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Rabbit Facts

Scientific name: Oryctolagus Cuniculis
Family Group: Lagamorphe – meaning Hare-like
Male: Buck
Female: Doe
Young: Kittens
Eyes open: 10 days
Puberty: 8-12 weeks depending on size
Neutering: male – 12-16 weeks, female 20 weeks
Oestrus: anytime, but usually when in contact with a male
Life Expectancy: 6 – 10 years
Herbivore: eats grass and plants
Vaccinations: Viral Haemorrhagic Disease – 8 weeks, Myxomatosis – 8 weeks (but two weeks should be left between vaccinations)

Many people mistakenly think that rabbits are rodents, they are not. Rodents have 4 incisors, rabbits have 6, 2 at the bottom and 2 at the top with 2 smaller ones directly behind the top 2.

Rabbits as pets

There is nothing more cute than a baby rabbit in a pet shop, small, fluffy and totally irresistible. Sadly they only stay that way for a few weeks. Rabbits are very popular as children’s pets but the truth is they are totally unsuitable. They are looked upon as being low maintenance, low cost pets, this is completely untrue, they are as time consuming and as expensive as any other pet if looked after properly. They need daily feeding, grooming, exercise, cleaning and annual vaccinations if they are to thrive.

Unfortunately the novelty value of these small pets soon wears off and the parents are left to look after it, if the animal is lucky! Otherwise it is left tucked away at the end of the garden in a small hutch and only fed and cleaned when remembered. Rabbits are one of the most neglected pets.

Bearing all this in mind if you still want a rabbit as a pet borrow or buy some books and read all about their habits and requirements first, and if you think you can provide the necessary time and equipment that a rabbit needs and are fully prepared to take over the chores when the children get fed up, you will be well rewarded.

Firstly you will need to decide where to get your rabbit. There are over 75 fancy breeds available today ranging from 1kg – 13kg, some with upright ears, some with lop ears, some with spots, some with stripes, short or long, coarse or fine coats. Bear in mind if you chose a long coated breed that they will need daily grooming, rabbits coats soon get out of hand and badly matted if left only for a few days unattended, sometimes requiring veterinary assistance to anaesthetise and shave the animal.

Breeders take every opportuity to eliminate stress on the young animals and may also include in their feed probiotics that are natural bacteria that enhances the gut flora. ‘Backyard’ rabbits are sold to pet shops as early as 5 weeks and often develop a severe gastric upset called mucoid enteritis, and in such a young animal this is usually fatal. It is caused by stress, which manifests itself in such a young animal in many ways, being separated from it’s mother and siblings, in unfamiliar territory, inconsistent temperature (from an outdoor hutch to a warm pet shop), sudden change in diet and if that is not enough the poor little creature has to go through it all again when it is chosen and goes to a new home. Losing a pet so soon and so tragically can be very upsetting for children. A properly desensitised 12 week rabbit has a much better chance of survival.

Next you will have to decide whether to buy a lone rabbit or a pair. Rabbits are very sociable animals and live in colonies in their wild state so are much better in groups but at the very least with a companion. Never put a guinea pig in the same hutch as a rabbit. Guinea pigs do not make good companions for rabbits. A rabbit is capable of giving a good strong kick with it’s powerful hind legs and with one kick can kill, or at the very least injure a guinea pig. A rabbit is also capable of inflicting a nasty bite. When sexually mature rabbits will bite, mount and chase it’s so called friend resulting in the guinea pig burying itself in the hay and being terrified to come out, some have actually starved to death as they were too frightened to come out at all. Also commercially prepared rabbit food can contain coccidiostats that can do serious damage to a guinea pigs liver.

Two males will often live in harmony as long as they are not in close proximity to females, and two females will usually live happily together, but occasionally same sex pairs will fight when they become sexually mature and once they have had a serious fight will almost never live together again. The perfect pairing is a male and a female, both being neutered. But beware, if you buy male and female 12 week babies you must keep them in separate hutches until they have been neutered to prevent unwanted litters.

Indoors or Outdoors

Rabbits in an outdoor run
Outdoors is the usual place chosen to keep a rabbit. You must choose your spot carefully, do not put it at the very end of the garden where it can easily be forgotten. It will need to be in a sheltered spot, out of the prevailing wind and not in the direct sunlight. Rabbits do not like, or cope well in the extreme temperatures (freezing cold or blistering heat). The hutch will need to be raised off the floor to prevent damp and to dissuade predators. It will need two compartments, one with a solid front facing door (sleeping quarters) with a partition into a larger compartment with a mesh front facing door (play area). It must have a secure fastening (a padlock is advisable with very small children) so that it cannot escape and so that the family dog or rogue fox cannot get in. It will also need a drop down cover to keep out the worst of the weather, an old blanket or a carpet is ideal as it keeps out the weather but still allows air to get through.

