Care and Feeding of Rabbits

Rabbits are much more social than people think. For generations, people have pictured rabbits outside in a backyard hutch, due to their habit of defecating whenever they feel the need. On the contrary, rabbits can be trained to use a litter box, just like a cat. This new revelation has brought the rabbit from being housed outside to being an indoor pet, giving owners more time to spend with their pet. Rabbits who are housed indoors quickly become integrated into the family’s day to day activities and add their own personalities into the mix.

Housing

When keeping a rabbit inside, a cage is still an essential need. Here the rabbit will find a private place to rest and call his own. It is also a place of safety for him when you leave your house. You should never leave a rabbit running loose in your house unattended. Because they are diggers and chewers, they can get into all sorts of trouble when unsupervised.

Portable pen-type cages are very popular due to the ease of cleaning and the ability to move them around. Whatever the setup you choose, remember that rabbits like to dig and chew so place the cage in a rabbit-proof area of your home. Buying a large piece of linoleum to use under the cage can eliminate digging behavior and makes for easy cleaning. As long as your bunny has access to his litter box, cleaning his cage area should not be a chore.

Rabbits also enjoy having a box to sleep and hide in as well as toys to play with. Some rabbits like tossing cardboard rolls, plastic cat toys, and even plastic soda bottles around. Each bunny is different so try different toys.

Litter Box

You should change the litter box 2-3 times a week, depending on the number of rabbits you keep. A very good litter out on the market is called Carefresh. It is a paper-based litter and very soft and absorbent. Carefresh is recommended over using regular cat litter as it is easily digested if the rabbit happens to eat it. A clean litter box is essential and some rabbits have been known to quit using the box if it is not cleaned regularly. Adding a handful of hay to the top of the litter in the litter box improves its use by many rabbits.

Feeding

There are many false ideas about just what a rabbit should be fed. The diet we recommend here at our hospital is an unlimited quantity of fresh hay, and one cup of fresh leafy green vegetables per 5 pounds body weight .  A very small amount of rabbit pellets (no more than 2-4 tablespoons per day per rabbit). The hay is essential because it is high in fiber and keeps the bunny’s digestive tract moving. Timothy, oat, sweet grass, and meadow grass are all very good and, depending on the time of year, some if not all will be available. Alfalfa (which is not a grass hay) is too high in protein for most rabbits.  Rabbits, like people, have different tastes and your bunny will let you know which type of hay he enjoys.

Diseases

The most common problems we are presented with here at our hospital include lack of appetite, tooth problems, parasites, abscesses, E. cuniculi, and Pasturella.

External parasites usually present themselves on the hair coat of your pet. If you notice your bunny’s fur contains dandruff-like flakes, he may have fur mites. Your vet will recommend a skin test to rule out these parasites but if the mites are present, a 2 dose treatment of medication given 2 weeks apart should alleviate this problem. Fleas can also be a problem for rabbits. By using Advantage  these pests can be kept in check.

By examining your pet’s ears on a regular basis, you can catch any signs of ear mites. These parasites live down in the ear canal of your rabbit. A dark, crusty exudat in the ear indicates this parasite. Again, your vet will use the microscope to check for signs of this bug and treat it accordingly.

Lack of appetite can be a red flag to rabbit owners. Rabbits love to eat so any time their eating habits change, pay close attention. Drooling can indicate tooth problems so have your pet’s teeth checked regularly. In some cases when Caught early, trimming of the molars will help the bunny eat again. If the teeth are not wearing evenly, they can grow points that dig into the rabbit’s cheeks and tongue, making eating very painful.

Rabbits can also have digestive tract problems. Impactions caused by rug fibers or hairballs can be very serious. If your bunny stops eating or his droppings change in size, you should call your vet immediately.

Abscesses are another rabbit health problem. The most common places they can be found are on the jaw area (usually in association with a tooth problem), the legs or feet, or other areas on the body. Because rabbit pus is very thick, abscesses can be very difficult to cure. A relatively new procedure that has been found to be quite successful involves cleaning of the abscess and implanting antibiotic-impregnated beads into the wound. These beads stay inside the abscess and the antibiotics are then released over time.

E. cuniculi is a disease caused by a protozoan known as Encephalitazoon cuniculi, or E. cuniculi for short. The symptoms can include depression, head tilt, and sometimes rear leg paralysis. A blood test can be sent out for diagnosing this disease but as of yet, there is no know n treatment.

Pasturella is a bacterial disease caused bu the bacteria Pasturella multocida.  It most often presents as upper respiratory symptoms in rabbits including sneezing and nasal discharge. In advanced cases, the rabbits have matted front legs due to rubbing their noses. If you notice your bunny having any nasal discharge at all, a trip to the vet is a must. Your vet can take a blood sample for testing and antibiotics can be used to help control the symptoms. Pasturella is hard to cure but can be controlled but new antibiotics have made great strides in this area.

Article by By Shelly Meszaros

About Shelly Meszaros

Comments

  1. At what age do you recommend getting a rabbit fixed? I have a ~6 week old bunny and am currently looking into it but wasn’t sure of the exact age.

    • Depends a little on the rabbit, and the situation. I like them to have some influence of their hormones (just an old school type of guy) so I recommend ~16 weeks. If you have a pair and need to prevent a pregnancy, you will need to neuter the boy bunny a bit earlier. If there is no hurry, let them grow up a bit before their surgery!

  2. Marie Kelly says:

    Hi, I would like to breed my rabbits for meat purposes. What age do you recommend to start breeding. The age for does and age for bucks .

