Thursday, September 18, 2014

Exotics #1 - Rabbit Care

Owning a pet rabbit.

Q. Is it a suitable pet?

Rabbits are good first pets. Recommended for children over 7, with adult supervision until the owner can care properly for their pet. They can scratch, bite or kick so due care is necessary. Decide if you want a short haired or long haired variety, taking into account if they will be indoor or outdoor pets. There are plenty of breeds to choose from. Bear in mind long haired will need a little extra grooming.

Q. How do i choose a healthy rabbit?

The rabbit should have a healthy soft coat with no fur patches missing; There should be no parasites anywhere on the skin. The eyes and ears should be clean and pink with no weeping and/or crusty lesions or bad smells. The rabbit should be able to chew normally. It should have a dry nose and the anus should be clean. The soles of its paws should be clean and soft and not stained with urine. The claws on the feet should be of average length and there should be no funny swellings. The rabbit should look lively and bright and take notice of its surroundings and have a healthy appetite.

Q. Where will they live?

Rabbits live in dens in the wild that they dig out themselves with plenty of hidey-holes to escape predators. They are very active and so naturally the biggest cage/hutch you can accommodate would be best. These animals are prey animals and so are given to flight - this means they should always have a couple of hiding spots that they feel safe in such as a closed nest box.

The floor of the hutch should be lined with such material as planed wood shavings or straw pellets. Sawdust may cause breathing problems and may be best avoided. Cat litter is also inappropriate. A heavy food bowl is ideal and fresh water should always be available ideally from a rodent upside down feeding bottle.

Choose weather they are to be indoor or outdoor. Indoor rabbits should be placed in a well ventilated (fresh air) area without droughts and out of direct sunlight. A relatively quiet area without too much excitement or loud noises. Outdoor rabbits will need shelter and adequate protection from the elements such as rain wind heat and cold. In winter the outdoor hutch and nest box should be insulated so they can stay warm. 

Rabbits love nibbling on grass and it is a good idea to let them do so or run around the house to prevent them getting stressed, fat or unwell. First you must ''rabbit-proof'' the house to prevent them chewing on cables or other dangers eg. poisonous plants. If  they are allowed on the grass you must check they cannot dig out of the garden! The outside hutch must also be protected from foxes and predators. Children can have great fun making adventurous runs for their pet out of loo rolls and other empty boxes etc.

The cage must be cleaned daily to prevent faeces and odours building up, which may also damage their lungs if not cleaned regularly. Smells and dirt will attract flies which can lay eggs and cause health problems. A triangular rabbit toilet can make this easier to clean. The hutch should be disinfected regularly to kill any bacteria and should be rinsed well afterward.

Q. What should you feed them?

Rabbits are naturally herbivores meaning they eat plant material and no meat. Fresh hay and herbs can form the most part of the diet. Pet food rabbit pellets are good but quite rich and one tablespoon per day is enough. Fresh water should always be available and changed daily. This main diet can be supplemented with foods such as lettuce, carrots, dandelions, and even some fruits such as apples.

Cabbage leaves should be avoided and starchy sugary foods also. Sudden changes in diet can lead to constipation and problems in the gut. When bringing your new rabbit home changes in his diet should be done very gradually (over 3 weeks) to avoid gut problems and it is a good idea to feed him what he is used to for a few days until gradually changing his diet to your own. If he is to nibble on fresh grass it is to be introduced very slowly.

Branches (willow, hazel and fruit trees), or special rabbit chew toys can be given so the rabbit can gnaw and wear down his teeth which grow continuously. Rabbits are one species which eat their own droppings and do not be alarmed. It is a normal trait for this animal.

Handling and restraint 

Always approach the animal from the front /side where they can see you. Talk to it and for a few days after purchasing your rabbit let it get to know your face and voice. Don't overload the rabbit at once and earn its trust by offering it a treat or two from your hand. This will just need patience and calmness so the rabbit knows you are not a threat. Every animal is different and it could take days to weeks for the animal to progress to feeding from your hand, to gentle stroking, to eventually be comfortable to pick up and let run around. Some are more aggressive than others and less socialised to human contact. You will tell from watching your pet, and how comfortable he is with your touch and presence. Don't try and do it all at once. You want to see him coming over to your hand, taking the treat, not running away or acting in a scared manner.

To move or pick him up stretch out your hand that he can see your intention (don't pick from behind where you could startle him) and grab the fur at the top of his back, gently but firmly. The other hand should be used to support its hindquarters. If the rabbit is at ease his body should relax in your arms.

Veterinary needs 

Rabbits don't need huge veterinary attention apart from a vaccination against myxomatosis and a yearly booster, and the unavoidable neutering. 

Most problems stem from poor husbandry and so shouldn't be taken lightly. Rabbits should be neutered as they are prolific breeders and they live a lot longer if de-sexed. 85% of female rabbits develop uterine cancer by age 4/5 and it greatly reduces the males fighting between each other and causing injuries. The procedure will not change their personality but if anything they will be more sociable an better company. It eliminates spraying urine and neutered rabbits can be friends as they are not fighting over each other. The last reason is overpopulation and there are already so many rescue rabbits needing loving homes that breeding pets prevents homeless rabbits getting another chance. Males can be neutered at 5 months when their testicles descend and females can be done at 6 months old.


Rabbits are very social as naturally they live in large families and hence it is much better for them to live in groups rather than on their own. I would always recommend to have at least two to keep each other company, and it is easier to keep rabbits together that have known each other from a young age.

It is vital that you neuter them at 5 months to prevent fights and accidents. It can be difficult to integrate an old rabbit with young and so ideally start both at a young age so they get on. With other pets supervision is essential and a young age also helps. There have been incidences of strange friendships - these are usually animals that have grown up with each other. Be very careful if introducing your rabbit and keep dogs and cats on a leash and make sure the rabbit has an escape. It is also not recommended for rabbits and guinea pigs to be housed together.

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