WHAT YOU WILL NEED
- Large hutch measuring at least 6′ x 2′ x 2′ for a pair of rabbits, made of strong, good quality wood. A shed, Wendy House or aviary make good alternatives.
- Large run with secure lid permanently attached to the hutch or alternative accommodation, placed either on paving slabs or with wire netting fixed securely underneath to stop them burrowing out and foxes digging in
- Both hutch and run should have secure catches such as heavy duty bolts to prevent foxes scratching at the catches and forcing them open. See section about housing and accommodation.
- Dust extracted wood shavings and good quality meadow hay
- Rabbit pellets or nuggets, such as Burgess Excel or Science Selective. Avoid muesli-type food as it encourages selective feeding. See separate section on diet and feeding.
- Green vegetables. See separate section on diet and feeding.
- Non-tip bowl (usually 5” diameter by 2” high) and a large 500ml-600ml water bottle.
- Life span – average 7 years. Small breeds can reach 10 years or more, very large breeds rarely reaching 5 years.
- Sexual maturity – 10-16 weeks. Gestation is 31 days. Average litter size is 6. Rabbits will have a litter every month unless prevented!
- Rabbits are fully grown by around 6 months old, although giant breeds can take 18 months to achieve full size.
- Rabbits are social animals and need to be kept in compatible neutered pairs.
- Rabbits and guinea pigs should not be kept together.
- They need a large hutch with a run attached permanently so they can take exercise safely at all times.
- Most rabbits do not make good pets for children.
- It can cost over £9000 per rabbit over its lifetime, not including unexpected vet bills (PDSA study 2013)
BRINGING YOUR RABBIT HOME
You are best to be prepared and bring a secure pet carrier with you when you go to collect your rabbits. Plastic carriers are best as rabbits can eat their way out of cardboard ones if they are in there long enough! You are best to also avoid the fabric carriers too, as although they look good and seem a good idea as they are easy to store, the photos below show what happens after a 30 minute journey in the car. Your carrier should be lined with a newspaper or towel, with a couple of large handfuls of good quality hay on top. However, check that the hay is clear of any knots or very long strands, as an active anxious rabbit can end up getting a solid twist of hay stuck securely to its back foot to the extent that it can cut off the circulation or actually cut into the flesh – this may sound far fetched but this actually happened to a rabbit that was brought in here to CottonTails, and the rabbit had a cut on its foot as a result but luckily the journey was less than an hour so no further damage was done. You are best not to use wood shavings in the carrier as it can get into the eyes during a journey so it is advisable best to avoid using this whilst travelling. If the journey is on a hot day or you are going to be travelling for more than an hour, you need to bring a drinking bottle with you so you can offer water to the rabbit when the car is stationary. The bottle should not be left on the front of the carrier during the journey otherwise it will empty out and soak the rabbit and bedding with the movement of the car. Make sure the carrier is positioned securely to prevent it moving around, and ensure that it is placed in the shade to prevent overheating. Once home, the rabbits should be placed in their new hutch/run with the bedding and food all ready for their arrival, and then left undisturbed for the rest of the day to allow them to settle in. It is vital that you find out what brand of food they are usually given as changing the diet suddenly can have fatal consequences (see ‘common problems’ below). Also find out if they are used to a water bottle or bowl. If used to a bowl you will need to make sure they work out how to use a bottle if you intend to swap them over.
RABBITS AND CHILDREN
Rabbits make good family pets only if parents respect the needs of the rabbit and accept the limitations of the children. Rabbits should not be bought solely as a child’s pet as it is the adult who will have to accept the responsibility for its care when the novelty has worn off (usually within a month). Rabbits are rarely cuddly and can bite and scratch if stressed or frightened. They do not usually like to be picked up even if handled from a young age, and can easily injure their backs with fatal consequences if they fall or are dropped. There are only two rabbits in the photo below that are suitable to give to a young child at Easter (the time of year when the highest numbers of rabbits are sold) – and neither of them are the one in the middle! The following was written by owner Sarah who needed to find new homes for her rabbits: I have had animals, mainly cats for the past 35 years and always considered myself to be a ‘responsible’ pet owner, buying the best food and treats and just generally spoiling my animals. Last year, how ever, I let my 3 children talk me into getting 2 baby rabbits. At the time, the boys were over the moon with the babies, but as the rabbits grew up and the boys discovered that the bunnies didn’t like being held and cuddled they quickly lost interest and the feeding and care was once again left to Mum to do. Although the rabbits were cute and lovely I just didn’t have the time to spend with them that I felt they needed and deserved. This is where Mairwen at Cottontails stepped in and took them into her care. Having to do this made me feel very sad and upset that I had to put my pets in this situation. I feel if I had really thought about it and researched rabbits fully before we took them on I might have realised that rabbits do not make ideal pets for children. I think children expect cute cuddly bunnies that they can cuddle and love but the reality of it is that even though they’re pets, they still have the ‘wild’ in them and do not like being handled. I would urge anyone to rethink getting one as a child’s pet. No matter how much you want to please your child think about the welfare of the animal first.
Contrary to popular belief, most adult rabbits do not enjoy being handled, although some will tolerate it better than others. This applies regardless of whether the rabbit is handled from a baby or not, and unfortunately the true personality of a rabbit is not fully apparent until about 5-6 months of age. With this in mind it is important to let your new pet settle in with as little handling as possible. Gradually build up his trust and confidence by talking quietly to him and gently stroking his head if he approaches you. When he has settled in, you can pick him up gently but firmly either by placing your hands around his middle or, if you are an experienced handler, by holding the loose skin behind his ears with one hand whilst supporting his hind quarters with the other (this is called scruffing and is not suitable for all rabbits and should not be tried by inexperienced handlers). Aim to handle him or her infrequently at least to start with, building up the number of times a week very gradually if the rabbit appears to be tolerating it well. Remember that rabbits are naturally shy, quiet animals who hate being held above ground level. Gaining the trust of a rabbit takes time, patience and effort. See the section further down for advice about checking your rabbit for fly strike. The two photos below illustrate how to pick up your rabbit, the third photo illustrating a slightly different technique for a small rabbit. SEXING
This is covered extensively further down at the end of this rabbit care article, so scroll down towards the end to find full descriptions and photographs to help you correctly identify the sex of your rabbit. It is absolutely vital that your rabbit is sexed correctly, especially if he or she is to live with another rabbit. Sexing of rabbits is not easy, and it is very common for people to make mistakes – even vets have been known to get it wrong!
Keeping a rabbit on its own results in a bored and depressed pet. Two rabbits introduced correctly will usually happily share their hutch and exercise run, provided they are neutered (see separate article on bonding) to stop fighting and breeding. This topic is covered in our match-up and bonding article on the web site. A neutered male and neutered female works best in the long term, and true brothers that have been neutered early also work well. Surprisingly, female-female pairs rarely work well in the long-term, even if neutered and related to each other. Matching an existing rabbit with a new companion is generally a routine procedure but seek advice and help from someone experienced in rabbit match-ups, or have a read of the bonding article elsewhere on the website. Guinea pigs do not make good companions for rabbits, and this combination should not be attempted. Our match-up article on this website is full of essential information about finding a friend for single rabbits and is thoroughly recommended reading. The photo below illustrates the dominant rabbit of a bonded pair demanding grooming from his partner by putting his head under her chin. It used to be thought that this was a gesture made by the submissive partner, but it has been found that it is in fact the dominant rabbit that exhibits this behaviour. Although occasionally rabbits will co-exist in groups if they are all neutered, in most cases serious fighting will start at some point later on even if they start off very amicably. A typical example of this is where a litter is kept together on the assumption that they will stay bonded for life – sadly this is rarely the case, and the litter mates should all be neutered and then placed into opposite sex pairs if at all possible. For more information on this topic, do have a read of the bonding article elsewhere on the website. The short film below shows how easy it is for owners to get a false sense of security about the likelihood of a litter staying friends in the long term – who could not fall for the charms of these four little bundles.
RABBITS AND OTHER PETS
Do bear in mind that if you already have another pet such as a cat or dog, they may not be so welcoming to the new member of the family as you are! Be careful and sensible to start with, and do not allow any unsupervised contact, especially if the rabbits are babies. It only takes seconds for a cat to pounce and kill a baby rabbit, and likewise a dog to kill even a large adult rabbit, so be aware of the situation and do not take it for granted that your pet will respect this new intruder! In general, most dogs can be trained not to worry a rabbit, but certain breeds will find it almost impossible, so do think it through before taking on a rabbit as it may end in disaster. Likewise, most cats can be trained to leave rabbits alone, and in fact adult rabbits usually chase cats away, causing the reverse problem! As the photo below shows, it is possible for various species of pet to live in harmony together, but do not expect too much too quickly and be prepared for instinct to kick in under certain circumstances.
Whilst you may have a preference for a particular type of rabbit, such as a lop, an upright-eared bunny, a giant or a miniature breed, the most important thing to consider is the personality of the individual concerned. The novelty will certainly wear off quickly if your beautiful pedigree top-of-the-range rabbit turns out to be the monster from hell! Having said that, you will not know the personality for real until the rabbit is about 5 months old, as rabbits change dramatically at around this age. If you are considering taking on a giant breed (as in photo above), the most important issue is that of space. Have you really got the room to accommodate such a rabbit? Not only that, they can be even more destructive than an ordinary rabbit and of course will eat more and produce more droppings and urine, so can be a lot more work. Also, as they are almost impossible to handle due to their size, it can be very difficult to administer medication if you ever have an illness problem with them! As much as they are fantastic rabbits, do think long and hard before taking such creatures on. They live a short life than average sized rabbits, rarely getting beyond 5 years of age. Miniature breeds are not without their problems also, and many are prone to dental disease and/or temperament issues, so again it is vital to choose with care.
For information about the Rex breed, scroll down to the end or click on the “Rex” heading to the right hand side of this page.
You need to think long and hard before taking on a long-haired rabbit. A lot of work is involved, and information about grooming long-haired rabbits is available in the “Grooming” article on this website. Short haired rabbits do not need grooming so long as they are not allowed to get overweight or have some kind of disability. If they are having a very heavy moult, a double bladed cat comb is useful to remove the dead fur in their coats, and this is an important task to do as although consuming fur is not thought to be the main cause of gut stasis (covered separately), it certainly may be a trigger in a rabbit prone to this often fatal condition.
It is really important to give rabbits items that they can chew, dig at and destroy if they want to, and even a cardboard box works well. There are lots of toys available from pet stores, and some will appeal more than others, but you often find the most interesting playthings are articles that you have around the house anyway, such as wicker baskets. Do NOT be tempted to use cat balls as seen in the photo below (the ones with a little jingle bell inside) as they are very dangerous for rabbits as they can get their front teeth stuck in them, causing panic and distress.
For anyone who still thinks it is okay to shut a rabbit into a hutch, have a look at the film clips below and you will surely change your mind …
Rabbits can be housed outside all year round in a good quality weatherproof hutch with a separate draught-free dark area, attached permanently to a secure run, as illustrated above. Do not be concerned if your rabbit uses the sleeping area as his toilet as this behaviour is quite common. A litter tray can be used in the hutch in the corner where bunny usually chooses as his potty corner. The hutch must be at least 6” off the ground and should be sited out of direct sunlight and draughts. Make sure that padlocks or bolts are used for fastenings on both hutch and run to prevent access by foxes. Wire mesh used on hutches and runs should be of strong quality (not chicken wire). The whole structure should be sited on patio to prevent burrowing out by the rabbits or burrowing in by foxes. Cover the hutch felting with white roofing plastic or paint it white, as there is no doubt that a white roof keeps the inside of the hutch cooler in the hot weather.
If you have a plastic lid on the run, you can coat the inside with greenhouse shading if there is a danger of the rabbits overheating. Be very careful if you are considering purchasing a hutch on two levels with a ramp in between. It has sadly been shown that rabbits can incur serious injury by getting a hind leg trapped under the ramp where it joins the upper level, with fatal results. The hutch and run should be on one level, making sure that the hutch is off the ground to prevent damp. If you have already bought a hutch with a ramp and are unable to return it for something more suitable, the ramp itself can be replaced by a set of “pet steps” which can be bought online or from large pet shops. Rabbits find steps far easier to negotiate and they are much safer than ramps. You would also need to add a run to the front, as the double level area is not enough for rabbits. The photo below the film clip underneath shows an adapted double level hutch with an added run fitted on to the front. Out of view is a set of pet steps to allow the rabbits to get to the upper level safely. If you are unable to either get hold of pet steps or the size of the accommodation does not allow them to be fitted, you could adapt the ramp by either attaching plywood “sides” to the ramp to make it safer, or you could construct a “tube” to fit around the ramp forming a tunnel, which rabbits love to go through. For guinea pigs the tube can be made from lino, but this will likely not work with rabbits as they may consume it with unhealthy results, so cardboard could be used, and then replaced as and when required. The photos below show a ramp adapted for guinea pigs, using lino. The rabbit version would need to be bigger of course to allow them to go through safely. Also, bear in mind that even this idea will not protect a rabbit from injuring itself on a tight turn at the top, or avoid leg injuries in the gap at the top, so really it is best to avoid double level hutches altogether if at all possible.
