Complete Rabbit Care

​by Jessica Nuccio

Rabbits can be wonderful companions when you take the time to understand them.  They are different than most other pets because of their natural history as a prey animal.  The wild rabbit is pursued by all manner of predators, and antenna-like multi-directional ears, nearly 360º vision, powerful hind limbs, incredible speed, burrowing talents, and ever-sniffing noses are what have kept them alive for thousands of years.  This is also what makes them such wonderful pets- getting a rabbit to trust you, the predator, is a complex challenge that you will find incredibly fulfilling.  Once you give them the opportunity, you will be amazed at how their personalities blossom.  The author of The House Rabbit Handbook puts it very well- “Rabbits are comprised of paradoxes that make them extremely entertaining- inquisitive yet cautious, skittish yet confident, energetic yet lazy, timid yet bold.”  Spend time getting to know your rabbit’s needs and personality and you will be blessed with an incredibly rewarding companion for many years.

Natural History

The modern domestic rabbit is descended from the European rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, which was native to the Iberian peninsula .  Rabbits belong to the order Lagomorpha, distinguishing them from rodents due to their two sets of incisor teeth.  Wild rabbits live in colonies with a complex social hierarchy, and dig extensive burrows of interconnected tunnels called warrens.   They are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, although they will occasionally come out to graze throughout the day.  Most of their time, however, is spent in the warren in order to avoid their many predators such as hawks, eagles, owls, foxes, coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, weasels, etc.  Territory is marked by leaving piles of fecal pellets, spraying urine, and chinning (rubbing a scent gland under the chin on objects).   Both males (bucks) and females (does) can be surprisingly aggressive when defending territory, and will fight (sometimes fatally) by biting the head area with their sharp incisors and kicking each other’s undersides with their sharp nails.  They are capable of notoriously rapid reproduction- gestation lasts only 28-31 days, with each litter containing between 2 and 12 babies (kits)- and females can become pregnant again with 24 hours of giving birth.  Kits are raised in fur-lined dens within the warren, and the doe only visits once or twice daily to feed them.
The first domestic rabbits are thought to be kept by the ancient Romans, with various breeds emerging throughout the middle ages.  Today the American Rabbit Breeders Association recognizes over 50 breeds, including the angora, the dutch, the rex, the lop, the Flemish giant, and the dwarf to name a few.  The average lifespan for the domestic rabbit is about 8-12 years.

Behavior

The only way to understand rabbit behavior is to take the time to see things through their eyes.  To a rabbit, almost every other creature is a potential predator, including you.  Many new owners find certain rabbit behavior puzzling until they consider the rabbit’s perspective.  Below is a list of common domestic rabbit behaviors paired with reasoning behind these natural instincts.
 
​Behavior in the home
Behavior in the wild
Prefer to be hiding in a box, under furniture, or in the shadows
Spend most of the day hiding in a burrow out of sight of predators
Need a constant supply of hay available
Must graze when they have the opportunity- they may need to flee from danger at any moment
Are easily trained to use a litterbox
Designate a specific area in the warren to deposit waste
Are usually immaculately clean with no need for baths
Must be well groomed in order to minimize predators detecting their scent
Become depressed when not given ample opportunity to socialize
Live in warrens of up to 70 other rabbits and have a complex social structure
Zig-zag across the room at top speed or run in circles around the couch
Employ play behavior in order to practice their escape methods and stay fit in preparation for flight from predators
Become stressed when chased by small children or grabbed and picked up
Live in fear of being run down and caught by a coyote or fox, or snatched up by a hawk or eagle
Enjoy being scratched on the forehead or having their ears stroked
Groom friends and family within the warren by licking the head and ears
Thump their hind legs when frightened by a strange noise or when angry at being roughly handled
Utilize a hard, loud stomp when danger (such as a circling hawk) is detected to warn other members of the warren to hide
 

These are just a few examples of behaviors key to understanding and bonding with your rabbit.  Seeing from the rabbit’s perspective will be a common theme throughout this handout, so start practicing now!!

