Rabbits are one of the UK’s most popular pets, with an estimated 1.7 million according to the PDSA wellbeing report in 2012. However, these little furry creatures can be surprisingly enigmatic and their needs are often misunderstood or underestimated.
So, what things do rabbits need in order to lead a happy and healthy lifestyle?
A rabbit’s diet should consist of:
We’d advise feeding your rabbit a complete diet in a pellet form. Some of you may feed your rabbit a mix that looks a bit like muesli. We wouldn’t really recommend this because, just like us, rabbits will pick and choose the tastiest bits from the box and then leave the rest.
The greens you give to your bunny should be varied, and some fruits are also suitable in small quantities. Please follow the link to the PDSA at the bottom of this page for a complete list of suitable greens.
A huge number of rabbits live in hutches that are just too small, a problem which is compounded by them often being stuck in them and not having independent access to a run.
The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund (RWAF) have set up a campaign called ‘a hutch is not enough’, to raise awareness of a rabbits needs for space: to hop, stretch and roam around freely. They recommend that a hutch should be big enough for a rabbit to have space for three hops (which is a surprisingly huge amount of space!), stand on their hind legs and with enough space for food, toilet and sleeping areas to be kept apart.
They also recommend giving your rabbit the freedom to choose where they’d like to be. A lot of people have a set-up that involves them having to put their rabbit out in the run and then put them back in their hutch later. Not only is this fairly inconvenient for your bunny (what if you decide to have a lie-in? Or you forget?), but it can also mean they end up being stuck outside in the pouring rain with no shelter, or being menaced by a predator.
Devising a system that attaches your rabbit’s run to their hutch, normally through tubing or by securely attaching a run directly to the hutch, means that your bunny can make their own decisions about what they want to be doing. This is particularly useful in a country with weather as fickle as ours!
Imagine being stuck in a tiny box all day, by yourself and with nothing to do. You would feel miserable, right? This is the current fate of many of our pet rabbits! Keeping rabbits in hutches was first introduced by the Victorians and the habit has stuck, despite the fact that rabbits’ normal behaviour is to roam.
However, devising ways of keeping your rabbit occupied and entertained doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. You just have to adopt the technique of a Blue Peter presenter and be creative!
Basically, bunnies love chewing. Make sure that everything you put in their hutch can be safely chewed (so no towels, plastics that may splinter, etc.).
Try stuffing a used kitchen roll holder/toilet roll holder with hay or encourage them to dig by filling a plant pot or a box with soil. Try burying treats at a shallow level under the soil if your rabbit seems a bit reluctant to get going!
Rabbits are social animals that live in large groups in the wild. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that domestic rabbits living alone experience a higher level of stress as a result. For this reason, it’s best to keep two.
Just like our cats and dogs, rabbits should be vaccinated. Here at Medivet, we use the combined rabbit vaccine which protects against both myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD). This means that your rabbit needs only one vaccination a year.
We recommend vaccination even if your rabbit is a house rabbit and doesn’t see other bunnies. This is because the VHD virus can be tracked inside by you accidentally.
One of the most serious problems to affect rabbits is Flystrike. This occurs most frequently in the warm weather and involves flies laying eggs on the rabbit. They then hatch into maggots that start to eat the flesh of the pet. Flies tend to be attracted to soiled fur, normally around a rabbit’s bottom. For this reason, it is essential that you perform regular checks of your rabbit and keep their bottom clean.
Flystrike can kill a rabbit very quickly, so any affected bunnies should be classed as an emergency and taken to the vet. In fact, rabbits can go from feeling 100% fine to deathly ill within a very short space of time. For this reason, we would advise that you seek advice or veterinary help if you have concerns. This is particularly the case if they stop eating, as this could be a sign of gastrointestinal (or gut) stasis. All our practices offer a 24-hour emergency service, so should your rabbit need veterinary attention in the early hours of the morning or late at night, a vet will always be available to help you.
Neutering can have huge benefits for your rabbit, both in terms of health and behaviour. When keeping rabbits together, a mixed sex pair is normally best. Obviously, unless you’re prepared to find out the true meaning of the phrase “at it like rabbits”, then you will need to have them neutered.
You should be aware that rabbits can breed from around 4 months old, so it is recommended that you have males castrated by the time they reach 16 weeks old. If you have another rabbit living with them, they should ideally be neutered at the same time, but should go with the male to keep them company at the vets either way.
In female rabbits, spaying can reduce the risk of developing cancer of the womb. In both sexes it can reduce aggressive behaviour (although if your bunny does have behavioural issues, you should seek advice from your vet rather than assume that neutering will solve the problem).
Rabbit teeth grow continually. If you rabbit’s teeth do not get worn down enough, i.e. if they don’t get enough hay or grass, then this can cause problems for them. Teeth can become misaligned, preventing your bunny from eating properly. Some rabbits seem to have on-going problems with their teeth and may need regular teeth-clips at the vets.
You should look out for the following signs:
• Loss of appetite
• A wet chin
• Eye discharge
• A dirty bottom
Do you have a bunny question? Perhaps you’re concerned about a possible health issue and would like them to be seen by a vet? Please give your local Medivet practice a call.
For detailed information about rabbit diets, please visit: http://www.pdsa.org.uk/pet-health-advice/rabbits/diet
For more help and ideas on enrichment for your rabbit, please visit: http://www.rabbitawarenessweek.co.uk/behaviour
For more information and suggestions about rabbit hutches and their environment, please visit: http://www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk/ahutchisnotenough.htm
Posted March 22, 2016 in Pet Care Advice