Pet Information and Education
What Should I Look For When Selecting A Rabbit As A Pet?
Rabbits can be bought from pet stores or through breeders. When choosing your new pet, there are certain things you should look out for and don’t be afraid to ask questions:
• The eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge that might indicate a respiratory infection.
• The rabbit should be curious and inquisitive and it should not be thin or emaciated – run your hand along the backbone to check this.
• Check for any wetness or caking of droppings around the anus, which is abnormal and look for the presence of parasites such as fleas and ear mites (ear mites cause the production of brown wax in the ears).
• If possible, examine the rabbit’s mouth for broken or overgrown incisors (front teeth).
• Enquire whether the rabbit has been spayed or castrated (most will not have been until they are approximately 6 months old).
• Has been vaccinated against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease?
• Ask the seller if they offer any guarantee of health or return policy.
• Finally, find out what the rabbit is being fed on, as you do not want to introduce a sudden change of diet when you get it home – this may provoke gut disturbance and diarrhoea.
There are also many unwanted rabbits in animal rescue and charity centres in need of a good home. However, remember that these rabbits may have health or behavioural problems and little may be known about their history. Seek expert advice before taking such a rabbit on – you may face unexpected problems.
Housing Your Rabbit
Rabbits make good house pets and can be easily litter trained, but they love to chew and can be very destructive to furniture and carpets. It is best to supervise your rabbit whilst loose in the house and have a secure cage or pen to keep him in when you are out and at night. Outside rabbits may be housed in a hutch, but should always have access to a grassed run. Cages should be as large as possible and allow the rabbit to stand up fully on its hind legs and perform at least three consecutive hops. Minimum sizes are 24”x 24”x 14” high for small and medium sized breeds and 36”x 36”x 18” high for large breeds. The hutch should be divided into an enclosed sleeping area where the rabbit can hide and a larger area for daytime use. House rabbits can be kept on soft towels, or shredded paper. Outside rabbits may be kept on wood shavings or straw. However, these substrates may be dusty and contain mould spores, which can predispose your rabbit to developing respiratory problems – high quality substrates should always be used to prevent this.
How Do I Litter Train My Rabbit?
Rabbits can be litter trained relatively easily. Initially the rabbit should be kept in a small area (either a cage or a blocked off area of a room) and a litter box placed in a corner that the rabbit has already used to soil. The sides of the litter box must be low enough so that your rabbit can get in and out easily. Newspaper or paper-based litter is best and avoid using cat Fuller’s earth products, these may be harmful if eaten. It may help to put some droppings in the litter box as well to encourage your rabbit to use it.
How Often Should I Clean My Rabbit Out?
It is essential, particularly if it is outdoors in the summer, that your rabbit is kept as clean as possible. You should check it twice daily, especially in the summer, for any signs of matted droppings or maggots around its rear end. Clean out the hutch at least twice weekly and, if possible, remove any urine soaked bedding each day. The hutch may be cleaned with a dilute disinfectant.
What Temperature Should My Rabbit Be Kept At?
Indoor rabbits should be kept in the coolest and least humid part of the house. The optimum room temperature range for rabbits is 60-70°F (15-21°C). If environmental temperature rises about 80°F (27°C), heat stroke will occur.
Outdoor rabbits should have access to shade and be free from draughts, wind and driving rain. They should also be protected from dogs, cats and predators. Plenty of straw bedding in the winter and covering the front of the cage with a blanket at night will prevent your rabbit from getting hypothermia. Water bowls and bottles should be changed daily in the winter as they may freeze.
How Should I Handle My Rabbit?
When picking up your rabbit always support its hindquarters, as this will prevent any spinal injuries – the spine is very fragile and will easily snap if the hind legs are allowed to dangle and the rabbit gives a strong kick. This will result in paralysis of the hind legs. One of the best ways to pick up a rabbit is to grasp a large scruff of loose skin behind the neck with one hand and scoop up the rear end with the other. Always hold a rabbit close in to your body so it feels secure. You can tuck its head under your arm. NEVER pick a rabbit up by its ears.
Diet is vitally important as a means of preventing ill health. A low fibre, high carbohydrate diet (eg. rabbit mix) can lead to dental disease, facial abscesses, sore eyes and conjunctivitis, obesity, intestinal upsets such as diarrhoea and furballs. It is vital to feed good quality hay or grass and vegetables as a source of fibre.
