Rabbits

MVVH rabbitRabbits make intelligent, friendly and quiet house pets. They can however be susceptible to a variety of diseases and conditions, such as overgrown teeth, hairballs, parasites, and cancers. They also tend to hide signs of illness or pain.

Rabbit Facts:

Average life span of a pet rabbit 4-10 years (compared to wild rabbit, 1 year)
Gestation (pregnancy) 30-33 days
Litter size 4-12 , average 7
Weaning age 7-8 weeks. From 50days
Sexual maturity 16-24 weeks

Handling your Rabbit:

Although rabbits make fantastic pets, they must be handled with great care. Unlike cats and dogs, they can often dislike being cuddled or ill-handled. If handled incorrectly, rabbits may become aggressive and even bite. If rabbits struggle, they can suffer serious damage – it is very easy for a stressed or accidentally dropped rabbit to break its back or fracture a leg.

However, regular careful handling will ensure a loving bond between humans and rabbits and is essential if they are to become tame pets.

To pick up your rabbit use one hand to scruff the loose skin on its shoulders and use the other hand to support its hindquarters. Never pick up a rabbit by its ears or legs. Small rabbits can be picked up with one hand under its neck and front part of its chest and again with the other hand supporting the hindquarters. Once you have picked up your rabbit correctly, hold it as close to your body as possible. Let it hide its head into your clothing or under your arm. If for any reason your rabbit starts to struggle put it down immediately onto a non-slip surface.

A Home for your Rabbit

A rabbit hutch can be either wood or mesh, but it must be cat and dog proof. The hutch should be big enough to allow the rabbit to run around and stand up if he/she wishes. Never overcrowd your hutch with too many rabbits, as this will usually lead to aggression. Make sure the hutch is strong and sturdy. It should have a run as well as a separate sleeping area. The hutch should be cleaned daily and lined with newspaper and/or fresh hay/straw. Where a rabbit is strictly an indoor pet a hutch is still advisable as it provides a safe retreat and sleeping area out of harm’s way.

A rabbit housed inside will generally be handled more and therefore become more tame. They are easily house-trained and so make ideal indoor pets. Many medical risks such as fly strike and disease spread from mosquitoes will be reduced in an indoor rabbit although they will have a greater risk of becoming overweight if not adequately exercised, and dental disease is more prevalent in house rabbits due to lack of access to grass.

  • Outside hutch– requires a solid sloping roof to protect from the elements and should be placed in a protected part of the garden with adequate sunlight but protected from wind and high temperatures. A sleeping area needs to be included that allows protection and privacy and has plenty of clean, dry hay as bedding. Provide more shelter if below 10 degrees and more ventilation and shade if above 32 degrees Celsius.
  • Inside hutches– may have a part wire mesh floor with metal tray underneath for easier cleaning (sleeping areas need to have a sold floor) It should also have an area where your rabbit can be toilet trained to a litter tray.
  • Temporary hutches– can be moved around the garden are useful to allow your rabbit to nibble on grass, wood and bark. Ensure a wire mesh floor so that your rabbit cannot burrow out and escape!

Your rabbit will also need time out of its hutch. You can either let it run around the house or in your backyard. Make sure you supervise your rabbit in the backyard because an unsupervised rabbit can burrow itself out of the yard or be attacked by cats or dogs.

A Friend for your Rabbit

Rabbits are best kept in twos or threes. Male rabbits shouldn’t be kept together as they are likely to fight – this will be reduced if they are desexed. Males and females together are not advised as they will “breed like rabbits!” unless one is desexed. Females raised together as less likely to fight.

Environmental enrichment such as toys, sticks (non-poisonous fruit tree branches are best), climbing surfaces and retreating and hiding places help to entertain your pet when you can’t and are even more important if you have only one rabbit. Never house rabbits and guinea pigs together as they carry each other’s most common bacterial diseases.

