A hutch is not enough
Rabbits can make very good pets, but they have some important husbandry needs that must be addressed in order to provide adequately for their health and welfare.
As well as social interaction with other rabbits, they also enjoy being friendly with humans too.
They need to be given attention every day and require regular gentle handling to establish and maintain that human:rabbit social bond, although this must be on their terms.
The daily contact also allows an opportunity to check them for any health problems.
All pet owners have a responsibility to provide suitable care for their pets, and this is outlined in the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
However, you can find some examples of such requirements for rabbits below:
1. A suitable environment. A hutch on its own is not enough!
They should have a secure, well insulated and ventilated hutch providing plenty of room to move around and stretch out, ideally a minimum size of 6ft long by 2ft wide and 2ft high or with enough space to fully stand up in, whichever is the smaller.
This provides a sheltered space for rabbits to use as their base, and they should ideally have constant access to a grass run area which is a minimum size of 8 feet by 4 feet, alternatively a minimum access of 4 hours per day.
Indoor rabbits need the same space allocation and may be enclosed within a pen or run, alternatively they may have free run of a room as space to run around helps to provide exercise.
2. A suitable diet. Rabbits are strict herbivores and spend a lot of time eating. It is best to give them a diet consisting mainly of hay, fresh, or dried grasses (approximately 85%).
Approximately 10% of the diet may be made up of green leafy vegetation, and approximately 5% (about an egg cup full for an average sized 2.5kg rabbit) of good quality extruded pelleted concentrate food.
The ideal is to ensure ad-lib, or unlimited, good quality hay, plus these other components. Water should be provided at all times, via a water bottle, clean bowl, or both.
3. To exhibit normal behaviour. To do this, they require adequate space, opportunities to run, jump, dig and forage.
Try to make their environment interesting with tubes, hides, cardboard boxes, and objects to stand on and look around.
Beware that rabbits burrow so an outdoor run area should have buried wire sides, or be checked or moved frequently. Neutered rabbits are less prone to digging deep burrows, but, being part of their normal behaviour, digging should be accommodated, even indoors.
Trays or earth, shavings, hay, cardboard chips etc provide good digging boxes.
4. Interaction with other rabbits, in compatible pairings or small groups. Rabbits are social animals, and solitary confinement is unnatural to them. To avoid rabbits breeding like, well, rabbits, and to prevent potentially fatal uterine cancer in the females, both sexes should be neutered.
5. To be protected from pain, injury or disease. This means that they should be vaccinated, treated for any parasites as directed by your vet, and regularly (daily), checked for any signs of ill health by their owners.
Regularly checking the teeth, ears, skin, claws and underside, around the back end, in particular, are vital. There are several signs that your rabbit may be ill and require veterinary attention.
Among these are:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- looking depressed
- skin trouble
- runny faeces and/or urine soaking into the back legs
- discharges from the nose, eyes or mouth
- difficulty breathing
Vaccination provides protection against life-threatening diseases, which in the rabbit are Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD). Unfortunately we still see rabbits that have these diseases, although they are preventable through vaccination.
The combined vaccine for Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhaghic Disease can be given as a single dose from 5 weeks of age, and will require an annual booster thereafter.
Myxomatosis is a deadly disease seen in both wild and pet rabbits. It starts with conjunctivitis, and then swellings on the head and genital areas appear. Affected rabbits get weak and eventually die. The disease can be passed by flies and fleas that have been in contact with an infected rabbit, as well as direct contact with an infected rabbit.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease is fatal, with death occurring within 48 hours. The virus causes major internal bleeding. Some rabbits may have bleeding from the nose or back passage, but quite often the rabbit will die with no outward signs.
The virus is easily transmitted and can survive in the environment for months. It can be passed on through direct contact with an infected rabbit or through indirect contact with other animals, insects, owners, on the wind or from untreated hay.
Parasites rely on another animal to complete their life cycle. It is very important these are controlled to prevent irritation, debilitation, weight loss and the spread of infectious diseases.
Fleas help to spread diseases such as Myxomatosis. It is important to treat the environment as well as your rabbit to ensure re-infestation doesn’t occur. Check for little black specks of flea dirt in the coat. If you are not sure if what you find is flea dirt then place the sample on a white piece of paper and add a drop of water.
