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Understanding Your Rabbit

Starting off with your new rabbit

In the past rabbits have been considered by some as “children’s pets”, implying they were relatively undemanding to look after. No animal should be considered in these terms. Rabbits are complex, delicate, wonderful creatures that if properly cared for can live happily for many years in a loving home.

Rabbits can be trained to use a litter tray and so long as suitable measures are taken to ensure they do not cause damage to your home or more importantly injure themselves by chewing things like electric cables, they make excellent indoor pets. Whilst outdoors, rabbits need suitably secure accommodation or constant supervision to protect them from predators like foxes.

Rabbits are very social creatures and thrive when kept in company with other rabbits. However care must be taken when introducing rabbits to one another as they can be surprisingly aggressive toward strangers. The best pairing is a male and female but both should be neutered at an early age to ensure a successful pairing that does not produce offspring!

Feeding your rabbit

Rabbits have evolved to exploit the plentiful supply of grasses and other green vegetation. In order to exploit this food resource, which has very low levels of nutrients, they have had to develop an unusual method of digestion. Rabbits are dependent on eating large quantities of vegetation which is then fermented by specialised bacteria in their large intestines. These bacteria break down the hardest to digest components of the food (particularly cellulose) which the rabbit then passes as green-coloured pellets. In order to absorb the nutrients released by the fermentation process rabbits have to eat the pellets of fermented food again so they can absorb the nutrients from their small intestines. Once the food has passed through the rabbit’s intestines for a second time it becomes brown pellets of “proper faeces” and will not be eaten.

Rabbits are opportunists and will seek out high energy food such as grains and other starchy foods in preference to their “proper” diet. This can have serious consequences for their health because a sudden increase in starchy foods can upset the delicate balance of bacteria in their large intestines causing serious illness or death. Even if the level of starchy foods in a rabbit’s diet is not enough to cause intestinal problems rabbits can easily become overweight, causing a variety of health problems.

To prevent their teeth wearing out because of the massive amount of food that every rabbit must chew in a lifetime, their teeth are designed to grow continuously throughout their lives. If their teeth do not line up properly they will not wear down, causing them to overgrow. Overgrown teeth cause pain and damage to the lips, gums or tongue and may lead to abscesses forming. To help prevent dental problems rabbits must be fed a diet that is balanced in calcium and phosphorous.

Rabbits should be fed a diet that consists mostly of grass. This can be fresh (if you have a garden run for your rabbit) or hay. They should also access to fresh vegetables – mostly dark green leafy vegetables. In some rabbits too much vegetable matter can upset their digestion, so experiment a little to find out what suits yours. Avoid lettuce and sugar rich fruits. Finally they should get a small amount of commercial rabbit food, ideally the ‘pelleted’ version rather than the muesli type. The muesli type allows rabbits to select the bits they like, and leave the rest behind, meaning they do not get a balanced diet. The commercially produced rabbit food is high in energy so it is important not to offer this too freely or it will cause weight gain. Please call in for advice on our range of suitably balanced diets and high-quality hay for your rabbit.

Rabbits should have constant access to water. Recent research has shown that rabbits will drink better from a bowl than a bottle, despite long held tradition, so unless your rabbit has a strong preference for a bottle we recommend providing water from a bowl.

Healthcare

As a consequence of rabbits’ unique digestive system signs of digestive problems such as not eating, not producing either green pellets or brown faeces regularly (at least twice daily), diarrhoea or bloating of the abdomen should be considered very serious and an appointment obtained urgently.

Rabbits have evolved to hide their signs of illness well and it important to check them thoroughly at least twice daily. Pay particular attention to what they have been eating, the presence of normal faeces and that they are clean around their bottoms.

Rabbits with soiled fur are more vulnerable to fly strike, which occurs when flies lay eggs on a rabbit which hatch out into larvae (maggots) which then eat away at the skin and underlying flesh causing serious injury. Remove any soiled bedding daily, and clean and disinfect hutches at least weekly. During warm weather rabbits should be checked at least once daily to ensure they are clean and dry around their bottoms. Fat or old rabbits may be more at risk due to difficulty grooming and should be checked twice daily.

Vaccinations

Rabbits need vaccinations against myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease. These diseases are spread by biting insects such as mosquitoes and midges, therefore all rabbits are at risk regardless of whether they live indoors or outdoors. These infections are serious and often fatal to rabbits. Humans cannot contract either myxomatosis or viral haemorrhagic disease. Both diseases are frequently fatal, and treatment is rarely successful once an unvaccinated rabbit has been exposed to either disease.

Rabbits should be vaccinated twice yearly from 6 weeks old to protect them from contracting myxomatosis.
They should also be vaccinated once yearly from 10 weeks old to protect them from viral haemorrhagic disease.
These vaccines are given as separate doses at least 2 weeks apart.

Neutering

Rabbits become sexually mature and able to mate and produce kits from approximately 4 months of age.

When a male becomes sexually mature they will start to actively seek a mate and may show aggression towards other male rabbits and people. They also may spray urine to mark their territory. In males neutering is referred to as castration and involves the surgical removal of both testes. This stops a male rabbits’ sexual behaviour and prevents them from fathering any kits.

Females can become territorial when they become sexually mature, and can suffer from false pregnancies. Older females are prone to infections or cancer in the uterus, and spaying young prevents both these conditions. In females neutering is referred to as spaying and involves the surgical removal of both ovaries and the womb. Once spayed a female will no longer come on heat and is not capable of becoming pregnant.

Rabbits can be neutered from 16 weeks of age.