent and is actually marketed for horses.
- Finacard – dust free cardboard bedding.
- Megazorb – made from wood pulp, highly absorbent and safe for use with small animals.
- Fleece/Vetbed/Towels – commonly used for indoor rabbits but you do need to supply an area for foraging in (i.e., hay) if using these materials.
The cage and exercise areas, including the wire mesh, feeding bowls, bottles and toys should be thoroughly cleaned once a week using a pet safe disinfectant. Rinse the cage and allow it to dry properly before putting your rabbits back inside.
Exercise is very important for rabbits and they should have at least 3-4 hours of free run a day and will be most active in early morning and evening. They have evolved to run fast in short bursts and dodge and twist to escape predators, so their exercise area should be long enough and high enough to let them move freely. Rabbits often do a run, jump and twist manoeuvre when they are happy or excited – It’s called a binky!
The exercise space should include some shade from the sun and shelter in case the weather is windy or wet. It also needs to be secure to protect your bunnies from getting into trouble, escaping or being attacked by predators.
You will also need to provide hiding places such as tunnels or pipes to crawl through and cardboard boxes to hide in or chew.
A happy Binkying Bunny Rabbit
Mental Stimulation and Games For Your Rabbit
Rabbits are much more intelligent than people give them credit for and they like to play games that simulate to their natural tendencies. Good games include
- Hide and seek for food – Hiding favourite food and treats around their enclosure for them to find will help keep them active and prevent boredom. You can also stuff cardboard tubes with flavoured hay and treats.
- Bunny bowling – Use toy bowling pins and encourage them to knock them over (make sure they don’t chew them though.
- Bunny fetch – Some rabbits like picking things up with their teeth and flicking them away (for you to retrieve!) You can use rolled up paper, cardboard tubes or small bird/cat toys for your rabbits.
- Digging – Provide some boxes full of shredded or scrunched up paper and cardboard tunnels or a large solid plant pot with some dirt in it for digging.
Other toys can include untreated wood products, hard plastic baby toys, plastic balls with bells inside, cereal boxes, Please do not give your rabbit cherry wood, redwood and peach wood as these can be toxic.
Health Checks, Parasite Control and Vaccinations
At Castle Vets, we recommend rabbits have a health check with the vet at least twice a year to ensure they remain healthy. We also offer free rabbit advice clinics with our veterinary nurses (by appointment only) and these are available year-round for rabbit owners and anyone who is interested in keeping rabbits as pets and would like more information.
Myxomatosis: This is transmitted to rabbits by flying and biting insects such as mosquitos, rabbit fleas and mites. It causes severe swelling of the lips , eyelids, ears and genitals. Treatment is rarely successful and rabbits with this disease are often euthanased.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease: This is a highly contagious disease and can be transmitted directly from infected rabbits or via contaminated food, equipment or clothing. Viral Haemorrhagic Disease is nearly always fatal and causes severe internal bleeding.
Internal Parasites: Rabbits can be infected with a parasite called Encephalitzoon cuniculi (E.cuniculi). Preventative treatment can be given in the form of a liquid or paste available from your veterinary practice. See below for more information.
External Parasites: these will not only cause irritation to your rabbit, but some can also transmit Myxomatosis to your rabbit, so it is important to regularly treat your rabbit with a suitable product. Please speak to a veterinary nurse about suitable parasite control for your rabbit.
Daily Health Checks For Your Rabbits
Daily checks can easily be at home are a great way to make sure your rabbits are in tip top condition.
Nose: The nose should be clean and dry with no discharge. Any snuffling, discharge or crustiness may indicate a respiratory infection.
Mouth: Check that the upper and lower front teeth (incisors) meet properly in the middle and that they are not overgrown as this may prevent your rabbit from eating properly and could cause infections if the teeth are rubbing other areas of the mouth. Make sure there is no excess salivation or dribbling which may indicate that there is a problem with your rabbit’s teeth or gums.
Teeth: Should be nicely aligned, with the long incisors on the bottom and the top meeting in the middle and not overlapping.
Eyes: Should be clean, clear and bright. Any discharge could indicate an infection such as conjunctivitis or a blocked tear duct.
Ears: Should be clean and dry with no waxy or mucky discharge or crusting. Rabbit ears are very sensitive so if you think they need cleaning, it is a good idea to check with a veterinary nurse about what product to use and how to go about it. Never use cotton buds in rabbit ears.
Skin: Should look clean and healthy. Stroking your rabbit will help you feel for any lumps, bumps or wounds on the skin; if you find anything out of the ordinary make a note of exactly where it is before contacting your vet as small lumps can be difficult to find again! Flaky or dry skin could also indicate poor diet or a parasite problem,
Coat: Should look and feel clean and healthy. Most rabbits groom themselves really well so if you notice that your rabbit is not looking after him or herself this may indicate a health problem. Any mats that you find in the coat should be carefully groomed out because they will only become worse and very uncomfortable for your rabbit if they are left. Any signs of excessive moulting/shedding or any bald patches may indicate a parasite or health problem.
Feet: Should be clean and dry. Sore patches, urine staining or faecal matter on them may indicate a health problem (or that you need to clean out your rabbit’s toilet area more often!).
Nails: Make sure that your rabbit’s nails are not too long – nail clipping can be done at home if you have someone to help hold your rabbit for you. Your veterinary nurse can show you what to use and how to do it properly.
