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Pet rabbits: what you need to know

A cute little bunny can make a wonderful addition to the family, but it’s important to recognise that like a dog or cat they also require a lot of time, effort and money to ensure they are kept healthy and live enjoyable lives. Rabbits can live to be over 10 years old, so bringing a rabbit home is a long-term commitment and is not something to be taken lightly.

Rabbits are often seen as children’s pets and can be affectionate animals, but don’t always respond well to lots of cuddles and given their small size can be easily hurt or traumatised. Children under 8 years old should always be directly supervised when handling the rabbit and an adult should be the primary carer.

Socialisation and desexing

Rabbits are social and inquisitive animals by nature and as a result require regular interaction and enrichment. Having a pair of bunnies can help ensure they don’t become lonely when you aren’t home, but care must be taken when choosing a friend for your bunny.

A male and female rabbit pair will often bond together easier than two rabbits of the same sex, however many owners choose to have rabbits of the same gender to prevent the possibility of baby rabbits (which are known as ‘kittens’). If keeping rabbits of mixed genders together they must be de-sexed to prevent any unwanted pregnancies.

Rabbits can start to become sexually active from 3 months of age, so desexing is something you will need to be on top of quickly after bringing your bunnies home. Regardless of whether your rabbit lives with the opposite gender, the same gender or alone, like dogs and cats, it is still recommended that all rabbits are desexed. This is particularly important for female rabbits as up to 75% of undesexed females develop uterine cancer.

Rabbits have a higher risk of general anaesthesia compared to dog and cats and as a result require extra care when undergoing surgery. When you take your bunny for its first health check, it’s a good idea to bring up desexing with your veterinarian and they will be able to provide you with more information regarding the procedure and what it involves.

Diet

An inappropriate diet is a common cause of many health problems seen in rabbits by veterinarians. The vast majority of a rabbit’s diet (~75%) should consist of high quality fibre such as fresh grass or a grass hay such as timothy and oaten hay. This fibre helps your rabbit wear their teeth down which constantly grow and also helps promote intestinal movement. A small amount of commercial pellets or chaff mix can be used, however, if this becomes a too high proportion of the diet it can lead to your rabbit becoming overweight.

They should also have daily access a cup of fresh veggies such as carrot, celery leaves, broccoli, Asian greens and kale just to name a few. Fresh water is essential at all times. Most owners find a drip water system to be the best way of keeping your rabbits hydrated and prevents accidental spillage of a water bowl.

Housing

If kept indoors, rabbits will need a large hutch to allow adequate movement. The size of the hutch required will depend on their size and the number of rabbits you have. It is important to have an area within their hutch where they can hide, or retreat for sleeping and quiet time. Hiding places should include bedding such as hay, straw, untreated wood shavings or shredded paper. Bedding will need to be changed regularly to ensure it is a clean environment for your rabbits.

It is also recommended that you allow them out of the hutch for regular exercise. During this time, they will need to be supervised as they can be destructive and if indoors chew on electrical cabling and are often true escape artists!

For outside rabbits, ensure that their hutch is secure from predators and is mosquito-proof. Mosquitoes can transmit deadly diseases such as myxamatosis and calicivirus. It is also important that the hutch is located in a shaded spot as rabbits are prone to heat stress, particularly if their cage is left in the sun on a hot day.

Grooming

Rabbits are generally clean animals and will self-groom and if kept with other rabbits will groom each other. Rabbits also benefit from regular brushing, particularly when they are shedding their coat. It is also important to ensure that your rabbit does not develop mats or dags (fur containing urine or faeces) around their genitals, as if your rabbit is kept outdoors these dags are enticing areas for flies and can lead to fly strike which can be deadly. Some breeds of rabbit, such as Angoras, will require regular shaving which should be performed by a professional groomer.

Veterinary care

Vaccination

All rabbits should have regular health checks with your veterinarian along with vaccinations for calicivirus. Calicivirus is an infectious disease that leads to death in unvaccinated rabbits. It is mostly transmitted via contact with an infected rabbits or vectors such as flies and mosquitoes, but can also be spread via contact with contaminated hay or clothing. The AVA recommends the following vaccination protocols to help protect your rabbit against calicivirus.

Kittens (Baby rabbits): 3 separate vaccinations given at 4,8 and 12 weeks of age, then every 6 months for life.

Adults (who have not been previously vaccinated): 2 vaccinations 1 month apart, then every 6 months for life.

More information about Calicivirus and the release of new strains can be found here.

Dental Health

Rabbits face unique dental issues as their teeth continually grow their entire lives. This allows them to slice and grind down tough fibrous material, such as grass, and is essential for their overall digestion. If the alignment of their teeth is slightly off or they are not fed a balanced diet high in fibre, it can lead to abnormal wear of the teeth which then become overgrown. This can be severely painful and lead to a number of health concerns, including death. Due to the anatomy of their mouths it is difficult to see their teeth, particularly the molars, so special equipment is required to examine their teeth thoroughly and it is not something that can be done at home.

The signs to look out for which may indicate a dental disorder in your rabbit include:

  • Drooling or continual wet fur around the face or forelimbs
  • Becoming pickier with food or eating less
  • Reduced activity or altered behaviour
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling around the face
  • Discharge from eyes

If you notice any of these signs a visit to your veterinarian who is equipped with the tools to examine your and rabbits’ teeth is recommended. They will be able to assess the health of your pet’s teeth and discuss treatment options if required. Your veterinarian will also be able to discuss and provide information on an appropriate diet to feed to maximise dental health.

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