Rabbit Basics




Rabbits are high maintenance that is the first thing we are going to tell you. They are not something you can put in a hutch at the bottom of the garden and forget about and here we will give you advise on how to care for a rabbit correctly. We've even included a section on hand rearing, just in case you are unfortunate to end up in this position. You'll find at the end of this section there is a list of rabbit websites that we  have found very useful, especially when it comes to providing information to clients.

Rabbits can live any where from 5 to 8 years old, some a little longer. If handled from young can be quite sociable. Just like cats and dogs they can develop their own personalities and have their little ways of how things should done.

  Rabbits and exercise
  Mix and match
  Routine health checks and common conditions
  Veggies and fruit
  Poisonous plants
  Hand rearing

The bigger the better. It should have two compartments, one for sleeping and one for living. The height of the hutch should enable the rabbit to stand upright on its hind legs. The length of the larger compartment, in particular, must allow the rabbit to stretch out with sufficient room left for food and water. Remember some dwarf sizes turn out to be not that small for their breed. The hutch must be weather proofed and have shelter from draughts, rain, direct sunlight and the wind. Damp can also be a problem so make sure the hutch is raised on legs.
  The hutch should be cleaned out on a regular basis, more frequently when the weather starts to get warmer as a soiled hutch attracts flies. Straw or hay can be used as bedding but take care if using wood shavings as these may get tangled in the fur, especially if the rabbit has a long coat, and dust can also irritate the eyes. During the winter months the sleeping compartment will need deeply bedding with the straw or hay as remember rabbits would normally burrow underground for warmth in winter.

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Rabbits and exercise
Rabbits need plenty of exercise as this encourages grazing, prevents boredom, obesity and sticky bottom syndrome to name but a few. Again the bigger the area the better. If your rabbit has access to the whole garden make sure it's secure and predator free. Remember to prevent access to any poisonous plants too.
If you are considering a run there are many types so pick one to suit your garden and plenty big enough for the rabbit to exercise, after all that is why its' called an exercise run.

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A rabbits digestive system works in a different way to lets say a cat or dog. A rabbit is a herbivore (feeds on plants), where as cats and dogs are carnivores (meat eaters); and so each have different dietary requirements to keep them healthy.
Because rabbits feed on plants their digestive system is designed for a high fibre diet and anything other than this then the rabbit will start to get digestive upsets and dental problems (see diarrhoea, gut stasis and dental problems). So basically from going in at one end to coming out the other end, it's all about FIBRE FIBRE FIBRE!

So what is fibre? We'll keep it as simple as possible, it's grass and hay. But all plants do contain some amount of fibre, it's just that some contain more than others. The reason that we have said grass and hay is because they contain a good supply of  both types of fibre that the rabbit needs. So much for keeping it simple you say.

Ok, so there are two types of fibre one is digestible and the other indigestible; but why are they so important?
Indigestible fibre - This type of fibre is important as it wears down the teeth as the rabbit chews, stimulates the movements of the guts and also helps to stimulate appetite and the ingestion of caecotrophs. Indigestible fibre also provides good forage material to prevent boredom.
Digestible fibre - this fibre provides the nutrients, volatile fatty acid production (which provides an important type of energy source for rabbits) and ensures that the caecum is at its optimal pH to encourage a healthy caecal environment to prevent harmful bacterial overgrowth. Digestible fibre also ensures the firm consistency of caecotrophs which rabbits need to eat as these provide an essential source of nutrients.