What Should I Feed My Rabbit?
The most important part of a rabbit’s diet is good quality hay and/or fresh grass. This is what they eat naturally, so it should make up the bulk of the diet and be offered all the time.
Hay and grass provide essential fibre that keeps the teeth and digestive system in good health and nibbling throughout the day will keep your rabbit occupied and prevent boredom.
Hay racks or nets can minimise any mess formed. Good quality meadow hay should be sweet smelling and not dusty. A good idea is to try and obtain hay from friends who keep horses, or from a farm – this is much cheaper too. Check that wild rabbits have not had access to stored hay.
Dried grass products that retain the green colour and are highly palatable are also now available.
A large number of rabbits will only eat certain components of mixed feeds, risking an insufficient uptake of protein, calcium and phosphorous. This is why high quality dry pellets, where all nutrients are present in each individual pellet is the preferred option.
Overfeeding dry foods to adult rabbits is a common cause of diseases such as obesity, heart and liver problems, chronic diarrhoea, dental and kidney disease.
Water should be available 24 hours a day and water bottles or bowls should be cleaned daily to prevent the build up of bacteria and contamination.
What About Feeding Fresh Food?
You can feed your rabbit limited amounts of fresh vegetables, fruit and greens daily.
Wild plants are also greatly enjoyed. If your rabbit is not used to getting fresh foods, then begin by feeding green leafy vegetables, adding a new type of vegetable every 2-3 days. If the addition of any item leads to diarrhoea in 24-48 hours it should not be fed.
These fresh foods should not make up more than 20% of the rabbit’s diet. Items to try are Chinese cabbage, watercress, kale, parsley, spinach, radishes, celery, bramble, raspberry leaves, dandelions, chickweed, plantain, grounsel and clover.
What About Feeding Treats?
Do not feed your rabbit chocolate, biscuits or other sugary treats like honey sticks, bread, or fatty, salty foods like potato crisps.
Be careful with feeding treats generally as they can lead to obesity and digestive upsets.
For good tooth wear you may provide your rabbit with twigs or tree branches. They will enjoy gnawing and stripping the bark. A general rule is that you can offer branches from any tree that we eat the fruit from. Examples are apple, pear, plum, hawthorn, whitethorn and wild rose. Make sure the tree has not been sprayed with chemicals.
Should I Neuter My Rabbit?
Routine neutering of both male and female rabbits is strongly recommended unless you wish to breed. Rabbits become sexually mature between 4 months (in smaller breeds) and 6-9 months (in larger breeds). It is recommended that young rabbits be separated into single sex groups at 16 weeks of age.
Breeding is prevented by castration of male rabbits at about 5-6 months of age (once the testicles have descended), or spaying of female rabbits at about 6 months of age.
Having your female rabbit spayed at between 6 months and 2 years old dramatically decreases the chance of her developing uterine tumours later on in life. In some breeds the incidence of this cancer is over 80% in does over 5 years.
Intact males are more prone to developing behavioural problems including fighting, biting and urine spraying. The urine may also become strong smelling.
Neutered rabbits are more prone to obesity as they grow older, so care must be taken not to allow overeating.
Why Should You Vaccinate Your Rabbit?
Both these viral diseases can be rapidly fatal in an unvaccinated rabbit and there are no cures once infected. The only protection you can give your rabbit is by vaccination. VHD is spread by direct contact between rabbits (both wild and domesticated) but also via indirect contact such as from people, clothing, on shoes, other objects and fleas. Myxomatosis is spread mainly by fleas or other biting insects and is transmitted in this way from wild to pet rabbits.
What Do We Vaccinate Against?
Your rabbit should be vaccinated routinely against Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) and Myxomatosis.
When Should You Vaccinate?
Myxomatosis vaccination can be given as early as 6 weeks old and VHD vaccination from 8 weeks onwards, but is usually given at 10-12 weeks. Unfortunately both vaccinations cannot be given at the same time. A minimum 14 day interval is recommended between the two injections. Boosters are given every 6-12 months for myxomatosis depending on the incidence of the disease in the local area. Boosters are given annually for VHD.
