Listed below are some nutritious foods for you to incorporate into your family member’s diet.  Nutrition plays a major role in the health and longevity of any animal.  Keep in mind that moderation and variety are the keys to offering a complete, well-balanced diet.
Vitamin A
Swiss chard
Dandelion greens
Beet greens

​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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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/

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.


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 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.

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!



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 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.

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.

House Rabbit Society
Miami , FL
(305) 666- BUNN

Getting to know your new bunny

  1. Imagine what the world looks like to this bunny.  She is surrounded by a new environment, and there is a big, strange-smelling animal that is always looming over her. She has no idea you are trying to be friendly.  Her “hard wiring” says:  “AAAAAAAA!!!”  It is going to EAT MEEEE!!!!” Imagine yourself in her bunny slippers:  No one speaks her language, she has been taken from her family and perhaps the only home she has ever known.  She has no idea whether you plan to love her, cage her forever, or eat her!  You must gradually and patiently win her trust.  It can take an hour, a day or even weeks or months.  It depends on the personality of the individual rabbit, and on your willingness to be patient and loving.
  2. You and bunny should be together in a private, quite room.  No other pets.  No distractions.
  3. Have a little treat, such as a bit of carrot, apple or banana or a little pinch of oats in your hand.
  4. Lie on your tummy on the floor and let the bunny out of her hutch.  (IMPORTANT:  The hutch door should be at ground level. So that bunny can come and go as she pleases.  Having to grab the bunny every time you want to play can undo hours of patient trust building!   If the hutch door swings down to from a ramp, be sure to cover it with a towel or cotton mat so that bunny doesn’t catch her foot in the wire and break a leg!
  5. Don’t expect her to approach you right away.  Remain quiet and patient, even it if takes an hour or more.  Rabbits are naturally curious, and eventually, she will come over to sniff you.
  6. Resist the temptation to reach out and pet the bunny.  Instead, let her sniff you, hop on you and just get to know your smell.  This will teach her that you are not a threat.
  7. If the bunny finds the treat, hold it while she nibbles.  Resist the urge to pet if she is shy!
  8. Do this every day.  Gradually, you can start to pet the bunny by giving her a gentle “scratch” on the forehead or behind the eyes (bunnies love this!).  Never force anything, and never chase the bunny.  This, too, will only undo all the patient sitting you have done to gain her trust.  Eventually you and your bunny will be doing mutual, ground level snuzzling and cuddling that is as close to Nirvana as one can get on earth.  (Bunny kisses are a sign of affection:  it’s not the salt!)
  9. Once the bunny learns that you are a friend, she will bond very strongly to you.  It is important to have him neutered or her spayed once he or she reaches sexual maturity, because otherwise she or he will want to make love to everything.  (See our other handouts for more information.)

Rabbits and Children

In most cases, children and rabbits are not ideal companions.  A rabbit’s delicate skeleton and prey-species nature predisposes him or her to be fearful of the attentions of an active, happy child, however well meaning.  It takes a very special, mature child, who is willing to follow all of the above steps, to make a good companion for a rabbit.

Some people are disappointed that the rabbit is “not turning out to be the sort of pet we wanted for our kids.” Rather that being disappointed that the rabbit is not what you expected (a few rabbits enjoy being held; most don’t), take this opportunity to teach children respect for a new kind of animal and its natural personality.  If the kids really want something to carry around, they need a stuffed toy—not a live rabbit.

An adult should always be the primary caretaker of the rabbit.  Most young children do not have the patience and sense of responsibility necessary to properly care for a rabbit:  parents should be willing to step in and provide proper care if the child forgets to do so.  A well cared for rabbit can live 10 years or more, so parents should be ready to take over the care giving duties of the teenager who goes off to college, leaving Thumper at home with the family.

She’s a Sentient Being – Not a Toy

Now look at your rabbit with learned eyes.  She is not a stuffed toy, nor is she an overgrown hamster.  She is a highly intelligent creature who will become a loving, loyal member of the family if you allow her to be what she is – a rabbit!  If you can do that, you are in for the most delightful companionship of a lifetime.  Welcome to the Family of the Rabbit!

House Rabbit Society
Miami , FL
(305) 666- BUNN

Obedience Training

We have to be honest with you.  Rabbits cannot generally be obedience trained the way dogs can.  This does not mean rabbits are stupid!  On the contrary, a rabbit may understand very clearly that you are trying to get him to do something, but will simply give you a baleful stare and continue doing his business as if to say, “Yeah, I hear you.  But what is in it for me?”  This irritates you until a minute later, when your adorably manipulative bunny comes running for kisses and cuddles.  Are rabbits intelligent?  You had better believe it.  Do they like to obey?

Why is a Rabbit Not Like a Dog?

Let’s compare a rabbit to a dog, that quintessential model of (potential) obedience.  The ancestral dog was a cooperative pack animal.  He was utterly submissive to his “alpha” dog:  the chief of the pack.  Humans took that characteristic and bred domestic dogs to have a very strong desire to please their new alpha, the Human Master.  Most dogs have a puppy like desire to please their perceived alpha, and this is what makes them so easy to train (at least in the hands of an experienced dog trainer who understands the way a dog’s mind works).

Now consider the rabbit.  The wild rabbits from whom our domestic friends are descended are indeed social creatures-but they are herbivores who have not had the evolutionary pressure to be highly cooperative.  The family group lives in a series of excavated tunnels (the warren) in the earth. There is a social hierarchy, but is generally based on which rabbit is the strongest and toughest.  Rabbits “cooperate” only in the sense their evolutionary programmed alarm systems benefit the entire warren.  Rabbits can certainly be extremely affectionate with one another, but they also have distinct likes and dislikes of other rabbits.  It is often impossible for a human to guess which rabbits will fall in love, and which ones will hate each other from the start and never learn to get along.  Surprisingly, it is often easier for a rabbit to get along with a human, cat, dog, guinea pig or other animal than with an unfamiliar member of his or her own species!

Unlike dogs, rabbits have no innate desire to please an “alpha”.  If the human caregiver becomes so frustrated with the apparent disobedience of the rabbit that she or he becomes physically abusive, the rabbit will begin to consider the human as an enemy, and never forget the physical punishment. Hitting a rabbit is not only dangerous to the animal (the skeleton is extremely fragile), but unproductive.  The rabbit is subjected to physical punishment may become extremely aggressive, hopelessly fearful or – believe it or not – vindictive.  With love and patience, the human caregiver can teach the bunny what is acceptable and what is not.  The only effective way to train a rabbit away from undesirable behaviors is with positive reinforcement and very gentle negative reinforcement, such as a squirt with a water bottle and a firm “No!” when the bunny is being “naughty.”

