Rabbit Care and Diseases
Rabbits can make intelligent, friendly and endearing house pets. The average life expectancy is 7-10 years but ages of up to 15 years have been reported. This guidance sheet is designed to help you take proper care of your rabbit and to help prevent some of the more common ailments and diseases.
This is the most important part of looking after a rabbit. Most traditional rabbit diets (eg. “Rabbit Mix”) are hopelessly and dangerously inadequate. We must remember that rabbits are designed by nature to eat HERBAGE in it's natural form ie. grass and other plants. The fibre and roughage in these plants keep the intestinal tract working properly and keep the teeth in good shape as well. Dental disease is very common and can be devastating to a rabbit's health and is often fatal when severe.
Hay – this is the MOST IMPORTANT part of your rabbit's diet and should be provided AT ALL TIMES. It provides indigestible fibre, energy and other nutrients which are essential for the health of your pet. Grass hay is far preferable to Alfalfa hay which may be sold at some outlets. A rabbit would be able to thrive on a diet of hay alone and it should form at least 90% of the animal's food intake.
Feeding hay is of tremendous benefit to your rabbit's teeth; these grow continuously and overgrown molars and incisors can become a life-threatening problem if the animal does not spend enough time eating roughage. In addition, the extra time a rabbit spends chewing hay is time not spent chewing other things eg. furniture, electrical wires, hutch etc.
Hay can be bought from good pet shops, equine outlets and farms. The most economic way is to buy a bale of good quality meadow hay from a farmer; make sure it smells sweet and not musty. Store it somewhere cool with good air circulation; raised off the ground on some lengths of wood if possible - and do not store it in plastic.
A good tip is to provide a hay rack; this minimises wastage and keeps the hay from becoming soiled with urine or faeces in the hutch.
Fresh Greens – these are of secondary importance to hay but a selection should be offered daily. Rabbits in the wild eat a lot of tough fibrous plants which help maintain gut health. If your rabbit has never had a lot of green foods before, it is best to establish it on hay first to minimise possible upset. In rabbits that are not having plenty of hay, the sudden introduction of green foods can result in potentially serious diarrhoea. When starting to feed greens, introduce them slowly increasing the amount day by day to a sensible amount. If you find that a particular green food results in a softer stool them eliminate it from the diet and try it again a few weeks later.
Try to feed a minimum of 3 leafy green foods daily; the more variety the better! A minimum amount to be given daily would be a tightly packed teacup full per 2kg body weight. Wash all leaves well before feeding.
Good leaves to feed include carrots and carrot tops, beet tops, dandelions, kale, clover, cabbage, broccoli (florets and leaves), pea pods, dark lettuce (avoid Iceberg), sprouts and raspberry leaves.
Rabbit Pellets – these are the least important part of a rabbit's diet. Pellets are high in calories, low in volume and require little chewing. This is almost the complete opposite of what a rabbit's diet should be! Pellets were originally produced to fuel the rapid growth of production or laboratory rabbits that do not usually live out their normal life span. Feeding just pellets to a domestic pet can result in such diseases as obesity, liver disease, diarrhoea, dental disease and kidney disease.
Pellets are often too low in calcium.
*** Rabbits can get all the nutrients that they need from a diet of hay and fresh greens ***
- Rabbits make and obtain their own vitamins and minerals by eating their own “night droppings” and do NOT need a supplementary source. Many rabbits with chronic diarrhoea or obesity improve dramatically when they stop receiving pellets in their diet.
- If you choose to feed pellets, then choose a good quality one, keep them in an airtight container and use within 90 days of manufacture. Always continue to offer free choice hay and NEVER feed pellets exclusively.
- Feed pellets sparingly.... do NOT refill the bowl if all the pellets are eaten; if you give more then the rabbit will eat them instead of the hay/greens that you supply
Rabbit Mix – this is best avoided altogether; rabbits are terrible selective feeders and will only eat the bits they like out of a mix. The mixes again are usually high in calories, low in volume and take little chewing.
Treat Foods - in small amounts, rabbits will enjoy eating strawberries, pineapple, apple, pear, melon, raspberries, mango, peach or tomato. Avoid bananas and grapes as these can become addictive! Do NOT give salty or sugary snacks, nuts, chocolate, breakfast cereals, peas or beans, other grains (eg. oats,bread)
Yoghurt – this is not recommended and has no beneficial effect on the health of the rabbit's gut.
Water – this must be freely available at all times and changed daily. Rabbits that eat a fair amount of greens will obtain much of their water requirement from the leaves and so may appear to drink very little.
