Care of Rabbits
The domestic rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, is a descendant of wild rabbits living in Western Europe and Northern Africa. In their natural environment, rabbits are gregarious and live in colonies. They are completely herbivorous and tend to forage in the twilight or nighttime hours. They use their claws to dig and burrow into the ground. They rarely stand their ground when threatened, but instead run to escape harm. Domestic rabbits, however, can show an amazing degree of aggression when upset or threatened.
Rabbits live an average of 5-10 years, with a potential life span of 15 years. They can reach breeding age from 5-10 months old. Pregnancy lasts 31 days on average, and they usually have 4-10 bunnies in a litter.
Spaying and castrating of rabbits over the age of 4 months old is recommended. This can help avoid many behavioral problems such as aggression, allow you to keep rabbits in pairs (which is much better for them psychologically than being kept alone) without worrying about babies, and also spaying the females can avoid the common problems of uterine infections and tumors later in life. We are extremely experienced in spaying(ovariohysterectomy) and castrating (neutering) rabbits. We use extremely safe anesthesia and provide post-operative pain medications.
Rabbits do best in pairs, as they are social animals. A male and female together (both neutered) are usually the most compatible.
In the wild, rabbits eat lots of grass, leaves, etc and a small amount of concentrated nutrients such as seeds, fruits, roots, etc. It is important to keep this in mind when feeding your pet rabbit. Hay is a very important part of the diet, to keep the intestinal track moving (rabbits are like horses in their intestinal makeup, and need lots of rough fiber every day for their colon to work properly) and to keep their teeth worn down. Rabbit’s teeth grow continuously, and tooth overgrowth is very common in rabbits who do not get hay regularly (see our page on exotic animal dental care). The two common types of hay available are grass hay and alfalfa. Alfalfa is actually a legume (bean family) and therefore is very high in protein and has a very different calcium and mineral composition than grasses. It is too rich for rabbits, and can cause problems such as obesity and urinary stones. Therefore, we recommend a handful of good grass hay (mixed grasses such as orchard and timothy are great-make sure the hay is not moldy or overly dusty) every day. The average rabbit should have about 1/2 cup of pellets a day in addition to the hay (see below for pellet recommendations). This may vary with age and breed of rabbit. Other food items (such as carrot tops, carrots, very small amounts of dark green lettuces or other greens) can be offered in small amounts. A very small amount of fruit such as apples can be given a few times a week. Treats such as yogurt and commercial chews can be given, but only a few times a week as well. Some people like to give papaya tablets to their rabbits on a regular basis for intestinal health. This may decrease the amount of hair accumulating in the intestine, but it is not a proven fact.
There are many commercial types of pellets available in pet and feed stores, but they are not all created equal, and many were designed for meat rabbits (to cause rapid weight gain) who are not expected to live a long life. Some are alfalfa based, which we do not recommend for adult rabbits. We strongly recommend Oxbow brand pellets as this company has consistently been the leader in pet rabbit (and guinea pig, rat, etc) nutrition research. Their products are made with consistent high quality ingredients. We recommend a timothy based pellet called Oxbow Adult Rabbit for adult rabbits (over 8 months of age) because the alfalfa is too rich as mentioned before. Growing, pregnant or sick rabbits (or rabbits that have trouble maintaining their weight) should have the Oxbow Young Rabbit pellets in unlimited amounts(these are alfalfa based, which is OK for young growing rabbits). Pellets should be as fresh as possible (as refusal to eat rancid pellets can be a common cause of inappetence in rabbits). You may wish to refrigerate your pellets to keep them fresher.
Fresh water should be offered daily, either in a drop bottle or a heavy ceramic dish that cannot be overturned easily. Clean the water bottles several times a week.
Rabbits on the Oxbow diets do not require salt blocks, but definitely can benefit from items to chew on such as clean, untreated wood or commercial chew sticks. No other supplements are needed or recommended in most cases, but Papaya tablets are not harmful, and some rabbit owners feel they may help digestion so we keep them in stock.
