Domestic rabbits make charming household pets. Adults in England have realized this for years. In North America these wonderful creatures have long been viewed as child amusing animals to be kept outdoors in hutches. Things are changing and rabbits are coming into their own! Well cared for pet rabbits can live for twelve years or longer. As a result their disease problems are different from short lived commercial and laboratory rabbits. Many pet rabbit health problems are related to diet and husbandry.

Some of the more common problems include:

  • Dental disease
  • Obesity
  • Arthritic conditions
  • Eye problems
  • Gastric hypomotility
  • Gastro-intestinal obstruction
  • Uterine cancer
  • Urinary sediment and calculi
  • Pasturella infections
  • Vestibular disease (Head tilt)
  • Parasitism (with high density rabbit housing)

The problems of pet rabbits tend to be related to nutrition, husbandry and longevity.

Unlike most other animals rabbits the amount of calcium absorbed from the diet is directly related by the amount of calcium available in the diet rather than by the amount needed physiologically by the rabbit. In today’s world many feel that more is better… so many of the commercial rabbit diets are very high in protein and calcium. This is suitable if you are trying to grow a rabbit rapidly for the table but it is not suitable for a rabbit that intends to live a long and full life! Rabbits excrete excess calcium by the kidneys. This forms calcium carbonate in the urine. Normal UrineThis gives a milky appearance to the urine. In extreme cases this can lead to the development of cystitis or stones in the kidneys or bladder. It is therefore important to control dietary calcium and offer plenty of fresh water.

Rabbits are designed to eat a fibrous diet. Their teeth grow continuously and are shaped by wear. In addition optimal function of the digestive tract depends on fiber.Caecotrophs Rabbits produce two types of feces. The large dry pellets, that most owners clean up, are from the large pieces of indigestible fiber that pass rapidly through the digestive system. CecotrophsAnother type of fecal matter, called cecotrophs, are the result of bacterial fermentation in the cecum. This cecal fermentation produces volatile fatty acids and material rich in amino acids and vitamins. Periodically bits of this material are expelled from the anus as cecotrophs. Rabbits normally consume this directly from the anus and the nutrients are extracted during the second passage through the digestive system. Cecotroph matter is dark, sticky and smelly. If it is not consumed it can stick to the hair or make a nasty smear on the floor. This must not be confused with diarrhea. Certain conditions will interfere with a rabbits ability/desire to eat the cecotrophs. Physical barriers include obesity, confined cage space and restrictive Elizabethan collars. Any conditions which limit a rabbits ability/desire to groom will affect cecotroph consumption. Dental disease, spinal arthritis, pododermatitis, renal disease and neoplasia are some of the more common causes. Low fiber and high protein diets affect both the palatability and consistency of cecotrophs. Poor diets often result in softer stickier cecotroph pellets that tend to stick to the fur. Rapid alteration of a rabbit’s diet can also lead to problems with cecotroph consistency.

Rabbits by nature are fastidious groomers and may take this activity to the extreme. Occasionally they will groom an area on themselves, or a companion, until the hair is just a short stubble. Pregnant females will pull out the hair on their chest to line their nest. In rabbits with a tendency toward gastric hypomotility, ingestion of hair can lead to the formation of a hairball (trichobezoar) in the stomach. This is a very serious situation that requires hospitalization and extensive medical support. Dental disease and problems that limit flexibility and agility will also affect a rabbits ability to groom.

Low fiber diets and stressful conditions can result in gut stasis. Affected animals go off their food and and produce small amounts of tiny fecal pellets. In extreme cases no feces are passed at all. Prompt, skilled veterinary treatment is needed in order to prevent the development of hepatic lipidosis and death.

Dental disease is very common in pet rabbits. It often underlies other medical problems. MalocclussionRabbits with facial abscesses, anorexia, weight loss, skin disease/ectoparasites, grooming problems, runny eyes, poor cecotrophy and fly strike often have dental disease. Dental disorders can be diagnosed via palpation, visual inspection and radiography. Occasionally a general anaesthetic is required to properly visualize the cheek teeth. Some rabbits have congenital dental disorders however, most are acquired as a result of an inappropriate diet. In this case it is usually a diet deficient in Vitamin D and calcium. Tooth RootsIndoor rabbits that prefer to eat only cereals and legumes tend to have calcium deficiencies. Low fiber diets with lack of dental wear also lead to dental abnormalities. Congenital incisor malocclusion, molar spikes and tooth root abscesses are the most common problems. These all require veterinary medical management.

Eye problems are often secondary to dental problems. The roots of the upper incisors or premolars can impinge upon the nasolacrimal duct. This can cause nasolacrimal blockage resulting in tears running down the face instead of flowing down the duct into the nasal cavity. The blocked ducts become distended and infected (dacrocystitis). Dacrocystitis Purulent material may be seen collecting at the medial canthus of the eye, Pasturella multocidia inhabits the nasal cavity. This bacteria can invade and infect the nasolacrimal duct and thus the eye. Rabbits kept in unsanitary, poorly ventilated or dust conditions can develop eye irritations. Trauma, often inflicked when rabbits fight, is a common cause of eye ulceration.

