Keeping Your Rabbit a Healthy Rabbit

If you are going to keep a pet rabbit in your household, it's important to make sure he's a healthy rabbit. Keep your pet happy with these basic guidelines.

External Parasites

External parasities can occasionally try to turn a healthy rabbit into an unhealthy rabbit. You may need to consult a veterinarian about flea and tick medication for your rabbit to keep them protected from parasites.

Photo by Daniel Johnson

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Looking to get a rabbit for a family pet? Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson have the information for raising baby bunnies into mature, award-winning adults in How to Raise Rabbits (Voyageur Press, 2011). This excerpt, which explains what to watch for and how to keep your pet rabbit healthy throughout his or her lifetime, is from Chapter 5, “The Healthy Rabbit.”

Keeping Your Rabbit a Healthy Rabbit

We have made this statement elsewhere, but it bears repeating again: basic health care starts with a clean rabbitry. If your cages are kept clean, the trays are emptied regularly, the cages are disinfected on occasion, your nest boxes are kept tidy, your waterers and feeders are washed regularly, and fresh water is provided at all times, the health of your rabbitry will be leaps and bounds ahead of that of another breeder who doesn’t follow the same protocol of cleanliness. A healthy rabbit cannot thrive in dirty conditions. In addition, a regular feeding program is essential to the good health of your herd. This means having regular times for feeding, as well as maintaining continuity of the components of your feeding program.

There is some difference of opinion as to the best routine for feeding rabbits to promote good health. It is generally accepted that rabbits eat most readily during the evening and overnight, so many rabbit breeders give pellets and hay during the evening feeding. Some breeders feed their rabbits only once a day, while others feed pellets and hay in the morning, as well as in the evening. Others provide pellets in the evening and hay in the morning. Whichever routine you settle upon, always try to maintain regularity and feed your animals at the same time each day. Rabbits, like so many other animals, thrive on a routine and expect their food at the same time each day. Don’t disappoint them.

Personally speaking, I feed my rabbits pellets twice per day. I feed hay once a day as free choice in their hay racks, and if I notice that they’ve eaten it all when I feed them the second round of pellets for the day, I refill the rack. I like them to have the option of munching on hay at all times. It helps to relieve boredom and keeps them busy. My twice-per-day feeding routine stems from years of raising horses and the habit of heading to the barn twice a day to feed the horses. It naturally followed that my rabbits are on the twice-daily feeding routine.

Maintaining regularity with your types of feed is as important as maintaining regularity with the timing of your feedings. In order for your rabbits to stay healthy, you must make any changes in feed very slowly. If you are switching brands of pellets, you will want to slowly add your new feed to the old feed and increase the rations of the new feed over the course of several days before entirely switching to the new brand. This is beneficial for two reasons: one, it allows your rabbits’ digestive systems to become accustomed to the new pellets slowly, so that the delicate balance of their intestinal flora isn’t upset; and two, it allows your rabbits to slowly become used to the taste and smell of the new feed. Many rabbits are suspicious and may refuse to eat a new type of feed that they aren’t used to. For these two reasons you should always make any dietary changes slowly. Similarly, you would not want to abruptly switch hay types or suddenly introduce large portions of an unfamiliar treat, especially greens or fruits. Feeding a large handful of dandelion greens twice a week is probably not a good choice. The better idea would be to feed a dandelion green or two each day, with the smaller portions spread out over a regular feeding routine.

Abrupt changes in water can also be harmful for your rabbits. If you’re traveling to shows, you might want to slowly switch your rabbits to bottled spring water a few days before you leave for a show (mix a portion of your regular water with the bottled water, slowly increasing the amount of bottled water each day until your rabbits are switched over to it), so that you can maintain the same type of water during the trip and show. Slowly switch back to your regular water by using the same method once you return home. Again, this is to avoid upsetting your rabbits’ delicate digestion, and also to ensure that they will continue drinking while you travel and show. It’s upsetting to reach a show only to have your rabbit refuse the taste of the strange water, so this simple precaution can help to avoid this situation.