Desexing your Rabbit

Both female and male rabbits can be desexed. The desexing operation is generally a more complicated and intricate operation, which carries slightly more risk than desexing dogs and cats, however our vets are very familiar with the techniques and protocols to minimise the risks.

It is recommended in both males and females for different reasons. Desexing males (bucks) will decrease aggression and urine marking while desexing females will decrease aggression and the risk of developing cancer of the uterus. The recommended age for desexing for either male or female rabbits is approximately six months of age, although can be earlier if behavioural problems exist or if you have a male and female rabbit together ( please ask to speak to our vets for more information)

Feeding your Rabbit

Many rabbits kept as pets are allowed to become overweight. A healthy rabbit should be slim and sleek. You should be able to feel the ribs just under the skin without a thick layer of fat. The hindquarters should not have any folds of skin covering or interfering with the digestive tract or urinary openings. The dewlaps in females should not be so large as to interfere with grooming or eating. It is important to achieve the right balance of dietary and exercise need to ensure good health.

  • The staple food for your Rabbit should be good quality grass hay. This should make up 80% of their diet. Grass hay is important in rabbit nutrition as it supplies the fibre they need for gut health as well as provide the necessary roughage for dental health. Rabbit’s teeth grow continuously and so it is important that they chew on the right foods to provide even wear to their teeth. Types of grass hay advised for adults are Fescue Hay, Oaten Hay, Timothy Hay, Meadow Hay and Rye Hay. Lucerne Hay is too high in calcium for adult rabbits and is reserved for juveniles under 6 months of age who need to extra calcium for their growing bones!

A hay rack is ideal to allow ready access to fresh hay that has not been contaminated by droppings.

  • Another 10% of dietary needs are met by good quality high fibre pellets (roughly the size of your rabbits head in quantity!)- the type of pellet is important; some of the readily available are too high in calories. A heavy pottery bowl that can not be knocked over should be provided for pellets
  • The final 10% should come from green leafy vegetables such as bok choy, spinach, carrot tops and zucchini skin.
  • Fruit and other vegetables are considered a treat and given in small quantities 2-3 times a week (e.g. apple, carrot and strawberries) – they should be introduced slowly to avoid gut upsets.
  • Twigs and sticks should be provided for chewing
  • NO foods high in starch (e.g. breads, biscuits, cake)

Providing Water

Rabbits need a source of fresh drinking water all the time. A drinking water bottle that can be hooked to the outside of the hutch is ideal as it prevents contamination. Check it regularly to ensure it is working properly

Rabbits eat their own poo!

If you observe your pet rabbit at night you might be surprised to see it eating its poo. This is normal. If you have a close look at this material you will see it is softer than the normal hard pellets and is covered in a kind of slimy jelly (mucus). This faeces is called a caecotroph and the rabbit needs to eat it. Rabbits are special herbivores because they use the last part of the intestinal tract to ferment their food (a lot of other herbivores have an extra stomach or two). This fermentation process released proteins and vitamins but can’t be absorbed this far back in the tract. The rabbit re-eats the fermented product getting a second chance to gain all the value from the food. If you see the uneaten caecotroph in the morning then your rabbit may be sick. The other reason you may see a caecotroph is if your rabbit is too fat to reach its anus. The material is often found matted into the rabbit’s fur.

Rabbit urine colour

Rabbits have red-coloured urine normally. This is due to a stain in the urine called porphyrin. If the urine appears darker (port-wine like) and smokey or appears to have a sediment then there may be blood in the urine.

Common Rabbit Medical Problems:

Dental Problems : Dental problems are cause by overgrown teeth or malocclusion’s. Rabbit teeth are open-rooted which means they continue to grow right through their life. The teeth must be worn down by chewing and gnawing at hard food. The best way to prevent dental problems is to always have lots of hay to chew and non-toxic sticks from fruit trees available to your rabbit.

