By Alison Young, DVM
As the small mammal and exotics expert at Wellesley Animal Hospital, I would like to use my first blog post to share some insights on one of my favourite topics: rabbits!
At first their cute faces, whiskers or ears may be all that catches your attention, or even win you over. However if you take the time to get to know each rabbit’s individual personality (and quirks!), how gentle, lovable (and opinionated) they are, you will be hooked for life. Rabbits’ lively personalities can be both inquisitive and docile. When they are happy and excited, they will even show it off with a “binky” (jumping in the air, twitching their head, body and feet). It is easy to see why they are North America’s third most common pet, after dogs and cats.
Rabbits require owner time and dedication, and should never be an impulse purchase. A stimulating environment and human interaction is key! It is important to understand that their time commitment is more comparable to that of a dog or cat, than of a hamster. Their average life span is 8-10 years, and they can range in size from 1-5 kilograms. Some of our bunny patients at Wellesley are even bigger than some of our dogs and cat patients!
Rabbits can be easily trained to use a litter box, and with proper “bunny-proofing” techniques, they can become very happy free-roaming pets in the house. Their home base can consist of a cage, and their litter box should be lined with recycled newspaper bedding, such as Carefresh. Wood shavings, clay, and clumping litter should be avoided. Rabbits also require a stimulating environment. A good variety of safe toys to chew on is a must, such as Timothy hay-based tunnels, or toilet paper rolls or egg cartons stuffed with hay.
Diet plays an integral role in keeping rabbits happy and healthy. They are hindgut fermenters, which means they require lots of fibre in their diet. Their diet can be broken down into 4 categories:
- Hay: 70-80% of a rabbit’s total daily intake (Timothy hay, oat, brome, orchard grass hays are good options, and should always be readily available)
- Pellets: about 20% of a rabbit’s total daily intake (Timothy hay-based with no added seeds or dried fruits)
- Green vegetables: about 5-10% of a rabbit’s total daily intake (e.g. carrot tops, cilantro, parsley, dandelion greens, lettuce, endive, escarole, Swiss chard, mustard greens and green peppers)
- Treats: 2% of a rabbit’s total daily intake (e.g. fruits and carrots, which are high in sugar and should be kept to a minimum)
Rabbits are a unique species to consider when it comes to veterinary medicine. The veterinarian must be very comfortable working with them, and be familiar with their illnesses and care. There are only a handful of hospitals in Toronto (including Wellesley!) that have rabbit-savvy veterinarians. We’re pleased to say we have two rabbit veterinarians; myself and Dr. Ma! These vets have done extensive continuous education training on rabbit medicine, and are well versed in rabbit handling and minimizing stress during the examination. Rabbits should have annual physical examinations to ensure they stay healthy and happy at all stages of their life.
Health issues can be common, and may include the following:
- Gastrointestinal disease (gut stasis, or blockage)
- Respiratory disease (pneumonia, upper respiratory infections)
- Dental disease (malocclusion, tooth fractures)
- Urinary disease (urinary crystals, infections)
- Reproductive tract disease (uterine cancer)
- Skin disease (mites, lice, fleas)
- Ear diseases (infections)
- Neurological diseases (vestibular disease or head tilt)
Since rabbits are prey species, they can be very good at hiding signs of illness. Contact your veterinarian as soon as possible if any of the following signs are observed:
- Decreased/no appetite
- Soft stools or decreased numbers/size
- Hiding, decreased energy
- Runny nose or sneezing
- Weight loss
- Teeth grinding
- Head tilt
Should I spay or neuter my rabbit?
The answer is a resounding yes. Spaying females is exceptionally important, as unspayed females have greater than an 80% chance of developing uterine neoplasia (cancer) over the age of 2-4 years. Males benefit from neutering as it prevents urine spraying, in addition to minimizing aggression and sexual behaviours (humping).
I hope this blog has been helpful and informative! And please remember, whether you are a current bunny owner, or are thinking of becoming one, we are here to help with any questions or concerns you may have!