Caring For Your Rabbit
Rabbits deserve their reputation as great pets – they are friendly, inquisitive, content to play with their owners and can happily be held and stroked. With the correct diet, care and handling you and your rabbit will have a long and happy time together. In the sections below we will introduce some of the most important things you need to know in order to enjoy the experience of being a rabbit owner to the full.
You’ll be familiar with the words carnivore (a meat eater), omnivore (an eater of meat and plants) and herbivore (animal with a plant-based diet).
Rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas are all herbivores. But by far the most important elements of their diet, the one thing they absolutely must have to stay healthy and happy is fibre.
At Burgess Excel, we call them ‘Fibrevores’.
This is because rabbits need to keep their digestive systems busy with a mix of two kinds of fibre moving through the gut at all times (these types of fibre are called digestible fibre and indigestible fibre, and at Burgess Excel we collectively call them ‘Beneficial Fibre’.
Vets recommend that a complete diet for fibrevores should cater for their dental, digestive and emotional health.
The Excel Feeding plan has been developed alongside leading academics and vets to ensure that it meets the needs dietary requirements of rabbits.
Whether your rabbits live indoors or outside, a hutch with a run permanently attached is the perfect home. The hutch itself is really only the rabbits bedroom. They should have access to a run at all times so they can choose to be inside or outside as they wish.
The hutch should be high enough for your rabbits to stand on their back legs, stretch out fully, and with enough floor area to allow a minimum of three to four hops in any direction. You’ll need to get a bigger hutch the more rabbits you have. There should be separate eating and toilet areas. If you have more than one rabbit, there should also be somewhere for them to be alone from each other – after all we all need our own space sometimes!
Line the floor with newspaper and cover the lining with bedding material such as straw or dust-free wood chippings. This helps to absorb urine and keep the hutch comfortable.
Rabbits are clean animals by nature, so make a separate litter area, deep-sided and lined with newspaper and hay, which you should change regularly.
The hutch should always be dry, well-ventilated and kept cool. Heat can be fatal to rabbits. Indoors, avoid sites next to radiators. Outside, avoid south-facing walls and direct sunlight. In the colder winter months, add extra bedding to an outdoor hutch and move it into a garage.
Rabbits leave scent markings which extreme cleaning can remove. This may cause them stress, but hygiene is important. Spot clean soiled areas when needed, but change all bedding and clean thoroughly every two or three days – always leaving a small corner untouched so it smells familiar. It’s also important to consider the surroundings when your rabbit is out of the hutch.
Rabbits love to chew and gnaw, so when they’re living indoors, the house needs to be rabbit-proofed. Wires are an easy target, so metal ducting may be useful to cover them up. Also, be aware of wooden and laminate floors which can easily cause your rabbits to slip, injuring the lower back.
For outdoor rabbits, it’s important to rat-proof the area where they’re living. Fear of predators – like dogs, foxes and birds of prey – can cause stress, so try to minimise it. If a neighbour has a noisy dog, for example, house your rabbit as far away as possible. Ideally cover the hutch at night so that the rabbit cannot see outside should any predators enter the garden. You should also make sure the garden is free of plants that are poisonous to rabbits.
There are many different health problems that rabbits face, but most can be avoided – either by regular vaccination or by good diet and a healthy lifestyle.
You can help to maintain your pets’ good health by learning to do some simple health checks every week. These will help you to spot any problems early so you can get treatment in good time – and this regular handling will strengthen the bond between you.
A vital part of the health check is getting to know your rabbits. Like people, they’re all different, so if you become familiar with the way yours move, react and feed, you will find it easier to spot when something is wrong.
Make sure your pets are relaxed, comfortable and willing to be handled when you carry out these checks – an Excel Nature Snack may help and if your rabbits are unwell, always contact your vet.
Ears – Gently look inside to see if they’re free from mites and fleas, which can carry diseases.
Eyes – They should be clear, shiny, not swollen and free from discharge. Dampness or dull or swollen eyes can be symptoms of illness which may lead to blindness.
Teeth – Check to see there is no excessive drooling. Be careful, rabbits may bite if they’re not comfortable with their mouths being examined.
Bottom – Make sure it’s clean and not sticky or wet, which can be a sign of poor diet or malnutrition. Any droppings attached to the fur should be washed off.
Feet – Make sure the feet haven’t been injured and check that their claws haven’t overgrown.
Fur – see that there are no bald patches, no signs of mites or fleas and no signs of injury.
There are two main vaccinations and some simple preventative measures to keep your pets free from infectious diseases. You should ask your vet for more details and always keep up to date with vaccinations. Here’s a brief guide to the four main infectious diseases. But if you are in any doubt whatsoever, it is vital that you consult your vet as soon as possible.
