The commonest problems that we as vets see in rabbits all stem from an incorrect diet – dental problems, facial abscesses, digestive disorders etc. This is why feeding your rabbit correctly is so important.
Remember: Grass! Grass! and more Grass!
Rabbits have a unique dental and digestive system. For these to function properly, your rabbit must have a diet that is high in fibre, low in protein and low in energy.
A diet of grass or hay and occasional vegetables, with added complete food being fed only in small quantities and not as a large or major part of the diet, and a constant supply of water is all that a rabbit needs.
Rabbits in the wild are grazers. If the diet is inadequate, these are the problems you may see:
* chronic soft faeces instead of hard normal pellets
* teeth problems which can be so severe as to form an abscess. If this happens, it may be too late for treatment to be successful
* eye or tear duct infections which are secondary to teeth problems as the tooth roots grow abnormally and affect the tear duct.
Look to provide your rabbit with a small amount of different leafed and rooted vegetables, but stay away from beans and rhubarb. Never give vegetables that have come straight out of the fridge as they can cause quite a shock to your rabbit’s system. Always wait until they are at room temperature.
Many rabbits have too little calcium in their diet which can result in brittle bones and teeth. Feeding green stuff such as fresh grass, cabbage leaves and dandelion leaves can help correct this.
However, feeding too much green stuff invariably results in soft stools indicating an imbalance in the gut flora. If this happens, stop feeding the vegetables immediately, clean your rabbit’s bottom and be prepared to visit your vet if it doesn’t clear up in a couple of days.
It’s only natural to want to give your sweet little whiskered pet a treat and pet stores are full of them. But think before you rush out and buy them.
Treats, made of seeds and grains held together into sticks with honey and other sugars are bad for rabbits if they are given too frequently. Seeds are high in fat and are important for wintering animals.
Your rabbit has no such need. A rabbit’s metabolism is geared for a low fat diet and the excess is not burned off but is stored as body fat. Rabbits appear to be more sensitive to fat than humans are and in addition to obesity, the excess fat can accumulate in your rabbit’s liver and arteries.
Feeding your rabbit correctly
The best treats you can give are carrots, fresh apple wood or even a hard-baked bread crust to chew on.
Your rabbit should have access to fresh water 24 hours a day. If you keep your rabbit in an outside hutch throughout the winter, change the water twice or three times a day to prevent it freezing.
Flystrike is a real danger to your rabbit in the warm summer months. Flystrike occurs when flies lay eggs around the rabbit’s bottom, especially if the rear is dirty or matted.
This very unpleasant and sometimes fatal problem is wholly preventable. Some key points you can do are:
-ensure your rabbits rear is clean. If it isn’t, then ask us for advice
-check your rabbit daily
-use net curtains or fine netting to reduce fly entry into a hutch
-use REARGUARD every 10 weeks on your rabbit-this is easily applied and protects against the maggots. This is a prescription treatment for which your rabbit needs to be under our care.
Flystrike is characterised by the speed with which it can kill a rabbit. Often, the owner will not be aware of a problem until fly eggs laid on the animal have hatched into maggots.
By this time, it may be too late, as the larvae will already have started devouring the rabbit.
Rearguard® is licensed for the prevention of flystrike. It contains an Insect Growth Regulator, cyromazine.
Rearguard® comes in liquid formulation in a single-use bottle with a sponge applicator making it easy to apply to the rabbit’s fur. It remains effective for 10 weeks.
Flystrike ‘season’ in the UK runs from at least April to October.
We routinely vaccinate rabbits once a year against:
• Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Type 1 (RHD 1)
These diseases can be transmitted to pet rabbits without direct contact with an infected individual so all rabbits need to be protected.
In 2016, a second strain of RHD appeared from Europe and sadly the standard vaccination doesn’t provide protection against this version (Type 2).
RHD2 – Luckily there is now a vaccination available to protect against this strain as well and we would strongly recommend adding this protection.
The vaccination can be given 2 weeks after the standard vaccination and gives protection for 6-12 months. The Myxomatosis virus originates from South America where it causes a mild disease in the wild rabbit population.
European rabbits had been introduced to Australia by early colonists but by the 1950’s the rabbit population was out of control as they had no natural enemy. By accident the virus was also introduced into Europe killing off the wild rabbit population.
HOW IS IT SPREAD?
The virus is spread by direct or indirect contact but most often by parasites. The rabbit flea, mosquito and flies are the most important methods of spreading the virus. The virus can survive for several months in over wintering rabbit fleas and mosquitoes.
If your rabbit has an infected eye or abscess on its body or impacted faeces on their bottom, they are at risk.
A fly may land on a dead or dying wild rabbit infected with the virus and then land on your domestic rabbit if it has one of the above ailments to attract it.
Swelling of the genitals and of the head, especially the eyelids which results in blindness.
The rabbit’s appetite remains normal until shortly before death which is on average 13 days after infection.
You may have seen wild rabbits in late summer just sitting on the side of the road in country areas. A heart-breaking sight as they literally starve to death as their mouths and lips swell so much and they cannot see or smell their food.
There are other forms of the disease that result in respiratory symptoms that can be very difficult to differentiate from other causes of pneumonia such as Pasteurellosis.
TREATMENT AND PREVENTION
Rabbits affected with the acute form of the disease cannot be treated. To prevent suffering, euthanasia is the only option.
TO CONTROL THE SPREAD OF THE DISEASE IT IS IMPORTANT TO:
Disinfect hutches but make sure that the disinfectant used is not harmful to rabbits. Good hygiene will keep flies away, so clean hutches regularly.
Flea control in the form of spot-on will control rabbit fleas and mosquitoes. Advantage can be used in rabbits and there is a very new product for use in rabbits and small pets.
If you are in an area near a lake or pond, then mosquito control is more important and you may even have to use a mosquito net over the hutch during hot summer evenings. Dry bedding will also discourage mosquitoes.
Vaccination is the best form of control. The vaccine we use produces an immunity 2 weeks after vaccination. An annual vaccination is given and the best time to give it is in May or June.
Rabbits make excellent house pets and can be easily litter trained. However they love to chew and can be destructive to furniture, wallpaper and carpets.
It is best to supervise your rabbit whilst loose in the house, and to have a secure cage or pen that it can be kept in when you are out and at night.
Outside rabbits may be housed in a hutch, but should always have access to a grassed run.
Cages should be as large as possible and allow your rabbit to stand up fully on its hind legs and perform at least three consecutive hops. No hutch can be too big but it can be too small. Large or giant breeds obviously need even more space.
The hutch should be divided into an enclosed sleeping area where your rabbit can hide and a larger area for daytime use.
Clean bedding should be provided regularly.
House rabbits may be kept on soft towels or shredded paper. Outside rabbits may be kept on wood shavings or straw. Barley straw is recommended as it is softer than wheat or oat straw and there is less likelihood of it damaging the eyes.
Avoid dusty or mouldy straw as this can predispose your rabbit to developing respiratory problems. Sawdust should be avoided as it is dusty and can irritate the eyes.
It is important, but also easy and inexpensive to provide your rabbit with many activities and toys to prevent boredom. Everyday household items can be used such as plant pots, boxes or tubes.
This will ensure a happy rabbit.