Body Language

Rabbits have body language unique to their species that you will want to understand in order to enjoy your lives together.  A bunny sitting with its paws tucked in and eyes half closed, or stretched out with their legs kicked behind them, is relaxed and content.  A bunny that rolls over onto its back and shows its tummy (the “flop”) is REALLY content.  Ears up means they are listening intently, ears back may signal aggression, as does grunting, lunging, or boxing with the paws.  Alert posture with wide eyes and a rapidly wiggling nose shows fear and anxiety.  Rubbing of the chin on objects (or you) is a claim on marked territory.  Sitting up on the hind legs (“periscoping”) is a surveillance tactic.  Circling your legs and softly “honking” means they wish to court you as their mate.  Approaching you and lowering their head, sometimes with a nudge, is a request for petting or grooming.  Gentle grinding of the teeth is a bunny’s version of purring, while much louder, more intense grinding signifies pain.  A zig-zagging dance move, complete with 180º flips in the air and a shake of the head (commonly called a “binky”) is a definite sign of feeling playful (or mischievous) and nearly bursting with joy.

General Care

Indoors vs Outdoors

Until recently, it was considered appropriate to house a rabbit outdoors in a hutch in the backyard.  This is no longer true.  We have learned so much about the needs and behaviors of the domestic rabbit in the past few years, and all signs point to being indoors as the key to long-term health and happiness.  Outside, rabbits are susceptible to a whole gamut of dangers: weather extremes leading to heat stroke or frostbite; predators such as hawks, snakes, raccoons, feral cats, or dogs; parasites such as cuterebra or fleas- all can cause injury, disease, or fatality.  An outdoor rabbit will not be as closely observed by the owner, and it may be too late by the time you realize they are in need of medical attention.  In addition, we now know more about rabbit social structure- in their natural habitat, rabbits live in warrens of up to 70 or more.  They have an innate need for interaction, and living outdoors can cause them to become isolated, depressed, and ill.  Many people who have had outdoor rabbits in the past are shocked to find how intelligent, social, affectionate, funny, engaging, and charming they can be when they are allowed to live in close quarters with you.  In short: indoors is absolutely the way to go if you want to get the most out of your pet and give them the best care possible.

Housing

Enclosure
Most of the cages marketed as rabbit housing in pet stores are far too small for your pet, unless they are allowed free-range time out of their cage in a rabbit-proofed room for most of the day.  If you do require an enclosed cage, there must be enough room to accommodate a litterbox, hide box, and food dishes, and still allow the rabbit to lay down and stretch, as well as be high enough for them to stand on their hind legs.  A much better option is an open-top exercise pen designed for dogs.  You should provide the largest pen possible, at least 4’x4’.  Make sure the sides are high enough that your rabbit cannot jump over the top- about 3’ is a good height for normal size breeds- Flemish giants or energetic youngsters may need something even higher.

Litterbox
The most important thing you’ll need is a litterbox, or several- the larger the better.  Most rabbits prefer to always use the bathroom in the same spot and are very clean creatures by nature, making it very easy to litterbox train them.  Some people like to line the box with a plastic liner for ease of cleaning, but this is not strictly necessary.  You can line the box with newspaper and then place a layer of litter on top- Yesterday’s News, Carefresh, and Feline Pine (unscented) are all excellent brands.  Just make sure to avoid clay litters, wood chips, or anything scented.  Place a pile of hay on top of the layer of litter- this will encourage them to sit in the box so that using it becomes a habit.  Change the litter and clean the box with a solution of white vinegar diluted 1:20 with water at least twice weekly- more often if you use a smaller box or have multiple rabbits.  You may also want to consider placing a few additional boxes in any other rooms the rabbit has regular access to.

Hide Box
Your rabbit will appreciate having a hide box inside the pen.  It should have multiple entry/exit holes, be large enough to stretch out in while hiding underneath, and be sturdy enough to sit on top of for those interested in keeping up surveillance.  Stores such as Sam’s Club and Costco often give away leftover boxes that work perfectly when turned upside down, but you can cut holes in any leftover box.

