Keeping Your Pet Rabbit Healthy And Happy

Ron Hines DVM PhD

You might find interesting information in my article regarding the care of cottontail rabbits here.

About half of my clients deliberately purchased their rabbit as a pet. The other half has the rabbit presented to them by their child or neighbor or came upon the animal in an unexpected way. The lucky ones who intended to purchase a rabbit had the opportunity to select a healthy one. That depends on finding a conscientious rabbit breeder. Please do not buy bunnies in pet stores. Find a conscientious breeder in your area. Visit and observe their setup. Get recommendations. But no matter how you came by your rabbit, here is some basic advice that might help you keep the rabbit healthy and happy:

Some signs of a conscientious breeder

  People who breed healthy rabbits do so in an orderly clean manner.

  They are often members of breeder and show associations.

  They , feed quality name-brand diets are not reluctant to let you see their feed storage area.

  They don’t breed their rabbits in a barnyard setting, with other critters wandering about.

  They have great pride in their operation.

  They don’t sell their rabbits for somebody’s supper.

Some Not So Good Signs When Buying A Rabbit:

Warning signs to look for include people selling rabbits out of the back of cars. Too many animals in small environments, soiled bunnies, bargain basement prices, mixed barn yard animals, poor general sanitation, and no older stock on premises. The best way to locate an ethical breeder is by word-of-mouth or from your veterinarian. There are plenty of rabbit rescue groups across America. Like all animal rescue, their prime focus is on finding homes for their wards. So their focus and prime objective may not be your focus and prime objective. So do not rely entirely on them to provide a perfect fit rabbit. When you do take in one of these rescue rabbits, consider it an act of charity. 

A rabbit breeder’s location should be free of ear mites, parasites ,pasteurellosis and Treponema. The breeder should have a cordial relationship with a local veterinarian who recommends him/her unequivocally. If you are successful in locating such a breeder, you are well on your way to obtaining a healthy pet.

What Diet Should I Feed?

The next most important consideration is proper diet for your pet. Rabbits are, in essence, an immense, walking brewery – a fermentation chamber that relies on proper intestinal bacteria to produce the nutrients their body requires. The majority of problems that bring rabbits to my door involve inappropriate diets. Rabbits thrive on a coarse diet high in indigestible cellulose. They will get sick if they are feed too rich a diet.

Improper diet is the major cause of lack of gastric and intestinal motility (stasis and ileus), overgrowth of dangerous intestinal bacteria (enterotoxemia) soft stools, obesity liver, and urinary tract disease. Needless to say, a rabbit with any degree of these problems will be an unhappy pet.

I very rarely see a bunny that has been given too course a diet. Most of my patient’s rabbits get into trouble from eating rabbit pellets that are too rich in carbohydrates and protein. These diets were originally developed for rapid growth in the meat and fur industry. In that industry, rabbits were constantly mated and bred and the length of their life was unimportant. Fifty percent of the rabbits diet needs to be coarse grass hay (timothy, oat grass, meadow grass, or uncontaminated mulch grass). The rest should be a low-protein national brand of rabbit pellet that has been stored under sanitary conditions. It should not be fruits, or products made from cereal grains like wheat or corn. If you give your bunny fresh produce, limit it to kale, collard, spinach and similar vegetables that have lots of fiber and very little sugar. It is true that your rabbit will readily eat the sweet fruits and vegetables you like. But if they make up more than a very small part of it’s diet, sooner or later your pet will be in trouble.

Why Are Rabbits So Susceptible To Digestive Tract Upsets?

Rabbits are hindgut fermenters . An appendage on the intestine called the cecum is very large in rabbits, guinea pigs and other grass-eating rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits). The cecum’s volume comprises almost half the volume of the bunny’s intestinal tract. In the cecum, coarse hays and pellet fiber are fermented by bacteria into absorbable proteins, essential fatty acids and vitamins – especially the B vitamins and vitamin K. Rabbits love diets of rich rabbit pellets, pizza crust treats, bread and table food. But these type of diets produce gastrointestinal (GI) tract disease that can be fatal to your bunny. Although not required for health, the addition of kale, collard, parsley, dandelion, romaine, endives, chard, pea pods and peppers are great for relieving boredom and keeping your bunny happy. Rabbits have a mouth-centered personality.

Bunny Accommodations:

I have never seen a rabbit with too much living space. I have seen rabbits kept in the same cramped cage used when it was a small youngster continues to be used when the rabbit reaches adult size.