Below is a short film that puts across the topic of rabbit accommodation in a fun way:
Some owners use a shed or Wendy House as their rabbit’s accommodation, as shown below.
If you are worried that your rabbits’ hutch is not as warm as it should be during a cold winter, you can insulate it by buying bubble wrap from a garden centre and fix that on the sides and back on the outside, covering it with tarpaulin or plastic sheeting to protect it. This can be removed in the spring. Do not be tempted to completely cover the front as it is very important that air is allowed to flow in, and you are better to try and site the hutch away from prevailing winds so the rain does not blow in anyway. If you feel that you absolutely have to cover the front (remember that they are rabbits and are very hardy!) then cover no more than three quarters of the wire door. Below is a photo of an alternative type of accommodation, in this case housing two pairs of rabbits, each pair occupying half each but still having lots of room to run around and keep active. Some people decide to bring their rabbits inside for the winter and divide off a part of a room (or devote a whole room) for the rabbits to live in, but as rabbits are very hardy you don’t have to bring them inside for the winter if you don’t want to. The photos below show another way of giving rabbits an excellent environment. An electric fence to keep out foxes is fitted all round the perimeter to keep them safe. The photo below shows the opposite end to the previous photo. It shows the electrified perimeter fence on the left, allowing the owners to keep free range rabbits, chickens and ornamental wildfowl. This end is protected by a section of 6 foot board fencing. The photo below gives another example of a hutch/run situation, this time inside a shed for the winter (with the top removed for the photo)
The photos below shows other good alternatives: Clearly visible in the photo below is the under wiring you need to do if the rabbits are living on grass, to stop them digging out and foxes from digging in. Click on the link below to see yet another way to keep rabbits happy in their accommodation. A run should be attached to the door frame so the rabbits can come outside as well.
Thanks to a new owner getting back to me with some feedback about accommodation recently bought, I have added below a link to a website that sells good sized hutches with runs attached. Make sure if you do order via this link that you order the 6 foot hutch, as there are smaller sizes also available but these would not be big enough for a pair of rabbits. Also below is a photo of two of our adoptees in their new home! The two photos below that are of a different set-up, a real luxury pad!
UPDATE: I have recently (January 2015) had someone contact me to say they were disappointed with the hutch bought from the company below, as they felt it was not well constructed and had several gaps that rodents and other small animals such as stoats could get through, so if you are going to order from this company, perhaps have a chat with them first to make sure all is well, as I don’t know if this was a one-off or if the quality as declined since I originally put the link on here. I would appreciate further feedback from anyone that does order from them.
Quite a few rabbits owners are now making use of the run-around system, where areas are connected via tubing or wire tunnels enabling the rabbits to go from area to area safely without necessarily running loose in the garden.
Below is a film by foster carer Nicki showing how her current foster bunnies are making use of this system, although on the day of filming they were allowed free access to the garden as well!
It is very important to be aware that rabbits can dig, and dig quickly and efficiently. A determined rabbit will be able to dig out of a run on the lawn within around 30 minutes, possibly less if she gets help from a friend! Females are more likely to burrow than males, but some males will still dig, so this must be taken into account if you intend to put your rabbits out on the grass. If your rabbit is a proficient digger, you will need to line the run with chicken wire to prevent an escape. The photos below show what was achieved within around 30 minutes of this rabbit being placed in a run.
Most neutered rabbits learn to use a litter tray and can make interesting and entertaining house pets, but they can be demanding and destructive so are not suitable for everyone. Remember that even house rabbits must have access to the outside for them to remain healthy. Seek advice before deciding to keep house rabbits as you will need to bunny-proof your home, and the equipment required is different from rabbits kept outside. The photo below shows house rabbit Molly settling down on her owner’s double bed, and the lower photo shows Roger watching a bit of television from the comfort of his armchair!
“Let me in!” (photo below)
The main thing you need to be aware of with house rabbits is that they are not cats or dogs, which is an odd thing to say perhaps, but it is important to understand that a rabbit is a rabbit and they do what rabbits do, predominantly chewing everything in their environment! This means that in most cases a rabbit will chew and destroy furniture, wallpaper, cables, carpets etc. no matter how many toys and other distractions you may give them. Also, whilst it is possible to litter train some rabbits, in most cases they will still leave some droppings on the floor, which is not ideal when you get up in the morning with bare feet! However, if you are prepared to bunny-proof your home and don’t mind the odd dropping on the floor, then taking on an established neutered pair of rabbits is a good idea. As it is easier to establish a routine with a rabbit when they are a bit older compared with young rabbits that are too full of the joys of spring and more difficult to train. Although even house rabbits should not be shut into a cage or hutch at any time, it is best to have an area that is cordoned off, say a corner of a room, to keep them in for the first few days as you need to be sure they know where their litter tray is, and also where the food and water area is located. Only once they have established a good tray routine can you then let them start to explore a bit, gradually increasing the area that they are allowed to be in. Some people like to confine their house rabbits at night, but most rabbits are just as active at night as during the day, so the night area would need to be a good size to allow them still to take exercise.
The film below shows two bunnies enjoying their life as house rabbits.
This film below (filmed by foster carer Nicki) shows Peter really enjoying his chance to come into the house and share a bit of Christmas with his foster carer’s family.
The photo below shows what damage can be done to a live cable in just a few seconds… Thankfully, the rabbit live to tell the tale!
The two photos below show what can happen if you leave certain objects lying around that your house bunny can get hold of …
The photo above illustrates why newspapers are not very suitable for bedding! Instead, use a deep layer of dust extracted wood shavings throughout the hutch, with a good layer of hay on top. Litter trays can be filled either with a covering of shavings and hay or a wood-based cat litter. Remove all soiled bedding daily, spray the area with animal disinfectant and replace with fresh bedding, thoroughly cleaning out the whole hutch once a week.
The actual amount an individual rabbit will drink on a daily basis depends on various factors such as weather conditions, temperature, diet, social grouping, accommodation, activity levels, and general health and hormonal status. The important thing to notice with a rabbit is any changes, and as far as consumption of water is concerned this means being aware of any sudden increase or decrease in the amount of water drunk. Make sure that the rabbit is provided with an efficient and fully working water source. If using a water bowl, bear in mind that if the rabbit turns the bowl over, fills it with bedding whilst digging, or fouls the water with urine or droppings, the water source is then absolutely useless and the rabbit could become dehydrated very quickly, especially on a hot day. Water bottles are better from this point of view but you need to make sure that they are working properly and that they don’t freeze in cold weather (the spout is the first part to freeze). I carried out a study on rabbit water consumption in October during a reasonably mild spell with temperatures during the day about 12°C. 21 rabbits were monitored over a period of 6 days, and the amount they drank daily was carefully measured and an average figure calculated. All the rabbits were fed on exactly the same type and amount of food, and were given fresh vegetables daily in addition to ad.lib. meadow hay. I found the average amount drunk per rabbit per day was 67mls, but this amount did vary considerably between individuals, with the minimum drunk being 10mls and the maximum 160mls. The important point to learn from this study is that water consumption will vary depending on the variables listed above, and this in itself is not abnormal. However, any sudden changes in consumption (whether up or down) should be noted and an investigation into possible causes carried out to prevent health issues developing or catch existing conditions early enough to ensure successful treatment.
Below is a short film about how to feed your rabbit:
You may also like to view the following video, which is actually very amusing as well as informative, and was made by the RSPCA:
Be consistent with the type of dry food given and stick to it. As a general guide, miniature breeds such as Netherland dwarfs should be fed half to one egg cup full each once a day. Medium breeds up to about 3kg should be given 1 egg cup (flat, not heaped) each once daily, and giant breeds given an increased amount accordingly. Handy measures can easy be obtained in supermarkets and are sold in packs of four brightly coloured measures, the smallest being ¼ cup (65mls) which is ideal for a single average sized rabbit, and the middle sized one being ½ cup (130mls) being ideal for a pair of average sized rabbits sharing a bowl. The rabbit will usually finish the food quickly and then will graze on green vegetables and hay for the rest of the day. Hay should comprise 70-80% of the total diet. Fruit should not be fed apart from an occasional treat, and carrots should be given sparingly if at all. More details on vegetables follows later. Some domestic rabbits have a poor tolerance of vegetables, especially if under the age of 16 weeks, so proceed with caution otherwise severe diarrhoea may occur with fatal results. Start by offering tiny amounts of a variety of vegetables such as celery every other day and gradually build up the amounts over a period of weeks. Stop immediately if the rabbit has a dirty bottom or runny droppings, often resolved by withdrawing the fresh food. Seek veterinary advice if this is a persistent problem. Also see section below about this issue. Never feed lettuce to a rabbit of any age. Rabbits should not be fed extras such as bread, toast, cake, sweets, biscuits, crisps etc. Treats, as shown in the photo above, can be given if the rabbit enjoys it but they need to be in the form of food that they would have been given anyway, such as little pieces of vegetables, or some pieces taken out of their daily dried food quota. Refill the water bottle daily, and add large handfuls of fresh hay. It is essential for rabbits to have large quantities of fibre in their diet each day so ensure that your rabbits have access to fresh hay every day of the year. Grass is even better than hay (not mown clippings however) as it is more abrasive, despite the fact that grass looks softer! Examples of fresh food you can give your rabbit are: celery, cabbage, cucumber (small amounts), cauliflower leaves, spring greens, broccoli, carrot (very small amounts), brambles (blackberries) fruit and leaves, groundsel, mint, parsley, raspberry leaves. The following can be given in very small quantities as an occasional special treat: apple, dandelions, melon, peach, pear, pineapple, strawberries, banana. The photo below is an example of what vegetables I feed to a pair of rabbits every day. Poisonous Plants – there is a very long list of plants that can be toxic to rabbits, and I have included the commonest ones (in the UK) here: all plants that grow from bulbs; amaryllis; arum lily (cuckoo point); bindweed (convolvulus); bracken; byrony; buttercup (small amounts dried in hay is ok); deadly nightshade (belladonna); delphinium (larkspur); elder; fools parsley; foxglove; hellebores (christmas rose); hemlock; henbane; lily of the valley; lupin; laburnum; most evergreens; oak leaves; poppies; potato tops; privet; ragwort; rhubarb leaves; scarlet runner; toadflax; woody nightshade; yew. It is important with any rabbit, especially young ones, that you make any changes very slowly. If you do not know what your rabbit has been given in the past as far as vegetables are concerned, it is best to start with something safe like celery. Offer about a quarter of a stick once a day for a few days, and if there are no soft droppings as a result you can then introduce a piece of spring greens as well for another few days. Assuming that all is well you can then add a small piece of broccoli and so on until after a couple of weeks the rabbit is having a selection of green vegetables every day. With young rabbits you need to avoid fruit completely, and only give a very small slice of carrot per rabbit as it is high in sugar and often gives soft droppings. The large majority of rabbits benefit from having green vegetables daily, but there some individuals that cannot tolerate this and therefore you are always best to proceed slowly.
If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having an unplanned litter of baby rabbits due to wrong sexing of the parents or other similar situation, you will find lots of relevant information in the hand-rearing section, as it not only tackles the hand-rearing of orphans but also covers what to expect as far as mum’s behaviour is concerned and also has useful hints about what to expect with the babies. In the large majority of cases, mum manages the whole thing herself and it is normal for her to ignore them all day as they are only fed once a day, usually at night. Part the fur once a day to make sure that the babies are together in one group and that they look fat and content. This can be done when mum is out of the hutch in her run, and if you leave her out for at least an hour afterwards she won’t even know you have had a peek. If you have more than one rabbit living in the area where the babies are, see the article “Mum bunny has company” on the website for information on what you need to be aware of. If you have a double level hutch, do be aware that the chances of some of the babies accidentally ending up dead at the bottom of the ramp is high, so you either need to move the whole nest to the safer lower level, or shut mum in the top level with the babies at night to prevent such accidents happening. Double level hutches are not at all suitable for breeding rabbits! There are thousands of unwanted rabbits taken in by rescue centres every year, the large majority being children’s pets that have been discarded once the novelty has worn off. This being the case, it is irresponsible to generate yet more rabbits by indiscriminate breeding. You cannot assume that your local pet shop will take any excess stock nor can you rely on selling them via the local paper. Furthermore, dental disease is largely an inherited condition and it is very likely some of the babies will develop teeth problems later in life if you use rabbits with unknown history. Contrary to popular belief, breeding will not cure a female rabbit of aggressive behaviour in the long term, and this is usually only resolved by neutering and providing a stimulating environment with lots of room to run around. There is very little profit (if any) in breeding rabbits if they are to be kept properly with a good quality of life, as the equipment, vaccinations and precautionary treatment for E. cuniculi are all very expensive, so professional advice should be sought beforehand to establish if the project is going to be feasible both from the welfare and the financial point of view. It is totally irresponsible to decide to breed from your pet rabbit!
