Caring for Rabbits

Housing for rabbits

Indoors

Recently there have been more rabbits becoming part of the family home and living indoors. If this is suited to that individual rabbit, I think rabbits make a perfect addition to a family. Being a sociable creature bunnies appreciate being with their own species as well as humans, so rescuing another bunny and bonding him to your existing bunny would be perfect. You cannot afford to be house proud all of the time with rabbits. They do enjoy tipping up their food bowl or scratching out the paper and hay from the litter tray as well as thinking that your chair legs or cables look like a tasty meal. Rabbits can be trained to use a litter tray. They also like to urinate as well as eat at the same time, which is why it is a good idea to just use hay and paper in the tray.

Have you considered whether you would like the rabbit to be free roaming around the house or kept in one particular room?

If you are using one particular room, is this ok for your rabbit. Rabbits can easily die from heat stroke so be aware if you are thinking of keeping them in a conservatory. Is there enough room for a rabbit to run and play? Will he get enough human attention?

Things to think about for a free roaming bunny before adopting would be:

Electrical wires

When wild rabbits are making their burrows, they will chew lots of roots that are in the way. Electrical cables look like roots so rabbits always make a beeline for them. You can buy conduit to hide all the cables away. Some people will place a puppy pen around the tv to prevent access to the wires.

Flooring

Is your flooring suitable for rabbits? Although rabbits can be litter trained there are days when a rabbit may urinate or decide to scatter droppings on your floor. A new smell may have entered the premises and worried him, so a carpet might become soiled because he will want to scent mark his territory. A solid floor, tiles, wood etc. is good for hygiene but if any urine is not cleaned up quickly the floor could stain due to the amount of calcium in their urine. Rabbits can also find it hard to walk on a solid floor. It is probably a good idea to have a combination, part carpet and part solid floor with litter trays scattered so you can find out what area the rabbit would like to use. In the wild the rabbit’s toilet area is called a latrine. This area is the perimeter of their territory. They will purposely urinate there to let other rabbits in a nearby group know their boundaries.

A quiet area

Rabbits are crepuscular (awake dawn and dusk). At the shelter we find that the rabbits like to go away and have some quiet time around mid morning and usually stay there for a few hours sleeping. Evening time is when you usually find the rabbits outside grazing on grass. The indoor rabbit would still need their own area where they can rest in peace if they choose to, somewhere dark and quiet. Instead of chunky hutches quite a few people buy large dog crates and place a blanket on the outside to make it dark. You could use towels or vet beds for them to lie on or hay or both. If a rabbit chooses to go into that den you must then respect that rabbits decision for some peace. Teach children that a rabbit must be left alone until he decides it is time for human company. This will teach the rabbit that if it is scared or suddenly startled that he can run into his safe haven or somewhere just to chill.

Plants

If you have plants in the house they must be checked to see if they are safe for rabbits. If you do not want them eaten then you must protect them by moving the plant or placing mesh or a puppy pen around the perimeter.

Friendship

Rabbits really do need another bunny companion as well as human interaction. Although humans can groom a rabbit it would only be for a short amount of time probably once a day. Rabbits love having mutual grooming sessions and then lying down together. Rabbits can wash each other’s ears and eyes and keep infections at bay. Rabbits have their own form of communication that we are not able to completely mimic. They also prefer company over food, which shows you how desperate they are for love.

I don’t know why but rabbits seem to love tripping you up to gain your attention. If you have a lot of visitor it may be a good idea to place the rabbit in another room until your guests are seated. Hopefully this will stop any potential accidents to either party.

You can use stair gates to keep the rabbit out of a room you do not want him to enter. Just ensure the bars are spaced wide enough apart to stop them from jumping through but also that they will not get their head stuck from trying to squeeze through.

Outside rabbit housing

Most rabbits love to live outside with a companion for company and if you get the accommodation right, you will have 2 happy bunnies for the 12 years of their life. Nowadays a lot of people are building their own enclosures. The most important factor is size. The bigger the better. In the wild, a rabbit’s exercise space is equivalent to 2 football pitches a day. You can see how depressed a rabbit can get just stuck in a hutch for life.  A wooden wendy hutch or shed is ideal, one with windows. You could add a ramp, so the rabbits could sit up high and watch the world go by. On one side of the wendy house a hole could be cut out so that a run can be attached. Mesh on top of the grass would stop any burrowing, just remember to ensure the mesh is flat on the ground and peg any bits sticking up. You don’t want any feet getting stuck in it.

