Outdoor rabbits should be housed in properly constructed hutches that provide shade and shelter from wind and cold. The hutch should be tall enough for the rabbit to stand up on its hind legs and long enough for the rabbit to move around freely; a fully grown rabbit should be able to complete three hops in one direction as a minimum. One side should be covered to provide shelter from the weather and any predators. Suitable bedding such as shavings, hay and straw should be deep enough to prevent sores on the feet. Constant access to a run is preferred; this should be made with strong wire mesh and be covered over the top to protect the rabbit from predators and to prevent the rabbit form escaping. Remember that rabbits dig and placing wire mesh to a depth of 30 cm should prevent escapes. Rabbits are more sensitive to heat than cold and it is very important that rabbits have access to shade at all times.
An indoor rabbit can be caged most of the time and let out for supervised exercise or can be given free range of a rabbit-proofed room. Rabbits like to chew and scratch objects found around the home. Carpet fibres, electrical wires and poisonous plants are just some of the potential hazards. Rabbits generally have clean habits and will deposit their faeces and urine in the same place each time. They can be trained to use a litter tray, but adult bucks tend to scatter strong smelling faeces to mark out their territory.
Rabbits are social animals and should ideally live in pairs or groups. Those that live singularly will need lots of social stimulation to prevent boredom and destruction. Rabbits are also strongly territorial and care must be exercised when introducing a new rabbit. Pet guinea pigs are often housed together with rabbits, but this is not a good practice. Their nutritional needs differ and rabbits may carry Bordetella without ill effects; however, this organism causes disease in guinea pigs
Rabbits should be neutered before bonding and ideally be housed next to each other so that smells can become familiar. The rabbits should be introduced in a large neutral area for about 20 minutes daily, if all goes well the time can be extended. Chasing and mounting behaviour is normal and is how rabbits determine who the dominant leader is; if any aggression is shown then the rabbits should be separated. Once the rabbits are comfortable with each other then they may explore each other’s cages. Keep the rabbits separated at night until you are confident they will not fight. Bonding can take weeks or months and rabbits may still show dominant behaviour afterwards.
Most rabbits can become used to being handled and petted in a short space of time with gentle and regular handling. The best way to get a rabbit used to handling is to feed it vegetables while petting it. Rabbits have a relatively delicate skeleton which means that an improperly handled rabbit that kicks out or struggles can fracture its leg or spine. The sharp claws can also cause painful scratches to the handler’s arms.
Picking rabbits up is best done by placing one hand under the chest and the other hand supporting its bottom. If the rabbit is not used to being handled then grasping him or her by the scruff while the other hand supports the hindquarters would be safer. If the bottom is not supported then the rabbit will feel insecure and struggle, kick and scratch. A rabbit should never be lifted by its ears. When carrying a rabbit, tuck its head under your arm. They usually remain quiet and relaxed with the head and eyes covered. It is important that parents show their children how to properly handle and carry the pet rabbit in order to prevent unnecessary injuries.
Feeding an appropriate diet to a rabbit is probably the single most important factor in maintaining its health. The teeth and intestines of rabbits are developed for a high-fibre herbivorous diet. Rabbits are coprophagic; they pass hard round faecal pellets during the day and the seldom-observed soft pellets called caecotropes during the early morning hours. These caecotropes are eaten directly from the rabbit’s anus and helps to maintain the rabbit’s healthy bowel flora.
An ideal diet should be high in fibre and low in carbohydrates. Fibre is essential in maintaining health and regulating gut motility. Good quality grass, such as timothy, orchard grass or ryegrass should always be freely available as it contains all the nutrients necessary to sustain the rabbit. Rabbit food in the form of a mixture of flaked cereals and pellets rarely provide enough fibre and also have far too much carbohydrate. Rabbits tend to select only their favourite ingredients to eat, usually the peas and cereals, which do not provide sufficient calcium for healthy teeth and bones. Pellets are now being recommended for feeding and should contain 18 - 22% fibre and about 16% protein for mature rabbits. The free-choice feeding of pellets often increases the incidence of overeating, obesity and diarrhoea. Therefore feeding a measured amount of pellets daily is preferred for pet rabbits – feeding 26 grams of pellets per kilogram of bodyweight daily is a guideline. Hay should form 40-80% of the diet and is essential in keeping the rabbits teeth from becoming too long. Greens should be offered in moderation. Suitable greens are broccoli, carrot tops, parsley, dandelions, cabbage and watercress. Iceberg lettuce shouldn’t be given as it can cause diarrhoea. Fruit should only be given in small amounts and bread and cereal should be avoided.
Rabbits should be vaccinated from 5 weeks of age against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic disease (VHD1). A single vaccination gives protection for 12 months and annual boosters are required to maintain immunity.
Myxomatosis is a viral disease and is spread by direct contact with an infected rabbit, or by biting insects and fleas. Signs involve swelling around the eyelids, ears and genitals as well as loss of appetite and severe lethargy. Treatment is usually ineffective and infected rabbits usually die or are euthanased.
VHD is an highly infectious viral disease that attacks the internal organs of rabbits, particularly the liver. Most rabbits infected by VHD typically die within 24 hours due to massive haemorrhaging of one or more internal organs. It is spread through direct contact and can also potentially be spread through the air and on clothing, hay and hutches. Infected rabbits may have any of the following symptoms: fever, loss of appetite, foamy discharge from the nostrils, lethargy, muscle spasms, and bleeding from one or more orifices. However, in many cases no symptoms are evident until death.
Recently a new variant of VHD (VHD2) has been causing sudden death in rabbits in the UK. It is difficult to know how widespread the disease is as wild rabbits die out of sight in their burrows and owners don’t often report cases to their vet. The standard vaccine against VHD1 does not protect against this new strain so we are now stocking Filavac, a French vaccine that protects against both VHD1 and VHD2. Rabbits can be vaccinated from 10 weeks of age and immunity lasts 6 to 12 months. The vaccine has to be given 2 weeks or more after the regular Myxomatosis and VHD1 vaccination.
Blowflies are attracted to rabbits kept in unhygienic conditions and those who are prone to messy bottoms due to obesity or poor diet. Blowflies lay eggs on the hindquarters which then hatch into maggots and feed on the rabbit’s skin. Fly strike can be prevented by regular hutch cleaning, ensuring the rabbit is clean and by treating with Rearguard every 8 – 10 weeks during the warmer months. If you wash your rabbit please keep it indoors until it is fully dry and keep a look out for blowflies.
Encephalitozoon cuniculi is a protozoan parasite that it spread through spores that are shed in the urine of infected rabbits. The parasite attacks the nervous system and kidneys causing a variety of symptoms including head tilt, urinary incontinence, hind limb weakness, cataracts or eye infections and even death. Panacur paste aids in the control of this parasite; it is also important to place food and water containers in such a way as to prevent urine contamination. The suggested preventative regime is to give Panacur daily for 9 days and to repeat it 2-4 times a year.
Dental problems are sometimes caused by poor breeding, but feeding the wrong food will also lead to abnormal wear of the teeth resulting in ‘spikes’ on the molars or overgrown incisors. Ensure that your rabbit has access to good quality hay at all times.