Flooring
Rabbits feel most comfortable when they have good traction- their feet are padded with fur, making gliding across slippery floors unnerving.  On the other hand, it will be much easier to clean the habitat if it is on hard flooring than it would be on carpet.  If you have wood, vinyl, or tile floors you may want to consider placing down rugs, towels, or blankets within the pen (which will also protect the rabbit from getting sore hocks) – just be sure to inspect them every so often to make the rabbit is not chewing them apart and swallowing pieces, which could lead to intestinal blockage.

Dishes
For water, you will want to purchase a solid, heavy ceramic crock that the rabbit cannot tip over.  These are easier to keep clean than sipper bottles and rabbits tend to drink more when offered water in this manner.  Change the water at least once daily, more often if it becomes soiled.

Rabbit-Proofing

Your rabbit should have as much supervised play time out of the cage as possible.  You will be amazed how much personality your rabbit will show when given the room to run, jump, and explore.  This type of exercise is important to prevent weight problems, boredom, and destructive behaviors.  In order to do this safely, you will need to take several steps to properly rabbit-proof your home.

Wires
When a rabbit is digging a burrow in the wild, they will often come across small, thin tree roots that they instinctively snip in half with their sharp incisors.  Unfortunately, this instinctive behavior extends to the many wires and cables most people have lying around their home.  There is always a possibility that they may seriously burn or electrocute themselves, and it will only take a few expensive chomped-through earphone wires and computer cables for you to realize the importance of rabbit-proofing.  This problem is easily solvable by either covering cords or moving them out of reach.  There are several affordable pet-proof wire coverings on the market.  You can also find spiral cable wrap at electronics stores, and the plastic tubing for aquariums works well too when split down the middle.  If you’re not concerned about aesthetics, you can also tape wires down using duct tape.

Carpet
Some rabbits may become fixated on digging at certain spot on your carpet.  Not only can this damage your carpet, but if your rabbit ingests the fibers they can suffer from a dangerous blockage in the intestines.  If you cannot block the area off, the best solution is a distraction.  You can try placing sheets of cardboard or rugs that you don’t mind them shredding over the spot, placing a litterbox filled with diggable materials like newspaper or hay nearby, or giving them a paper bag filled with hay to destroy.

Houseplants
Be aware that many houseplants, though irresistible, are toxic to your rabbit.  Place them on a high shelf out of reach or hang them from the ceiling if you must have them, but make sure no leaves drop within their reach.  A list of known poisonous plants can be found here: http://rabbit.org/poisonous-plants/

Marking
Although they almost always have good litterbox habits, occasionally rabbits- especially in a multi-rabbit household- may choose a spot outside the box to mark with urine.  It is important to curb this behavior before it becomes a habit.  Clean the area as soon as possible with a vinegar solution.  If they insist on using a particular corner, you may need to give in and place a litterbox there.

Be aware that there are some things you just have to learn to let go when you are a rabbit owner.  You are probably going to have some holes bitten in a few sheets and blankets.  They may attempt to gnaw on the furniture or nibble on your paperwork.  You’re going to lose at least one or two wires. Buy a dustbuster, because there are going to be a few stray fecal pellets here and there.  They are going to jump on the furniture and knock a few objects over.  An open drawer within hopping distance will be impossible to resist exploring.  Rabbits seem to be quite naughty little creatures by nature, but this occasional mischief is what gives them part of their charm.  A rabbit caught in the act will kick up it’s heels, do a flip in the air, toss it’s head, and scamper away with it’s tail up, and their antics will make it easier to forgive the trouble they just can’t help but get into.  You can’t blame a dog for exploring the garbage can now and then, or a cat for unraveling the toilet paper, so learn to forgive the rabbit of its quirks.

Diet

Hay
The most important part of the domestic rabbit’s diet is hay.  Fresh timothy hay should be provided in unlimited amounts at all times, supplemented by orchard grass and meadow grass hays for variety.  Alfalfa hay is high in protein to promote growth and should only be used for juveniles under six months of age or as directed by a veterinarian familiar with rabbit dietary needs.  The rabbit’s delicate gastrointestinal system and dental health depends on this high fiber diet to remain in good working order.  The fiber in hay ensures good gut motility, as well as helping to grind down their constantly growing teeth.  Rabbits will also appreciate the opportunity to forage throughout the day, which can prevent other destructive behaviors.  You can offer the hay in the litterbox to encourage good litter habits, in a hay rack that attaches to the side of the cage, or even in a cardboard box with large holes cut out that they can tug the hay through for a challenge.  Make sure to top the hay supply off a few times a day- you will be surprised how quickly they can go through it!

