Caring for your Rabbit

Rabbits make great family pets and are now the third most popular pet after cats and dogs. They are relatively easy to look after but there are certain things you need to know to keep your pet rabbit healthy. You should also be aware that rabbits are not a hardy species. Their immune system is not the best at fighting disease and they often find it hard to fight infection. Rabbits survive as a species by having a very effective rate of reproduction and the longevity of each individual rabbit is not important for the survival of the species.

Providing a healthy diet is the most important thing you can do to help keep your rabbit healthy. A huge number of pet rabbits in New Zealand are fed an inappropriate diet which leads to obesity and a number of other associated problems including faecal and urine soiling, arthritis, liver disease, teeth issues, all of which lead to a reduced quality of life and shorter life expectancy.

Rabbits are what we call ‘hind gut fermenters’ and need a lot of fibre in their diet. All rabbits should have an ad lib supply of meadow hay so they never run out. They need to eat at least their own body volume in hay per day. Apart from keeping their guts healthy it helps to grind down their teeth to avoid dental problems.

People often misguidedly feed muesli type commercial rabbit food but this is the worst food choice for your rabbit. Apart from being high in carbohydrates rabbits often pick out the tastiest, least healthy parts of the muesli and leave the rest. Most commercial rabbit pellets, apart from the high fibre pellets manufactured by Oxbow Animal Health, are also too high in energy and should be avoided except as occasional treats.

All your rabbit needs is ad lib meadow hay and a variety of green, leafy vegetables (2 cups per day for a 2kg rabbit). It will come as a surprise to many but even carrots (and fruit) are considered too high in energy to feed regularly to rabbits. Reserve carrots for occasional treats.

If you are already feeding your rabbit daily on muesli or pellets we encourage you to slowly wean them off. It is important to slowly wean them off over several weeks to avoid fatty liver disease which is common in rabbits if you suddenly reduce their energy intake.
Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD) is one of the main causes of death in pet rabbits in Marlborough and all pet rabbits should be vaccinated against this.
What is RCD?
RCD was introduced illegally into New Zealand in 1997 in a hope to control the wild rabbit population and it is now available legally as a product for rabbit control. Unfortunately it does not discriminate between wild rabbits and pet or farmed rabbits. RCD is highly contagious and the virus can travel some distance in moisture particles in the air. This is emphasised by the fact that we see cases of RCD in pet rabbits living in town that have no contact with the wild rabbit population. RCD has a very short incubation period of just 1-3 days and the death rate is close to 100%. For this reason the rabbit is usually found dead without showing any signs of prior illness. Occasionally a rabbit may be off colour for 1-2 days but unfortunately there is no treatment to stop progression to death.
When do I need to vaccinate my rabbit?
The good news however is that the disease can be prevented by vaccination. The first injection is given once the rabbit reaches 12 weeks of age followed by a booster injection every year. If your pet rabbit has never been vaccinated or hasn't had yearly boosters please don't delay in making an appointment.
Does my rabbit need to vaccinated against anything else?
RCD is the only disease in New Zealand that rabbits need vaccinating against. Myxomatosis vaccine is commonly used overseas, but it is not needed in New Zealand as we are free of this.

De-sexing of rabbits
Rabbits are prolific breeders and if keeping males and females together it is necessary to castrate the males or spay the females to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Often people just have the males castrated as it is a simpler and quicker procedure than spaying the females. However there are other reasons why it is important to spay female rabbits.

Female rabbits often get cancer (adenocarcinoma) of the uterus and an estimated 70-80% have developed this by the age of seven years. Although it is possible to spay a rabbit with cancer of the uterus the cancer is likely to have already spread to other parts of the body in 40% of cases. It is far better and also cheaper to routinely spay female rabbits at 4-6 months of age before the cancer develops.

