Rabbits: nutrition, health and husbandary
Neutering prevents rabbits getting diseases such as uterine cancer in females and testicular cancer and prostatic disease in males. Females have a 60-80% chance of developing uterine cancer by the age of 4 years. This can only be prevented by neutering before this age.
Neutering also reduces the chances of aggression and allows males and females to live together without the risk of breeding. They will also make better pets as they will be much calmer.
Generally, females can be spayed from six months old and males can be neutered as soon as the testicles descend, usually around three and a half months of age.
Members of The Harrogate Pet Club benefit from 20% discount on neutering.
One of the major contributing factors for illnesses in rabbits is poor feeding regimes. Rabbits are herbivores and need a nutritious, balanced and interesting diet.
We recommend the following feeding ratio
- 80% roughage
- 15% greens
- 5% pellets
- Coloured fruit and vegetables such as carrot and apple are high in sugar and should only be given in small quantities as an occasional treat.
Roughage should always be readily available to your rabbit
Long roughage (hay) is essential to the rabbit for healthy digestion as it also combats boredom, creating a natural foraging instinct, and aids with dental care allowing the rabbit to naturally wear down its teeth as they continually grow.
Many commercial rabbit mixes allow the rabbit to selectively feed, this means it picks out the pieces of the mix it likes and leaves the rest, thus not having a balanced diet. This can be avoided by feeding pelleted foods such as those made by Burgess, which means the rabbit receives a balanced nutrition with every mouthful.
Your Harrogate Pet Club Rabbit Plan includes 10% discount on food from the Excel/Burgess range.
Vary the diet
To give variety, green stuff, root vegetables and fruit should also be available to your rabbit in small amounts. Some plants readily available from your gardens such as acorn, clover, daisy, dandelion, hawthorn berries, nettles, sunflowers, willow and young oak leaves are also very nutritious but should always be washed first. Remember that common garden plants can also be poisonous and sometimes fatal to your rabbit, so make sure you know what your feeding is safe. A list of dangerous plants is available from your vet.
A diet that is high in fibre will also aid in the process of “caecotrophy”, this is where your rabbit eats certain pieces of their own faeces, known as ‘caecotrophs’ as a means of enhancing its total nutritional intake.
The second type of faeces produced is the small hard droppings which can then be removed from the rabbit’s accommodation. This is an important process in your rabbit’s digestion and will help prevent problems in the gut and blockages that may occur.
Changes in diet should always be made gradually over a period of 10 days as sudden changes may result in loss of appetite or even refusal to eat.
We believe that ‘prevention is better than cure’ and just like dogs and cats, rabbits need vaccinations against infectious diseases. This also provides a valuable opportunity for your rabbit to have 6 monthly health checks with one of our vets.
The Harrogate Pet Club membership includes your rabbit’s vaccinations.
Vaccinations for rabbits
The good news for rabbit owners is that there is a new vaccination on the market which combines a full 12 months’ protection against Myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) within a single injection. This can be done any time from five weeks of age. They then require annual boosters to ensure that their immunity to disease stays strong.
Both diseases are killers and there is NO treatment for either of them.
- Fatal disease spread by fleas, biting flies and direct contact with infected rabbits. This means that indoor rabbits are at risk as well as outdoor ones.
- Causes discharge from the eyes and infected rabbits usually go off their food. Puffy swellings around the head, face and genitals develop and rabbits often succumb to pneumonia. They very rarely recover from the disease.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD1&2)
There are now two types of RVHD in the UK (VHD1 and VHD2) which we can vaccinate against. Most affected rabbits die rapidly without showing obvious clinical signs apart from a short period of dullness and lethargy. These diseases are preventable with vaccination. For complete cover for your rabbit, we now offer and recommend an additional vaccine for VHD2. This vaccine must be given at least two weeks apart from the standard annual vaccination for Myxomatosis and VHD1. Please ask in practice for more details.
- Another fatal disease spread by direct contact with infected rabbits or their saliva and nasal secretions. This means that the virus can be spread by birds, feeding bowls and even human clothing, this means that even indoor rabbits are susceptible to this disease.
- Causes internal bleeding that kills rabbits, but the disease progresses so quickly that it is usually just thought to cause sudden death. Vaccination is very effective at preventing this disease
It’s never too late to start a vaccination programme.
If you have an older rabbit, it is not too late to start a vaccination programme and your vet can advise you on this. Older rabbits often have a weaker immune system, so it is especially important to give them a helping hand and keep their boosters up to date.
At the time of vaccination, your vet will also give your rabbit a thorough clinical examination that can alert us to health problems. It is particularly important to make sure your rabbit’s teeth are check at least every six months, as pet rabbits are very prone to dental disease which can have very severe consequences if not picked up early. This examination is as vital for the well-being of your rabbit as the vaccination and is a valuable opportunity for you to discuss any concerns or queries you may have about your rabbit’s health.
Pet rabbits, whether indoor or outdoor are just as likely as dogs or cats to escape into the big unknown which is why it is important to microchip your rabbit. Your rabbit cannot wear a collar so a microchip is the only form of identification a rabbit can have. To lose your rabbit would be very distressing and it is extremely difficult to reunite an owner with their lost pet if the pet cannot be reliably identified. As a member of the Harrogate Pet Club Rabbit Plan, microchipping is included in the package. It’s a very simple way of permanent identification for any pet.