To get your rabbit used to eating grass offer small amounts to start with. Grass can cause digestive upsets in rabbits that are not use to it, in the wild baby rabbits would start eating grass at 3 weeks of age and domesticated rabbits are brought up on hay and rabbit mix. Remember to always pull the grass up, and never feed grass clippings as these can cause fermentation in the guts.
See, its simple. So know you'll be asking yourselves 'why am I buying that big bag of rabbit mix from the pet shop'; and the answer to that is we don't know, why are you?
When was the last time you saw a wild rabbit at the check out with a bag of mix under its arm...never! The last time we looked they where eating the grass on the side of the road or in a field eating the farmers vegetables (much to his annoyance). Lets take a look to what is in that bag of mix. Well most of it is cereal and split peas, all full of starchy sugary stuff, which rabbits don't need and low in calcium, which they do need. Then we have those pretty coloured biscuit type things, I mean what are they? According to my Veterinary Practice Nurse magazine of summer 1998 they are 'extruded cereals cooked, expanded and dried to take on a biscuit-like appearance and highly coloured in order to make it more attractive'. Then are could be a bit of dried carrot or some other form of dried vegetable, so ok it's a vegetable but fresh is best! You know yourselves that cooked veg' lack vitamins and minerals.So that leaves us with the Alfalfa (not all rabbit mixes contain this), its high in fibre, protein, calcium and vitamin A. it also has a bitter taste which is why some rabbits don't eat it; and finally the pellets which always seem to be left in the bottom of the bowel. Depending on the company making the mix will depend on what goes into the pellets, but to give you an idea there will be a small amount of fibre along with vitamins and minerals in them.
If you want to feed a commercial rabbit food then go for something like Burgess and for ideas of what vegetables to try read our veggies and fruit list. But remember fruit contains sugar so should only be offered as treats and in moderation.

So lets recap, what should my rabbit eat? Unlimited amounts of fresh clean hay, a selection of leafy greens and vegetables and if you must a small amount of mix or pellets.

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Mix and match
With other rabbits  The easiest pairing is a castrated male and a spayed female. Same sex pairs are possible if they've grown up together. Pick a pair from the same litter or if from different litters and get them between the ages of 8 to 10 weeks old. Two females can become more temperamental during breeding season and two males can become competitive and show more dominance, so which ever you choose try to neuter before fighting occurs. Great caution should be taken if one or both rabbits are adults when introducing them; introductions are possible but not always a success. Again there may be slightly more success if the rabbits are of opposite sex (and neutered). Always introduce them on neutral ground.
With guinea pigs  This combination is not always a good one unless they have been reared together; even then you may have problems when the rabbit reaches puberty. Rabbits are naturally dominant and may try to bully or attack the guinea pig therefore one or both animals may be injured. If you are considering this combination make sure the rabbit and guinea pig are neutered, especially if they are male. Also make sure you provide somewhere for the guinea pig to retreat to if necessary.
With children  Rabbits may be sociable but rarely do they want to be picked up and cuddled, you have to remember they are a prey species so to them it's as if say a fox was trying to catch them. So when they become harassed they can scratch and bite to try to escape, it's how they defend themselves. If rabbits fall or are dropped they can easily injure their backs which is why children need to be supervised when handling them. The best breed of rabbit to choose for a child would be a large one, they are generally quieter, sturdier and too large to be picked up. As an adult you need to accept all the responsibility for their care.

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Routine health checks and common conditions

What we tell clients is get to know your rabbit, its eating habits, its behaviour, everything; this is because rabbits are a prey animal therefore they will not show signs of illness or pain until the end stage of any disease or condition they might have, and then it may be too late for us to try any kind of treatment. By knowing your rabbit will have a chance of picking up anything that is abnormal to your rabbits' usual behaviour, so daily checks are a must.

Dental problems
Gut stasis
Sticky bottom syndrome

Nose  This should be clean and dry, so any discharge should be checked by the vet.

Eyes  These should be clean and bright, any abnormal changes or milky discharges should again be checked by the vet.

Ears  Should be clean with a small amount of wax. The vet should check head tilting, head shaking, or excessive amounts of wax production.

Skin and fur  Check for lumps, bumps, bald patches and mites. All of which need checking by the vet.

Feet  Some rabbits may need their nails trimming every few months. Stained or wet fur on the front paws my indicate eye, nose or dental problems as rabbits use their front paws to clean their face.

Hocks  These can become bald and sore if the rabbit is left on soiled bedding or if it becomes over weight.

