Care of the pet rabbit

 

Hud

Biology  

Rabbits are lagomorphs. The domestic rabbit, Oryetolagus cuniculus, is a relative of wild rabbits living in western Europe and northern Africa.  Rabbits are herbivorous and forage mostly in the twilight or nighttime hours.

The senses (sight, hearing and smell) are well developed. The bones are delicate and break easily. 

Rabbits are territorial and they mark their territory using scent glands ( the chin glands, the anal glands and the inguinal glands). 

The average life span of rabbits is 5-10 years and some reach 15 years. They reach sexual maturity at the age at 5-10 months. Average pregnancy is 31-32 days and they produce an average of 4-10 offsprings. Females have a large skin fold under the chin (dewlap). During breeding, they pull hair from this area and use it as nesting material.

The feces form round hard pellets. Rabbits also produce soft and moist feces at night (cecotropes), which are ingested directly from the anus. This behavior is normal and is part of the digestive process.

The pet rabbit

Rabbits make excellent pets. They are relatively easy to care for and can be litter box trained. They are curious, quiet and not aggressive and are very popular pets.

Husbandry

Rabbits can be kept indoors or outdoors. They require a relatively small cage, where they feel safe and protected. A plastic bottom and a top wired cage is suitable. Straw or shavings can be used as bedding and should be changes daily. We do not advise to keep more than one rabbit per cage. Rabbits can be let out around the house or in the yard under supervision. Unsupervised rabbits can chew on objects (poisonous plants, cloth fiber, electric cords and shoes) and can be attacked by outdoor predators (dogs, wildlife) while in the yard. Rabbits are sensitive to heat and they tolerate cold weather better. Extreme temperatures should be avoided.

Rabbits should be fed good quality hay (grass, timothy, alfalfa or clover) and/ or grass clippings daily. They need long fiber for good digestive function. Nutritionally complete and balanced commercial pelleted diet and fresh water should be available at all times. Other food items (lettuce, spinach, alfalfa sprouts, carrot tops, beet greens, carrots, apples, etc) can be offered in small amounts daily. Vitamin and mineral supplementation is not necessary.

Care should be taken to support the body during handling as rabbits tend to kick with their hind legs and break their backs. 

Nails and teeth grow continuously and may need periodic  trimming. A dried or toasted piece of bread can be offered to help wear the  teeth down. Never place a wood piece for that purpose.

Common health problems

Hairballs 

Hair ingested during grooming may form  hard hairballs in the stomach and interfere with digestion. Rabbits will go off food and produce reduced/no number of small fecal pellets. They progressively become weak and die. Stress, low activity level and low fiber in the diet are associated with this problem. A Rabbit that stop eating should get prompt veterinary attention.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a common and serious problem in rabbits. Causes are not always known and some factors such as diet change, stress and oral antibiotics may contribute to the development of the disease. Some specific causes include bacteriae (Clostridium, E.coli), viruses (Papilloma, Corona virus) and parasites (Coccidia, Giardia, worms). 

Respiratory disease

Rabbits often develop respiratory disease which tend to be chronic. Signs include nasal and eye discharge, sneezing and yellow staining of the front paws. The most common cause is the bacteria Pasteurella which is carried by most rabbits. Aggressive antibiotic treatment is needed and the disease is difficult to cure.

Abscessation 

Abscesses are frequent serious problem in rabbits and are caused primarily by Pasteurella bacteriae. They involve different areas under the skin, bones, genital area, ear and eye area and internal organs. Surgery is needed in addition to antibiotic therapy.

Head tilt

Head tilt and seizures are not infrequent in rabbits and is usually caused by inner ear or brain infection. Pasteurella bacteriae is often associated with the disease but other microbial agents may be involved (Encephalitozoon).

Ear and fur mites

Ear mites are very common in rabbits. They produce crusts inside the ears and can also affect other areas of the skin. Rabbits will shake the ears and may cause further damage. The condition can be serious and affected rabbits eventually become exhausted and die. Rabbits can also contract fur mites. Treatment is medical.

Fly larva infestation

The disease is common during the warm months. Rabbits housed outdoors may be infested with maggots that rapidly invade the body and cause death. Another fly larva (Cuterebra) borrows under the skin and produces swelling that later opens at the top.

Urine scald

Excessive urination or urinary incontinence causes persistent exposure of the skin in the genital area to urine. The urine irritates the skin which becomes extensively inflammed. Kidney failure, urinary stones or infection and lack of mobility are contributing factors.

Slobbers

Constant drooling associated with teeth problems and wet skin in rabbits that drink from water balls, causes moisture that allows bacterial infection of the chin area. The fur often turns green. 

Dental disease

Rabbits can have uneven ware of the molars. Consequently long sharp edges are formed and cause injuries to the tongue and chicks. Affected rabbits go off food and salivate excessively. 

The incisors may overgrow, sometimes in a deformed manner, and interfere with eating. Trimming of the teeth and correction of their shape is needed. In some cases this needs to be done frequently.

Molar abscess are not uncommon in rabbits and require surgical treatment and antibiotics.

Sore hocks

"Sore hocks" are chronic skin infections that involve the feet. It is difficult to treat and usually is very painful. Rough/wire floor, excessive weight and lack of movement may contribute to the development of the problem.

Paralysis of the rare legs

Inability to use the rare legs usually result from back injury. In most cases, improper handling is at fault. A congenital problem (Splay leg) of permanently spread rare legs may be seen in young rabbits.

Veterinary care

A thorough initial examination is necessary for newly acquired rabbits. The veterinarian will discuss specific issues of husbandry regarding your rabbit. A stool examination should also be done. 

Rabbits should have a yearly physical examination and a stool exam at the least. 

Pet rabbits not intended for breeding should be sterilized. Male rabbits (especially of the dwarf varieties) can become aggressive upon reaching sexual maturity. Neutering (castration) is the best way to reduce the severity of the problems (biting, urine spraying) seen in sexually mature male rabbits. Female rabbits should be spayed to prevent unwanted pregnancy and uterine cancer. Uterine tumors are common in female rabbits and may cause serious blood loss. Spaying female rabbits may also help to prevent or reduce territorial aggression among females.

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Yuval Nir
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