Rabbits are popular pets, as they are generally affectionate and playful, and bond quickly with their owners. They are active in the mornings and early evenings, and are therefore appropriate pets for people who work during the day. Rabbits require a balanced herbivorous diet of hay, fresh vegetables, greens and controlled amounts of fruit and rabbit pellets. Not forgetting the importance of veterinary care throughout the animals life and early sterilisation to prevent uncontrolled breeding.
VETERINARY CARE & STERILISATION
Rabbits can be sterilised by your vet at the age of 4 – 6 months of age, or when older if in good health. Sterilisation is advisable, as rabbits are prolific breeders. Neutered males will be less territorial, mark less with urine and faeces and be less likely to fight with other rabbits. Unspayed female rabbits are more territorial and their moods vary with hormonal fluctuations (think PMS!). Unspayed females over the age of 2 years are at risk of mammary and reproductive tumours.
Rabbits require regular veterinary check-ups as their incisor teeth can grow between 10 – 12cm per year, and if allowed to overgrow, can grow into the rabbit’s gums or lips resulting in painful malocclusion and abscesses.
TIP: Providing untreated & unpainted wood to gnaw on helps to file down the teeth & prevents this overgrowth.
NB! Never give your rabbit human medication (or any medication not prescribed by a veterinarian). This is because rabbits cannot metabolise specific drugs. Always consult your veterinarian for advice on on caring for your rabbit.
Commercial rabbit pellets are NOT an ideal diet for rabbits. They were designed to fatten rabbits for the food market, and will result in overeating, obesity and diarrhoea. If fed to adult rabbits, a ¼ of a cup of good quality pellets should be fed per 2,25kg body weight per day. Juvenile rabbits can have more pellets whilst they are still growing.
Rabbits are hind-gut fermenters, meaning that they have the same digestive system as horses. With this type of digestive system, rabbits need to be fed less digestible fibrous foods in order to derive optimum nutrition from the diet they consume. Foods such as hay or teff and leafy green vegetables are ideal and will maintain gastrointestinal and dental health. Lucerne (or alfalfa) is not ideal for rabbits and should only be fed in small quantities, if at all. Rather feed unlimited amounts of grass hay such as teff or timothy hay.
Vegetables: A minimum of 1 cup of fresh vegetables (leafy green vegetables) should be fed for each 1,8kg of body weight daily. The following PESTICIDE-FREE foods can be offered twice daily:
Herbs: Endive, dandelion greens and flowers, mustard greens, parsley, snow peas, romaine lettuce (NO ICEBERG LETTUCE), red or green leaf lettuce, watercress, basil, bok choy, stems and leaves of broccoli, cilantro, clover, and beet, carrot and radish tops.
Foods that are high in oxalates (spinach, kale, cabbage) should be fed rarely and in small amounts.
Fruit: Limited to 1 tablespoon per 2,25kg of body weight per day. Apples, blueberries, melon, papaya and strawberries. Do not feed fruit if the rabbits have diarrhoea.
Water: Fresh water should be provided in unlimited quantities in sturdy containers to prevent being knocked over. Containers should be washed with soapy water and water replaced daily. Please find a diagram above of a rabbit food pyramid which provides a graphic representation of a balanced diet for your rabbit.
Note that rabbits eat the first faeces (caecoliths) that they pass in the mornings. This is normal behaviour and allows them to absorb additional necessary nutrients.
DID YOU KNOW? NEVER pick a rabbit up by the ears! They have powerful hind legs and can break their backs if they kick whilst dangling by the ears. Support the rear end with one hand and hold the rabbit behind the front legs with the other hand.
COMMON HEALTH PROBLEMS
In general if fed the correct diet and given the correct housing and care, rabbits are healthy pets. However rabbit owners should be aware of any changes in appetite, increased or decreased water consumption, stool and general appearance. If you notice your rabbit’s health has changed or deteriorated it is advisable to visit your veterinarian. See below common health conditions found in rabbits:
- Gastrointestinal stasis or obstruction
- Hind limb paralysis
- Dental malocclusion and dental disease
- Mammary tumours
- Skin mites, ear mites, fleas
- Vertebral fractures
- Respiratory infections
- Heat stroke
- Renal disease
Click here to read the first article in this series – Caring for your pet rabbit – Part One. I hope this series of articles regarding rabbit care has provided you with useful information and tools to be a better rabbit owner!
Sr Vanessa Anderson, BA, DVN
Veterinary Nurse, Orange Grove Veterinary Hospital
Credit – Teresa A Bradley, DVM; Peter Fisher, DVM, Rabbi Pet Care