Did the Easter bunny come this year? Not the imaginary kind that drops off chocolate, the real kind that lives for 10 years or more and deserves to have a better life than being trapped in a hutch at the bottom of the garden. If they did, or you are thinking of getting one, here’s my guide on how to care for them.
The majority of problems that vets see in rabbits are related to an inadequate diet. So, if you get their food right, you will give your pet the best chance of a healthy life!
The mainstay of a rabbit’s diet should be hay and every day they should eat a pile as big as they are. Rabbits have teeth that are constantly growing and chewing on hay keeps them in good shape. One of the most common issues for rabbits is sharp, overgrown teeth that can be so painful they stop eating altogether. Hay is also vital for healthy digestion, particularly important in rabbits for whom diarrhoea can be fatal.
Rabbits should also have a handful of fresh food everyday and a small amount (a tablespoon at most) of hard, pelleted food. Avoid the museli mixes as these allow your pet to pick out their favourites and become short on vital vitamins. For the majority of their day, your rabbits bowl should be empty (just like a dog or cat!), so they only have their hay to nibble on.
All rabbits should be vaccinated annually against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD). These are both fatal and vaccination is the only protection. The injections can be given from 8 weeks of age. This visit to the surgery is also an opportunity for your vet to ensure your new pet is healthy and for you to ask any questions.
Having your rabbit neutered is very important. Females should be spayed when they are around 6 months and males can be castrated from 4 months. Entire rabbits can be grumpy, prone to biting and often urine spray, so not great pets! Also, 80% of entire female rabbits will develop uterine cancer in later life.
Training and handling
Rabbits are prey animals, so they are naturally nervous. This can mean they can be flighty and startle easily. As soon as you get your new rabbit, work with them to gain their confidence. Sit on the floor with them, offer treats, encouragement and try to get them to come to you. Don't pick them up until they are used to you and always handle them calmly but firmly.
Also, rabbits should never be kept alone. For a social animal, solitary confinement is akin to torture. Neutered pairs of the opposite sex work best and they can be bonded in later life, if they have previously lived alone.
The most common parasite in rabbits is a fur mite. It causes flaky, itchy skin and is easily treated with veterinary ´spot-on´ drops. They can also get fleas, just like dogs and cats, and again these are easily treated with veterinary products. They can also suffer from internal parasites (worms) but they are not common.
Fly strike is a horrific, and often deadly, problem. It develops when flies lay their eggs on the dirty fur around a rabbit’s backend. These develop into maggots which burrow into the rabbit’s flesh, causing huge pain and damage, often within just a few hours. This is why all rabbits should be handled and checked at least twice daily and there are preventative treatments available from your vets.
There are now several companies which provide insurance policies for rabbits and it is something all rabbit owners should consider.
Rabbit are entertaining, inquisitive and rewarding but they do need the similar levels of care and attention as other pets. They are not the low maintenance, children’s pet many people think they are. Hopefully this article has helped you if you do have a bun and if it has inspired you to own one, get in touch your local rescue, they always have rabbits needing loving homes!
Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS - Read more of her blogs at www.catthevet.com
If you have any worries about your rabbit or any pet, please make an appointment with your vet, or try our Symptom Guide.
It's hard to believe that it's already five years since the BBC documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, was first broadcast. The programme stirred up unprecedented controversy about the practice of breeding and showing pedigree dogs in the UK. In the aftermath, the BBC cancelled its long standing high profile coverage of Crufts, and major sponsors backed out of supporting the Kennel Club's flagship event. Promises were made that "things would change", investigating committees were set up and reports were issued.
Five years is a significant period of time, so it's an appropriate benchmark to pause, and to ask the question: are things better than they were? After all the talk, have things improved?
Perhaps predictably, the answer to this question depends on one's perspective.
Jemima Harrison, the producer of the documentary, has continued to campaign for the Kennel Club to make more changes, more rapidly. She is clear about her opinion: “Five years on from Pedigree Dogs Exposed, the Kennel Club is still in denial about the extent of the problems. It is unethical to continue to breed dogs like Pugs and Bulldogs which have such flat faces that they cannot breathe – and yet the Kennel Club registers these breeds in their growing thousands and these dogs continue to be celebrated at Kennel Club shows. The Kennel Club has done too little to tackle the suffering these and many other breeds endure, despite an increasing amount of science which both articulates the issues and offers solutions. The dogs continue to pay a huge price.”
The RSPCA seems to take a more conciliatory stance, acknowledging the progress made by the Kennel Club and dog breeders, including the development of DNA and health screening tests for hereditary diseases and the introduction of veterinary checks on ‘high profile’ breeds but the charity still believes that much more should have been done. The charity is running a "Born To Suffer campaign and petition", calling for breed standards to be changed even more than they have been to date, "so that they prioritise the health, welfare and temperament of a dog over its looks."
Meanwhile the Kennel Club itself, on its own website, disagrees, maintaining that "for many years, the Kennel Club has devoted itself to improving the health and welfare of dogs and is committed to ensuring that every dog's life is as healthy and happy as it can possibly be." Furthermore, "the Kennel Club has introduced a large number of initiatives to help improve the lives of thousands of dogs and continues to develop new programmes and educational resources to progress dog health in the future."
Is it possible to find a middle ground viewpoint? The Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding should surely be listened to: this independent group was set up specifically to analyse the issues brought to the fore by Pedigree Dogs Exposed. The Advisory Council has released a statement that is worth reading, giving a detailed update of progress that has been made, acknowledging that while some of the RSPCA's "wish list" should be addressed, others ( such as the RSPCA's call for a ban on registration of dogs born from a dam’s second caesarean) would be a step too far.
By the way, I don't want to accuse Jemima Harrison of being over-critical of the Kennel Club: in a recent blog post she even acknowledges that it could be "half-true" that the Kennel Club is now seen "as part of the solution". She does give credit when she believes credit is due. In her latest blog post, published this week, Jemima compares the situation in the UK with that in Germany, where the second anniversary has just taken place of the airing of the German equivalent of Pedigree Dogs Exposed. She explains that the German programme "did not provoke the reform in Germany that Pedigree Dogs Exposed triggered here in the UK", and that the follow up programme, broadcast last week, "holds up the UK Kennel Club as something of an exemplar".
So while it would be very wrong to be complacent, and while the world of pedigree dogs may sometimes still seem bleak in the UK, it's perhaps at least somewhat reassuring to reflect that it could be much, much worse.