Rabbits are very common as pets and we see a lot of them. They tend to be anxious when handled and can scratch and be awkward to handle, but generally make good pets.
Interesting facts about rabbits
- In the wild, rabbits are gregarious (they like company), they burrow, and are nocturnal, although in captivity they may not burrow and become active in the daytime. It’s generally best to house adults separately. Males (bucks) will fight and must be kept separately or desexed. Females (does) will also often fight. Bucks and does kept together will breed rapidly!
- Rabbits’ eyesight is much more sensitive than ours is but not because they eat carrots! Rabbits need to see in twilight and at night and each eye can see over a wide angle. Their eyes can detect movement very well. Rabbits’ ears are used for gathering sounds and for temperature control. They are very sensitive and should never be used to hold rabbits, even by magicians. Rabbits’ skeletons are very lightweight, more like birds than cats, and their bones can be easily broken. They must be carried very carefully.
- About 5-6 years is the average life span, but they can live for 15 years. Rabbits can breed at 4 months of age and, of course, they breed like rabbits! This is partly because females stay in heat until they mate, pregnancy only lasts 31-32 days and they will get pregnant again while feeding the young (kittens). Guinea pigs stay pregnant for 63 days. Another difference is that rabbits at birth are poorly developed, only drink milk and stay in a nest but guinea pigs can run around straight away and eat solid food. Rabbits may only feed the kittens for a few minutes each day, and this is all they seem to need. After 8 days of age the kittens start to eat the mother’s droppings, and after 2 weeks will start to eat fresh greens and drink from a bowl.
- Rabbits are best fed good quality grass hay, especially for their teeth. Grass hay is better than lucerne hay because it has lower calcium content. They must also have green vegetables, grass, carrots and can have some pellets. The kind of food should not be changed suddenly and the water and food bowls must be kept very clean. Rabbits may not eat food if it’s not clean or they don’t like the smell or feel of the food. However, in the mornings they eat the first droppings they pass, which are high in protein and vitamins.
- Rabbit urine is cloudy and can be different colours.
- Rabbits can drink a lot. They make a mess in bowls so need to have a water bottle.
- Rabbits should be kept warmer than 4 degrees and cooler than 29 degrees, and in a cage that protects them from dogs and cats and is easy to clean.
Some common problems are:
- Teeth: Rodents have 2 upper and 2 lower incisors that grow constantly. Rabbits are not rodents but “lagomorphs” and have 4 upper incisors. The extra 2 are small ones that you can’t see, behind the main incisor teeth. Their teeth grow constantly and if they don’t meet correctly, overgrowth occurs. Feeding good quality grass hay helps keep their teeth the right length. Rabbits with overgrown teeth may not eat well and will lose weight, and may be unable to close their mouth properly, or may have a bad smell from their mouth and staining of the fur around their mouth. Front teeth that are overgrown need to be removed and should not be clipped. Overgrown back teeth are much more difficult to manage. They may need regular trimming under anaesthesia.
- Myxomatosis: Or Myxoma virus infection. It’s spread by mosquitoes, flies, rabbit fleas and close contact. Infected rabbits are depressed, not eating, and have typical swelling of the ears and face, and eye and nose discharge. Most die in a few weeks or are euthanased. There is no vaccine available in Australia.
- Calicivirus: Like Myxoma virus, it was introduced to control wild rabbits. This one kills rabbits very quickly, usually within 2 days, but fortunately there is a vaccine. We strongly recommend that all rabbits be vaccinated for calicivirus at 10-12 weeks of age, then every 6 months after. We also include this in their annual health check.
- Pasteurellosis: This is caused by a bacteria which forms abscesses that are very difficult to treat and can be in bone, skin, nose and almost anywhere. Abscesses often affect the balance part of the ear and cause severe loss of balance. One problem with treatment is that some antibiotics upset the bacteria in the intestines and make rabbits sick.
- Ear Mites: cause a thick crust to form inside the ears and itchiness.
- Chronic diarrhoea: Occurs occasionally. The cause is usually unknown and it is difficult to treat. Rabbits are not usually affected by worms but may occasionally need to be treated.
- Injuries: Broken bones, including spines, are common due to their light bone structure. Treatment will depend on the particular bone broken.
The Sydney Exotics and Rabbit Vets website has valuable pet care information for owners of rabbits and other exotic pets.
We have not reviewed any of the below sites, but they appear to come from reputable sources.
- Burke’s Backyard has several “Pet Road Tests” on rabbits:
- House Rabbit Society U.S.
- Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund U.K.
By Macarthur Veterinary Group