Incorrect calcium levels in the diet can also cause problems. If your rabbit is getting too little calcium then the bones become weak and just the force of chewing can cause the teeth to be pushed out of alignment. It is very important to feed your rabbit a good diet.  Dental problems are inherited from the parent rabbits with dental problems, and particular breeds such as dwarf rabbits are particularly prone to dental issues

Any of the rabbit’s teeth can be affected. It is usually fairly obvious if it is their large chisel teeth at the front of the mouth as they can be seen if you gently part the rabbit’s lips. However, sometimes the cheek teeth are affected. If your rabbit drools excessively from the mouth and develops a poor appetite then dental problems are likely. Sometimes bumps can be felt on alone the bottom of the jaw.  Other signs include saliva staining on chin, dirty bottoms, poor grooming, weight loss, appetite changes and eye problems, nasal discharge and sneezing , often several signs can be seen at the same time.

If you suspect your rabbit has a tooth problem then your will need to visit your veterinarian so they can be looked at and trimmed if necessary. Generally this involves an anaesthetic. Unfortunately, if your rabbit’s teeth are bad, periodic trims will be needed.

Hairball (Fur Balls) : Rabbits can’t vomit, which means they don’t need to be fasted for anaesthetics. It also means it can’t bring up fur like a cat can. Rabbits do groom themselves and fur balls can develop. Sometimes, these can produce a blockage in the gut that may require surgery although prompt medical treatment may be successful in resolving the problem. The best protection from fur balls is to feed your rabbit plenty of fibre in its diet.  Regular brushing will help to reduce the amount of dead hair accumulation.

Diarrhoea : This is commonly related to dietary problems or dental disease and needs to be addressed immediately or may never be fully resolved. Other types of diarrhoea can be related to viral or bacterial infections or parasites. All diarrhoea requires veterinary attention

Blood in the urine :  As state earlier, rabbits normally have red coloured urine however, if your normally toilet trained rabbit is urinating out of its letter tray and/or the urine is darker or less clear than usual, it might indicate a problem. Rabbits do get bladder infections and are prone to bladder stones if they have too much calcium in their diet. Male rabbits can even develop urine retention if the stone blocks the bladder outflow. Female rabbits can get uterine cancer and the primary sign is blood in the urine. If the womb is removed within the first few months of its development then the outcome is usually excellent.

Heatstroke : This is common in rabbits kept outside. Check your rabbit regularly in hot weather and bring inside if you are unable to provide protection from the heat. A frozen water bottle can provide a cooling station for your rabbit.

Snuffles” : As suggested by the name, this condition produces watery eyes and/or nose and sneezing. A common disease seen in young rabbits generally caused by a resistant bacteria and very contagious. Most can be treated with antibiotics but a cure is rarely achieved.

Skin and coat problems : External parasites such as fleas and mites are relatively common. Preventative treatment with proven products will be successful if dosed correctly. Many dog and cat products are not safe for Rabbits. “Revolution” is generally considered safe although this product is not registered for use in this species. Ear mites may require specific ear medication.

Sore Hocks : This condition is caused by incorrect housing. As a result of direct ongoing contact with a hard dirty hutch floor, sores can develop on the underside of the rabbits hind paws. Treatment can be difficult and the condition is easily preventable by providing the correct soft bedding materials.

Myxomatitis : A viral disease that was introduced into Australia to help control the wild rabbit population. Wild rabbits usually contract this disease, but if your rabbit comes in contact with an affected wild rabbit, it will most likely develop it as well. It can also be transmitted from rabbit to rabbit by the bite of a flea or mosquito. That is why it is very important to cover your rabbit hutch with mosquito proof netting, especially at night.

The disease only takes 2 – 8 days to incubate and during this time, the rabbit will develop conjunctivitis (watery discharge) and reddening of the eyes. The eyelids usually swell. The rabbit may not be able to see and may hop into walls etc. Swelling of the ears and genitals is also common. Once the rabbit has developed these signs death will occur between 11 – 18 days. There is no vaccine available for this disease in Australia.

