Rabbits are social animals that live in large groups. Within the group a hierarchy forms in both the male and female groups and males and females of a similar rank form pairs throughout the breeding season. Outside the breeding season rabbits live communally in large warrens. In the breeding season (January to September) the female digs a blind ending nest and she lines this with hay and fur from her dewlap. Rabbits have a 4 week gestation and the young are fed once a day, after which the burrow is blocked up and ignored to minimise risk from predators.
Rabbits can be kept indoors or outside. They can make excellent house pets but you must protect your wiring and allow them regular access to the garden for exercise, food and sunlight. Again, if kept outside then rabbits should have regular daily access to the garden.
Rabbits are very social animals and it is nice for them to have companionship from another rabbit, but in the wild only a female and a male live together. Two males together will fight as will two un-neutered females. If you plan to get more than one rabbit it is important to think carefully about which sex to get and whether to get them neutered at the vets. Castration and spaying are strongly recommended from the age of 4 months for health and social reasons.
Rabbits are more susceptible to heat than cold and can easily die from heat stroke in their hutch on a hot day.
Whenever you pick up your rabbit make sure to support the hind legs. These legs are so strong that if the rabbit kicks in the air and there is nothing to give support then the rabbit can actually damage their spine. If you want a demonstration ask one of the nurses or vets!
Never pick a rabbit up by their ears!
Vaccinations - Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD)
This disease was first imported into the UK in 1992, and because of the rapid spread, it was a Notifiable Disease. The disease is airborne and can kill rabbits a long way from an outbreak area. VHD causes blood clots in the lungs, a severe nose bleed, and often an agonising death in just 1-2 days. Vaccination is fortunately now available and this gives good protection from just one single annual injection. This vaccine can be given from 10 weeks of age and is safe for pregnant does.
This terrible disease was actually introduced into many countries in an attempt to control the rabbit population and it was very effective. Although wild rabbits are gradually becoming more resistant, many still die a horrible death each year. The disease is spread by biting insects such as the flea and mosquito and it has a peak incidence during the summer months when there are the largest number of these insects around. The vaccine can be given from 6 weeks of age and in the Falkirk area such we recommend vaccinating every 6-12 months. The vaccine is now combined with VHD in one injection.
Feeding Your Pet Rabbit
A lot of the problems that vets see in pets rabbits is diet related. The healthiest diet for a rabbit would be what a wild rabbit eats. Wild rabbits feed on low-growing vegetation, grass, weeds and what they can reach from trees and bushes, even including the bark. Grass and hay contain the correct calcium levels which is vital for strong bones and good teeth.
All the teeth continue to grow throughout a rabbit's life so they need to be in constant use to prevent them becoming overgrown. Overgrown molars tend to painfully dig into the sides of the mouth causing a rabbit to start dribbling and stop eating.
We see lots of rabbits here because of "malocclusion". This means that the teeth don't meet properly and as a result they may need burring down at the surgery throughout a rabbit's life...sometimes every 3-4 weeks!
There is a lot of evidence that problems like this start early on in life and are preventable. If a young rabbit is fed a correct food when it is weaned then this will help the teeth to grow normally so that they are strong and correctly positioned in the jaw. A young rabbit needs to have plenty of jaw exercise chewing and grinding coarse plant material to allow the teeth to form correctly as the rabbit grows.
Problems with the rest of the bowel
Rabbits need a good diet to keep the rest of their bowel in good working order. If a rabbit is fed a diet too low in fibre then it's gut bacteria and bowel won't be able to function properly. Problems that lead on from this are obesity and diarrhoea which can make them prone to "fly-strike" in the summer. Fly-strike is a horrible disease where flies lay eggs on the rabbit and these then hatch into maggots. Preventative treatments are now available, so please contact the clinic for more information.
This means eating faeces - which is exactly what rabbits do! At night, they eat soft faeces directly from the anus. These then pass through the gut again and the rabbit extracts much more nourishment the second time. When a rabbit fails to to perform coprophagia then the sticky faeces start to accumulate around the backside of the rabbit. The commonest reasons for a rabbit not doing this are that the rabbit is either eating a diet too low in fibre or that they are too fat to reach!!
What to feed them?
Young rabbits should be fed on hay plus either breeder pellets which contain about 18% protein, or Russell Rabbit Junior, which has a reasonable protein and fibre level. They can also be given fresh grass and weeds and once vaccinated for myxomatosis your rabbit can go outside to graze.
All changes to your rabbits diet must be done gradually.
An adult rabbit is designed to eat nothing but grass and hay with a few bits of other vegetables and greenery on the side. The correct calcium levels in grass are vital as is the grinding action of the back teeth when chewing it. Brittle bones and over grown teeth are almost always associated with feeding too much rabbit mix and not enough of their natural diet.
Ideally your rabbit should be living outside on the lawn so that it can select the types of grass it likes. If it just isn't possible to let your rabbit out then collect some blades of grass yourself - these must be fresh. Mower clippings and lots of lettuce are no good for rabbits because they will cause your bunny to swell up with gas!
Keep you rabbit off the flower borders as some plants are poisonous and make any change in diet over 2 weeks to give your rabbit the chance to adapt. If you need to supplement the hay and grass over the winter or to give your rabbit a treat then feed the pelletted food such as "Supa Rabbit" rather than rabbit mix.
Exercise and grass are both vital to produce a rabbit with strong healthy bones. A wild rabbit hopping about outside will have bones more than twice as strong as one kept in the hutch. Encourage your rabbit to play by suspending a carrot from the roof of the cage or by placing some boards in the hutch so it has to leap over them to get to the food.