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Rabbit Advice

Tips and advice for looking after your bunny

  • Common Diseases
  • Diet / Nutrition
  • Housing and Handling
  • Neutering and Reproduction
  • Vaccinations

Common Diseases

Dental Disease

As mentioned earlier, when rabbits’ teeth are not worn down sufficiently, they continue to erupt and become excessively long. This happens to the front incisors which are visible, as well as the back molars which you cannot see. The elongated teeth will curve past each other resulting in sharp points causing painful injuries to the rabbit’s mouth.

In most cases, you won’t see symptoms until it’s too late – initially, it may be that the rabbit goes off its food a little, preferring soft greens to hard feed or hay and may eventually start to drool saliva. Rabbits are prey animals and do not readily show pain – this means that they may still appear bright and well but could be suffering greatly.

The next stage of the disease is when the roots of the rear molars start to erupt abnormally downwards through the lower jaw. When these pierce the bottom of the jawbone, a bony lump can be felt beneath the jawbone which is normally smooth. Eventually, the tooth roots will penetrate completely through the jawbone into the soft tissues beneath the jaw and the irritation may cause an abscess to form – you would notice a hard soft tissue lump or mass under or around the chin or side of the face.

The converse of this situation in the upper jaw is that the elongated tooth roots grow upwards into the eye sockets, pushing onto the eyeball from beneath. These roots can also block the tear duct that drains the eye causing persistent or recurrent conjunctivitis. Thus a rabbit with severe dental disease may initially present with repeated eye problems.

Diagnosis: After identifying characteristic symptoms and performing a full health exam, the diagnosis is confirmed by a more thorough examination under anaesthetic, possibly including dental x-rays.

Treatment: Initial treatment is to correct the disease within the mouth by burring the teeth back to a normal height. Our vets will advise you on the severity of the disease and any other investigation or treatment that is necessary.

Once symptoms appear the disease will be well established and there is no cure. In some cases, we perform regular dental burring and re-alignment on the teeth. Sometimes, in more severe cases, the most humane option is euthanasia.

Prevention:

The moral of the story is to feed your rabbit properly from the word go, but even if it is older, a gradual change of diet could still help. We are told by clients that their rabbits will ‘only eat dried food’. Don’t assume this is the case – a gradual reduction in dried food offered will eventually make the rabbit hungry enough to eat grass and hay. Trying ‘readi-grass’ (a much fresher dried grass), trying different brands of hay and offering hay in hay nets, boxes or toys may help. Persevere, as it could make a big difference to your rabbit’s health.

As well as improving dental health, a high fibre diet based around grass and hay is beneficial for overall digestive function, making them less prone to diarrhoea and flystrike.

Please note that although the dental problems described above are usually caused by an inadequate diet, they can also be seen in very young rabbits less than a year of age owing to abnormal skull conformation, caused by poor breeding. In this situation the teeth do not meet properly from the start so the same problems develop.

Dental Abscesses

Dental abscesses occur due to a molar tooth root penetrating through the jaw bone.  Simple treatment of lancing and flushing the abscess is unlikely to work because the underlying irritant, which is the tooth root, will still be present. Removal of molar teeth from rabbits is very difficult, with a high risk of damaging the jaw, and is likely to lead and even if this was possible, the rabbit would have ongoing problems thereafter as the opposing upper tooth would have nothing to wear against.

Many rabbits in this situation are sadly euthanased, as treatment is very involved and costly. Our vets will advise you on the options and the best course of treatment for your animal in this situation.

Diarrhoea

This may be caused by a sudden dietary change, a low fibre diet, infectious organisms or stress. The normal hindgut flora has a delicate balance and the smallest dietary change can allow nasty bacteria to gain advantage and take over, some producing toxins which can lead to flystrike (see below), dehydration and death. All new food should be very gradually introduced and the correct, high fibre diet should be provided.

Flystrike

This is a distressing and all too common problem of the summer months. Any soiling of the rabbit’s rear will attract blowflies to lay their eggs in the fur. These can hatch into maggots within 12 hours, which will then burrow into the skin causing the rabbit great distress and life-threatening damage.

It is therefore particularly important to check your rabbit over at least once a day and this means looking underneath around the tail area for any evidence of diarrhoea or the little white eggs stuck to the fur. Any soiling MUST be quickly washed away and the fur dried again. Overweight rabbits are more prone to this problem as they may not be able to clean themselves thoroughly.

If you would like any further information about preventing flystrike then please ask us – we can advise on insecticides such as spot-on products and barrier creams. 

If you think your rabbit has flystrike, then please call the practice and we will make you an urgent appointment.

“Snuffles” or Pasteurellosis

This disease, caused by the bacteria Pasteurella, often presents as conjunctivitis or breathing problems but may also show as sudden balance problems or abscesses. Pasteurella lives in the respiratory tract of most healthy rabbits anyway and only causes disease in some individuals who are otherwise compromised.