Calicivirus : This virus was released on mainland Australia in another attempt to reduce the wild rabbit population. Calicivirus causes rabbit haemorrhagic disease. Transmission is via direct contact or insects (fleas, mosquitoes). It has a short incubation of 1 – 2 days. Symptoms include sudden death, fever, lethargy and an extremely high death rate within five days. There is generally no successful treatment.

Vaccination is generally preventive. In rabbits less than 3 months of age 2 vaccinations a month apart is needed to produce immunity while older rabbits only need one vaccination. Yearly boosters are needed to maintain immunity.

Updated info – February 2017 – Rabbit calicivirus in Australia

There are a number of RHDV strains present in Australia;
  • RHDV 1 – Original virus released in 1995
  • RHDV1A – Variant of type 1 isolated in Sydney in 2014
  • RHDV1 – K5 Variant (release planned in March 2017)
  • RHDV 2 – First recorded in mid 2015 in Australia, 2010 in Europe
  • RCV – A1 Non pathogenic virus present in wild population

There has been some confusion between the new variant of RHDV1 (K5) and the discovery in 2015 of RHDV2 in wild and pet rabbits.  This new virus is called RHDV2, but is a different virus to RHDV1 and K5.

The pathogenic strains of the virus (RHDV1, RHDV1 K5 variant and RHDV2) are considered contagious and can be transmitted via; direct contact with infected rabbits, transmission via equipment and clothing, transmission by vectors including flies and mosquitos.

Latest news

30 January 2017: Korean strain (K5) of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV)

During the first week of March 2017, a planned national release of RHDV1 K5, will go ahead. In April 2016, RHDV1 K5 was approved as a Restricted Chemical Product by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority (APVMA).

RHDV1 K5 is a variant of the (RHDV1) virus released in 1996. Based on scientific evidence to date, the existing RHDV1 vaccine (known as Cylap) is effective against RHDV1 K5.

It is recommended that all domestic rabbit owners be reminded to vaccinate their rabbits prior to the release of RHDV1 K5 and/or ensure their animals’ vaccinations are up-to-date.

The Department of Primary Industries recommend that rabbit owners take the following extra precautions:

  • Prevent direct and indirect contact between domestic and wild rabbits.
  • Avoid cutting grass and feeding it to rabbits if there is the risk of contamination from wild rabbits.
  • Wash hands, with warm soapy water between handling rabbits.
  • Good insect control is also important and will help reduce the risks of introduction of both RHDV and myxomatosis. Insect control could include insect proofing the hutch or keeping the rabbits indoors.
  • Infected rabbits should be isolated and disposed of in a manner that will minimise environmental contamination.
  • All cages and equipment should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Disinfectants that can be used to decontaminate any equipment include 10 % bleach, 10 % sodium hydroxide, or parvocide disinfectants.

RHDV1 K5 is not a new virus; it is a Korean variant of the existing virus already widespread in Australia. RHDV1 K5 will be released across more than 600 sites within Australia and is being coordinated through the State and Territory Governments.

Current Vaccination Recommendations

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) recommends that for best protection against the current virus about to be released (RHDV1-K5), previously released variants (RHDV1, RHDV1A) and the variant that emerged in parts of Australia in 2015 called  RHDV2, the following protocols should be followed in consultation with your local veterinarian.

Kittens: 4, 8, 12 weeks of age, then every 6 months.

Adults: 2 vaccinations 1 month apart, then every 6 months.

This protocol is off-label. Cylap is not registered for use against RHDV2 or for 6 monthly use.

Based on studies conducted so far, giving the vaccine at more frequent intervals does not have negative health effects. Veterinarians need to advise owners that this protocol is off label. Vaccination should always be administered to healthy animals, and a risk/benefit discussion with an owner is strongly recommended before vaccination of animals with chronic illness. Young animals are anecdotally more likely to show post-vaccination lethargy and inappetence.

Owners of pet rabbits and breeding stock are urged to implement strict biosecurity measures to protect their animals from infection, and talk to their vets about how best to achieve this.

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