Immunization and Vaccines for Your Rabbit

Most types of livestock, as well as most types of pets, are typically immunized against many diseases. Rabbits are the exception to this rule, as there currently are no available vaccines for rabbits. Rabbits are remarkable healthy creatures, and the illnesses they are prone to are not ones that can be aided by the use of vaccination. Researchers have attempted to work toward a vaccination for snuffles, but as of yet this goal has not been reached.

It has been said that rabbits do not harbor any diseases that are transmissible to humans, with the exception of pinworms. On the whole, there is very little that a rabbit can do to harm a human, except maybe to scratch their arms. 

Protecting Your Healthy Rabbit From Parasites

There are several types of internal and external parasites that can affect rabbits. Internal parasites can include coccidia (a parasite of the intestines and the liver) and intestinal worms such as pinworms, tapeworms, and whipworms. Coccidiosis is not always identifiable by symptoms, and the rabbit may be infected without showing any signs. In the case of meat rabbits, coccidiosis is discovered upon butchering when white spots are observed on the liver. This causes the meat to be unsuitable for consumption. Coccidiosis can be treated or prevented through the use of a product called sulfaquinoxaline. Proper cage sanitation is also beneficial for preventing coccidiosis. Talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of occasionally treating your rabbits for internal parasites.

External parasites are more easily noticed; these include ear mites, fur mites, and fleas. Ear mites can cause ear canker (see Common Ailments in Rabbits), and fur mites can cause hair loss, particularly around the head and neck. Fleas are notoriously troublesome pests that can affect your rabbits just as they affect your dogs and cats. Treatment is similar to that of a dog or cat. Your veterinarian can provide you with the best advice for treating these types of parasites.

Common Ailments in Rabbits

Thankfully, rabbits are generally very healthy creatures. There is a very long list of potential illnesses that might possibly crop up and make your rabbit sick, it would take a lengthy portion of this book to go over them all and would leave you in fear for all of your rabbits’ lives. Therefore, we will restrict our coverage to a few of the more commonly seen illnesses that rabbit breeders should be aware of.

Snuffles (Pastuerella)

Nearly every rabbit breeder has heard of snuffles, yet not everyone understands the actual symptoms or causes. Not every snuffly-sneezy sound a rabbit makes is indicative of snuffles, as these sounds can also be caused by allergies to dust or hay. Snuffles is accompanied by thick nasal discharge, in addition to the sneezing, and is highly contagious. Some rabbits can carry snuffles without any manifested symptoms, although the symptoms usually become evident after stressful events (such as showing) or after a doe kindles her first litter. Many breeders cull for snuffles in an attempt to eradicate any carriers from their herd. Others attempt to treat snuffles with antibiotics, but generally only mixed results are obtained. Some rabbits seem essentially cured, only to have a recurrence of the disease at a later date. Veterinarians now believe that snuffles can be temporarily placed in remission by the use of antibiotics, but the disease cannot be cured.

Mastitis

Mastitis is an infection of the mammary glands and is seen in does that are nursing a litter, as well as does that have recently weaned a litter. Symptoms include hot, swollen teats, and treatment can include penicillin injections and hot-packs. Gradual weaning of your does’ litters can help minimize the chances of mastitis, so always consider weaning the kits one-by-one to give the doe’s milk supply the chance to dry up without depriving her of her entire litter all at once. Mastitis that occurs just after kindling is more difficult to prevent.

Ear Canker

Ear canker is a scabby type of outer-ear infection that is caused by a mite. It is not terribly common but is seen on occasion. It can be treated over the course of a few days by dripping mineral or vegetable oil in the ears to eliminate the mites. In order to prevent ear canker before it starts, some breeders treat each rabbit in the rabbitry by placing a drop of oil in each of their ears every few weeks. This heads off any potential for the development of ear canker.

Coprophagy

Coprophagy is not an illness and is actually a perfectly normal behavior, but since many newcomers to rabbits are quite dismayed to see their rabbit apparently eating its own droppings, it deserves mention here. The so-called “night feces” that rabbits eat are much different than the regular droppings that you see in your rabbit’s cage. Night feces are softer and look like a tiny cluster of grapes. This appearance startles new rabbit owners, and they often mistake night feces for diarrhea—which they most certainly aren’t. Rabbits eat night feces in order to gain beneficial vitamins and to aid their digestion. This is a perfectly normal occurrence and it is one thing that you don’t need to worry about.