You can find hay at most pet supply stores or at online specialty stores.  Some rabbit-friendly shelters also keep boxes in stock to sell to owners.  A farm and feed store is also an option, but be sure that you are purchasing the correct type of hay and that it is fresh.  We recommend Oxbow products as we have found them to be consistently fresh and of excellent quality. http://www.sweetmeadowfarm.com, a family farm catering to rabbits and guinea pigs, is another great option if you would like to order online.

Pellets
Pellets are generally unnecessary for the average adult rabbit.  They were invented for breeders of meat rabbits in order to quickly fatten up their animals for slaughter.  Most rabbits do not need pellets unless they are underweight, and in fact they can be detrimental to their health.  Almost every rabbit will choose to eat pellets before eating hay (many brands contain molasses or sugar for taste), resulting in teeth that are not being ground down as effectively.  Additionally, an overweight rabbit can develop complications such as heart disease, which can significantly shorten its lifespan, or inability to properly groom themselves, leading to painful mats and urine scald.  They are better used as an occasional treat or bribery than as a mainstay.  If you and your vet do decide to add pellets to your rabbit’s diet, make sure that they are timothy-based and do not include seeds, nuts, or dried fruits or vegetable pieces, and feed no more than ¼ cup per day per five-pound rabbit.  A good quality rabbit pellet should have at least 20% crude fiber, no more than 14% protein, and no more than 2% fat.  Again, Oxbow brand makes an excellent quality pellet.

Fresh Greens
These are just as important as hay when it comes to maintaining a healthy rabbit digestive system.  Good choices include romaine, flat leaf parsley, cilantro, green leaf or red leaf lettuces, escarole, and dandelion greens.  Chard, turnip greens, collard greens, mustard greens, and kale can also be offered for variety, but should be given sparingly due to their high calcium content, which can cause bladder stones.  Iceberg lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables, spinach, celery, and potatoes should be avoided.  Contrary to popular belief, carrots are not a rabbit’s best friend.  You can give a baby carrot one to three times a week as a treat, but they are too high in sugar to be given regularly.  Make sure all your produce has been thoroughly washed and buy organic when possible.

Fresh Fruit
Fruit should be fed in very limited quantities as a treat- no more than one tablespoon once or twice a week maximum, if at all.  Too much fruit can cause an imbalance of the cecal flora and runny stool, which can be dangerous for a creature with such a delicate digestive system.  Apple, banana, berries, pear, etc are popular with bunnies- just make sure to remove the pits, seeds, and stems.

Treats
Many pet stores sell treats marketed at rabbit owners- such as yogurt drops, dried fruit, seed bars, corn cobs, or mineral blocks- that may be inappropriate or even dangerous.  Many are too high in sugar or include ingredients unfit for rabbit digestive systems.  Short term consequences can include gas, diarrhea, or GI stasis.  Long term effects can include obesity, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and a shortened lifespan.  Don’t waste money on products like these- if you must give a treat, give a small amount of pellets or the occasional morsel of fresh fruit or carrot…but really, most rabbits appreciate a scratch on the head or a fresh salad just as much, if not more.

Don’t get into the habit of giving your rabbit table scraps either.  They are completely unable to process many of the foods we consume on a daily basis- remember, their digestive system is more akin to a horse’s than that of a human or a dog.  Although they can seem irresistibly adorable when they are standing on their hind legs, wiggling their whiskers and sniffing the air, begging for a bite of your snack, the possible consequences are just not worth it!

Check out Red Door Animal Shelter’s excellent rabbit food pyramid guide below.  Print out a copy to keep on your refrigerator or bring to the grocery store with you!

