Rabbits make excellent pets if handled well since weaning. Rabbits have an average life span of 6-7 years, and a possible longevity of 15 years. There are several important things a rabbit owners should know if they are to keep a healthy rabbit and to gain the most enjoyment out of it. A lot of this information has been provided below, with much of the information coming from Dr Tom Donnelly, a Veterinarian that specialising in rabbit care.

Housing

It is advisable to keep your rabbit caged when not supervised as they will chew on most household objects in order to wear down their teeth which grow continuously. They will chew on carpets, wooden furniture, and electrical wires. Rabbits have been known to electrocute themselves by chewing through electrical cords.

Critical consideration in housing include: structural strength, absence of sharp corners, size, wire floor (14G wire with 2.5cm x 1cm spaces), ease of cleaning, protection from climatic extremes (optimum temperature range is between 18-21 degrees Celsius), portability and provision of self-waterers and feeders.

Rabbits need protection from predators and vermin. Their housing needs to contain and protect. It is also important to protect them from draughts as rabbits are susceptible to temperature extremes.

Never house rabbits and guinea pigs together. Rabbits can harbour bacteria in their respiratory tract, which, whilst not affecting them, can spread to the guinea pig and can result in serious disease and sudden death in guinea pigs.

Hygiene and Cleaning

This is most important for the prevention of disease. Cleaning is particularly important before birth, during weaning, and after removing a sick animal.

When hutches are made of solid floors and walls, cleanliness and hygiene are difficult to maintain, it may require daily cleaning out. Ideally the wire daily cleaning out. Ideally the wire or mesh floor of the cage should be raised above the ground with a metal tray underneath. The dropping tray can be lined with plastic sheeting or sprinkled with dust free sawdust. Metal dropping trays need to be cleaned twice a week.

Rabbit urine is alkaline and contains high concentrations of crystals which accumulate on cage surfaces and is difficult to remove Detergents, disinfectants, and acid solutions that dissolve alkaline crystals (such as vinegar) are all used in cleaning cages and hutches.

Nutrition

Rabbits need a lot more fibre in their diet than most other animals. Fibre helps to prevent gastrointestinal disease, and protects against fur-pulling and hairballs. Pelleted diets can be brought in pet food stores often do not contain enough fibre so addition of extra fibre such as hay is recommended.  Green or succulent foods may be given as treats.

Rabbits will eat their soft night faeces (this accounts for 20% of total faeces). This is normal and is essential for proper utilisation of nutrients, particularly protein, in the gastrointestinal tract.

To prevent hairballs in rabbits the amount of dietary fibre should be increase. Also, every 2-3 months, give your rabbit 10mls of pineapple juice daily for 3-5 days. The pineapple juice should be fresh. If it is bottled it must not be heat treated.

Handling

Never lift a rabbit only by the ears or legs. Improper handling can result in a broken back or dislocated spine.  For proper restraint, with one hand grasp a fold skin over the shoulder and place the other hand under the rump to support the rabbit’s weight.

For carrying, hold the rabbit against your chest with its head under one arm and extend the other arm along the side of the rabbit with your hand under its rump for support.

It is possible to hypnotise a rabbit into a trance-like state by lying the rabbit on its back and gently stroking the abdomen and chest. Sudden movements and loud noises will awaken the rabbit and you will have to start over again.

Common Complaints

Rabbit Calicivirus

This deadly virus is spread by mosquitoes, flies, birds, transport, and humans, by contact with infected

rabbits and their faeces.  Rabbits who contact this virus will become lethargic, stop eating, and die within 30 hours. Rabbits less than 8 weeks old may contract the virus and not die, but they can spread the virus to older rabbits.  Mosquito proofing the rabbit hutch may help to prevent your rabbit catching this virus, but an annual vaccination is the only way to fully protect your rabbit.

Dental Problems

This is the most common problem in pet rabbits. A rabbits front teeth (buck teeth) will grow up to 15cm each year but are usually ground down by grinding upper teeth against lower buckteeth. 

Malocclusion (when the upper and lower teeth don’t align) may be hereditary or due to the rabbit injuring his mouth by biting or pulling on cage wire. The overgrown buckteeth need to be clipped every few weeks. Your Veterinarian will do this for you or will show you how to do this yourself.

Malocclusion of the back teeth (premolars and molars) can also occur. This can lead to mouth ulcers and anorexia, and is more difficult to treat.

Worms

Worms may be seen in faeces or bedding. These are often fly larvae. Throw out bedding and thoroughly wash hutch.

Blood in urine

This may be normal rabbit urine as urine varies from yellow to red. Red colour is due to a pigment from certain foods.

Urine is often thick and creamy with a white precipitate. This is calcium carbonate. Unlike most other animals, rabbits excrete excess dietary calcium in their urine.

Anorexia

A rabbit may not eat if you suddenly change the brand of pallets. Slowly introduce any new food by

gradually mixing with familiar food. Hair balls are one other common cause of anorexia.

Poor mothering

Does usually nurse their young only once a day. Healthy baby rabbits jump like ‘popcorn’ in their nesting box when they are touched.

Hairballs

This is especially common in long-haired breeds. Signs include absence of faeces, anorexia, tiredness, and sometimes diarrhoea. It is advisable to see a Veterinarian if your rabbit has any of these signs as other diseases can show signs similar to these. Treatment involves giving the rabbit pineapple juice (see nutrition section), nutritional supplements which your Veterinarian should supply, and giving a laxative or lubricant twice a day for 5 days.

Uterine Cancer

This is the most common cancer in rabbits. 50-80% of female rabbits over 3 years of age will develop uterine cancer. Signs of cancer aren’t usually seen until the cancer is well advanced. Prevention and treatment is surgical removal of the ovaries and uterus.

Myxomatosis

This disease is usually seen in late summer and early autumn as it is spread by mosquitoes and fleas.  Swelling of the eyelids, lips, face, and ears, is a sign of this disease. Sudden death is also another sign.  There is no treatment or vaccination.

Obesity

Obesity is a very common problem for many pet rabbits and can lead to numerous health issues.

Heart disease, high cholesterol and arthritis are all conditions caused by an inadequate diet and extra weight.  

Extra weight can cause pressure on the bottom of the feet and sore hocks and feet may develop.

The extra rolls of skin and fat can also make grooming very difficult as they can’t reach all areas of their body. It is important for rabbits to eat their caecotrophs (night faeces), which provide energy, protein and vitamins, and help maintain the intestinal tract. Inability to do this can lead to urine and faeces accumulating around the bottom and tail area, staining of the fur and urine scalding which can lead to infection and the inability to urinate.

How to Help your Rabbit to Lose Weight

Diet

Refer to “Nutrition” section above.

An appropriate diet is very important for a rabbit’s health and weight management. Grass or Hay should make up 80% of their diet. With the remainder made up of leafy greens.

For treats offer fruits, carrots and other non-leafy vegetables 1 tbsp a day. Pellets should only be used minimally, 1-2 tbsp a day.

Try to avoid Lucerne based pellets, cereals, grains and seeds.

Exercise

Providing toys and cardboard boxes with holes cut out for them to explore and having playtime with your rabbit increases their activity and also provides mental stimulation. They should have at least 2 hours uncaged a day. The more time you spend playing with your rabbit the better.

Weighing your rabbit on a weekly basis is ideal and you will notice as the weight comes off the more energy they will have and the more playful they will become.

A healthy and fit rabbit is a happy rabbit.