CARE OF RABBITS
By Brent Parker, DVM
Domestic rabbits, Oryctolagus cuniculus, are very popular pets. They are also bred and kept for commercial meat and fur, as research animals, and as show animals. They make excellent pets because they are quiet, generally unaggressive, can be kept indoors or outdoors, are easy to care for, and can be litter-box trained. They are, or course, cute and very pleasant to pet! They usually live 5 to 10 years, with potential to be 15!Improper handling can cause serious injury to rabbits. When frightened and trying to escape, contraction of their strong hind limb muscles can actually dislocate their lower spine, causing paralysis. Thus, always pick up a rabbit providing firm support of their rear quarters so they cannot easily “kick out.” Never pick up a rabbit by its ears, or try to forcibly restrain a fractious rabbit (they can also bite!). Wrapping a rabbit in a towel often aids in restraint and prevents the holder from getting scratched by its sharp (if not routinely clipped) claws.
Indoor rabbits should be housed in a roomy cage when not under direct supervision. Rabbits may chew furniture, electrical cords, etc. Wire cages should have at least half of the floor area covered with plexiglass or towels. This provides an easy to clean surface and helps prevent the rabbit from getting sores on its feet (if it can only stand on wire). Outdoor rabbits should have adequate shade and a hiding spot in their cage so they can retreat when they feel threatened. Rabbits tolerate cold much better than heat, and shouldn’t be exposed to temperatures more than about 85 F. They should also be sheltered from wind, rain, snow, and ice.
Commercial pelleted diets make feeding rabbits very easy. This and fresh water is basically all they need! However, inactive rabbits can overeat pelleted feeds and become obese, so it’s important to be aware of the rabbit’s mass. Also, pelleted feeds should be as fresh as possible, because they spoil and loose their nutrient value with time. Thus, buying pellets in small quantities is wise, using them within a couple of months. Good quality hay (grass, alfalfa, or clover) should be offered daily. This roughage may also aid intestinal motility, and lessen the chance for hairball formation. Fresh washed vegetables (lettuce, spinach, alfalfa spouts, carrots and carrot tops, beet greens, apples, etc.) can be offered every few days, but should not make up more than 20% of their total diet. In addition to the commonly noticed fecal pellets, rabbits also produce nutrient rich fecal pellets, usually in the early morning hours, which they ingest for these nutrients (coprophagy). This is necessary and normal behavior for rabbits. Normal rabbit urine can have lots of sediment, and its color can vary from white to yellow to orange to light brown.
Although rabbits do not require vaccinations, there are important health issues, some requiring veterinary care, that must be addressed.
Rabbits not intended for breeding should be neutered after 5 months of age. Males may become aggressive and spray foul smelling urine to mark their territory if not neutered. Females can be spayed to prevent unwanted aggression and pregnancies and the common development of uterine tumors.
Pet rabbits may also develop severe bacterial infections (Pasteurella and Staphylococcus), fungal diseases (ringworm), and parasitic infections (ear and fur mites, fleas, intestinal protozoa and worms). Even a seemingly healthy rabbit purchased in a pet store or from a breeder, may have subclinical infections which may appear later in life when the rabbit is under stress or other immunosuppressive circumstances. Outdoor rabbits during warmer months are subject to heat stroke and fly larva infestation (maggots).
Rabbits can get hairballs, but, unlike cats, rabbits are anatomically incapable of vomiting. Thus, hairballs can result in signs ranging from anorexia to intestinal blockage, requiring surgery! Prevention is the best way to address the hairball problem. Frequent brushing, daily feline hairball remedies, and administration of fresh pineapple or papaya products (fresh juice or yogurt: 1 tsp per 4 lbs body weight) may help prevent hairballs. It is thought that the digestive enzyme papain in pineapple and papaya may help to dissolve ingested hair.
Since a rabbit’s teeth grow continuously, it must gnaw on objects to help wear them down. Offering your pet rabbit a small log from an untreated fruit tree or a hard plastic or nylon chew toy for dogs is helpful. Some rabbits have malocclusion, so their teeth do not align properly for them to wear the teeth down. These individuals will need to have their teeth periodically clipped to prevent overgrowth. It’s best to have your veterinarian perform this service as well as to address and answer any other aspects of husbandry and veterinary care described above. Of course, rabbit breeders, books, and the Internet may also be excellent resources!
Dr. Brent Parker is a veterinarian who practices in Santa Fe.
This article appeared in the Spring 1998 issue.
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