Rabbits make engaging and loving house pets and I highly recommend them as such. Their merits include the ability to easily be litter box trained and taught to use a doggie door and they can be long lived with proper care. Rabbits are popular house pets and there are many clubs and Internet organizations devoted to their care which I’ll provide links to on this page. Like all exotic pets, rabbits do have special needs in order to keep them healthy and the rabbit page will be a forum for some of those subjects Sterilizing your pet rabbit is highly recommended to prevent problems down the road. Male rabbits that that are not neutered have a tendency to fight and with rip and tear each others scrotum’s leading to surgical intervention. Intact males will also be difficult to litter box train because they have a tendency to fecal and urine mark their environment. Intact females will also be difficult to litter box train and if left intact throughout their lives have a high potential of developing uterine cancer as older rabbits. If your rabbit is meant to be a housepet, and is healthy, there really isn’t any good reason to not spay or neuter.
Prior to any anesthetic procedure all animals should have a complete physical exam and pre-anesthetic blood testing to rule out any existing organ disease. With young animal that have been properly screened the risk is minimal. After any stressful event (surgery, anesthesia, pain, disease, environmental change…) it is important to monitor your pet for normal appetite and fecal production. I advise my clients that one of the most important clues to the health of a rabbit is the poop. Healthy rabbits eat well throughout the day and make round fecal balls of the normal size. Rabbits that are stressed for any reason will sometimes stop eating or defecating (pooping). You may see that the fecal balls are smaller then normal, or they may be absent all together. If noted, this is a serious and potentially life threatening condition that should be addressed immediately. As veterinarians one of the things that we can do to help reduce this potential is to provide pre and post surgical pain control to minimize the stress on your bunny. At home, if you notice a reduction in feces or change in appetite, you should contact your veterinarian immediately. Typically, we’ll try to adjust the pain control and if still not eating we’ll often introduce syringe feeding for a short time to jump start their GI tract again. The syringe formula will consist of a slurry of grass hay pellets, water and vegetable baby food. It is also important to provide your bunny with plenty of fiber to ensure that the gut works properly. Fiber will be discussed further under the diet section. My intent is not to scare you away from elective or necessary surgery, but rather to advise of potential problems in an effort to ensure that your bunny is properly monitored and cared for following surgery. The benefits of spaying and neutering your bunny far outweigh the small risk.
All rabbits require regular grooming. They should be brushed daily to remove loose hair and reduce the potential of hairball ingestion and formation in the gut. Proper grooming also entails regular toe nail trims. Rabbits have very sharp nails and due to the shape of the nails they can’t ever be entirely dulled. But to keep their feet healthy the length should be controlled. Many people consider teeth trimming to be a part of grooming. I believe that if your rabbit requires a regular tooth trimming it is not grooming, but rather, it is due to oral disease such as malocclusion and this is a medical procedure. Teeth will be discussed further below. Bathing is not normally recommended for the healthy bunny. Rabbits are good at self cleaning and all you really need to do to help is to brush them daily. Bathing will cause enormous stress to your rabbit and for those with thick coats it is difficult to get them dry down to the skin. Wet fur can result in skin disease and other problems. The final aspect of grooming involves checking for fleas if this is a problem in your state. Over the counter flea and tick products should not be used on rabbits. I have used Revolution successfully and recommend this prescription product for prevention of fleas, ticks, and mites and often use it to treat mites on rabbits and guinea pigs. The product must be applied appropriately and dispensed at the correct dosage for your rabbit. Never use your dog or cat products on your rabbit. The product Frontline, safely used in dogs & cats, is believed to cause health problems in rabbits and is not recommended.
The best way to house a rabbit is to litter box train them and rabbit proof your house. They can then be allowed to interact with the family. When unsupervised it is a good idea to cage them to prevent destruction to your house (they like to dig and eat carpet) and for their safety. Rabbits should never be housed in a wire bottom cage. Over time the wire will result in sore feet and even foot wounds. The best cage is the largest one you can afford and have room for and should have a solid surface bottom. The cage can be lined with newspaper or straw. I like to outfit the cage with a hay manger, but be careful because if startled rabbits can potentially get a foot or leg trapped in the wire manger. The cage should also contain a litter box with litter such as newspaper pellets or straw. There is some though that pine shaving can be toxic to rabbits and I don’t recommend using them at this time. A salt lick is not needed for rabbits. They do however need a water source. Bottle watering rabbits is usually best because it prevents them from wetting their fur while drinking. The cage should be cleaned daily.