As the organism is impossible to eradicate fully, the only prevention is to ensure that everything about the rabbit’s care and environment is as good as it can be, particularly with regards to hygiene.

Diet / Nutrition

In the wild, rabbits will eat grass almost 24 hours a day. The perfect diet for rabbits is GRASS – and lots of it. The second most appropriate diet is HAY (i.e. DRIED GRASS!). Each rabbit should be provided with enough hay daily to ensure they can have access to fresh hay at all times. Bear in mind that if the hay is on the floor of the cage, once it has been soiled the rabbit will no longer eat it.

Hay can be supplemented with a very small amount of good quality rabbit pellets (approximately a tablespoon a day), and fresh vegetables or herbs. A full list of appropriate vegetables is included at the bottom of this page.

Poor nutrition in rabbits will lead to health problems, especially dental problems and obesity – we cannot stress enough the importance of correct feeding!

Many pet rabbits in this country are not fed an adequate diet and will develop tooth problems as a consequence. Rabbit teeth continue to grow throughout life, and are kept at an appropriate length by chewing grass or hay. Dental overgrowth will eventually result in inappetance and can also result in bone changes in the jaw. Often, dental disease is not curable and affected rabbits will need ongoing treatment and repeat dental work for the rest of their lives.

Choosing a rabbit pellet:

Prepared dried mixes are not advisable and the fact that they are so widely available tends to give people the wrong impression regarding their suitability. Whilst theoretically nutritionally correct, rabbits will often just pick out the bits of the food they prefer and so will not achieve a nutritional balance. Also, filling up on the dry mix means they become full and do not have the natural inclination to graze on grass and it is this grazing which is essential to wear down the rabbit’s teeth.

Pellet foods also have a good quantity of fibre, which is essential for healthy bacterial growth in the large intestine. Please ask us for advice on an appropriate pelleted food.

Housing and Handling

It is no longer acceptable to keep rabbits confined in a hutch all, or even most of the time, as rabbits are sociable creatures needing stimulation and plenty of exercise. In confined rabbits, not only is their welfare poor but disease is the inevitable result. Kept in cramped conditions, they often suffer chronic stress resulting in serious debilitating respiratory, eye, bone and skin conditions.

Access to a very large grass run that can preferably be moved around a lawn is essential, and keeping the animal free-range in the garden or even as a house rabbit is even better. Rabbits can be kept outside all year round if given adequate bedding and housing (preferably with a companion). If kept in a hutch for any period it is important to skip out the urine and faeces daily, to reduce the chance of sore hocks and breathing difficulties. Rabbits are by nature very tidy in their habits which means they will often use a litter tray, making this task easier.

Whatever the accommodation, it should be made as varied and interesting as possible, providing raised vantage points, chewable items, toys and hidey holes. Rabbits can be made to work for food by placing food in old washing powder balls or boxes. There are undoubtedly more risks with regards to predation, toxic plants, and escape with keeping a garden rabbit ( to say nothing of the loss of precious plants!) but organised carefully it can provide an excellent quality of life.

Alternatively, it is becoming increasingly popular to keep rabbits as house pets as they can be easily house-trained. They often receive more exercise and stimulation this way, and can even co-habit well with cats and dogs. If kept in this way rabbits should be neutered to avoid territorial urine marking. Precautions should be taken to protect wires in the house in particular as rabbits are notorious chewers.

Handling:

It is very important to handle a young rabbit as much as possible early on in order for it to become tame. Socialisation is most important from 4 weeks of age, which is before rabbits generally go to a new home, but this process should be continued when the rabbit is homed (generally at 8 weeks old).

Rabbits should be lifted and carried carefully, supporting the back and tucking the head under the arm to calm them. They are otherwise liable to struggle violently and may even fracture their spine during attempts to escape. Rabbits often do not appreciate being restrained and may not be suitable for small children to handle, often inflicting scratches.

However, it is important that they get used to handling from an early age because this will facilitate important daily examinations later. Many diseases are treatable only in the early stages and a hands on examination is vital to detect early symptoms such as sore hocks, diarrhoea and skin problems. It is also important to carry out a  daily visual check for to assess appetite, ensure suitable water provision and that there are good quantities of normal droppings being produced. Rabbits can live to 10 years of age so this is quite a commitment.

Introduction of a new rabbit:

Introduction of a new rabbit to an established rabbit’s enclosure is unlikely to be successful if done suddenly. A gradual introduction, allowing both to see and smell eachother for a period of time (e.g. in the same run but separated with wire mesh) is more likely to work. It may help to swap the bedding between the two as smell is very important.

When eventually introduced, the provision of an enclosure as large as possible, complete with hideyholes for escape, will reduce friction. A neutered rabbit of the opposite sex is more likely to be tolerated and two adult males are much more likely to fight.