Naughty is as Naughty Does

…Which brings us to the question, “What is “naughty” for a rabbit?”  The human caregiver must accept that certain behaviors we might consider “naughty” (such as chewing furniture, digging carpet, marking with urine in a corner) are not “naughty” to the bunny, and are, in fact, extensions of the rabbit’s natural behavior.  If the bunny is chewing furniture, you can dab some nail biting remedy on the problem areas – but do not forget to provide the bunny with chew toys (untreated toys, etc.) as a substitute. If the bunny is digging the carpet, and you do not have access to a safe, fenced area where the bunny can have some supervised digging time, cover the problem areas with 100% cotton bath mats and provide a large litter box full of organic litter and shredded paper or a paper grocery bag filled with fresh grass hay.  If the bunny is insistent about using a particular corner for urination, even after repeated warnings and white vinegar deodorizing, give in and put a coordinated litter box in that corner.

Living with a rabbit can mean learning to compromise, but it tends to make us better, more tolerant people in the long run.  We highly recommend it!

House Rabbit Society
Miami , FL
(305) 666- BUNN
edited by Susan Horton, DVM

What should I feed my bunny?

Plenty of exercise and a proper diet will help keep your rabbit happy and healthy for life!  A rabbit is a lagomorph, not a rodent. His or her digestive tract is physiologically more similar to that of a horse than to any other animal.  Here are the most important dietary items.   Click here to see what healthy stool looks like

HAY-Such as Timothy or Orchard grass
The single most important item of the rabbit diet is grass hay and it should be fed in unlimited quantities to both adults and baby rabbits.  This is because a rabbit fed only commercial rabbit pellets does not get enough fiber to keep the digestive tract (intestine, cecum, colon) in good working order.  The fibers in the hay ensure good gut motility.  They also aid in cecal digestion by maintaining a good cecal pH and providing surface area for the cecal bacteria to attach to.  This helps prevent intestinal impactions, which are actually a symptom of slowed gut motility.  This condition is known as GI stasis (ileus).  It is very common in poorly fed rabbits, and can be life-threatening if left untreated!  It also serves as forage material to prevent boredom and behavioral problems such as fur chewing.  Dental exercise and optimal dental wear are provided by good grass hay diets.

When we say pellets, we mean pellets – NOT those dangerous seed/nut/pellet/fruit “gourmet” and “treat” mix products which can eventually KILL YOUR RABBIT.  A food quality rabbit pellet should have at least 20% crude fiber, no more than 14% protein, and no more than 2% fat.  Check the label on the rabbit pellets before you buy.  Baby rabbits should be fed unlimited pellet, but by the age of eight months, feed no more than ¼ cup per day for every five pounds of rabbit to avoid obesity and avoidance of hay.  For adult rabbits, we recommend a timothy hay based pellet.

Fresh Vegetables
These are as important as hay in maintaining a healthy intestine.  Try Romaine lettuce, parsley, carrots (with tops!), endive, escarole, dill, basil, mint, cilantro, cilantro, tomato, and any other dark green leafy herb that appeals to you and you bunny.  Experiment and see which types your rabbit likes best!  Baby rabbits should start receiving greens very gradually at the age of about three months.  Add one item at a time, and if you see no intestinal upset, add another.   A five pound adult rabbit should receive at least four heaping cups of fresh, varied vegetables per day.  Serving them wet adds important liquid to the diet, which helps keep intestinal contents well hydrated and moving easily.

Fresh Fruit
These are considered treats, and should be fed in very limited quantities (no more than one tablespoons a day for a five pound rabbit!).  Good choices are apple, apricot, banana (rare treat!), cherries, mango, peach, plum, papaya, pineapple, berries…just about any fruit you would like is okay for your bunny.  Just don’t overdo it, as this can cause an imbalance of the cecal flora and runny stool.

Plenty Of Fresh, Clean Water
This may be the most important, yet most commonly overlooked item in the rabbit’s diet.  Keeping the intestinal contents well hydrated ensures that they do not become impacted, and helps the intestinal muscles push food through at a healthy rate.  A rabbit can drink from a sipper bottle, but will usually drink more if offered water in a heavy ceramic crock.  Be sure to wash and change the bowl daily!

…but don’t feed these potentially dangerous treats!

NEVER feed your rabbit commercial “gourmet” or “treat” mixes filled with dried fruit nuts and seeds. These may be safe for a bird or hamster —BUT THEY ARE NOT PROPER FOODS FOR A RABBIT!!!  Unlike a human or a rodent (rat or hamster), a rabbit is a strict herbivore.   The high fat and simple carbohydrate content of these “gourmet” products will give your rabbit fatty liver disease and can contribute to severe intestinal disorders.  The sole function is to lighten your wallet:  the manufacturers of these terrible products have no knowledge about or interest in your rabbit’s health and longevity. Don’t be victimized.

Also avoid iceberg lettuce, cruciferous vegetables, cookies, crackers, nuts, seeds, sugary snacks, breakfast cereals, (including oatmeal or any other “high fiber” cereal – they are not high fiber to a rabbit!)  or other starchy snacks.  These promote obesity and liver disease.

Love your companion rabbit. Feed her a proper diet and she will reward you with good health and love.

House Rabbit Society
Miami , FL
(305) 666- BUNN

Spay or Neuter:  The First Step

The most important thing to remember is that your rabbit is very unlikely to retain reliable litter box habits upon reaching sexual maturity unless she is spayed or he is neutered.  Sex hormones give a rabbit an uncontrollable desire to mark the territory with urine and specially scented fecal pellets.  Spaying or neutering will greatly reduce or eliminate this desire, as well as eliminate the risk of uterine/ovarian cancer and unwanted pregnancy in females.  And let us not forget the huge relief from endless sexual frustration that spayed/neutered animals enjoy.

Get the Right Box!

To train your rabbit to use a litter box in a selected area, choose a litter box that is the right size for a bunny.  Don’t force a tiny dwarf rabbit to leap into an enormous, high-sided box designed for a gigantic cat- and don’t make your French Lop squeeze his big frame into a toaster sized toilet.  The litter box should be comfortable, and located in a quiet, private place.

What Types of Litters Are Safe for Rabbits?

Be sure to use ORGANIC litter in the box. Clay litters- especially clumping litters are inexpensive, but very unhealthy for two reasons.  First the inhaled clay dust can cause respiratory problems.  Second, when ingested as dust licked off paws or as a crunch treat straight form the box (yes, some of them do it!), the highly dehydrated clay litter sucks vital fluids form the intestine itself and can cause some serious impactions and intestinal slow downs.  Clay litter, when ingested, leads to heavy loads of calcium in the urine (where bunnies eliminate most of their calcium).  This can lead to sludging, stones and urinary tract blockage!   Recycled newspaper litter is bad.  Organic litters include those made form recycled paper products (e.g. Carefresh, Yesterday’s News).