Another option could be making a post and rail fence and adding the mesh around the perimeter. A large hutch could be placed inside of it. If the hutch is raised on bricks, the rabbits can then go underneath to shade or hide. Don’t forget if your rabbit lives outside then you need to ensure there will be a nice, warm cosy place they can go into, to keep warm. One where there are no draughts or the rain can get into. For summer there must be shade. A rabbit can quickly die due to sunstroke or heat. Making the fence high enough for you to walk into would be good but not essential. Lots and lots of hay in the bedding area will keep the rabbits warm and they will eat it. A litter tray inside the house would be good, lined with paper and filled with good quality hay. Rabbits eat, wee and poo in the same area and you want to encourage this as much as possible because hay is the main food for rabbits.

Rabbits love to run, play and explore new things. Lots of toys that you alternate would keep them mentally stimulated. Platforms they can jump up would be welcomed. Cardboard boxes filled with hay and treats would be explored and give your rabbits hours of fun. They love to toss light objects up in the air like plant pots or toilet rolls filled with hay.

Diet

Hay, hay and then more hay.

Rabbits need 85% of hay and grass in their diet. They are herbivores and need a lot of fibre.

10% of food should consist of leafy greens and vegetables

5% dry concentrate pellets and not muesli food.

Muesli encourages rabbits to eat the items that have the most sugar in it and they will usually leave the pellets, which is the most important and nutritious part, so please only buy the pellets or extruded food.

Eating too much concentrate only takes a matter of minutes, so the rabbit will get full very quickly, however rabbits should spend the majority of their waking life browsing. As a result, as well as dental issues (when eating grass or hay, the rabbits teeth move up and down as well as side to side. This action keeps the teeth worn down and reduces spur growth) you will have a very bored bunny that has nothing to do.

Eating hay should be sweet smelling and green in colour, not smelling musty, damp or dusty. There are lots of varieties. Each individual rabbit seems to favour their own one. Some like the timothy hay, some like the long stranded hay. It would be a good idea to buy a mix of different types to try until you know your rabbit’s favourite. You can even buy hay with added ingredients like dandelion or mint mixed in with it.

Young rabbits, less than six months of age, can be fed alfalfa hay rather than timothy hay. Alfalfahay is higher in protein and calcium and lower in fibre than timothy hay. This is acceptable, even desirable, in young, rapidly developing rabbits. But alfalfa hay is unhealthy for adult rabbits as it is so high in calcium; it could potentially cause kidney or urinary problems.

Rabbits love grass. Even if you have a house rabbit you can always pick grass every day for him, just ensure you choose an area that has not been sprayed with pesticides or dogs have not soiled it. Grass cuttings cannot be fed to any animal.

Whatever veg, herbs or fruit you give to your rabbit it must be done in moderation. Each item has to be given in very small amounts to start with, so that your rabbit’s sensitive stomach can get use to the change. I usually give 2 or 3 items of fresh a day in small amounts but rotate what fresh there is. One day it could be coriander, broccoli and some dandelions and the next it could be mint, pepper and spring greens. For mental stimulation you could hide your rabbits food in cardboard boxes or up high so they have to stretch to reach it.

If you decide to go foraging make sure you know what food is ok to pick for your rabbit. Research before going out and making a mistake. In the wild as long as there is available food, a wild rabbit would not poison itself by eating the wrong food, unless there was no other alternative. With domesticated rabbits they have no choice but to eat what we give them.

Treats

Be very careful what treats you buy. There are a lot of foods marked for rabbits that are not really suitable. Corn on the cob, any treats with seeds in them, yoghurt drops or any of the sweetened treats are not suitable for bunnies. Too many treats can make your rabbit overweight, which can then lead to health issues. An overweight rabbit will not be able reach to thoroughly clean itself and can cause flystrike or it may not be able to eat its own caecotrophs, which will cause an upset with the good bacteria in his gut. When a rabbit does not move much, it could result in sore hocks or infections in its feet.

You may need to monitor the amount of calcium you are feeding. Too much calcium can cause a sludgy bladder, which may turn into stones and too little could cause a calcium deficiency and you may start having problems with teeth.

Fresh, clean water should always be in reach. If the bottle needs refilling always empty the remaining water and then refill. Do not just top up the water as this means you will be giving stale water all the time. Take the bottle apart to clean it and make sure the spout is thoroughly cleaned as well. All parts can be cleaned in a Milton sterilising fluid solution and you can use a cotton bud for the spout but thoroughly rinse the bottle and spout afterwards. It may be a good idea to use a bottle and dish to see what your rabbit’s preference is but a bowl is preferable. With a bottle a lot of effort is needed, which can make the rabbit not drink as much as is needed.

