Urban Rabbits

Description of the Tan Specific Care Information Breeding and Propagation An Autotelic Activity
Care and Keeping:
Relatively Easy

DIET

Hay - HAY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE HOUSE RABBIT DIET. HAY SHOULD BE PROVIDED AT ALL TIMES IN YOUR PET'S CAGE. Hay provides healthy indigestible fiber which keeps the digestive tract working normally. In addition hay contains a variety of other nutrients and calories essential to the good health of your rabbit. The type of hay preferred is GRASS hay which can include timothy, prairie, brome, meadow, oat (this is the GRASS not the oats you buy in the store to eat for cereal), and Bermuda. Often grass hay is sold as mixed grass which contains several of these types. Alfalfa hay is not preferred due to its higher calorie and calcium content. However, in situations where grass hay is not available, alfalfa may be used temporarily. It is better than no hay at all. We prefer the loose hay as opposed to hay cubes, but for clients with allergies to loose hay, the cubes can be an alternative and are better than no hay.

Feeding hay has other health benefits besides keeping the digestive tract in good shape. Because hay is more abrasive and takes longer to break down by chewing than a pellet (which is made of compressed fine particles) there is tremendous benefit to the teeth. The teeth grow throughout a rabbit's life and overgrown molars and incisors can be a problem if the rabbit does not have enough abrasive material to chew on. In addition, the additional time chewing hay and the "full feeling" to the stomach which hay provides will result in less chewing on other objects in the house (it doesn't stop electric cord chewing!). It also decreases the incidence of rabbits chewing on their own or their cage-mates fur.

We sell flakes of mixed grass hay at our hospital, but for those that live a great distance away or need more than a flake you can check with your local pet stores, feed stores and horse barns for sources of grass hay. If you have several rabbits you may want to buy a whole bale. If you buy from a horse barn or feed store, make sure the hay did not come from the top of the stack where is may be contaminated by animal or bird feces.. Hay should be stored in a cool, dry place, safe from raccoons and birds with good air circulation (don't close it tightly in a plastic bag). Discard wet or damp hay, or any hay that does not have a "fresh" smell. One efficient way to offer the hay is to use a hay rack on the outside of the cage. Your pet can pull the hay into the cage through the bars as he or she needs it. This keeps the hay clean and eliminates much of the waste.

Fresh Foods - Fresh food is the second most important part of the house rabbit diet. These foods should be given daily. Rabbits in the wild eat a lot of tough, fibrous plants. Their digestive tract functions best when it has a high level of fiber which helps to maintain the normal intestinal motility.

If your rabbit has never eaten green foods before, then it is best to establish it on hay first. If your rabbit is already eating hay, then there is generally no problem starting right out with fresh green foods no matter what the age of your pet. Begin sparingly and increase gradually. There are occasionally greens that cause a harmless softer stool (notoriously parsley) and these can be eliminated from the diet if this is the case. When using greens for the first time, start with something like romaine, kale or mustard greens and then add a new green food every couple of days. If you find any food that results in a softer stool the same day it is fed, then temporarily eliminate it from the diet and try again in a month or so.

As with yourself, make sure to wash all fresh foods carefully before using and when possible either grow your own or use organic. Because fresh vegetables are not as concentrated in nutrients pound per pound as the dry hay, you should not depend on greens only to maintain your pet's weight. Rabbits must have pellets, hay as well as greens in the diet!

Here are some examples of food items you can feed your pet: Carrot tops, beet tops, dandelion greens and flowers (these are excellent, but no pesticides, please), collard greens, escarole, romaine lettuce, (don't give light colored leaf lettuce or iceberg lettuce), chickweed, plantain, endive, Swiss chard, parsley, clover, broccoli (don't forget the leaves), carrot, pea pods (the flat edible kind), basil, borage, wheat grass, mescalin greens mixes, peppermint leaves, raspberry leaves, raddichio, bok choy and escarole.

Rabbit Pellets - Select a low protein feed to maintain a healthy house rabbit. If possible, check the mill date (the date the pellets were produced at the factory) on the package and use them within 90 days of this date. Taste the feed yourself... if it tastes moldy, don't feed it to your rabbit.

The following chart shows maximum daily amounts to be fed to your bunny. DO NOT REFILL THE BOWL even if the pellets are all eaten before the next day. OVERFEEDING OF PELLETS IS THE NUMBER ONE CAUSE OF HEALTH PROBLEMS THAT WE SEE. Keep your rabbit healthy by not overdoing it!