Do not use cedar or pine shavings, as these products produce potent aromatic compounds, which can cause respiratory damage and elevate liver enzymes when inhaled over long periods of time.

Getting Bunny to Use the Box

Now that you have set up a safe, appropriate box, put it in an area where the bunny can be comfortably confined for a few days, except for brief excursions for run and play.  You can place the box inside the indoor hutch, tuck it behind the toilet in the bathroom, or place it in a corner of the laundry room.  Whatever is convenient for you as well as attractive to the bunny.

Use a baby gate to enclose the bunny in the selected room with his litter box, and be sure to provide plenty of toys, food, water and comfortable places to sleep.  This will be bunny’s “home base” and should be as inviting as you can make it.  It may take a few days for the bunny to reliably use the box, as he may mark the area thoroughly as he settles in.  It may help to soak or sweep up the “accidents” with a bit of tissue and put the tissue in box.  He will get the idea!  Like cats, most rabbits prefer to do their “business” in a nice, absorbent spot such as a clean litter box.

It often helps to put a handful of timothy hay in a clean corner of the litter box to encourage use of the box.  A rabbit will often sit in the box, happily munching at one end, which the processed product comes out the other end.  This may seem a bit disgusting to a human, but rabbits don’ t consider their feces to be dirty.  Some rabbits will even nap in the litter box!  As long as the litter box is changed regularly, this should pose no problem:  rabbit fecal pellets are hard, dry and relatively odorless.  In fact, rabbit litter box leavings are just about the best natural, organic fertilizer you can get for your garden!  Grow an herb garden, fertilize with bunny’s litter box leftovers (including the organic litter) and enjoy the ultimate in recycling!

Once your bunny is reliable about using the litter box in his area, you can gradually increase his freedom. Be sure that he can always get back to his litter box when he is free in the house.  There is a possibility that he may pick up a second area in the house as a toilet corner.  If the behavior continues, even after squirt bottle discipline and white vinegar, you may have to raise the white flag and provide another litter box.  The Good News: a bunny’s litter box does not smell if changed regularly.

Healthy stool link

by Dana Krempels, Ph.D.

One of the most common questions we receive is, “Are rabbits more like cats or dogs?”  The best answer is…neither!  Dogs and cats have been bred for centuries to lack innate fear of humans.  Rabbits, however, have been bred primarily for meat, fur and physical characteristics.  So, when you adopt a bunny, you adopt a lovely, domestic animal with the heart and spirit of a wild animal.  It is more challenging to win the trust of this sensitive, intelligent creature than it is to win the heart of a puppy or kitten, which have been bred to trust you from birth.

The myth that certain rabbit breeds make better pets is just that:  a myth.  We have known aggressive lops (supposedly gentle and friendly), super-affectionate dwarfs (supposedly hyper and mean) and every type of personality you can imagine in our hybrids.  There are as many rabbit personalities as there are rabbits!

If we had to compare the rabbit personality to that of another animal, we might say…horses!  Rabbits are highly intelligent, interactive and affectionate. Once a rabbit bonds to a human family, she/he will be intensely loyal and loving—but may also sometimes be bratty or willful.  A rabbit is very…rabbit. And rabbit people are special people who live happily with these complex, intelligent, and demanding little souls!

Bunny Handling – and Not

One of the most common misconceptions people have about rabbits is that they like to be held and cuddled.  This is probably because they look like plush toys.

Many people are disappointed to learn that their bunny does not like to be held.  But consider, for a moment, the natural history of the rabbit.  This is a ground-dwelling animal, and prey item for many predators.  It is completely against the nature of the rabbit to be held far above the ground where it cannot control its own motions and activities.  When you force a bunny to be held against her will, you reinforce her notion that you are a predator who is trying to restrain her.  Holding her while she struggles and kicks is not only dangerous for the human (sharp claws!), but also for the rabbit.  We wish we didn’t know how many young rabbits come into our vet’s office with broken legs, necks and spines because people (usually children) insisted on carrying them around and handling them against their will.  If you love your bunny, you won’t let this happen to him or her.

Unfortunately, many people buy rabbits without understanding their true nature.  That is one of the main reasons these lovely, intelligent creatures are “dumped” shortly after they reached sexual maturity and begin to assert their strong personalities.  But it’s easy and fun to live with a rabbit, once you understand the way they think.

Thinking Like a Rabbit

To understand rabbit behavior, begin to think more like a rabbit!   Here’s a beginner’s guide…

  1. Buy a copy of The House Rabbit Handbook by Marinell Harriman (ISBN 0-940920-12-3).  It is the most accurate, up –to-date book about rabbit care on the market.
  2. Remember that a rabbit, unlike a carnivorous, predatory dog or cat, evolved as a prey species.  Hence, most rabbits are naturally shy.  It is up to you, the flexible human, to compromise and alter your behavior so that the bunny learns you’re a friend.  Once you have done this, you will have won the unending love and loyalty of one of the most special creatures in creation.

Many bunnies are naturally friendly and outgoing.  Others are shy, at least at first.  If you happen to have a shy bunny, here is the best way to win his or her trust.

Kristin Claricoates, DVM

Pasteurella is a gram negative rod bacteria.  It is an opportunistic bacteria when in the body, which means that the bacteria is normal and in certain parts of the rabbit’s body.  If, however, it relocates to another part of the body, it is capable of causing disease. In rabbits, pasteurella is a major cause of respiratory diseases.  If your rabbit has a respiratory disease, pasteurella multocida should be considered but never assumed to be the cause of a respiratory disease.  Several other causes of respiratory disease are Bordetella bronchiseptica, Staphylococcus, Pseudomonas, or Pasteurella multocida.  Pasteurella is one of the common causes of rabbit “snuffles” or respiratory infections.  Interestingly, some rabbits exposed to pasteurella resisted the infection, spontaneously eliminated the infection, became subclinical carriers, developed acute disease (a bacteremia or pneumonia) or developed chronic disease.

There are several serotypes of this bacteria, labeled A, B, C, D, E, or F.  The way this bacteria is more or less virulent depends on properties of the bacteria, such as adhesions, phagocyte resistance, endotoxins, exotoxins, and iron regulation.  The type A strains are more likely to cause infection in the respiratory tract and are commonly seen.  The type D strains are significantly more pathogenic and cause bacteremia (bacterial infection that goes to the bloodstream and spreads through the entire body) more often.   One of Pasteurella’s properties is that it has developed a thick capsule which prevents the bacteria from being eaten.  Type D actually can avoid being broken down because it can resist bactericidal activity.