Sore Hocks

Sore hocks is a type of foot ulceration more commonly seen in the giant breeds that are housed in wire cages. It is not as commonly seen in the smaller breeds. The wounds can be treated, but prevention is also very important. It’s always a good idea to provide floor mats/resting boards to give your rabbits a place to get off the wire and rest.

Enteritis

There are a few different types of enteritis, but one of the forms most commonly seen is mucoid enteritis, an illness that often strikes young kits from 5 to 12 weeks of age. As young rabbits mature, their diets expand from being composed of 100 percent mother’s milk to include hay, pellets, and water. Typically this happens very slowly to give the young kit’s digestive system time to adjust and become accustomed to the new foods being introduced. However, premature introduction of green foods is believed to cause increased incidence of mucoid enteritis. The symptoms of this harmful illness include listlessness and diarrhea, and it frequently results in death. Enteritis can usually be prevented by carefully introducing new foods in small amounts and slowly increasing the amount over the course of several days. Some breeders attempt to treat enteritis through veterinary assistance, and success is achieved in some cases. Other breeders, however, believe that rabbits who have recovered from enteritis are never as hardy and strong and are better off being culled from the herd. This is a personal decision that each breeder will have to make based upon his or her own best judgment.

Sore Eyes

This is another condition for which you will want to carefully monitor your newborn kits. Their eyes usually open at around 10 to 12 days, but occasionally they fail to open due to the presence of a bacterial eye infection that causes the eyes to stick shut. If this is the case, you may want to seek veterinary assistance because the kit’s eyes will need to be carefully opened and cleaned. In addition, a treatment of eye antibiotic is usually called for and is administered for several days. Sore eyes is a condition that can be prevented in some cases by keeping the nest box as sanitary as possible.

Red Urine In Rabbits

Red urine is a sight that can strike momentary fear in the heart of a rabbit breeder. It is actually a very common occurrence and is rarely indicative of a serious problem. The red urine is caused by nutrients that have failed to break down entirely, thus altering the urine color from yellow to red. This phenomenon is harmless and needs no treatment. The color usually returns to yellow within a few days. If there are actual blood streaks in the rabbit’s urine, you should immediately consult a veterinarian.

Quarantining Your Rabbits

If you suspect that one of your rabbits is ill, you should immediately quarantine it to an isolated cage and always take care to feed and care for the rabbit separately so that you don’t inadvertently carry any germs to your healthy animals. Similarly, it is always wise to isolate any animals that have just returned from shows, as well as any new animals that you have purchased. This will help make sure that you don’t spread any illnesses that your new animals might be harboring and that your show rabbits haven’t picked up any type of sickness while at the show. Isolation for several days is a small inconvenience that will reap dividends if it means that you can prevent an outbreak of any type from infecting your rabbitry.

Observing Your Rabbit Daily

As important as clean cages, quality food, and fresh water are to the success of your rabbitry, another thing that will go a long way toward ensuring good health is daily observation. If you know your rabbits well, you will be more in tune to notice if something isn’t quite right with one of them. Regularly pick each rabbit up, flip it over, and examine it on all sides. This is a good time to monitor the weight and body condition of your rabbits, as well as to check for any problems such as sore hocks, ear canker, or a runny nose. This is also a good time to check to see if any droppings are stuck to the rabbit’s bottom. This problem is sometimes seen in young rabbits with long coats, such as Angoras, but is also commonly seen in Holland Lops. Any droppings that are stuck to their fur will need to be cleaned off. Recognizing your rabbit’s daily habits can also be beneficial, as you’ll be able to learn whether a certain behavior is normal or abnormal for your rabbit.

Grooming Your Rabbit

You might think that grooming your rabbits is only important if you’re planning to show them or if you’re raising Angoras. This is not the case. Grooming can play an important part in the care of your rabbitry whether or not you show and regardless of the breeds that you raise. Granted, your daily grooming commitment is certainly increased if you’re showing and/or raising Angoras, but you should never disregard the importance of grooming on a regular basis.