Vitamin/Mineral Supplements or Licks - these are not necessary for the healthy rabbit. Rabbits not only get these from the hay and fresh foods but also produce their own vitamins in their “night droppings” which they re-eat and digest.
Night Droppings (Caecotropes) – these are an essential part of the rabbit's normal diet. During certain times of the day (especially 4-6 hours after eating) you may see your rabbit licking the anal area and eating some of the droppings produced then. These are called caecotropes which are softer, greener and have a stronger smell than the normal hard pellets. They are produced in the rabbit's caecum which is a part of the gut where fermentation occurs. They are rich in vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids (the building blocks or protein).
Conditions such as obesity, abdominal pain, spinal pain can prevent a rabbit from reaching the anal area to remove these caecotropes; consequently they can become very messy and soiled in the perineal area. This “sticky bottom syndrome” is commonly mistaken to be diarrhoea. This soiling carries a high risk of fly strike (maggots) which is extremely unpleasant and often fatal.
Common Medical and Surgical Problems
Females – a very common cause of death in female rabbits is cancer of the womb; this is malignant and normally will have spread by the time the cancer is discovered. Having your rabbit spayed between 5 months and 2 years of age will prevent this disease, as well as others such as mammary cancer and pyometra (infected uterus). Spaying also helps make female rabbits less aggressive, as this is associated with them being in season almost continually.
Males – some male rabbits can become aggressive at puberty. They can bite, spray strong offensive urine and fight with other rabbits. Castration will control this, as well as being a good contraceptive measure. Castration can be done from 4 months of age. Remember that males can remain fertile for up to 6 weeks post-castration.
Dental Disease – rabbit's teeth (molars and incisors) grow constantly throughout life; this is because they are designed to eat tough, fibrous food which take a long time to chew and this wears the teeth down. The teeth are worn down not only on the food but also by wearing on the opposing tooth. If a rabbit is fed an inappropriate diet with too little roughage, it will not spend the time eating that is needed to keep the teeth worn down properly. Often these diets are short of calcium and Vitamin D and this can result in the jaw bones softening as well. The result is overgrown teeth; incisors and molars. Some teeth grow so long and develop sharp edges that they ulcerate the soft tissues of the mouth such as the cheeks or tongue and this is very painful; the rabbit will drool and stop eating. In more serious cases, the roots of the molar teeth can overgrow and penetrate through the jaw bone; this results in severe pain and often abscessation in the jaw. This can be extremely difficult to treat and often euthanasia is the only option. Once dental disease has started, it cannot be cured and constant monitoring and treatment may be required. Other signs of dental disease in rabbits include discharges from the eyes and nose.
Overgrown incisors are common and will need trimming back every 4-6 weeks on average. A permanent cure for this problem would be removal of all 4 teeth under general anaesthesia; this does not affect the ability of the domestic rabbit to eat.
Gastric Stasis – this condition is seen in rabbits that are typically on a low-fibre, small particle diet (eg. pellets only), do not have enough water intake, do not have enough exercise and may accompany any condition that causes the animal to eat or drink less than normal. The food ball in the stomach shrinks and compacts and then cannot be moved out of the stomach. The affected animal will stop eating and drinking at all. It can be rapidly fatal. You should seek prompt veterinary advice if your rabbit stops eating and drinking; especially if accompanied by lethargy or depression.
Pasturellosis – most rabbit harbour the bacteria Pasturella multocida in their respiratory tract. Normally, it does not cause any problems in animals with a healthy immune system. However, under certain stressful situations (poor diet/environment/ventilation/high environmental temperatures/overcrowding) the bacteria multiply rapidly and cause serious disease which can affect the respiratory tract, skin, uterus, kidneys, bladder, tear ducts. Middle ears and lungs.
Urinary Disease – normal rabbit's urine can range in colour from light yellow to a dark reddy-orange (which can be mistaken for blood). This red colour is due to the presence of plant pigments called porphyrins in the urine; this is quite normal. The urine can be clear or very cloudy depending on how much calcium is being excreted at the time.
Rabbits can develop urinary tract disease such as kidney or bladder stones, infections or cancer. Signs would include weight loss, poor appetite, small frequent urinations, bloody urine or pain. Please note that female rabbits with womb disease may also seem to lose blood from the vulva. The most important preventative to urinary tract disease is a healthy diet, plenty of fresh water, plenty or exercise and a clean environment.