Handling


Most rabbits do not enjoy being picked up and held.  Being restrained may trigger the same feelings as when they are captured by a predator, and being picked up off the ground may feel comparable to being snatched by a bird of prey.  Often rabbits will struggle, kick, and thrash when picked up.  Be prepared for this- dropping your rabbit can cause serious, even fatal, injury to their delicate spine.  Make sure you understand proper handling techniques before you attempt to lift your rabbit for the first time.  With patience and practice, most rabbits can learn to (reluctantly) accept being held.Start by approaching your rabbit calmly and slowly.  Gently stroke its head to reassure it.  Place your dominant hand under their chest, then use your other hand to scoop up their rear end, supporting their hind legs.  Hold the rabbit closely to your chest to provide more stability and control.  When setting the rabbit back down, slowly bend your knees to lower yourself to the ground- be careful as you release them because many rabbits get very squirmy as they approach the floor.Never pick your rabbit up but the ears, legs, or scruff- this can cause pain and serious injury.  If you are uncomfortable handling your rabbit, try transporting it in its litter box or carrier until you have both had more practice.Grooming

Rabbits are excellent at grooming themselves- the way they see it, it is essential to be clean and odor-free in order to avoid detection by predators.  You should NEVER give your rabbit a bath- immersion in water can cause them to go into shock.  If there is urine or fecal matter adhered to their rear end, you can spot-clean the area with a gentle fragrance-free shampoo, such as oatmeal shampoo.  Rabbits also shed seasonally.  Ingesting too much hair during self-grooming combined with an inability to vomit can lead to hairballs, so it is highly recommended to brush your rabbit at least once daily while they are shedding.  Flea combs and slicker brushes work well.  Rabbits have thin, sensitive skin, so monitor them for discomfort, especially when using brushes with firmer bristles or when combing out mats and tangles.  For particularly bad mats, it is a better idea to set up an appointment to have a vet tech do a professional shave.

Nails should also be kept trimmed short- long nails can get snagged on something and ripped out, or may cause the rabbit to place awkward pressure on their sensitive hocks. Using guillotine-style nail clippers, trim up to a couple of millimeters before the quick on each nail while a friend holds the rabbit in the position shown above.  The blood supply in the quick is easier to see in rabbits with light colored nails- for those with darker nails, you may want to use a flashlight to locate it before cutting.  It’s a good idea to have a product called Kwik-Stop on hand just in case you do clip too close and the nail begins to bleed.  In a pinch, cornstarch and flour can work as well.  Just tap the powder lightly on the end of the nail, apply some light pressure, and the bleeding should stop.  If you are nervous about handling your rabbit or trimming the nails, most veterinarians will perform pedicures at a nominal fee as long as you are up to date with your annual exams.

Ear cleaning can also be important part of the grooming routine.  Most rabbits are generally good at cleaning their own ears by scratching at them with their back legs, but lops, angoras, or those with arthritis may need a little extra help.  Using an ear cleaner recommended by your vet, place a few drops into the ear.  Gently massage the base of the ear in an upward motion to move any wax or debris toward the surface.  Use a cotton ball or gauze pad to wipe out the fluid and debris.  Ask your vet tech for a demo before attempting this yourself.

Enrichment

Toys
Enrichment is important to your rabbit in order to stave off boredom and depression, prevent obesity, and keep a lid on destructive behaviors.  Believe it or not, most rabbits enjoy playing with toys.  There are some fantastic websites committed to selling toys specifically for rabbits, such as http://www.busybunny.com/http://www.bunnybytes.com/ and http://www.bunnyluv.org/, but you can also get creative and find or make your own.

Rabbits enjoy tossing and bouncing hard plastic toys that make interesting noises such as plastic baby keys, wiffle balls, slinkies, or even the cap to a bottle of detergent or a mismatched piece of Tupperware.  Cardboard boxes and paper towel tubes are fun to chew up, especially when stuffed with hay. Fabric or nylon tunnels sold at pet stores for cats are a hit as well.   Willow balls, wooden toys, and sea grass mats are great all-natural alternatives and impossible to resist munching on.  You can make houses, mazes, and tunnels out of old cardboard boxes.  There is also a multi-storied pre-cut cardboard castle available online called the Cottontail Cottage that is very popular with rabbits.