Transmission of pasteurella is by aerosol from acutely affected rabbits, by direct contact with affected rabbits, or by fomites (things like towels, blankets, or other things that are carried between the affected rabbit and a healthy rabbit).  The bacteria enters the body through the nares or wounds.  Rarely, venereal (sexual) transmission can occur with genital infections.  If the body does not resist the infection, then the bacteria colonizes the nares and may cause production of a nasal discharge.  The period of time between infection and showing signs of that infection is difficult to define because many rabbits are subclinical carriers of the infection, which means they may not show signs of the infection at all.  In experimental studies, rhinitis (inflammation and infection of the nasal passages) occurred 1-2 weeks after intranasal inoculation, suggesting that the incubation time of this infection is 1-2 weeks.  Once the bacteria becomes established in the nasal passages, the infection spreads to nearby tissues.  Spreading hematogenously (by bloodstream) also can account for infection that reaches the internal organs, lungs, and middle ears.

Pasteurella is a commensal organism on mucous membranes, but can exhibit pathogenicity (infectious nature) under conditions of immunodeficiency and stress in the host.  Nutritional, environmental, managerial, or social changes may predispose a rabbit to disease, as may infection from something else at the time of pasteurella infection, and physical or chemical injury to the mucosa.  In disseminated pasteurellosis (pasteurella that is spread widely over the whole body), fever enhances the immune system response and increases survival.  At this time, there is no vaccine available for rabbits.

Forms of pasteurellosis are varied.  They can be signs of an upper respiratory tract disease (rhinitis, sinusitis, conjunctivitis, lacrimal duct infection), otitis, pleuropneumonia, bacteremia, abscesses of subcutaneous tissues or internal organs, bones, joints, and genitalia.

Affected rabbits present with audible respiratory noises, infection of nasal lacrimal duct may extend to the conjunctiva.  Affected rabbits make audible noises and have bouts of sneezing.  Conjunctivitis may sometimes be present. Infection can spread from the nares to the middle ears through the eustachian tubes.  Otitis can also present where there is purulent white debris. The more pathogenic strains of pasteurella are likely to spread by the bloodstream (hematogenously) causing acute generalized disease, fever, and sudden death.

Diagnosis is made by isolation of the bacteria.  This requires a culture before using antibiotics.  Once antibiotics have begun, bacteria may be difficult to grow.  A swab of the nasal cavities is taken.  Also, serologic testing from a sample of blood is used.  It is helpful in detecting internal infections or subclinical carriers.   After the culture returns, we will determine what antibiotic is the best to treat pasteurella based on what the bacteria is sensitive to.

Once the culture returns, your pet is placed on the appropriate antibiotic based on the sensitivity and your pet is rechecked several weeks later to determine if the infection is gone or still present.
Works Cited:

​Quesenberry, Katherine E., and James W. Carpenter. Ferrets, Rabbits and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery. Missouri: Saunders, 2004. Print.

Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Dental disease in rabbits is a very commonly diagnosed problem and is now recognized as the underlying cause of numerous other disorders. For this reason an understanding of dental health and physiology are crucial for veterinarians that treat rabbits and for rabbit owners alike.

Rabbits are herbivorous, naturally eating a wide variety of vegetation and roughage. A unique feature of rabbits is that all of their teeth are open rooted which means that their teeth grow continually throughout their life. A healthy rabbit eating a proper diet constantly chewing will wear down the teeth as they grow.

Signs of Dental Disease

Signs of dental disease are very broad and may be non specific. Early signs can be subtle and may not be immediately noticeable to the rabbit owner. The rabbit may change its food preferences, stop eating certain things that may be difficult to chew, or drop food from its mouth. The rabbit may have some weight loss or may look unkempt from a change in grooming habits, especially if the incisors are overgrown. Advanced signs of dental disease may be excessive salivation, loss of appetite, malodorous breath, and severe weight loss. Also, the rabbit may present for another problem such as GI stasis, an abscess, or an infected tear duct, all secondary to the primary dental disease.

Incisor Disease
Pictured above are Incisor malocclusions.  These are the front teeth that are easy to see in rabbits.  There are actually 6 teeth in these pictures.  Four incisors and two peg teeth.  Malocclusions can happen for many reasons including infection, trauma, and congenital defect.  Treatment starts with monthly trimming with a diamond burr and treating any infection associated with the malocclusion.  These teeth should not be trimmed with anything else besides the diamond burr.  Some rabbits may qualify for incisor removal.  Your veterinarian can help you decide which treatment is appropriate.

This rabbit had a traumatic blow to the nose.  The upper incisor on the right fractured below the gingiva.  The tooth continued to grow until it erupted behind the end of the fractured incisor that was above the gingiva.  We removed the vestigial piece of tooth and this bunny went back to normal occlusion.

Causes of dental disease

Dental disease in rabbits is most commonly caused by dietary and genetic factors.  Genetic predisposition is very common. With inbreeding, some rabbits are born with incisor malocclusion in which the incisor teeth overgrow and curl around because they do not meet properly.  Some rabbits breeds prefer elongated or shortened skulls (depending on the breed type) which also leads to dental occlusion problems. Another common cause is diet. Many rabbits are primarily fed a diet of pellets. Because the pelleted food is dense in nutrient content and is already pulverized, the rabbit chews less. Rabbits’ molars curl as they continually grow. The lower molars develop points that grow into the tongue and the upper molars develop points that grow out into the cheeks because of decreased wear from less chewing. These changes occur gradually with time and can lead to many secondary problems including abrupt loss of appetite and infections. Acquired dental disease with deterioration of the tooth quality, malocclusion and elongation of the roots with abscesses is another form of dental disease in rabbits. Diet, genetics, and metabolic bone disease are all proposed causes for this problem.

Molar Disease

Molar disease is a very serious problem among our pet bunny population. Mildly affected molars may be treated with a straight file as outpatients.  For severely overgrown molars or molars with points, a low speed dental drill with a straight dental bur can be used to file down the molars and correctly reshape the teeth. Infections of the molar roots are common in dental disease and often lead to the formation of abscesses and infection in the surrounding bone. If an abscess is present, surgical treatment is required to remove the entire abscess and the capsule. Involved bony tissue should be debrided. There are many therapies we employ depending on the severity of the abscess.


A dental exam should be a part of the annual physical examination. By lifting the lips to check their length and occlusion, the incisors are checked. Also during the exam, the veterinarian will check for the overall body condition, the coat condition, jaw swellings, moisture from the mouth around the chin and neck, and moisture around the eyes,  which can all be indications of dental disease. The sides of the cheeks are palpated for any sharp protrusions. We use a lighted nasal speculum to visually evaluate the molars. Occasionally,  we can not see points or spurs on the molars well and will recommend a more complete dental exam and filing of the molars under anesthesia based upon our observations.