Bottom & Tail: Rabbits normally pass faecal pellets as well as the softer caecotrophs which they eat. Rabbits with consistently dirty bottoms may be suffering from an illness that causes loose faeces or diarrhoea, or they may be overweight and cannot groom themselves properly. Your rabbit’s bottom and tail area should be clean and dry with no mats or faecal matter stuck around it which could attract flies to lay their eggs on the rabbit leading to fly-strike. Dirty bottoms can be cleaned using cotton wool soaked in warm water and then thoroughly towel drying the area afterwards (do not use a hair dryer on your rabbit).
Movement: Look for any signs that your rabbit might be lame (limping) when moving about his or her hutch or exercise area, or that your rabbit is reluctant to exercise.
Breathing: Rabbits breathe a lot faster than we humans do. Check for any signs that your rabbit may be having difficulty, such as wheezing noises or panting which may indicate a respiratory problem or infection.
Eating and Drinking: Make sure your rabbit is eating and drinking well every day. It is important to remember that hay should make up at least 80% of your rabbit’s daily food intake; there are many varieties of hay available, so it should be easy to find one that your rabbit really enjoys.
If you notice anything out of the ordinary, or you think that your rabbit may be unwell, please contact your veterinary practice for advice or to make an appointment as soon as possible.
Common Health Problems In Rabbits
Gut Stasis: This is a very common but potentially lethal condition and if you suspect your rabbit has gut stasis you should contact your vet immediately. Gut stasis is a term used when the rabbit’s digestive system slows down or stops working completely. When the intestinal system stops working bacteria will build up in the intestines and release gas into the system, leading to very painful bloating. The rabbit may stop eating and drinking, which then makes the problem as it will become dehydrated and be missing out on essential nutrients and roughage The bacteria can also release toxins into the system which damage the liver. Gut stasis has many causes including poor diet, stress, pain and lack of exercise. Symptoms can include
- Small, malformed faecal pellets or a lack of faecal pellets
- Unwillingness to move
- Bloated tummy.
Flystrike: Flies are attracted to faecal matter and lay their eggs in it, when the eggs hatch the maggots start eating away at the rabbit’s flesh; this is an extremely painful and distressing experience for the rabbit and requires immediate veterinary treatment. Flystrike can be prevented by
- Ensuring your rabbit’s bottom is always clean and free from faecal matter
- Keep the living and exercise spaces clean
- Ensuring your rabbit is not overweight.
If your rabbit is at risk from flystrike a product called Rearguard can be used to help keep flies away – Ask your veterinary nurse for more information.
Dental Problems: Rabbit teeth grow continuously at a rate of approximately 2-3mm a week. In the wild rabbits gnaw on rough vegetation to wear their teeth down, but domestic rabbits are often not given enough roughage to enable them to do this, which is why it is very important that most of your rabbit’s diet is made up of hay and dried grass. Uneven wearing of the teeth can cause the formation of sharp tooth spurs can scrape the tongue and cheeks, causing pain and irritation. Rabbits suffering from teeth problems may have the following symptoms
- Overgrown or misaligned teeth
- Inappetance or picky appetite
- Weight loss
- Dribbling or drooling
- Wet chin
- Lump/Swelling on their face
- Runny/watery eyes
See the rabbit and rodent dental problems blog for more information
E Cuniculi: Encephalitozoon cuniculi is a microscopic parasite that affects the brain and digestive system of rabbits. It can cause seizures, kidney disease, hind limb weakness, loss of vision and balance and a head tilt. E Cuniculi spores are shed in infected animals’ urine and transmission is usually by ingestion of contaminated food or water, but may also be from a pregnant mother to her babies. E. cuniculi can also infect people and other animals. Good hygiene and regular worming is important to prevent the spread of this parasite.
Obesity: It is thought that over 30% of pet rabbits in the UK are overweight. Obesity in rabbits is not just a cosmetic issue, it can affect the rabbit’s internal organs and joints and lead to other problems such as skin problems, guts stasis and fly strike because the rabbit cannot reach it’s bottom to clean itself.
Rabbit owners can join the Castle Vets Pet Health Club which includes annual vaccinations, year-round parasite control, free nail clipping and microchipping, as well as discounts on many of our services. We also recommend that you purchase pet insurance for your rabbit in case he or she becomes unwell.
Where To Find Pet Rabbits
When looking for rabbits you will want to make sure that they have been handled well and are used to human company from a very young age.
- The best option is to adopt your rabbits (remember that you must keep them in pairs or more) from a rescue centre or rabbit charity, as there are many lovely bunnies just waiting for new homes. These rabbits will have been well looked after by the rescue centres and assessed for their personality types.
- If you have your heart set on a specific breed or type of rabbit then we recommend that you purchase your rabbit from a good breeder and that you see the mother rabbit (and possibly the father) so that you know exactly what you are getting. We also advise that you see the hutch or area where the rabbits are kept every day so that you can see that they have been kept in good condition. The best way to get in touch with these breeders will be through the British Rabbit council (link below) as they have a breeder directory and lots of links to rabbit clubs on their website. It is also a good idea to visit a few rabbit shows if possible, so that you can get an idea of the breeds personality, care and exercise needs.
- Please do not buy rabbits from 3rd party sellers such as pet shops. They are sold for the profit of the store and it is likely that the rabbits may be extremely shy and scared as they won’t have been handled properly from a young age.
Rabbits at Castle Vets
Rabbits and their owners are always welcome at Castle Vets and we are always happy to see them, we even have a specially designed ward so that they will never be near dogs or cats if they need to stay with us.
Free consultations are available (by appointment) with our veterinary nurses, who are always happy to discuss any aspect of rabbit care with you.
There is so much to know about rabbit care that I could never fit it all into one post, so I have just focused on the basics. Here are some links to a few brilliant rabbit care websites.