Interactive treats like timothy hay blocks and apple twigs will keep them entertained for a while.  You can even make a “pellet shaker” toy by placing a handful of pellets in a washed-out plastic Parmesan cheese container.  Leave the side with the small holes open and place it on the floor near them and they will spend hours tossing the container around the house to get the occasional pellet reward.

Training
Rabbits can also be very responsive to clicker training since many of them are very food-motivated.  This is an excellent method of behavioral training that uses only positive reinforcement through moderate food rewards.  They can be trained to perform small tricks like spinning in a circle or giving a kiss as well as more complex ones like putting a ball through a hoop or knocking down a set of plastic bowling pins on cue.  There are even some clubs that teach them to run agility courses for competition.  Clicker training can also be helpful for behavioral issues like improper litterbox usage or furniture chewing.  It may even help you bond a pair of rabbits.  Your vet clinic may be aware of local course offerings on small animal behavior and clicker training.


Veterinary Care

Why is it important for my bunny to see a vet?

Even if your rabbit appears healthy, it is essential to get a yearly exam from a well-trained exotic animal veterinarian.  There may be things going on inside your bunny that you are unaware of, and catching health issues early on means you and your vet can provide the appropriate care to ensure your rabbit lives a longer, healthier, and happier life with you.  Be sure that the veterinarian you decide to visit has had the proper training to see rabbits.  You can find listings of certified exotic vets through the Association of  Exotic Mammal Veterinarians website here- http://www.aemv.org/   Don’t be afraid to call the clinic and ask how often they work with rabbits and what kind of diagnostic services they offer.  A vet not properly trained in rabbit medicine can sometimes do more harm than good, while an experienced rabbit veterinarian can extend your rabbit’s lifespan significantly!

What will happen during the exam?

Most likely a technician will visit with you first to take a history and gather information about your pet’s diet, housing, behavior, and previous medical issues, as well as ask about any specific concerns you have.  Your vet will review this information as well as any previous records before performing the physical examination.  A good vet will start by checking your rabbit over thoroughly, inspecting their coat, ears, eyes, nose, hocks, genitals, nails, and teeth.  They will use a speculum with a light attached to look deep in the ears and to assess the back teeth.  They will palpate their abdomen and listen to their heart, lungs, and sinus cavity with a stethoscope.  They will check your rabbit’s weight and review appropriate diet and housing with you.  They may also recommend a fecal test to look for intestinal parasites, or perhaps a skin cytology to check for ectoparasites.  If they hear something suspicious while listening to the heart or lungs, they may want to take an x-ray to get a clearer picture of what’s going on inside.  Yearly bloodwork may be recommended to check that the kidney and liver are in good working order, as well as ruling out anemia, dehydration, or infection.  Don’t worry- if you have done your research and chosen an experienced vet, the doctor and technicians will be able to take x-rays, draw blood, and perform dental work safely and with minimal discomfort and anxiety for the rabbit.  They can also talk to you about the benefits of spaying and neutering and give you an estimate for these procedures.  Spaying and neutering prevent unwanted aggressive or sexual behavior, as well as eliminating the possibility of ovarian, uterine, or testicular cancers in the future, in addition to the obvious benefit of preventing pregnancy- rabbits can have litters of up to nine kits at a time every month!  You can also ask the technicians to attend to grooming essentials such as nail trims or ear cleanings.

You should always feel free to ask for an estimate when your vet suggests tests, procedures, or treatments.  Do not hesitate to ask questions about why they feel a particular item is necessary.  Good veterinarians and technicians are happy to share information and educate you about the health of your pet, and will be pleased that you show an interest in their care.

What are some common rabbit illnesses?

Dental Disease: Rabbits have open-rooted teeth, which means that the teeth grow continuously throughout their lives.  Many rabbits are able to grind their teeth down enough naturally by eating hay so that this is not a problem, but occasionally a rabbit will be genetically predisposed to having issues in this area.  The best prevention is to visit a rabbit-savvy veterinarian regularly so that they can file down any teeth that are beginning to curve into the cheek or tongue or form sharp points, usually for a moderate fee.  If left unattended, dental disease can lead to anorexia, blocked tear ducts with eye infections, and jaw abscesses that require expensive surgical removal and often painful long-term care.