If you see the sample dissolving or red coming from the edges, then this is positive for flea dirt. Should any of these diseases be present please call in and collect our recommended parasite control if you are a VIP Pet Healthcare member you will get a 10% discount on this product.
These are little mites that live on the surface of the skin and feed on serum beneath the skin surface. They cause hair loss, scurfy skin and can be itchy.
Ear mites are visible to the naked eye and can cause excessive wax build up. They can cause irritation and so the rabbit may shake his or her head, or rub their ears along the ground. In severe cases sedation is needed to get rid of all the mites. Please book your rabbit in with a vet if you are concerned – If you are a VIP Pet Heathcare member you will get a 10% discount off the consultation.
Rabbits get pin worms, which are about 5mm long. They can be found in the faeces or around the anus of the rabbit. Outdoor rabbits may need worming to control any worm burden. We can recommend a product for purchase.
Flystrike happens when flies lay eggs on a rabbit, which then hatch into maggots. Flies such as bluebottles produce maggots that mature very rapidly and are able to eat flesh in a matter of hours. It is a very common, painful and distressing condition that often results in death.
When would my rabbit be at risk?
Flystrike can occur at any time of year, but is more commonly seen between April and October.
What would make my rabbit at risk?
Any rabbit can get Flystrike, but the following factors can increase the risks:
• Long hair
• Abscesses or wounds
• Wet fur
• Dirty or damp living conditions
• Dirty bottoms
What are the warning signs of Flystrike?
Rabbits can either be quiet or very restless, as they are uncomfortable.
What do I do if I find maggots?
Contact the Veterinary Surgery and you will be seen immediately. Flystrike is an emergency as rabbits need to have immediate attention. Carefully wipe off any maggots, but do not wet the fur.
What is the treatment for Flystrike?
If Flystrike is found early enough affected rabbits can make a full recovery.
The area is clipped and then all maggots removed. Sometimes this may require sedation or an anaesthetic so that any concealed maggots can be removed as well as damaged tissue being dealt with. Rabbits will also need pain relief, fluid support and antibiotics to prevent infection. We recommend using RearguardTM which when applied to a rabbit prevents Flystrike for up to ten weeks.
Abbey Vets Key Points
• Almost all rabbits will pick up fleas
• Fleas are present all year round
• Fleas are a health hazard to both you and your pets
• Effective control involves treatment with the correct products throughout the year
• A rabbit shaking it’s head or rubbing it’s ears along the ground may have ear mites
• Flystrike is a common condition, which if treated quickly can prevent death. Your rabbit is more at risk between April and October
• If you find maggots on your rabbit this is an emergency case and it will be seen by the vet immediately.
All male and female rabbits should be neutered, unless they are intended for breeding. There is a discount off the cost of these procedures if you are a VIP Pet Healthcare member.
What is neutering?
In the male (buck), this is called castration, and simply involves removing both testicles. In the female (doe), the operation is commonly called spaying, where both ovaries and the uterus are removed.
When should the operation be performed?
Male rabbits can be neutered from 4 months and female rabbits can be neutered from 6 months of age.
Why should I have my rabbit neutered?
Neutered rabbits are more social and less likely to exhibit aggressive behavioural traits. They are also easier to keep with other neutered rabbits. Female rabbits have a very high risk of developing ovarian and uterine cancer if they are not spayed. In one study, 60 – 80% of un-neutered female rabbits over the age of 4 were found to have these cancers.
Are there any disadvantages of neutering?
Neutering is a surgical procedure and therefore is done under general anaesthesia. In young fit healthy animals the risk is minimal. Neutered animals have a reduced metabolic rate and are therefore more prone to putting on weight when fed the same quantity of food. A slight reduction in intake can prevent this.
We actively encourage regular weight checks to ensure this problem doesn’t occur. A neutered rabbit fed on a diet of grass and hay will not become obese.
What do I have to do before the procedure?
For all neutering procedures patients are generally only hospitalised for one day. It is important that rabbits are NOT starved prior to admission, and that water is made available at all times.
Quite simply, rabbits eat grass. It is high in fibre, contains moderate levels of protein and is low in fat and sugar. In an ideal world, rabbits would have free access to gardens in order for them to eat all the grass they need. However, this is not always convenient for us.
We can provide a diet that is high in fibre that maintains dental health and a healthy gut. It is a diet of:
• Grass and hay
• Small amount of pellet food
We recommend Burgess Excel Rabbit Food to be provided as the pellet portion of the diet. It is designed as a complementary food so that it is fed alongside grass, hay and vegetables.If you are a VIP Pet Healthcare member there is a 10% discount off these foods.
