Rabbits are now the UK’s 3rd most popular pet, but despite this, their welfare needs are still widely misunderstood by many owners,and it is now time to re-evaluate the ways we have traditionally kept pet rabbits now that we have a much greater knowledge and understanding of their specific needs.
Rabbits used to be thought of as an ideal children’s pet that could be housed in a hutch in the garden, requiring little time and attention. The reality is that rabbits are prey species and thus shy and quiet. They don’t like loud noises or sudden movements, and take time to gain trust in people. Therefore, they don’t generally make good kids’ pets – they are easily frightened and have sharp claws and teeth that can cause severe injury, and many dislike being picked up.
Many people also believe that rabbits are cheap to look after. However, they often cost as much as a dog to keep happy and healthy; to provide suitable accommodation; and preventative health care (neutering / vaccination / flystrike and parasite prevention / regular dental checks).
Rabbits are also very sociable animals, living in large colonies in the wild. They should therefore be kept with at least one other rabbit (1 each of a neutered male and neutered female is usually the ideal combination). Rabbits should never be housed with guinea pigs under any circumstances. They are completely different species from different native environments and have different nutritional requirements. Guinea pigs will likely suffer injury or even death if housed with a rabbit, and will certainly suffer from stress.
A hutch is not a suitable living environment for a rabbit and should be considered as the sleeping quarters only. Rabbits need room to exercise to stay happy and healthy, and should have access to a large enclosed run that is secure from predators, with access to shade and places to hide if frightened. Absulute minimum hutch size should be 6 ft x 2 ft with a permanent run attached, and should be tall enough for the rabbit to stand up fully on it’s hind legs. Sheds and dog kennels are a much better alternative to commercial rabbit hutches.
Another commonly encountered problem with domestic rabbits is incorrect diet. Commercially available “muesli mixes” are still very popular among rabbit owners and are readily available in both pet shops and supermarkets. These types of diet however, encourage selective feeding, i.e. the rabbit picks out the tastiest bits (usually the sugary unhealthy bits!) resulting in an unbalanced and incomplete diet. Extruded pellet or nugget type diets are complete and balanced, and are far superior in providing correct nutrition for your bunny. Pellets or nuggets should only be offered as a small amount each day (they don’t need a bowl full), with good quality meadow hay making up the majority of the daily food intake (approximately 80%).
Iceberg lettuce should not be fed as it is toxic, and carrots are full of sugar so should only be fed as an occasional treat. A handful of leafy greens such as carrot tops, parsley and kale should be offered each day. Fresh water should always be available, with some rabbits preferring to drink from a bowl rather that a bottle. Water bottles are more hygienic, but if using a bowl, then choose a heavy earthenware type to avoid tipping over.
Hay is vital in a domestic rabbit’s diet and should be available at all times to allow for ad-libitum grazing. Rabbits need plenty of fibre to keep their complex digestive tracts functioning correctly. Chewing hay also helps to wear down rabbits’ teeth which grow continuously throughout life, with many domestic rabbits suffering from dental problems and malocclusion caused by an incorrect diet.
The average lifespan of a domestic rabbit is 7 – 10 years, so it is important to consider the type of commitment you are taking on when buying or rescuing a pet rabbit. With over 67,000 rabbits in rescue centres, it is vital that potential owners are armed with the facts and prepared to provide a suitable home for these complex creatures that fulfils their welfare needs.
This year’s Rabbit Awareness Week (RAW) runs from 9th to 17th May 2015. To celebrate, we are offering 20% off all rabbit vaccines and 10% off neutering until the end of May. We will also be providing FREE nurse clinics to discuss diet and husbandry as well as nail clipping and health checks.
Visit www.actionforrabbits.co.uk for further information and advice on keeping pet rabbits, or download a poster on The Truth About Rabbits.
To book an appointment or speak to one of our team about your pet rabbits, please call Stanhope Park Veterinary Hospital on 01325 380111.