My day as a vet isn’t always about puppies and kitties- sometimes there are bunnies, too! There are approximately 6 million pet rabbits in the USA, and some sources say that rabbits are the third most popular companion mammal (behind dogs and cats). However, you can’t just treat a rabbit like any other pet and expect it to thrive. Because they are an herbivorous prey species, their needs are quite different. Here are some things to remember if you want to give your rabbit its best life!
HAY is not just for horses.
I would estimate that over half of the health problems that I see in pet rabbits that visit my practice stem (no pun intended) from being fed an improper diet. Specifically, some rabbit parents forget or don’t know about the importance of hay in their rabbit’s daily diet. I always tell my clients to think of rabbits and tiny horses; they should eat hay, drink water, and poop all day long. A rabbit that isn’t eating hay or isn’t pooping could be in big trouble!
Hay provides much needed fiber, which keeps the GI tract moving. If a rabbit does not have enough fiber or has too many carbohydrates in their diet, they are at risk of developing a condition called gastrointestinal (GI) stasis. GI stasis can lead to a bacterial infection, sepsis, and even death.
Hay also helps rabbits file down their teeth. Rabbits have teeth that grow continuously throughout their lives (again, like horses). These teeth are called hypsodontic, or open-rooted, teeth. If a rabbit does not eat enough roughage, these teeth can develop large points or break, which can be painful for the rabbit and may cause them to stop eating and develop infections. Here is a great resource from one of my favorite pet companies that explains how to properly feed your rabbit.
Spay and neuter your pets… including your rabbits!
Most pet owners in the US know that they should spay and neuter their pet dogs and cats, but did you know that it is also recommended to spay and neuter pet rabbits?
Altered rabbits make much better pets. Males that are not neutered tend to have sexual aggression and often have a strong odor to their urine and feces, which makes them less ideal as indoor pets. Both males and females are easier to litter box train after they have been sexually altered. There are also health benefits- intact female rabbits are at a high risk of developing uterine cancer, and spaying virtually eliminates this possibility. Additionally, altered rabbits can live together in groups. You should not house intact rabbits together, even if they are of the same sex, because they will likely fight with each other. However, after being spayed or neutered they may safely be kept together in social groups- which rabbits prefer because they are social animals! I recommend neutering male rabbits at 4 months of age and spaying female rabbits at 6 months of age.
Regular veterinary care is a must for all rabbits
Unlike dogs and cats, rabbits are prey animals. At a lecture I attended at a veterinary conference, one speaker joked: “The only thing that doesn’t eat rabbit is grass.” These guys are at the bottom of the food chain, and so they are hard-wired to show no signs of weakness, lest they become an easy target for a predator. Because of this, it often takes an experienced veterinarian to be able to identify health problems early (when they are treatable). I recommend wellness health checks with an experienced rabbit veterinarian every 6 months, even if your rabbit has no apparent problems.
As always, I recommend that you see your veterinarian to address any questions or concerns regarding your pet rabbit! Don’t have a veterinarian yet? Check out the House Rabbit Society’s vet list to find one near you.
Readers, have you ever had a pet rabbit? How was caring for your pet rabbit different than caring for other pets that you have had?
Recommended Resources for Pet Rabbit Owners:
- The House Rabbit Society
- Oxbow Animal Health
- Pet MD Rabbit Dental Care
- Your veterinarian, of course!