Whilst rabbits are now the third most popular British pet, with an estimated 1.6 to 2 million pet rabbits in the UK, at least 80% of rabbits are not being fed correctly and unfortunately a poor diet is the most common reason for rabbits becoming ill.
Some 30% of domestic rabbits in the UK are obese. Pet rabbits are prone to being overweight due to their relative sedentary life as domestic pets, compared to their life in the wild. Being overweight puts pressure on the rabbit's heart and joints and may dramatically reduce the pet's lifespan.
Fat rabbits are often unable to reach behind and eat their caecotrophs (soft droppings). This can result in the caecotrophs sticking to the skin around the anus, which may lead to Flystrike, a nasty condition which results in maggots eating away at the flesh.
Animals that spend most of their time in small hutches are most at risk. Rabbits need around four hours of exercise daily, ideally in a large, secure exercise run or garden. Aside from keeping them fit, regular exercise also reduces boredom, known to be a big factor in the development of behavioural problems.
Whilst rabbits can range in size and shape dramatically, a healthy rabbit should appear slightly pear shaped, when viewed from above. Overweight rabbits often resemble an apple with a head.
If a vet believes a rabbit to be overweight, they may suggest small adjustments to its diet, such as the inclusion of more green stuffs or recommend a specially formulated low calorie food.
Obesity, like so many rabbit disorders, is the result of poor diet management often due to insufficient fibre and over consumption of flaked cereals and peas. Animals are often commonly fed on human foods such as breakfast cereals or chocolate drops, together with garden waste such as lawn mower cuttings. These incorrect foods not only result in malnutrition, but they have the potential to harm or even kill.
Good clean, sweet smelling hay or grass should form the basis of all rabbits' diets. Aside from containing many vital nutrients, nibbling hay reduces boredom and behavioural problems and helps maintain good dental health. Forage should be fed in plentiful amounts and should be fresh every day.
To supplement the fibre gained from hay and grass, rabbits should be fed a wholesome balanced diet which is high in fibre, low in starch and includes all the vitamins and minerals they require.
Many owners give their rabbits sugary, starchy treats such as chocolate drops, however a much healthier option is to feed fresh greens and a variety of herbs in moderation, will add a healthy variety to a rabbit's diet.
Rabbits must have access to fresh, clean water at all times. Bottles are easier to keep clean, especially in the hutch environment, but some rabbits prefer water bowls. Bottles with a ball-bearing in the nozzle drip less, but you must make sure the bottle doesn't jam and prevent the rabbit from drinking.
75% of rabbits seen by vets are diagnosed with dental problems. Rabbits' teeth grow continuously by about 2-3mm a week and whilst in the wild gnawing on rough vegetation wears teeth down, domestic rabbits need to be given a large amount of tough forage to help file their teeth down and therefore prevent dental problems. Teeth may need to be filed down by the vet.
Uneven wear can cause the formation of molar spurs. These are sharp points on the edges of the molars that can scrape the tongue and cheek, causing the rabbit pain and irritation and often preventing the rabbit from eating.
Disease caused by an improper diet may not be evident for many years. Affected rabbits are usually three years of age or older. Dental changes may be very subtle at first, but if the situation is not quickly corrected, advanced dental disease can occur.
Dental abscesses may also develop as a consequence of foreign bodies (eg, plant material embedded between the tooth and gum), after tooth trimming, as a result of other diseases or if a rabbit's incisors wear differently.
Rabbits suffering from teeth problems usually stop eating, are seen to lose weight, dribble from their mouth, and often have a wet chin.
Rabbits commonly suffer from osteoporosis if they are not allowed enough exercise. Osteoporosis can also be the result of a diet low in calcium. There are supplements available, but they can lead to more problems than they solve. If a rabbit is a selective eater or you believe it's not getting sufficient nutrients, speak to your vet.
Red urine can be normal in rabbits. It can happen with certain types of greens in the diet due to a harmless pigment and it is also normal for the urine to be slightly cloudy or gritty. However, if your rabbit seems off-colour, is drinking more than normal, or looks sore underneath you should consult your vet.
Rabbits love to explore with their mouths, but this does makes them particularly susceptible to poisonings. Signs vary considerably, but include coughing, seizures, diarrhoea, lack of co-ordination, depression or excitability. If you suspect your rabbit has been poisoned, collect a sample of the suspected foliage and take your pet straight to the vet.
Flystrike is a common, extremely distressing and often fatal disease, which can affect any mammal but is particularly relevant to rabbits and occurs most commonly during the warm summer months. In rabbits it is caused when they develop a sore area, usually around the rear end, caused by faecal and/or urine soiling.
Flies are attracted to the sores and lay their eggs in them. These eggs hatch into maggots, which then begin to eat away at the tissues in the surrounding area causing it to die off and decay.
Eventually as the maggots consume the dead tissue they eat further and further into the rabbit often emerging into the abdomen. The rabbits have by this time, suffered so much that they have to be put to sleep.
Flystrike is easily prevented with good housing, husbandry and hygiene. Keeping hutches clean and dry is of the utmost importance as is feeding the correct diet to avoid diarrhoea. Check animals daily for any soiled areas and ensure that it is clean and dry. Also remove any wet bedding. Never neglect rabbits or rodents, ensure that they are handled daily and fed a diet which is high in fibre.
In addition to these general care and hygiene measures, further insurance against flystrike may be provided by the use of suitable insecticides and insect repellents.
If you spot any signs of flystrike such as flies eggs or maggots on your pet, seek urgent veterinary advice
From a practical point of view, mites can be split into two groups, those that dwell in the fur and the surface of the skin and those that burrow into the skin. All can cause skin lesions to varying degrees, but the treatment will depend on the species. It will therefore be necessary for you to consult a vet who will identify the pest and prescribe the most suitable treatment. The surface dwellers such as Cheyletiella and Leporacus (rabbit) can be treated with a suitable topical insecticide. The skin burrowers such as Demodex, Notoedres, Chirodiscoides, Myocoptes and Sarcoptes will require an insecticide which penetrates below the skin.
