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A message from the Easter Bunny for owners of pet rabbits

I've often wondered about the oddness of the Easter Bunny. What does a rabbit have to do with Christianity? And why on earth would a rabbit produce eggs? A little internet research was enough to find some answers.
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Rabbits are not like small dogs or long-eared cats. And it’s not just that they eat grass.

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When something goes wrong with an animal's nervous system, it's very upsetting, and it's easy to panic. People often make generalisations, and leap to the wrong conclusion. He's falling over! He's had a stroke! He's dragging his back legs! To help animals, it's important for vets to be as objective as possible, making a careful note of precisely which part of the nervous system has gone wrong. Vets do this using a specific examination procedure, known as the “neurological examination”. There are tick sheets available to make it easier for vets: various aspects of the nervous system are examined individually, and at the end, it's then easier to be specific about the precise diagnosis. Only then can the correct treatment and prognosis be given. At last week's London Vet Show, there was a fascinating lecture, sponsored by Supreme Pet Foods, which dealt with the subject of neurological examinations in rabbits. As many rabbit owners will know, diseases of the nervous system are common. However rabbits are very different creatures to dogs and cats: they are prey animals rather than predators, and as a consequence, their nervous system doesn't always behave in the same way. Rabbits are especially sensitive to stress, and they tend to mask their fear by staying still. Anyone who has examined rabbits will know this: they tend to stay very passive until the fear is too much, and then they panic explosively, trying to jump out of your arms. This type of temperament means that rabbits react differently when their nervous system is examined. The lecturer carried out a field study, during which she made a careful comparison of a standard neurological examination in rabbits compared to other pets, and she came up with some useful tips. First, she listed the four main types of disease of the nervous system seen in rabbits: head tilt, weakness or paralysis of the back legs (or all four legs), seizures (fitting) and “miscellaneous” (muscle weakness, strange gaits, blindness and other oddities). There's a long list of possible causes of these problems, from brain diseases (including a common fungal parasite called Encephalitozoon cuniculi), to viral and bacterial infections, to spinal problems (including broken backs and slipped discs), to heat stroke, metabolic disorders and many others. In all cases, whatever the cause, the neurological examination is a key to whittling down the list of possibilities. So how are rabbits different to dogs and cats? First and most importantly, rabbits don't show a pain response in the same way. With dogs and cats, it's easy to tell if they can feel their toes by squeezing them: if sensation is normal, they pull their foot away from you. Rabbits often don't do this: they stay utterly still, however hard you squeeze their toes. It doesn't mean they aren't feeling it: they just don't react because in the wild, it makes more sense to “play dead” in the hope that the creature that's hurting you will just go away. Secondly, some of their reflexes are exaggerated. If you tap a dog's knee with a rubber hammer, there's a similar type of small “kick” reflex to a human. In rabbits, the same test elicits a sharp, exaggerated kick, perhaps reflecting the wound up stressed nervous system of the rabbit. If a dog had a reflex kick like this, you'd think there was something strange wrong with them: it's normal in a rabbit. Third, some of their reflexes are diminished or absent: for example, rabbits don't have a “menace” reflex (if you wave your hand towards a dog's eye as if you are about to hit them, they blink automatically, like humans: this is the menace reflex. Rabbits don't do this). Other reflexes in rabbits' eyes are also different: their pupils don't always narrow and widen in the same way as other creatures.  There are two sets of take home messages here. First, if you're a vet, remember to expect different results from other pets when you're assessing rabbits with neurological problems. And second, if you're a rabbit owner, remember to take your pet to a vet with an interest in rabbits: all vets are trained in the essentials of rabbit medicine, but when it comes to complex disease, the more rabbits that a vet sees, the better they will be at rabbit-specific subtleties like neurological examinations.    
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Caring for your new rabbit – essentials for proper bunny welfare

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.

Diet

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.

Vaccinations

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.

Neutering

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.

Parasites

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

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.

Pet Insurance

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.

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But can’t he just die in his sleep…..?

