Small Animal Species E-mail

Rabbit

Courtesy of Oxbow Pet Products

Getting to Know your Pet Rabbit:
Rabbits make intelligent, energetic, entertaining pets. Their friendly dispositions, quiet demeanor, soft fur and warm eyes capture the hearts of rabbit owners everywhere. Rabbits are affectionate—they enjoy human interaction and the company of other rabbits. In fact, if paired with the right mate, a rabbit can form a close bond for life. Rabbits are most active at dawn and twilight, and they like to nap during midday. This makes them well-suited for working families.

There are about 50 different breeds of rabbit with wide variations in size, ear length and color, from the 15-pound Flemish giant to the petite 3-pound Netherlands dwarf or the French lop with 10-inch long ears.


Fun Facts about Rabbits:
• Rabbits jump for joy when they are happy! This jumping action is called a “binky”.
• Rabbits often get along well with other household pets, as long as they are introduced properly.
• Rabbits normally don’t like to be picked up and carried.
• Snuffles is a common respiratory ailment of rabbits.
• Average weight of an adult male: Depends on the breed.
• Average weight of an adult female: Depends on the breed
• Gestation period: 30-32 days.
• Bunnies per litter: 4-12 depending on size and breed of rabbit
• Optimal weaning time: 3-4 weeks


What you Need to Start:
Large cage or x-pen with solid flooring
Cardboard box to nest and hide in
Litter box
Litter
Heavy water bowl or bottle
Heavy food bowl
Food pellets
Grass hay
Spaying and Neutering

It’s difficult to find homes for many baby rabbits! Veterinarians strongly recommend that female rabbits be spayed and male rabbits be neutered around the age of four to six months. Females have an extremely high rate of uterine cancer as they age, so it is important to spay your rabbit while she is young.

Neutered males are less territorial, so they are less aggressive and less likely to mark their environment by spraying urine.


Housing:
Rabbits can be kept inside the house and trained to use a litter box. Your rabbit needs a cage with plenty of room to play, rest, eat and explore. The bigger the cage the better. The exact size depends on the size of your rabbit. It should be tall enough for your rabbit to stand on his hind legs and stretch out.

Rabbits love the two-story "condo" cages with ramps connecting the different levels. Solid flooring is best because a rabbit's feet can become irritated and inflamed if in constant contact with wire floors. If you must use wire flooring, provide a resting area of solid flooring that can be covered with a towel, carpet or hay.

Place the cage close to household activity, but away from direct sunlight and drafts. Be sure to provide some toys for enrichment.

A bedding of compressed high-fiber wheat straw is best, because it absorbs as much as 300% of its weight in moisture. Choose a 100% biodegradable, dust-free bedding that will not stick to fur.

You also can use straw or hay, shredded paper, certain hardwood shavings or composite newspaper pellets. Avoid shredded paper made from shiny newspaper ads that contain toxic substances.

Also avoid cedar and pine shavings—they contain resins that can irritate your pet’s skin, eyes and mucous membranes.


Exercise:
Rabbits like to play with toys, hay cakes and wood chews. Once your rabbit is litter box trained, he or she can be allowed to hop around outside of the cage.

Be sure you rabbit-proof the area you choose for your rabbit to have free range over. Check to be sure cords and outlets are covered, so your rabbit doesn’t chew on them. Make sure house plants are out of reach, because some can be poisonous.

In addition, be prepared for damage to curtains, carpets and furniture, because rabbits will chew on just about anything.


Feeding:
Rabbits are herbivores, which means they eat only plant material. It’s important to feed your rabbit correctly to keep him or her from getting fat and unhealthy. Rabbits required a very simple diet made up of quality grass hays, pellets and water.

Water: First and foremost, all animals need lots of fresh clean water. Water can be provided in a sturdy crock or a water bottle with a sipper tube. If your rabbit soils the water bowl or enjoys tipping it over, the bowl should be replaced with a water bottle.

Change water daily and clean the sipper tube weekly.

Hay: Grass hay is an ideal food for rabbits; they should have access to unlimited amounts of free-choice grass hays such as timothy, brome, orchard or oat hay. Free choice means a pet can choose when to eat the hay—at any hour of the day. Hay provides essential fiber, which helps maintain intestinal and dental health. It also prevents boredom, obesity and dental disease by satisfying the rabbit’s innate desire to chew.

Rabbits enjoy a cage full of hay in which to rest, snack or play. To assure freshness, restock hay regularly. Rabbits under one year old can receive alfalfa hay in addition to grass hay. Alfalfa hay also can be used to help boost the nutrition of sick, pregnant, nursing or older rabbits as needed. After one year of age, alfalfa hay can be used as a treat (see treat information below).

Complete, high-fiber pellet: Another important source of fiber that also contains specially formulated, balanced nutrients is a pre-packaged feed pellet designed especially for the distinctive nutritional needs of the rabbit.

