House rabbits should never be kept completely confined to a cage. Exercise is vital for the health of the rabbit. All too often we hear well meaning, but poorly informed, people describe rabbits as easy to keep because “they can be caged and don’t take up much space!” This idea has led to many rabbits being caged most of their lives with the distinct possibility of developing both physical and behavioral disorders. They are designed to run and jump and move about a large area.
To confine a rabbit to a cage exclusively can cause several problems:
* Obesity-caused most often by a diet too high in calories coupled with a lack of exercise.
* Pododermatitis-Inflammation of the feet caused by sitting in a damp or dirty environment.
* Poor bone density-Rabbits that are continually confined to a small cage can exhibit marked thinning of the bones which may lead to more easily broken bones when handling.
* Poor muscle tone-If the rabbit can’t exercise, the muscles, including the heart, will be underdeveloped and weak.
* Gastrointestinal and urinary function-A rabbit that sits all day in the cage with little exercise can develop abnormal elimination habits.
* Behavorial problems-Continually caged rabbits can exhibit a wide range of abnormal behaviors including lethargy, aggression, continual chewing of the cage bars, chewing fur (obsessive grooming), and destruction of the entire contents of the cage.
A cage can be used as a “home base” for part of the day or it can be open all the time within an exercise area. The cage should allow the rabbit to stand up on its hind legs without hitting the top of the cage, provide a resting area and space for a litter box. It should be easy to clean and indestructible, therefore metal is probably the best choice. The floor can be solid or wire. Keep the cage in a well-ventilated, cool area. Basements are often too damp, which can promote respiratory disease. If you must house your pet in a basement, use a dehumidifier and a fan to improve the air quality. The optimum temperature range for a rabbit is 60-70 degrees F. When the temperature rises into the mid 70’s , you may see drooling, and a clear nasal discharge. If temperatures reach the upper 80’s and beyond, especially if the humidity level is high, there exists a potential for a fatal heat stroke. On hot days, when air conditioning is not available, leave a plastic milk jug filled with frozen water in the cage, for use as a portable “air conditioner”.
Rabbits can be caged outdoors if they are provided with a shelter to protect them from rain, heat and cold. In addition, make sure the cage is secure from predators such as dogs, coyotes and raccoons and is kept clean to keep from attracting parasitic insects. In the winter use straw bedding in the sheltered area for insulation and make sure that the water bowl is changed daily. Your pet can dehydrate rapidly if the water is frozen for more than a day.
As mentioned, it is vital to the health of your pet to provide an exercise area where your pet can roam for a few hours every day. The easiest way to accomplish this is to use exercise fencing panels sold for dogs. These can be found at most pet stores. Buy fencing that is at least three feet high for small and medium rabbits and four feet high for giant breeds. These panels are easily put together with metal pins and can be configured to any size or shape needed. The pen keeps your bunny away from furniture, electrical cords and toxic materials. The pen can also be used outside as a moveable enclosure to allow your pet access to grassy areas. Never leave a rabbit outside in a pen unsupervised, because dogs, cats and raccoons may be able to knock down the fencing or climb over it and harm your pet.
If you need to protect the floor under the pen you can use a sheet of no-wax flooring which is available at most hardware stores. It can be easily cleaned and rolled up when not in use.
If you are going to allow your pet free access to your house you need to “bunny-proof” it. Block all escape routes, cover or block access to electrical, phone and computer cords, cover furniture to protect it from the rabbit’s teeth and claws and remove access to toxic plants, rodenticides, insecticides and other toxic materials.
Rabbits can be litter box trained relatively easily. When beginning training, confine your pet in a small area, either in a cage or a blocked off section of the room and place a litter box in the corner (try to pick the corner your pet has already used for its toilet). Make sure the sides of the box are low enough so your pet can get in and out easily. It is helpful to put some of the droppings in the box. Some people have also found it helpful to put some hay in the box to encourage defecation in the box (they usually pass stool while they are eating). In exercise areas, provide one more litter box then the number of rabbits you have and put newspaper or plastic under the litter box to protect your floors from accidents. Never punish your pet while in the litter box.
Pelleted litter makes the best bedding and is preferred over wood shavings, corncob and kitty litter. Pelleted litters are non-toxic and digestible if eaten, draw moisture away from the surface keeping it drier, control odor well and can be composted. Do not use clay or clumping kitty litter. We have had cases where rabbit’s ate these products and died from an intestinal impaction. There are a wide variety of pelleted beddings available through pet stores, veterinarians and rabbit clubs.
The ancestors of our pet rabbits would have spent a good portion of their day in protected burrows underground. Our pet rabbits retain the same need to have a protected area in which they feel safe and secure. Some rabbits are content to sit in a box full of hay, others like a completely enclosed box in which to hide. Try providing untreated wicker or straw baskets, litter bans or other shallow boxes filled with hay, cardboard boxes with an entrance hole and the bottom removed or large cardboard tubes as places to hide. Use your imagination! If the cage has a wire floor, provide a solid area on which the pet can rest. Use material that is washable or disposable and absorbent. Some examples might be fax fleece (not long fur) found in sewing stores or absorbent baby blankets (not terry cloth towels). Do not use carpet squares because they are not absorbent, they are abrasive to the feet and they can not be thoroughly cleaned.
Rabbits get a fair amount of mental exercise from their diet of grass hay and green foods, but additional toys are appreciated. Rabbits like to chew, so give them branches from untreated trees (please dry the wood for at least a month to prevent any adverse reactions to the sap), wooden chew toys, designed for birds, or unfinished, unpainted wicker or straw baskets. They like things that make noise such as keys on an unbreakable key holder, empty plastic or metal cans, hard plastic baby toys and jar lids. They like things that both move and can be chewed such as toilet paper or paper towel rolls, empty small cardboard cartons and small piles of shredded paper.
