Withy Grove Veterinary Clinic is registered with the Rabbit Welfare Association, www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk to be a rabbit friendly practice, we have a Rabbit Advocate, one of our Nurses, Laura.
There are over 40 breeds of rabbit varying in size from the Netherland Dwarf, weighing up to 1kg, to the Flemish Giant, which can weigh over 8kg. The average lifespan for a rabbit is 6-8 years.
The floor area should be a minimum of 0.2 square metres per small rabbit and up to 0.8 square metres for the larger ones. It should be high enough for the rabbit to stand up on his hind legs and long enough for him to lie down at full stretch. The floor can be mesh, which is easily cleaned, or a solid floor.
Rabbits should be cleaned out preferably daily and a bedding of wood-shavings, sawdust, newspaper, straw or hay used. A separate nest box is sometimes provided.
In the UK rabbits can be housed outside all year round as long as the cage is water and draught proof.
Rabbits are social animals and should ALWAYS be kept with other rabbits or be house rabbits, remember adults can be aggressive to new arrivals. Male rabbits (bucks) can fight and so may female (does) and bucks – and of course, they can breed!
When it is warm rabbits enjoy an outdoor run but this must be cat proof and remember that rabbits burrow, so the run must be escape proof. There should also be an area where the rabbit can get out of the sun.
Rabbits can live indoors, be toilet trained (use a litter tray, they are naturally clean and toilet in the same place) and become an affectionate part of the family. Neutering decreases the chance of them being smelly. See www.myhouserabbit.com
Commercial food is best, supplemented with small amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables and grazing grass in the summer. Hay should always be available. A measured amount of food per day is recommended, free access can lead to rabbits becoming overweight. Sudden changes in diet can produce stomach upsets and diarrhoea.
Two types of commercial food is available. A pelleted food provides the diet in a uniform pellet, thus the rabbit always eats a balanced diet. A mixed food allows the rabbit to forage but if the rabbit refuses to eat part of the ration it can lead to dietary imbalances. Extra fibre, usually hay, must be provided in both cases.
Rabbits are prone to digestive upsets so sudden changes in diet or waste fruit and vegetables should never be fed, nor should grass cuttings or any non-fresh material. It is normal for rabbits to eat their own faeces to get extra nourishment.
Fresh water should always be available from a bottle or bowl.
Firm, gentle and frequent handling is best. Pick them up in the arms or by the scruff. Carry them close to the body to make them feel secure. Covering the head and eyes makes them less likely to struggle. Remember that they can kick out at any time so it is best not to carry them too high off the ground. If a rabbit struggles whilst being handled it should be gently put down again. Rabbits that appear aggressive are generally afraid and rabbits that struggle may suffer serious spinal injury so be careful!
Rabbits can be sexually mature at 12 weeks old. It is very difficult to sex rabbits younger than this. Rabbits do not have regular breeding cycles, they can breed throughout the year with a gestation period of about 31 days. It is possible to tell if a doe is pregnant by palpation after about 12 days. Usually the doe is taken to the buck’s hutch for mating and then returned to her own hutch.
False pregnancy may develop if the mating is unsuccessful which can last for about 18 days with nesting behaviour, pulling her fur our to line the nest and possibly milk production.
Normally 6-8 young are born. Once they are born they should not be disturbed, weaning usually takes place at 6-8 weeks. The buck may be attacked by the doe so they are best separated. Orphaned young can be hand reared with puppy milk substitute and an appropriate teat but the results are often very disappointing with early death.
Both male and female rabbits can be neutered and in male rabbits this will often make them less aggressive. There are health benefits to neutering both sexes, please speak to a member of staff for details.
Myxomatosis is a virus, spread by rabbit fleas, which can travel on cats, dogs and wildlife as well as other rabbits. The incubation period is 2-8 days and the clinical signs are conjunctivitis, swollen eyelids and swollen genitals. Death occurs 11-18 days after the signs appear. Some rabbits will survive. A single dose of vaccine is given once or twice a year.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) is a fatal viral disease that rabbits can pick up from contaminated food, bird droppings or other animals (cats, dogs, vermin, other rabbits). Young rabbits are often resistant to infection but as they get older there may be sudden death, difficulty breathing, bleeding from the nose or anus. A few may recover. The vaccine is given once a year, usually at the same time as the myxomatosis vaccine.
New variant VHD2
This is a similar disease to VHD, causing death in many cases. There is a vaccine available but it has to be pre ordered at the moment from France (2016). It is usually given at least 2 weeks apart from the combined myxomatosis and VHD vaccine mentioned above.
Abscesses -Any swellings on a rabbit can be abscesses, they can be difficult to treat as the thick pus doesn’t drain easily and antibiotics cannot penetrate the abscess easily.
Mites -Mites can cause sore ears or flaky skin.
Overgrown Teeth – Teeth can be seen overgrown along with decreased appetite and drooling saliva. The cause involves dietary problems as well as an inherited defect.
Intestinal Problems – Caused by hairballs, worms or infection, the signs are a decreased appetite and often diarrhoea.
Respiratory Infections – A runny nose or heavy breathing can signify a respiratory infection.
Neurological Problems – Middle ear disease or a parasitic infection can produce partial paralysis, head tilt or ‘wobbliness’. Spinal damage, particularly if the rabbit has fallen or struggled a lot can also produce paralysis of the hind legs.
Overgrown Claws – Rabbits’ claws will often overgrow and curl round. These can be cut easily but if they are cut too short they will bleed. An experienced person can show you how to do this safely.