- Charter Veterinary Hospital, Roundswell, Barnstaple
- Bridge House Surgery, Pilton, Barnstaple
- St. John's Surgery, Newport, Barnstaple
- Mullacott Veterinary Hospital, Ilfracombe
- South Street Surgery, Braunton
Rabbit Health Care
Keeping your rabbit fit and healthy is vital to ensure a long, happy and fulfilling life. Rabbits may be prone to some health issues which can prove challenging to treat, however are often easily prevented, if you know how.
Good care, appropriate feeding and other measures, such as vaccination and maggot prevention are key. Some of the most important health problems that occur and their prevention are listed below.
Did you know that, in the wild, 70% of a rabbit’s time above ground is spent searching out or ‘foraging’ for high fibre food, such as grass, hay, herbs or bark?
This foraging behaviour helps to keep rabbits busy, stimulated and exercised. In the pet rabbit this must be reproduced, so the right diet is essential for your rabbit’s health and happiness. The digestive system of the rabbit is designed to digest food that is very high in fibre and low in energy. Once food has passed through the digestive system a soft type of faeces, called the caecotroph, is passed. This is rarely seen by owners. The rabbit eats these pellets so that they pass through the digestive system a second time, making sure that all nutrients have been absorbed.
Good quality hay or grass should make up the majority of your rabbit’s diet to provide a good source of high fibre and low energy. This should be available at all times. Hiding hay, grass and healthy hi-fibre snacks around your rabbit’s home and exercise area provides a great way to promote ‘foraging’ behaviour.
In addition, a dried food can be used; we recommend a complete pellet such as Vetpet Rabbit, which incorporates all of the nutrients into single pellets to avoid selective feeding. Muesli style foods can be very bad for rabbits. Some rabbits can be fussy eaters, with a very sweet tooth, and will therefore pick out the tastier aspects of the muesli style foods, which are higher in sugar and starch, and leave the rest. This is called selective feeding and will lead to an imbalanced diet, lacking in calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D. If lots of additional hay and fibre are not provided this behaviour can result in insufficient dietary fibre with potential fatal consequences.
Feeding of pellet food should be restricted, as it can lead to weight gain and does not provide the rabbit with the high fibre that their digestive system needs. A slim, active rabbit can have up to 2 tablespoons of food twice daily, whereas a less active rabbit that carries more body fat will only need 1 tablespoon of dried food, twice daily.
Finally, small pieces of fruit and vegetables can be offered. Lettuce and cabbage are not good choices as these can upset the digestive system. It is better to stick to carrots and pipless apples. Bananas are a good food to encourage your rabbit to eat as they are useful for hiding medication in should your rabbit ever become ill, but take care when feeding bananas, as they can readily cause weight gain.
We all need to take care of our teeth but this is especially true in the case of pet rabbits. Rabbit’s teeth grow continuously at a rate of 2mm every week and the action of chewing grinds them down and keeps them short. Many rabbits have teeth that do not meet properly (malocclusion) and therefore grow too long, causing damage to the inside of the mouth. This often prevents the rabbit eating as it is either too sore or the overgrown front teeth physically prevent the rabbit picking up food. Symptoms of dental problems include quiet and subdued behaviour, loss of appetite, irregular feeding and weight loss. Also look out for dribbling, which is a classic sign of malocclusion and weepy eyes, as blocked tear ducts can also be a sign of a dental problem.
Dental problems are usually diet related, so it is important to follow the simple feeding guidelines above to help your rabbit’s teeth remain healthy.
As mentioned above, rabbits have a digestive system that requires a high fibre/low energy diet. A rich diet means they can readily gain weight and an overweight rabbit cannot clean the soft caecotroph pellets from their rear end. These build up and mat into the fur, which many owners mistake for diarrhoea. If you notice that your rabbit has a dirty rear end it is important to clean it as soon as possible, as it can make the skin sore and attract flies. If you are concerned about your rabbit’s weight please contact us for some advice and a free weight check with one of our qualified veterinary nurses.
New combined vaccine – Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic disease combined, given as a single injection, vaccine lasting 12 months and can be given from 5 weeks of age. A yearly booster is required.
Myxomatosis – this disease causes swelling of the facial area and genital region, with the eyes becoming particularly swollen with a pussy discharge. Treatment, in all but very mild cases, is unsuccessful. Vaccination can be given at 6 weeks of age, with annual booster vaccinations given in May or June to provide protection in the warmer summer months, when the risk is highest. In areas where the disease is rife and the risk is very high vaccination can be given every six months.
Myxomatosis is a fatal viral disease, which will affect all rabbits, not just wild strains. 99% of infected rabbits will die of the disease and yet less than 10% of pet rabbits are protected with vaccination.
