Rabbit Healthcare & Advice

Rabbit Healthcare & Advice

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  • Buying a rabbit
  • Buying a rabbit

    Rabbits can make wonderful pets - they are quiet, clean, inquisitive, entertaining and responsive.

    The main keys to keeping your rabbit healthy are:
    • feed a correct diet that is high in fibre - this will help to prevent many of the common diseases
    • feed fresh vegetables
    • daily exercise
    • checkups to ensure the cage is clean and dry and the rabbit is not soiled
    • regular veterinary check-ups
    • vaccinate your rabbit regularly
    • have your rabbit neutered (especially females)

    At each health check-up make sure you discuss when to come back for your rabbit's next vaccination and ask for advice about flea control, the main insect responsible for transmitting myxomatosis.

    Your rabbit will give you many years of companionship and rewarding pet ownership, if cared for properly.

    There are many unwanted rabbits in animal rescue and charity centres in need of a good home. Remember that these rabbits may have health or behavioural problems needing expert help and little may be known about their history, so it's best to seek advice from the centre before choosing to make sure this is the right rabbit for you.

    Rabbits can also be bought from pet stores or through breeders.

    When choosing your new rabbit, there are certain things you should look out for.

    Don't be afraid to ask questions to ensure you make the right decision.

    What to look for when choosing a rabbit:
    • The eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge that might indicate a respiratory infection.
    • The rabbit should be alert, curious and inquisitive.
    • The rabbit's body should not be thin or emaciated Ð run your hand along the backbone to check this.
    • Check for any wetness or caking of droppings around the anus, which is abnormal.
    • Look for the presence of parasites such as fleas and ear mites (ear mites cause the production of brown wax in the ears).
    • If possible, examine the rabbit's mouth for broken or overgrown incisors (front teeth).
    • Find out whether the rabbit has been spayed or castrated (most will not have been until they are approximately six months old).
    • Ask whether the rabbit has been vaccinated against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease
    • Ask the shelter/seller if they offer any guarantee of health or return policy.
    • Finally, find out what the rabbit is being fed on, as you do not want to introduce a sudden change of diet when you get it home Ð this may provoke gut disturbance and diarrhoea.

  • Dental care
  • Dental care

    Overgrown teeth or dental malocclusion is one of the most common problems in rabbits encountered by vets and may result in the rabbit having to be put to sleep if not treated at an early stage.

    Rabbits' teeth grow constantly throughout their life and if there is not enough fibre in the diet, or if the teeth are not aligned properly, then they will overgrow.

    The dangers of overgrown rabbit teeth

    Overgrown teeth become spiked and will start cutting into the side of the mouth and the tongue causing mouth infections, ulcers and inability to pick up food and eat it. Remember rabbits need to eat continuously to support their gut flora.

    Signs of overgrown rabbit teeth

    Clinical signs include anorexia, weight loss, salivation or dribbling and potentially the growth of abscesses around the face and jaw. Eye infections and matted droppings around the tail base may be an indication of dental disease.

    Malocclusion of rabbit teeth

    In some rabbits, a malocclusion (misalignment) of the incisor (front) teeth is congenital ie present from birth and these rabbits will need treatment and possibly tooth removal.

    Acquired malocclusion occurs in older rabbits and is thought to be primarily diet related. A correct diet is essential to your rabbit's and problems can occur particularly if your pet is not eating enough fibre, in the form of hay, grass and vegetables, to wear down the teeth at a sufficient rate.

    Tooth growth in rabbits

    Problems can also arise if your rabbit refuses to eat the pelleted part of a dry feed diet since these pellets contain calcium and phosphorus essential for good bone and tooth growth. Rabbits need regular teeth checks and these should be carried out at the time of vaccination.

  • Digestive problems
  • Digestive problems

    Diarrhoea is a common problem in pet rabbits. It can be a very serious condition and veterinary advice should be sought immediately. Some gastrointestinal infections that result in diarrhoea can be fatal in less than 24 hours.

    Treatment of rabbit diarrhoea

    Rabbits with diarrhoea become rapidly dehydrated and will need fluid replacement.

    Preventing rabbit diarrhoea

    A high fibre diet (hay or grass) has a protective effect against diarrhoea and soft droppings.

    Normal 'soft' rabbit droppings

    It is normal behaviour for rabbits to produce softer droppings at night, which they then eat. This is an important part of the rabbitÕs diet.

