Rebecca tells us how to care for rabbits

Caring for your rabbit
Easter is around the corner, and many will be tempted to purchase these cute and furry creatures.
However, rabbits are one of the more complicated and high demanding pets available, so it is always important to do plenty of research before bringing one into the family.


Housing
Rabbits require a lot of space whether they are kept indoors or outdoors. A hutch is not enough so remember to attach a suitably sized exercise pen alongside it. They should be able to stand straight on their back legs without touching the top and be able to stretch out completely. If housing indoors you will need to make sure that the enclosure is rabbit proof so they cannot escape. Make sure that they cannot get access to any wires as they could chew through them.
Housing outside, make sure that the enclosure is secure from any predators (including domestic cats) This type of enclosure should be inspected on a regular basis to make sure there are no gaps or holes being made.
Rabbits are a prey species and can become extremely stressed, causing illness if they do not feel safe and secure.
One of the ways to assist with this is to provide several different hides to allow them to take shelter if feeling scared of threatened. These shelters can be made from cardboard boxes, tunnels, store bought hides, hammocks, or home craft items such as curtains in corners.Rabbits are very clean and will be able to learn how to use a litter tray, this can be done using a shallow cat litter tray.
Daily cleaning should be carried out to remove soiled material and old food items they may not have eaten. During the summer months this is important as a dirty enclosure (or rabbit) will attract flies. As a result, your rabbit could develop fly strike. This is where flies lay eggs on the rabbit, these eggs will hatch into maggots and the maggots will start to eat the skin of the rabbit. Increased risk of this developing includes obesity and arthritis, the rabbit will not be able to clean themselves correctly and their fur will create a perfect breeding ground for maggots. If rabbits have sores (from urinary scalding) or broken skin, flies will lay their eggs inside and maggots will burrow their way into the skin.
This is a common condition that’s presented in practice and can develop quite quickly. Intense veterinary treatment, hospitalisation and nursing care is often required to get the best possible outcome.
Preventative treatments are available but keeping a clean enclosure and daily health checks at home can reduce the risks as well.
When housing outdoors always be aware of the environmental temperatures. During the summer months make sure that there are plenty sources of ventilation and during the winter months provide extra bedding and coverings over the enclosure. If you have space indoors, it may be easier to move them to keep them warm.


Diet
Rabbits are herbivores and live on hay and vegetation. Their daily diet should consist of 90% fresh Timothy hay which should be available to them 24/7. This is where they get their high fibre portion of their diet from which, will make sure that their digestive system works and stays healthy.
Rabbits will eat their faeces, this is normal. They do this to extract all the essential nutrients from their diet. These faeces are called caecotrophes. Often this will look “sticky” and “soft”. When they first digest food, the digestible fibre moves through their guts and comes out as caecotrophes. When they digest the caecotrophes, their body can extract the rest of the vital nutrients they require.

The remaining 10% of their diet should be in the form of a rabbit pellet and a handful of fresh greens. Try to avoid feeding your rabbit a muesli-based rabbit diet. This type of food promotes “selective” eating. The rabbit will pick out the bits they like and leave the rest. This can cause an imbalance and lead to health complications and deficiencies.
Here are a few suggestions of safe fresh greens which can be fed to your rabbit
• Basil
• Broccoli
• Cauliflower
• Celery
• Coriander
• Curly kale
• Dandelion leaves
• Mint
• Parsley
• Thyme
• Watercress
Items which are poisonous to your rabbit are begonia, carnation, daffodil, hemlock, ivy, primrose, buttercup, cowslip, foxgloves, holly, nightshade, and poppies.

Companionship
Rabbits are social creatures and should always be housed with a companion. Introducing a new rabbit to the family must be done carefully and slowly to have the best chances of a successful bond.
Rabbits should never be housed with a guinea pig friend, rabbits bully guinea pigs and both species should always be housed with their own kind.
If housing a male and female rabbit it is important to get them neutered.


Health
Rabbits can live for up to 8-12 years so require a long-term commitment. It is always recommended to get them vaccinated whether they are housed indoors or outdoors. Myxomatosis, RVHD1 and RVHD2 are spread by infected rabbits, blood sucking insects or contaminated objects. There is no treatment for these diseases so preventative treatment is the only protection they have.
Rabbits are a prey species, so they hide illness a lot better than cats and dogs. When clinical signs develop the disease process is a lot further on and more serious. Health checking them at home daily will assist you with being able to pick up subtle and early signs of illness and seek veterinary advice at an earlier stage.
This includes regular weight checks, body condition scoring, checking their diet and food intake, grooming, fur quality, skin condition, faecal output and quality and eating habits. If you are ever in doubt, always contact your veterinary practice and they will be able to assist you further, nurses can provide educational consultations to teach you how to hold and examine your rabbit safely.
There are several rabbit insurance policies available which can reduce the financial stress if you have a poorly rabbit.


Enrichment
Rabbits like to explore and forage for their food; this can be mimicked in their enclosure with “enrichment” items. These items can be created out of household items so does not have to cost a lot. Encourage them to search for their food, placing high value items (like their fresh greens) in harder to reach locations. Puzzle balls can be made/purchased for their pellets to make it more for them to access.
Providing these items gives your rabbit a lot of positive mental stimuli and keeps them active. Movement reduces pain from stiff joints, their bladder has “sludge” which if they sit inactive for too long can cause urinary complications. Hopping around can also encourage their digestive tract to work more effectively and can reduce the risk of gut stasis.

Rabbits are remarkable creatures and can bring a lot of joy, love, and entertainment to the home. But remember, they are delicate and sensitive which means a lot of care and attention. As mentioned before always carry out a lot of research (which, can include discussions with your local vet team) and make sure you are able to commit to all their needs and provide them exactly what they need.