by Dr. Elisa Harvey, D.V.M.
More and more people own rabbits these days, and many keep these interesting and personable creatures as housetrained indoor pets. The most important way to maintain good health in rabbits is by far good preventive care, including the right housing and diet, as well as proper handling, rabbit-proofing the house, and understanding rabbit behavior.
The most basic aspect of rabbit care is proper diet, and many first-time owners do not appreciate the importance of diet in their rabbit’s health. The best diet for rabbits is not based primarily on pellets, as many owners believe. The most important component of a rabbit’s diet is quality roughage, such as fresh (not moldy) alfalfa or timothy hay or cubes, followed by a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits (Try many! You may be surprised to see that your rabbit will have definite preferences), some pellets (not too many, as these contribute to obesity and hairballs) and lots of fresh water. Supplements may include a salt lick, a multivitamin and one of several preventatives for hairballs, including Laxatone or mineral oil, and pineapple, papaya or papain enzyme tablets. The first two hairball preventatives are lubricants which aid in keeping hair from accumulating in the stomach, and the latter three have an enzyme which digests protein. Too much of any one thing, especially treats and pellets, may contribute to obesity, hairballs, urinary problems and spoiling the rabbit so that they will refuse a proper diet. Hairball, or trichobezoars, are a common potentially life-threatening problem associated with indoor pet rabbits. While it is definitely preferable to preventing them, this problem requires the veterinarian’s help since it causes rabbits to stop eating. In addition, rabbits are unable to vomit, so when hairballs form a mass in the stomach which will not pass, the hairball can only be removed by encouraging passage through the digestive tract by treatment with mineral oil, or with surgery in more extreme cases. Surgery is risky, since by this point the rabbit is usually debilitated. Often an x-ray and history can help diagnose this problem.
Nails and Teeth
Depending on their housing, rabbits may require routine care of their nails, which will grow very long and sharp if left unattended. Nail trimming is easy with the proper restraint and tools and can be done by owners with a little instruction. Otherwise, the veterinarian is happy to do this on a monthly basis or so. While a rabbit’s teeth usually do not require routine care, occasionally some rabbits’ teeth are maloccluded. This means that the upper and lower incisors do not meet properly. Since their teeth grow continuously and are worn down by each other, malocclusion will cause them to grow very long. Left untreated this will interfere with the rabbit’s ability to eat, resulting in starvation. The teeth can easily be examined by a veterinarian for this problem and, if present, will require lifelong periodic trimming by either the owner or veterinarian.
Vaccines and Worming
Rabbits do not require routine vaccinations and there are no approved vaccines for them at this time. They should receive a yearly veterinary examination, however, and may require treatment for internal and external parasites. These are easily diagnosed and safely treated.
Special Health Problems
In addition to hairballs, there are several other unique aspects to rabbit health for owners to be aware of. If the rabbit is indoors and litter-trained (Yes! This is easily done with rabbits, who are very fastidious creatures), the area it is allowed in must be rabbit-proofed. This especially means putting electrical cords out of reach, since rabbits by nature love to chew, and may be electrocuted. Carpet and other material that they may chew on and ingest, causing obstruction, should also be avoided.
Outdoor rabbits are prone to several hazards, the most common being summer heat, maggot infestations and attack by dogs. Secure housing is important, as well as a constant supply of fresh water. Some suggest freezing 2 liter plastic soda bottles in the summer and leaving them in the rabbit hutch to help cool them off and prevent heat stroke. Keeping the rabbit and its environment clean along with daily inspections of the rabbit’s entire coat should help prevent maggot infestations.
In addition, owners should be careful in how they handle and restrain their rabbits to avoid injury. Rabbits are fragile creatures and since they may also be anxious and not used to handling, they may kick to escape. If their hindquarters are not supported, they can kick hard enough to fracture their spine and damage their spinal cord, causing paralysis. They can effectively be held like a football close to the chest or by the scruff and their hindquarters. Often, when performing nail trimming or other treatments, wrapping securely (but not too tightly) in a towel will allow adequate restraint and even calm the rabbit. A veterinarian can show you proper techniques.
Owners are often surprised by certain aspects of rabbit behavior, particularly aggressive and territorial behaviors in both male and female rabbits. Prolific reproduction is also a concern, since rabbits become sexually active very early in life (about 4 months). The best solution is spaying the female and neutering (castrating) the male. It will eliminate the possibility of unintended rabbit litters, will probably reduce or eliminate aggressive behaviors and may allow rabbits to be housed together when otherwise unable. An added benefit to spaying and neutering is the elimination of the possibility of cancers of the uterus (which becomes very common with age) and ovaries in females and testicular cancer in males.
Rabbits are also susceptible to a certain bacterial infection called Pasteurella, which is very difficult to treat and control. They may contract it from other rabbits that they are housed with and be a silent (asymptomatic) carrier. They may also show symptoms of the infection, which can range from eye, ear (causing discharge and a vestibular problem called wry-neck) and nasal infections to skin abscesses. The condition is treated with specific antibiotics, which may needed long-term or intermittently as problems arise. Rabbits’ digestive tracts are very sensitive to antibiotics and only certain ones are appropriate for use in these animals. While a rabbit can sometimes live with this infection for awhile, it often eventually overwhelms them in spite of aggressive treatment. The best treatment is of course prevention by avoiding exposure to infected rabbits, but this may difficult since rabbits may be carriers without obvious signs of infection.
One of the best things a rabbit owner can do is to stay educated about caring for their pets by talking to their veterinarian, reading books on rabbit care and getting information from the House Rabbit Society, an organization dedicated to educating owners about their pet rabbits.