The dental examination under anesthesia can be performed safely after we determine that your rabbit is a safe anesthetic risk.  This may require blood work. The anesthetic agent used is usually isoflourane gas.  It is very safe and the rabbit recovers very quickly when this gas is used. We may add analgesics (pain medicine)  to decrease the stress of the procedure and improve the rabbit’s recovery. Specialized instruments are utilized to visualize the oral cavity including cheek spreaders, an incisor speculum, and a special light source. Special diamond files, rongeurs, and straight dental burs on a low speed drill are used to remove points and file the teeth down. A system for grading the extent of dental disease based on radiographs has been developed. The extent of dental disease present is graded I through V with V being most severely effected.  While under anesthesia, we may take radiographs to evaluate the tooth roots and abscesses.

Pictured above is a tongue ulcer caused by a draining tooth root abscess at the back of the mouth.  This bunny was drooling excessively and had a foul odor from the mouth.  All the molars are abnormal in this picture.

Treatment is determined by the extent of the disease.  We will present you with the options once a thorough evaluation has been done.  The first step is making an appointment.  (502) 241-4117.

A good link is My Pet’s Dentist.  For excellent rabbit dental information is presented on this page.

This bunnies abnormal smile is caused by an ear infection. The nerve that is close to the base of the ear has become inflamed causing the cheek to tighten on one side (picture side left). There is an abscess in the ear canal. This will lead to abnormalities in chewing/eating which will lead to dental problems and cheek problems.  So the original problem (the ear abscess) must be treated first to help treat the dental and cheek problems.

by Dr. Maggie Wood
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Heart disease is a significant health concern, and is most commonly seen in older rabbits.  In the early stages of heart disease, no symptoms may be present, or subtle changes that are not specific for heart disease such as mildly decreased appetite, lower activity level, or weight loss may be the only signs.  As it progresses, an increased respiratory rate is often noticeable.  In more advanced stages, the symptoms may be severe including labored breathing, complete loss of appetite, and occasionally fainting.  The severe signs are generally seen when the heart cannot keep up with its job of circulating the blood in the body, and therefore fluid backs up in the lungs and/or abdomen. This is called congestive heart failure.

If you suspect your rabbit may have heart disease, you should bring him to your veterinarian for an examination.  Annual exams are also recommended, even if your rabbit seems healthy.  The veterinarian can listen to the rabbit’s heart with a stethoscope to check for an abnormal rhythm or heart murmur.  Not all rabbits with heart disease will have a detectable murmur or arrhythmia, but if present, this can alert the veterinarian that there is a problem even if the rabbit is not showing any outward signs.  If your rabbit is showing severe signs, such as trouble breathing, this is an emergency and hospitalization with oxygen support is generally needed until the symptoms have improved.

Respiratory infections are common in rabbits and can have similar symptoms to heart disease.  It can be difficult to tell which one the rabbit has, especially if the only sign is breathing difficulty, so further testing is often needed.  If heart disease is suspected based on the exam, x-rays are usually the first step.  An enlarged, rounded heart and fluid in the lungs are common findings with heart disease.  If the x-rays indicate that there could be a heart problem, a cardiac ultrasound is recommended.  The ultrasound can evaluate the heart function, whether the heart wall is too thick or too thin, and how the heart valves are working.  These tests both help to differentiate heart disease from respiratory disease.  They also provide a picture of how severe the heart disease is and help the veterinarian decide the type and dose of medications that need to be administered.

Medications for heart disease help to decrease the workload on the heart, control the blood pressure, and keep fluid from accumulating in the lungs. Heart disease cannot be cured, but it can often be managed with medications.  This can increase the length and the quality of the rabbit’s life, especially if it is diagnosed before it becomes severe.  The rabbit will need to be evaluated regularly to evaluate whether any adjustment is needed in the dose of medication.  The dose of medication depends on the individual rabbit and the severity of the heart disease.  Bloodwork will also need to be monitored to make sure there are no adverse effects from the medications.

Bulging eyes can be a sign of thymoma and heart disease. Only a complete evaluation including ultrasound can tell the difference.

Of course any time your rabbit stops producing stool, it is considered an emergency! Please call Chicago Exotics at (502) 241-4117 if your rabbit is experiencing stool problems.

Kristin Claricoates, DVM

The normal heart is shown on the left compared to a heart with dilated cardiomyopathy on the right. Note the increased dimensions of the left ventricle.

A cardiomyopathy is a descriptive condition where the muscles of the heart is abnormal.  There are four types of cardiomyopathies: “hypertrophic”, “dilated”, “restrictive” and “right ventricular”.  While dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, has typically been recognized by its structure i.e., thinning and stretching of the heart muscle, the electrical function of the heart can also become adversely affected. When the heart chambers dilate, the heart muscle doesn’t contract normally. Also, the heart can’t pump blood very well. Over time, the heart becomes weaker and heart failure can occur. Dilated cardiomyopathy also can lead to heart valve problems, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and blood clots in the heart.

The main feature of dilated cardiomyopathy is an excessive stretching of the heart muscle. The disease often starts in the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber. The heart muscle begins to dilate (stretch and become thinner). This causes the inside of the chamber to enlarge. When the heart chambers dilate, the heart muscle doesn’t contract normally. Also, the heart can’t pump blood very well and becomes unable to supply the body with enough blood. The problem often spreads to the right ventricle and then to the atria as the disease gets worse.  Over time, the heart becomes weaker and heart failure can occur. Dilated cardiomyopathy also can lead to heart valve problems, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and blood clots in the heart.
The cause of dilated cardiomyopathy often isn’t known. Certain diseases, conditions and substances also can cause the disease, such as poor genetics, congenital (from birth) heart defects, infections, parasites, lead toxicity, heart attack or high blood pressure.

Normally, the heart is set up to process deoxygenated blood and make it oxygenated to send to the tissues of the body. There are four chambers of the heart and four one way valves to continue pumping blood in this uni-directional process. The right atrium receives blood from the body which is poorly oxygenated, sends it to the right ventricle, where it is then transferred to the lungs.  Blood becomes oxygenated and carbon dioxide is expelled.  From there, the blood goes to the left atrium, then to the left ventricle, which pumps it to the body.  This cycle is continuously repeated as the heart beats. Every heartbeat results from an electrical signal starting at the right atrium and travels down through the heart through special conducting tissue which starts a contraction. In a heart with DCM, not only are the muscles of the heart stretched, but this change can sometimes interfere with this normal electrical signal.  Some of the different types of electrical signal malfunctions are arrhythmias of differing severities.  These electrical malfunctions can even cause a cardiac arrest.