Rabbits need a minimum of 24 square feet floor space for adequate exercise and activity. I like to keep my rabbits in bottomless pens made of galvanized turkey wire. Keeping rabbits on wire floors quickly leads to sore, abscessed feet, overgrown distorted toenails and eventually to foot arthritis – a common problem in older rabbits. Vary the floor of the pen; one section should be stone or inverted tile, another newspaper or cardboard, and another wood. Remember that whatever the flooring, it must be non-toxic because the rabbit will eventually eat portions of it. If the rabbit is kept loose in the house the house needs to be rabbit-proofed. Electrical wiring, toxic paints, pressure-treated lumber and plastic are all potential problems. Toys are very important to a rabbit’s feelings of well being. You can enrich its environment with cardboard boxes, pine cones, dog and cat toys, multiple water containers and brick-a-black.

What About Wire And Hard Surface Floors

As your bunny matures, constant contact with hard surfaces will cause it to develop painfully sore feet. The rear feet are most affected. With time, this progresses to arthritis. It gets worse faster when the rabbit is overweight or on a diet low in minerals. I prefer a cage (hutch) flooring of hay that is frequently changed. I avoid carpeting because, when eaten, it can cause intestinal obstructions.

How Should I Look After My Rabbit’s Health?

Parasite Control

Rabbits are quite susceptible to dog and cat fleas. Generally, any flea control product, which is FDA approved for use on cats and kittens that are over 9 weeks of age is safe to use on your bunny. Since no flea control product is FDA approved for rabbits, I generally try only a drop or two the first time I use it and observe the rabbit closely that day. Advantage, marketed by the Bayer Corporation, is safe for use on rabbits at one drop per pound applied between the shoulder blades. If the rabbit seems irritated by the application it is due to the accompanying ingredient, benzyl alcohol. The effect is only temporary. Many rabbits come with ear mites obtained from their parents. The application of a few drops of baby oil into the ears is usually enough to kill these mites.

Pasteurellosis or snuffles

These are stubborn problems in rabbits obtained from infected rabbit colonies and most pet stores. It can be controlled but often it cannot be entirely eliminated by the use antibiotics such as enrofloxacin (Batryl), good nutrition and low stress. The organism responsible, Pasteurella multocida, is susceptible to a variety of antibiotics. But the good bacteria that your rabbit relies on to process nutrients in its hindgut  are also killed by antibiotics. So ALL antibiotics given orally or by injection must be used with great caution in rabbits. Once a colony of rabbits or rodents harbors pasteurella, I have never been successful in ridding it of that bacteria and I do not know of anyone who has.

Internal Parasites

It is always wise to have a fecal specimen from your rabbit checked by a veterinarian to detect the presence of coccida or other parasites. There is a problem here if your veterinarian deals primarily with dogs and cats. That is because the greens, hay and grasses that your rabbit consumes contain a lot of microscopic eggs and organisms that were in the food it ate. Under a microscope, those eggs and organisms look quite similar to parasite eggs. We call them pseudoparasites and they are not a threat to your rabbit. They are just dead debris that are passing through your rabbits digestive tract.

Should I Spay Or Neuter My Female Rabbit?

Most of the elderly rabbits that visit me are males. That is because unspayed female rabbits that are not bred tend to eventually develop cancer of the reproductive tract. That is why I am a firm believer in neutering female rabbits. This is not any more dangerous a procedure than spaying a cat or a dog if it is done by a veterinarian who does the surgery frequently and if it is done before the rabbit is 6 month of age (older bunnies are often obese which makes the surgery more difficult).

Rabbits are wonderful gentle and inquisitive pets. If you follow these guidelines you and your new pet should enjoy many happy years together.

Should I Spay Or Neuter My Male Rabbit?

I base that decision on your male rabbit’s temperament. Removing an animal’s sexual organs causes major changes in its hormonal balance. Some can be advantageous, like a decrease in aggression.  But some can cause health problems that are best avoided. Neutering rabbits is known to increase their susceptibility to circulatory disease. (ref)  Neutering rabbits also encourages obesity and the paw arthritis that often follows. (ref) Neutering rabbits also decreases bone strength. (ref) See how your male rabbit interacts with you, your family and your other pets before choosing to neuter it. Some rabbit strains are more docile than others. If you feel the need to neuter your male rabbit, its hormone-driven personality (testosterone) will drop regardless of the age at which the surgery is performed. There is no hurry. Of course, you must have no unspayed female rabbits in your household.