Philadelphia Rabbit Veterinarian
So you got a baby bunny for Easter. Now what? Well, I have some information and tips to help make this an enjoyable, successful, and most important, healthy experience for you and your rabbit. Rabbits can be loving pets, and in the following article, I will discuss how to care for and keep your rabbit healthy so they can remain a healthy member of the family for years to come.
Rabbits should always be kept in a safe place where they can live, sleep, eat and rest, as well as go to the bathroom. You can take your rabbit out to play and run around in a “rabbit-proof” environment, but remember, the rabbit is a nibbler and a chewer. They will gnaw on anything, including books on a shelf, furniture, and wires. Household hazards can be fatal, and it is always important to know where your bunny is and what they are doing.
When handling your bunny, ALWAYS support its rear end and hind legs. A rabbit has a powerful hind leg kick and can break their own back if they kick, and their hind end is not supported. Children should sit on the floor with their bunny to learn how to hold and handle them, supporting their body and especially its hind legs like cradling a football. If a rabbit does not feel secure when held, it will try to jump away and may fall or hurt its back trying to get to a place they think is safer. Be aware that they have long toenails and can scratch while trying to hop away; they don’t mean to scratch; they are just trying to escape; this may take some time to get used to and is one reason I do not recommend a rabbit for younger children. It takes some time and a bit of strength to correctly handle a rabbit, which can be difficult for smaller children.
You can train your rabbit to pee and poop in a litter box, just like a cat. The key is that the litter box should be readily available, like in the rabbit’s kennel. It should have a substrate that is non-toxic or harmful to the rabbit. This substrate can be hay or straw to ensure that if the rabbit does chew on it, it will not harm their mouth or GI tract. Cat litter is not recommended since, if ingested, it can irritate and cause GI obstruction. The litter box should be cleaned each day. Bunnies are “continuous poopers” and will have a trail of fecal balls wherever they have been. Usually, they won’t pee around the house but will pick a particular spot. If you give them a litter box, they will use it.
Rabbits should ALWAYS have fresh water from a leak-proof water-bottle mounted on the OUTSIDE of their kennel facing in. This way, they don’t chew through the plastic bottle and empty the water, possibly ingesting the plastic, causing gastritis and making a mess.
Rabbits are herbivorous, which means they eat hay, vegetables, grains, and some fruits; they should never be fed meat. The adult rabbit diet should be a majority of hay in loose and pelleted form; some types are timothy, prairie, or oat. Pelleted foods such as Bunny Basic/T, Oxbow Pet Products, Forti-Diet Rabbit Timothy Blend Adult Rabbit Maintenance Formula, and Kaytee Products are available in major pet stores with exotic animals section or can be ordered online. Alfalfa hay is also available but is not recommended as it is lower in fiber and contains too much calcium. Calcium can cause urinary bladder stones and calcium deposits in their kidneys. Straw is different from hay. It is only the outer portion of hay and is of no nutritional value; however, it is useful for the bunny’s litter box.
Rabbits should also have green, leafy vegetables added slowly to avoid a sudden change in their stool. These vegetables can include bell peppers (red, green, and yellow), mustard and dandelion greens, carrots, beets, broccoli tops, alfalfa sprouts, and clover, parsley, spring mix lettuce (no iceberg), and cabbage.
As a treat, your bunny can have a piece of fruit such as apples, blackberries, blueberries, pineapple, melon, papaya, peaches, plums, pears, raspberries, or strawberries. These can be given a few times a week. Bananas and grapes are higher in their sugar content and should be saved for an occasional special treat and not recommended for an overweight rabbit.
Rabbits need fiber every day to keep their GI tract moving and healthy. A bunny’s GI tract is similar to a horse or a guinea pig in which the digestion of the food takes place in their intestines. They are called “hind-gut fermenters” because the bacteria in their intestines “ferment” the fiber and vegetables eaten; this is how rabbits digest the nutrients absorbed into their system. Too many fruits cause an increase in sugar and kill the bacteria, resulting in diarrhea, loss of fluids, dehydration, slowing of intestinal motility, and severe pain. Rabbits do not handle pain well at all, and this can contribute to their death. Feeding a consistent diet of mostly hay and rabbit pellets and some green leafy veggies is extremely important.
If you watch your bunny late at night, you may see them curl up into a ball and “examine” their rear end. They are eating their “night poops,” technically known as cecotropes. These night poops contain a high concentration of good bacteria that your bunny needs to maintain a healthy GI tract; if they don’t eat these special poops, they will not be healthy. The cecotropes are smaller than the day poops and are mushier, shaped like a cluster of tiny grapes, and have a moist sheen. So don’t be surprised if you see this sometimes.
In keeping with good health, your rabbit should have an annual veterinary exam to ensure that their weight is good, their teeth are healthy, their toenails are trimmed, and so their diet can be reviewed. Just like puppies and kittens, bunnies should be neutered or spayed as well, but for different reasons. Male bunnies may spray their urine, marking their territory like male cats. Some male bunnies can also become aggressive and more dominant when they mature. They also can have reproductive diseases, but to a lesser percentage than the female bunny. It is imperative to have a female bunny spayed to prevent uterine cancer.
Female intact bunnies have a high chance of developing uterine cancer. This cancer metastasizes to their lungs, and sometimes the first sign of a problem is difficulty breathing. At this stage, it is too late to save the bunny. So spay your female bunny to avoid this heartbreaking disease. Female bunnies should be spayed after they are 6 months old.
Another health issue that can show up is tooth “points.” Rabbits have continuously growing teeth. When a rabbit eats, they grind their food instead of chewing it, wearing down their teeth in the process. If their teeth are misaligned, they eventually develop “points,” resulting in drooling and dropping their hay and pellets. This problem shows up because of genetics and sometimes doesn’t develop until the rabbit is over 2 years old. A bunny can have a malocclusion of just its 2 front incisors, or their cheek teeth can also be misaligned. This is one of the items which should be checked at an annual exam.
As a rabbit gets older, regular blood work should be run yearly to look for underlying diseases such as kidney and liver disease. In my career, I have seen many older rabbits, the oldest being 15 years old.
Remember, rabbit toenails also grow like dogs and cats, so they should be trimmed regularly to ensure they don’t catch them in the wiring of their kennel.
Often, rabbits hide their problems and diseases, so always monitor their water and food intake and the size of their poops. As a rabbit becomes sick, they slow down their eating, resulting in smaller and smaller poops. With constant monitoring, you should be able to catch a problem early.
One final word…a plea actually…. domestic rabbits CAN NOT be released into the wild; they will Die! They are dependent on us for their food and care, their very lives. So if they become too much to deal with or for an unforeseen reason you have to give them up, please call one of the following rescues. If you would like to adopt a bunny, please contact one of the rescues listed below. Many rescued bunnies are just waiting to be adopted:
Rabbit Veterinary Hospital Philadelphia
To schedule an appointment to have your bunny examined, please call our Mayfair Office to speak with a member of our veterinary team. Not all of our doctors see rabbits, so please make sure our staff knows you are bringing in a bunny. With the information in this article, combined with things discussed at your bunnies’ visit to the Veterinarian, we can help keep your rabbit healthy and happy and a member of your family for years to come.
Janice Goode DVM
World of Animals at Mayfair