When a heart is in DCM, the heart contracts (pumps blood) poorly because the muscle is over-stretched.  The amount of blood which the heart can hold is therefore increased.  Since it is so stretched, a large amount of blood is able to fill each chamber, but the heart’s ability to pump the blood from each chamber is reduced.  Enlargement of the left ventricle may make it harder for your heart valves to close, causing a backward flow of blood and making your heart pump less effectively. This can sometimes result in backflow of the blood from one chamber to another (heart valve regurgitation), against the uni-directional valve.  Changes in heart structure and changes in pressure on the heart’s chambers can lead to an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).  Unfortunately, dilated cardiomyopathy can cause your heart to suddenly stop beating, or blood clots (emboli) because there is pooling of blood (stasis) in the left ventricle due to the large volume of fluid in that chamber.  This can lead to blood clots, which may enter the bloodstream, cut off the blood supply to vital organs, and cause stroke, heart attack or damage to other organs. Arrythmias can also cause blood clots.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy may be suspected because of symptoms, a murmur, or an abnormal radiograph. Because such symptoms could be caused by a large number of other conditions, an ultrasound is required to officially diagnose dilated cardiomyopathy.  If an arrhythmia is heard, an ECG may be recommended as well.  An ECG records the electrical signals from the heart and is performed by placing electrodes in the armpits and inner legs.  In Dilated Cardiomyopathy the ECG usually shows an abnormal electrical signal due to muscle stretching. Some patients may only show minor changes or be normal on an ECG.  Because ECG abnormalities are not specific to Dilated Cardiomyopathy and may be found in other heart conditions, an ECG may or may not be done depending on the stress level of your pet.

If there is a suspicion of DCM, there are a few recommended tests that a veterinarian may advise.  First, your veterinarian may order blood tests which help with information about your pet’s heart and also may reveal if your pet has an infection, a metabolic disorder or toxins in the blood that can cause dilated cardiomyopathy.  Next, a chest X-ray is important to check your pet’s heart for abnormalities in the structure or size and the lungs for any sign of fluid in or around your lungs.
To diagnose DCM, your veterinarian will want an ultrasound of the heart.  The ultrasound of the heart is sometimes an echocardiogram, or an ECHO.  An ECHO produces a picture of the heart, and if excessive stretching of the muscle can be seen, DCM is diagnosed.  During the test the entire heart is measured including the walls, valves and other structures within the heart. Therefore ECHO provides a very thorough assessment of Dilated Cardiomyopathy, and it can differentiate DCM from other heart conditions that may be suspected.

Because DCM develops over a period of time, your pet may not be exhibiting any signs of DCM because the change in the heart began slowly.  Signs and symptoms of DCM Dilated cardiomyopathy can appear along a spectrum of no symptoms, subtle symptoms or, in the more severe cases, congestive heart failure (CHF), which occurs when the heart is unable to pump blood well enough to meet the body tissue needs for oxygen and nutrients. Things that may indicate DCM in your pet, or a worsening of DCM can be shortness of breath (dyspnea), lethargy (tiredness), swelling of abdomen (ascites), swelling of limbs (edema), syncope (fainting), seizures (convulsions), or even sudden cardiac arrest (heart stops beating effectively requiring resuscitation). These symptoms can occur at any age and with any stage of cardiomyopathy, even if other more severe symptoms of congestive heart failure have not yet appeared.

Drug treatment or medication is given when some or all of the symptoms listed above are present.  These medications must be given for the remainder of your pet’s life, and the heart will be evaluated by alternating bloodwork and radiographs every 3 months.  Increasing, decreasing or discontinuing medication should only be done with consultation with your veterinarian.  The choice of treatment will vary from individual to individual but the common drug groups used for treatment medications are listed below:

Drugs that have proved useful in the treatment of dilated cardiomyopathy and heart failure include:

Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
ACE inhibitors are a type of drug that widens or dilates blood vessels (vasodilator) to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow and decrease the heart’s workload. ACE inhibitors may improve heart function.  An example of this type of drug is enalapril.
Side effects include low blood pressure, low white blood cell count, and kidney or liver problems.

Angiotensin II receptor blockers
These drugs have many of the beneficial effects of ACE inhibitors and may be an alternative for people who can’t tolerate ACE inhibitors.

Beta blockers
A beta blocker slows your heart rate, reduces blood pressure and prevents some of the harmful effects of stress hormones, substances produced by your body that can worsen heart failure and trigger abnormal heart rhythms. Atenolol and propranolol are some examples of this medication type.  Beta blockers may reduce signs and symptoms of heart failure and improve heart function.

Often called water pills, diuretics remove excess fluid and salt from your body. The drugs also decrease fluid in your lungs, so you can breathe more easily. Common diuretics include furosemide and spironolactone. Common side effects of diuretics include dehydration and abnormalities in the blood chemistries (particularly potassium loss), which is why it is important for regular blood rechecks when your pet has DCM.

​Inotropic agents
Digoxin. This drug, also known as digitalis, strengthens your heart muscle contractions. It also tends to slow the heartbeat. Digoxin may reduce heart failure symptoms and improve your ability to be active.

​Blood-thinning medications

Your veterinarian may prescribe drugs, such as warfarin (Coumadin), to help prevent blood clots. Side effects include excessive bruising or bleeding. This is not commonly prescribed
There are a variety of drug treatments currently used in Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). The need for any treatment and choice of that treatment has to be made on an individual basis and may change in each patient over the years. It is very important to discuss your pet’s symptoms with the veterinarian and develop a treatment plan for your pet, as each patient with DCM is different. Medication should NEVER be stopped without first consulting with your veterinarian.  While medications can be stopped some drugs can have a serious complication if stopped abruptly, please work with your veterinarian to manage all medications.  You will be doing follow up examinations every 3 months.

Kristin Claricoates, DVM

A cardiomyopathy is a descriptive condition where the muscles of the heart is abnormal.  There are four types of cardiomyopathies: “hypertrophic”, “dilated”, “restrictive” and “right ventricular”.  While hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, has typically been recognized by its structure i.e., thickening of the heart muscle, the electrical function of the heart is also adversely affected.
The main feature of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is an excessive thickening of the heart muscle (hypertrophy literally means to thicken). The distribution of muscle thickening or hypertrophy is variable, but the left ventricle is almost always affected and in some patients the muscle of the right ventricle also thickens.  In HCM, the walls of the heart or the septum separating left from right chambers of the heart are thickened.  HCM can sometimes be confused with a heart that appears similarly, but is a normal change in the heart in individuals with high blood pressure (hypertension).

In Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), the muscle thickening occurs without an obvious cause.  Examination of the heart muscle in Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy under a microscope shows that the normal parallel alignment of muscle cells has been lost. The cells appear disorganized. This abnormality is called “myocardial disarray”. It is probable that myocardial disarray interferes with normal electrical transmission and predisposes to irregularities of the heartbeat.