Myxomatosis – this disease spreads via blood-sucking insects, like fleas. Even house rabbits are not immune, because the disease can be spread by mosquitoes.
- Symptoms – Swellings around the head, face, ears, lips and anus.
- Effects – Blindness, swelling around the face, disorientation, death.
- Action – Rabbits must be vaccinated. See your vet for more details.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) – a very serious condition which causes internal bleeding and shut down of internal organs. This disease kills – and there is no cure.
- Symptoms – depression, collapse, difficulty in breathing, convulsions, high body temperature, lethargy, bleeding from the nose.
- Effects – death.
- Action – rabbits must be vaccinated. See your vet for more details.
Encephalitozoon cuniculi (E. cuniculi) – a microscopic parasite which affects many internal organs like the kidneys and brain.
- Symptoms – As the parasite acts internally, symptoms are manifestations of the internal organs being attacked. Increasing thirst and weight loss, convulsions, tremors, hind limb weakness, coma, loss of balance, urinary incontinence.
- Effects – Seizures, kidney disease, hind limb weakness, loss of vision and balance.
- Action – There are preventative treatments available. See your vet for more details.
Flystrike – a disease which occurs when flies lay their eggs around the rabbit’s anus.
- Symptoms – droppings stuck around the bottom (that attract flies), diarrhoea can also be a precursor, wounds around the bottom.
- Effects – The eggs hatch into maggots which mature and burrow under the skin making the rabbit extremely ill. Can be fatal. Pets most at risk at are those suffering from obesity, dental disease, diarrhoea, arthritis and skin wounds and those living in dirty hutches. The majority of cases are due to flies being attracted to droppings or diarrhoea stuck to the rabbits bottom caused by poor diet.
- Action – There are preventative treatments available. See your vet for more details. However, a good diet of Excel Herbage and Tasty Nuggets taken according to The Excel Feeding Plan, can help to prevent obesity, dental disease and diarrhoea and guard against fly strike. Good hygiene is also vital.
Problems caused by poor diet
There are two major problem areas which can be avoided with a good diet, plenty of exercise and regular health checks.
Dental problems –Problems like these generally develop because rabbits aren’t eating enough hay, which is a fibre-rich food that helps to wear down the teeth.
- Symptoms – Excessive drooling and loss of appetite.
- Effects A rabbit’s teeth will continue to grow around 10-12cm a year all its life. Vets say that three-quarters of the rabbits they see have problems with their teeth – the most common problem being overgrown molars and spurs which can cause extreme pain.
- Action – Check your pets’ teeth on a weekly basis but you must visit the vet for a dental check every six month as you will be unable to check their back teeth.
Obesity – Rabbits kept as pets are much less active than those which live in the wild, so being overweight is always a risk.
- Symptoms – Sticky droppings (caecotrophs) that haven’t been eaten, dirty bottoms, ‘bed sores’ on hind legs
- Effects – Obesity puts pressure on the heart and joints, can create ‘bed sores’ on the hind legs and may shorten your rabbit’s life. Some obese animals find it hard to clean themselves, which can lead to flystrike. If they can’t reach their bottoms they can’t re-ingest caecotrophs – the sticky droppings they need to eat as an essential aid to survival.
- Action – Prevention is better than cure, so ask your vet about your rabbits’ ideal weight. Weigh them regularly to make sure they fall into their target weight. All rabbits, but especially those which spend most of their time in hutches, should have as much exercise as possible.
If your rabbits do become overweight, see your vet for advice. A calorie-controlled food, such as Excel Light Tasty Nuggets, may be suggested. Never withhold food from your rabbits – they must have some fibre in their digestive systems at all times or else they are at risk of chronic constipation which can be fatal.
People often think rabbits are very easy to look after and that all they need to do is pop them in a hutch in the garden and feed and clean them when needed. However, this is actually very far from the truth!
Nowadays, we have a far greater understanding of what rabbits need to keep them happy and healthy. It is also important to remember that the way a rabbit behaves will depend on their age, personality and past experiences.
Rabbits are prey animals first and foremost and their natural response to a perceived threat is to often run and hide. They have a wonderful ability to interact with humans but need time and regular, gentle handling from an early age to become comfortable around humans.
Offer your rabbits’ lots of bolt holes/hiding within their home and areas they have access to. Open spaces with no protection will cause your rabbits to feel under threat. A good idea is to place the carrier inside the homing area so increase familiarity and reduce stress during vet visits.
Think about what other animals are already in your house, and whether they are a natural predator to rabbits. For example rabbits will feel scared being housed next to dog kennels or ferret enclosures! Make sure your rabbits can always escape and hide if they feel afraid.