GI Stasis: Occurs when gut motility ceases- in other words, your rabbit stops eating and/or pooping.  This can be life-threatening if not treated immediately as the bowels may rupture.  The cause of GI stasis is often difficult to pinpoint, but many times heart disease, dental issues, improper diet, or stress may be a trigger.  Advanced GI stasis must be treated in-hospital with injectable pain medications, gut motility agents, antibiotics, fluids, and handfeeding, as well as treatment of underlying medical issues.

Heart Disease: Some rabbits are genetically predisposed to developing heart disease which may be exacerbated by a high-fat diet or a stressful environment.  Your doctor can discuss the different types of heart disease with you, and will most likely want to do x-rays and an ultrasound in order to correctly diagnose the condition.  The good news is that many heart patient rabbits live long, healthy lives with the addition of one or two daily medications and appropriate diet and exercise, as well as regular checkups.

Arthritis: Many elderly or obese rabbits develop arthritis.  Being prey animals, they will attempt to hide any weakness.  You may notice they are having difficulty hopping into the litterbox or are not as active as usual.  When in severe pain they may grind their teeth or become aggressive.  Your vet can palpate their limbs and take an x-ray to assess the extent of the arthritis.  Supplements and NSAID pain relievers may be prescribed, and some clinics even offer sessions with doctors trained in acupuncture and chiropractic medicine.

Tumors: The first step in cancerous tumor prevention is spaying and neutering.  Ovarian, uterine, and testicular cancers can be entirely prevented when this procedure is done early on- your vet can tell you what age is best.  Occasionally tumors may form on the skin- as long as your rabbit is getting regular exams, there is a good chance that a tumor can be caught early and removed safely.  Your vet may also want to send it to a histopathology laboratory in order to determine the specific type of cancer and any future risk factors.

E. Cuniculi: Unfortunately incidences of complications from this internal parasite seem to be on the rise.  The parasite, believed to be transmitted via urine, spreads through the body with often devastating effects if left untreated.  Rabbits often present with neurological symptoms such as head tilt, loss of balance, rolling, and rapid horizontal movement of the eye (nystagmus).  It can also cause problems with the kidney, and urinary incontinence leading to fur loss and painful scalding of the skin.  There is a lab test available to detect the presence of E. Cuniculi in the bloodstream, and if caught early, drugs can be prescribed which give the rabbit a greatly improved quality of life.

Coccidia: This is often found in baby rabbits or those that have been rescued from outdoors.  It can cause diarrhea and weight loss, and, if untreated, damage the liver.  Bring a fresh stool sample each time you visit the vet so they can perform a fecal examination under the microscope to determine if this or any other parasite is present and recommend a course of treatment.

Cuterebra: This parasite, often found on rabbits that have spent time outdoors, burrows into the skin and grows until it forms a bump.  Left unattended it can lead to painful abscesses which must be surgically removed.  If you do discover a cuterebra, do not try to remove it yourself- if it ruptures inside the skin, it can cause the rabbit to go into anaphylactic shock.  Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for safe removal.

Mites: Signs of mites include incessant scratching of the ears or skin, as well as fur loss or dandruff-like flakes.  A simple dose or two of topical medication can resolve the issue, but many over-the-counter types are toxic to rabbits, so have an experienced rabbit vet administer the appropriate type and amount.

Sore hocks: Rabbit feet are covered in a layer of fur for protection.  If this fur pattern is disrupted, it can lead to painful sores and possibly infection- imagine walking around all day on an open, infected wound!  Many times these sores are seen on the heel area of the hind limbs as a result of hard flooring or improper litterbox cleaning.  Make sure your rabbit has rugs or towels to rest on, and clean the litterbox at least twice weekly.  Topical or oral medications may be needed if the sores progress.

Animal Bites: A rabbit that has been bitten by another animal should receive immediate medical attention, even if a wound is not overtly visible- they are often difficult to detect in their dense fur and your vet may wish to shave the area to see the extent of the damage.  Cat bites can be especially dangerous and lead to infection and necrosis without the rapid administration of injectable antibiotics.  Fights with other rabbits over territory can also escalate to the point of quite vicious injury, often with severe bite wounds around the nose, lips, or eyes that may need sutures.