Rabbits of both sexes should be neutered. Aside from preventing breeding, castration stops males spraying urine and decreases mounting behaviour, whilst spaying females prevents the development of uterine and associated cancers which are very common in female rabbits, as well as also deceasing aggression linked to hormones. It is important that the operation is carried out by a vet who is confident and experienced with such procedures in rabbits. Adhesive is now used to seal the incision instead of the old fashioned method using external stitches, which were frequently chewed by the rabbit with often fatal results. Rabbits can be safely neutered at an early age, and this avoids the problems of fighting, breeding and issues with pair bonding. Males can be castrated as soon as their testicles descend, usually at around 10-12 weeks. Females can be safely spayed from 14-16 weeks, so long as they are in good health and weigh at least 1 kg. See separate article about neutering for more information, especially important if your rabbit is female. It is very rare but sometimes a female will make a nest of pulled fur shortly after she has been spayed. This is nothing to worry about so long as she does not interfere with her operation incision, so just check that all is well.
The current vaccine available only needs to be boosted annually and gives protection against Myxomatosis and VHD (viral haemorrhagic disease), although it has become apparent that there is a strain of VHD that does not appear to be completely covered by this vaccine. At the time of writing (March 2016) a new vaccine is being produced which does cover the rogue strain of VHD, but does not cover anything else, so it looks likely that in the short term we may have to use two vaccines again, once this new one is readily available in the UK. I will update this post once I know more, but in the meantime do speak to your vet if you are unsure about what to do for the best in the short term. The rest of this section will be about the current combined vaccine.
Although extensively tested prior to this vaccine being made readily available, there is always going to be some cases where there may be some rabbits that react to the vaccination more significantly than others. Here at CottonTails we have had to date 72 rabbits vaccinated with the combined vaccine and have had 4 rabbits (6%) that have developed small nodules around the eyes, one of which also developed a dry skin patch at the site of the injection (March 2013). The eye symptoms developed approximately 8 days after the injection, the skin irritation appearing around 12 days. At no point were any of the rabbits ill, and they had good appetites and appeared to behave normally throughout. The symptoms disappeared within a few days with no long-term effects apart from one rabbit who, after about 50 days suddenly lost a lot of weight and went into a rapid decline. This may have been caused by something completely unrelated (such as E. cuniculi) as the symptoms are consistent with kidney problems, but at the time of writing she has responded very well indeed to treatment and I am hoping she will make a full recovery. I shall update this section with further information as and when I receive it. Currently my advice would still be to go ahead and have your rabbits vaccinated, as the chances of them catching and dying from either of the diseases is far higher than having mild side effects from the injection. The photo below shows one of the rabbits that had a mild reaction to the vaccination.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) Viral Haemorrhagic Disease is a highly contagious condition, easily spread, and there are often no symptoms to indicate that anything is wrong. This disease is inevitably fatal and usually kills all rabbits in the vicinity. The photo below shows a very common reaction to the old type of single vaccination against VHD alone, which has now been phased out. Myxomatosis Your rabbit is more at risk from this disease if you live in a rural or semi-rural area, but cases have been observed in pet rabbits living in inner city areas as well as in house rabbits. The disease is usually spread by biting insects such as fleas and mosquitoes. E. cuniculi See also the section below. Rabbits should be treated with Panacur (Lapizole and other products available from your vet) to kill off any E. cuniculi (a common parasite) that may be present. This should be done at the same time as the vaccinations, and is a 9 day course given orally, and needs to be repeated if the rabbit mixes with others at any stage, or goes into boarding accommodation. If the rabbit has been diagnosed with E. cuniculi, the treatment would last 3-4 weeks. For more information about E. cuniculi, read the article about gut stasis on the web site. An excellent website about E. cuniculi can be found by following this link: http://www.eid.ac.cn/MirrorResources/7815/about.html
I have covered this subject in detail elsewhere on the website (see Aggressive Rabbits article) so will not repeat all the information here, but will touch briefly on a seasonal problem that some owners may have come across. It is not uncommon to find that during January and early February a normally manageable female suddenly becomes grumpy and aggressive. This is a result of the lengthening daylight, which is a trigger in wild rabbits to mark the start of the breeding season. Even spayed females can react in this way, as the pineal gland in the brain reacts to the increase in day length to stimulate a change in behaviour independently of whether they are neutered or not. The good news is that this phase does not last very long, and usually after a month or so the rabbit will return to normal again. Neutering will help, however, as although it will not prevent the mood change from happening entirely, it will make the change less extreme. Not all rabbits are affected, but enough of them are, to justify the inclusion of this information here. Below are a couple of short films, both tackling the issue of how to feed an aggressive rabbit:
It may seem that I am stating the obvious, but a rabbit’s ears play a very important part in their awareness of what is around them, and they are also a vital part in communication between one rabbit and another. Whilst this is true in rabbits with “natural” upright ears, lop rabbits that have been deliberately bred with defective cartilage that allows the ears to drop can be at a disadvantage when it comes to communicating effectively with others. Body language and pheromonal cues are also very important in rabbit to rabbit communication so a lop rabbit will get by, but it can be an important consideration when trying to bond a rather difficult bunny! Below is a film that I made to try and find a new home for Ludo, a lovely neutered male lop crossbred that had been here for several weeks, and it was whilst I was filming I realised I could take the opportunity to explain a bit about how rabbits can use their ears to communicate how they are feeling. As Ludo is a lop crossbred, he had several choices with what position to put his ears in, whereas in a true lop the ears will hardly move at all and in an upright eared rabbit the ears will not drop but can move from bolt upright to flat back, with various positions in between. Next time you watch your rabbit, pay attention to his or her ears – you may get a surprise to find you can work out what he or she is thinking! Do bear in mind that if your adult upright eared rabbit suddenly has a dropped ear it could be that there is a problem such as ear mites or infection, and this does need to be checked just in case. Some lop crossbreds will alter their ear positions as they get older and this is normal and nothing to worry about, but if in doubt, get your rabbit seen by a vet.
PROBIOTICS AND PREBIOTICS
Many rabbit owners will be aware of the term probiotic as it is often recommended by vets when a rabbit has a digestive upset. But what is it, and what is the difference between probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics? Probiotics are basically an organism, usually bacteria but sometimes a yeast, which can be given in food, water or as a paste to animals, including humans. Such bacteria and yeast already colonise the healthy bowels of animals, but when a digestive upset occurs this disturbs the natural balance of such organisms, resulting in chronic pain, poor absorption and diarrhoea. The presence of abnormal gut flora can be caused by low grade infections with bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella, or other gut-dwelling bacterial species. Probiotics can produce chemicals which inhibit the bad bacteria and stabilise the gut pH to make it more hospitable for the growth of normal gut flora, or simply outcompete the bad bacteria. There is also evidence that probiotics can increase resistance to gut diseases possibly by stimulating gut wall immunity. However, probiotics are species specific, and an organism which works well in one species of animal may not survive the stomach of another, rendering it useless as the bacteria must be able to survive the stomach acids and the alkaline small intestine and bile acids. Basically if you want probiotics for a rabbit, use one specifically for rabbits or small animals, not one for a dog or cat! Prebiotics are often packaged together with probiotics as they work together. Prebiotics are natural plant extracts which function as soluble fibre, assisting the function of the gut in slowing it down, providing something for it to work on. Soluble fibre helps to thicken gut contents and improve mixing and general gut movement, encouraging the growth and survival of probiotics which usually accompany it. Prebiotics are sometimes thought of as helping the probiotic bacteria to survive and function. Synbiotics are a product that usually contains both pre- and pro-biotics acting together to assist each other (synergistically) and thus producing a better effect than either on its own. Does an average healthy rabbit really need any probiotics or prebiotics? Giving probiotics to healthy rabbits will not achieve any noticeable effects but there is evidence that there may be a certain amount of protection against gut upset due to stress or illness if probiotics/prebiotics are given regularly. If your rabbit does suffer from frequent bouts of loose droppings, is prone to gut stasis or you are aware a stressful event will be happening soon (such as moving house or introducing another rabbit) it may well be beneficial to give a combined probiotic/prebiotic preparation on a daily basis, mixed with food or water at the appropriate dose. Products such as Protexin Bio Lapis or Protexin Fibreplex may well be useful in such situations.
DIGGING OUT THEIR LITTER TRAYS
In most cases, once a rabbit is neutered it will change its toileting habits and become relatively clean, happily using a litter tray or corner of the hutch or run to pass urine and droppings whilst munching on hay. However, there are some individuals who never achieve this, and if this has always been the case then it is unlikely to change, although different types of trays can be tried. This section is more about rabbits who have suddenly started to dig out their litter trays or hutch so that the soiled bedding is all over the floor or run, having been clean and tidy beforehand. There are several possible reasons for this. Firstly, if the rabbit is old it is common for elderly rabbits to have arthritis related issues and this causes them mobility problems in respect that they are not so keen to jump in and out of higher sided trays and also often are not so good at raising their tails as high during urination. This can account for any new habit of urinating out of their trays as they probably don’t feel it is worth the extra effort to get to a tray, whereas with droppings it can be a lengthy affair as they like to sit comfortably, nibbling on hay, whilst occupied in this activity. If this is suspected, it may be worth changing the litter trays to lower sided ones such as dog beds, as this makes it easy to get in and out but they still have the high back and sides but the fronts are lower. If you are finding that the hind legs appear stiff when the rabbits are moving around, it is a good idea to trial some Metacam (low dose, once a day) which you need to speak to your vet about, and this is often enough to take away arthritic pain so the movement improves. If mobility issues are not the problem, it may well be down to behavioural traits. One reason that could drive this behaviour is boredom. Rabbits need to be given mental stimulation as well as having their physical needs met, and sometimes this can be resolved by bonding with another suitable rabbit (see bonding article) and/or providing objects that the rabbit can interact with, such as cardboard boxes, wicker or straw baskets, and other toys that can be chewed, played with, and ultimately destroyed! Branches from trees such as apple, hazel, and willow are also great boredom busters. Persistent offenders can be determined to empty their litter trays no matter what, so sometimes buying hooded litter trays that have high fronts can deter a rabbit as it is much harder to empty the contents if they have to be shovelled over a high edge. Furthermore a large digging box that is partially filled with play sand, soil or bark chippings could be tried so they can officially dig without being a menace. In the summer months some rabbits get too hot, and shovel out all the bedding from the hutch into the run so they can lie on the bare wood. If this is the case you could consider supplying the rabbit with a large tile, available from DIY stores, as this provides a cool surface to lie on. At the end of the day, rabbits are rabbits and behave as such, and sometimes it is just a case of trying to get the rabbit to modify their behaviour if possible by considering the ideas above, but some individuals are simply strong minded, messy and easily bored and you may just have to accept that you will be sweeping up every day!
Giving a rabbit medication by mouth
This can be a challenge, no matter how tame and friendly your rabbit may usually be! If the medication is in powder form, it is easier to mix it into something that the rabbit will enjoy, and Catherine and John McGuire have come up with a good method: Measure out half a tablespoon of dry critical care and mix it with a roughly equal amount of baby food (fruity ones seem best, just pure fruit/veg, no dairy or oats), and mix it together with the appropriate amount of medication. If the medication is in liquid form, it is sometimes easier to add in a small amount of something sweet such as Ribena as the rabbit is far more likely to take it if it is flavoured with something tasty.
Moulting or Shedding
Although it can be quite alarming to find your usually perfectly furred rabbit suddenly looking like it has been dragged through a hedge backwards and with large clumps of fluff dropping off or sticking out at strange angles, it is actually absolutely normal! There are exceptions to this, however, and I will discuss this in a few moments. Rabbits go through periods of moulting or shedding regularly, starting with the change of coat at a few months old when their baby coat is replaced with their adult coat. From that point on they may moult once a year, or several times a year depending on the individual and also their environment. House rabbits, for example are often in perpetual moult and this can cause major problems with the constant shedding of fur all over the carpets and furniture. Grooming affected house bunnies can help to keep this to a minimum, and also making sure that the rabbit has access to the outside frequently may also help. The most common place the moulting starts is at the head end, working its way towards the tail, this process in some individuals taking a week or so but in others it can take over a month or longer. The pattern varies as well, as some will moult in patches, some in clumps or waves with clear marks between the old fur and the new. The new fur is often darker, and this can cause certain colours of rabbits to visibly change colour over a season. This is especially noticeable in sable rabbits, where they are almost orange in the summer and then go very dark in the winter. Most rabbits manage their moults themselves, but in some cases you are best to gently brush or comb the loose fur out so prevent too much being consumed. Although gut stasis is not caused by hairballs, having a large quantity of fur in the stomach or digestive system is not going to be very helpful. Although moulting is absolutely normal, there are some ailments that can give a similar appearance so you need to check first to make sure that all is well. Check for:
- Patches of thick flakes of white dandruff – burrowing mites are the cause which needs treatment.