    Rabbit with 'matted' bottom

    Occasionally obese rabbits, older rabbits with back problems and rabbits with dental disease become matted with droppings around the tail base. If a rabbit is very overweight, or if it has a painful mouth or back, he or she may be unable to reach round to clean these droppings away putting them at risk of fly strike.

    In the summer, diarrhoea or matted soft droppings may attract flies which lay their eggs around the tail base and these hatch out into maggots which begin to eat your rabbit alive.

    Preventing fly strike

    You should check your rabbit twice daily in the summer and always make sure the bedding is clean and dry. A fly strip hung just outside the hutch may help reduce the flies.

  • Diseases
  • Diseases

    Recognising the signs of potential ill health in your rabbit is important in helping keep your pet in peak condition.

    Knowing when to call your vet for advice and treatment could also help save your rabbit’s life in an emergency. Your vet will also be able to advise you on how regular check-ups and vaccination can protect your pet against potentially fatal disease. Diseases and danger signs to be aware of include;

    Myxomatosis is a serious and often fatal disease spread by blood sucking insects including the rabbit flea, typified by swollen eyelids and swellings to the face and head. Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) is also often fatal with early signs including fever, lethargy and bleeding from the nose.


  • Eyes
  • Eyes

    Rabbits can develop eye infections that may be difficult to treat.

    Symptoms of rabbit eye infections

    The symptoms of eye problems in rabbits present as a milky white discharge from the corner of the eye. The infection may result in sore reddened skin just below the lower eyelid of the rabbit's eye.

    Treating rabbit eye problems

    Tear ducts often become blocked and will need to be flushed. Tear ducts also become blocked when molar tooth roots grow abnormally.ÊSeek veterinary advice if your rabbit develops any signs of eye infection.

  • Feeding your rabbit
  • Feeding your rabbit

    The most important part of a rabbit's diet is good quality hay together with fresh grass. This is what they eat naturally, so it should make up the bulk of the diet and be offered all the time.

    Feeding your rabbit hay and grass

    Hay and grass provide essential fibre that keeps the teeth and digestive system in good health and nibbling throughout the day will keep your rabbit occupied and prevent boredom. Hay racks or nets can minimise any mess formed. Good quality meadow hay should be sweet smelling and not dusty. A good idea is to try and obtain hay from a farm or feed merchant but check that wild rabbits have not had access to stored hay.

    Dried grass alternatives

    Dried grass products that retain the green colour and are highly palatable are also now available.

    A large number of rabbits will only eat certain components of mixed feeds, risking an insufficient uptake of protein, calcium and phosphoros. This is why high quality dry pellets, where all nutrients are present in each individual pellet is the preferred option.

    Dry food dangers for rabbits

    Overfeeding dry foods to adult rabbits is a common cause of diseases such as obesity, heart and liver problems, chronic diarrhoea, dental and kidney disease. Water should be available 24hrs a day and water bottles or bowls should be cleaned daily to prevent the build-up of bacteria and contamination.

    Feeding rabbits fresh food

    You can feed your rabbit limited amounts of fresh vegetables, fruit and greens daily. Wild plants are also greatly enjoyed. If your rabbit is not used to getting fresh food though, it's best to begin by feeding green leafy vegetables, adding a new type of vegetable every two-three days. If the addition of any item leads to diarrhoea within 24-48hrs it should be withdrawn. Fresh foods should not make up more than 20% of the rabbit's diet. Items to try are Chinese cabbage, watercress, kale, parsley, spinach, radishes, celery, bramble, raspberry leaves, dandelions, chickweed, plantain, groundsel and clover.

    Feeding treats to rabbits

    Do not feed your rabbit chocolate, biscuits or other sugary treats like honey sticks, bread, or fatty, salty foods like potato crisps. Be careful with feeding treats generally as they can lead to obesity and digestive upsets. Treats your rabbit may like include strawberries, pineapple chunks, apples, pears, melon slices, banana slices, raspberries, peaches and dried fruits.

    However, fruits are high in sugar and should only be fed very occasionally as they can lead to dental problems. For good tooth wear you may provide your rabbit with twigs or tree branches and he or she will enjoy gnawing and stripping the bark.

    A general rule is that you can offer branches from any tree that we eat the fruit from such as apple, pear or plum but do make sure that the tree has not been sprayed with chemicals.