If you are planning to change the pellet portion of the diet, then this must be done slowly (eg over a two week period). Similarly if you want to increase the grass, hay and vegetable portion of the diet, this should also be done gradually.
Rabbits must also have free access to water, either using a bowl or bottle. It is very important that the bottle or bowl must be cleaned twice daily to prevent contamination or bacterial infection.
Remember, it is normal for rabbits to eat the sticky droppings that they produce. These caecotrophs are passed at night and basically contain fibre and bacteria. Rabbits will eat these as soon as they are passed in order to re-digest and extract essential nutrients.
Some common wild plants that rabbits are able to have include, this list is not exhaustive.
Agrimony – Avens – Bramble (Leaves) – Chickweed – Clover – Coltsfoot
Cow Parsnip (Leaves) – Dandelion – Goosegrass – Grass – Knapweed
Mallow – Mayweed – Plantain – Raspberry (Leaves) – Sea Beet – Sow Thistle
Trefoil – Vetch – Yallow
The main vegetables that can be fed are:
Baby salad leaves – Broccoli – Cabbage – Carrot – Cauliflower – Celery
Spinach – Watercress
Rabbits will also eat the leaves and branches of apple and hazel trees. The branches also provide ideal gnawing material.
Many people allow their rabbit free run of the garden during the summer months believing that they will instinctively avoid eating poisonous plants. However, this is not always the case and a rabbit must be confined to its run unless all poisonous plants are removed.
Azalea – Arum (Lord and Ladies) – Bindweed – Bittersweet – Bluebell
Bracken – Buttercup – Bryony – Caladium – Celandine – Charlock
Clematis – Cyclamen – Columbine – Daffodil – Dahlia – Deadly Nightshade
Figwort – Fool’s Parsley – Foxglove – Hellebore – Hemlock – Henbane
Horsetails – Hyacinth – Iris – Jerusalem Cherry – Juniper – Kingcup
Laburnum – Leyland Cypress – Lily of the Valley – Marsh Marigold
Mistletoe – Monkshood – Morning Glory – Oak Leaves – Poppies
Philodendron – Privet – Ragwort – Rhododendron – Scarlet Pimpernel
Speedwell – Spurge – St John’s Wort – Toadflax – Travellers Joy
Wild Celery – Wisteria – Woody Nightshade
These are the most common poisonous plants but the list is not exhaustive.
If your rabbit has a free run of the garden, it will be necessary to remove any poisonous plants. Alternatively place a piece of chicken wire around the plant to prevent access by the rabbit.
If the rabbit has a run, ensure that the plant is not in contact with the wire as he may nibble it through the wire.
Garden pesticides and herbicides may contain chemicals that are toxic to rabbits. Therefore avoid spraying weeds in areas where your rabbit may graze. Plants collected from the roadside may be covered in dirt and exhaust fumes, which contain lead and may be lethal to rabbits.
Farmers sometimes use chemical sprays to control pests and weeds and plants that are collected may have spray residue on them. It is essential to remember that you must be able to correctly identify the plant that you wish to feed your rabbit to ensure that it is not toxic – some harmful plants can look similar to beneficial ones.
Abbey Vets Key Points
• Poor nutrition may lead to health problems
• Different life stages have different nutritional requirements
• Always make fresh water available
• We recommend Burgess Excel Rabbit food for the pellet portion of the diet
• Make any changes to diets gradually ideally over a period of 2 – 3 weeks.
• It is normal for rabbits to eat their own droppings, they contain essential nutrients
• Make sure your garden is free from poisonous plants before your rabbit is allowed free access
• Be aware that food gathered from a roadside or in a field could be contaminated by exhaust fumes or farmers pesticides
Behaviour and Training
Rabbits can make wonderful companions both for adults and children. They are quiet, intelligent and enjoy company. Rabbits are sociable animals and if at all possible it is recommended that you keep at least two rabbits together.
Litter mates can be kept together but should be neutered if of opposite sexes. Unrelated females will usually tolerate each other if they have sufficient space, but they can fight. The most stable pairing is a neutered female and a neutered male. Providing that you are patient and take the time to gain their trust, you will be rewarded greatly.