- Pregnant female or female with false pregnancy – such females will pull fur from their bellies and sides to make a nest.
- The skin looks sore, red or itchy – possibly a fungal infection which needs treatment.
- Bald patches appearing without sign of a moult – possibly a hormonal cause or stress-related alopecia, or even nutrient deficiency. Vet advice should be sought.
Rabbit (usually female) pulling out her own fur and/or running around with hay in her mouth
Female rabbits that have not been spayed will sometimes pluck fur from their dewlap or abdomen to place in an area they have chosen to make a nest. This behaviour is often accompanied with the carrying of hay in the mouth to add to the nest, and some females go to such an extreme that they will strip the whole hutch of bedding, and pile it up in their chosen spot. On the basis the female is not pregnant, the condition is called a false pregnancy, and she is driven by her hormones to behave in this way as she is convinced she is about to give birth. She may also get moody and aggressive during this time also. False pregnancies are often triggered in a female by another rabbit mounting her, male or female, as this stimulates her body to ovulate in preparation for conception from a fertile mating. Rabbit are induced ovulators (as are cats and ferrets) so they do not have a regular reproductive cycle, and although mounting behaviour is the main trigger for a false pregnancy, it can also be triggered if there are other rabbits around nearby. This condition can last from a few minutes of fur pulling, to several days of frantic behaviour, and you are best to leave the nest intact until the female has lost interest in the whole thing, and only then clear the whole lot away. Below is a very short film of a female pulling fur from her dewlap, and then running off with a mouthful of fur to place carefully in the nest in the sleeping area. The photo below shows the nest that Florence made as a result of her efforts – she gave up after a few minutes so it is not the best example of a fur lined nest! It is best to neuter both sexes of rabbits, and the females especially for health reasons as well as behavioural.
Rabbits’ claws can grow quite quickly, especially if they are on a soft surface such as grass or soft bedding. The claws must be clipped regularly to prevent them growing too long and causing problems to the rabbit, but this can vary from rabbit to rabbit, some needing their claws clipped every 3 months, others only once a year. The bit that needs to be kept short is the section beyond the live part. On white claws it is easy to see the pink live bit, but with dark nails it is harder to see how far to cut. If you are not confident about clipping the claws, do not attempt it until you have been shown by your vet or another competent person, otherwise you could cause bleeding, pain and distress to your rabbit. If you are confident that you know what you are doing, the following may help: When I clip rabbits’ claws I usually sit down with the rabbit on my knee and turn him or her gently upside down so the head is held gently between my side and my left arm (I am right handed). This then makes it easier to get access to all four paws, and most rabbits do not struggle in this position. The more you practise the better you will get at it. For dark claws, it is usually easier to see the live bit by looking from underneath the claw as there is a change of shape and a slight change in colour between the live and “dead” bit. Do not cut right on the line, leave a few mm’s so you are not cutting too close. Another method is to use a torch for dark claws and shine it through the claw and this will show up the live bit clearly. The photo below shows what can happen if a rabbit’s claws are not clipped regularly, especially if it is confined to a hutch or carpeted area.
Remember to check your rabbit’s dew claws too – these are the claws on the front paws in the “thumb” position, slightly higher up the leg on the inside. If not checked and clipped regularly the claw may grow in a semi circle and end up growing into the rabbits paw, causing injury and lameness. The photo below shows such a claw before it was trimmed. Thankfully it was spotted before it had pierced the skin.
Encephalitozoon cuniculi (E. cuniculi)
Although head tilt in rabbits is commonly caused by infection with the parasite E. cuniculi, it must be borne in mind that there are other possible causes too: bacterial infection such as pasteurellosis; tumour; abscess; trauma such as fractured skull; disease affecting blood circulation; bacterial meningitis; toxoplasmosis; ear mites; neurological disease; virus. Encephalitozoon cuniculi is a single-celled parasite of rabbits. Common symptoms are head tilt, loss of power or movement in the hind limbs, not able to keep its balance, increased drinking (although this can indicate other illnesses too), and urinary incontinence, and rabbits may show one or several of these symtpoms. E. cuniculi can cause partial or complete paralysis, kidney and eye diseases, and often kills. At least half of all pet rabbits have this parasite, possibly even more. Wild rabbits are not usually the source of infection as it very rarely occurs in wild rabbit populations, although it is known to be present in rats and mice. A rabbit becomes infected by eating or drinking the spores passed in the urine of infected rabbits or it can be passed from mother to babies before they are born. Often rabbits show no signs of the infection but will remain carriers until such time that additional factors such as stress or illness triggers signs of the disease. Treatment with Panacur or Lapizole should get rid of the parasite from the rabbit’s body, but some of the effects of E. cuniculi infection are irreversible and treatment will only stop the progression of the disease. It is important to remember that spores survive in the environment, disinfection of runs, hutches, bowls and other equipment therefore being necessary to avoid re-infection. It is still unclear whether treating rabbits that are not showing any symptoms is worthwhile or not, but the usual rule of thumb is treatment for 9 days as a precaution and 28 days if the rabbit is showing any symptoms.
Excessive grooming of one rabbit by another
Occassionally one can find a rabbit that performs obsessive grooming, and this can cause fur damage and sometimes even skin infections due to an area being almost constantly licked. This can occur in males or females, although I have come across more cases where the offender is a neutered male who appears to be obsessive in regard to mounting behaviour, repeatedly pulling at the fur at the back of the neck of the other rabbit. I have found some success with hanging up several salt and mineral blocks around the run/hutch, especially in places where the rabbits like to sit as this is often where the offending behaviour takes place. Although I am not in favour of these blocks in general, in cases such they can be very helpful in persuading the rabbit to turn his or her attention towards the blocks when the urge to groom excessively occurs. There are also several products that can be lightly sprayed on the fur of the rabbit being “chewed” which have an unpleasant taste, and this can also assist in helping the rabbit to change his/her ways. Something to also be aware of is the side effects of some rabbits that have been recently vaccinated. Some rabbits react badly to vaccination, and form a weeping or dry sore on the nape of their neck just behind the ears across the shoulder blades. This can then be attractive to another rabbit, who will sit and lick the area for long periods of time, and if you are not aware of the cause you may jump to the wrong conclusion. Vaccination sores usually get better on their own, just keep the area clean and dry, and sometimes applying baby talcum powder lightly to the area will put another rabbit off from paying the sore too much attention! Although not a cause in itself, excessive hair consumption may be the final trigger for the onset of gut stasis in a rabbit that is prone to this often fatal condition, so this issue should be taken seriously.
Female making squeaking sound
The film below illustrates well the sound that some females make if persistently mounted by either a male or another female, and this should not be ignored if she continues to make this sound for more than a few days as it indicates she is distressed and anxious. It can be a common sound when bonding a neutered female with a neutered male and usually fades after a few days when the males interest reduces and the females starts to trust her new friend. In the case of the two sisters in the film, there was clearly an imbalance in the pairing and shortly after the film was taken they were separated and subsequently spayed and each matched with a suitable neutered male. The squeaky female did not make her sound again, not even with the bonding with the male, and was very much happier.
If your rabbit never appears to hear you coming and only seems to respond to vibration or visual cues, it is possible he or she is deaf. This is not that common but I have come across this in some individuals, the latest case I have had being an albino lop. It is best to check that there are no external problems such as ear mites or infection, as this would cause loss of hearing too. Also bear in mind that rabbits hearing is different from ours, in respect that they cannot pick up lower frequencies but can hear higher frequencies than we can: http://www.lsu.edu/deafness/HearingRange.html
Paddling with hind feet or front feet
An owner may notice that their rabbit is shifting from one foot to another, giving the appearance of paddling, and this can be either the hind feet or front feet. This indicates severe pain and should not be ignored. In rex rabbits it may indicate that the balls of the feet are infected and sore, and an affected rabbit will often flick the front feet around in its desperation to ease the discomfort (see full description of sore hock issue further down). This should not be confused with the flicking of the paws prior to a rabbit washing its face however. Paddling of the back paws often indicates pain in the lower abdomen, often accompanied by the drawing in of the abdomen muscles, giving a very pinched in appearance. A vet opinion must be sought quickly as any rabbit in pain is prone to the onset of gut stasis, a very serious and often fatal condition (see separate article).
The photos below show rabbits rubbing their chins on various surfaces. This is completely normal scent marking behaviour and usually increases in frequency if the rabbit is put into new surroundings. The rabbit is simply saying “this is mine now”!
Infected scent glands
Most pet rabbit owners are not aware that a rabbit has two scent glands on either side of the genital area just in front of the tail. There is a long pouch-like structure on either side into which small amounts of “scent” are secreted, and in normal circumstances this is not a problem. However, sometimes the secretions can allow an infection (bacterial or fungal) to develop, and this causes discomfort to the rabbit and the odour is then attractive to flies, giving the risk of fly strike. Rabbits that are overweight can be particularly prone to this condition. The photo below shows a rabbit with the start of an infection in one of the glands. The black colour is just the dried up secretion and is not in itself a problem, but the creamy puss that accumulates underneath is more of a concern. The area should be cleaned gently but thoroughly with a moistened cotton bud, and a soothing antiseptic and/or antifungal cream can be sparingly applied. If the skin appears to be very red and sore, the rabbit may need a topical antibiotic cream from the vet to help the area to heal.
See also separate article on this subject. Mucoid enteritis, diarrhoea, bloat and gut stasis are the commonest killers of rabbits, the first three conditions being especially common and serious for rabbits under 6 months of age. Diarrhoea in baby rabbits is particularly common when a rabbit is purchased from a pet shop and the stress of change of environment and diet brings on a change in the acidity of the gut, resulting in diarrhoea which is often fatal. Gut stasis is associated more with adult rabbits, as diarrhoea in adults is relatively rare. Bloat tends to come on suddenly without any warning, and can occur as a condition in its own right or in the final stages in a rabbit with gut stasis or mucoid enteritis. Gut stasis occurs when the gut motility slows down or grinds to a complete halt, with the result that nothing can get through and gases start to build up. Mucoid enteritis is usually accompanied with mucous in the droppings and/or diarrhoea. Isolated cases of these conditions may be triggered by stress, such as moving to a new home, fighting with another rabbit, changes in diet etc., but there is also an infectious form that can kill high numbers within a herd. The onset of symptoms is sudden, and include some but not necessarily all of the following: loss of appetite, few or no droppings, small misshapen droppings, sitting huddled in a corner or stretched out in obvious pain, bloated stomach, diarrhoea, jelly-like substance (mucus) being passed. This condition is extremely serious and the rabbit must be taken immediately to the vet. 60% of rabbits under 6 months of age affected with this illness die, adults having a better recovery rate with 30% fatalities. The photo below shows a normal dropping beside a dropping that is encased in thick jelly-like mucus, which indicates that the rabbit concerned has severe inflammation of the gut. Have a look at the article elsewhere on our website that deals specifically with this topic. How can you prevent the onset of this condition? Be very aware of your rabbit’s normal feeding, behaviour and dropping patterns, and any deviation from the norm needs a closer look. Some bunnies will go slightly off their food but with a nice piece of vegetable or some tasty grass or dandelions, their tummy gets going again without the need for medication or a stressful trip to the vet which is guaranteed to really start the gut stasis properly. I always feed my rabbits in the morning, and watch them to see that they are coming forward readily to eat, and that they are actually eating, not just nibbling and walking away. Also, I give a fixed amount of dried food which they always finish within a short time, so if there is any left by the next day I know I have a problem. If there appears to be something wrong, my next step is to offer something really tasty and see if that is accepted. If not, I then start on the medications as follows, but bear in mind most owners will not have such medications on the shelf unless the rabbits have had a history of this problem so you usually are best to take the rabbit straight to the vet: Metaclopromide injection (repeated every 8 hours as required) which stimulates the gut to start moving again, Metacam given by mouth which gives pain relief (once daily for a few days only), a sachet of probiotic Bio Lapis (Protexin) mixed with warm water to make a cream which is then syringed into the mouth of the rabbit (I give as much of this as they will take, and give this two or three times a day, thankfully they usually like the taste). There is some evidence that Infacol (available from chemists in the high street) may be helpful if the problem is gas in the stomach or small intestine as it works by joining all the tiny gas bubbles into one bigger one which is easier then to pass along and out. Warmth is also important, and I use a heated pad that you can put in the microwave and place that beside the rabbit so he has the choice of lying on it or moving away. Fluids need to be given if the rabbit is dehydrated, but usually this needs to be done by the vet as the saline needs to be injected subcutaneously or given as a drip. The photo below shows a rabbit in the advanced stages of bloat. The most important thing for you do, therefore, is to be quick to notice that something is wrong, and get the rabbit straight to a good rabbit vet if he/she does not respond to the offer of a treat. Sadly in most cases of severe bloat/gut stasis/mucoid enteritis the rabbit usually dies within 5 days despite anything that you do, but if it is caught early enough there is a chance of survival. There appears to an infectious element involved in some cases as well, especially when a litter is affected as it can wipe out the whole lot of them. I have found that keeping the E. cuniculi levels down by giving Panacur (9 day course of Panacur unless E. cuniculi infection is suspected, in which case the course would be 21-28 days) increases the chances of survival and may also even offer some protection against gut stasis. Some owners find that giving no dried food at all to their rabbit cures them of recurrent gut stasis, so this is worth considering. However, you must ensure copious amounts of good quality hay and suitable green vegetables are available. On the subject of pain relief, there seems to be enough evidence to show that Metacam is far safer than Rimadyl (Carprofen) which some vets will suggest using. It is evident that Rimadyl can and does cause more issues with liver problems and stomach lining irritation than Metacam, so do check what medication is being used. Have a look at this site for more info: http://forums.rabbitrehome.org.uk/showthread.php?t=65230 Spotty rabbit syndrome – there appears to be a genetic predisposition in certain breeds of rabbits to gut stasis issues, particularly in the English (dalmation) type rabbit, but this does not mean that every spotty rabbit will have a problem! It is certainly the case that once a rabbit has had a bout of gut stasis it may well be prone to further issues, possibly due to a narrowing of the gut due to the effects of the previous inflammation. A rabbit that is prone to gut stasis issues may well be triggered into this condition on occasions by consumption of large quantities of fur during their own or their partners moult if the moult is an excessively heavy one. With such a rabbit it is wise to make sure that you remove excess fur from themselves and their environment daily as a precaution.