We are experience with older pet rabbits and can discuss proper nutrition, supplements and pain medications as needed for arthritis, and other things you can do to make your rabbits “golden years” as comfortable as possible.
Eating of Night Feces
Rabbits engage in an unusual but normal behavior when they deliberately eat small, soft, moist fecal pellets directly from their anus. These special “night stools” are especially rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. This way their food is essentially digested twice to get the most nutrition out of the forage. Rabbits must obtain these nutrients in order to be healthy. This behavior is most often carried out in the early morning hours and is rarely observed by an owner. If a rabbit consistently shows soft feces caked to their rump, this can be a sign of digestive problems, such as parasites or GI upset causing diarrhea, or sometimes animals with painful, arthritic backs cannot bend their body well enough to eat their own “night stools”. If your rabbit is showing caked feces on his/her rear end, be sure to bring him in for a checkup.
Handling and Restraint
Improper handling may cause serious life-threatening injuries. Fractures and dislocations of the back, often resulting in paralysis of the hind legs are the most common injuries. These injuries may also occur when rabbits are suddenly frightened and attempt to escape from a small enclosure. A rabbits spine is lightweight and fragile. When a rabbit becomes frightened, it struggles and kicks it’s powerful back legs, which may cause a back fracture. If a rabbit violently resists physical restraint, it should be immediately released.
A quiet, relaxed approach works best with rabbits. Covering the eyes and lightly stroking a rabbit will usually result in a trance like state. Rabbits should never be picked up by their ears. You may place a towel over the rabbit’s back and wrap it around the body before picking the rabbit up to avoid being scratched. Another approach is to slide one hand under the rabbit’s chest, grasp both front legs between your fingers, then cup the hind end with your other hand and roll the rabbit up against you facing outwards. Always support your rabbit’s hind end well so they do not kick out. A “football” hold or “baby” hold are also effective. We will be glad to show you the proper ways to hold your rabbit when you bring them in for their annual exams.
Rabbits can be housed indoors or outdoors. We, along with the house rabbit society, encourage keeping rabbits as house pets. They do very well and make affectionate and amusing pets. Indoor rabbits should be confined to a suitable enclosure when their activity cannot be actively supervised. They should never have unsupervised freedom within the home, as they love to chew, and may be injured by biting into electrical cords, and can be destructive to household furnishings.
A roomy wire cage with at least half of the floor surface covered with plexiglass, wood or towels is recommended (to prevent hutch sores from the wire). If rabbits are housed out of doors, the cage should be elevated off the ground, and a shelter box provided inside the cage. Indoor rabbits benefit from a hiding box as well (where they can retreat to if they feel scared or stressed). Outdoor rabbits also need sufficient shade, as heat is very detrimental to rabbits. On hot summer days, they should be brought into a cooler building, or use fans and ice blocks to prevent overheating. In the winter, they need to be able to curl up in a box with hay, bedding and therefore have a good place to get out of the wind/snow and rain.
Indoor rabbits can be litter box trained. If a rabbit has selected an area for elimination, place the litter box there with some of the rabbit’s own pellets in it. The House Rabbit Society has excellent handouts with information on this and many other aspects of pet rabbit care.
If you stop by to visit us here at Laporte Animal Clinic, we will be glad to discuss proper care of your rabbits.
Choosing a Pet Rabbit – What to Look For and What to Avoid
Before setting your heart on a pet rabbit, be sure to consider their long life expectancy. On average, rabbits live 7 – 8 years (the world record is 16 years old), as compared to the 2 – 3 year life span of mice and hamsters. If you are ready for the long-term commitment, here are some other factors to take into account when choosing your new friend:
Body and Coat
First, examine the overall body condition. There should be no signs of swelling and the rabbit shouldn’t be too fat or too skinny. The coat should be clean, full, and free of bare spots. Spread the fur apart to check for inflamed or irritated skin. Check the rear-end for soiling, as this may be a sign of diarrhea. Also make sure that the undercarriage is clean and healthy-looking.