Rabbis have a very sensitive gastrointestinal (GI) tract and many disease problems are associated with a poor diet causing GI dysfunction. The very best thing you can do for your rabbit is to have grass hay available at all time. Notice I said “grass” hay and not alfalfa hay. Alfalfa is much to rich for rabbits and very high in calcium which can result in urinary problems. The best types of hay are grass, either Bermuda or timothy. Hay is an excellent source of fiber and not only helps to keep their GI tract working normally, but also provides them with fiber for chewing activity and tooth wear. In addition to hay, offer at least 1cup/5 lbs. body weight of leafy greens daily. Spring greens are often a good choice and can be purchased prepackaged. Greens such as the tops of most veggies, parsley, kale and collards are good choices. Iceberg lettuce is not a good food because it offers no nutritional value. Lastly, grass hay based pellets can be provided at about 1/4cup / 5 lbs. body weight daily. Pellets should not be the sole diet and should not be used in place of hay. Foods to avoid are the grain and sugar rich foods. These can result in obesity or diarrhea.
Okay, based on the above information you may have gotten the idea that GI health is a big issue in rabbits and your correct. I often think of rabbits as little horses that can colic and have GI problems at the drop of a hat. The best way to treat GI problems is to avoid them by feeding the correct diet. Some of the more common problems include diarrhea, anorexia and gut stasis/lack of fecal production. If any of these problems are noted, your bunny must be examined by a veterinarian who will direct the treatment based on your specific pet’s disease problems. An issue that I’ve seen occasionally occurs when an owner is concerned about potential diarrhea, but upon examination of the rabbit it is producing normal feces. With a through history we find
that these rabbits are only producing a soft fecal pellet once daily and all else is normal. This is the best GI problem to have because it is normal. Rabbits produce a special type of feces that is only partially digested and stored in their cecum. About once daily they will pass this large soft pellet and eat it. The ingestion of this cecaltroph is a natural way of recycling B Vitamins and nutrients and is normal for bunnies. Some pet rabbits fed a rich diet will fail to consume their cecaltroph and owners often are concerned that this is diarrhea. It is not. True diarrhea is the abnormal consistency of all feces produced and will often cause fecal staining around the rectum and on the tail. This is a medical problem that should be addressed, cecaltrophy is not. Also, if your rabbit fails to eat the cecaltroph it will not cause any harm.
The failure to eat (anorexia) and/or the failure to produce feces is a serious and potentially life threatening problem and all rabbits showing these signs should be examined by a veterinarian. Generally speaking the rabbits are treated with fluids, high fiber diet, medications to increase GI movement and pain medications. However, treatment will vary depending upon the primary cause of the illness. Home care often involves making a pellet slurry and syringe feeding several times daily until the rabbit eats voluntarily.
Rabbits have teeth that continue to grow throughout their life and this will occasionally result in problems. The upper (maxillary) teeth are thought to grow slightly slower then the lower (mandibular) teeth but the estimated rate of growth is about 2-3mm a month. Rabbits with malocclusion (the teeth surfaces are not aligned properly) will quickly develop spikes on the part of the tooth that doesn’t have the normal wear and the spikes can actually grow large enough to cause the rabbit pain from tongue trauma and may even entrap the tongue preventing normal eating. Often with malocclusion the owners will notice that the incisors (front teeth) have an irregular or angled end which reflects the abnormal occlusion of the molars. Rabbits that have this condition must be seen by a veterinarian on a regular basis (often monthly) to have their molars examined and reshaped. Because rabbits teeth grown continuously it is necessary for them to have continuous wear as well. Good ways to provide this are by feeding hay and providing toys that allow them to chew as well as play. All rabbits should be examined yearly and the exam should include an oral exam. The molars can be viewed quickly and easily in the exam room by using an otoscope (ear cone) inserted into the mouth and rotated around to view all the occlusional surfaces. Another thing to remember is that dental disease in rabbits doesn’t only affect the teeth. Many rabbits with tooth abscess will have tearing of the eye, jaw swelling and/or swollen (pushed out) eye. These are all signs of severe dental disease and will require a more extensive work-up which will often include general anesthesia and x-rays (radiographs). Note the image above – a skull x-ray of a rabbit with dental disease.
CANCER: Female rabbits that are never spayed often develop uterus cancer later in life. This can be entirely prevented by spaying your rabbit early in life. Rabbits can also develop other types of cancers internally and externally. Suspicious lumps on the skin are often abscesses but should always be checked for potential neoplasia (cancer).
OBESITY: Obesity is a disease we regularly cause in rabbits. Usually it is not a disease of over eating, but rather improper eating. Feeding foods rich in grains (sweet feed, pellets with corn) and high sugar treats will often cause obesity in bunnies. Obesity results in many problems for the rabbits. In females we often see urine scalding because the fatty folds have enclosed the genital area and it is not possible for the rabbit to urinate without marking this tissue. The result is significant skin irritation and infection. Another problem that occurs in both rabbits and cats is fatty liver disease which can result in liver failure. A simple check for obesity in your rabbit involves comparing their shape to a bread loaf. If the rabbit is more square then rectangular – we have a problem. The best way to avoid a heavy bunny is to feed high fiber foods and limit grains to treats only. Hay should be available to the rabbit at all times.