Head tilt is frequently encountered in rabbits. This is a result of problems with the inner ear and vestibular apparatus. Many things can cause this condition but Paturella multocida is seen most often. In some areas Encephalitozoonosis cuniculi is also a factor. Unfortunately both these conditions are difficult to treat successfully. Treatment may arrest further development of the problem but is unlikely to effect a cure. Many rabbits adapt to living with a head tilt and occasionally a case will resolve completely.

Neoplasia is common in elderly rabbits. Although myelomas and lymphomas are seen on occasion, the most common tumors are uterine adenocarcinomas in female rabbits. These are aggressive tumors that metastasize to other organs. Blood in the urine (not the normal porphyrin pigments), abdominal distention or vaginal discharge are reason for concern in rabbits. Because of this all female rabbits not used for breeding purposes should be spayed.

Respiratory disease due to Pasturella multocida is the most common respiratory disease in domestic rabbits. Bordetella and Moroxella can also cause upper airway disease. Nasal and ocular discharges are often present, the lungs may be wheezy and occasionally the condition progresses to pneumonia. As rabbits are very good at hiding the severity of disease, conditions may be quite advanced before an owner is aware of the seriousness of the situation. In many cases appropriate antibiotics, oxygen and nebulization are required along with basic supportive care.

As mentioned previously Pasturellosis is a component of many rabbit conditions. Pasturella multocida can be present without disease. The pathogenicity of the organism depends on several things; bacterial serotype, host resistance, stress and concomitant disease.Although it is associated with many conditions; abscessation, rhinitis, pneumonia, otitis media, and septicemia, it is not usually a primary cause of disease but a secondary infection to another instigating condition.

Parasites can be a problem in domestic rabbits. Ear mites (Psoroptic mites) are quite common. Ear mitesThe rabbits present with itchy, crusted ears. The ears are often very inflamed beneath the debris. The ears should be cleaned, the sores medicated and the mites killed. Cheyletiella mites, commonly referred to as “walking dandruff”, are occasionally found in rabbits. They cause dense dandruff primarily down the back and at the base of the tail. Rabbits can contract and support flea infestations. Ivermectin is very effective in controlling mites. Topical insectides are also useful in controlling mites and fleas. Occasionally domestic rabbits will suffer from enteric coccidial infections. Some rabbit pellets are medicated to aid in control of this parasite.

Behaviour problems often arise from the expression of natural instincts. Usually these are problematic to the owners, not the rabbits! Aggression, mounting and spraying can usually be modified by neutering/spaying the offending rabbit. Chewing is harder if not impossible to control. The answer usually lies in “rabbit proofing” the house. All exposed cords/wires should be run in PVC tubing. Access to the underside of furniture should be blocked off. House plants should be out of reach… the list goes on and on!

Environmental stress and predation are preventable problems. Rabbits do not tolerate temperature extremes and should be protected from them. If outdoors rabbits must be protected from other, larger domestic animals as well as wild predators.

At WBVC we encourage every rabbit owner to visit a veterinarian dedicated to the care of rabbits. The importance of a thorough physical examination PLUS client education on rabbit care and husbandry cannot be over emphasized.

We recommend and sell Oxbow Rabbit and Rodent pellets.

We recommend:

  • Feeding limited amounts of low protein, timothy based, tubular type (not the rounded) rabbit pellets (such as Oxbow Timothy pellets), plus free choice access to excellent quality grass/timothy (not alfalfa) hay. Access to pesticide free fresh grass. Supplementation with fresh organic fruit and vegetables. Leafy greens should be assorted to give a good calcium balance. Diets be modified to meet the rabbits needs if calcium imbalances are being addressed. Fresh water, in bowls, should be available at all times.
  • Housing your rabbit indoors. Rabbits are very interactive and thrive on attention.
  • Providing your rabbit with a suitable, solid-bottom cage. Bedding the cage in a layer of dust free, absorbent crushed corn cob bedding topped with a layer of fresh grass hay. Using a litter pan that that allows the urine to drain away from the surface. We do not recommend keeping rabbits in a cage 24 hours a day.
  • Letting your rabbit exercise in a rabbit proofed home (or yard) for a portion of each day. However they should never be left outside unattended. Rabbits need plenty of exercise if they are to remain healthy.
  • Grooming your rabbit on a regular basis, paying particular attention to this task when they are shedding. This includes checking the body and ears for signs of parasites.
  • Trimming your rabbits toenails as required.
  • Checking for any signs of drooling or change in eating habits.
  • Monitoring stool production on a daily basis. Changes in stool consistency, size or volume is often an indication of a problem.
  • Cleaning your rabbits cage/litter pan daily. Ammonia fumes can be irritating to mucous membranes.
  • Supervising children when they are handling a rabbit.
  • Spaying/neutering all rabbits at around 4-6 months of age.
  • Lifting and carrying a rabbit with its body well supported. Unsupported rabbits can struggle, twist and break their backs.
  • Visiting a veterinarian dedicated to rabbit care when you first get your rabbit and then at least once a year thereafter.

RABBITS are very special pets… PLEASE give them the care they deserve!