Many people assume that a rabbit is an ideal pet for a child. However, this is one of the main reasons why so many rabbits end up in rescue centres. 80% of children get bored with their pet rabbit after 3 months and with a lifespan of up to 10 years, this goes some way to explain why more than 33,000 rabbits are abandoned in the UK each year. People simply aren’t prepared for the commitment.
Rabbits can bond as deeply as a dog, but need a lot of specialist knowledge, care and attention, which should be taken into account before taking one on. They come in a variety of sizes, colours and coat types. They are very clean animals, can be trained to use a litter tray and may live as a house pet or be kept outside.
Caring for your rabbit
It is important to realise that your pet will need daily care, grooming and companionship. It is important to check your rabbit every day, especially under the tail. Rabbits’ bottoms should be checked daily and kept clean, particularly in the summer. Flies can lay eggs on soiled fur and it takes only 32 hours for these to hatch into maggots, which then start to eat the living flesh. This is called ‘fly strike’, and can be fatal if not treated. There are veterinary products available which can protect your rabbit from fly strike but they need to be applied on a regular basis.
Rabbits are sociable animals and when in the wild live in groups, so when choosing your pet remember this. If you get two or more rabbits it is wise to have them neutered as adult females (does) might fight, as well as adult males (bucks). Rabbits tend to be more active at night and sleep a lot during the day.
Rabbits need to be properly socialised from the start, initially by offering food in your hand and gently stroking their head.
Never pick your pet up by their ears and don’t touch their chin or nose as they may not like it. If you do have to pick up your pet then do so by placing one hand under the chest and the other around and under their rump, supporting the hind legs. Hold your pet close to your body and reassure them by stroking and talking quietly to them.
Housing your pet
Before getting your rabbit you need to decide where to house it. Do you want it in the house itself, in a shed or outside? In all cases the accommodation has to be large enough to provide separate living and sleeping areas. It must also have enough room to allow your pet to lie down full length or stand stretched up on its back legs if it wants to. If the hutch is too small the rabbit may become depressed and, possibly, aggressive. An outdoor hutch needs to be raised off the ground, insulated, weatherproof, predator proof and draught free.
Your pet will also need daily exercise. If this takes place inside your house your rabbit must be supervised at all times, protected from risk and prevented from chewing through things such as electric cables. If outside then it must be a suitable enclosure that is predator-proof, moveable to prevent over-grazing, and of sufficient size to allow them to graze and hop about safely.
Bedding should be plentiful but dust free. It may consist of shavings, hay, straw or shredded clean paper. Pine or cedar wood shavings should be avoided, as should printed paper, as they can all be toxic to your pet.
The hutch and feeding bowls should be cleaned out every day and the bedding changed at least once or twice a week. Because rabbits are very clean animals they will keep a specific corner of their hutch for passing faeces and urine. This area should be cleaned at least every 1-2 days. Ceramic or stainless steel feeding dishes, which are shallow enough for your pet to feed from but difficult to tip over and resist chewing, should be used. Clean water, in a gravity bottle attached to the side of the cage, must always be available.
Feeding your pet
Because rabbits are grazing animals their teeth continue to grow throughout life. If the top and bottom set don’t line up correctly, they will become too long and prevent the rabbit from eating properly. It is, therefore, important to feed your pet a specialist diet that contains sufficient plant fibre to keep the teeth from becoming too long and to maintain optimum health.
Good quality hay is essential and should be freely available as a food source as well as for bedding. Hay is a source of vitamin D and should make up the bulk of a rabbits diet. A small amount of pellet type cereal should be fed daily and is preferable to the ‘muesli’ type mixes. Fresh fruit and veg should also be fed daily. Rabbits should not have certain types of lettuce, rhubarb, spinach, beans, nuts or watery foods eg, tomatoes. Dark green veg such as cabbage, broccoli and brussel sprouts are good. Carrots, apples, pears and nectarines should be fed sparingly as they can cause tooth rot. These must be deseeded and cored.
When introducing a new diet to your pet it should be done slowly over a 10 day period. This is achieved by adding small amounts of the new foodstuff to their existing food and gradually reducing the level of the old food.
A rabbit does not know hunger and should never stop eating, not even for a day. As soon as a rabbit stops eating, the stomach and gut stop working causing food to start fermenting and producing gas which is trapped inside the rabbit’s intestines, which can quickly turn into an emergency situation. Never wait to see a vet if your rabbit has stopped eating, go immediately.
Keeping your rabbit healthy
Finally, your pet should have bright eyes, a healthy coat, good appetite and plenty of energy. If you think your pet is unwell, is listless or not eating, then it is essential you take it to see a veterinary surgeon.
It is essential to vaccinate your rabbit against common illnesses, some of which can be fatal. This includes Myxomatosis and VHD, which can be vaccinated against annually. These vaccinations cannot usually be given at the same time, so two veterinary visits should be planned each year.
There are several parasites which may affect rabbits. The most common being an organism called E. cuniculi which can affect your rabbits’ central nervous system. Rabbit Panacur used 2-4 times a year can protect against these and other common parasites.
If your rabbit gets ill, the last thing you want to worry about is the vet’s bill. Insurance is now available for rabbits. If the worst happens and your rabbit gets sick, insurance means your vet can dedicate their effort into doing all that is necessary to diagnose and treat any illness, rather than worrying about doing certain tests or treatments because of cost.