Bladder stones and sludge
Although most rabbits do not develop stones or sludge in the bladder, there are a minority of individuals who are, for a variety of reasons, prone to this very serious condition. It can affect any breed, at any age and both sexes, and is difficult to treat due to a high rate of re-occurrence. Symptoms vary but can include an increase in urination, urinary incontinence where the rabbit becomes wet around the tail and back legs from the urine dribbling out, straining to pass urine, blood in the urine, the urine appearing to be very much thicker than normal, and generally appearing to be unwell. Some rabbits only show one of these symptoms, or the symptoms are so subtle that an owner may miss them. To further complicate the situation, these symptoms can also have other causes so it should not be assumed that bladder stones or sludge are the cause. Veterinary advice must be sought straight away, and I will now explain in a bit more detail what this condition is all about to help give a general understanding of how to prevent the condition and reduce re-occurrence. It is not currently known why a small minority of rabbits form stones whilst some form sludge, but it would appear that bladder sludge does not go on to form stones. Most rabbit urinary stones are made of some form of calcium carbonate (chalk), and can be found in the kidney collecting ducts or the ureters as well as the bladder. In some cases, a stone can be passed by the rabbit via the urethra and left behind in the litter tray, but occasionally a larger stone gets stuck in the urethra which completely or partially blocks the flow of urine. If a stone is found in the litter tray, you should not assume that is the end of the problem as there may be others still present inside. Bladder sludge is a thickening of the urine with calcium salts, resulting in urine that does not flow as well as it should. Sludge can also form in the kidneys and ureters, but most is formed in the bladder. The sludge can be as thick as toothpaste, or have a more runny grainy texture, and this can be felt by an experienced rabbit handler if the lower abdomen is gently palpated. The bladder in such cases often feels distended and “doughy”, and sometimes the sludge can be expertly voided manually if done very carefully. However, bladder stones or sludge will reoccur if the causes are not found and dealt with. Humans and most domestic animals only absorb the calcium from a meal that is needed by the body at that time, any excess either being left unabsorbed, or processed by the liver and excreted in faeces. Rabbits, however, appear to absorb calcium in excess to their needs, and excrete the excess mainly in the urine in the form of calcium carbonate. This is what makes rabbit urine cloudy in comparison to human urine, and you may well have noticed that when rabbit urine dries on the bottom of a litter tray it has the appearance and texture of chalk. A rabbit’s blood calcium level is always significantly higher than that of many other domestic animals and this is normal for rabbits, which should be borne in mind if the vet carries out blood tests. Factors that can predispose a rabbit to bladder sludge or stones are many, and include the following:
- Not drinking enough water. This could be caused by a frozen or faulty water bottle, overturned bowl, contaminated water (some rabbits don’t like vitamins added to the water, nor the taste of water from a bottle covered in green algae). Make sure the source of water is clean and is working properly and is available at all times, and for a rabbit that drinks very little it may be worth adding some natural fruit juice to the water to encourage an increase in consumption.
- Being overweight and/or inactive. A rabbit that sits around all day is not healthy from any point of view, and urgent steps must be taken to correct the diet and encourage exercise. You can increase the chances of the rabbit moving around more by providing access to exercise at all times and giving items like wicker baskets, cardboard boxes, tubes and other items to stimulate interest, and if the rabbit is on its own it is worth considering doing a match-up as rabbits often take more exercise if living with a compatible partner. There are tips on diet, accommodation and company elsewhere on this website.
- Some rabbits are very fussy about where they urinate, so it is important to provide a suitable litter tray or quiet area that the rabbit has access to at all times. If a rabbit hangs on for too long before urinating on a regular basis, this will cause the urine to become more concentrated which could in itself cause problems. This can be an issue if transporting a rabbit somewhere in a pet carrier on a regular basis, as many rabbits will refuse to urinate in the carrier.
- Other health issues such as kidney or bladder disease.
- Giving food that contains high calcium. Although it has been shown that feeding rabbits on a diet that contains high calcium does not cause bladder stones or sludge, it would make sense to choose a diet that is lower in calcium and avoid products that contain alfalfa. A good quality meadow or timothy hay is absolutely vital to a rabbit’s health, but the concentrated dried grass products available from pet stores contain alfalfa and should be avoided. Vegetables such as kale and spinach should be given as an occasional treat only, but other dark green leafed vegetables are a very important part of a rabbit’s diet as they contain large amounts of water and should be given daily, building the amount and variety up slowly to avoid digestive upsets. Herbs should only be given once a week.
Food items to avoid for a low calcium diet:
- alfalfa hay, alfalfa pellets or treats
- initially avoid all concentrated rabbit mix (pellets or muesli mix)
- carrot tops
- goose grass
- kale and spinach
Food items to include for a low calcium diet (but remember to introduce them slowly):
- dandelion leaves (maximum 2 leaves a day)
- mixed meadow or Timothy hay
- maize (including sweetcorn leaves)
- swede and turnip
Overgrown front teeth
Also referred to as malocclusion, this condition is usually inherited from parents, but incorrect feeding can make the situation worse. The teeth will either need to be trimmed every 3 weeks for the rest of the rabbit’s life, or be removed completely. This serious condition must be attended to urgently, otherwise the rabbit may starve to death, or at the very least be in significant pain. The photo below shows the length of the teeth after only 3 weeks of having been burred (trimmed) by the vet. Compare this with the fifth photo below of a rabbit with normal teeth. The two photos below show a rabbit with border-line malocclusion, as the lower teeth are only just catching on the “peg teeth” (the little teeth immediately behind the top incisors), which are growing abnormally. Experience has shown that within months the lower incisors will miss the peg teeth altogether, with the result that the upper incisors will grow down towards the chin with nothing to stop them, the lower incisors growing upwards into the roof of the mouth. A severe case of malocclusion is shown in the photo below. A rabbit with normal front teeth is shown in the photo below.
Overgrown back teeth (dental disease)
The photo above shows a large back tooth spur protruding into the cheek of the rabbit, making a large ulcer (the red colour is not blood, but the shadow from the flash!). This rabbit showed no external signs of any problem whatsoever, even although he must have been in considerable discomfort. The photo below shows two of the molar spurs that I removed from a rabbit that once again showed little sign of dental disease apart from being thin and rather fussy with his food (the cotton bud is in the photo to give an indication of size). The second photo is a rather poor quality attempt to show the molar spur prior to its removal, and the third photo shows a rabbit in the “bunny bag” prior to a dental procedure.
Dental disease symptoms may include weight loss, runny eyes, poor appetite, dribbling, dirty bottom/soft droppings. This condition causes distress and pain and needs urgent attention. The tooth spurs will often repeatedly re-grow, resulting in frequent expensive trips to the vet. Dental disease cannot be cured, and if the rabbit is young it may be best to consider euthanasia to prevent future suffering. If the rabbit is over 4 years old and the dental disease is not too serious, it may be possible to keep it in check with regular tooth burring by the vet, but this is not always an appropriate course of action. The photo below illustrates how the eyes can be affected by disease of the back teeth, usually caused by the teeth roots growing in the wrong position and pressing on the tear ducts, shutting them flat so tears flow onto the face instead of down the tube and away via the nose and throat (officially known as Dacryocystitis). Although in most cases the discovery of severe dental disease means a shortened lifespan for the rabbit, in some extremely rare cases the symptoms of abscesses and osteomyelitis (where infection gets into the bone of the jaw which swells considerably) can be given a reprieve by medication. However, the symptoms usually return so at best all that can be achieved is to put off the inevitable for a while. One elderly rabbit who developed osteomyletis of the jaw was successfully treated with Rifampicin (Rifadin Syrup) at a dose of 2.2mls/kg twice a day for 28 days, together with Azithromycin (Zithromax Suspension) at the dose of 1ml/kg once a day for 28 days. This treatment stalled progression of the disease for some months so may be worth considering if treatment is the chosen course of action.
If there are no other symptoms, red urine is usually due to pigmentation from the food, colouring the urine red or brown. Dandelions can often cause this as well as apple bark from twigs and branches, and it is nothing to worry about. However, check that the water bottle is working properly, especially in the winter months when water may become frozen in the spout. If unsure, seek veterinary advice as sometimes red urine may indicate the presence of blood, possibly due to a bladder/uterine problem.
Rabbits soiled with droppings or urine are at high risk from this condition – flies lay their eggs on any area of the rabbit that is wet or dirty (especially around the genital area) and the resulting maggots eat into its flesh with very distressing and often fatal consequences. This is particularly common in the summer months, so check your rabbit daily if it is at higher risk as the fly eggs hatch in under 12 hours. A rabbit with maggots must be taken to the vet immediately. Healthy rabbits that are not dirty around the back end, leaking urine, or obese will not get fly strike, so there is absolutely no need to check a rabbit daily unless it fits into one of these categories (or unless it has a one-off bout of soft droppings as can sometimes happen). A rabbit that has significant health issues clearly needs to be checked and appropriate medication such as Rear-Guard applied, but sadly even checking a rabbit twice a day would not necessarily be enough to save a rabbit as some go into shock within a very short time indeed once the maggots hatch, and fly eggs are often not spotted (they can be tiny, depending on the type of fly concerned). It is vital that with a rabbit in the high risk category the appropriate steps must be taken to address the cause of the problem, as many cases are caused by incorrect diet or too much quantity of dried food or vegetables. However, E. cuniculi, arthritis, infection, tumours and dental disease can all play a part in causing leakage problems and this is not so straight forward to rectify. In most cases with rabbits that do not like being handled (and that is the majority), the bond between owner and rabbit can be put under severe strain if they are checked even once a day, never mind twice, and a balance has to be reached. As I said earlier, healthy rabbits do not get fly strike, so there is no need to put such rabbit through the trauma of checking without good reason. Rabbits are basically wild creatures and still retain their basic instincts that if they are up off the ground being held, this usually means bad news (a fox’s dinner perhaps), and this must be taken into account when any contact is needed. Clearly there are some rare individuals who do not seem to mind being held (or tolerate it is perhaps a better phrase) but they are so rare that I have to base the information on the website for the majority. The photo below shows the damaged skin of a rabbit that has recovered from flystrike. Eventually the sores will heal but the skin will be permanently scarred.