The disease is spread by blood sucking insects such as rabbit fleas and mosquitoes. The small amount of live virus placed into the skin when bitten gets into the rabbit’s blood stream and travels around the body. It settles in the skin of the head and genitalia, where it multiplies. Early symptoms of the disease are shown between five and 14 days following infection; these include puffy swellings to the face, lips, eyelids, ears, genitals and anus. These swelling rapidly progress over a matter of days to cause blindness and the affected patient will stop eating and drinking, thick crusting discharges of the eyes and nose are noticed and a fatal secondary pneumonia will result. Sadly 99% of affected rabbits die, and this is usually within 12 days of the onset of symptoms. A small number of patients do manage to survive the disease with intensive nursing care over months, but will be left with scars and scabs on the face and body.
Vaccination is the best chance of protection against myxomatosis. A single injection is given to
rabbits over six weeks of age. It then takes 14 days for immunity to be reached, and this protection lasts for six months. Annual booster vaccinations are required in May or June to provide protection during the warmer summer months when the risk is highest. In areas where the disease is rife and the risk is very high vaccination can be given every six months.
Complete insect control is difficult to achieve but the environmental flea burden can be reduced by keeping wild rabbits away and by applying the spot on product ‘Advantage’ to your rabbit. Mosquito presence can be reduced with nets and insect repellent strips. Dry bedding will also discourage them.
IF YOUR RABBIT HAS NOT BEEN VACCINATED THIS YEAR PLEASE MAKE AN APPOINTMENT WITH A VETERINARY SURGEON AS SOON AS POSSIBLE SO THAT WE CAN PROVIDE PROTECTION AGAINST THIS DEBILITATING AND FATAL DISEASE.
Viral Haemorrhagic disease (HVD) – is a very serious condition, which causes internal bleeding, and causes the internal organs to shut down. Signs include depression, collapse, difficulty breathing, a high temperature, lethargy and bleeding from the nose. Unfortunately this disease kills – there is no cure. Vaccination can begin at 10 weeks.
Flies like to lay their eggs on dirty areas, which include dirty bottoms! These eggs hatch out into maggots, which secrete an enzyme onto the rabbit’s skin to digest it. The maggots absorb the nutrients and literally eat the rabbit alive. Maggots must be treated very quickly as they cause a lot of damage to the rabbit’s skin and can also make the rabbit very sick, due to the enzymes being secreted into the skin. Those rabbits most at risk are those suffering from obesity, dental disease, diarrhoea, arthritis, skin wounds and those living in dirty hutches.
- Check your rabbit daily from March to November for signs of a dirty bottom, fly eggs or maggots.
- Keep your rabbit’s housing cleaned out regularly so that flies are not attracted to the hutch.
- Keep an eye on your rabbit’s weight and make sure you feed a pellet diet with lots of hay and grass.
- Consider using a Rearguard, which will give up to 10 weeks protection, preventing any fly eggs laid developing into maggots.
Fleas are more of a problem in wild rabbits, but they can be transferred to your pet rabbit if wild rabbits come into your garden. In this instance flea control is important as fleas carry both myxomatosis and VHD. Your rabbit should be checked weekly for fleas. If any are seen Advantage should be applied weekly until there are no further signs of fleas, and then applied monthly to prevent further infestations.
Male rabbits (Bucks) can be castrated from 5 months of age, or earlier if the testicles have descended. The benefits of castrating include prevention of spraying; fighting between males and excessive sexual behaviour (many rabbits will mount anything). Bucks can remain fertile for four weeks after the procedure so should be kept separated from un-neutered does during this time.
Female rabbits (Does) can be spayed from 5 months of age. The benefits include elimination of unwanted pregnancy, and uterine problems, which are common in older female rabbits. It can also curb aggression, which can be directed at people, or other rabbits, especially if they are trying to defend their territory.
Whether your rabbit lives indoors or outdoors, a hutch with a run permanently attached is the perfect home. The hutch should be big enough for your rabbit to stand on its back legs and stretch out fully, and with enough floor room to allow three big hops in any direction. There should be separate eating and toileting areas that should be cleaned thoroughly every 2/3 days. It should be placed in a secure area, protected from the sun, wet weather or frost, and ideally raised off of the ground.
Rabbits like to play so make sure they have plenty of toys such as plastic tunnels, plant pots or toilet roll tubes stuffed with hay. Play is very good for them as it keeps them physically active and mentally stimulated, which helps prevent behavioural problems such as fur plucking, which can happen if they get bored.
A rabbit should never be picked up by its ears or the scruff of the neck. Your rabbit first needs to get use to being stroked and touched before attempting to pick them up. Use two hands to pick up your rabbit; one to take the majority of the weight under its bottom and one under its chest. Some rabbits can be very jumpy so hold them close to your body, and especially for the first few times not too far from the floor, in case they try to jump.
Some breeds of rabbits, particularly the long haired varieties, need brushing daily to remove loose and matted hair. This is important to reduce the risk of hairballs and fly strike. It also helps to keep your rabbit in good condition and helps to strengthen the bond between you and your rabbit.
If you have any further questions about your cat’s health care please telephone us and speak to one of our veterinary surgeons or veterinary nurses who will be happy to advise you.
For further healthcare advice click here.