Should have a secure cage area where they can be safely left when the owner isn’t present. Exercise around the house should be encouraged but electrical cables need to be protected from chewing and poisonous house plants kept well out of the rabbit’s reach or not kept in the house at all.
Chewable toys are enjoyed as are cardboard boxes and some commercial toys.
Rabbits will readily learn to use cat flaps to gain indoor/outdoor access.
They are also easily trained to use a litter tray. Wood or paper based litter should be used as the clay types can be harmful if eaten. It may be necessary to add some of the droppings/soiled bedding, from the rabbit’s cage to the tray initially to encourage them to start using the litter tray.
Rabbits are generally hardy but need protection from extremes of weather. Exposure to direct sunlight without shade should be avoided as heat stress and heat stroke occur easily.
The hutch should be raised off the ground, with a solid front sleeping area and a mesh front living area. The mesh front should be protected with a cover or overhang to stop rain getting in.
The hutch should be at lease big enough for the rabbit to stretch out fully and stand on its hind legs.
An absolute minimum size for one small rabbit would be 60 x 24 x 42 inches. However bigger is better.
Rabbits need daily exercise and to graze about 8 hours a day. So the hutch should be placed in a safe enclosure or a separate run provided. A minimum size run for a small rabbit would be 6 ft x 4 ft x 2-3ft high.
Don’t forget rabbits will burrow so precautions need to be taken to prevent escape. They can also jump so a mesh top for the run or pen will prevent escape as well as keep predators out.
They should be provided with “bolt holes” such as empty pet carriers or drain pipes to use if they are alarmed.
Toys and fruit tree twigs/branches can also be put in the run to entertain the rabbit.
To minimise the risk of disease, contact with wild rabbits should be prevented and fly and mosquito control should be considered in summer months.
Hutches should be cleaned and dried regularly.
Abbey Vets Key Points
Behaviour and Training
• Although rabbits are small they need lots of space!!
• Socialise your rabbit as soon as possible
• Get used to handling your rabbit and your rabbit to being handled
• House rabbits of any age can be toilet trained, but the younger they are the better
• Rabbits need about 8 hours of exercise daily to stay healthy
• Ideally rabbit hutches or exercise runs should allow them to fully stand on their hind legs
Snuffles is a commone respiratory disease is common in pet rabbits. Commonly caused by the bacteria Pasturella. This can be carried in the airways of normal healthy rabbits and will cause disease if the rabbit is stressed, has damp bedding, poor ventilation, overcrowding and wide environmental temperature fluctuations.
Affected rabbits can have bouts of sneezing with a discharge from the eyes and mouth and in severe cases this can progress to pneumonia. They go off their food and have difficulty breathing.
Keeping your rabbit well fed in a warm, clean well ventilated home/hutch with good quality bedding will make him/her much less likely to develop this problem. Most affected rabbits will respond to appropriate treatment but eliminating the bacteria completely can be very difficult and once a rabbit has been affected relapses can occur.
True diarrhoea in the rabbit is relatively uncommon and is often due to an imbalance of the normal bacteria that live in the bowels caused by inappropriate or unaccustomed diet.
More commonly what seems to be diarrhoea is an accumulation of the soft caecotrophs around the bottom which can have many causes including obesity and poor teeth.
Flystrike happens when flies like bluebottles and green bottles lay their eggs in the rabbits fur usually around the back end. These hatch within 12 hours into tiny maggots which are initially harmless but grow rapidly and start to feed on the skin which will attract more flies.
This is a common and distressing condition which if not noticed early can result in severe tissue damage which may lead to death or needing euthanasia.
Flystrike can occur at any time of the year but is usually seen between April and
October. Any rabbit can get fly strike but the following factors can increase the risk.
• Diarrhoea/dirty bottom
• Urine staining/wet fur
• Dirty living conditions
• Overgrown teeth preventing grooming
Affected rabbits can become very quiet and go off their food. If you find maggots contact the surgery at once as the rabbit will need immediate attention.
If flystrike is found early enough the maggots can be removed and the rabbit given antibiotics, pain relief and fluid support and they can make a full recovery.
Prevention is far better than treatment and we recommend using RearguardTM every 8 – 10 weeks (which is included in the VIP Pet Healthcare Plan), as well as checking that the back
end of your rabbit is clean and dry at least once and preferably twice a day.