There are a number of ways to pick up your pet depending on how calm he/she is and his/her size. The main thing to remember is to always support the hingquarters to prevent serious spinal injuries. Rabbit backbones are fragile and can fracture if the hind legs are allowed to dangle and the animal then gives one strong kick. Unfortunately these injuries are usually permanent and frequently result in the euthanasia of the pet, so the best policy is prevention. Never pick up a bunny by his/her sensitive ears because it’s very painful and totally unneccessary! It is better to grasp the loose skin over the shoulders or scroop up under the chest and then place your other hand under the back legs to lift your bunny from the floor. Work near the floor when first learning to handle your pet so that is he/she jumps out of your arms there isn’t a chance for a fall.
Ask your veterinarian or an experienced rabbit handler about other methods used to handle rabbits. Some restraint methods are particularly useful when your rabbit needs to be medicated. Wrapping your pet in a towel is one easy method and your veterinarian can instruct you on the proper procedure.
We have many handouts available that cover medical problems encountered by pet rabbit in detail. I would encourage you to ask your veterinarian for information on a specific topic that interests you. As mentioned before, the number one group of diseases that we see in rabbits is caused by inappropriate diet and most are completely preventable. The following is a brief discussion of a few of the medical conditions that you should be aware of.
Uterine adenocarcinoma is a malignant cancer that can affect female rabbits over two years of age. The best prevention for this disease is to remove the reproductive organs (ovaries and uterus) in a surgical procedure commonly called a spay. The procedure can be performed in females over four months of age. Spaying a rabbit also prevents pregnancy and can help control some aggressive behavior.
Male rabbits can also develop disease of the reproductive organs (the testicles) but with much less frequency than females. However, some male rabbits have a tendency to become aggressive in their “adolescent” years (8-18 months of age) and can also start spraying urine outside the toilet area to mark their territory. Surgical removal of the testicles, called castration, can control these behaviors if it is done before the behavior occurs or shortly thereafter. Male rabbits can be neutered anytime after four months of age.
Dental disease can be the result of a variety of factors including trauma to the face, genetics (jaw is too short or malformed such as seen in the lop-eared breeds of rabbits), nutritional disease, infectious disease and diet. Rabbit ancestors ate a diet that was too tough and abrasive therefore they developed teeth that grew throughout their lives. Without this constant replenishment the teeth wear down quickly and the rabbit would be unable to eat and eventually die. Any condition that causes a rabbit’s teeth to be worn down improperly or causes malalignment or the death can result in serious dental disease.
The best prevention for dental disease is a healthy diet of grass hay and green foods. But even with this good diet, there are still rabbits that develop disease due to other factors, particularly genetics. The treatment of dental disease is based on the cause and severity of illness. Your rabbit should have a dental examination performed by a veterinarian at least once a year. You should never attempt to trim a rabbit’s overgrown teeth without consulting your veterinarian. An improperly performed tooth trim can lead to serious dental disease.
LOSS OF APPETITE
Rabbits are little eating machines and if you note that your pet has changed his/her eating habits, there is cause for concern. The most common reason a rabbit stops eating is in response to pain somewhere in the body. The rule of thump regarding the seriousness of the loss of appetite is as follows:
* Loss of appetite but otherwise acting normal should be investigated within 48 hours. Some rabbits may go through a slow down and then pick up again in a day. They key here is that the rabbit is still active and alert and is still producing stools.
* Loss of appetite accompanied by obvious lethargy or depression should be considered an emergency and should be investigated immediately. This can be a sign of an intestinal obstruction or toxin ingestion. Another important sign is that no stools are being produced.
Rabbits can exhibit sneezing, coughing and excess tearing. Not all these signs are related to respiratory disease. More common causes include environmental irritants (perfumes, sprays, cooking fumes, ammonia fumes from accumulated urine in toilet area, fabric softener on bedding, dust), poor air circulation, damp environment, hot environment and dental disease. Please consult your veterinarian if your pet is showing the signs listed above.
Hairballs are often cited as a reason for rabbits to stop eating. The problem is not hair (which is always present in a normal rabbit’s stomach due to grooming) but abnormalities in GI tract motility. A Rabbit on a healthy diet of grass hay and green foods will not have a problem with this “disease”.
The only exception is that, rarely, longhaired breeds of rabbits such as Angoras and Jersey Wollys, can accumulate an abnormal amount of hair in their stomachs even if they are on a good diet. Brush these breeds regularly to prevent the ingestion of large amounts of long hair. Remember that these rabbits do not have the normal rabbit haircoat of the ancestral rabbit so we humans have artificially created this problem!
True diarrhea, where all the stool being passed purely liquid, is very rare in the rabbit. More commonly we see a situation where the rabbit has both normal and soft pudding-like stools in the toilet area. This is not diarrhea, but a problem with GI motility usually caused by an inappropriate diet.
If you should notice true diarrhea in your pet, you should consider it an emergency situation and consult your veterinarian immediately.
The normal color of rabbit urine can range from yellow to dark orange-red. The color comes from plant pigments in the food or from normal pigments produced in the wall of the bladder. The urine can clear or cloudy with a white precipitate. The white precipitate is excess calcium excreted through the urine. Rabbits can develop disease of the bladder or kidneys and may exhibit signs such as blood in the urine, straining to urinate, inappropriate or frequent urination, or the complete unability to urinate. If your pet is exhibiting any of these signs, please consult your veterinarian immediately. The best prevention for urinary disease is an adequate water intake, which is accomplished through the feeding of green foods and providing fresh water daily.
The Missouri House Rabbit Society would like to thank Dr. Susan A. Brown for her permission to post her excellent articles.