Neutering and Reproduction

Rabbits are social animals and should therefore preferably be kept in pairs or groups, ideally reared together from birth. When you get a new rabbit or a pair of rabbits together, it is wise to get one, or ideally both, of the rabbits neutered.  

If opposite gender rabbits are kept together with no intention of breeding then one or both will need to be neutered from 4 months old. Watch for the male’s testicles to descend from 3 months old and separate the rabbits immediately this is seen, keeping them in sight and sound of each other.

At Wendover Heights Veterinary Centre, our vets and nurses are experienced with rabbit anaesthesia and surgery, and we will be happy to discuss with you what having your rabbit neutered involves.

Reasons for spaying Does:

  • Prevention of pregnancy if kept with male
  • To eliminate aggression which may develop at puberty
  • To eliminate false pregnancy
  • To prevent spraying if kept indoors
  • The best age is 5-6 months old
  • Prevention of uterine cancer (some statistics suggest as many as 80% of entire does may develop uterine Cancer over 5 years of age)

Reasons for castrating Bucks:

  • To prevent pregnancy if kept with a Doe
  • To reduce aggression
  • To prevent spraying if kept indoors

The best age is as soon as the testicles descend into the scrotum, around 4 months old.

Remember that Bucks may still be fertile for about a month after castration.

Anaesthetic considerations:

It is generally appreciated that anaesthetics in rabbits and small mammals are higher risk than many other animals, and unfortunately have a higher rate of anaesthetic deaths compared to dogs and cats . Although this risk is still very small,  it is enough to warrant a careful cost-benefit analysis for each procedure. The reasons for this increased risk are as follows:

Rabbits, as prey animals, are notorious for hiding signs of disease. For example, there may be pre-existing pneumonia with substantial lung disease without the rabbit ever having shown clinical signs. In combination with the rabbit’s particularly narrow airways this can produce breathing difficulties under anaesthesia.

With outdoor rabbits, observation may not be as good as it could be, and so early signs of illness may be missed.

Rabbits are particularly susceptible to stress and the huge surge of adrenaline they produce when stressed can affect the heart.

Having said this, rabbit anaesthesia is safer than it has ever been before, with improved knowledge and skill and state-of-the-art anaesthetics. Our vets and nurses are very experienced and confident in anaesthetising small mammals, using the very best in anaesthetic drugs. For many procedures, where possible, we will place a tube into the airway to allow better oxygen supplementation (compared to using a face mask).

Very often the procedure recommended will greatly improve the animal’s quality of life or even save it, making the procedure more than justified.

Please note that there is no need to withhold food or water prior to surgery as rabbits do not easily vomit, and will continue to eat their faecal pellets (caecotrophs) through the night anyway. In fact, withholding water would be detrimental to the animal’s condition.

Reproduction:

Sexing rabbits over 12 weeks old is simple as the buck’s testicles descend visibly into the scrotum and the penis can be extruded. Sexing of younger rabbits is notoriously difficult and you may need expert help, and preferably several littermates for comparison!

Females have a pointed genital opening closer to the anus, and males, a more rounded orifice further away. Sexual maturity occurs between 3 – 10 months of age, with smaller breeds often becoming mature earlier.

Breeding should not be attempted except by experienced breeders, as there are lots of possible complications. Please bear in mind before breeding that there are hundreds of rabbits in overflowing rescue centres, including baby rabbits, that need homes. 

The doe has a period of receptivity to the buck every 5 days from January to June, which may not be obvious. Rabbits are induced ovulators (meaning they ovulate only after mating) with a gestation (pregnancy length) of 32 days. The buck should be removed towards the end of gestation as the doe can be fertile immediately after giving birth.

Sometimes rabbits can have a false pregnancy after an infertile mating or even from being mounted by other does. She will pull fur from her dewlap (the lump under her neck) for about 15 days to line an imaginary nest.

Vaccinations

Myxomatosis

This is a viral infection spread by rabbit fleas (and not therefore requiring direct contact with wild rabbits) which, after an incubation period of 1 - 2 weeks, produces puffy swellings of the eyelids and genitalia, a discharge from the eyes and nose, blindness and pneumonia.

Recovery is extremely rare and it is kinder to euthanase the animal.

Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD)

This viral disease spread by direct contact with infected rabbits and also indirectly via food, hands, insects, etc.
The signs of illness include bleeding, convulsions, coma and death. The incubation period is 12 hours to 3 days and it is usually fatal.

Both diseases are easily preventable by vaccination which can be from 6 weeks of age onwards,
and requires a booster injection annually. The new Myxo-RHD vaccine covers both diseases with a single injection, also allowing a convenient time for a thorough health check of your rabbit, and for you to ask for any advice about keeping your rabbit healthy.

The best time of year for vaccination would be May/June, giving the best protection over the summer months when Myxomatosis is at its highest risk. In very high risk groups or regions, we suggest vaccination twice yearly.

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