Runny Eyes (Conjunctivitis)
This is an infection of the lining of the eyelids and is often associated with an infection of the tear duct and there is a milky discharge from the eyes.
Infection of the tear ducts can be caused by dental disease/overgrown cheek teeth. Antibiotics with flushing of the tear ducts will usually improve the condition but relapse is common.
If you notice problems with your rabbit’s eyes please make an appointment to get them checked by a vet.
Sore Hocks / Feet
If rabbits are kept on damp or minimal bedding they can develop sore feet, particularly the back feet. Keeping rabbits on a good layer of clean, dry bedding will prevent this happening.
Normal rabbit urine is cloudy due to a lot of crystals/sediment from the calcium in their diet. If there is too much calcium the crystals can form stones which can irritate the bladder and cause pain when the rabbit urinates. These stones can be removed surgically.
A diet based mainly on grass or hay to reduce the calcium in the diet will prevent excess sediment or stone formation.
Abbey Vets Key Points
• Rabbits require clean dry bedding to keep in good health
• To become happy with human contact a rabbit needs to have regular handling
• A good diet of hay and grass will help to keep your pet rabbit healthly
• If you notice problems with your rabbit’s eyes please make an appointment to get them checked by a vet.
• If flystrike is found early enough the maggots can be removed and the rabbit given antibiotics, pain relief and fluid support and they can make a full recovery.
Dental disease is the most common reason that rabbits are brought to us for treatment. Adult rabbits have 28 teeth that grow continuously throughout their life. As the teeth grow and erupt at similar rates, any alteration to one tooth in the level of wear will cause things to go wrong.
Early signs of dental problems are:
• Reduced appetite
• Dirty bottom
• Change in food preference or favouring one type of food
• Dropping food or being unable to pick up food properly
• Matted coat as the rabbit is unable to groom properly
Front (Incisor) Teeth
Overgrown front teeth are very common, particularly in smaller breed rabbits and can be the result of poor diet or just due to poor jaw shape.
The teeth should wear against each other to allow the rabbit to bite pieces of food. If a tooth breaks, or abnormal growth occurs, the teeth don’t meet to wear down but continue to grow and can become very long. If this occurs they can be regularly trimmed short by a vet (which can be every 3-4 weeks) or the teeth can be removed under general anaesthetic.
Cheek (Molar) Teeth
Like the front teeth, the cheek teeth grow constantly and are kept short by the rabbit chewing on its food.
It is common for spurs/spikes to form on the edges of these teeth, particularly in older rabbits or those with poor mouth shape. This can cause ulcers/wounds on either the tongue or the cheek which are painful and cause discomfort. This will prevent the rabbit from eating.
In extreme cases, teeth can overgrow causing the development of lumps on the lower jaw, abscesses, tear duct and eye infections and unfortunately this can lead to death or euthanasia.
If this occurs the rabbit will need a general anaesthetic to rasp the teeth.
Please bring your rabbit in to see a vet as soon as you notice any of the above symptoms. Your VIP Pet Healthcare Discount will apply to the consultation. The quicker the treatment, the better.
What can I do to prevent dental problems?
Feed your rabbit a high fibre diet. Provide plenty of hay and grass as well as access to good quality pellet food. The grinding action that happens when eating hay and grass helps to keep the cheek teeth at the correct length.
Abbey Vets Key Points
• Dental disease can cause serious illness and pain if not detected
• We recommend a dental examination twice a year
• Eating hay and grass helps to keep the cheek teeth at the correct length
Rabbit Pet Insurance
It is cited that 1 in 3 pets will require veterinary treatment this year. This could be for long-term conditions, or a ‘one off’ occasion such as a broken leg.
As veterinary medicine becomes more advanced, costs increase and in some cases become a deciding factor on the treatment plan. This is where insuring your rabbit can help you provide the best possible treatment, no matter what the condition.
There are many pet insurance companies available that will insure against accident, illness and injury. However not all policies provided are the same.
When looking for an insurance policy for your rabbit, check the following:
• Make sure that the policy is a LIFETIME or LIFE POLICY
• There is no limit on the time that can be claimed for each condition
• There are no exclusions at renewal for ongoing conditions
• The company is a pet insurance specialist
• Whether the excess will increase after each claim
We recommend combining the Abbey Veterinary Group VIP Pet Healthcare Plan with an insurance policy to give you absolute peace of mind for all your pet’s healthcare needs.