*Rabbits up to 6 months of age can have access to pellets free choice, because they are still growing rapidly. However, after 6 months of age they should receive the following maintenance diet.

     2-4 Lb. of body weight - 4 - 6 oz. daily          (Tan recommended portions)

Please note that these food amounts are for the maintenance of the non breeding mature house rabbit. If you intend to breed your pet, then we suggest increasing the daily pellet amounts during the breeding season. You will also have to increase the protein percentage. For does that are nursing babies, the pellets should be increased over a 4-5 day period to free choice until the babies are weaned. After the breeding period is over, resume feeding at the maintenance levels as listed above or remove pellets altogether as recommended by your veterinarian.

Treat Foods - In a total (of combined foods) amount of 2 tablespoons per 2 Lbs of body weight daily, you can give the following foods: Strawberries, papaya, pineapple, apple, pear, melon, raspberries, blueberries, apple pear, mango, cactus fruit, persimmon, peach, pear, or tomato. Bananas and grapes can be "addicting" and we don't recommend feeding these items unless it is only a very occasional treat. Dried fruits may be used as an alternative to the fresh listed above but use half the amount.

*WE DO NOT RECOMMEND GIVING ANY OF THE FOLLOWING FOODS ROUTINELY BECAUSE OF THEIR POTENTIAL FOR CAUSING INTESTINAL UPSET AND Obesity: Salty or sugary snacks, nuts, chocolate, breakfast cereals, legumes (peas and beans) and other grains (including oats, corn, wheat, and either fresh or cried bread).

Lactobacillus or Acidophilus (Yogurt) - This is often recommended in some texts for the diet of the rabbit, but although it is not harmful, it is not necessary. The touted benefit is that the live bacteria in the yogurt will replace bacteria that may be killed in the intestinal tract of the rabbit by disease or drugs. Lactobacillus is NOT a significant normal part of the rabbit intestinal flora and in addition it will be killed in the stomach before it even reaches the intestine due to the fact that the stomach pH is about 1-2. Therefore, it makes no sense to give this product. The nutrition that may be gained by feeding a dairy product (which contains animal protein, which rabbits don't really need) could be better provided by a plant source such as a dark green leafy vegetable.

Water - This should ALWAYS be available, and changed daily. A dirty water container can be a breeding ground for bacteria that can cause disease. The container can be either a water bottle or heavy bowl that is weighted or secured to the side of the cage so that it does not tip over. Avoid the use of water medications or other additives because your pet may not drink sufficient quantities of water if the taste is altered. Note that rabbits that are getting a large portion of greens in the diet get most of their fluid requirements from these foods and will drink very little other water.

Vitamins - Vitamin supplements are not necessary in the healthy rabbit. Rabbits not only get these nutrients from the hay and fresh foods, but also produce their own vitamins, such as vitamins C, B-complex and K in their cecotropes which they then re-eat and digest. (See the section called Night Droppings). In fact, the indiscriminate use of vitamins may lead to overdosage and serious disease. In addition vitamins added to the water can cause the rabbit to not drink sufficient amounts of water due to the bad taste and can actually cause more rapid bacterial growth. Use additional vitamins only under the supervision and advice of your veterinarian.

Salt or Mineral Block - Not necessary for the house pet on the described diet. If you are concerned about this part of their diet, buy a mineral block. If they don't need it, they won't use it.

Night Droppings (Cecotropes) - It may seem strange to list this as a part of the diet, but these "special droppings" known as cecotropes, are an essential part of your pet's nutrition. During certain times of the day, usually about 4-6 hours after eating, you may observe your pet licking his or her anal area and actually eating some of the droppings in the process.

Cecotropes are softer, greener, and have a stronger odor than the normal hard, dry, round waste droppings and they come directly from the cecum which is the part of the digestive system where fermentation of food takes place. The cecum is located at the junction of the small and large intestine. In the cecum the digestible portion of the diet is broken down by bacteria which then produce fatty acids, amino acids (proteins), vitamins and minerals. Some of these nutrients are absorbed directly through the wall of the cecum, but most of the nutrients are kept inside the bacteria which are excreted in the cecotropes. Your pet knows when these droppings are being produced and will take care of eating them himself. After eating these nutrition rich droppings your pet will redigest the material and extract all the necessary nutrients. This habit may appear distasteful to us, but it is normal and important for your pet. In fact, in this way, the rabbit can survive in the wild on food that other animals might not be able to thrive on because they could not digest it and extract the vital nutrients. The rabbit actually does an excellent job producing its own nutritional supplements within its body.

