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Rabbits

Rabbits are rapidly catching up dogs in popularity and are the third most popular pet in the UK today. They are no longer just thought of as children's pets and many people are realising that they can make friendly, inquisitive and intelligent additions to the family.

As well having their own special hutches, many are now kept as house rabbits having freedom to scamper around the house and sit with you on the sofa!

Hutches have changes considerably as well and nowadays, large hutches and runs can be bought allowing the rabbit space to move, stand up on hind legs and eat the most natural diet of grass. 

Outdoors

Domestic rabbits are closely related to their wild cousins. Their basic nature and needs are the same as the wild rabbit. They need plenty of space whether housed inside or out and it is important to allow them the freedom to run around for several hours a day. They can develop painful skeletal problems if kept permanently confined; hence cages should be viewed as safe burrows to rest in, not prisons! Two or more rabbits can live in a permanent enclosure with suitable shelter exercising at will. This is the best option for rabbits allowing them to display their natural behaviour patterns.

Alternatively, they can share their hutch at night but be allowed daily access to a large exercise run or garden. The weather may restrict this access and it is important to remember that rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk. A good idea is to ensure that you have rabbit friendly plants and the vegetable patch is protected, as to a rabbit any greenery is fair game to be nibbled!

Hutches can never be too big. The hutch must be tall enough for bunnies to sit up on their hind legs and be able to hop at least 4 paces. People often opt for traditional wooden hutches which should be robust, secure and weather proof. Space permitting, customised garden sheds possibly with a run built on the side accessed by a cat flap make ideal homes.

Rabbits readily suffer from heat stroke so good ventilation and a sheltered side for the hutch is paramount, never in direct sunlight. A confined sleeping area should be available. Hutches must be raised on legs to protect the rabbit from the damp and also to deter vermin. The roof should be waterproofed, sloping with an overhang to allow water to run off. Protection against driving rain and snow is crucial.

Rather than allowing unsupervised free-ranging access to the garden, an exercise run may be preferred; once again this should be as large as you can manage. This may be portable and moved around the lawn as required or permanent with the hutch incorporated into the enclosure. As rabbits are expert burrowers it may be useful to consider an integral floor to the run!

Always provide an easily accessible bolt hole, as rabbits are naturally prey animals and don't always feel safe above ground. Gardens, runs and hutches need to be secure against both of our common domesticated predators (dogs and cats) as well as native ones (foxes and birds of prey).

Indoors

Rabbits are naturally very clean and in the wild have toilet areas so we can often adapt this to allow them to live harmoniously alongside us indoors. Most rabbits can be house trained. However, there is no guarantee that rabbits instinctively seek out litter, they must be taught to use it. Give us a call or drop us an email and we can provide some guidance on house training your bunny.

Rabbits chew and training plus 'bunny proofing' your home is vital to protect both your possessions and your rabbit! For example, cover electrical and telephone cables with plastic piping split lengthways, move houseplants out of reach, protect skirting boards with plastic laminate and remember not to leave books or clothes on the floor.

The ultimate goal is to have a free-range house rabbit but as long as several hours of freedom are allowed per day they won't mind being caged when unsupervised. It is advisable to keep house rabbits caged at first and gradually build up their freedom on a daily basis. If plenty of time and energy is spent training a rabbit when it is young they can be rewarding and affectionate.

Stimulation

Whether indoors or out, obviously plenty of stimulation to keep them occupied is important. Socially, provide plenty of company from a 'bunny buddy' or human contact and enhance the environment by adding tunnels, cardboard boxes, wicker baskets stuffed with hay or planters of earth to dig in.

House rabbits can be kept alone, as they will bond to their owners. Wild rabbits spend several hours foraging for food daily, so use your imagination when feeding by hiding tasty bits of food or scattering their concentrate ration around, but providing constant access to hay.

Feeding your rabbit

Rabbits are designed to eat grass and even strip bark from trees. In our climate it may not be practical to have access to grass all year round so unlimited good quality hay is the cornerstone of a healthy diet for your pet rabbit.

The importance of feeding your rabbit the correct proportions and variety of feedstuffs cannot be over emphasised:

  • Lots of hay/grass - at least 75% of the daily ration
  • A large selection of leafy greens and vegetables - must be consistent every day
  • Max 20% of complete commercial pellets
  • Fresh clean water at all times

It is important for a number of reasons to get the diet of your bunny just right as this may help avoid a host of medical problems throughout their life. Hay and grass are high in long fibre. This acts as an abrasive to wear teeth down and helps to maintain a healthy gut movement.