  • General health
  • General health

    Just like cats and dogs, rabbits need preventative healthcare to keep them fit and well

    Vaccinating pet rabbits

    Your rabbit should be vaccinated routinely against Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) and Myxomatosis. Both these viral diseases can be rapidly fatal in an unvaccinated rabbit and there are no cures once infected. The only protection you can give your rabbit is by vaccination.

    Rabbit Haemorragic Disease

    RHD is spread by direct contact between rabbits (both wild and domesticated) but also via indirect contact such as from people, clothing, on shoes, other objects, fleas and other parasites.


    Myxomatosis is spread mainly by fleas or other biting insects and is transmitted in this way from wild to pet rabbits but can sometimes also spread via direct contact with other infected individuals. A combined Myxomatosis-RHD vaccination can be given from as early as 5 weeks of age. Boosters are given every 12 months and cover both diseases. Regular health checks for your rabbit

    The best way of avoiding many medical problems in your pet rabbit is to have regular veterinary health checks. Your vet will do a full medical examination and check the teeth (particularly the back teeth) for any evidence of malocclusion which could lead to spikes and tongue ulceration. Rabbits with identified existing tooth problems should be checked at least every 6 to 8 weeks. A thorough dental check will require sedation.

    Best rabbit diet and nutrition

    Diet is vitally important as a means of preventing ill health and is one of the main causes of disease in rabbits. A low fibre, high carbohydrate diet (eg rabbit mix) can lead to dental disease, facial abscesses, sore eyes and conjunctivitis, obesity, intestinal upsets such as diarrhoea and furballs. It is vital to feed mainly fresh good quality hay or grass and vegetables as a source of fibre.

    Insuring your pet rabbit

    If your rabbit gets ill, the last thing you want to worry about is a vet bill. Insurance is now available for rabbits and if the worst happens and your rabbit does get sick, insurance means your vet can dedicate their effort into doing all that is necessary to diagnose and treat any illness, rather than worrying about doing certain tests or treatments because of the cost.

  • Haemorrhagic disease
  • Haemorrhagic disease

    Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD), also known as Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) is a very serious infectious disease which first emerged in China during the 1980s that can affect rabbits. Within a few years this disease was seen virtually worldwide and it is now an endemic disease in wild rabbits in the UK. The disease is extremely sudden in onset in many cases with the only sign often seen in an infected rabbit is that is found dead. All rabbits are potentially at risk of RHD.

    How is Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease spread?

    RHD is spread by direct contact between rabbits (both wild and domesticated) and but also via indirect contact. Possible sources of indirect transfer are people, clothing, contaminated hutches and bedding, as well as insect vectors such as fleas and flies.

    What causes Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease?

    RHD is caused by a calicivirus and has an incubation period of just one to three days. The virus itself is very stable in the environment and can survive for up to 105 days.

    What are the signs and symptoms of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease?

    Signs include depression, collapse, difficulty in breathing, convulsions, high body temperature, lethargy and bleeding from the nose. Death usually occurs within 12-36 hours after the onset of fever and the mortality rate can be as high as 90-100%.

    Can I stop my rabbit getting Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease?

    RHD vaccination can be given to provide effective protection against this disease from as early as five weeks of age. A dual vaccine for rabbits covering both myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease has recently been launched in the UK. This new vaccine provides efficient protection of rabbits against both diseases and as with existing RHD vaccines an annual booster is sufficient to maintain immunity.

  • Myxomatosis in rabbits
  • Myxomatosis in rabbits

    Myxomatosis is caused by the Myxoma virus, a type of pox virus that only affects rabbits. It was first discovered in 1896 in Uruguay and was imported to Australia in 1951 to control its large rabbit populations - initially having the desired devastating effect.

    The disease was illegally introduced to France in 1952 and it appeared in Britain the following year. It quickly spread to both wild and domestic rabbit populations and within a few years had spread throughout Europe. Myxomatosis has been a threat to wild and domestic rabbits ever since. All rabbits, whether wild or domestic are at risk of Myxomatosis.

    How is Myxomatosis spread?

    Myxomatosis is typically spread by blood sucking insects, and in particular the rabbit flea, Spilopsyllus cuniculi. This flea is frequently found on wild rabbits and transmission in the absence of bites is unusual. All breeds of domestic rabbit can be affected, with little to suggest that one breed is more susceptible than another, and whatever the lifestyle of your rabbit there is a potential risk of this disease. Mosquitos and other biting insects are also potential sources of disease transmission.

