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Rabbits

Rabbits are gentle, sometimes shy animals that have become increasingly popular as pets in recent years. There is only one species of rabbit but over 50 breeds. Rabbits belong to the family of animals called lagomorphs, because they possess an extra set of upper incisor teeth called “peg” teeth. They are not rodents. Unlike the teeth of cats, dogs, or people, rabbits’ incisor and molar teeth grow continuously throughout their lives. Rabbits are herbivores (vegetable eaters) that eat grasses exclusively in the wild. Most of their digestion occurs in the large intestine (cecum), and their high fiber grass diet maintains normal gastrointestinal motility and digestion. It is normal for rabbits to eat their “soft” stools (also called cecotropes, or night feces) during the night or early morning. Cecotropes provide rabbits with important proteins and vitamins. Rabbit Care Guide The House Rabbit Society The House Rabbit Connection

Nutrition

Recommended daily diet (for each 5 lbs. of body weight):

  • Unlimited timothy grass hay
    • Alfalfa hay is not recommended for most adult rabbits, as it is too high in calcium content and calories, but can be offered free choice to young or pregnant rabbits or females nursing a litter.
  • Vegetables
  • High fiber pellets
  • Limited fruits

Rabbit Vegetables

Dark green leafy or dark yellow vegetables ( basil, beet greens, broccoli leaves, Brussels sprouts, carrot and carrot tops, cilantro, collard greens, endive, green peppers, romaine lettuce, outer cabbage leaves, raspberry leaves, wheat grass, pea pods (not the peas), squash, radicchio). Try to avoid high-calcium content greens such as parsley, kale, spinach, and dandelion greens, as these can predispose to bladder stones (see below).

Different rabbits tolerate different amounts of vegetable matter. Some rabbits develop diarrhea or soft stool from small amounts of vegetables; others tolerate large amounts without any gastrointestinal disturbance. As a starting point, try a small handful of vegetables daily, and see how the rabbit responds. Give less if diarrhea develops.

High Fiber Pellets

As a rule of thumb, limit pellets to no more than ¼ cup maintenance-type, timothy hay-based (18% or higher fiber) pellets/day per 4 lbs of rabbit weight.

Avoid feeding seed/cereal/pellet mixtures, as rabbits will often preferentially select out the less nutritional seeds and cereal, leaving behind the pellets. This can lead to obesity and stomach upset.

Limited Fruits

  • Avoid sugary fruits such as bananas and grapes, as these can lead to gastrointestinal upset
  • Avoid high fat or high carbohydrate treats, such as dried fruit and yogurt drops, as these may lead to gastrointestinal upset
  • Do not feed cereals, bread, oats, corn, seeds, or nuts
  • Small amounts of high fiber fruit (apple, pear) may be given a few times per week.

Common Diseases and Problems with Rabbits

Gastrointestinal (GI) Disease

Gastrointestinal stasis (slowing down of the passage of food through the GI tract) is one of the most common problems seen in pet rabbits and is often the cause of decreased appetite in an otherwise healthy rabbit. An improper diet (often too high in carbohydrate and too low in fiber) is frequently the primary cause, and the condition may be exacerbated by stress (such as a new environment, new cage mate, new people in the house, loud noise, change in environmental temperature, etc.)

Rabbits with GI stasis used to be described as having “hairballs.” In fact, most often, hairballs are not the cause of the slowing of food passage. Rather, diets low in fiber lead to changes in the acidity of the GI tract and may lead to the establishment of abnormal GI bacteria that produce gas.

Gas causes abdominal discomfort and often causes the rabbit to not want to eat. Rabbits normally have a small quantity of hair present within their stomachs, which, when they become dehydrated from not eating, can become a dry mat of fur within their stomachs. However, a true hairball is not usually the primary cause of their decreased appetite.

Rabbits with GI stasis often have soft stools, small/hard stools, or no stool at all. With severe GI stasis, or in rare cases of true GI obstruction from the consumption of foreign material such as carpeting, rabbits can die from the overgrowth of abnormal GI bacteria or from GI tract rupture.

Acute, profuse diarrhea, as seen in young rabbits with GI parasites or bacterial infection, is a medical emergency. These rabbits may become severely dehydrated and/or absorb toxic substances produced by abnormal bacteria in the GI tract. Young rabbits with profuse diarrhea or rabbits that are not eating for more than a day should be examined by a veterinarian immediately.

Rabbit Dental Problems

Tooth problems are also very common in rabbits and are often linked to improper diet. Rabbits’ teeth (incisors and molars) grown 4-5 inches a year and will often overgrow, become abscessed at the roots, or form sharp spurs/points from abnormal wear. Rabbits with dental disease will often drool and stop eating. Rabbits with these signs should be examined right away.

Rabbit Obesity

Obesity is common in pet rabbits and is often due to improper diet (too many pellets or treats, not enough hay or fiber) and lack of exercise. Obesity can lead to lameness and sores on feet, inability to groom (urine and fecal accumulation on the coat), and GI stasis.

Respitory Disease

Pasteurella is a bacteria that many rabbits acquire at birth. While Pasteurella may cause no signs in some rabbits, in others, this bacteria flourishes into infections in the eyes, nose, lungs, skin, and bones.

Rabbits also develop upper respiratory (eyes, nose, and throat) and lower respiratory (lung) infections from a variety of other bacteria. Rabbits should not be housed with guinea pigs, because rabbits commonly carry bacteria that can affect guinea pigs, and vice versa.

Urinary and Reproductive Diseases

Kidney disease occurs in older rabbits and may be caused by infections, toxic substances, cancer, and aging changes. Uterine cancer is very common in older, unspayed female rabbits. Greater than 70% of unspayed female rabbits after 3-4 years of age may develop uterine cancer. For this reason, all female rabbits not being used for breeding should be spayed.

Urinary tract stones can occur from excessive calcium ingestion from a high calcium (predominantly alfalfa-based) diet. Stones typically require surgery to remove.

Rabbit Parasites

Coccidia are microscopic parasites that often cause diarrhea in young rabbits less than 6 months of age. Some infected rabbits have blood in the stool.

Encephalitozoon is another microscopic parasite that may be carried by some rabbits without ill effects, or it may cause kidney problems and neurologic signs, such as head tilting, rolling over sideways, and walking in circles. Rabbits with these signs should be examined immediately by an exotic animal veterinarian to help distinguish these signs from those due to an inner ear bacterial infection.

Toxic and Traumatic Disease in Rabbits

Rabbits are prone to digging/chewing and may tear off toenails, ingest foreign objects (including lead from paint ingestion), or suffer electrocution from chewing on live wires.

It is essential for all rabbit owners to “rabbit proof” any area their rabbits are allowed in to prevent accidental ingestion of foreign objects or toxins.

In addition, rabbits have very strong back legs that kick with great force. Accidental spinal fractures can occur when rabbits are not handled properly (when their hind ends are not supported) or when they jump/fall from high surfaces.

Recommended Veterinary Care

Yearly physical exams include:

Spay female rabbits after at 6 months of age to prevent uterine cancer

Neuter male rabbits after 6 months of age if spraying urine or acting aggressively

Signs of Illness in Your Rabbit

  • Decreased appetite
  • Poor hair coat
  • Decreased or lack of stool
  • Diarrhea
  • Lameness
  • Runny eyes and nose
  • Lethargy
  • Abnormal swellings on jaw
  • Weight loss
  • Head tilt, circling, or other abnormal neurologic behavior

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