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A Bunny isn't just for Easter

Rabbit Easter

Louise Cox veterinary-nurses, Veterinary Surgeon

 As another Easter approaches many people consider either getting or gifting a bunny. Whereas a puppy isn’t just for Christmas, a rabbit isn’t just for Easter!  Many will find loving and caring homes, unfortunately many however, will not. Unwanted rabbits can result in welfare issues and place pressure on already full animal shelters.

Rabbits, when cared for properly can live in the region of 8 years...some even reaching the teenage years! Before considering getting a rabbit it is worth researching the complexities of rabbit care and the responsibilities being taken on. I hope this brief summation of rabbit care can indicate to potential owners the work and responsibility involved in rabbit ownership and provide some guidance to clients considering adding a rabbit to the family.

Cost

  • Before even considering taking on a rabbit be aware of the costs involved.
  • Initial start -up costs include the hutch, food bowls, grazing cages, water bottles, rabbit costs, veterinary examination, vaccination etc.
  • Maintenance costs include feed, neutering, ecto/ endo parasite control, vaccinations, veterinary fees etc.
  • A rabbit can be costly to maintain and must be accounted for before investing in such a pet.

Life expectancy

  • Rabbits, when cared for properly, can live, on average, about 8 years.
  • Larger breed rabbits have shorter life expectancies than smaller breeds.
  • Rabbits have been reported to live as long as 17 years!

Housing a bunny

  • Rabbits can be housed indoors or outdoors.
  • Indoor rabbits will usually be trained to use a litter tray and have the benefit of lots of room for roaming. It is important though to ensure that the rabbit cannot access any toxins or hazards such as electric cables which may be chewed. It is also very important to ensure the rabbit isn’t going to be stood upon.
  • Outdoor living in a hutch; the hutch should be large enough to accommodate its occupants and allow space for its occupants to escape each other. It is difficult to advice exact dimensions as the space required will depend upon the size/ breed of rabbit being housed. Advice should be sought on the predicted size of the ADULT when purchasing a hutch.
  • Rabbits are quite sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and weather extremes. Hutches should be placed in sheltered areas and not in direct sunlight. It is worth remembering that summer can lead to animals overheating as well as winter posing risks from low temperatures.
  • In harsh weather or very hot weather it may be necessary to place the hutch in a garage to avoid the temperature extremes. Some people opt to place hutches in garages/ sheds all year round to avoid temperature fluctuations.
  • Predators can pose a risk to animals housed outside and all efforts should be made to cover cage fronts at night and monitor animals in grazing cages to prevent predation.
  • Whether housed indoors or out rabbits can develop behavioural problems if their environment lacks sufficient stimulation.

Companionship

  • Rabbits should not be housed alone. They are sociable animals and require companionship. Ideally rabbits should be housed with other friendly rabbits.
  • Rabbits form a hierarchy.
  • To reduce fighting (in both sexes) it is advisable to neuter rabbits housed together. A neutered male and neutered female is the optimum combination.
  • Rabbits should be gradually introduced and in a neutral territory.

Diet

  • There must be sufficient number of food bowls or space around the food bowl to ensure animals are not competing for resources. Such competition can lead to bullying, reduced food intake and distress.
  • It is essential that fresh water is available at all times. Be extra vigilant in winter when water bottles can become frozen.
  • Good quality hay/grass must be available at all times. This makes up the majority of the diet and is the most important component of the diet.
  • Roughage is also essential for dental health; helping prevent the overgrowth of teeth.
  • Commercial diets should be used to supplement roughage. Homogenous pelleted diets are much better for rabbits than the muesli style options available.
  • Non- toxic fruit and veg should be fed sparingly…excessive amounts can cause dietary upset.

Neutering

  • Rabbits reach sexual maturity as early as 4 months of age. Neutering should be considered for several reasons.
  • Prevents unwanted pregnancies.
  • Reduces aggression in both males and females; allowing animals, in most cases, to be housed together without fighting-facilitating much needed companionship.
  • Reduces/ stops urine spraying in male rabbits, even when performed in mature bucks.
  • Prevent the development of phantom pregnancies.
  • Prevent the development of endometrial hyperplasia/ polyps.
  • Prevent the development of pyometra/ endometritis.
  • Prevention of mammary diseases such as cystic mammary glands and mammary cancer.
  • Prevent the development of uterine cancer which is incredibly common (up to 80% of unsprayed females over 4 years of age) in rabbits.
  • It can take a couple of months for hormone levels to drop after surgery-this must be a consideration when housing rabbits together.

Veterinary considerations

  • Vaccinations: Rabbits should be protected against Myxomatosis and Rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease. Both diseases can be fatal and a yearly vaccination can help protect against them.
  • Flystrike- flystrike occurs in summer when faeces contaminate the tail area and flies lay their eggs. It can be a serious welfare issue and can also be fatal. Preventative measures such as the use of ‘rear guard’ are essential during the summer months along with environment hygiene and management and regularly checking the animals.
  • E. cuniculi- a common (and zoonotic) protozoan parasite that can cause neurological and renal signs in rabbits. Treatment should be administered as soon as the rabbit is acquired and repeated if a risk of infection has occurred; such as introduction of new rabbit/ new hutch etc. Immediate veterinary attention must be sought if the animal shows any signs of hind limb weakness or head tilt etc.
  • Dental- dental issues are extremely common in adults. Rabbits should be regularly checked by a vet and should be closed monitored for changes or reductions in food and roughage intake. If concerned seek immediate veterinary attention.
  • Gut stasis- a common and often fatal complication of other illness. Animals should be checked regularly to ensure the faecal output is unchanged. If faeces production stops or reduces, or if the rabbit seems ill at all, immediate veterinary attention should be sought.

Handling

  • Rabbits should be handled daily to acclimatise them to human contact and minimise the stress caused when they need to be handled.
  • Animals that have not been handled can become distressed by human contact.
  • Handling should begin at an early age.
  • Although rabbits make great pets for children it is important to supervise youngsters handling rabbits; they can easily be dropped or stood on which can lead to serious injury.

Where to source the rabbit + picking the rabbit

  • Pet shops are the option that springs to mind when purchasing a rabbit; there will usually be information available about the parentage, age and personalities.
  • Consider rehoming centres too! Such centres usually have lots of bunny candidates needing loving homes. Often individuals are already housed together making it easier to source 2 or more compatible animals.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of rabbit requirements, but hopefully it may be a guide to clients considering taking on a new rabbit and explain the costs and complexities involved in rabbit ownership. Too many bunnies end up in rescue centres after the Easter season is passed- I very much hope this information may deter people from rashly buying or gifting these lovely little animals.

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