Rabbit-Safe food

There are a number of different herbs to choose from, each with its own taste and texture.

  • BASIL – itching, inflammation, nervousness
  • BIRCH LEAF – pain relief, anti-inflammatory
  • BLACKBERRY LEAF – diarrhoea, stimulates appetite
  • CHAMOMILE – pain relief, calming
  • CILANTRO (CORIANDER)
  • COLTSFOOT – high fibre
  • COMFREY LEAF- aids digestion, good for moulting, healing, stress
  • DANDELION – high fibre, urinary tract infections, diarrhoea, constipation, aids digestion, prevent osteoporosis
  • DILL
  • ECHINACEA – boosts immune system and digestive health, anti-inflammatory
  • FENNEL – bloating and gas
  • LAVENDER – circulation problems, gas, nervousness, stress, analgesic
  • LEMON BALM – bloating and gas, diarrhoea, stress
  • MARIGOLD FLOWERS – healing, skin health, digestion
  • MARJORAM – digestion, calming
  • MINT LEAF – firms loose stool, digestion, flatulence
  • NETTLES – digestion, urinary tract
  • OREGANO
  • PARSLEY – urinary tract, enriches the blood, roots are used for constipation and obstruction of the intestines
  • PEPPERMINT LEAF – digestion, flatulence
  • PLANTAIN LEAF – digestion, urinary tract infections
  • RASPBERRY LEAF – diarrhoea, digestion
  • ROSEMARY LEAF – weakness, circulation, nervousness, indigestion, low blood pressure
  • SORREL – very cooling and soothing
  • STRAWBERRY LEAF – antiseptic, cooling, rich in iron
  • THYME LEAF – diarrhoea, digestive upset
  • WILLOW BRANCHES – Pain relief

**Be sure to avoid chives and other herbs that are a member of the onion family

Herbs We Use Often

There are so many herbs out there that you can use, all of which have great but different natural benefits for the rabbit.

Basil

Easy to grow indoors and widely available. Rabbits love the fragrant smell and strong taste. Be aware that it is high in calcium so only give as a treat and not at all if you know your rabbit has a kidney or bladder issue.

Coriander

Coriander is another favourite herb. It is easily obtained from a supermarket and is a safe herb to use.

Dandelion Greens

Dandelions are easy to spot in the spring and autumn in the wild. They have a lovely bright yellow flower. There are a number of Different varieties of dandelion and the rabbits love them all.

Dill

I find that rabbits love to eat dill and seem to choose this particular herb to eat if they are feeling unwell.

Mint

Mint is a stable herb and can be sprinkled on food to encourage eating. Some companies that produce rabbit pellets will add mint to aid digestion.

Parsley

Both flat leaf parsley and curly are easily accessible all year round. Parsley is high in calcium, so please do not give daily.

Fennel

Fennel is a good plant to use for bloat. It is a hardy plant if you want to grow it in your garden.

Ribwort Plantain

You can feed either the narrow or broad leaf variety of plantain. It grows in abundance in the wild.

Behaviour

Some people seem to think that having a pet rabbit is like having a cuddly bunny but this is a misconception. In fact, they have their own unique temperaments and most do not like to be handled. The only reason that a rabbit is lifted in the air in the wild is to be killed for food, so you can imagine the fear associated with being lifted off the ground. Most of our bunnies at the shelter race up to greet us not for cuddles but cupboard love. They know it is feeding time and tend to get excited by racing around our legs. You can always make the most of this situation and talk and stroke your rabbit while he is eating to try and strengthen the bond. With a nearly required rabbit sit on the floor with a treat held tightly between your fingers. Don’t move, eventually the rabbit will become curious and want to investigate. He will sit and eat the treat. Just make everything a positive experience and you will soon have a friendly bunny wanting your attention and maybe jumping on your lap for snuggles. There are exceptions to this rule. Some that have had traumatic experiences in their life. These will take longer to bring around but it usually does work.

