When I say I’m a “small animal veterinarian”, everyone’s mind immediately jumps to those adorable kittens and puppies that frequent households across the globe. But I actually see a wide variety of pets, including those scaled and feathered. But my favorite is probably the pet rabbit. How can you not love those adorable ears and fun personalities?
Though adorable, rabbits do come with a lot of responsibility, and there is a lot of information about them available through pet stores and on the internet that is not quite accurate. I’m writing this blog for those of you who own rabbits, or are thinking of adding a new fluffy companion to the family.
First, and probably most importantly, is a rabbit’s diet. Rabbits have very unique gastrointestinal tracts that make them pretty much a tiny version of a horse. It usually comes as a surprise, but rabbits can survive just fine off of a diet consisting of 100% hay! Having a diet consisting primarily of hay is crucial to the health of your rabbit. The high fiber supports their unique intestinal tract, and having to chew and break down this tough food source helps to grind down their teeth that grow their entire lives. A diet consisting primarily of hay is crucial for dental health!
The type of hay that you feed your rabbit is important as well. The two most common types of hay seen at the pet store include timothy hay and alfalfa hay. Alfalfa hay is much higher in calcium and calories, and is appropriate for young rabbits (less than 6 months) or nursing does. However, this is not appropriate for adult rabbits! They should be fed timothy hay, or another type of grass hay. You can get multiple types and mix and match. Rabbits should have fresh hay in their cage at all times.
However, because we are human, we often feel the urge to feed rabbits more than just plain, boring, hay (which most rabbits actually really love). One thing that is common to feed are rabbit pellets. It is recommended that young rabbits (less than 6 months of age) and nursing does get pellets consisting of alfalfa hay. However, adult rabbits should get pellets consisting of timothy hay. The general rule for an adult rabbit is that for every 5 pounds of rabbit, they should get approximately ¼ cup of pellets per day.
Fresh greens are also a good supplement for a rabbit diet. Dark, leafy greens are ideal, and beware of feeding too many greens that are high in calcium. Visit the House Rabbit Society’s website for more information on the levels of calcium in common vegetables. Some vegetables, including broccoli and cauliflower, can actually cause stomach discomfort if eaten in large quantities. For most rabbits, about a cup of vegetables per day is adequate. Just like with us, a good mixture of vegetables is healthier than feeding the same vegetables every day!
The next thing to discuss is the house you want to get for your rabbit. A general rule is that the cage should be as long as four times the length of your rabbit lying stretched out, and at least one time that width. The bigger, the better! Your rabbit can also be allowed to roam around in your house. Be aware, rabbits LOVE to chew and they LOVE to dig! Some rabbits love to chew cords, so those should be tucked away and unreachable, and some rabbits even eat carpet so monitor them closely! Luckily, rabbits litter box train generally very easily. They will generally pick a corner of their cage to use as a bathroom. You can place a litter box there and change it frequently, without much of a mess! If letting your rabbit loose in your house, you may need to scatter a couple of littler boxes just in case. The bedding that you pick for your rabbit is also very important. Rabbits have very sensitive respiratory tracts, and soft woods such as cedar and pine produce a lot of oils that are unhealthy for your rabbit to be breathing in all day. Stick to aspen wood shavings, or even better, recycled newspaper bedding. Avoid typical cat litter that is clumping and scented, and could cause a big problem if ingested.
Some people who own rabbits choose to keep them outside. This is absolutely acceptable as long as some extra care is added to keep our little friends comfortable. They should have plenty of space in their hutch (see above measurements) and an area to use as a little box. They should also have time to roam around outside their hutch, either supervised or in an enclosed pen. This pen should be enclosed on all sides, as well as on the top to keep predators out! Remember that rabbits like to dig, so the enclosure should be at least 6 inches deep in the soil. Importantly, rabbits tend to do well in cold weather (as long as sheltered in their hutch from the wind, rain, and snow) but can easily overheat in the summer. Supply frozen water bottles or fans to help keep them cool! On really hot days, it would be a good idea to bring them inside. Finally, rabbits who live outside are predisposed to getting attacked by parasites. Be sure to check them frequently for any abnormal lumps and bumps, and talk to your rabbit veterinarian about monthly topical parasite prevention.
Many people ask if their rabbit should be spayed or neutered. Many male rabbits can be aggressive and can mark their “territory” by urinating on it. Neutering the male rabbit can help prevent these behaviors. If multiple rabbits are to be housed together, it is also recommended that they be neutered. It is recommend that ALL female rabbits be spayed. This is because studies show that up to 80% of female rabbits over the age of four develop uterine cancer. Spaying a rabbit early prevents this from ever developing. It is ideal that rabbits are spayed between 6 and 12 months of age.
There are some things that rabbits are commonly seen at the veterinarian for. Likely the most common reason is for something called “gastrointestinal stasis”, which basically mean that the rabbit is not eating well or at all, and their intestines have slowed down as a result. This is generally a symptom, not a disease itself, and has some underlying cause. This could be as simple as the rabbit eating an inappropriate diet (not enough hay, too many vegetables) or could indicate something very serious. Any rabbit that skips a meal should be seen by a veterinarian right away, as this can indicate an emergency.
Respiratory infections are also very common in rabbits, and owners usually notice eye or nose discharge. Dental disease is also common, especially middle aged to older rabbits, and is usually indicated by a rabbit who is not eating well, is dropping his food, or his drooling. A yearly examination by a veterinarian is recommended for any rabbit!
Rabbits are wonderful pets and companions, and if cared for properly can live into their teens. They come in many different shapes and sizes, and always have a unique personality. At Mesa Veterinary Hospital, we look forward to meeting your long-eared friend and helping with any questions you may have about his or her care!
Julia Katzenbach, DVM