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Keeping Rabbits

Rabbits are gentle creatures, full of personality and it is no surprise that they are being kept as pets in increasing numbers. They are clean, easy to look after and make endearing pets. It is important to look after them properly as most of the diseases we see in them are related to inappropriate nutrition or living conditions. Proper attention in these areas can do a lot to ensure they have long, happy and healthy lives. If you get a rabbit when it is young, interact with it frequently and stroke it often they can become very affectionate.

Housing

Rabbits should have their own cage. It should be big enough for each rabbit to lie down flat and tall enough for the rabbits to sit up straight without head or ears touching the top. Because they are burrowing animals they often like to have a ‘nesting box’ within the cage – this can be a box turned on its side or a piece of plastic tubing or drainpipe. The cage should be lined with deep soft bedding. Clean straw or hay is perfect but towels or paper pellets may be acceptable. Wood chips or shavings may have toxic residues and are not considered ideal. Bedding should be changed frequently. Flat hard bare surfaces or grids – especially plastic grids – should not be used as they can cause pressure sores on the hind legs, and smaller rabbits can trap and break their legs in the grid. Rabbits are clean and will usually use a litter tray which can also stay in the cage. Paper or other non – toxic cat litter pellets can be used but clay litter should be avoided as some rabbits eat it and it can cause stomach obstruction. Litter trays should be cleared and cleaned daily.
It is important that rabbits are allowed to exercise. Rabbits kept in a cage all the time develop behavior problems, stress- related diseases and weak bones. Ideally a rabbit should get out of the cage for four hours or more every day. Be careful when your rabbit is out of the cage because they have been known to chew through electrical wires with tragic results.
Rabbits can be kept singly or in groups. Male/female pairs may bond closely and form a permanent couple – it is important to desex them as they breed rapidly and often! Keeping rabbits of the same gender is usually no problem though they do seem to develop individual likes and dislikes. Neutering males greatly reduces fighting. If you are introducing a new rabbit, it is wise to let them get used to each other under supervision as the new arrival may be attacked.

Nutrition.

Feeding rabbits should be very easy, but we commonly see diseases because of poor nutrition. For adult rabbits we recommend free access to a good quality ‘grass’ hay such as Timothy at all times. We recommend ‘Oxbow’ products. ‘Legume’ type hay like alfalfa are too rich in nutrients, too high in calcium and too soft to allow good tooth wear in adults. It is ok to feed alfalfa to young rabbits but they should be weaned onto timothy by the time they are six months old. Adults should also have free access to fresh green leafy vegetables which can be soaked for an hour before feeding to reduce chemical contamination. Succulent fruits and vegetables like cucumber, tomato, lettuce, apples and pears should be fed only in small amounts or not at all to avoid too much gas forming in the stomach. Commercial pellets that claim to be ‘complete diets’ should be strictly limited – 1-2 teaspoons a day depending on the size of the rabbit – as they also are too rich, often do not have enough fibre, and do encourage development of dental problems. Snacks should be kept to a minimum. Once a rabbit acquires a taste for a particular food they can be very stubborn and difficult to change so it is better not to allow the bad habits to develop! As rabbits rely on the bacterial population of the gut to digest their food any dietary changes must be made slowly to allow the bacteria to adapt. In summary, feeding rabbits is simple – 50% timothy hay, 50% fresh dark green leafy vegetables and 1-2 teaspoons of pellets a day with free access to fresh clean water at all times.

Health Care.

Unlike dogs and cats, pet rabbits in Hong Kong do not need routine vaccinations. Like dogs and cats we strongly recommend neutering them. About one year of age is a good time. Desexing reduces fighting and territory marking with males. Female rabbits are very prone to uterus problems in middle age – up to 80% of some breeds develop cancer of the uterus. Desexing is a routine procedure so you can book the surgery appointment with us by phone, or book a pre-surgery consultation with us if you prefer. You bring your pet to us in the morning and collect it again the same evening.  A complete examination is carried out before the operation to ensure your pet is healthy before we proceed with the anaesthesia. The testicles of the males, and the ovaries and uterus of the female are completely removed. No special after care is required.
Rabbits teeth grow all through their lives and they are prone to dental disease. This may be avoided by feeding them appropriately (see above). Some breeds, especially the dwarf breeds, are prone to dental disease even when on a good diet, so it is worth having their mouths examined once a year at the clinic, or if you see any signs of pain or discomfort around the mouth or when the rabbit is eating.
Rabbits are eating machines and any loss of appetite may reflect serious disease. This may be gastrointestinal disease or secondary to any stress, pain or discomfort. An inappetant rabbit gets very sick very quickly so if food intake decreases you should book an appointment with us immediately. Become familiar with the character of your pets droppings so you can notice any change in shape, size or quantity. Rabbits are unusual in that they form round ‘high fibre’ droppings during the day and softer droppings at night; these softer droppings are eaten again as part of the normal diet. This usually happens at night when the rabbit is sleeping so you often never see the ‘night’ stool. In long haired breeds the soft faeces can become matted at the back end so it is a good idea to pick your rabbit up once daily and inspect it underneath. When a rabbit is picked up it is really important to support the back end to avoid spinal injury. It is a good idea to weigh your rabbit once or twice weekly to ensure that body condition is being maintained.
Rabbits may sometimes get mite or fungal infections from their bedding or food. These can make it very uncomfortable, but it is difficult for you to see the cause of the problem. If you see excessive scratching, hair loss or redness of the skin call us for an appointment.

Summary.

Rabbits make special pets and are simple, clean and inexpensive to keep with proper care and attention to housing, nutrition and basic health care.

If you have any questions about rabbits call us on 23800612!