Rabbits

 

Biology

 

  • Average Life Span - 6-8 years

  • Sexual Maturity (Puberty) - 16-24 weeks

  • Pregnancy - 30-33 days

  • Litter Size - 4-12 (av. 7)

  • Weaning Age - 7-8 weeks

Housing

 

Rabbits should be kept in a large shelter with access to a secure outdoor area where they can exercise and forage. The shelter should have an area/nest box where they can hide, be alone and feel secure. Straw is the best bedding to use. Shredded paper can be used but is not as good an absorbent as straw. It should be changed at least twice weekly. Flooring should be solid and it is essential to keep them clean to avoid a build up of parasites. Mesh can cause legs and hock sores. There should be enough room to allow the rabbits to stretch to full height. Bigger breeds require more space. Shelters should be well insulated to prevent extreme cold and kept out of draughty areas. They should be in suitable shady areas to prevent overheating in the summer and should always be raised off the ground.

 

Rabbits can also be kept as indoor pets and trained to use a litter tray – litter should be straw, wood or paper based, as clay based litters if ingested can cause digestive problems. Rabbits will chew, so electrical cables should be protected, and suitable toys given. 

 

Rabbits should be allowed to exercise for at least 4 hours a day to encourage cardiovascular fitness and skeletal strength and to reduce the risk of obesity. Rabbits not given exercise have very brittle bones and are prone to breaking them, especially the vertebrae in the back. Remember rabbits will burrow, so you should take precautions against escape. They should also be provided with a suitable “bolt-hole” such as a cardboard box or drainpipe.

 

Rabbits are social animals and ideally should have a companion. It is best not to house male rabbits (bucks) together as they will fight. Entire female rabbits (does) and bucks should be kept separate to avoid unwanted pregnancies however the ideal combination is a neutered male and a neutered female. Entire females can be kept with neutered males but they have an increased chance of developing womb cancer or infections later in life. Does reared together can usually be housed together but may fight when they reach sexual maturity. 

 

Feeding

 

Rabbits eat GRASS in the wild and browse on other plants and weeds. This is a perfectly adequate diet and the high fibre content of the grass ensures even wear of the continually growing teeth, is important in the prevention of dietary upsets and promotes normal coprophagia: rabbits produce softer mucus covered droppings (caecotrophs) at night which they eat to ensure food is adequately digested. Tree leaves from fruit trees and hazel can also be eaten.

 

Hay is an adequate alternative (it is only dried grass!) and can be supplied in racks or nets to increase feeding time. Vegetable or weeds may be given in moderation. Suitable vegetables include spring greens, kale, cauliflower leaves, sprout peelings, and broccoli. Safe wild plants include dandelions, chickweed, groundsel, clover, sow thistle, trefoil & vetch. Potentially toxic plants include foxglove, irises, ivy, ragwort, yew or large quantities of kale, cabbage or spinach. Avoid vegetables or fruit with a high sugar content such as carrots or apples unless in very small quantities.  

 

This diet can be supplemented with a very small amount of commercial pellet ration that is balanced and has adequate amounts of fibre in it. It should be given as a daily ration and not as a big mound otherwise the rabbit will pick out the bits it likes best and leave other important nutritional elements uneaten - this can lead to calcium and vitamin D deficiency and poor growth and wear of teeth, or excess carbohydrate intake and weight gain. You can also let the rabbit out of its hutch to browse - daily if possible - the opportunity to bask in the sun during the summer not only allows them to synthesise vitamin D but enrich¬es their lives and may allow them access to grass and other plants that will provide them with a varied diet and additional dietary fibre.

 

DO NOT feed waste salad products or old grass clippings. Sudden changes in diet should be avoided. 

 

Fresh water should always be available either in a bowl or dropper bottle.

 

Diseases

 

Myxomatosis - is caused by a virus originally brought into this country from France in 1953 after a Frenchman introduced it to a colony near Paris as a method of controlling the population. The disease is spread by blood sucking insects especially the rabbit flea and is not easily spread from rabbit to rabbit, although this is possible. The virus attacks the eyes, nose, face and skin of the ears and they become blind within a short period of time and so do not feed and drink. At this stage they are susceptible to foxes etc. or may be killed on the road, however usually they die of a secondary lung infection usually within 10 -12 days.

 

Not all affected rabbits die and with good nursing and care pet rabbits can occasionally survive, but the course of the disease can still be many weeks, or even longer and leave a lot of scaling and scabbing on the head and body.

 

Control is by controlling rabbit fleas and vaccinating rabbits before they become infected. There is some evidence that mosquitoes may transmit myxomatosis as well so the use of insect repellent strips may be worthwhile. 

 

Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease) - has spread slowly northwards from the south of England over the last 3 - 4 years and is now present in Scotland. There have been a number of severe local outbreaks in recent years.. The virus that causes it is spread by direct contact between rabbits and is very hardy and can survive in hutches and in the environment. It can be transmitted indirectly by people, clothing or bedding.  It usually causes sudden death due to bleeding (haemorrhage) into the lungs, but in some rabbits disease can last 2-3 days, but inevitably is fatal.

 

A combined vaccine (Nobivac Myxo-RHD) is now available for both myxomatosis and VHD and is given  as a single dose to rabbits over 6 weeks old with yearly boosters.

 

E cuniculi – is a parasite that affects rabbit brains and can cause paralysis, head tilt, incoordination and lead to kidney and eye disease. The spores are passed in the urine of affected animals. Treatment in less severe cases is possible.

 

Snuffles - is caused by Pasteurella bacteria which are present in the majority of rabbits and usually cause disease in response to stress.

 

Parasites - mites can cause severe irritation. Rabbits can get ear mites and also Cheyletiella that can be generalised, leading to a very scurfy coat.

Rabbits can also get fleas - as many a cat will tell you!! Rabbit fleas prefer a blood at a lower temperature than cat and dog fleas that is why they congregate round cats’ ears. They are larger and slower moving than cat and dog fleas. Advantage or Xenex Ultra, spot on flea products, can be used in rabbits.

 

Fly Strike - can cause severe distressing disease in rabbits that can be fatal. It is important to ensure your rabbit is kept clean as strike usually occurs in rabbit that have faecal or urine staining on their hind quarters. This attracts flies which lay eggs that then hatch into maggots which eat away at the tissues releasing toxins making the rabbit unwell. During the summer rabbits should be checked daily to ensure there are no problems Xenex Ultra, can also be used to help 

prevent fly strike.

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E-Mail: vets@dryfevets.co.uk
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