Occasionally a rabbit will drop these cecal pellets along with the waste pellets instead of eating them. This often happens when the diet contains excessive amounts of protein or energy. These droppings will be soft, green to brown, appear clumped and are misshapen, but formed and have a strong odor. This is not diarrhea, and if it only occurs occasionally, it is not considered a disease problem. Some rabbits leave excessive amounts of cecotropes in the cage because they can't reach the anal area. Conditions such as obesity, flaps of skin over the anal area, spinal disease, painful abdomen or pain in general can lead to this condition. A diet that is low in fiber or high in energy may also lead to a chronic and persistent production of cecotropes that are too soft and liquid to be eaten and thus are left in little puddles around the environment mixed with normal waste stools. Your rabbit needs to be examined by a veterinarian if you see excessive amounts of abnormal stools of cecotropes in the cage.
 

ENVIRONMENT

Housing - We highly recommend that rabbits not be kept in a cage all the time. Rabbits that are caged continuously run a higher risk intestinal and urinary disease and obesity due to lack of exercise. In addition they may develop behavioral problems such as excessive chewing or aggression (perhaps out of boredom or "stress''). An excellent set-up is to have a cage or partially enclosed house area as a comfortable "home-base", which they can enter and leave as they wish throughout the day, surrounded by a dog exercise pen for a place to roam. These pens come in all different sizes and are made up of a number of metal wire panels that can be taken apart and moved to make the pen area any size or shape you want. We recommend that it be at least 3 feet high for most rabbits. For some of the larger breeds use 4 foot high pens. You can purchase a solid piece of no-wax flooring to cover the floor of the pen so that carpet or other flooring is protected and it is easy to clean up accidents. Another advantage of the pen arrangement is that the rabbit is kept out of trouble from chewing on furniture and electrical cords and the pen can be moved from room to room or even outdoors as needed.

A metal cage may be used as a "home base" within the recommended pen area discussed in the previous paragraph. It may have an open wire floor of 14 gauge wire (1"x 1/ 2" square openings) with a solid tray underneath. The size of the cage should be at least 24" x 24" x 18" high for the small and medium sized breeds and 36" x36" x 24" high for the large breeds. A solid floored area is necessary to prevent sore hocks and to provide an area for resting. You can use a towel (unless you have a pet that likes to eat towels), or piece of carpeting or wood for the solid area. We have found that the "synthetic fleece' cloth that is sold in fabric stores (in a variety of colors) works very nicely, as it is washable and if the pet chews on it, there are no long strands of fabric that can get caught in the digestive tract. Newspaper or other bedding materials (not pine or cedar - see suggestions under "Litter Box") can be used under the wire. Do not use aquariums or solid walled cages because the lack of sufficient air circulation has been directly linked to an increase in respiratory disease.

If you are going to have your bunny roaming the house at any time, make sure that you eliminate areas where your pet can get trapped or from which it can escape. Protect or remove electrical cords, on which they like to chew, carpeting, which they like to dig up and chew, and any toxic materials such as rodent poisons or plants that your pet could get into. Get on your hands and knees and "bunny-proof' your home.

Litter Box - Rabbits can be litter box trained relatively easily. Initially you need to keep your pet in a small area, either in a cage or a blocked off section of the room and place a litter box in the corner (try to pick the corner your pet has already used for the bathroom. Make sure the sides of the box are low enough so your pet can get in and out easily. It is helpful to put some of the droppings in the box. Some people have also found it useful to put some hay in the box to encourage defecation in the box (they usually pass stool while they are eating). You can reward your pet with one of the treat foods listed previously whenever he or she has used the box successfully. Do not punish your pet while in the litter box. Do not worry if your pet sits for extended periods in the litter box. Sifting in the box can be allowed as long as your pet is not soiling itself and the box is cleaned frequently.