Dental problems  Did you know that rabbits’ teeth continuously grow at a rate of half a millimetre a day? Therefore rabbits require a high fibre diet that is chewed in a grinding action to keep the teeth worn down. When rabbits eat mix/pellets this grinding action changes to a crushing action therefore if this diet is the rabbits sole food supply or is fed this in too large a quantity then it will cause uneven wear of the teeth, leading to dental problems. If uneven wear continues the resulting misalignment can cause spikes to develop on the molar teeth which may rub on the tongue/gums and can cause ulceration and pain with loss of appetite. This can also affect their front teeth as well.The signs to look for are weight loss, difficulty chewing, salivation, the fore legs may be stained or damp, lack of grooming, reduced number of droppings, and caecal faeces stuck around its bottom.
Unfortunately, once this has happened it is very difficult to get the teeth to grow in alignment making dental problems a recurring issue. Here at the vets we can only burr the molar teeth down to a level that makes it more comfortable for the rabbit to manage with and as for the incisors (front teeth) they can either be removed or burred the same as the molars.

Flystrike  This occurs when flies lay their eggs on another animal. The eggs hatch into maggots that then eat away at the surrounding flesh. In warm conditions the whole process from the eggs being laid to maggots emerging can take just a few hours. This is why it is important to check your rabbit twice a day. If left the maggots will eat their way through the skin down to the bone or even into the abdomen, basically the rabbit is eaten alive. Therefore prompt action is vital if the rabbit is to be saved.
If your rabbit has a clean, dry bottom then it won't attract the flies. Most rabbits keep their bottoms clean and dry, but it only takes one sticky faecal dropping to attract the flies.
High-risk groups are:

  • Rabbits with sticky bottom syndrome
  • Over weight
  • Dental problems
  • Longhaired rabbits
  • Wounds or draining abscesses
  • Previous flystrike
  • Arthritis
  • Old and frail
  • Large dewlap or folds of loose skin or fat on abdomen                 

To prevent this from happening to your rabbit you need to recognise if your rabbit falls into a high-risk category. Don't allow your rabbit to become over weight. Remember the fibre, it wears the teeth down so the rabbit is able to groom and it also prevents sticky bottoms. If the rabbit has an exist wound then staple a net curtain over the hutch front / rabbit run. This still lets the fresh air in but keeps the flies out.
  If you do find maggots on your rabbit and you cannot seek veterinary attention immediately then remove obvious maggots with tweezers. Remember that there will probably be more maggots concealed, as they will have already eaten their way under the skin
  Flyblown rabbits are usually very unwell and shocked. They are at high risk of severe infection and will be in pain. In very bad cases it will be best to put the animal to sleep to prevent further suffering. In less severe cases the rabbit may survive and intensive treatment will be required.
  If the rabbit does survive, there may be a large area of skin loss, which takes weeks to heal. During this time the rabbit will be at high risk of further infection and flystrike, therefore careful nursing is required. Underlying problems must be addressed otherwise the flies will return.

Sticky Bottom Syndrome  Rabbits produce two types of droppings, there are the normal hard dry round currants that you do see and then the soft dark brown sticky type that you don't see. The latter are called caecotrophs and the reason that you don't normally see them is because they are usually expelled at night or early morning and the rabbit eats them directly from the anus. These caecotrophs are an essential source of nutrients and if the rabbit doesn't ingest them it will lead to vitamin B and K deficiency. So why would your rabbit get Sticky Bottom Syndrome? Lets start with the hutch, is it too small for the rabbit to groom itself and perform coprophagy. Take a look at the diet, where's the FIBRE! Check the protein level of your rabbit mix, is it too high, the recommended protein level is 12-13% for a adult rabbit. So ok we've got the hutch, we've got the fibre; is your rabbit over weight and how long has it been since you've checked it's teeth? Both these prevent the rabbit from grooming. Another thing to think about is how old is your rabbit, just like us they get old and frail and can suffer from arthritis. If this is the case you may have to hand feed the caecotrophs and groom the rabbits bottom yourself.
  If this problem is not addressed not only will your rabbit become vitamin deficient, its will also develop sore areas where there caecotrophs are permanently stuck and at worst flystrike.