Your rabbits will always benefit from a grooming session. This is particularly true when they are in the process of molting (shedding their fur). During a grooming session, you’ll be able to thoroughly examine your rabbit, check for things like ear canker and sore hocks, and evaluate your rabbit’s body condition. Grooming doesn’t need to be a lengthy process. It can be a quick brush or comb through your rabbit’s coat, with some special attention to its belly and legs. You can also use this time to check your rabbit’s toenails to see if they need a quick trim. Always be careful when trimming nails to avoid inadvertently cutting into the quick, which causes the nail to bleed profusely.

Grooming Angora rabbits can be a bit more time consuming, simply because of the vast amounts of fur. Angora rabbit owners have two methods of grooming their rabbits: the brush/comb method and the blower method. Used in conjunction, these grooming tools help keep the Angora’s wool in prime condition. Angora rabbits must be groomed regularly to remove the excess loose wool. If the wool isn’t brushed, the loose hair will accumulate in the rabbit’s cage, and the rabbit may begin ingesting the hair while eating. This can cause a fur ball in the rabbit’s stomach or small intestine, which can cause symptoms such as depressed appetite or diarrhea. Avoidance of fur balls is obviously the best course of action, but if you suspect that one of your rabbits is suffering from one, you can try supplementing with a small dose of mineral oil for a few days. Papaya juice or papaya tablets are also reported to be very helpful in preventing fur balls.

Stocking Your Grooming Kit

You’re getting ready to show your rabbits, and you want to put together a grooming kit that contains all of the essentials that you will need to keep your rabbit in top show shape. This list will help you get started on stocking a great grooming kit.

Grooming table or stand
Grooming apron
Blower (if you’re showing Angora rabbits)
Nail clippers
Combs (fine tooth, medium tooth, and flea comb)
Soft brush
Scissors
Undercoat rake
Groomer’s stone (if you’re showing Rex or Mini Rex)
Slicker brush
Waterless shampoo
Grooming lotion
Stain remover
Tattoo kit

Rabbit Exercise

In large commercial rabbitries, the rabbits are rarely handled and spend most of their days relaxing in their cages. Exercise, therefore, is not an area of consideration beyond the rabbit having room to hop back and forth across his cage. Many breeders dismiss exercise as a nonessential, while others feel that it is extremely beneficial for a rabbit to have the opportunity to stretch its legs and play a bit within the confines of an enclosed area.

If you feel that exercise will be a positive benefit for your rabbits, then you might want to set up an area in which they can safely be turned loose for exercise time. This area will obviously need to be completely enclosed, and there should be no potential for a rabbit to escape. You can build a small outdoor turnout area using a wooden frame and hardware cloth, or you can purchase an outdoor “rabbit run” through pet supply stores. Always be sure that you have any doors safely latched, and always try to keep the run in a shaded area so that your rabbit does not become overheated. 

What to Know About Your Rabbit’s Teeth

It sometimes surprises new rabbit owners to learn that a rabbit’s teeth, like its toenails, will continue growing throughout its life. For this reason, a rabbit must have the opportunity to chew or gnaw in order to wear down the growth of the incisors. Rabbit teeth typically grow at the rate of 1/3-inch to 1/2 -inch per month. A rabbit will occasionally suffer from malocclusion of the teeth (also known as wolf teeth or buck teeth), in which the teeth do not meet properly. This condition interferes with the proper wearing down of the rabbit’s teeth as they grow. Malocclusion of the teeth is believed to be a hereditary trait, and rabbits exhibiting this defect are usually culled from a breeding program to prevent the continued recurrence of this problem in future generations. Rabbits that suffer from malocclusion may need to have their teeth trimmed by a veterinarian on a regular basis; otherwise the problem may interfere with the rabbit’s ability to eat properly.

Want to learn more about raising rabbits? Read Taking Good Care of a Domestic Rabbit for more information on rabbits in the house.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Raise Rabbits: Everything You Need to Know, by Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson, and published by Voyageur Press, 2013.