Diarrhoea – true diarrhoea is rare in the rabbit. What most people refer to as diarrhoea is the intermittent passing of soft liquid or cow-pat like stools. The rabbit often passes normal pellets as well. This gives rise to soiling of the perineum (“Sticky Bottom Syndrome”) and is caused by the passing of unformed caecotropes (night droppings); this is usually due to a poor diet lacking in fibre. Sometime obese rabbits cannot reach round to eat the caecotropes as they are produced and this results in the soiling. A soiled perineum is a HIGH RISK factor in fly strike. Treatment will almost always involve correcting the rabbit's diet by introducing large amounts of roughage.
Fly Strike – this extremely unpleasant and often fatal problem occurs when flies lay their eggs around the soiled genital/anal area of the rabbit. These hatch into maggots which, literally, eat into the rabbit and poison it. This can happen alarmingly quickly. For this reason IT IS IMPERATIVE that all rabbits are picked up and examined DAILY underneath for any evidence of soling or fly eggs (which are cream coloured) around the perineum. This is especially important in hot weather and if the rabbit has soft motions. If eggs are present, they MUST be removed promptly. If maggots are present, veterinary advice should be sought immediately. We euthanase an alarming number of rabbits each summer with this condition. Ensuring a proper diet will help prevent soiling problems and hence also fly strike. Products such as Rearguard can help inhibit the development of any maggots and give more time for effective treatment.
Encephalitozoon Cuniculi – this is a tiny single-celled organism called a protozoon, which has to live within a host cell to survive. E.cuniculi primarily infests rabbits and is a significant cause of disease. A recent study has shown that approx 50% of all domestic rabbits carry the infection. Once a rabbit has the disease, it passes infectious spores in its urine. Transmission occurs when another rabbit eats these spores in contaminated food or water. Unborn kits may also be infected in the womb during pregnancy and hence are born with the infection. Once the parasite has entered the rabbit's body, it is carried in the blood to target organs such as the liver, kidneys and central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). If the infection becomes active, the host cells rupture and this causes inflammatory damage within that organ (liver, kidneys, nervous tissue) and this causes signs of disease. If kits are born with the infection, the spores may have infested the lens of the eye and later in life, they can multiply causing lens rupture which results in a serious inflammation within the eye. This is serious and very painful.
As stated before, 50% of normal, healthy rabbits have already been exposed to E.cuniculi and they will show up positive on a blood sample to look for antibodies. This implies that, quite often, the infection can be “hidden” and the rabbit can appear healthy; it then can act as a “carrier” and pass on infection to other rabbits.
A proportion of infected rabbits will develop disease associated with E.cuniculi; these include neurological disease (head tilt, loss of balance, neck spasm, hind leg weakness/paralysis, urinary incontinence), kidney disease and eye disease.
Diagnosis can be difficult and animals with suspicious clinical signs are often treated on spec. The drug that seems to be most effective is fenbendazole (Lapizole; Panacur) and this appears to be safe and effective in reducing clinical signs in less advanced cases and prevents infection in exposed in-contact rabbits. The success of treatment varies a lot and depends on how advanced the disease is. Chronic cases usually have severe and irreparable cell damage and euthanasia is often the best option.
Control will depend really on strict hygiene measures (to try to prevent urine contamination of food or water – drinking bottles are better than dishes) and some vets advocate the prophylactic use of fenbendazole containing products on a regular basis to try to prevent clinical disease.
We recommend 12 monthly vaccination of all rabbits against three diseases:
Myxomatosis – this is a very unpleasant and usually fatal disease. The virus is transmitted by the bite of a blood-sucking insect such as a mosquito or flea. Vaccination can be started from 5 weeks of age.
Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease-1 (RHD-1) – this virus causes a rapidly fatal disease in rabbits (few hours). It can be spread by direct contact (through secretions and faecal matter of infected rabbits), carriers (insects, birds, other animals) and indirect contact (clothing, shoes, bedding, contaminated feed).
Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease-2 (RHD-2) - this disease appeared in France in 2010 and is caused by a new variant of the RHD-1 virus. It rapidly spread throughout Europe and is spreading rapidly through the UK. The virus has a very high resistance in the environment and there is no know effective cure or treatment. It is normally fatal once aquired, just like RHD-1. Vaccination is very effective in preventing the disease and this can be done from 30 days of age.
1. From 30 days of age - RHD-2 vaccine (Eravac)
2. 2 weeks later - combined Myxomatosis/RHD-1 vaccine (Nobivac Myxo/RHD-1)
Annual boosters are advised for all these diseases at present.