URIs can be caused by a multitude of infectious agents but one of the most notorious is Pasteurella, often called bunny snuffles due to the frequent sneezing and nasal discharge. Pasteurella is a bacterium thought to be an infectious disease of rabbits and is all too common in “mass production” rabbits. Signs of disease are ear infections, head tilt or rolling, tearing eyes, nasal discharge, skin abscesses and sneezing. Infected rabbits may show one or several of these clinical signs. The infection can be difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to eliminate. Culturing (swabbing and growing the bacteria) are important to help determine the actual culprit and this will allow us to test the effectiveness of various antibiotics on the bacteria culture prior to treating your rabbit. Rabbits can be very sensitive to certain antibiotics, typically the penicillin type antibiotics, and therefore it is important to do diagnostic test to determine the best antibiotic for your bunny. The important thing to remember is that there are many disease causing organisms that can cause similar signs and the best person to determine the most likely cause and best treatment for your pet is your veterinarian. I encourage you not to wait before seeking help because the more established infections are usually very difficult to treat. The best thing you can do is to have your bunny examined at the first sign of illness.
Rabbits are able to tolerate the cold much better then heat. In areas such as Arizona where we expect extreme heat in the summer months I don’t recommend keeping rabbits outdoors. If they must be outdoors for short periods of time on warm day, I suggest freezing plastic containers filled with water and placing in the hutch to allow them to self cool.
Rabbits with wet fur from problems such as urine staining or diarrhea that are allowed outdoors will be subject to fly strike. Flies will actually lay egg on your rabbit and maggots will develop. The best way to avoid this is to keep your rabbit clean and dry at all times especially on warm summer day. Treatment of the primary problem will be needed.
Any type of skin trauma can result in infection and abscess in a rabbit. Cat bites and scratches are often the culprit, but other types of superficial wounds can also introduce bacteria into the skin. The trauma introduces bacteria into the skin and allow development of infection. Unlike dogs, rabbits don’t make liquid pus. They fight infection by forming a thick (caseous) yellow pus that surrounds the infection isolating it. Unfortunately, this pus is difficult to eliminate because the abscess cannot just be lanced and flushed – it will not drain. Therefore, rabbit abscesses often require surgery and debridement with rigorous antibiotic therapy to results in a cure. These infections are notorious for recurring and may actually need to be surgically removed. Any lump or bump on your rabbits skin should be examined by a veterinarian.
Rabbits have extremely strong back muscles for hopping and a light weight frame or skeleton. This anatomy can result in problems for our pet rabbits who often like to kick and jump in joy or play. A rabbit can potentially fracture the spine/back with a very sudden or vigorous kick and twisting motion. To avoid this potential problem I recommend turning rabbits around (to face you) placing them into their play area or enclosure backwards. This slows them somewhat, helping to prevent that sudden kick/jump/run when suddenly released. It is also important to always support your rabbit’s hind legs when holding him and of course a good diet with balanced calcium levels is also helpful
The image above shows a Jack rabbit with a fractured back – he was actually hit by a car
AEMV: Association of Exotic Mammel Veterinarians:http://aemv.org/
1. The House Rabbit Society: an organization devoted to bunny care with many local clubs. If available in your area I highly recommend becoming a member.http://www.rabbit.org/index.html
2. Brambley Hedge – AZ rabbit rescuehttp://www.bhrabbitrescue.org/
3. The electronic zoo – NETVET:http://netvet.wustl.edu/rabbits.htm
4. Rabbit Coat Colors:http://exoticpets.about.com/cs/rabbits/a/rabbitcolors.htm
5. The British Rabbit Council Breed Photos:http://www.thebrc.org/breeds.htm
6. American Breeders Association Rabbit Breed Photos: good source of photos.http://www.arba.net/photo.htm
7. Rabbit Clubs by State:http://www.arba.net/charteredclub.htm
8. National 4-H Clubs: An excellent youth resource with clubs for just about all animal activities ranging from the rabbit club to the guide dog club. I highly recommend this organization for children. It is a great way to interact with others devoted to animals and to learn about each particular species:http://ag.arizona.edu/4-h/projects.htm
9. AHRS Litter Discussion:http://www.rabbit.org/journal/1/liver-disease.html
10. dacross.net: An excellent dental web site with info. on rabbits, ferrets, chinchillas and dogs/cats.http://www.dacross.net/
11. Rabbit References – health and medicinehttp://homepage.mac.com/mattocks/morfz/rabrefs.html
12. Backyard Bunny Barn – numerous linkshttp://users.commspeed.net/rgbunny/bbb/links.html
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Dr. Jill Patt thanks Shelly Fields, Shelly Field Photography for many of the wonderful photos on this website.