Ear mites can cause abundant and odorous dark waxy and scaly debris to form. Psoroptes is the rabbit ear mite and is common and can be easily treated with the Xeno range. Many of the mites will jump species, which means that other pets and even you may be at risk. It is therefore important that you get suitable veterinary advice.
There is a species of flea that is specific to rabbits, Spilopsyllus cuniculi, however although it is a common parasite in wild rabbits, it is very rarely seen on rabbits kept as pets. Rabbits and other small pet mammals such as guinea pigs are far more commonly infested with Ctenocephalides canis and C. felis, the dog and cat fleas. These can infest our homes and bite humans too so it is a good idea to get rid of them by treating all pets and the environment with suitable products and using suitable environmental control products.
The incidence of lice infestation in rabbits can be low; however, treatment of fleas and lice is essentially the same. Administer an insecticide or insect repellent to the animals, make sure that the housing is completely clean, remove and dispose of infested bedding and treat the cage with a suitable environmental insecticide.
Flystrike is a potentially fatal disease which occurs when flies lay their eggs around the rabbit's anus, which hatch into maggots. The maggots then mature and burrow under the skin. Pets suffering from obesity, dental disease, diarrhoea, arthritis and skin wounds are at highest risk, and flies are often attracted to those living in dirty hutches. It is particularly important to keep flies to a minimum around the rabbit hutch during the warmer months.
There are a whole range of other possible vaccinations and treatments, ranging from flea and ear mite prevention to worming. For further advice, speak to your vet.
Some of the long-haired breeds - such as the Cashmere Lop, Angora, Lionhead and Swiss Fox – as well as some crossbreeds, will require daily grooming to remove loose hair and mats. Longhaired rabbits that are not cared for properly are at risk from Flystrike as their faeces collect in the matted hair. Every rabbit should have its eyes, ears, nose, mouth, anus and nails checked daily.
Encephalitozoon cuniculi (E.cuniculi) is a microscopic parasite that is widespread across the UK - 50% of apparently healthy rabbits have been exposed to the parasite. The disease is particularly nasty and can cause seizures, kidney disease, hind limb weakness, loss of vision and balance. In addition, E.cuniculi often causes a rabbit's head to tilt and, in some cases, rabbits can only lie on one side with their heads twisted round. The parasite is spread by infected urine or from mothers to babies and can live in infected areas for several weeks, so hutches that house large numbers of rabbits can easily harbour the disease, despite good hygiene.
It is important to regularly check rabbits to monitor for any signs of disease or ill health. New rabbits should always be taken to a vet for a health check as soon as they are obtained. This will enable the vet to advise on vaccination against potentially fatal diseases such as Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) and myxomatosis, as well as checking for general health and offering advice on diet and nutrition, dental problems, neutering, nail clipping and insurance.
Perhaps the most widely-known rabbit disease, Myxomatosis spreads via blood-sucking insects, such as fleas. Clinical signs include swellings around the head, face, ears, lips and anus, which can lead to blindness and distortion around the face. Rabbits most at risk are those that have contact with groups of both wild and pet rabbits. It is advisable to regularly treat rabbits with flea control products'use flea control products specifically made for rabbits (dog and cat products are not suitable) for additional protection.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease
VHD is a very serious infectious disease with no cure. Symptoms include depression, collapse, difficulty in breathing, convulsions, high body temperature, lethargy and bleeding from the nose. Death usually occurs within 12-36 hours after the onset of fever and the mortality rate can be as high as 90-100%. VHD is a calcivirus, spread by direct contact between rabbits (both wild and domesticated) and also via indirect contact. Possible sources of indirect contact are people, clothing, contaminated hutches and bedding, as well as insects such as fleas.
Vaccinations for myxomatosis and VHD should be carried out at least two weeks apart, to ensure their effectiveness.
Encephalitozoon cuniculi is a microscopic parasite affecting the brain and digestive system. It is widespread across the UK - reports suggest that around 50 per cent of apparently healthy rabbits have been exposed to the parasite. The disease is particularly nasty and can cause seizures, kidney disease, hind limb weakness, loss of vision and balance. It can cause a rabbit's head to tilt and, in some cases, rabbits can only lie on one side with their heads twisted round. The parasite is spread by infected urine or from mothers to babies. It can live in infected areas for several weeks, so hutches that house large numbers of rabbits can easily harbour the disease, despite good hygiene.
It is estimated that one in three domestic rabbits in the UK are obese. Pet rabbits are prone to being overweight due to their relative sedentary life as domestic pets, compared to their life in the wild. Being overweight puts pressure on the rabbit's heart and joints and may dramatically reduce your pet's lifespan.
Overweight rabbits are often unable to reach behind and eat their caecotrophs (soft droppings). Not only can this lead to a nutrient deficiency, it can also lead to Sticky Bottom Syndrome, a major cause of Flystrike.
Animals that spend most of their time in small hutches are most at risk. Rabbits need as much exercise as possible, ideally in a large, secure exercise run.
Whilst rabbits can range in size and shape dramatically, it's easy to tell if your pet is obese - a healthy rabbit should appear slightly pear-shaped when viewed from above, while overweight rabbits are more apple-shaped.
If a vet believes a rabbit to be overweight, they may suggest small adjustments to its diet, such as the inclusion of more green stuffs, or recommend a specially formulated low calorie food.
If you suspect your rabbit is overweight, never withhold food. A rabbit's complex digestive system requires some food to be in the gut at all times.