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2nd December 2017

Rabbit Health – What Every Owner Needs to Know

Rabbits are becoming increasingly popular pets, being one of the top three species owned in the UK. I think this is due to their size, their individual characters and of course how cute and fluffy they are! However, it is important to understand the differences between these wonderful animals and the cats and dogs we are used to looking after.

I have kept pet rabbits since I was 8 years old. The 2 rabbits I have at the moment, a bonded and neutered brother and sister pair, are fantastic pets to own and I love interacting with them and watching them hop around the garden. At Peel Veterinary Clinic, we see many much loved pets who have been taken on with the best of intentions, but without much advice about the special requirements rabbits have in order to live long and healthy lives. In this article, I hope to address many of these issues, however if you have any questions, please contact us at the surgery and we will be pleased to help.

Housing

Gone are the days when it was acceptable to keep a rabbit in a small hutch in the garden. Rabbits are lively creatures who, like other species, need to be able to exercise to be healthy. A hutch should be long enough for a rabbit to easily perform 2 hops from one end to the other. However, this is the minimum size which is acceptable. All rabbits should be allowed to exercise daily, in a safe and secure area, such as a run which is secured preventing any predators from entering. Gardens can be rabbit proofed, so that in the better weather and with supervision, rabbits can be allowed to run loose in the garden and really kick their heels up. There is no better sight than a happy rabbit “binkying” along the lawn (a “binky” is when the rabbit leaps about when running around). Care should always be taken to avoid rabbits eating toxic plants – we can provide more information about this.

Many people choose to keep indoor rabbits and this is fine as long as the diet is correct, they get to spend some time outdoors and the house is rabbit proofed. This includes keeping all electrical wires out of reach of curious teeth. Rabbits love to interact with people and so being indoors can provide a lot more socialisation. Equally, outdoor rabbits can be brought indoors to play (as long as they do not get too warm) and this can help you to bond with your rabbits.

Rabbits are social creatures and are much better kept as pairs. The best pairing is a male and female who are both neutered. Introducing rabbits is a complex subject and one which is best discussed on a case by case basis with a vet so is not discussed here. Our vets are happy to give advice about this, including advice about prevention of E.cuniculi (see below).

Diet

Rabbits are known as “fibrevores”, meaning that they need a large amount of fibre in their diets to keep their gut healthy. A correct diet is also important for their teeth. Simply speaking, the vast majority of a rabbit’s diet should be hay and grass, accounting for around 80% of food. This should be supplemented by concentrated food in the form of pellets. Muesli-style mixed dry food is not a suitable diet as this allows rabbits to selectively feed, thereby not receiving all the nutrients they need.

Rabbits also need some fresh vegetables and occasional fruit to supplement their diet. Sugary fruit and vegetables (such as apple and carrot) should be given in moderation to prevent weight gain. Lettuce is best avoided, but other leafy greens such as cabbage leaves and curly kale are enjoyed by rabbits. Rabbits need a variety of these green treats, but remember they are treats and should only be given in small amounts in addition to large amounts of fresh green hay.

Handling

Rabbits are friendly and loving animals, however they do need to be handled correctly. Rabbits do not make good pets for young children as they have delicate spines which can be damaged easily by incorrect handling. Always make sure a rabbit’s bottom is supported when handling them.

Rabbits need lots of interaction. They love to play and there are plenty of toys available, such as tubes and balls that are safe for rabbits. Daily handling will make sure that your rabbit is easier to treat should he/she become ill, but also means a stronger owner-rabbit bond.

Vaccination

There are 2 diseases in rabbits that we can vaccinate against, in one combined vaccine. This is extremely important as both diseases are usually fatal.

1. Myxomatosis

Myxomatosis is a very common disease often passed to pet rabbits from wild rabbits. In fact, in the summer months, many wild rabbits can be seen in hedgerows suffering from this disease. Although it is now thought possible for it to pass directly from rabbit to rabbit, the main route of spread is via biting insects such as fleas and flies. This means that it is not just rabbits in the countryside that are at risk. Keeping flea treatment up to date can help, but the best advice is to have your rabbit vaccinated annually, best in spring before the weather improves. Signs of myxomatosis include swelling at the eyes/ears/mouth/nose/genitalia and lethargy. Rabbits may sit quietly in one place and not eat. If you suspect your rabbit has the disease, visiting us immediately is essential. Occasionally treatment can help, but the vast majority of rabbits are euthanased to prevent suffering. This is why vaccination is so important. The vaccination does not guarantee that the rabbit can not contract myxomatosis, but in the few cases where symptoms develop, they are less severe and far less likely to be fatal.

