Rabbits are gentle animals that have become increasingly popular pets in recent years. Rabbits belong to the family of animals called lagomorphs, because they possess an extra set of upper incisor teeth called "peg" teeth. Unlike the teeth of cats and dogs, or humans, rabbits' incisor and molar teeth grow continuously throughout their lives. There is only one species of rabbit, but over 50 breeds. Rabbits are herbivores (plant eaters).
Recommended daily diet (for each 5 lbs body weight):
~ Unlimited timothy grass hay.
~ Alfalfa hay is not recommended because it is too high in calcium content and calories; however, it can be offered to young or pregnant rabbits or nursing females.
~ Dark green leafy or dark yellow vegetables. Different rabbits tolerate different amounts; therefore, start by trying a small handful or vegetables daily. If diarrhea develops, give less.
~ Discuss pellets and amount with your veterinarian. Avoid cereal/seed/pellet mixtures.
~ If your rabbit is not overweight, you may offer a small amount (1 - 2 tablespoons) of high fiber fruit (apple, peach, plum, pear, melon, berries, papaya, pineapple) but avoid sugary fruits such as grapes and bananas, which may lead to gastrointestinal upset.
~ Do not feed seeds nuts, oats, corn, cereals, or bread.
Common Diseases and Problems:
Tooth problems are common in rabbits and are often linked to improper diet. Rabbits' teeth grow 4 - 5 inches a year and will often over grow, become abscessed at the roots, or form sharp spurs/points from abnormal wear. Rabbits with dental disease often drool and stop eating. Rabbits exhibiting these signs should be examined immediately.
Coccidia are microscopic parasites that often cause diarrhea in young rabbits less than 6 months of age. Some have blood in the stool. Another microscopic parasite that may be carried by some rabbits is called Encephalitozoon. It may be carried without any ill effects or it may cause kidney problems and neurologic signs, such as head tilting, rolling over sideways, and walking in circles.
Obesity is common in pet rabbits and is commonly due to improper diet (too many treats or pellets, not enough hay or fiber) and lack of exercise. Obesity can lead to lameness and sores on the feet, inability to groom (urine and fecal accumulation on the coat), and gastrointestinal stasis (slowing down of the passage of food through the gastrointestinal tract).
Gastrointestinal (GI) Problems:
Gastrointestinal stasis is one of the most common problems seen in pet rabbits and is often the cause of decreased appetite in an otherwise healthy rabbit. The primary cause is often an improper diet and the condition may be exacerbated by stress (such as a new cage mate, a new environment, new people in the house, loud noise, change in environmental temperature, etc.). Rabbits with GI stasis used to be described as having "hairballs" but that is not usually 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 and produce gas. Gas causes abdominal discomfort and often causes the rabbit to avoid eating. Rabbits normally have a small quantity of hair present within their stomachs, which, when they become dehydrated from not eating, can become a mat of fur within their stomachs. However, a true hairball is not usually the main reason for decrease in appetite. Rabbits with GI stasis often have soft stools, or small, hard stools, or no stools at all. With severe GI stasis or, in rare cases of GI obstruction from consumption of foreign material (i.e. carpet), rabbits can die from overgrowth or 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. rabbits that are not eating for more than a day or young rabbits with profuse diarrhea should be examined by a veterinarian immediately.
Many rabbits acquire Pasteurella bacteria at birth. While Pasteurella may cause no signs in some rabbits, in others, Pasteurella bacteria flourish into infections in the eyes, nose, lungs, bones, and skin. Rabbits develop upper respiratory (nose and throat) infections and lung infections from a variety of other bacteria. Rabbits should not be housed with guinea pigs because rabbits carry bacteria that can affect guinea pigs and guinea pigs carry bacteria that can affect rabbits.
Uterine cancer is very common in older, unspayed females.
Urinary tract infections and stones can occur from excessive calcium ingestion from a high calcium (predominantly alfalfa-based) diet. Kidney disease occurs in older rabbits and may be caused by infections, cancer, toxic substances, and aging changes.
Toxic and Traumatic Problems:
Rabbits are prone to chewing and digging and may tear toenails, ingest foreign objects and/or paint containing lead, or suffer from electrocution from chewing on live electrical wires. It is essential to "rabbit proof" any area where rabbits are allowed in to prevent accidental ingestion of toxins and foreign objects. Additionally, rabbits have strong back legs that kick with great force. Accidental spinal fractures can occur when rabbits are not handled properly (their hind ends should be supported) or when they fall or jump from high surfaces.
Your pet rabbit should receive an annual veterinary examination which includes: a dental exam; weight determination; nail trim; baseline blood work (complete blood count and chemistry panel) in mature rabbits over 1 - 2 years; and review of diet and environment. Additionally, females should be spayed at 6 - 9 months of age and neuter males after 6 months of age, if spraying urine.
Useful Resources: House Rabbit Society www.rabbit.org
This information is not a replacement for a veterinary consultation.
If you have questions or concerns regarding your pet rabbit's health and/or care, please contact us.
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