Myocardial Disarray

These diagrams contrast the regular, parallel alignment of muscle cells in a normal heart with the irregular, disorganized alignment of muscle cells or “myocardial disarray” found in some parts of the heart in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

When a heart is in HCM, the thickened muscle usually contracts (pumps blood) well and ejects a higher than normal amount of the blood from the heart.  However, the muscle in HCM is stiff, so it is unable to relax completely. As a result, higher blood pressures compared to normal are required to fill the heart. The amount of blood which the heart can hold is therefore reduced.  This in turn will limit the amount of blood which can be ejected with the next contraction.  While the heart itself has problems with thickening of the musculature, the heart valves and arteries are normal.  Normally, the heart is set up to process unoxygenated blood and make it oxygenated to send to the tissues of the body. There are four chambers of the heart and four one way valves to continue pumping blood in this uni-directional process. The right atrium receives blood from the body which is poorly oxygenated, sends it to the right ventricle, where it is then transferred to the lungs.  Blood becomes oxygenated and carbon dioxide is expelled.  From there, the blood goes to the left atrium, then to the left ventricle, which pumps it to the body.  This cycle is continuously repeated as the heart beats. Every heartbeat results from an electrical signal starting at the right atrium and travels down through the heart through special conducting tissue which starts a contraction. In a heart with HCM, not only are the muscles of the heart thickened, but this change can sometimes interfere with this normal electrical signal.  Some of the different types of electrical signal malfunctions are arrhythmias of differing severities.  These electrical malfunctions can even cause a cardiac arrest.

In an HCM heart sometimes the “plumbing” in the heart can cause the fluid (in this case blood) to get blocked temporarily while attempting to leave the heart (obstruction).  This type of a “plumbing” problem should not be confused with blocked arteries in the heart – that is coronary artery disease and NOT HCM.

Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy may be suspected because of symptoms, a murmur, or an abnormal radiograph. Because such symptoms could be caused by a large number of other conditions, an ultrasound is required to officially diagnose hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.  If an arrhythmia is heard, an ECG may be recommended as well.  An ECG records the electrical signals from the heart and is performed by placing electrodes in the armpits and inner legs.  In Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy the ECG usually shows an abnormal electrical signal due to muscle thickening and disorganization of the muscle structure. Some patients may only show minor changes or be normal on an ECG.  Because ECG abnormalities are not specific to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy and may be found in other heart conditions, an ECG may or may not be done depending on the stress level of your pet.

To officially diagnose HCM, an ultrasound of the heart is needed.  This is sometimes an echocardiogram, or an ECHO.  An ECHO produces a picture of the heart, and if excessive thickness of the muscle can be seen, HCM is diagnosed.  During the test the entire heart is measured including the walls, valves and other structures within the heart. Therefore ECHO provides a very thorough assessment of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, and it can differentiate HCM from other heart conditions that may be suspected.
Because HCM develops over a period of time, your pet may not be exhibiting any signs of HCM because the change in the heart began slowly.  Things that may indicate HCM in your pet, or a worsening of HCM can be breathing decreased appetite, weight loss, and an increase in respiratory rate.  Loss of energy and appetite and reduced exercise may be seen, but can go unnoticed because pets are often able to recognize their own physical limitations and restrict their activities accordingly.

Drug treatment or medication is given when some or all of the symptoms listed above are present.  These medications must be given for the remainder of your pet’s life, and the heart will be evaluated by alternating bloodwork and radiographs every 3 months.  Increasing, decreasing or discontinuing medication should only be done with consultation with your veterinarian.  The choice of treatment will vary from individual to individual but the common drug groups used for treatment medications are listed below:

Beta-Blocking drugs slow the heart beat and reduce its force of contraction. Beta blockers have such names as atenolol, and sotalol and the names normally end in “ol”. Beta-blockers are also widely used in medical practice for other types of heart disease and for high blood pressure. Occasionally excessive heart rate slowing with these drugs can cause reduced energy

Calcium Antagonists
The second major group of drugs used are the calcium antagonists or calcium channel blockers. Within this group diltiazem is the drug which has been most commonly used in HCM in our patients. It improves the filling of the heart. Like beta-blockers it can cause excessive slowing of the heart rate and lower blood pressure, which is why regular checkups are required to check the heart.

Anti-Arrhythmic Drugs
These drugs might be used when an arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) such as tachycardia (heart beating too fast) is detected and felt to be important in an individual case. Sotolol is a very helpful medication for those who encounter arrhythmias. It may lower blood pressure and appears to have few side effects.

Other Drugs
There are a number of specific complications described earlier which are rare but which require the use of additional drugs.

Occasionally patients develop fluid retention and in these situation diuretics “water pills” which increase urine flow are administered. The most commonly prescribed diuretic is Furosemide (Lasix). It is also imperative to maintain an appropriate blood potassium level when taking diuretics.

Anticoagulants: These are not used commonly in our patients but can be used in patients with atrial fibrillation to prevent clot formation in the atria. Warfarin (Coumadin) is the tablet commonly used with a long history of success in HCM. It requires monitoring with a blood test, approximately on a monthly basis.

Although endocarditis is rare, persons who have out flow obstruction and turbulent blood flow should receive antibiotic prophylaxis prior to dental procedures (including cleanings) and any other situations where there is an increased risk of bacteria entering the bloodstream.

There are a variety of drug treatments currently used in Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). The need for any treatment and choice of that treatment has to be made on an individual basis and may change in each patient over the years. It is very important to discuss your pet’s symptoms with the veterinarian and develop a treatment plan for your pet, as each patient with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) is different. Medication should NEVER be stopped without first consulting with your veterinarian.  While medications can be stopped some drugs can have a serious complication if stopped abruptly, please work with your veterinarian to manage all medications.  You will be doing follow up examinations every 3 months.

Works Cited: The Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association

​Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

The key to healthy stools starts with lots of fresh timothy or orchard grass hay.  The more fiber, the better.  If you feed to many carbohydrates,  the cecum may start to function improperly.  This can lead to serious health problems.  The normal, healthy rabbit produces 90 to 150 healthy pellets a day.

Rabbits are coprophagic.  This means they eat these special healthy cecal pellets to receive complete nutrition.  If you are finding these uneaten pellets around your rabbit, it can indicate health problems.

Pictured below are two pictures of mucousy stool.  The first is from a hospitalized rabbit starting to recover from a very sick cecum.  Sometimes, these are the first stools that we see with recovery. Sometimes the are simply small and multiple.  The rabbit is not considered healthy until the large healthy stools pictured to the left return.

Clear mucous may be produced with serious cecal problems.  These rabbits need to be in the hospital!

Of course any time your rabbit stops producing stool, it is considered an emergency!