The most common reason why a rabbit scratches a lot is that it has some kind of insect infestation (parasite) such as fleas, mites or lice. Here is a quick guide to help you identify what insect you are dealing with, as the treatment is different depending on what the problem is. Once you have identified the problem, you then need to seek the correct medication, and you may be best to contact your vet to confirm your diagnosis and be guided as to the best treatment. Basically, fleas usually show up more as tiny black grit droppings in the base of the fur, and sometimes you will see a flea as well but more often than not it is the black grit you see, and treatment for fleas is usually with a product called Advantage, but your vet may supply a different medication. If it is fur mites you will see tiny moving specs of dust in the fur if you move the fur backwards, and treatment for that can also be by using Advantage or Xenex spot on. If it is the burrowing mite (more on this below) you will not see any insects at all, but you will see at least one patch of thick flaky dandruff close to the skin, often at the nape of the neck or around the rump area. Treatment for this is usually with Ivermectin injection or spot on. Lice are small but long insects and are clearly visible in the fur, often around the tail area but can be anywhere, and treatment with Advantage is usually effective, or a pet insecticidal shampoo or powder. For any of these parasite problems, you also have to treat the accommodation too, as eggs and larvae will have dropped to the floor and will be ready and waiting to reinfect the rabbit again so a suitable spray needs to be used in all the areas that the rabbit usually goes in. If you have more than one rabbit, the chances are high that they will be infected too, so you will need to treat all rabbits and guinea pigs in the area, otherwise the reinfection will just keep on happening. Bear in mind that fleas can be spread easily from cats and dogs to rabbits, so if fleas are the problem you will need to treat any other pet in the household too, as well as carpets and furnishings.
Dandruff and/or bare patches
Usually caused by mites (Cheyletiella parasitivorax) resulting in skin irritation and unsightly appearance of the fur. The dandruff is visible as large flakes, not the little tiny dots that you sometimes see when the rabbit is having a moult. It is easily treated by a course of ivomec injections or a spot-on treatment from your vet. Finish the course, otherwise the mites will return. Any other rabbits in the vicinity must be treated also. A photo of a rabbit with Cheyletiella mites is below. The rabbit had a large patch of scurf between the shoulder blades, and also another large patch just above the tail.
Lump or scab on the back of the neck
This can occur in rabbits that have been vaccinated recently, but with the new combined vaccination it will hopefully be less common than with the old single vaccination system. It usually heals on its own and should require no treatment.
Head swaying from side to side
This is very common in red eyed rabbits or rabbits with brown eyes that glow red in certain light. This is absolutely normal and often occurs when the rabbit is relaxed. If the head is tilted to one side however, this is a different condition and veterinary advice should be sought urgently (see also information regarding head tilt above).
Eating its droppings – caecotrophy (coprophagy)
All rabbits, hares, guinea pigs, chinchillas and degus eat a diet that is very rich in fibre but poor in nutrient, so the food has to go through their digestive system twice to be able to extract all the nutrients they need to keep them healthy. It is normal and essential for a rabbit to eat its caecotrophs (the droppings that have only gone through the system once) directly from the anus, and these droppings look quite different from the usual hard round droppings that you find left on the floor. The photos below compare the caecotroph (top) and the usual dropping (lower photo), and you can see that the caecotrophs are softer and shiny, often being bunched together like grapes. If you find such droppings on the floor it usually indicates that either the rabbit is obese and can’t reach to eat them properly, or there is a dietary problem that needs to be resolved (see section on feeding). The film below illustrates well how a rabbit (or in this case a hare) consumes a caecotroph – it is all over very quickly and unless you know what you are watching for you will likely never see your rabbit partaking of this activity!
Twitching of the muscles around lower back/rump
Although not every rabbit exhibits this behaviour, it is not uncommon. Some rabbits twitch their muscles randomly around their rump area, especially when they are eating their dried food or vegetables, and this can look rather alarming to an owner who is not aware of what is going on. It is absolutely nothing to worry about, and there seems to be a genetic link in this behaviour as it is often seen in siblings, and mum and her offspring. It is possible the affected rabbits are exhibiting involuntary muscle twitches in response to feeling vulnerable whilst feeding, especially if it is their main meal of the day where there will also be heightened excitement and anticipation. I have filmed one of our rescue rabbits showing this behaviour, as shown below.
Urine scalding around tails and back legs
There are at least four possible causes of urine scalding around the tail and back legs. If the rabbit is elderly there may possibly be a touch of arthritis in the hind legs/spine which makes it difficult to raise the tail and haunch up when urinating, hence the reason the urine ends up on the legs instead of flowing clear. It may be worth trying some pain relief for a week to see if that makes any difference. Secondly, the rabbit could be suffering from E. cuniculi which commonly causes urinary tract problems (a month’s course of panacur would at least stop the condition getting worse and may even make improvements, but all the rabbits in the vicinity would need to be treated at the same time). Thirdly, if the rabbit is overweight then this would also make it difficult to urinate clear of the legs, and a diet would be in order (see separate article on feeding). Lastly, sometimes an injury to either sex or post castration complication in males can cause either the bladder opening to be set squint (as in the case of injury) or the opening to almost seal up in males (in some rare cases some time after castration), either scenario causing the urine to exit at an angle and catch the leg and/or tail. An operation may be required to return the flow in the correct direction, but in any case it is important that veterinary opinion is sought immediately to prevent soreness, infection and fly-strike. In the case of post-castration complication, it can sometimes be possible to stretch the opening to allow the flow of urine to return to normal, as when the opening is restricted the rabbit is not able to empty its bladder properly and the urine just trickles out all the time. Even when the opening is stretched manually, the restriction may return a few weeks later so this must be checked regularly.
The usual reason why rabbits become red and sore around the genital area is due to some kind of urinary tract problem resulting in leakage of urine and subsequent scalding of the skin (as described above). However, there is a condition call cheilitis, thought to be fungal in origin, that appears to occur in some rabbits without necessarily having the expected urine leakage issues. It is still likely to have started due to the skin being damp and warm, but once it has started it can then spread around the mouth and chin as well, transferred there when the rabbit is either cleaning itself or when it is consuming caecotrophs. The photos below show a rabbit that started out with a bladder infection which then led to cheilitis.
This condition needs urgent attention, and the rabbit should either be taken to the vet (the vet may prescribe Nystatin cream which is known to be effective) or you could try treatment at home initially if you have the time and knowledge to do so. The scabs or thick white skin patches need to be very gently soaked off (this must be done with extreme care and lots of patience as it is very painful) and tincture of iodine (such as Betadine, from the chemist) applied sparingly and gently with cotton wool to the affected areas. Daktarin oral gel available from the chemist is also very effective but must be used for at least 2-3 weeks, and is most effective if the scabs are removed first. Blistex Relief Cream (again available from your local chemist) can be effective as well, and this gives real relief as it has some local anaesthetic effects which soothes the raw areas. This should be done twice a day for at least 2-3 weeks, even after you are confident that the area has healed. In stubborn cases I also use a product called Surolan (available from vets) which I use sparingly once a day in place of the Blistex for three or four days and then swap to the Blistex. Surolan contains a mild steroid which is why it can only be used for a short time as after that it can actually delay the healing process, but I have found that it is useful at getting rid of the condition permanently, so if you are dealing with a persistent and reoccurring problem it is worth a try. Imaverol, available on line or from farm supply shops, is also effective and the scabs do not need to be removed first. It is used at 1:50 dilution.
BRC Metal Exhibition Ring
The photo above shows how a British Rabbit Council or BRC exhibitors ring (put on a rabbit’s hind leg when it is very young) can cause major problems later on, especially if the rabbit becomes overweight or something gets caught between the ring and the skin of the leg. Breeders are meant to remove these rings if the rabbit is sold on and is not going to be used for exhibiting, but sadly many do not bother and I have seen several cases where the rabbit’s leg has been almost through to the bone by such rings, causing a great deal of pain and distress. The ring can be easily removed – get a sharp pair of wire cutters and make a snip on a top edge and then another snip on the opposite lower edge. The ring should then fracture right across. Repeat this on the other side of the ring and the ring should then split neatly into two halves which can then be removed. Take great care not to catch the skin or to twist the leg in such a way as to damage or break the bone. If the ring has been cutting into the skin you will need to treat the sores and this may need veterinary advice if it is severe. The photos below show how the ring can be removed successfully.
Panting and sitting still a lot of the time
If the weather is very hot, it is not unusual for a rabbit to seek out a shady cool spot and lie there for hours, and this is especially obvious if the rabbit is overweight. However, if a rabbit shows these symptoms and it is not hot nor overweight, it is possible there may be a heart problem, and veterinary advice should be sought quickly. If the standard medication that you are offered fails to improve the situation, you can suggest the drug Fortekor, which is used for heart failure in cat and dogs (my thanks to Victoria Carey, rodentologist and experienced rabbit keeper for this information). The dose is 0.25mg/kg of rabbit, and a month’s course is recommended. Victoria suggests that the tablet be crumbled in a little bit of water, and then given to the rabbit by mouth via a syringe. Heart problems are sadly common in giant breeds, especially if they have been allowed to become overweight.
Obesity – why is my rabbit fat?
Just like humans, rabbits become overweight if they eat more calories than they use up – it is that simple. Detailed information on how much to feed and what to feed is in the feeding section of this article, but basically the general rule for an average sized adult rabbit is one flat egg cup of pellets per day per rabbit, lots of fresh hay, and green vegetables that the rabbit will tolerate, starting gradually with something like celery if bunny is not used to having fresh food. Avoid treats and coloured vegetables and fruit, and remember that if the rabbit has access to bird food (or sometimes even cat food) it will eat that too so make sure the rabbit cannot get access to these extra tidbits. An overweight rabbit is unhealthy is is at risk of flystrike, a dirty bottom, and poor fur from an inability to groom properly. Their feet and joints can also get sore due to the extra pressure they are under too, so all in all it is vitally important that you make sure your rabbit stays in trim. Exercise is just as important as correct diet, and you will find your rabbit becomes much more active as the excess weight is lost, and the more exercise he or she takes the more effective the weight reduction will be. If an obese rabbit is put on an inappropriate diet and loses weight too fast, he or she can become ill very quickly due to problems associated with the liver, so sticking to the egg cup a day of pellets, hay and green vegetables feeding regime should ensure that weight loss is steady and successful. Some vets now suggest that rabbits can be kept simply on lots of green vegetables and hay, with no dried food at all, but this needs to be introduced gradually and it will mean you need a constant stock of copious amounts of veg! Grass is an excellent food for rabbits, but this is more of a problem in the winter months. The photo below illustrates how an overweight rabbit can develop an enlarged dewlap under the chin, making it almost impossible to groom itself or consume caecotrophs, leading to all sorts of serious problems.