One rabbit will need a hutch of the very minimum 150cm x 60cm x 60cm, two rabbits will need a minimum of 180cm x 60cm x 60cm. The hutch must be of height so as the rabbit can stand up on it’s haunches, their natural position for listening.

Do not be misguided by the salesperson when buying your hutch into buying a ‘starter’ hutch, they are far too small for even a guinea pig to live in, your rabbit may be a tiny ball now but by the time it reaches 20 weeks it will be almost fully grown and you will have to invest in another hutch already. Buy a suitable hutch right from the start and it will last your pet for it’s lifetime. Many commercial hutches are made of thin ply and are as much use as cardboard, they do not keep the wet out, they are only to be considered if they are to be kept in a shed. They are often very expensive and it is impossible to find one big enough. The best hutches are home made using 2cm ply, weatherboard or tongue and groove.

Whether your rabbits are indoors or outdoors they will need an outdoor run which can be placed out on the grass for exercise and so that they can graze. There are many types of runs for sale you must decide which is the most convenient for your needs. Please remember a run is exactly as it says a place the rabbits can ‘run’ so do ensure that you buy a big one. Always use a covered run to keep your pets safe from predators like the family cat or next doors dogs. Be aware rabbits will dig holes in the lawn, therefore it is not advisable to leave them unsupervised for long periods of time. DO NOT put the run on a lawn that has been treated with weed killer or fertiliser as this can be fatal, also do not put the run where the family dog urinates as disease can be spread in this way.

House rabbits are becoming more and more popular. If you are to keep your rabbit indoors you will need either a suitably sized ply hutch or a pen. Many house rabbit owners prefer a pen in the kitchen or the utility room, a puppy pen is suitable or a large dog crate. This provides a safe area to leave the rabbit when you are out. Inside the pen the rabbit will need somewhere to sleep, a cardboard box filled with hay with a hole cut out is ideal as it gives the rabbit somewhere he can hide and feel safe when he feels threatened. It is quite easy to litter train your rabbit. Rabbits will usually pick one corner of their hutch or pen to use as a toilet, when it has established this that is where to put the litter tray. A cat litter tray filled with wood based cat litter or wood shavings is ideal. If rabbit has a mishap and doesn’t use his tray just sweep it up and put it into the tray until he gets the message. Do not at first be too house proud with his tray until he has established that is where he
must soil.

When he is having some free time around the house leave his cage open as he will always try to get back in to use his tray. Rabbits are not smelly if like any other animal they are kept clean.

Never leave your rabbit unsupervised and loose around the house. Remember they can gnaw through electric cables!

Bedding

There are many materials that can be used as bedding, the most common being a combination of wood shavings and hay. It is advisable to line your hutch floor with newspaper, (make sure to remove all staples), as this will soak up any urine that seeps through the bedding and help to protect the wood, and will also make it easier to remove all the soiled bedding in one go. Next a generous layer of wood shavings finishing with a top layer of hay for added warmth.

If you go to a saw mill they will often sell you bags of wood shavings much cheaper than a shop but take care to ensure that it has not been treated with any preservatives or other chemicals. If your child suffers from hay fever or other allergies, or the hutch is kept indoors shredded paper is a good substitute for both the wood shavings and the hay as they both tend to be quite dusty. Large offices usually shred all their waste paperwork and are often only too happy to let you come and take bags away with you.

The hutch should be swept out every day, cleaned out properly once a week and thoroughly washed and disinfected once a month, including all bowls, bottles and toys.

Feeding

When you buy your rabbit ask what sort of food it is used to and buy a bag to take home with you. If you want to change to another brand do this gradually never change a rabbits diet suddenly as this will lead to severe gastric upset, mix a little of his food in with the new brand and gradually over the course of two weeks increase the new food until you have weaned the other out. Ask if he has had any green food (baby rabbits should not start eating green food until they are at least 6 weeks old). In both cases add a very small amount to his feed each day, again gradually increasing the amount over the next two weeks. If he has loose motions withhold all greens until it has cleared up and start again.

Commercial rabbit food comes in all sorts of varieties and flavours, always chose a good brand do not go for the cheapest as usually these need other additions to give your rabbit a balanced diet. Firstly, look at the sell by date only buy what you can comfortably use within that date, or within 3 months of opening which ever comes first, as the vitamin content will deteriorate. Secondly, a rabbit must eat all the food in his bowl before you top it up. Rabbits are selective eaters and will pick out the bits they like best and leave the not so palatable but often the most nutritious bits. This may seem a little hard but if you want what is best for your rabbit it is something you must do. Only put enough in the bowl at any one time so that it is all gone the next day, if there is some left you are feeding too much. Do not over compensate with food for lack of attention as an obese rabbit will have many problems.