​Please call Chicago Exotics at (502) 241-4117 if your rabbit is experiencing stool problems.

Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians: aemv.org
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

If your rabbit is not eating or producing stool for 8 hours or more, we suspect this rabbit may be experiencing gastrointestinal stasis.  You can read the paragraphs below for a better explanation, but you should be calling us or the emergency room for help. 847-329-8709.

Gastrointestinal stasis is a potentially dangerous condition in rabbits, where muscular contractions of the stomach and intestines are reduced, and normal bacteria in the digestive tract become out of balance.  Rabbits can quickly become lethargic, may exhibit signs of pain such as teeth grinding and a hunched up posture, and begin to produce excessive gas, and sometimes soft stool or diarrhea.  Left untreated, severe cases of gastrointestinal stasis can be fatal.

There are many causes of gastrointestinal stasis, including stress, dehydration and anorexia from other underlying medical conditions, or gastrointestinal blockage.  A common cause is lack of crude fiber in the diet, most specifically hay.  Hay is essential for normal gastrointestinal function.  Pellets contain hay, but some brands contain many other types of ingredients, and are chopped and processed to a finer, more easily digested product, which is actually not to the rabbit’s overall benefit.  Hay also provides the best environment for growth of the beneficial bacteria growing in the rabbit’s digestive tract, and allows passage of hair that is normally ingested by the rabbit during. Without adequate fiber, hair may accumulate in the stomach, causing a partial or complete blockage, since rabbits are unable to vomit.  The rabbit may feel “full” and appetite often decreases.  When the bacterial population in the digestive tract changes, gas-forming bacteria may proliferate, causing painful, excessive gas accumulation.  Some gas-forming bacteria produce deadly endotoxins that can cause rapid death.

Treatment of gastrointestinal stasis varies depending on severity and underlying cause.  Recovery is often slow and may take several days to weeks.
  1. Fluid therapy: Many affected rabbits are dehydrated or suffering from electrolyte imbalances.
  2. Simethicone: This medication helps to reduce the amount of gas in the digestive tract.
  3. Gastrointestinal motility drugs: These drugs can help stimulate the digestive tract to begin working again.
  4. Pain relief: This is important to relieve discomfort associated with gastrointestinal stasis and distention.
  5. Hand feeding: Many rabbits with this condition have decreased to no appetite.  It is often important to hand, or force-feed liquid hay products with a syringe (Critical Care, Oxbow Pet Products).
  6. Hay: rabbits that will eat on their own must be encouraged to eat grass hay.
  7. Treatment of other underlying medical problems: If examination and testing reveal additional medical problems, these must be treated as well.

Produced by the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians: aemv.org. 2005

by Dr. Maggie Wood
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Skin parasites (ectoparasites)

The common rabbit fur mite is called Cheyletiella.  This mite causes flaking, dryness, and thinning of the fur predominantly on the rabbit’s back. Therefore, it is sometimes referred to as “walking dandruff”.

Rabbits can also get ear mites, which can cause inflammation, dark crusts, and itching of the ears. It is important to differentiate between a mite infestation and a bacterial or fungal infection since they can have similar symptoms. Mites can be diagnosed by taking samples to examine microscopically pictured below.

Rabbits are also susceptible to fleas, especially if they live in a household with dogs and cats. Usually the cat or dog is the one that brings the fleas into the household and perpetuates the flea infestation, so it is important to treat the cat or dog also. Many products sold for cats or dogs can be toxic for rabbits, so it is important to consult with a veterinarian to provide the correct flea treatment.

Flies can also lay eggs on rabbits that then develop into larvae. This is most common in rabbits housed outdoors, so it is recommended to keep your rabbit indoors to avoid this issue. There are 2 main types of larvae. The first type is called Cuterebra. These are quite large and only 1 larva is present at each site under the skin. They appear as a bump or swelling with a tiny “air hole” at the surface of the skin pictured below. These must be surgically removed. Never attempt to pull them out through the hole as this may cause a fatal anaphylactic reaction!

The other type of fly larvae are small maggots. These are most commonly found in rabbits that have a wound or skin infection, especially if the rabbit is debilitated or unable to groom himself properly. There are usually many maggots present in one spot and they will eat away at the rabbit’s skin if they are not removed promptly.

Parasites affecting nervous tissue ( brain, spinal cord, etc)

E. Cuniculi is a rabbit parasite that can infect the brain and other organs in the body.  They are infected by oral ingestion of the microscopic parasite eggs found in the urine of affected rabbits.  They can be chronically infected for quite a while before any symptoms are seen, which unfortunately makes it easier to spread from one rabbit to another.  Neurologic signs may include a head tilt, circling, rolling or falling to one side, tremoring, weakness, and rapid eye movements.  E. Cuniculi can also cause kidney problems, urinary incontinence, and eye problems such as cataracts and uveitis (inflammation of the eye).

Rabbits that are housed outdoors and exposed to raccoon droppings can become infected with a raccoon parasite called Baylisascaris.  It can migrate to their brain and cause neurologic symptoms similar to E. Cuniculi.  It is best to prevent Baylisascaris by keeping your rabbit indoors, since it does not usually respond to medical treatment.

Bacterial infections of the inner ear can also cause similar neurologic symptoms to E. Cuniculi, so it is important to remember that not every rabbit with a head tilt or circling to one side has a parasite.  They can respond to antibiotic therapy if it is caused by an ear infection.

Gastrointestinal Parasites (endoparasites)

Coccidia are the most common intestinal parasites of rabbits.  Symptoms may include diarrhea and weight loss.  Baby bunnies are more susceptible to coccidia, and they can become very sick and dehydrated.  One type of coccidia can cause liver disease also.  With an acute infection, this can cause severe illness due to liver dysfunction and obstruction of the bile ducts.  With a more chronic infection, it can contribute to the development of tumors of the bile duct.

Rabbits can also get other parasites such as pinworms, tapeworms, and stomach worms.  Not all rabbits with intestinal parasites show signs right away, so it is recommended to have a stool sample checked for any new rabbit that you bring into your household.
Since most parasites are contagious and are spread between rabbits, it is important to isolate affected rabbits until they are free of the parasite and determine if any other rabbits in the household have been exposed.  It is also important to clean and disinfect the environment during treatment.

If you rabbit is showing any of these symptoms, please call us at (502) 241-4117 to make an appointment!

Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Sore hocks happen when rabbits are kept on inappropriate footing or substrate, but also when they are in unclean situations.  They should not be kept on wire footing.  This can lead to debridement of the hocks.  Large sores will form and take months to heal.  It is a very painful condition which requires medical attention.  Moist conditions created by excessive urine production or diarrhea can lead to sores on the fore and hind limbs.  These conditions must be addressed as well as the sores created by them.

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