In a sturdy crock bowl that can’t be upset, feed a carefully selected quality brand of food to animals of all ages to maintain intestinal health and prevent digestive upset.

Look for rabbit feed that contains farm-fresh alfalfa with a balance of fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals.

For mature rabbits, choose a pellet low in calcium. High-calcium diets have been incriminated in certain rabbit health problems such as bladder stones and sludge.

If you ever need to make big changes to your rabbit’s food, it’s important to gradually covert your pet to the new feed over the space of one or two weeks. Gradually changing food for any reason helps avoid digestive upset.

Clean dishes daily and discard any leftover food.

Vegetables: Your rabbit can eat vegetables daily. It is important to introduce vegetables one at a time to make sure each agrees with your rabbit's digestive tract. Approximately one cup of vegetables per four pounds of body weight daily is appropriate for rabbits.

Some suggestions include romaine, butter crunch or red leaf lettuce, or other veggies, including cilantro, parsley, carrot tops, collards, dandelion greens and kale. Avoid gas-forming vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower.

Treats: Just as with humans, there is more to your pet’s meals than the basics. Eating should be fun! Treats also help you bond with your pet. However, it’s tempting to feed too many treats, because pets like them so much. Avoid feeding so many treats that your pet refuses basic foods. Treats should make up no more than 5% of the total diet. Offer pre-packaged treats that are all-natural and low in sugar, with no artificial additives. However, do not use yogurt drops, fruits, nuts, seeds or granola sticks—they have too much sugar and fat.

You can add herbs (fresh or dried) in limited quantities to vegetables for variety. Herb choices include mint, basil, oregano and thyme.

To prevent digestive upset, feed the same treats consistently.


Rabbit Troubleshooting:
Shedding: Rabbits naturally shed all the time. Every year they will have two big sheds (on average). They may be more prone to hairballs at this time, so make sure there is lots of hay available.

Hairball or Ileus: The term "hairball" is used to describe a serious and common problem of rabbits in which the intestinal tract slows down and stops functioning properly.

Gastrointestinal (GI) stasis, or ileus, is the preferred terminology for this malady, which can have a number of underlying causes, including insufficient dietary fiber, dehydration, stress, pain or other illness. The rabbit with GI stasis will be anorexic or have a reduced appetite. An affected rabbit produces very small stools or none at all, which can cause pain.

You might observe your rabbit hunching over. This is a true emergency that requires a visit to your veterinarian. Because insufficient dietary fiber is a common cause of ileus, feeding unlimited quantities of grass hay can help prevent this problem.

Rabbits given sugary or starchy treats also might experience ileus.

Dental problems: Some rabbits are prone to dental problems, such as overgrown incisors and molar spurs. Rabbits' teeth grow throughout their lives and can grow from four to five inches per year.

Some rabbits have a malocclusion that results in improper wear of their incisor teeth. As a result, these front teeth can grow to a point at which they protrude from the mouth and make food intake difficult. In these cases, the affected teeth need to be trimmed on a regular basis or should be surgically removed.

Molar malocclusion can result in painful points that irritate the tongue and cheek. Rabbits with molar spurs will have depressed appetites, and you might observe food dropping from their mouths as they attempt to chew.

Feeding your rabbit free-choice grass hay stimulates constant chewing action, which helps wear down continuously growing molars.

General health: Regular visits to the vet are vital to keeping your rabbit healthy. If you see any signs of digestive upset, diarrhea, slobbers, dental problems, anorexia or other abnormal behaviors, call the vet for advice.


What you Probably Didn’t Know About Rabbits:
Rabbits are very inquisitive and curious. Normally they don’t like to be picked up or carried. The best way to interact with rabbits is to get down on their level and play with them on the floor.

Be sure you always are present when your rabbit is out of the cage for playtime; rabbits can be mischievous and might get hurt if left alone.

Rabbits eat their own poop—both solid fecals and soft, moist cecals, which they consume directly from their bottoms. Although it seems strange to us, this is natural behavior, and it’s good for your pet because the poo is packed with nutrients!

References:
1. Johnson-Delaney C: Rabbits. Exotic Companion Medicine Handbook, Lake Worth, FL, Zoological Education Network, 1996

2. Donnelly TM: Basic anatomy, physiology, and husbandry [rabbits]. In: Quesenberry K, Hillyer E, eds: Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery. Philadelphia, PA, WB Saunders, 1997, pp 147-198.

3. Jenkins JR: Rabbit medicine and procedures for practitioners: Rabbit dentistry. House Rabbit Society Veterinary Conference. Berkeley, CA, 1997; 35-37.

4. Jenkins JR: Rabbit medicine and procedures for practitioners: Nutrition and nutrition-related disease of rabbits. House Rabbit Society Veterinary Conference. Berkeley, CA, 1997; 59-79.

5. Paul-Murphy J: Rabbit medicine and procedures for practitioners: Urinary tract diseases and disorders. House Rabbit Society Veterinary Conference. Berkeley, CA, 1997; 53-57.