Wash out the feed bowl regularly as rabbits often foul their bowls.

Your rabbit will need access to fresh hay at all times. This must be supplied in a hay rack attached to the mesh front of the cage, if it falls on the floor it will be soiled and unfit for eating. Hay has many benefits for your rabbit, it provides the necessary bulk of fibre needed to keep your rabbits digestive tract healthy and is an abrasive material which helps to wear down the teeth. There is another product available that rabbits love called ‘Readi Grass’from Supreme foods or “Just Grass” from Burgess that acts in the same manner and adds variety to his diet. A rabbits diet needs a high fibre content to keep him healthy. If he receives too little fibre his motions will be runny and sticky and his rear will become wet and soiled. In this condition he is at high risk to ‘fly strike’. Fibrous material also helps to wear down your rabbits teeth if he does not receive enough his teeth will become ‘mallocluded’ (over grown) and he will not be able to eat properly.

Fresh water should be available at all times by way of a gravity fed bottle on the cage front. Water bowls are too easily tipped over and soiled. Green algae should not be allowed to form on the inside of the bottle as this will upset the gut flora of your rabbit.

Green foods are a necessary part of your rabbits diet. Green foods will always be chosen first by your rabbit over commercial foods. Always make sure that any green foods have been washed thoroughly and are fresh. Never feed greens that are wilted or mouldy. There are many kitchen vegetables and fruits that your rabbit will enjoy. When you pick wild plants try to make sure that they are not from the side of a busy road where they have been contaminated by traffic, also that they are not picked from a route that is well known as a dog walking area and will be contaminated by dog urine. There are a huge variety of wild plants that can be fed safely to you rabbit and he will really appreciate the trouble you have taken in finding them for him. Buy or borrow a good wild plant book to get yourself familiar with these plants but a good rule to remember is ‘if in doubt leave it out’.

Safe Plants

Broccoli, beetroot (not the leaves), carrots and the tops, parsnips, swedes, turnips, cabbage, cauliflower and the leaves, banana and the skins, celery and the tops, chinese leaves, cucumber, parsley, peas and pods, spinach, watercress, apples, pears, melons, agrimony, avens, chickweed, clover, coltsfoot, comfrey, dandelion, goatsbeard, groundsel, goosegrass, hawkweed, mallow, meadowsweet, nipplewort, plantains, shepherds purse, sow thistles, trefoils, vetches, yarrow, and lettuce.

Unsafe Plants

Any plant that is grown from a bulb, all evergreen trees and shrubs, anenome, bracken, bryony, buttercup, celandine, charlock, convulvus, deadly nightshade, dogs/herb mercury, foxglove, hellebore, hemlock, henbane, horsestail, ivy, laburnum, lily of the valley, mayweed, milkweed, monkshood, meadow saffron, wild and bearded parsley, poppy, potato, privet, ragwort, rhodedendron, rhubarb, scarlet pimpernel, snowberry, spurges, toadflax, travellors joy, yew and most docks. Certain docks can be fed but it is so difficult to tell them apart it is best not to feed them at all.
Remember If In Doubt Leave It Out.

Rabbits produce two types of faecal pellets. The ones you the owner will clean out of the hutch are dry, hard pellets that have had all the nutritional values taken from them and are waste. The second type of pellet is usually not seen as the rabbit takes it straight from its anal opening and re-ingests it, these are soft pellets covered in a mucous and are known as caecotrophes. It is thought that nearly half of what the rabbit eats is re-ingested in this manner. This may seem disgusting and antisocial to you but is perfectly natural and necessary to your rabbit. Obese rabbits will not be able to reach their anus to perform this function and their well being will suffer as a consequence.

Toys

To keep your rabbit happy there are many different toys that you can give to him. If he is to spend long periods in his cage whilst you are at work or at school he will become bored and if he has not got a companion and toys he will become distructive in his hutch.