Sadly, a rabbit with a dirty bottom is not uncommon and is almost always due to unsuitable diet. Before looking in more depth at the causes of this problem, it is important to know how to quickly resolve the issue of a rabbit that has a hardened ball of faeces stuck to its tail. You will need a washing up bowl, a large bath towel, another towel, warm water, and an extra pair of hands! Fill the bowl with warm water to a depth of about 4-6 inches (10-15cms) depending on the size of the rabbit. Place the bowl on a table or work top on top of the towel so the surface is covered all around the bowl. Put the rabbit in the bowl so he is sitting right in, making sure his bottom is completely submerged in the water. He needs to sit there for 5-10 minutes until the ball softens enough to allow you to gently loosen it away with your fingers. You may need an extra person to steady the rabbit during this process, hence the extra pair of hands. Do not force the mass to come away as you could end up tearing the very fragile skin, just be patient and let the water do its job. You may find you can get some to break away and then have to leave it for another few minutes to soak away the rest. The reason for the towel underneath the bowl is two-fold – to stop the bowl moving around and to catch any overflow if the rabbit tries to get out! Once you are happy that you have succeeded with loosening and pealing away the mass, lift the bunny out of the bowl and wrap him in the other towel, gently drying him off. Do not put him back outside until he is dry, so either keep him inside until he dries off or use a hairdryer on a very low setting. Now lets look at the problem in more detail. The droppings of a rabbit will tell you a lot about its health. The photo below shows normal, round and firm droppings, and a healthy rabbit will pass lots of these every day (see first photo below). The size of the actual droppings will vary with the size of the rabbit, but if the size of the droppings changes suddenly and become small and hard, this indicates that the rabbit may have the beginning of gut stasis, a serious condition that is often fatal (see second photo below, showing normal droppings compared to those from a rabbit suffering from gut stasis in the latter stages before it stopped passing droppings completely). Veterinary opinion should be sought straight away. Below is a photo of soft smelly droppings that indicate there is a problem, usually linked to a diet that is not healthy. This can then stick to the rabbit’s tail and bottom, causing a major problem. The photo below shows droppings that have some fur mixed in, resulting in what is often referred to as a “string of pearls”. Rabbits usually pass fur without any problems, but if the gut motility has slowed for any reason (see above for information on gut stasis) the fur can become lodged and then can cause a blockage. It is not the fur that causes the problem, it is only that the gut has slowed down that it then becomes an issue. Giving pineapple juice to help dissolve the fur is a total waste of time (unless the rabbit likes it of course) as scientific tests have shown that the fur would have to be sitting in a pool of the juice for several days for it to have any significant effect upon the actual hair. The photo below shows caecotrophs that are usually ingested straight from the anus. This is normal behaviour for a rabbit and is very important for healthy digestion. Rabbits who do not eat their caecotrophs are usually either two fat to reach down to their tails, have arthritis or pain in their joints which inhibits this behaviour, or are not well in some way. The caecotrophs then can stick to the unfortunate rabbit’s tail which can cause real issues such as fly strike risk. A rabbit with a dirty bottom is sadly very common. There are several possible causes, usually diet orientated. However, if it has suddenly occurred with no prior history of this problem, the back and front teeth should be thoroughly checked by a vet (preferably under anaesthetic as they can’t be examined properly if they are conscious). It is not unusual for rabbits with back teeth problems to have sticky bottoms so this must be ruled out first. Whilst there, have the vet give the rabbit a good general check over to rule out any other health problems. On the assumption that nothing is found (do choose your vet with care, only go to a vet who is really knowledgeable about rabbits), then one needs to look at the diet. Carrots and apples are two of the worst things you can give a rabbit as far as sticky bottoms are concerned, so withdraw them completely. It is probably a good idea to go back to basics for a couple of weeks – a very small amount of dried food as described in the feeding section above, and hay and water ad lib. The dried food should be something like Burgess Excel (or Excel Light if the rabbit is overweight), Science Selective, or other vet recommended pellet brand. The muesli-type food is often a disaster to use and if the bunny is on this already then you must gradually wean him off over a period of a couple of weeks by adding in the new food half and half. Muesli allows the rabbit to selective feed, picking out the sweet high-fat bits and leaving the healthy pellets that contain the vitamins and minerals that are needed to keep the rabbit healthy. The quantity that is fed is vitally important too. Most adult rabbits only need a maximum of one egg cup (flat, not heaped) once a day on the assumption that they are not overweight and are an average weight of about 2.5 kg. Overweight rabbits likewise need a very small amount daily, but with lots of hay available at all times. Hay should make up 70-80% of the total diet, the remaining 20% being made up of dried food and green vegetables. Some owners find that withdrawing dried food completely from the diet is the only way to cure the problem, the rabbit being forced to eat large quantities of hay which is high in fibre. Once the rabbit is stable on the new regime (this may take up to a month) you can then try to introduce some celery. I have found this vegetable to be very good for the large majority of rabbits, even for those that normally can’t tolerate vegetables. Give a quarter of a stick a day and go from there. If all seems well after a week, then try to introduce a small amount of spring greens, and see how that goes. If the sticky bottom comes back, then withdraw the greens for a while, and try again after a few days but at a much reduced amount. It is good for rabbits to have green vegetables, but sometimes trying to find the amount that will be tolerated is a bit tricky. Some individuals can only tolerate it once a week, but most will get used to a small amount every day if introduced very gradually. There are lots of plants that can be given safely to rabbits, and comprehensive list can be found on the internet. Another possible cause of a dirty bottom is that of a flabby belly. Some rabbits that are overweight or have been overweight in the past have folds of skin around the genital area, making it almost impossible for the rabbit to eat the caecotrophs (the soft “bunch of grapes” droppings that all rabbits re-ingest) directly from the bottom, resulting in them being “caught up” in the folds of skin. If this is the case, a “tummy tuck” operation may be required to remove the excess skin, but this is a last resort and can’t be done until the skin is in good condition i.e. not red, sore and inflamed. Often putting the rabbit on a strict diet is enough to solve this problem as the folds get smaller as the rabbit loses weight, but not always.
Dewlap that is too large
Most female rabbits (and a very few males) have dewlaps – the pouch of fatty tissue just under the chin – and in the large majority of cases the dewlap causes no problems at all. However, if the rabbit is overweight or has been obese in the past, the dewlap enlarges out of all proportion and restricts the movement of the rabbit and prevents him or her from grooming or consuming caecotrophs correctly. The result of this is that the rabbit is often dirty at the back end as there is no means of the rabbit to clean itself. The top photo above (black and white female) shows a rabbit that was seriously overweight in the recent past and although she lost a lot of the excess weight, the size of the dewlap did not reduce and she needed a dewlap reduction operation which was carried out by the vet to resolve the problem. The photo below shows the position a rabbit needs to get into to be able to wash itself, this position being impossible for a rabbit with an enlarged dewlap. An oversized dewlap can also be an area that can be targeted by flies if they manage to lay their eggs in the moist folds of skin underneath, as well as fungal infections can flaring up too, all leading to a very serious situation unless action is taken. The moral of the story is never let your rabbit become overweight!
This is particularly common in Rex rabbits, but I have seen this distressing condition in other breeds too. Ulcerative pododermatitis, or sore feet is more common in Rex rabbits as they have less fur on their feet compared to breeds with normal fur, and this can result in sores on the soles of the hind feet and sometimes sore front feet as well. Calluses on the hind feet are fairly common in the Rex, but when the skin ulcerates and becomes infected, this is very serious indeed and veterinary treatment needs to be started straight away to prevent possible amputation of toes or worse due to the bones and bone marrow in the feet becoming inflamed.
Rabbits with sore feet sit in a different way to other rabbits, with their weight rocked forward onto their front paws, or they sit with their hind feet sticking up off the floor. They are also often reluctant to move around much due to the pain and discomfort this condition can bring. Some will appear to keep shifting their weight from one side to another in an attempt to get comfortable, and if all four paws are affected they go up on their toes when walking or hopping around to try and put the least amount of pressure on the sore areas. If the front feet are affected as well the rabbit will often shake its front paws and appear to bite them, but this should not be confused with the shaking of the front paws that often happens just before a rabbit washes its face.
In addition to Veterinary attention, you may find a spray which can be bought from a chemist particularly useful. It is a “liquid plaster” spray, and there are various brands to choose from, but they all appear to do the same job. Basically the spray puts a “second skin” over the sore area, protecting the skin underneath. You apply it every day for 10 days or so until the new fur is growing underneath. You can spray over mildly broken skin but make sure the area is thoroughly cleaned with a good disinfectant and dried before doing so. Hold the rabbit gently upside down in your arms until the spray dries, and the first time you use it apply two coatings, letting it dry between coats (it only takes two or three minutes to dry but you need to keep the feet away from any contact whilst they are drying). This will resolve the skin issues but will not resolve any trapped nerve-type problem which can be responsible for persistent chewing (I think this probably causes a “pins and needles” type of sensation, hence the constant niggling of the area by the rabbit). Having said that, I successfully treated a very stubborn case where there clearly was a nerve problem and the rabbit eventually stopped chewing her feet completely, so I am confident this treatment should help. Sometimes a fungal infection sets in, but by keeping the feet dry and protected with the spray, this often goes away on its own. A very useful product to use on feet that are red and inflamed prior to the spray is Hibiscrub, a handwash readily available from the chemist, as it contains an anti-fungal agent that I find is very effective. This would be done prior to starting the plaster spray treatment the first time. Another product that I have success with prior to the plaster spray is athlete’s foot cream (available from chemists), which you apply sparingly to the sore area and gently massage it into the skin. The plaster spray is then applied.
Prevention is far better than cure, so making sure the rabbit does not get overweight, keeping the area clean, and giving soft bedding or matting for the rabbit to sit on will certainly h. Certain conditions such as E. cuniculi or other illnesses that cause hind-end semi paralysis can also predispose any rabbit to this condition, but heavy breed rabbits such as the Rex and giants such as the Flemish Giant will always be at higher risk.
This only develops in intact (non-neutered) males, and is not very common. The symptom to watch for is an enlarged testicle when compared with the other one. Although a tumour in both testicles at the same time is possible, I have never seen this and have only seen rabbits with one testicle affected. Depending on the rabbit’s age and general health, the tumour can be completely removed by castration, but it is possible that if the condition is cancerous, the tumour could have already spread elsewhere. The photo below shows a rabbit with a large testicular tumour.
Rabbit making a strange “quacking” noise
Some rabbits make a very odd noise when they are handled, and this is usually linked to stress as they are breathing much harder and faster. It can be linked to a very low-grade sinusitis condition which ordinarily does not give any other symptoms and only appears when breathing is accelerated, such as when given medication. If the rabbit only makes the noise when handled, it is probably a good idea to cut back the handling to an absolutely minimum if no improvement is found within a couple of weeks. If there are any other symptoms, the rabbit must be seen by an experienced rabbit-friendly vet to rule out respiratory and other possible problems.
Ear mites are not just a minor irritation – they can be fatal. Caught early on, this condition is easily resolved by either Canaural drops available from the vet or a course of Ivermectin injections (again available from the vet) or a combination of both treatments as the drops have a soothing effect on the ear. Unfortunately, an average pet rabbit owner will not be aware there is a problem until it is advanced, by which time the rabbit is in severe pain with ears full of deep crusts and pus which affects hearing, general well-being and sometimes balance as well. Typical symptoms include: the rabbit scratching frequently and intensively inside its ear or ears with its hind leg; holding its head slightly to one side (the side with the worse ear as often one is more severely affected than the other); shaking its head slightly as if trying to get rid of the vile stuff deep inside. Ear mites are very painful as the delicate skin within the ear is partially destroyed by the crusts built up by the mite damage, so trying to peel away the crusts without using soothing drops to loosen the crusts is simply not an option. What I do in such cases is to run some Canaural drops inside both ears and put the rabbit somewhere quiet and away from other rabbits for about 10-15 minutes or so. Once I am happy that the drops have done their job I very very gently peel away the crusts using small tweezers and carefully dispose of them as they are literally full of crawling mites. If there is any sign of distress to the rabbit, the procedure must be stopped and a bit more of the drops applied, and then try again. Do not attempt this at all unless you are experienced with rabbit care, as you could do damage and cause distress, and you are better to either let the crusts come away on their own with treatment, or let the vet clear out the ears if you are not confident to carry out the procedure. The disadvantage of letting the crusts come away on their own is that there will be a major risk of spreading the mites over a very wide area, so it goes without saying that any rabbit in the immediate area needs to be treated too. As you gently proceed towards the inner ear, you will likely find a large plug of crusts, with pus and maybe blood at the base. Be very careful with the cleaning in this area, and again if you do not know what you are doing, do not go any further and let an expert take over. It is very gratifying to see what relief the rabbit feels once the ears have had this intensive treatment, and the ears usually heal within days. However, it is very important to carry on with the treatment as recommended on the container otherwise the infestation will return. The photos below show the crusts inside a rabbits ear that has severe ear mites, the third photo showing some of the crusts removed from inside the ear (you can see the scale of the crusts from the cotton bud in the photo).
This is often referred to as snuffles or pasteurella (the common cause). It is often a chronic condition that many rabbits carry without showing symptoms. Often the signs that the disease is present only show when the rabbit is stressed in some way or has some other health issue develop in addition to it. Sadly, chronic pasteurella is not curable as such, but can often be managed by giving antibiotics for a period of time when it flares up. Sometimes the condition can be fatal by developing into pneumonia, from which a rabbit rarely recovers. The photo below shows a rabbit with severe respiratory disease. The photos below show more typical symptoms of rabbits with snuffles, photographed before the rabbits concerned managed to wipe away the evidence with their front paws. Often the only evidence that a rabbit has this disease is that the fur on the inside of the front paws is caked hard with constantly wiping away the nasal discharge, and this should be looked for when examining a rabbit that you suspect is sneezing.
This is quite rare but needs to be treated immediately to prevent serious infection. The rabbit shown below caught the infection when she was in at the vet for removal of a facial abscess. Initially her ear looked red, swollen and sore, and it was only after antibiotic treatment and anti-fungal creams (Preparation H, available from the chemist) were underway that it became clear that some of the flesh of the ear had literally been eaten away. Thankfully she made a full recovery but has been left with a damaged ear, which does get a bit hot-looking when she is stressed.
GETTING RABBITS BACK INTO THEIR NIGHT AREA
If you allow your rabbits to roam free in your garden during the day, you will probably want them to be somewhere secure during the night in case a fox takes them, but bear in mind that pet rabbits are often very active at night so son’t expect them to be happy to be shut into a cage! You are best to provide a secure hutch with run attached even for night time accommodation (must be safe of course). The process of actually getting them to go where you want them to go can be tricky! It is a good idea to feed the rabbits their dry food only at night once they are back in their night area, thus rewarding them. This can take a week or so for them to make the link between their actions and the arrival of dinner. If you are already doing this, then perhaps think of giving them their fresh greens at night as a reward instead. A lot will depend on whether the reward system gives them the incentive to behave themselves or not. You will also want to give some kind of clear signal that you want them to come in – something like using a whistle, clapping your hands, calling in a specific way etc. As stated previously, it is important that there is a run (or similar) attached to the night area, as if they are literally shut in overnight that would be reason enough for them not to want to comply. So long as the area is safe from foxes burrowing in or rabbits burrowing out, rabbits really appreciate the ability to be active at night.
