Rabbits

rabbitRabbits are the most popular of all the small animals kept as pets today. They are not rodents however, but belong to a separate group known as lagomorphs. The wild European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), which is the ancestor of all’s today’s domestic breeds, originated in the Mediterranean region but had been brought to the UK by the 1100s.  Rabbits were originally kept here as sources of food and fur, but by the late 1800s, they started to be seen at shows, and people began to keep them as pets. One hundred years later, rabbits also became popular specifically as indoor pets, and those kept in this way are now described as “houserabbits".

Housing

Rabbits can be kept either indoors or outside. They are traditionally kept in a hutch, which must protect them from damp and cold. A hutch, however, provides little space for exercise, so it should be attached to a secure outdoor run. This will allow your pet to run around, and retreat bad under cover when the weather is bad.

The size of the hutch will depend on the breed of rabbit which you choose, and should be as large as possible, giving plenty of space for your rabbit to move around easily.  But the most important feature which can be overlooked is not so much the floor area, but rather the height of the hutch. Rabbits will naturally sit up on their haunches, and so your pet’s quarters must therefore be taller than its body length. Guinea pig hutches are too small for rabbits for this reason.
 
A hutch is normally divided into two sections. There is the open area, incorporating a mesh door, and a more secluded section where your pet can hide away. Rabbits by nature are quite timid individuals, and this needs to be reflected in the design of their quarters. The hutch must always by raised off the ground. This will help to prevent the timber rotting prematurely, but has other advantages too, not least that you will be able to see your pet more easily.  It also makes it harder for foxes, which are common today even in urban areas, to reach a rabbit, and also lessens the risk of contact with wild rabbits which can spread disease (see Health problems).

Site the hutch in a sheltered corner of your garden. There should be a sliding hatch which you can remove, with a platform leading down into the run. Check the hutch will remain dry, by ensuring the roof is covered with roofing felt, extending this over the adjacent area of the run. You may also want to line the floor with sliding trays, for ease of cleanliness. These can then be pulled out, allowing the soiled bedding to be tipped directly into a compost bin.

Indoors, a large run with a solid floor can be used as housing. Once again, it should be tall enough for the rabbit, and easy to clean. It is now possible to purchase special indoor housing units.

Feeding

Rabbits have a peculiar digestive system, which enables them to extract maximum benefit from their low nutrient, high fibre diet  consisting of plant matter. Their food effectively passes through their digestive system twice, as they eat their droppings. An ideal diet for a rabbit should be comprised of a mix of prepared rabbit food, some greenstuff or vegetables such as carrot, plus hay which is a valuable source of fibre. 

Pre-packaged rabbit food can consist of a mix of cereal seeds and other ingredients, or may be comprised exclusively of special pellets. Follow the feeding instructions carefully, because rabbits can become obese, like other pets, and this will shorten their lifespan. Be sure to keep their food dry and do not exceed the recommended use-by date, because this can lead to vitamin deficiencies.

Offer greenfood in season, with weeds such as dandelion and chickweed being popular.  In the summer, you may be able to allow your rabbit out into a run on the lawn where it can graze on grass. This area should not have been treated with herbicides or similar chemicals however, and rabbits must acclimatised to grazing on grass.

Transfer them out for short intervals of an hour or so at first, gradually increasing the time your pet spends here, so as to reduce the risk of diarrhoea. Rabbits depend on beneficial micro-organisms in their digestive tract to break down their food, and if their diet changes suddenly and dramatically, these microbes are then unable to adjust, resulting in diarrhoea.

Be sure to buy only good quality meadow hay for your pet, which should be clean and free from dust. Again, this needs to be stored in a dry locality, to prevent it from becoming mouldy. You will also need a water bottle which can be attached to the rabbit’s quarters.  They must have free access to drinking water at all times.

Varieties

Rabbit breeds are divided by tradition into fur and fancy categories, reflecting their origins. Those breeds originally kept for their pelts feature in the fur grouping, whereas rabbits developed largely for exhibition purposes can be found in the fancy sub-division. There are more than 60 breeds today, but a number of these are very scarce and localised, being virtually unknown outside the area where they were first bred.