    • We don’t see many (any, currently) rabbit breeders that are breeding for meat. In general, I’d recommend letting your breeding does grow up and put on some weight prior to breeding. They will be better moms and produce more and healthier babies if they are not babies themselves when they start breeding. For the larger meat breeds this means 8-10 months
      I’d also recommend leaving the kits with mom and not breeding her again until they wean (~6 weeks). This gives your does a chance to recover their body weight before they start their next litter.
      I know that you will find others that will give you different advise, but this will give you happy, healthy animals that will produce healthy offspring and will produce for some time. If you breed your does too young you will have unhealthy does and kits that die or are slow to grow. “Doing it right” is best for everyone.
      The age of your bucks is not as demanding. They will reach sexual maturity at 12-16 weeks of age (depending on the breed). Older does may pick on or fight with young bucks (or visa versa) and I would advise keeping a close eye on any young bucks first breedings.

  3. I’m planning on buying a 3 week old lionhead bunny!! Any advice for a first time bunny owner? Are there any shots needed? When I’m home, how often should the bunny stay in his/her cage, as opposed to running around the house? How long can I leave the bunny unattended?

    • Most important advice I can give you is to NOT buy a 3 WEEK OLD BUNNY !!! Rabbits can wean as early as 3 weeks, however their chance of having problems is MUCH greater if weaned before 6 weeks of age.
      So, make arrangements for your new bunny to stay with mom till she is 6 weeks old.
      We do not vaccinate baby rabbits. House her in a pen with grass hay, water and pellets. Offer small portions of dark leafy greens (leafy green vegetables with no “lettuce” in their name). They are fine left alone as long as they are in a safe environment with food close at hand.
      Always a good plan to have your new pet examined as soon as possible after you purchase it.

  4. At what age do you recommend bring a bunny in for her first check up? What tests are typically run/vaccinations (if any)? And in what price range should I be expecting?

    • We like to see new rabbits as soon as you get them. That way we can make sure that they are healthy, reduce the chance that they bring a disease home to other rabbits (if you have one / them) and go over diet and husbandry with new rabbit owners.
      Unfortunately, there are no vaccines for rabbits here in the States, but we do recommend testing for E. cuniculi.
      At our hospital your initial exam is $49 and E. cuniculi titer is ~$55.

  5. I have a bunny with tooth abcess and have read about using injectable bicillin every day, then every other day over a couple of months has been a successful treatment? What do you know about this option and what do you think of it?

    • Cel
      We used and still use penicillin along with surgery and antibiotic impregnated beads, but there are newer and more successful medications out there.
      Many dental abscesses resolve with extraction of the infected tooth and treatment with azithromycin (Zithromax). Those that fail to resolve most often go to surgery for debridement and bead implantation.

  6. Charlie says:

    I have a rabbit but she wont bond with me, all I can do is pet her. What should I do

  7. I have a 12 week old holland lop that is the most sweetest rabbit. We have been trying to litter train her since she was since weeks (when we brought her home) and its been quite a challenge. She does not pee in one consistant corner. When we move the litter around she just does the opposite, even going in the center of the cage sometimes. I don’t know if we have confused the situation by adding a second litter but we are trying to see what her preference is. What do you recommend? Do you think this will be easier as she gets older or after she is fixed? Thank you!

    • Yes and yes. She will get better with age, and she will get better after she is spayed.
      Meanwhile,h house her in a small cage with her litter box. When she is allowed out, pick her up every 10-15 minutes and put her in her litter box. She will learn how to find her way to and from the box.

  8. Need some help on a decision. Which is a “better” pet, a chinchilla or a rabbit?
    I’ve heard extremes for and against bunnies as pets. Total information OVERLOAD!
    I’m up for the work of either. But we have a trip planned down the road and need the most low maintenance for a “pet-sitter”.
    Thanks for the advice!

    • I’ve owned and enjoyed both. I’d have to say that rabbits are less work and more of a companion animal.
      Chinchillas are nocturnal which makes them “more challenging” to spend time with and thy are less enthusiastic about contact time (they don’t really want to be held).
      Rabbits are more social, diurnal (awake during the day) and enjoy contact (more or less depending on the breed and individual). Both eat a similar diet, have long lives (8-14 for rabbits, up to 20+ for chinchillas).
      I might suggest that you hold off getting either till after you are back from your trip!
      Let us know what you choose.

  9. We have 3 male rabbits. They are currently scent marking everything. Time to get them fixed. How much do you charge?

    • We recommend testing for E. cuniculi at the time you have them neutered.
      The cost of your exam, hospitalization (lots of special care and attention), anesthesia, surgery, pain medication to go home, nursing care (we keep them overnight) and suture removal is just under $200.00.

  10. I have a 3 month old male Netherland Dwarf and have just noticed some redness under his fur around his penis area where his testes might be. It seems like they are growing but I am concerned about this; at first glance I thought it was blood (turns out to be just some red/pink areas under his fur)… Any advice? How much would.a general check up cost? Thank you!

  11. Hi I have newborn kits that are already 23 days old. They are dying one by one for no apparent reason. They died one per day starting with the smallest ones.

    • Sorry to hear about your loss. There are many reasons for kits to die, the most common is no or too little milk produced by mom, but there are many more possibilities. Before you let mom breed again have a good physical exam done and make sure she is in good health and eating a good diet.

  12. How much would it cost to treat a minor sore hock? Not an open wound, looks fairly new

  13. I’m pregnant and my husband just got us a bunny from a co worker. I was wondering if it would be safe to help out and maybe change the litter sometimes. I know it is unsafe with cats because of cat poop but i don’t know if it is the same for a rabbit.

    • Kayla
      It is highly unlikely that you or your children might catch something from the rabbit or its litter box. (However, being pregnant, you may want to just leave that chore to Dad!) :)
      By the way, the disease cats have that we worry about women catching during their first trimester is Toxoplasmosis.

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