2. Viral/Rabbit Haemorhagic Disease (VHD/RHD)

VHD is thankfully less common in this area than myxomatosis. However, it has a very rapid course and most owners will not realise there is anything wrong as the most common symptom is sudden death. Rabbits are often found with bloody discharge from their noses/back ends. This is obviously extremely distressing and so vaccination is by far the best method of protecting your rabbit against this catastrophic condition.

RHD is thankfully less common in this area than myxomatosis. However, in recent years a new strain of RHD has been characterised with a more worrying rate of spread. Traditionally, we have only been concerned about RHD1, which has a very rapid course and most owners will not realise there is anything wrong as the most common symptom is sudden death. Rabbits are often found with bloody discharge from their noses/back ends. This is obviously extremely distressing and so vaccination is by far the best method of protecting your rabbit against this catastrophic condition. This vaccination is included in the myxomatosis vaccination. RHD2 does not cause death as often, but can cause rabbits to be poorly and will lead to death in a fair proportion of cases. It has probably been responsible for more rabbit illness than we have been aware of as it is only possible to confirm RHD2 at a post mortem after the rabbit has passed away. We have had confirmed cases at our practice, so for this reason we now recommend that all rabbits are vaccinated against RHD2. This is done with a separate vaccination at least 2 weeks apart from the myxomatosis/RHD1 vaccination. It is also important to try to reduce the spread of this disease be observing basic hygiene and biosecurity at home. For more information, please see the separate article on RHD 2.

Please contact the surgery if you would like any more information about these diseases.

Hygiene & Fly Strike

It is extremely important that rabbit hutches are cleaned out regularly to prevent rabbits from sitting on soiled bedding. Rabbits should be checked daily to make sure that their back ends are clean and dry. Any soft faeces stuck to the back end should be carefully and gently cleaned away. It is always worth seeking veterinary advice if you notice this as rabbits should eat their soft faeces in order to remain healthy. There are many reasons why they may not do this, so an examination by a vet is necessary to find out why.

Rabbits are prone to a condition called “Fly Strike” if they have soiled back ends. This occurs mainly in summer and is caused by flies laying eggs. The eggs hatch, become maggots and feed on the rabbit’s flesh. This disease can be fatal if not treated quickly, so if you suspect this, contact us immediately. There is a product available to prevent this and we can advise you about this.

Other Common Problems

3. Dental disease

Rabbits often suffer with tooth problems. This is often related to their genetics, but is also very dependent on the diet they are fed. Common signs include not eating as well or being picky about what they will eat, drooling, weight loss, uneaten soft faeces (often mistaken for diarrhoea) and runny eyes. If you see any of these signs, contact us straight away.

4. E. cuniculi

This is a parasite which mostly likes to live in the brain and kidney of rabbits. It can cause head tilt, rolling, circling, inability to use the back legs and increased urination and thirst. These signs do not all occur together. It is present in approximately 50% of the rabbit population in the UK, often unseen for a long time. All rabbits should be treated for this before they are mixed together for the first time. Our vets can advise further about this.

5. Obesity

Obesity is a big problem in rabbits in the UK. We are used to seeing round fluffy rabbits, however they should be lean and very active. This is partly to do with the diet they are fed. A correct diet and lots of exercise are important to maintaining a healthy weight for rabbits, just like people. Obesity can cause many problems, including uneaten soft faeces, leading to fly strike and back problems.

6. Gut stasis

Rabbits are prone to problems involving their gut slowing down and not functioning as well. This is often caused by stress or pain, often alongside other illnesses. Any rabbit who is not passing the normal amount of faeces or eating normally should be checked by a vet as soon as possible.

It is important to remember that rabbits are prey species, so they will try to hide illnesses as best they can. Any rabbit that seems quiet, off food or unwell at all must be examined as soon as possible by a vet as they are often more poorly than they let on.

I hope this article has been helpful. If you have any questions, please contact us at the surgery where we will be pleased to help.