GOING AWAY ON HOLIDAY?
Don’t forget to arrange for someone reliable to look after your rabbits whilst you are away. It is less stressful if you can find someone to come in to your home so that the rabbits do not need to be moved, but if this is not possible make sure you visit the boarding facility before booking. You should take their usual food with you so that the diet is not changed suddenly, and give strict instructions about the feeding of greens to ensure an upset stomach doesn’t occur. The run should be attached to the hutch to make certain that the rabbits get exercise. If you are in the Bristol, Bath, Wiltshire or surrounding area, CottonTails provides excellent boarding facilities and has the advantage of many years’ experience, including veterinary knowledge.
WHEN THE END DRAWS NEAR …
Most rabbits live their life to the full and have many years of fun and enjoyment, but even for the healthiest bunny there comes a time when you will need to say goodbye. I read the following poem when I was waiting to see the vet to have one of my rabbits put to sleep, and the poem moved me very much. I would like to share it with you.
IF IT SHOULD BE
If it should be that I grow weak,
And pain should keep me from my sleep,
Then you must do what must be done,
For this last battle cannot be won.
You will be sad, I understand.
Don’t let your grief then stay your hand.
For this day, more than all the rest,
Your love for me must stand the test.
We’ve had so many happy years.
What is to come can hold no fears.
You’d not want me to suffer so;
The time has come — please let me go.
Take me where my need they’ll tend,
And please stay with me till the end.
Hold me firm and speak to me,
Until my eyes no longer see.
I know in time that you will see
The kindness that you did for me.
Although my tail its last has waved,
From pain and suffering I’ve been saved.
Please do not grieve — it must be you
Who had this painful thing to do.
We’ve been so close, we two, these years;
Don’t let your heart hold back its tears.
— Anonymous —
The following is the response I gave to a very distressed owner whose rabbit had been battling against dental disease for several years. Toby already had several abscesses removed, but they kept coming back and it had got to the point that he was running away when she came near to give the medication:
“I think you have summed up the whole issue with one phrase “he is becoming wary of me”. Let me briefly tell you about a dog that I had. Fala was 15 (a good age for a large dog) and although she still seemed reasonably happy she had become incontinent and I had to fit her with a nappy to avoid the obvious problem of her leaking everywhere. It got to the stage that every time I approached her she would run away, and this was breaking my heart. After much thought and discussion I made the difficult decision to let her go and the vet came and put her to sleep. The reason I am telling you this story is that there is a bit of a similarity with your bunny Toby. Toby is reaching the end of his natural life and has battled bravely with a horrible incurable condition that without doubt causes pain and distress when the symptoms are present. It has now got to the stage that his illness is affecting your relationship with him, and this is very sad. From what I can see, you have two choices – find a way of treating him to ease his suffering without him becoming distressed and afraid of you, or decide to let him go before his suffering makes his life unbearable. Only you can make the decision, and it is probably one of the hardest decisions you will ever have to make. It is important you put your own feelings to one side and consider what is best for Toby – the one thing we can do for a much loved pet if they have a distressing condition for which there is no cure is to let them slip away in a pain-free and dignified manner in a loving and secure environment”.
It is absolutely vital that your rabbit is sexed correctly, especially if he or she is to live with another rabbit. Sexing of rabbits is not easy, and it is very common for people to make mistakes – even vets have been known to get it wrong! As a general rule, by about 12 weeks of age the sex of the rabbit becomes much more obvious, but before that point it is sadly all too common for people to mistake a male for a female, as some males masquerade as females to such an extent that it takes a real expert and a thorough examination to see through the “disguise”. From the photos below, you will see that an adult male is really quite obvious, with the penis protruding when the genital area is pressed gently, and the pair of testicles being apparent as long but small balloon-shaped structures on either side of the genital area. The female, in contrast has only a leaf-like structure (the vulva) which when pressed gently will be seen to have an opening all the way inside. A mature female that has not been spayed will have a fleshy, swollen-looking vulva which can be coloured dark red or purple if she is ready for breeding, whereas a young female or one that has been spayed for a while will have a narrower pale pink vulva. The photo below shows an immature female. The photo below shows a mature spayed female. The two photos below show an intact mature female. An immature male is sometimes easy to spot if you know what you are looking for but BEWARE! It is these young males that can occasionally pretend to be females, and this is where the trouble begins. An immature male does not have a penis or testicles, the former only developing once the testicles have descended at about 10-12 weeks of age. The large majority of such males will have, in place of the penis, a tube-like structure, which is apparent when you press gently on the genital area. Below is a photo of an immature male. Males that have been neutered for longer than 6 months or so will look similar to an immature male, as the penis will have regressed back to a tube-like structure again and there will be no testicles present. It is important to be aware of this as some people mistake a neutered male for a female! A small percentage of immature males will, however, not have the tube-like structure but will exhibit a leaf-like vulva lookalike, the only difference from the real female is that there is not an opening that goes all the way inside. If the rabbit is only given a quick examination it is easy to miss this fact, hence so many rabbits are not correctly sexed. The photo below illustrates this problem well, as an initial quick look will give the impression that this is a female. There are several websites that show photos of the differences, and you may find them helpful: Website 1 Website 2
Anyone who has stroked a Rex rabbit will know exactly what makes this breed so special – its luxurious deep-velvet fur. This quality endears the breed to pet owners and exhibitors alike, and perhaps controversially even today in the UK there are products made from Rex rabbit pelts, including, rather ironically, young children’s soft toy rabbits.
Rabbits are not the only animal species to have such wonderful fur – Rex characteristics are also present in cats, rats, mice, hamsters and guinea pigs (2), although in the latter the fur is not velvety soft but rather wiry and short. Normal rabbit fur is made up a short undercoat interspersed with longer guard hairs, these guard hairs forming a layer that covers and protects the soft underfur. The beautiful velvety springy fur of the Rex, however, is caused by a naturally occurring mutated gene resulting in the fur growing outward instead of lying flat, the guard hairs being shortened to the length of the undercoat with the result that the fur is all the same length, giving the soft plush texture. As the gene is recessive it only exists if both parents pass it along (3).
This mutated Rex gene can also cause the fur to curl in some areas, usually where the fur is a little longer, such as behind the ears. Rex rabbits do not have normal whiskers but have shortened curly ones, or sometimes no whiskers at all, and they have retained the upright ears of their wild ancestors. Rex females have a dewlap under their chin, with both sexes having claws that are usually the same colour as their fur. (4).
So how did this striking rabbit breed come about? It is well documented that the breed has been around for almost 200 years, being first discovered in France in 1919, but this is where the agreement ends as there are divided opinions regarding who founded the breed and where. One version tells of the breed being found quite by chance with initially one and then another odd looking wild rabbit being found (5). Another states that two rabbits with a “rexed” coat were discovered amongst barn rabbits but that they were in a sorry state, almost without fur and misshapen. Both versions agree that it was only the foresight of the local village priest Abbot l’Abbe Gillet who recognised the potential of such a rabbit that the Rex breed was developed at all (5, 6). These rabbits that founded the Rex breed were found in a village in the South West of France, although accounts vary as to the exact location – some quote the village of Luche-Pringe (7), others the nearby village of Coulonge (5).
Not surprisingly, the first attempts to develop the breed resulted in an agouti version of the Rex, agouti being the wild rabbit colour, and such was the appearance of the fur of these rabbits they were named “Castor” as their pelts resembled the fur of a beaver – “castor” meaning “beaver” in French. The story goes that the priest was so taken with his attempts at developing the breed that he declared them the “King’s rabbits”, “Rex” meaning “King” in French, hence the “Castorrex”, as a breed, was born (5). The “castor” part of the name was dropped after some years, leaving the breed to be called simply the Rex.
It was in 1924 that the Rex rabbit was first introduced to the public at a Paris International Rabbit Show, and immediately it caught the imagination of exhibitors and commercial fur and meat breeders alike, with the breed being imported into the USA shortly after. After much development by introducing other rabbit breeds into the line, the problems with thin fur due to interbreeding were rectified, resulting in the beautiful fur that we know today (8). The Rex breed was officially recognised as a standard breed in 1925 in many parts of Europe (4).
Not content with the Rex as it was, various attempts were made to vary its size and colour, resulting in the development of numerous varieties and the emergence of the mini Rex as a breed. After the mini Rex was accepted, the term “standard Rex” was adopted by some to refer to the original Rex rabbit (9). The mini Rex Rabbit is appropriately named as it looks like a miniature version of the Rex (standard) rabbit, and was developed by a rabbit breeder in Texas in 1984 from imported Rex rabbits from Holland crossed with Netherland dwarfs to reduce the size. The mini Rex was officially recognized by the American Breeders Rabbit Association in 1988 (10), and has become one of the most popular breeds of rabbit in the USA and is increasing in popularity here in the UK.
The Rex is considered a medium to large rabbit, average weight being 2.7 – 4.5kgs. In comparison, the mini Rex is a smaller breed, average weight 1.4 – 1.8kgs. Both breeds are thought to be intelligent, but of course this varies between individuals just like it does with any rabbit breed. They come in a variety of colours, including black, blue, castor (chestnut), chinchilla, amber (cinnamon or chocolate agouti), chocolate, lilac, otter, lynx, opal, sable, seal, and white (11).
Further development of the Rex rabbit resulted in the somewhat rare Astrex, Opossum, and the Velveteen lop (11, 12, 13). The Astrex rabbits have fur that is tightly curled and they come in a variety of self (single) colours, whilst the Opossum is similar to the Astrex but its fur is tipped with white which gives it a stunning silvering appearance. The Velveteen lop has a story all on its own! In 1922 in the USA, Margery Williams wrote a children’s book “The Velveteen Rabbit” with delightful illustrations by William Nicholson (14), telling the story of a stuffed toy rabbit and his desire to become real through the love of his owner, a little boy. This story touched the hearts of many children and is still enjoyed today, so when the Rex breed became a reality, some rabbit breeders decided to try and actually create such a breed, and settled on the Velveteen lop! It was 1994 before the first litter of Velveteen lops was born through selective breeding, and this process has continued until the present day. The breed looks like a smaller version of the English lop (the very original lop breed to be developed) with huge long ears, the fur being velvet like the Rex (15). The breed is not yet officially recognized but supporters are hopeful it will be finally accepted in the near future – as in the story, the Velveteen rabbit will become Real!
Sadly, you cannot expect to manipulate any animal by selective breeding without encountering problems, and such is the case with the Rex. The texture of their coat means that they cannot be groomed in the normal way as brushing can damage the texture of the coat, so a quick groom with a slightly damp hand or soft cloth is usually all that is required. Like most rabbits, the Rex does not like extremes of temperature but they tolerate cold better than extreme heat, which is not surprising considering their fur (11). The curly whiskers can cause problems too and need to be checked regularly to make sure they are not growing into the rabbit’s eyes or nose, and any that are getting too long in this way need to be trimmed.
More serious than this, however, is the Rex’s increased risk of ulcerative pododermatitis, or sore feet. Rex rabbits have less fur on their feet compared to breeds with normal fur, and this can result in sores on the soles of the hind feet and sometimes sore front feet as well. Calluses on the hind feet are fairly common in the Rex, but when the skin ulcerates and becomes infected, this is very serious indeed and veterinary treatment needs to be started straight away to prevent possible amputation of toes or worse due to the bones and bone marrow in the feet becoming inflamed (16).
Rabbits with sore feet sit in a different way to other rabbits, with their weight rocked forward onto their front paws, or they sit with their hind feet sticking up off the floor. They are also often reluctant to move around much due to the pain and discomfort this condition can bring. Some will appear to keep shifting their weight from one side to another in an attempt to get comfortable, and if all four paws are affected they go up on their toes when walking or hopping around to try and put the least amount of pressure on the sore areas. If the front feet are affected as well the rabbit will often shake its front paws and appear to bite them, but this should not be confused with the shaking of the front paws that often happens just before a rabbit washes its face (17).
Prevention is far better than cure, so making sure the rabbit does not get overweight, keeping the area clean, and giving deep soft bedding such as barley straw or straw matting for the rabbit to sit on will certainly help (18). Certain conditions such as E. cuniculi or other illnesses that cause hind-end semi paralysis can also predispose any rabbit to this condition, but breeds such as the Rex and giants such as the Flemish will always be at higher risk. Without question, a rex rabbit should never be kept on a wire mesh floor, and that is also true of runs with wire mesh bases, as this will inevitably cause problems with the feet.
Despite pododermatitis, owning a Rex rabbit is a true joy, and they are no more prone to general health issues (such as gut stasis) than any other breed. If kept correctly they should have a problem-free long and healthy life and give great pleasure, so let’s hear it for the Rex!