There is a wide variation in size too, between today’s rabbit breeds. At one extreme, there are small breeds such as the Polish, whereas British and Flemish giants represent the largest members of the group. They can vary in weight between 1-10kg (2.2 - 22lb). The following are some of the most commonly-seen and popular pet breeds:-

The Dutch is widely-kept  today, although its precise markings mean that this is a very difficult breed to exhibit. Although often black and white in colour, Dutch rabbits are bred in other shades. There are eight different recognised varieties, with the palest being the yellow and white, while the rarest is probably the tricolour. 

The mini lop is a breed which combines an attractive appearance with a friendly nature, weighing no more than 1.6 kg (3.5lb) when fully grown.  Lops as a group are characterised by their floppy ears, which hang down the sides of their head, although for the first month or so, a young lop’s ears will be like those of other rabbits.  In a few cases, one or both ears may never flop over.  Slightly larger in size is the dwarf lop, which, like its mini relative, is available in a wide choice of colours.

A scaling-down in size has also been apparent in the case of the rex breeds too, with mini rexes now being very popular. Rexes as a group lack the long, coarse outer hairs normally present in a rabbit’s coat, and so their fur feels very soft to the touch.

The development of new breeds continues even today, and one of the latest arrivals on the show scene has proved very popular with pet-keepers too. The lionhead rabbit  was created from crosses between the Netherland dwarf, and the dwarf Swiss fox breed.  Lionheads are short-coated, but characterised by the presence of a longer ruff of fur around the neck. Once again, they have been bred in many colours.

In contrast, the Belgian hare is usually black and tan in colour, although a much rarer albino variety also exists. These are very elegant rabbits, with their body shape being reminiscent of that of a hare. Their short, sleek fur means they need little grooming, in contrast to long-coated breeds.   

The increasing interest in houserabbits has seen a resurgence in the popularity of the British Giant breed, which grows to about the same size as a cat.  These are friendly, placid rabbits by nature, although their coloration tends to be rather subdued, with grey and black varieties being common.   

Health problems

Careful management should help to prevent a rabbit from falling ill.  It is not just a matter of keeping its quarters clean, but also avoiding any sudden changes in diet.  Rabbits are also very susceptible to heat stroke, and their run needs to be placed in a shady area when the sun is at its hottest.

Diarrhoea can cause staining of the fur around the tail, attracting flies particularly in warm weather, which may then lay their eggs here. These hatch rapidly into maggots which start to bore into the rabbit’s skin and then release potentially deadly toxins into the bloodstream. This condition, known as fly strike, requires rapid treatment to safeguard the rabbit’s life.

Rabbits exposed to damp, dusty or dirty conditions are more susceptible to respiratory infections. This can lead to sneezing and a nasal discharge, rapidly progressing to pneumonia if left untreated, so seek veterinary advice without delay 

Overgrown claws are not uncommon in pet rabbits, and will need to be trimmed back regularly. If you decide to undertake this task yourself, rather than leaving it to your vet, then you will need a stout pair of guillotine-type clippers, as used for dog’s claws. Do not rely on scissors as these are likely to split your rabbit’s nail.

With the rabbit’s paw gently restrained, located the part of the claw where the pink line extending down from the base disappears.  Beyond this point, you can clip off the tip of the claw without fear of causing any bleeding, although this point is much harder to see in rabbits with dark claws.    

Vaccinations

There are two killer diseases of rabbits caused by viruses, with no treatment being available in either case. Vaccinations must therefore be given to protect against these infections, with subsequent booster injections also being required.

Myxomatosis can be spread by biting insects, such as mosquitoes, while wild rabbits can also infect their domesticated relatives by direct contact, or via infective fleas.  Severe swelling of the eyelids is a characteristic signs of this illness.

Viral haemorrhagic disease - VHD - is spread in similar ways to myxomatosis. It tends to result in sudden death, often with a slight bloody discharge apparent from both the nose and the vent.