If a rabbit’s behaviour changes or they show regular signs of stress or fear (such as frequent hiding or being aggressive to you/or other pets), they may be in pain, distressed and /or suffering emotionally. You should get your pet checked by a vet to rule out any form of illness or injury that could be causing the behaviour problem. Your vet can then refer you to a behaviour expert if necessary.
Create a ‘wild’ environment for your rabbits
In the wild, rabbits have plenty to keep them occupied, from foraging to reproduction to territorial defence. Pet rabbits, on the other hand, often lack stimulation, which can lead to behavioural problems and poor health. Much like humans, they need to be kept physically and mentally active. You can replicate a rabbit’s natural environment by providing some of the items below:
- Tunnels (that are wide enough for the rabbits to pass through easily)
- Tree stumps (from trees that are safe for rabbits to chew, e.g. apple, that have not been sprayed with chemicals) to act as look out points (platforms)
- Safe, unsprayed twigs (which can be hung up so that they can pull them)
- Suitable toys (there are many rabbit toys available commercially; ensure any you buy are safe and that your rabbits use them)
- Digging Box i.e. A planter filled with earth for digging
- Platforms for hiding under and climbing on
- Constant access to safe hiding places (such as cardboard boxes)
- Games, such as food items in brown paper which they have to unwrap
- Put food in multiple places so they have to move around to find it
- Use food balls (the treat balls made for cats work well) to feed their nuggets as they will spend longer eating and have fun chasing them around
Rabbits become bored of toys quickly, so rotate items regularly to keep them interested. Ensure there are enough resources for all your rabbits to use at the same time. Regularly inspect items for damage and potential hazards and repair, discard or replace any items that become dangerous.
Digging is a favourite pastime of rabbits, both domestic and wild. By providing digging substrates, such as a child’s sand pit or wide plant pot filled with earth or child-safe play sand, your pet rabbits will be able to dig away without damaging your garden or escaping.
Rabbits’ homes are their castles and in the wild they are very protective of their territory, marking out anything they see as theirs using chin secretions, urine and droppings. These markings also help them to feel reassured as their environment smells familiar. Pet rabbits will also display these behaviours and you should allow them to do so.
Just like humans, rabbits become bored if their environment remains the same, so consider an occasional change of scenery. However, be careful as too much change can be stressful. Wild rabbits’ survival depends on an intimate knowledge of their surroundings in order to escape from predators, so structural changes to your pet rabbits’ ‘warren’ should be kept subtle, such as changing their toys and regularly providing new ones
People don’t realise that rabbits are incredibly social animals and if left without appropriate company and things to do for a long time they can suffer. Many owners keep a rabbit alone in a hutch, but this leads to a miserable lifestyle for rabbits. Rabbits have complex social needs and are happiest when kept with another friendly rabbit – therefore, rabbits should ideally live in friendly pairs or groups. However, keeping the wrong pairings together can lead to unwanted kittens (baby rabbits) and/or fighting. Neutering is recommended to prevent unwanted kittens.
A good combination is a neutered male and a neutered female. Neutering is important as it prevents unwanted pregnancies, can reduce fighting, and in females prevents uterine cancer. Speak to your vet for advice about neutering.
If you are thinking of getting another rabbit, please speak to your vet for advice first. They will be able to help ensure you can meet the needs of a pair of rabbits. Unfamiliar rabbits need to be introduced to each other very carefully and gradually, under owner supervision, preferably in a space that is new to both rabbits. If you’ve never bonded rabbits before, you must ask a vet, vet nurse or other qualified pet care specialist for advice on how to do this. If you rehome a rabbit from a rescue centre, the staff are likely to be able to advise you on introducing rabbits and may even be able to pair rabbits up for you.
It’s incredibly beneficial for rabbits to start interacting with people and other rabbits from an early age. Familiarity with people will help your rabbits develop into friendly and confident adults. Exposing them to normal everyday sights and sounds from a young age is also important, so they’re relaxed and happy in the environments they will encounter as adults.
Contrary to popular belief, guinea pigs should not be kept as companions for rabbits. They have different dietary requirements and communicate differently too. Furthermore, rabbits can sometimes bully guinea pigs and can pass bacteria onto them, which can cause respiratory disease.
Whilst humans can provide welcome company, and you can have lots of fun playing, bonding and interacting together, it’s still important that rabbits have the companionship of another friendly, compatible rabbit (unless a vet or qualified animal behaviourist advises otherwise on welfare grounds).
When handling rabbits, you should remember that they’re ground-living creatures who can find being lifted and carried distressing, so whenever possible interact with your rabbits at ground level. Owners should also remember not to approach from above (as a predator would), but rather on the same level. When picking your rabbits up ensure that all four legs and the bottom are securely supported at all times. Rabbits should never be picked up by the ears or scruff of the neck.