This week my Granny died, which was sad for us all but she was very old, had had a wonderful life and her family was with her at the end. She had been in a home for some time and was cared for very well. When she became sick and bedbound, the doctors and nurses worked together to keep her comfortable and pain free, until she slipped away in her sleep. I am lucky in that she was the first person I knew well who has died and this experience has made me understand why many people hope this is how their pets will go. However, to die in their sleep is rarely a pleasant or pain free experience for our animals. Domino sleepingAlthough, just like people, our pets are living longer and healthier lives, inevitably there comes a time when their age catches up with them and illnesses develop. Advances in veterinary care mean we can do a lot for them but eventually we won’t be able to keep up with their problems. If they were people we would put them in wheelchairs or place them in a home where their needs could be catered for, for example being assisted to the toilet or spoon fed but this isn’t practical, or in most cases fair, to a pet who won’t understand what is happening (there are many people who would argue this is no kind of life for a person either but that is a whole other debate). For a pet, when they can no longer get up and out to do their toilet or feed themselves properly, or when their illnesses or pain can no longer be controlled with medication, this is the time as owners we should objectively assess their quality of life and decide whether it is fair to let them continue. Also, just as important is your quality of life, it is hard work caring for any pet, let alone an elderly one who may be incontinent or senile. The vast majority of pets who reach the end of their natural lives are euthanased by their vet. This is inevitably a sad experience for their owners (and us) but is far preferable than allowing them to slip away on their own. Many people hope this will happen, having probably experienced death this way with people as I recently did myself, but it is very different for animals. Bodies are designed for living and will go on doing so regardless of how painful or unpleasant it becomes for the individual. When people die in their sleep they are usually heavily medicated and cared for to ensure they are not in any pain or dehydrated but this doesn’t happen for our pets. If an animal dies this way, they have usually suffered to a large extent; likely being dehydrated, malnourished and in pain. Although from the outside they might look peaceful, they are anything but; it is simply all their exhausted body can manage. This is why when our pets become infirm and their quality of life declines to a point where living is a struggle and not the joy it should be, by far the kindest and most humane thing we can do as owners and vets is to euthanase them in a painless and peaceful way. I often say it is the one big advantages we have over human medicine; we can stop the suffering before it becomes too great. Although it may seem daunting your vet will talk you through the procedure and make sure you are happy with the process and your decision. You will be able to stay with your pet if you want to and most vets will come to your home if your request it. Euthanasia means ‘a peaceful death’ and as a pet owner it is the final act of kindness you can bestow upon your companion. If you are worried that your pet may be ill, talk to your vet. Try our Interactive Symptom Guide to check any symptoms they are displaying and help decide how soon you'll need to visit your vet.
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Keep Your Rabbits Gnashers Gnawing Gnaturally!

Bunnies cropThe most common cause of illness in rabbits is poor dental health, they suffer terribly with their teeth and problems can become so severe, it is not unusual for bunnies to be euthansed because of them. However, the news is not all bad because it is actually very easy to keep a rabbits gnashers gnawing gnaturally! Rabbits have teeth that grow all the time and are kept short by both a natural diet of tough, woody grasses and also by the upper and lower sets grinding on each other. However, since bunnies have been domesticated their diets can be very different from the wild, often consisting of more soft rabbit food and vegetables than hay and grass, and this is what causes the problems. Firstly, because the teeth aren’t worn down by these softer foods and secondly because they can become calcium deficient; leading to the jaw bones softening, the teeth shifting and no longer being in alignment with each other. This problem is particularly prevalent when the rabbit is fed the muesli type diets, which they tend to selectively eat by picking out their favourite bits and so they don’t get a balanced diet. When they over-grow, the molar teeth can develop sharp spikes that dig into the sides of the mouth or tongue and cause a lot of pain. The incisor teeth can become extremely long and curl out of the mouth (which makes them easy to spot) or, worse, into it and dig into the flesh and bone. Again this is very painful and makes it almost impossible for the rabbit to eat. Also, the roots of the teeth can become impacted because of the back pressure and as well as being very sore, can also become infected; causing nasty abscesses which can be extremely difficult to treat. Spotting dental problems is not always easy because rabbits will hide when they are poorly but checking their weight regularly, examining their mouths and carefully monitoring their appetite are all good ways of picking up on issues. To check your bunny’s mouth, hold them on your lap and gently lift their lips up to have a look at the incisor teeth. These should be smooth, even and short. It is more or less impossible to check the molar teeth without a special scope but by feeling along the upper and lower jaw bones you can pick up abscesses and swellings. If you are at all concerned you should take your rabbit to your vet. The treatment of over-grown teeth can be a challenge and once they have developed them, many bunnies need to go in regularly for them to be trimmed, which can require an anaesthetic. Over-long incisors can be removed, which is a good idea because it solves the problem and the rabbit will still be able to eat without problems. However, by far the best thing is prevention rather than cure and this is done very easily by making sure your bunny’s diet is as similar as possible to that of their wild cousins; lots and lots and lots of chewy hay and grass!
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