Leg and Back Injuries: Improper handling or thrashing in response to fear can lead to a dislocated hind leg or fractured spine.  It is up to you and your vet to consider what their quality of life and ability to adapt will be, as well as how much time you can devote to a disabled bunny.  Many rabbits are capable of continuing to live full lives with an amputated limb or even a wheeled cart.

What if my rabbit gets really sick?

There are a few illnesses, diseases, and injuries that may require a hospital stay.  Again, if you have chosen a veterinary clinic you trust with your rabbit beforehand, you will find yourself much less anxious if they do require emergency care or hospitalization.  Try to also find the nearest hospital that provides after-hours care for rabbits well in advance- not all cat and dog emergency hospitals are equipped to treat them.  It can be scary to leave your bunny in the hospital, but a good staff of doctors and technicians can provide your rabbit with intensive care specific to their species’ needs.  Staying in the hospital means your rabbit can receive more efficient injectable drugs and fluids which you would not be able to provide at home, as well as giving your doctor the opportunity to act quickly should their condition change.  They will observe and take records of your rabbit’s appetite, droppings, behavior, and vital signs round the clock, as well as making sure your bunny is as comfortable as possible at all times.  You will receive updates on their condition and will still be able to be a part of making medical decisions on their behalf.  Most clinics will let you come in to visit your hospitalized pet if they believe it will be beneficial to the patient.  They will also provide you with detailed instructions on how to care for your rabbit once they are well enough to return home- the technicians can demonstrate how to care for a wound or surgical incision, or how to administer medications or handfeeding formulas prescribed by the doctor.

Sharing your home with a rabbit can be immensely rewarding when you follow the above guidelines and take the time to understand their needs.  Feel free to call us here at the clinic to schedule an appointment for a checkup or ask questions about how you can provide optimal care.  Best of luck to you and your new best friend!

Below are some suggested books, DVDs, and websites about rabbit care.

  • Please keep in mind that your exotic animal veterinarian should be your primary source for all medical advice.
  • Red Door Animal Shelter: http://www.reddoorshelter.org/pet_care_library.php (Veterinarian-approved care sheets written by a shelter that has worked with hundreds of rabbits.)
  • House Rabbit Society: http://rabbit.org/category/care/ (Dozens of insightful, well-written articles about rabbit care, behavior, and health.)
  • “House Rabbit Handbook: How to Live with an Urban Rabbit- Keeping Rabbits Healthy and Happy in a Human Environment” by Marinell Harriman, Drollery Press, 2005 (A classic guide to basic care of the house rabbit.)
  • “A House Rabbit Primer: Understanding and Caring for Your Companion Rabbit” by Lucile C. Moore, Santa Monica Press, 2005 (An excellent supplement which goes into further detail in clear language.)
  • “Why Does My Rabbit…?” by Anne McBride, Souvenir Press, 1998 (Interesting guide to behavior that approaches the subject with clear reasoning and observational humor.)
  • “Getting Started: Clicking with Your Rabbit” by Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin, Karen Pryor Clickertraining, 2006 (Clearly outlines methods of positive reinforcement training for both tricks and behavior modification.)
  • “The Relaxed Rabbit: Massage Techniques for Your Companion Rabbit” Chandra Moira Beal, La Luna Publishing, 2008 (A DVD that teaches what type of touch rabbits find enjoyable that can aid in bonding with even the most nervous rabbits.)

Note: If you ever feel you can no longer care for your rabbit, please do not let it loose outdoors to be “free”- domestic rabbits have no idea how to survive in the wild, and will be killed by a predator, starve, freeze, die of heatstroke, or be hit by a car.  Do the right thing and give them a second chance.  Call your veterinarian and ask for a referral to a rabbit-friendly shelter, or visit http://rabbit.org/ to find a rescue chapter near you.

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We believe in nurturing the human-animal bond and creating a harmonious relationship between people and animals. You can expect to be greeted by a courteous receptionist, clean exam rooms, friendly doctors, and caring technicians. We appreciate the role we get to play in your pet’s health care.
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