Rabbits are sociable animals and like living together in pairs, or larger groups. However rabbits can fight when kept together and to reduce this it is advisable to de-sex them all.
Fleas and Mites
Rabbits often suffer from fur mites (Cheyletiella) which causes itching, bald patches and clumps of white dandruff in the fur. It is highly contagious between rabbits and these mites can also bite humans resulting in an itchy rash. Meadow hay is often the source of mites so if your rabbit does get mites you need to change your source of hay and destroy your old stock. It is safest to buy hay from your pet-shop or vet to ensure it is free of mites.

Treatment involves a series of injections given by your vet. As an alternative treatment you can now apply Revolution at home yourself. Revolution is a pour-on insecticide, originally for cats and dogs, that has now been approved for rabbits. It is very safe and effective in rabbits from 8 weeks of age and is active against fur mites, ear mites, sarcoptes mites as well as fleas. It is important you use the correct dose and formulation. For rabbits less than 2.3kg (and older than 8 weeks) you can safely apply a vial of puppy/kitten Revolution. For rabbits greater than 2.3kg you can apply a vial of cat Revolution. Revolution designed for dogs is at a higher concentration and is not suitable for use on rabbits. Revolution should be repeated monthly to prevent re-infestation.

Rabbits do also get fleas and these can be controlled or prevented by regular use of revolution. Fleas cause irritation of the skin and also transmit Rabbit Calicivirus (RCD, see above). Overseas, rabbit fleas also transmit myxomatosis but we are lucky that New Zealand is free of this disease.

Use monthly revolution to prevent fleas and mites and help control RCD. Vaccination is the best way to avoid RCD.

Rabbit’s teeth grow continuously throughout their life. They keep them worn down by grinding their teeth together whilst grazing grass and hay that needs chewing well before they can swallow it. If they do not get enough grazing time or hay, their teeth will grow faster than the rate at which they wear them down. The teeth will become too long making it difficult to eat and trimming the teeth becomes necessary. This is a job for your vet, not something you can do correctly at home.

Sometimes the teeth will grow in the wrong direction so that they do not grind together whilst eating. These teeth will need trimming very regularly and sometimes it is better to have the offending teeth removed to prevent further problems.

The back teeth can develop sharp spurs on their edges which can cut into the tongue and cheek causing pain. Symptoms you notice will be a lack of appetite with associated weight loss and sometimes dribbling at the mouth.
If you are unsure about your rabbits teeth book in for a check up.
Rabbits naturally dig burrows and this helps keep their nails short. However in captivity digging activity is reduced and you will need to cut your rabbits nails regularly. Ask your vet for a demonstration if you are unsure about doing this yourself.
Rabbits are very prone to abscesses, pus filled swellings under the skin. Due to their poor immune system it can be hard to treat abscesses in rabbits. They need to be completely removed by surgery rather than just draining them like we do with cats and dogs. The smaller the abscess is, the easier it will be to surgically remove so check your rabbit very regularly for swellings under the skin
Faecal eaters
Did you know that it is quite normal for rabbits to eat their own faeces? Rabbits pass 2 types of faeces. One type is the hard round black pellets that you find around the cage. The second type are softer and are covered in a mucous membrane. These are the type that the rabbit eats and they eat them directly whilst they are passing from the anus so you don’t see them often around the cage. These soft faeces are rich in B vitamins and other nutrients essential for the rabbits health and it is important that they eat these.
Fly Strike
Rabbits are prone to flystike if they get dirty with faeces or urine on their back end. Flystrike refers to the situation where blowflies lay eggs on the rabbit’s fur. These eggs hatch into maggots and the maggots eat into the flesh of the rabbit. It is a problem in the warmer summer months. The flies are attracted to your rabbit by the smell of faeces so to avoid problems keep their hutch clean and wash any faeces from their back end, daily in summer if necessary. Look out for the blowfly eggs that look like clusters of tiny white oval specs stuck to the fur.
The best way to avoid faecal contamination around the rabbits back end is to feed an appropriate diet as discussed above. A diet rich in carbohydrates encourages soft faeces which easily get stuck to the fur at the back end.