If your rabbit gets ill, the last thing you want to worry about is the vet’s bill. Insurance is now available for rabbits and if the worst happens and your rabbit gets sick, insurance means your vet can dedicate their efforts into doing all that is necessary to diagnose and treat any illness, rather than worrying about doing certain tests or treatments because of the cost. SEE PETPLAN PAGE
Overgrown Teeth or Dental Malocclusion
This is the most common problem encountered by vets and may result in the rabbit having to be put to sleep if not treated at an early stage. Rabbit’s teeth grow constantly throughout their life and if there is not enough fibre in the diet, or if the teeth are not aligned properly, then they will overgrow. Overgrown teeth become spiked and will start cutting into the side of the mouth and the tongue causing mouth infections, ulcers and inability to pick up food and eat it. Clinical signs include anorexia, weight loss, salivation/dribbling and abscesses around the face and jaw. Also eye infections and matted droppings around the tail base may be an indication of dental disease. In some rabbits, malocclusion of the incisor (front) teeth is congenital (present from birth) and these rabbits will need vigorous treatment and possibly tooth removal. Acquired malocclusion occurs in older rabbits and is thought to be primarily diet related. A correct diet is essential to your rabbit’s wellbeing (see earlier section on feeding) and problems occur particularly if your pet is not eating enough fibre in the form of hay, grass and vegetables, to wear down the teeth at a sufficient rate. Problems can also arise if your rabbit refuses to eat the pelleted part of the dry diet since these contain calcium and phosphorous essential for good bone and tooth growth.
Rabbits need regular teeth checks and these should be carried out at the time of vaccination.
Guinea pigs are very clever and sociable animals. They don’t need a high cage as they don’t jump but floor space should be 1m²/guinea pig with a soft bedding and in an environment between 18-26°C. In wintertime they should be housed indoors. Guinea pigs are best fed twice a day with a high fibrous diet and vitamin C.
Most guinea pigs do not mind being handled when done so correctly. They will love having a companion if the hutch is big enough to comfortably accommodate them both. The best companions are littermates or single sex groups. They should not be housed with rabbits.
Guinea pigs can live between 5-8 years.
Hamsters are clever and adventurous animals. They must live indoors in a wire cage with a bedded solid bottom floor that is escape proof. Hamsters can gnaw through wood, plastic and soft metals. Hamsters need playthings and frequent handling can make them tame. Play with them in the evening or at night, as they are nocturnal animals that like to sleep during the day.
Hamsters are omnivorous, hoard food and need chewing material. The best feeding time is in the evening when they start to wake up. Avoid food with sharp edges to prevent damage to the delicate cheek pouches.
Hamsters can be handled when awake. Never handle a hamster when sleeping or not fully alert, and remember it’s a small animal so pick them up slowly. Depending on the breed, some dwarf hamsters will be fine with a companion, whereas Syrian (gold) hamsters need to live by themselves.
Hamsters have a life span of 1-3 years.
Ferrets are very intelligent and inquisitive animals.
They can live in wire cages, preferably with several levels so they have lots of space. They can also live freely in the house or an enclosure, with an easily accessible water bottle, food bowl and litter tray. Ferrets are carnivores, therefore need high levels of meat protein and fat. They have a very short digestive tract, so they need small frequent meals throughout the day.
They are extremely active and playful animals, so they always need time to socialise with you and they also enjoy playing with a variety of tunnels and balls.
Ferrets do not mind being handled when done so correctly : Allow your ferret to come to you before picking it up. This prevents frightening it and reduces the risk of being bitten. Ferrets should be grasped around the shoulders, with your thumb under the front leg and your fingers under the jaw and other front leg. Support the hind legs with your other hand, then gently bring the ferret against your chest.
Domesticated ferrets can live between 5-11 years.
Mice are easy to keep as pets because of their small size and minimal demands for space and attention. They are happy, playful and active pets that are great to watch. However, they are timid, so you need to spend some time getting to know them and build a bond. They should be housed in wire cages with plastic or metal solid floors, (as for rats). Hiding spaces are essential as is a secure lid to prevent escaping.
Mice are omnivorous; consuming a wide variety of seeds, grains, and other plant material as well as insects. They like to gnaw and nibble so provide some chewing material in their cage.
They are very social animals and are best kept in pairs or a single sex group of females. Males will fight over territory and produce a strong, musky odour. You can handle mice, but it’s fun just to watch mice play with toys, tubes and their exercise wheel. Take care with small children as they might cause trauma by handling the mouse roughly or dropping it.
The lifespan of a mouse is between 1.5-3 years.