    What are the signs and symptoms of Myxomatosis?

    The incubation period varies depending on the strain and its virulence and is typically at least five days. Along with the classic bulging eyes that most of us associate with Myxomatosis, localised swellings develop around the head, face, ears, lips, anus and genitalia. Severe swellings can lead to blindness and distortion around the face within a day or so of the onset of symptoms, leading to difficulty with feeding and drinking. Bacterial respiratory infection often complicates the disease resulting in a fatal pneumonia.

    How can Myxomatosis be prevented?

    You can protect your rabbit against Myxomatosis with an annual vaccination.

    How can Myxomatosis be treated?

    Progress of the disease may be slower in well cared for pet rabbits and recovery is sometimes possible with intensive care however this disease is usually fatal. There is no specific treatment for the virus and any treatment offered is merely supportive. Treatment is occasionally contemplated but would not usually be recommended for rabbits with the full-blown disease since affected individuals have a low chance of survival and they remain a source of infection for other rabbits. The occasional individuals with milder disease may, however, recover with appropriate care.

    Recovery in the wild occasionally occurs but for animals with severe signs, death usually occurs about 12 days after initial infection.

  • Neutering
  • Neutering

    Neutering of both male and female rabbits is strongly recommended unless you wish to breed from your pet. Rabbits become sexually mature between 4 months (in smaller breeds) and 6 to 9 months (in larger breeds). It is recommended that young rabbits are separated into single sex groups at 4months of age.

    When to castrate male rabbits

    Breeding is prevented by castration of male rabbits at about 5-6 months of age (once the testicles have descended).

    When to spay female rabbits

    Female rabbits should be spayed at around six months old.

    Benefits of neutering rabbits

    Intact males are more prone to developing behavioural problems including fighting, biting and urine spraying. The urine may also become strong smelling.

    Having your female rabbit spayed at between six months and two years' old dramatically decreases the chance of her developing uterine tumours later on in life. In some breeds the incidence of this cancer is over 80% in female rabbits aka does over five years of age.

    Side effects of neutering

    Neutered rabbits are more prone to obesity as they grow older, so care must be taken not to allow overeating.

  • Obesity in rabbits
  • Obesity in rabbits

    Obesity is a growing problem in rabbits, especially in females, and may lead to other problems such as matted droppings, creating a perfect environment for maggot infestations or fly strike or fatty liver syndrome.

    Preventing obesity in rabbits

    Most health issues seen in rabbits are either due to poor nutrition or care aka husbandry.

    Rabbits eat only plants, therefore they are known as herbivores. This means that they require a high fibre content in their diet. A good diet for a rabbit includes good quality hay, lots of fresh leafy greens, and some fresh vegetables and fruit. A small quantity of pellets can also be added to their diet. Pellets should not make up more than 25% of your rabbits daily intake as they don't contain enough fibre and are high in energy which means that feeding too much can make your rabbit overweight.

    Lots of fibre will not only keep your rabbits weight down, it also ensures good fermentation in the gut encouraging the right sorts of microorganisms which keep the gut functioning, it assists in the movement of food along the gut making sure your rabbit doesn't become constipated and keeps their teeth nicely ground down to prevent dental problems.

    To assess whether your rabbit is the right weight or not feel around their ribs. If there is a small covering of fat over the ribs and the ribs can be easily felt without too much digging then this is the right weight for your rabbit. If there is too much fat over the ribs this will make it difficult to feel them and your rabbit is overweight and will need to have their diet changed. If you are concerned that your rabbit is overweight, ask your veterinarian about putting your rabbit on a diet as a drastic change is not the best approach and supervision may be required. Weighing your rabbit every 2 weeks will tell you if there has been a weight change.

    Plenty of exercise is important in managing a rabbits weight just like humans. Ideally your rabbit should be allowed to run and roam around an exercise area for at least 1 hour daily.

  • Pasteurella
  • Pasteurella

    Many rabbits have bacteria living in their nasal sinuses called Pasteurella. These bacteria will not cause a clinical problem for a rabbit with a healthy immune system.

    Causes of Pasteurella in rabbits

    In certain situations, if the rabbit becomes stressed, these bacteria will multiply rapidly causing a disease known as pasteurellosis or 'snuffles'.

    Symptoms of Pasteurella in rabbits

    This disease may affect the respiratory tract, uterus, skin, kidneys, bladder, tear ducts, middle ear or spine. Clinical signs include discharges from the eyes and nose, loss of appetite, lethargy, head tilt, loss of balance, hind limb paralysis and laboured breathing.