Gastric Stasis  This occurs when you get a reduction in the motility of the gut, basically this means the intestines stop moving along any waste to be excreted and therefore causes a blockage. Possible causes for this condition include low FIBRE diet, hairball, ingestion of other matter, eg carpet, clay cat litter and stress after sedation or anaesthesia. Again prevention is also better than cure as some rabbits are unfortunate and can die.
  So always make sure the rabbit has a good supply of FIBRE as this keeps the gut moving. A variety of vegetables should be gradually introduced and included on a daily basis. Increase exercise as this stimulates the guts. This can be done be encouraging the rabbit to forage for his/her food by spreading one or two vegetables around the pen. If you have a longhaired breed then grooming it will reduce the risk especially during heavy moult and with house rabbits make sure the environment is safe. If you notice that your rabbits’ food intake has decreased or stopped, the same with the faecal droppings, then it is very important that you seek veterinary advice.

Diarrhoea  There are many reasons why rabbits get diarrhoea and if it is a regular recurrence then further investigation will be required. Again you can help reduces the risks by cleaning the rabbit hutch regularly and removing any old food. Give a balanced natural rabbit diet, including a good supply of FIBRE and don't forget to introduce any new food gradually both with young and adult rabbits. Ensure your rabbit is kept in a stress free environment and also avoid overcrowding in hutches. Keep up to date with those vaccines.
  When a rabbit does get diarrhoea it is important to get the intestinal pH back to normal. A high fibre, low protein and low carbohydrate diet provides the rabbit with a more natural diet therefore keeping the intestines at the correct pH. Remember that the rabbits' digestive system is designed to break down PLANT FIBRES.
If you are unsure why your rabbit has diarrhoea it is best to contact us for advice.

Over weight  A rabbit that is over weight will have a reduced life expectancy and it will also have an increased risk for heart disease. If a rabbit is too over weight to groom then it cannot perform coprophagy and will become vitamin B and K deficient. Also a lack of grooming causes the faeces builds up around its' bottom making it prone to flystrike. In the warmer months rabbits are susceptible to heat stroke, so being over weight it put it more at risk. Finally, with all the extra weight the rabbit will be carrying don't forget about those poor feet, the hocks can soon begin to show sore areas.
  If your rabbit is over weight then contact the surgery. We run a free weight watchers clinic.

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Veggies and Fruit

This list has been put together to give you an idea on what vegetables and fruit your rabbit can eat. There are many other items that can be fed therefore making the list endless. With vegetables a rabbit can have at least half a cup of vegetables per kilogram body weight daily.

When introducing a new food it must be done one at a time and just a small amount.
Any upsets will cause diarrhoea 24 - 48 hours after eaten and therefore should be left out of the diet and allow 5 - 7 days before making any other additions.

Artichoke leaves
Baby sweetcorns (but not full sized ones)
Beetroot (care with tops as high levels of oxalic acid)
Broccoli and leaves (includes purple sprouting varieties)
Brussels sprouts
Cabbage (can sometimes cause digestive upsets)
Carrot (tops and roots)
Cauliflower and leaves
Celery and leaves
Collard greens
Courgette and flowers
Green beans
Kohl rabi
Lettuce (romaine)
Mustards greens
Peas (leaves and pods)
Peppers (red, green and yellow)
Radish tops
Spring greens
Squash (eg Butternut)

Lemon balm
Mint (peppermint)

Fruit  - should be feed in moderation due to high sugar content, up to 2 tablespoons only per day.                    
Apple (not seeds)
Blackberries and leaves (leaves are an excellent source of fibre)
Kiwi fruit
Oranges (not peel)
Raspberries and leaves
Strawberries and leaves
Tomatoes (not leaves)

Wild garden
Nasturtium (leaves and flowers)
Shepherds purse
Sow thistle

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Poisonous plants
 These can affect your rabbit in a number of ways, irritation, gastric upsets and even death.
Clinical signs can include salivation, skin reactions, a change in breathing pattern, unconsciousness and death. The best thing to do is to seek veterinary advice immediately.
Here is a list, again not everything is listed but it gives you an idea of what to look out for in your garden and when choosing houseplants.

