Information for your rabbit
Health is not merely the absence of sickness, it is the gleam in the eye, the shine on the coat, and the bounce in the jump. True health care is extremely important to us, and starts with a preventative program that encompasses both the physical and mental health of your rabbit.
Caring for your rabbit
The Annual Health Check
The foundation of our health care program is the annual health check. During this visit, we give your rabbit a complete examination from head to tail including checking their dental health. We also discuss your rabbit’s body condition, diet, parasite prevention, behaviour and health concerns and any other questions you may have.
When your rabbit becomes senior (usually at about 8-10 years old), biannual health checks, regular blood and urine checks are recommended. By screening for hidden disease, we can treat it earlier leading to better and more complete management of the disease, lower costs and better quality of life for your pet.
Rabbits on our health plans receive two health checks each year.
All rabbits should be vaccinated for both Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD or Calicivirus), regardless of whether they have contact with other rabbits. Rabbits can be vaccinated from 5 weeks of age.
We have been giving rabbits a combined Myxomatosis and VHD vaccine which only requires annual vaccination (rather than the 3 injections that were previously required). However, recently a new strain of VHD has become prevalent, which is not covered by the combined vaccine. Hence we also offer a second vaccination which covers this new strain.
Currently the combined vaccine is covered by the health plans, with the new strain VHD vaccine available at a 10% discount for rabbits using our health plans. We will be changing the health plans to incorporate the new vaccine in the near future, and hope that vaccines are updated so that we can go back to one injection a year!
Rabbits suffer from both external parasites (such as fleas and mites) and internal parasites (E.cuniculi being the most important). Fly strike (where flies lay maggots in areas of wounds and damaged skin) is also a major issue which is often fatal.
Whilst Advantage is available to treat fleas in rabbits, it only lasts for a week and thus is more effective for treatment rather than prevention. We also stock products to treat mite infections in rabbits.
We recommend that a preventative product is applied to all rabbits during warmer months to help prevent fly strike. Rear Guard lasts 10 weeks, so will usually need to be applied twice each year. This is available at a 10% discount for rabbits on our health plans.
E cuniculi is a very common infection in rabbits in the UK (52% of rabbits are infected). It is present in a large number of health rabbits, but can also cause serious illness, including a myriad of clinical signs such as neurological symptoms (head tilt and paralysis) and general ill health. E cuniculi is usually spread to rabbits through contaminated food or water. E cuniculi can be spread to owners, particularly in immunosuppressed people.
Whilst a wormer is available for prevention of internal parasites, its use is controversial and we find most clients (and their rabbits) find it tough to give, due to the extended course. Therefore we only recommend regular worming in some circumstances.
We believe that a good diet is the most important thing you can do to ensure that your rabbit is healthy.
Hay (or fresh grass) should be the mainstay of a rabbit’s diet, making up 80% of total food intake. Rabbits are extremely dependent on the fibre in their diet for both good gut health and maintenance of health teeth. Feeding a good amount of hay to your rabbit will help prevent issues with these areas, and also help with urinary health, preventing obesity, behavioural and skin problems. Timothy or Meadow hay should be freely available to all rabbits, and should always be fresh and uncontaminated.
Most rabbits will prefer pellets to hay (and pellets should make up only 5% of a rabbit’s diet), so it is important to limit a rabbit’s access to pellets, weighing a portion out each day rather than ad lib feeding. Rabbits can be very resistant to change, so it is important to change the amount of pellets available gradually over about 2 weeks or longer if your rabbit’s diet is currently mostly pellets.
The remaining 15% of a rabbit’s diet should be 10% fresh vegetables and 5% healthy treats. Vegetables and edible plants should be gradually added to a rabbit’s diet. Appropriate vegetables include broccoli, cabbage, chicory, chard, collard, parsley, watercress, celery leaves, endive, radicchio, rocket, bok choy, basil, romaine lettuce, kale, carrot and beet tops.
Treats should be high quality commercial treats which are high in fibre, dried herbs and small quantities of fruit or root vegetables. Human treats should not be fed.
Water should always be freely available.