Aggression

The reason most rabbits are aggressive is due to hormones, history, poor environment or in pain. You need to work out which one it is so you can decide what to do. If you think your rabbit is in pain always take him for a check-up at your vets making sure your vet does understand rabbits. If not then it may be better to find a new vet that does. It is hard to tell when a rabbit is in pain because they hide it well. They are a prey animal and if they show pain in the wild will get killed by a predator. Hormones is the most common cause of aggression. Neutering your rabbit will help this to a certain extent but they may well still have hormone problems in spring and early summer. This is the normal time of year to produce babies. Neutering will make it easier to bond rabbits together and can prevent some kinds of cancer. If aggression is due to being confined to a hutch, give the rabbit more space and mental stimulation. Let them forage for herbs in their bedroom or place food high to make them stretch for it, hopefully this will help. It could be your rabbit is defending its food bowl or an item. Try scatter feeding. Whatever you do please make sure your rabbit has positive experiences around you and your family. Don’t let other pets or children terrorise your rabbit by shouting, chasing or barking. Explain to children that the bond between family and rabbits will be more successful if done in a calm and quiet manner.

Health

Rabbits should be bright eyed and are usually alert. If you are at all worried you should take your pet to your vets. As rabbits are prey animals, they try to act normal even when they are ill, so need to be seen as soon as possible. A good idea is too weigh them monthly to check they haven’t lost weight. Monitor your rabbits dropping. You can tell a lot from the colour, size and shape. If the size is decreasing it could indicate something is not right because your rabbit is not eating as much as normal. Droppings that are strung together is a sign that your rabbit is ingesting too much fur. Daily brushing whilst the rabbit is moulting should combat this problem. A golden colour indicates your rabbit likes to eat a good amount of hay, perfect. You should not see any see ceacotrophs (the stools your rabbit re ingests straight from his bottom and has all the rabbit’s nutrients in it) if you do it may indicate a problem. Make sure your rabbit eats every day. Sometimes they pretend to eat to make it look as though they are not ill.

You will need to keep up to date with vaccines. All vaccines need to be done annually. Like every responsible pet owner, you want your bunnies to live a happy, healthy life, so you must have them vaccinated against Myxomatosis and two strains of Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (RVHD).

You will need to give your rabbits two vaccines every year to protect them.  The most common are Nobivac (protect against Myxi and RVHD1) and Filivac  (protect against RVHD1 &2) Or Eravac (protect against RVHD2) The vaccines must be done separately, two weeks apart from each other.

All rabbits’ teeth continually grow, so it is very important to give the right diet (hay, grass) so the mouth has to gnaw and chew moving forwards and backwards as well as sideways. Apple branches are also welcomed by rabbits. A poor diet can also cause havoc to the rabbits’ sensitive gut system.

A few problems or diseases to look out for.

 You need to check your rabbits bottom regularly to make sure they are clean and dry. Dirty bottoms need to be cleaned or they could end up with fly strike, which is when the fly lays eggs which turn into maggots.  The maggots burrow into the rabbit. It is a serious and painful condition and the end result could be the death of your rabbit so it needs to be spotted early. Sometimes rabbits have a dirty bottom because they are overweight and cannot bend around to eat their ceacotrophs or they could be having too much fresh food. Occasionally rabbits cannot tolerate certain fresh food. You will need to eliminate any food that is causing the droppings to be loose. Please do not ever bath a bunny, it is not good for them. Sometimes if necessary, just put there back end in a small amount of water to clean them but ensure they are thoroughly dried afterwards.

A couple of stress related diseases to look out for are

E cuniculi (Ec) is a microscopic brain and kidney parasite that affects rabbits. Some rabbits can carry the parasite without ever becoming ill whilst others may show a range of symptoms.This is a parasite that attacks the body when under stress. It is a smart parasite and is sometimes hard to pick up. The most common area it is located is in the head and can cause a head tilt, eyes may track from side to side or up and down, weakness on the back end of the rabbit, cataracts, drinking and urinating a lot more because the parasite is attacking the kidneys. If you notice any of these signs you must visit the vet immediately.

Snuffles is a bacterial infection in rabbits. Again, it can be caused by stress. Some symptoms can be sneezing, white mucus coming from the nose, wheezing and breathing problems. Dirty front paws are another indicator. This is due to wiping their noses that are covered in mucus. Any breathing problem you pick up needs immediate vets’ treatment.

Dental issues are common in rabbits and are either due to a bad diet or due to the shape of the skull when breeding short faced breeds. Either way a rabbit with teeth problems needs to be closely monitored. The rabbit may need regular trips to the vets to burr down a misaligned tooth or spurs that are growing.

Trancing

Tonic Immobility, often referred to as “Trancing” or “Hypnotising”, is a technique for handling rabbits that has been around for many years. It takes advantage of the rabbits’ tendency, as a prey species, to “play dead” and stay immobile when placed in a vulnerable position, on its back. This position causes the rabbit immense stress and fear and should never be practised.

This is only a very small guide to a small portion of rabbit issues. If you are ever in doubt please visit your vet for help and assistance.