Owning a rabbit – the 6 keys to good health
Rabbits can make great pets, but they're not quite as low maintenance as you might think. Here are the 6 fundamentals of having a happy and healthy rabbit.
Rabbits thrive in the wild. If we think about what they eat, it's basically grass and other available plants. The grass will vary in dryness depending on the time of the year. That's a pretty simple diet, but it works for bunnies.
To replicate this diet for your pet rabbit, you need to ensure that:
- the majority of the diet should consist of good quality grass hay (eg timothy, meadow) – your rabbit should be eating its body size in loose hay each day (NB: the hay should be stored in a well ventilated, clean and dry environment to avoid mould growth)
- your rabbit has daily access to a variety of high fibre leafy greens (eg fresh grass, kale, parsley, bok choy, celery leaves, endive) – look to give around one packed cup per kilogram of body weight
Fresh fruit and veg can be a good source of moisture and environmental enrichment but you should consider these as treat foods. You can use things like apple, berries, carrots, kiwi fruit, melons, capsicums and pea pods (not the peas). Avoid high fat and starchy foods such as grains, beans, breads, nuts and seeds.
The rabbit pellets that you can buy should be thought of as a daily dietary supplement, not a major part of the diet. You only want to give a small portion (eg a spoonful) per day and make sure it's one of the high quality ones. Look for 18% or more in fibre; 2.5% or less in fat; 16% or less in protein and 1% or less in calcium.
This simple diet should result in normal digestion and production of dry fecal pellets. If faecal pellets become caked around the backside and tail, this suggests a problem. It may be a disease process preventing normal grooming (such as dental disease, obesity, urine scald, spinal pain, osteoarthritis), or anything that can alter the intestinal environment (high sugar diets, low fibre levels, rapid diet changes, excessive vegetable content in diet).
Veterinary advice is recommended if the digestive process appears abnormal.
In addition to faecal pellets, rabbits also defecate caecotrophs, which are partially digested food produced by the bacterial flora in the caecum (Large intestine). Rabbits eat caecotrophs as soon as they produce them. They and gain essential vitamins and amino acids from digesting them again. This process is essential for a healthy gastrointestinal tract. (See bunny bellies for more information)
Will your rabbit live indoors or outdoors? Either one can work as long as you consider the following.
The indoor bunny
Keeping your rabbit indoors is great for social contact with you and for providing plenty of space to run around and exercise (as opposed to a hutch outside). But... you need to allow them time to graze on grass and get sufficient natural light exposure. Vitamin D deficiency occurs in rabbits as well as us.
Another important point to remember is rabbits chew! They will chew electrical cables (keep cables out of reach, or in chew proof metal), wallpaper, woodwork and paint from the walls (careful with lead based paint).
The outdoor bunny
Outdoor housing is fabulous if you have plenty of space for exercise, grazing and freedom. But you need to consider:
- protection from predators – make sure your hutch is secure
- protection from mosquitoes (which transmit disease such as calicivirus and myxomatosis) –avoid outdoor time during peak mosquito hours, and if kept in a hutch, ensure it has fly screens
When it comes to rabbit hutches/enclosures, make sure you get one that is:
- big enough – your rabbit should have room to do at least 3 decent successive hops and be able to stand up straight on her back legs too
- well ventilated – poor ventilation increases the risk of respiratory disease. Consider this if you keep your rabbit in a shed or garage
- adequately weatherproofed – the hutch should protect your bunny from damp conditions and draughts. Rabbits can cope with fairly cold conditions when sheltered and well cared for
- not able to dug out of – rabbits burrow, so make sure the hutch has a secure floor
Whether housed indoors or out, you'll need to manage urinary and faecal waste. Rabbits can be toilet trained. You can use a cat litter box, and fill it with newspaper and hay. Do not use clay based or clumping cat litter. And you'll need to clean the litter daily.
Rabbits also like to have somewhere they can hide or rest in safety. Some rabbits are okay with a shallow hay-filled box. Others like a completely enclosed box.
3. Socialisation and bonding
Rabbits are highly social creatures. In the wild, they can never relax unless they have a 'buddy' to watch their back, and are constantly monitoring for danger, even in familiar environments. The buddy is ideally another rabbit. Rabbits see cats and dogs as predators, so we do need to be mindful of this.
If your bunny needs to have a surgical procedure, we have found that they have a much better anaesthetic recovery if they wake up with their companion rabbit.
We vaccinate against calicivirus, which is also called rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD). This disease is used by the government to control the population of wild rabbits in Australia. But the disease doesn't discriminate between wild and pet rabbits. Without immunisation, infection is usually fatal.
Current vaccination recommendations are:
- Kittens – first vaccination at 8 weeks; booster at 12 weeks and then booster every 6 months
- Adults – 2 vaccinations 1 month apart, then every 6 months
We do not have a vaccination against myxomatosis in Australia. Avoiding mosquito and wild rabbit contact is the best prevention possible.
Entire rabbits are not enjoyable to live with! Both males and females are frequently aggressive to other rabbits and to owners. Male rabbits will spray and urine mark.
Uterine cancers are very common in undesexed female rabbits.
Desexing is usually done when the rabbit is 6 months old. It is a day surgical procedure.
6. Dental health
Dental disease is very common in rabbits. Rabbits' teeth are constantly growing, and some rabbits do not effectively wear their teeth down. This can be related to poor diet, a genetic issue which requires long term management, or a painful process affecting the teeth, mouth or jaw. It is very important that your rabbit has regular annual check ups to detect any dental issues.
Coming in for a surgical procedure?
- Bring a selection of food for your rabbit to munch on before and after the anaesthetic (hay and leafy greens are ideal)
- Bring in your companion rabbit or guinea pig (if you have one)
- Ensure your rabbit is rechecked 24 h after the procedure