Suggested toys are:

A branch from an (untreated) apple, willow, hazel or poplar tree will provide him with hours of gnawing and be good for his teeth too. Cardboard tubes will be thrown around and chewed. Cardboard boxes with holes cut out on all sides will provide hours of fun and can be easily replaced when they become soiled. Babies teething toys will be chewed and your rabbit will spend hours rearrangigng them. Telephone directories will be dug and shredded. Hang carrots, swedes, hard baked bread crust etc. on a piece of string attached to a pole over the run or the roof of the cage for your rabbit to gnaw at. This acts as entertainment and makes him work a little harder for his food. Plastic flower pots are ideal to throw around. Plastic drainage pipes recreate the tunnels of a warren. Balls are great fun to nudge around but make sure they are solid and your rabbit cannot ingest the rubber or plastic.
General Healthcare

When choosing your rabbit here are a few important points to look out for;

The animal is alert, energetic and moves freely. Avoid animals that sit huddled at the back. The eyes are dry and bright. The ears are clean and dry without any discharge or dirt. The rear is clean and dry, not soiled or wet. The top teeth fit together snugly over the bottom teeth to form a bite. The hair is clean and shiny, the skin underneath the coat is not scurfy or scabby. If possible ask to see the parents so that you have an idea what the animal will look like when it is grown. Check all the above applies to the parents as well. If there is a problem with the parents you may well have problems with the young.
Only purchase an animal that you are completely happy with.

When you have your rabbit you will need to check it regularly to ensure it stays healthy. Check all of the above points and if you have any problems consult your vet.
You will need to take your rabbit annually to the vets for it’s vaccinations and it is always a good idea to let your vet check him over and it gives you the opportunity to discuss any problems you may have.

You will need to groom your rabbit once a week, but more often when it is moulting. Long haired rabbits as already discussed, need daily grooming.

Your rabbits nails will need regular trimming but unless you are experienced it is best to let your vet show you how to do this for the first time.

Malloclusion

Rabbit with malloclusion

Malloclusion (over grown incisors) can be caused by two factors, lack of fibrous material to wear the teeth down naturally, or it can be hereditary passed down from generation to generation as a result of bad breeding practices. If you are unlucky enough to have a rabbit with malloclusion your rabbit will not be able to eat properly and will be very uncomfortable. Your vet will be able to cut the teeth back, this is not painful to your rabbit as he does not have the same nerves in his teeth as we do, it is no more painful than it is for us to have our nails cut, but it is uncomfortable having instruments in his mouth and it is very stressful. There are other drawbacks to this procedure too, it will need to be carried out every 4 – 8 weeks throughout the rest of your rabbits life. After a while the teeth become brittle and the roots shatter allowing abscesses to form in the gums, which are painful and very difficult to treat.
Modern surgery allows the rabbit to have his incisors removed altogether, this is by far the best option for the rabbit as it is all over quickly under anaesthetic and he feels no pain. Afterwards he will need his green foods chopped into small dice as he will not be able to bite off chunks, he will pick up the vegetable pieces and the commercial food with his gums and tongue and will still be able to chew and grind with his back teeth as normal.

Snuffles (Pasteurella)

The symptoms of Snuffles is a thick, sticky, white discharge from the nose and from the eyes, also the fur on the inside front legs will be wet and discoloured from constantly wiping the face. There is also regular sneezing to be heard. This is a very contagious disease and contact with other rabbits should be avoided. Treatment from your vet will be required, sometimes the symptoms are very hard to clear up and in chronic cases the rabbit will develop a secondary infection such as pneumonia and this will prove to be fatal. If the symptoms do clear up the rabbit will always be a potential carrier. Poor nutrition and husbandry are suspected to be major causes.

Fly Strike (Myiasis)

rabbit at risk of fly strike

Rabbits that have been unwell, kept in filthy conditions or fed too many sugary treats become obese and cannot clean themselves. Or those who have not had the correct amount of fibre in their diet retain sticky motions in the fur around the anus, this is very moist and smelly and attracts flies to lay their eggs in the fur. In less than 24 hours they turn into maggots that will burrow into your rabbits flesh and down into his internal organs and literally eat him alive if not treated. Open infected wounds can also attract the flies to lay their eggs.

Treatment consists of thoroughly bathing the rabbit in a special solution obtained from your vet. You will then have the laborious task of picking off the maggots one by one with tweezers. The area will then need treating with antibiotics to prevent further infection and dusting in a fly repellent powder. As with all things prevention is better than cure, if your rabbit becomes soiled look closely at his diet and husbandry and if you still have a problem
consult your vet immediately.

Suggested reading

Diseases of the Domestic Rabbit – Lieve Okerman
Blackwell Science – ISBN 0-632-03804-7

Rabbit Nutrition – Virginia Richardson
K. D. S. – ISBN 1-898015-03-1

The Domestic Rabbit – J. C. Sanderford
Blackwell Science – ISBN 0-632-03894-2

Rabbits, Health, Husbandry & Diseases – Virginia Richardson
Blackwell Science – ISBN 0-632-05221-X

The Right Way to Keep Rabbits – Roy Robinson
Eliot Rightway Books – ISBN 0-7160-2027-0

Rabbitlopaedia – Meg Brown
Ringpress Books – ISBN 1-86054-182-8

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Never leave your rabbit unsupervised and loose around the house. Remember they can gnaw through electric cables!

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