We recommend neutering for all rabbits at 6 months old (both female and male).
Neutering has a number of health benefits for your rabbit in the long term and helps prevent unwanted pregnancies and aggression towards both humans and other rabbits. Uterine cancer is extremely prevalent in older does, and spaying removes the uterus, thus almost eliminating this risk.
Rabbits are a bit more sensitive to the effects of anaesthetic and pain from surgery than other pets, so we take a great deal of care when neutering rabbits, with more intensive monitoring, and significant attention to both pain relief and care of the rabbit’s nutritional status (as it is very important that rabbits continue to eat both immediately before and immediately after surgery). We need to give additional drugs to rabbits compared to other species to support them and as rabbits can be very tricky to intubate (ie. put a tube down their throat to protect the airways during the anaesthetic), we have special ‘laryngeal masks’ which support the airway without having to use a tube.
Rabbits are very social and bright animals, and their emotional wellbeing is incredibly important, just as for other pets. Traditionally rabbits have been kept as a child’s pet in a small hutch, and often alone. We now know that rabbits require much more than this.
According to the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund (RWAF), the minimum size of a hutch for rabbits is a 6 x 2 x 2 ft hutch and an 8ft run. The run must have room for toys, digging places and tunnels. This allows rabbits to display normal behaviours. Most central London gardens will not be big enough to accommodate a hutch and run this size. We would normally recommend that rabbits are kept as house rabbits if you are unable to provide a hutch of this size. In addition, hutches must have an area which is protected from the British weather, and well insulated for the winter months.
If a rabbit is kept in a hutch, the rabbit will still need companionship (ie. another rabbit ideally of the opposite sex) and regular access to space in which to exercise. Even with indoor rabbits which live with people, it is recommended to get a pair of rabbits, ideally mixed sexes.
It is important to enrich any environment that a rabbit lives in, allowing them to display normal behaviours such as foraging and digging. Rabbits in the wild spend about 80% of their time foraging, so their environment needs to provide plenty of activity related to foraging for hay and grass. They will need a digging pit if they are unable to dig outside in grass or dirt. For more information, see the RWAF website which has lots of great information on enrichment.
We highly recommend pet insurance for all dogs to help cover the cost should they become sick or injure themselves. At Molly & Max Veterinary Practice, our staff all insure our own pets.
The cost of treatment can be expensive. At Molly and Max we offer the finest service with experienced staff, and the latest facilities and equipment to ensure that if your pet is sick we can reach a diagnosis quickly and provide the necessary treatment. In addition, at times it is necessary to refer rabbits to specialists, which can cost hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds.
There are a smaller number of insurance companies which insure rabbits (compared to policies for dogs and cats), including Petplan, Exotic Direct, Helpucover, American Express and NCI. We always recommend reading the small print (especially exclusions) and we always recommend lifetime cover.
We recommend starting insurance as soon as you acquire your rabbit. If your adult rabbit is not yet insured, we would also recommend starting insurance, even if there are one or two conditions which are pre-existing (and therefore excluded).
How do I know if my Rabbit is well?
As rabbits are prey animals, they do not show clearly when they are feeling unwell or in pain. It is important to be vigilant, as rabbits will often be presented to us when they are very unwell indeed. It is important to be on the lookout for normal behaviours. In addition, it is very important to give your rabbit a general check over each day, checking their eyes, teeth, skin, feet, droppings, water and food consumption, behaviour and general body condition.
Pain or illness may be indicated by:
- A reduction in activity levels
- A reduction in grooming, or only grooming part of the body
- Grinding of the teeth
- Dropping of caecotrophs on the ground (the second type of rabbit stool which they should eat)
More obvious signs of illness may include:
- Reduction in appetite
- Lack of coordination or limping
- Head tilt
- Overgrooming of parts of the body
- Unusual displays of aggression
- Stool accumulation around rear end or wet, irritated skin in this area
In particular, a rabbit who stops eating for more than 24 hours is very ill indeed- this is a medical emergency. See our symptom checker if you are unsure about whether your bunny needs to see a vet.