The eyes should be shiny, clear, and free from discharge. Observe the coat around the eyes for signs of staining or wetness.
Check for a runny nose, and inspect the rabbit’s front legs. Since rabbits wipe their noses with their feet, matting there could suggest nasal discharge.
Make sure that the rabbit’s ear flaps aren’t damaged. The insides should be pink – not red – and free from waxy thick discharge and crusting. This could be a sign of ear mites which, while treatable, could suggest neglect.
This is CRITICAL. The rabbit’s teeth should be properly aligned, with the upper incisors resting above the bottom. They should not be overgrown or crooked, as these are chronic problems that can stop the rabbit from eating. Check for matted or wet fur on the chin.
Breathing and Habits
Breathing will likely be fast, especially if the rabbit is scared or hot. Slow or labored breathing could be a sign of respiratory problems or illness. When the rabbit moves around, it should show no signs of stiffness, lameness or reluctance. Watch the rabbit’s reactions to people – pick one that responds calmly to being approached and petted. Talk to the breeder to make sure the kits (rabbit babies!!) were handled by humans from early on so that they will be less likely to be scared of people and more likely to be friendly.
Males usually love attention and tend to be more cuddly than females, who are more outgoing but prefer alone-time. Females are often territorial, but do well with others in a large enclosure. Neutering will prevent the male tendency to spray urine, and helps them get along with other males. Spaying female rabbits can help quite a bit with aggressive attitudes and can help avoid uterine tumors and infections, a common problem in older unsprayed female rabbits. In addition a neutered and spayed pair of rabbits can be very happy together. Many people feel rabbits do best in pairs.
Rabbits are social animals; make sure you will be able to spend lots of time with your floppy-eared, furry friend. Also, although babies are adorable, why not stop by a shelter or rescue and consider adopting an adult rabbit in need of a family? Larimer County Humane Society does often have rabbits to adopt. Hop to it!
More information can be found at our Veterinary Partners site http://www.VeterinaryPartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&A=3015.
Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus – Information and Vaccination
This is a highly contagious, highly fatal disease that has emerged in the U.S. Recently and has been found in Southern Colorado (but has not reached our area yet). Primarily in wild rabbits but can infect domestic rabbits and be spread by clothing/contaminated feed and potentially other household animals like dogs/cats and other people.
The main recommendations are to
a)keep your rabbits indoors,
b)do not allow them to graze on areas that wild rabbits may use,
c)wash your hands and change clothes before handling your rabbits after handling other rabbits
d)do not introduce new rabbits into your colony or household if possible
e)Do not feed grass or plants foraged from outside in areas where wild rabbits are infected
f)Do not handle dead wild rabbits-call the state wildlife department
We strongly suggest looking at 2 informational sites on the internet for much more extensive recommendations and explanations of the disease
1)The House Rabbit Society has an excellent writeup on the disease, it’s spread, and the vaccine
2)APHIS, the branch of the USDA that deals with foreign animal diseases has a very informational writeup
These have excellent recommendations for how to keep your rabbits safe from this deadly emerging foreign disease. PLEASE READ THEM AND SHARE THEM WITH YOUR FRIENDS!
Dr. Marta Dean has done hours of research into the availability and pros and cons of ordering in the vaccine and discussed this with the Colorado State Veterinarian, and due to the overwhelming paperwork time involved and the costs of importing the vaccine from Europe (it is not currently licensed in the US and veterinarians ordering this have to go through an extensive approval process by the USDA and other government agencies), we have decided we cannot justify the cost of ordering this in ourselves. However we have been able to purchase a limited number of vaccine doses through another veterinary clinic in Denver. Call for availability of the vaccine at our clinic.