How to take care of your pet rabbit
There are a great deal of misconceptions about rabbit keeping, these tips are designed to keep your bunny happy and healthy.
This advice sheet deals with the basics of rabbit care, and things to watch out for- remember rabbits are prey species, therefore hide sickness (in the wild showing weakness means easy pickings for predators).
Food: Rabbits are herbivorous which means they only eat vegetation. The best diet is 80% hay/grass (with no chemicals!), 10% fresh vegetables (greens are best, ie cabbage, broccoli, parsley, spinach, dandelion) and 10% pellets (only two teaspoons daily for your average 2 kg bunny). Alfalfa hay is high in calcium so it is good when they are young and growing, however when they are older, it is better to switch to different hay.
Rabbit calcium metabolism is different to ours, in that the only way they can get rid of it is through their urine, excess amounts can cause stones and very chalky urine. It is for the same reason we recommend a small amount of pellets only as they are also very high in calcium. Commercial muesli diets are too low in fibre and too high in protein fat and carbohydrate. These slow motility of the gut, which is very important in rabbits.
The other problem with these diets is your rabbit will pick out the bits they like and ignore the rest so it is not a complete food source. Carrots are surprisingly unhealthy for rabbits! They are full of carbohydrate so only give half of one once weekly as a treat.
It is perfectly normal for your rabbit to consume their own faeces from about 3 weeks of age. There are two types they produce, hard faecal balls and ‘caecotrophs’. Eating the latter, allows for reabsorption of vitamins and minerals. If you are noticing a lot of soft ‘bunch of grape’ like poos around the house instead of being eaten, it could be a dietary issue, please call us for advice.
Remember! Rabbits are constant grazers of food. If she/he hasn’t eaten in 12 hours they are already in trouble, bring them straight to us for a check up, even if they seem bright and alert.
Water: Use open bowls of water. Studies have proved that bunnies drinking out of water bottles only, drink 40% less than they should (mainly because they get bored having to work so hard for their water!), which will cause dehydration and slower gut motility. A 2kg rabbit drinks as much as a 10kg dog, less so if fresh greens available
Outdoor hutches should be well protected from predators, out of direct sunlight (esp in white rabbits-they, like us, can get skin cancer too), away from the wind and be attached to a run for exercise. It could be worth checking your garden plants on the internet to ensure they are not toxic if your bunny eats them, ie daffodils/lilies.
Indoor hutches should be big enough for your rabbit to hop three times across and three times down in. Hay is an ideal form of bedding, which should be cleaned out daily to prevent build up of faecal matter and urine soakage. Solid flooring covered in hay, not wire meshing is recommended in all cases. If you would like to litter train you rabbit, tips for doing so are in a separate handout.
If they are indoors, THEY WILL CHEW ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING! From sofas to skirting board to shelving to electric cables, nothing is safe! Bunny proofing your home is advised and also providing plenty of safe chew toys (the Rosewood cottage house on the amazon website is particularly wonderful).
Rabbits are very social creatures, therefore getting a mate for your bunny is advised. Intact males will fight, as will intact females – the most stable paring is one male and one female. Neutering greatly reduces the amount of fighting, though all first introductions may be a flurry of fur and legs!!
Generally three is a bad number of rabbits to have as one may become the ‘outcast’ as the other two bond. They should never be kept with guinea pigs, as your rabbit may be harbouring diseases that may make the guinea pig sick, and due to their smaller size the guinea pig will often be bullied, especially when you are not around.
They should never be kept near ferrets. Rabbits have an instinctive fear of the ferret smell, which is very powerful. It is worth checking if you are leaving your rabbits anywhere while you are on holidays that there are no ferrets present on the premises
Remember! Outdoor rabbits can get ‘fly strike’-where flies lay eggs and hatch into maggots living on their bum. These can easily go unnoticed if you do not check their back end regularly - weekly checks during summer / monthly during winter is sufficient.
Life expectancy - 10-12 years
Body weight - Depends on breed - Belgian hare 6-7 kg / Dwarf 1.5-2kg / Lionhead 2kg / British giant 15kg
Gestation - 30-32 days
Weaning - 4-6 weeks
Puberty - Small breed - 4 months / larger breeds - 5 months – please note male testicles descend from 10 weeks on so it is possible for them to impregnate a female from this time! They will be fully grown at 9 months old
Water consumption - 50-150ml / kg / day
We vaccinate annually for myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease here at Auburn Vets. It involves one injection from when they are at least 5 weeks old and one injection every year from then on. Both diseases are highly contagious and invariably fatal. They can be transmitted by fleas, but it is also possible to track them in from the environment on your shoes so we advise all rabbits be vaccinated yearly.
A second strain of viral haemorrhagic disease, know as RVHD2, has been identified in Ireland and there have been cases reported in Dublin. This virus can survive in digestive tract of animals that feed on rabbits (birds and insects) and it can survive in the environment for several months, and is not killed by freezing.
It only needs a few particles to infect a rabbit and can be spread on fomites, eg food bowls, soles of shoes etc and through direct contact. It is recommended that kits receive a course of 3 vaccinations – first vaccine at 30 days of age, second vaccine at 10 weeks of age and third vaccine at 6 months of age. Adults rabbits should be vaccinated every 6 months.
Worming / Ectoparasite treatment
Rabbits, just like dogs and cats, can get worms and mites and fleas. We recommend a spot on treatment every month, and a liquid oral wormer every 3 months if outdoors or every 6 months to yearly if indoors for prevention.
The most common of these parasites are the ear mite psoroptes, which may cause a brown crust to develop and an intense itch in the ears. In more severe cases a head tilt may develop. If you notice any of these signs, please bring him in to see us, as he will need more than a spot-on treatment to treat this condition.
If you notice any fleas on your rabbit it is very important to treat the environment also, as flea eggs can stay viable in a central heated environment for 2-3 years! There is also a rare mite called cheylietella (walking dandruff) that can be transmitted to humans, so if you notice both you and your rabbit scratching please bring them in for a check up and specific treatment.
How to hold your bunny
Firstly, ensure your bunny does not mind being held!
In general they do not, some can actually get quite aggressive when you attempt to pick them up to let you know they are not happy. A lot of their power is in their hind legs, so these should be supported well when holding. The bulk of their weight is in their abdomen, this must be supported very carefully when picking them up. They have a curved spine naturally, with a specific weak point in the lower spine – the sheer weight of their lower abdomen may cause this to fracture if left unsupported even for a moment.
Always carry them upright, as the weight of their abdomen may press on their diaphragm and impair their breathing. Rabbit bones are also very thin and rough handling may easily cause a hairline / full fracture. If you notice any lameness (which can actually be very difficult to spot) post handling it could be worth bringing them in for a check to ensure this did not occur.
Do not turn your bunny horizontally upside-down. You may have seen people do this on the internet – in general they hate this, it’s placing them in a state of shock and in most cases it is not recommended.
Things to watch out for
We here at Auburn Vets cannot stress enough the importance of bringing them straight in if they stop eating for any reason. If this is left for any lengthy period of time (ie over 12 hours, 6 if pregnant) it will require a lot more intensive hospital care (and fees!) to get them healthy again.