    Treatment of Pasteurella in rabbits

    The infection cannot be eliminated but it can be controlled with antibiotics and you should consult your vet at once.

  • Preventing myxomatosis
  • Preventing myxomatosis

    What is Myxomatosis?

    To help prevent your rabbit from contracting Myxomatosis, it is important to put various controls in place, for which there are two main methods: control of parasites and vaccination.

    Flea control

    Always keep a regular check on your rabbit for any signs of fleas and consider the regular use of an insecticidal treatment from your vet.

    Mosquitoes and other biting flies may also transmit Myxomatosis in the UK, so nets and insect repellent can be used to combat this threat in warmer weather.

    Your vet will be able to advise you further on these measures, since not all products are suitable or safe for rabbits.

    Vaccinating your rabbit against Myxomatosis

    A dual vaccination covering both Myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) has recently been launched in the UK and is designed to replace the older Myxomatosis-only product during 2012. This new vaccine provides efficient and effective protection of rabbits against both diseases.

    How often should I vaccinate my rabbit against Myxomatosis?

    It is recommended that a single dose of the new vaccine is given to all rabbits over the age of five weeks and requires an annual booster to maintain protection.

    Strains of Myxomatosis and vaccine development

    Although Myxomatosis is typically fatal in rabbits without immunity, there are many different strains and some are more virulent than others. As evolution has progressed and the virus adapts accordingly, the modern myxoma virus which causes the disease may not always kill rabbits quite as readily or rapidly as older strains, although the disease continues to have a very high mortality associated with it in pet rabbits.

    Myxomatosis in the UK

    Previously, vaccination in the UK used the non-disease-causing Shope Fibroma virus, which was well proven in terms of safety, and was similar enough to the Myxoma virus to give useful levels of immunity.

    Attempts at producing inactivated (killed) Myxomatosis vaccines have proved ineffective. Other approaches that have been taken abroad with mixed results have included using a weakened strain of the Myxoma virus as a vaccine.

    The new vaccine is based on a novel approach which disables the myxoma virus in a way that renders it unable to cause disease, and at the same time preserves its ability to provide effective protection against both Myxomatosis and the equally serious Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (also known as rabbit haemorrhagic disease or RHD).

    Can rabbits contract Myxomatosis after vaccination?

    Vaccination can never guarantee 100% protection against any disease. However, when used as recommended in healthy rabbits, the new vaccine has been shown to be very effective at preventing this dreadful disease for a full 12 months, representing significant advancement over the older product which only lasted for 6 months.

    Vaccination may sometimes appear ineffective if given to rabbits already incubating the disease, or those whose response to vaccination can be impaired by underlying health problems, poor nutrition, genetic factors, severe stress and drug therapy. For these reasons it is always important to consider other steps to reduce the risk of infectious disease. These include the control of fleas and other external parasites and steps to prevent exposure to flies in hutches and runs.

    It is also important to avoid contact between domestic and wild rabbits and to ensure good basic husbandry and feeding to reduce the risk of potential health problems and associated stresses.

    Your veterinary surgeon will be able to advise on a care plan for your rabbit which can address all these issues.

    In addition, control of fleas, good basic husbandry and steps to reduce stress should be undertaken to reduce the risk of Myxomatosis and complement the protection afforded by vaccination.

  • Skin conditions in rabbit
  • Skin conditions in rabbit

    What are symptoms of mites in rabbits

    Pet rabbits can be infected by ear mites which are small parasites that live in the ear canals. They may stimulate excessive wax production that can lead to clinical signs such as head shaking, ear scratching and blood around the ear canal. They are seen most commonly in the lop-eared breeds.

    Mites may also infect rabbits on the back and shoulders causing dry skin and dandruff. These mites can also cause a mild rash in humans, so treatment is vital.

    How to prevent rabbit skin problems

    Bedding must be changed regularly - at least once a week Ð otherwise your rabbitÕs feet can become ulcerated and infected. Feet should also be checked regularly and toenails clipped if necessary. Urine and faeces may also stick to the rabbits skin, especially around the areas that are in contact with the ground, such as the bottom area and back of the legs.

    If not removed this can lead to fly strike, where maggots literally eat your rabbit alive. It is therefore essential to check your rabbit daily, especially in the warmer months to prevent this potentially deadly infestation.

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