Rabbits are intelligent animals and need space, exercise, companionship and stimulation. They should always be kept with the company on their own kind so a hutch must accommodate two rabbits comfortably. Many people keep them in outdoor hutches, although keeping them indoors as house rabbits is becoming more popular. Whether kept in a hutch or indoors, all rabbits will need access to an outdoor run for ideally a good proportion of the day.
The minimum size for a hutch should allow the rabbit to stand up on its hindlimbs and to make three or four hops in any direction. Obviously, the bigger the better! There should be separate eating and toileting areas, and room for privacy if there is more than one rabbit present. Bedding can be straw, hay or dust-free chippings, with a litter area in a corner. The hutch should be cleaned out regularly, but a small patch left each time to allow some scent to remain, as rabbits can become distressed if their environment is completely scent-free after cleaning. The hutch should be sited away from direct sunlight and ideally raised off the ground to avoid it becoming damp or cold. It should be well ventilated but may need to be moved indoors or insulated in winter. Thought should be given to its security against predators such as foxes.
Rabbits are chewers and diggers, if keeping them indoors the house and furniture should be rabbit-proofed – especially any electrical wires. Indoor rabbits can usually be trained to use a litter tray.
All rabbits will need access to a secure outdoor run, ideally a minimum of 8x4x2 feet – again the bigger the better. This can be a penned off area of the garden, or one of the newer modular systems giving a varied environment of tunnels, areas to hide and so on.
The majority of people are aware that rabbits have four large incisors (front teeth) but you may not realise that behind their upper incisors are two tiny incisors. These are known as the peg teeth.
Rabbits also have six upper and five lower molars (cheek teeth) on each side. The rabbit’s incisors are used to cut through vegetation whereas the molars are used to chew and grind down food into smaller pieces. Rabbit’s teeth, like horse’s teeth, have evolved over time to break down tough vegetation such as grasses, weeds, and twigs. In order to compensate for the constant wear their teeth receive, their teeth are ‘open rooted’ meaning they grow continuously throughout their lives.
Diets to help tooth care
If a rabbit consumes a diet which is low in fibre, such as a poor-quality mix or pellet only diet, this will not be enough fibre to wear down the rabbit’s teeth. When these situations occur, the tooth overgrows and meets the opposing tooth in an abnormal position. This leads to abnormal wear and, over time, the development of sharp edges to the tooth – these are known as spurs. These spurs can cut the tongue and cut into the cheeks, potentially resulting in soft tissue damage, ulceration and abscesses.
When rabbit’s teeth don’t meet this is termed malocclusion. Maloccluded teeth result in abnormal pressure against one another resulting in root impaction and elongation of the teeth. It is these impacted roots which may eventually result in jaw abscesses.
Once a rabbit has malocclusion it is highly unlikely, he will ever have normal teeth again and will require regular anaesthetics to file his teeth.
Rabbits can be given a dental just like cats and dogs but as always, prevention is better than cure. By carrying out tooth trims and increasing the amount of fibre in the rabbit’s diet we can keep them more comfortable and improve their quality of life. It is vitally important that rabbit owners are aware of these complications so they can monitor their animals and detect problems early, which will result in a better success rate for dental procedures.
Your vet can give your rabbit a full dental check and will be able to advise you on a nutritionally balanced diet to help reduce dental disease.
The Harrogate Pet Club includes 10% off dental treatment.
Flystrike can be a fatal disease as it develops very rapidly. It is primarily associated with domestic rabbits throughout the warmer months. If you are concerned that your rabbit is showing signs of it, you need to take immediate action.
Flies are attracted to the smell of urine and faeces around a rabbit’s bottom. They lay eggs here which hatch out into maggots literally within a matter of hours. The maggots then feast on the rabbit by burrowing into its skin. If left untreated they can cause a lot of damage.
Guidelines to help prevent your rabbit from getting flystrike:
- Ask your vet about Rearguard, a preventative product that can help keep flies away for up to 10 weeks. Two Rearguard treatments are included in The Harrogate Pet Club package.
- Throughout the summer, check your rabbit’s bottom twice a day to ensure it is clean – any excess faeces should be bathed away.
- Clean your rabbit’s hutch daily to help reduce the smell of urine and faeces which attracts flies.
- Take your vet’s advice on a suitable diet for your rabbit to help prevent diarrhoea, which attracts flies. Cutting back on carbohydrate-rich grains and changing to pellets which contain more roughage can help. Rabbits should also be given plenty of fresh hay daily and have access to a grazing area.
- If you do find maggots on your rabbit, you need to make an emergency appointment at your vets immediately. Many rabbits can be saved but if the maggots have eaten their way through the skin layer and into the flesh it is usually kinder to put the rabbit to sleep.
- If the maggots are successfully removed, your vet will treat your rabbit with antibiotics and painkillers. Your pet should then be housed indoors and any wounds bathed until healed to prevent the possibility of the flies attacking again.
16th July 2019