Aloe Vera
Deadly Nightshade
Dog Mercury
Fools Parsley
Jerusalem Cherry
Leyland Cypress
Lords And Ladies
Lily of the Valley
Marsh Marigold
Meadow Saffron
Morning Glory
St Johns Wort
Rubber Plant
Woody Nightshade

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Hand rearing

Hand rearing any kind of neonate can be difficult and hard work. Quite a lot of the time it can be unsuccessful despite all of the effort put in to it.
 Before removing any kits from the nest make sure that the mother has truly abandoned them. A common mistake is to assume that if the mother doesn't seem to be paying regular attention to her litter she must be rejecting them. The mum only feeds her litter for 4-5 minutes once a day, usually during the night, and the rest of the time she will show no interest in them. This is because rabbits are a prey species and the mother doesn't want to bring attention to her nest. The does' milk is very rich so only the one feed is needed, again in the wild this would be an advantage for the survival of her litter as the least amount of time spent going backwards and forwards to feed her young the less chance a predator would have to find the nest. Even though your rabbit is domesticated this instinct for the survival of her litter is still there.
 Check to make sure the doe has milk to start with, but don't stress her too much as this can cause the milk to dry up too. If she does then you could try holding the mother steady and placing one or two kits at a time underneath her so they can feed. If this causes too much stress for her then stop.
 When the kits are not getting any milk their skin appears to be too big for their bodies and they have a wrinkled appearance. So with these signs and you being absolutely certain that the mother is ignoring them, then you will need to get the necessary equipment.
 You will need a box lined with hay and rabbit fur (or soft cotton rags instead of fur).
This needs to be kept in a warm place. If the kits are less than 7 days old they must be kept at 27-30C. Care must also be taken not to over heat them too. Change the bedding daily or as required.

If the kits are under 6 days old you will need to stimulate urination. After each feed, wet a finger or a cotton bud in warm water and gently stroke the genital area.

By 5 days old they can hear and the eyes open between 10-12 days old.

For their food you will need Cimicat milk substitute, probiotic, multivitamin drops and a syringe or feeding bottle. The feeding guide is as follows:
1 part Cimicat to 2.5 parts warm boiled water (not hot)
A pinch of probiotic
0.5ml- 1ml multivitamin drops depending on amount made

1 day old              2ml a day
By 5 days old       12ml a day
10 days old          15ml a day
15 days old          22ml a day
20 days old          27ml a day
25 days old          30ml a day

By 30 days old you will expect to see a decline to about 20ml, and by 35 days a rapid decline to less than 5ml or weaned altogether. Baby rabbits can take 2-3 days before they settle into a feeding pattern. They should have the appearance of looking content and 'full' once they have had enough milk.
 Cimicat is not as rich as rabbits milk which is why you need to feed the kits 3 to 4 times a day, spacing the feeding times as evenly as possible. If the rabbits are feeding well you can leave them through the night. The quantity of milk taken will vary from kit to kit. It can be difficult to control the amount of milk going into the babies mouth and if care is not taken it will breath milk into its' lungs (usually confirmed by milk coming out of the nose), resulting in aspiration pneumonia which is usually fatal.
 You can clean the syringes, teats and feeding bottles with Milton fluid between feds, rinsing well before use.

 By 3 weeks old they will start to nibble on hay, followed shortly afterwards by eating small amounts of rabbit mix, eg Burgess Excel Junior. Make sure that they are well established on hay before introducing any mix. You will also need to introduce a water bottle at this point. By onwards. Very little (if any) dried mix can be offered to wild rabbits.4 weeks old they shouldn't want milk feeds. It is not wise to feed any vegetables or fruit until they are 4 to 6 months old when the gut system is well established.
  The only exception to this is wild rabbits, as in these circumstances it is vital to offer what they would eat in the wild from 3 weeks of age
When changing from junior mix to adult mix then mix the two foods together and gradually change from one diet to the other over a 2 week period to avoid digestive upsets.
    It is really important to do gradually changes to the diet of the kits as any digestives upsets can kill within hours. This is brought about by the change of pH in the guts that allows bacteria such as Clostridia and E.Coli to replace the natural friendly bacteria. When this happens then adsorption and digestion of the food is affected.
 Signs to look for are bloat and/or diarrhoea, dehydration and death follows. Stress can also trigger enteritis, so care must be taken to keep this to a minimum.

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