Also, nibbling hay reduces boredom therefore helping to prevent behavioural problems. Rabbit's teeth grow constantly so it is vital that they have a diet that wears these down just as they would do in the wild. Otherwise, the teeth may not wear down as they should and we will see discomfort and pain resulting from damage to the cheeks, and the rabbit will quickly stop eating.

Very importantly however, grass and hay also provide the correct proportions of calcium and phosphorus, which help maintain healthy teeth and bones. Do not give grass cuttings as the oil from the mower can cause stomach pain and digestive problems.

If used sensibly, as only a small proportion of the daily food ration, concentrate pellets can form an integral part of a healthy diet for most rabbits. If overfed such low fibre, high calorie foods, then obesity, dental disease and gut upsets can ensue.

Often rabbits have a sweet tooth, but if allowed to overindulge they will suffer from obesity and tooth decay. More importantly, excess sugars may upset the delicate balance of helpful bacteria they naturally have in their gut, so the intake of such foods must be kept to an absolute minimum, if any at all.

Vaccinations

Vaccinations show you care. There are a number of diseases that can affect rabbits in the UK. Vaccination is the only safe way to provide immunity against these diseases. Regular boosters are vital to maintain protection.

Myxomatosis

This is a fatal viral disease of rabbits. The signs include swollen eyes and genitals, swellings under the skin especially around the head and pus-like secretions from the eyes and nose. It is transferred directly from other rabbits but predominantly indirectly via insect bites such as from fleas, midges, mosquitoes and even cheyletiella, a common skin mite often called walking dandruff.

There is a vaccine available which can start from as early as 6 weeks old. Re-vaccination is annually unless you are in a 'high risk' area when it is advisable to re-vaccinate every 6 months. Vets must inject part of the vaccine into the skin layer, unlike other vaccines, for it to be effective.

Viral Haemorrhagic Disease

Another very infectious and lethal viral disease in rabbits. Often no symptoms are noticed other than sudden death with major internal organ disruption but as the name implies, haemorrhage (blood) may possibly be seen from the around the face, or from around their bottom.

It is spread directly from an infected rabbit and is capable of living for long periods in the environment, so we may inadvertently bring it into our homes on contaminated grasses. Vaccination can be given annually from 10 weeks of age.

Flystrike in rabbits

Flystrike is an awful and unpleasant condition that can affect rabbits during the summer and autumn months. It is preventable by proper attention to the predisposing factors and attention to hygiene.

It is caused by mostly one of two events, diarrhoea, which causes faecal material to stick to the rabbit's backend or a build up of faecal caecotrophs, which can lead to normal faeces becoming stuck to the backend of your rabbit.

Prevention

The first thing is to sort out what the underlying cause was and deal with it. Vapona strips and fine mesh can be used on hutches to reduce the numbers of flies. There is a product available which is designed to protect your rabbit from maggot infestation for up to 10 weeks per application. It contains an insect growth regulator which prevents maggots developing to the stage that causes damage to the rabbit.

Simply apply the foam to your rabbit’s hind quarters every 10 weeks from the beginning of April until the end of September. Another product repels flies and also kills fleas, ticks and lice. It is very important that your rabbit has its backend checked twice daily, by a responsible adult, so if present flystrike can be caught early.

If found this is an emergency and your rabbit should be seen and examined.  You can also consider bringing your rabbit into your home - as a 'house rabbit'.

Neutering your rabbit

Rabbits will obviously reproduce if kept in mixed groups. It is also very easy to purchase two rabbits of the same sex, only to find that they were wrongly sexed. It is difficult to sex young rabbits and many pet shops will not guarantee sex at a young age.

Male rabbits housed together will fight and can cause nasty open wounds or abscesses; they tend to also selectively bite each other's private parts.

Female rabbits housed together may, as they become sexually active mount each other. This causes the recipient female to have a false pregnancy as occurs in dogs. The female will start to build a nest, pull fur out and then defend her nest vigorously from intruders and you may well be viewed as a threatening intruder.

There are also problems with 'house rabbits', as they need to be toilet trained and entire rabbits will often scent their territory with either urine or faeces, neutered rabbits will be far less likely to have problems.

Female rabbits are also prone to malignant uterine cancer. Over 50% of females may have developed such a tumour by the time they are three years of age. This cancer spreads around the body. Signs are varied from a healthy animal, blood in the urine, urine staining, central nervous signs, breathing problems and so on. If it has spread then unfortunately, there is no hope for a cure.

Neutering should certainly be considered, and whilst we can never make any guarantees about anaesthesia, progress in the understanding of rabbits has helped us enormously in providing them with more specific care, increasing the safety of the procedure and speeding up their recovery.

For more information, take a look at www.houserabbit.co.uk

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