Pelleted paper or other organic products make the best bedding. These products are non toxic and digestible if eaten, easier to clean up than shavings or clay litter, control odor better and are compostable. In addition they draw the moisture away from the surface of the litter which protects the rabbit's feet from getting wet if they like to sit in their litter box. Some examples are Cellu-Dri and Yesterday s News (which are paper products), and Mountain Cat Kitty Litter or Harvest Litter (pelleted wheat grass products). We carry several of these products here at the clinic.

Temperature - Rabbits should be kept in the COOLEST and least humid area of the house. Studies have shown that bunnies kept in warm, humid environments with poor air circulation, have a dramatic increase in the incidence of respiratory disease over those animals kept in cool, dry environments with good air circulation. Damp basements are one of the worst areas to keep your pet. If your rabbit must be kept in a basement, invest in a dehumidifier and a fan to keep out dampness and improve air circulation.

The optimum temperature range for a bunny is 60-70 degrees F. When the temperature gets into the mid 70's, you may see an increase in drooling, and nasal discharge. If temperatures reach the upper 80's and beyond, and especially if the humidity is high the potential for fatal heat stroke is very real. On very hot days, when air conditioning is not available, it is helpful to leave a plastic milk jug filled with frozen water in the cage, for a portable "air conditioner".

Please keep fresh, cool water available, as this will also help to keep the body temperature down. If your pet should actually experience a heat stress reaction, try holding an icepack on the ears or gently wet your pet down with cool (not cold) water. If the heat stroke is severe, veterinary attention will be necessary.

If your bunny is being kept outdoors in either warm or cold weather, make sure that part of the cage is sheltered from the wind and the sun. For the winter it is advisable to use straw bedding in the sheltered area for insulation and make sure that the water bowl is changed daily, as your pet can dehydrate rapidly if the water is frozen for more than a day.
 

HANDLING

There are a number of ways to pick up a rabbit depending on how calm he is and his size. The main thing to remember is to always support the hind quarters to prevent serious spinal injuries. The rabbit backbone is fragile and can easily fracture if the hind legs are allowed to dangle and the animal then gives a strong kick. Unfortunately many of these injuries are permanent and may result in the euthanasia of the pet, so the best policy is prevention. Never pick up a bunny by it's sensitive ears, it's painful and totally unnecessary! It is better to grasp the loose skin over the shoulders or scoop up under the chest and then place your other hand under the back legs to lift your bunny from the floor. Work near the floor when first learning to handle your pet so that if he jumps out of your arms he won't have far to go.

It may also be useful to put your bunny on its back when trying to trim nails and examine the underside of your pet. Most rabbits will learn to relax in this position and can withstand quite a bit of handling. Sit on the floor and put the rabbit on its back with its head just over the edge of your knees so that it hangs down a little. Restrain the body firmly between your thighs, and place one hand over the chest to help prevent him from turning over. Talk softly and stroke his chest and abdomen gently. It may be necessary to have a second person face you and hold the front legs when first learning to trim nails in this position. However, many pets become so relaxed that one person can do all the grooming alone.
 

MEDICAL PROBLEMS

Females - A leading cause of death in the female rabbit is a cancer of the uterus called adenocarcinoma. This is a malignant disease, and unfortunately, once it is diagnosed, it may have spread to other areas of the body. This cancer is preventable by having your pet spayed between 5 months and 2 years of age. The spay procedure involves removal of the rabbit's uterus and ovaries. Spaying a rabbit also prevents the occurrence of breast cancer, pyometra (infected uterus), uterine aneurysm (life-threatening bleeding into the uterus) and false pregnancies. In addition, spaying a rabbit will decrease aggression due to behavior associated with the rabbit being "in season" (which is nearly constant!)

Males - Some male bunnies may become extremely aggressive when they reach sexual maturity. There may be excessive biting and spraying of urine outside of the regular litter box area. The urine may develop a very strong and unpleasant odor due to the presence of male hormones, and these little boys may not groom themselves well, developing stained and messy tail areas. These males may start attacking other rabbits, leading to serious bite wounds. The best solution to these behavioral problems is castration (surgical removal of the testicles). This procedure is recommended any time after 4 months of age.

Dental Disease- All rabbit teeth are open-rooted and grow continuously throughout their life. Rabbits have this type of arrangement because they are designed to eat tough fibrous foods throughout their lives that would wear down teeth such as the type humans, dogs or cats have. The teeth are worn down not only on the food items but on each other. If the teeth are not lined up properly of if the diet does not provide sufficient opportunities for chewing then they do not get worn down which results in overgrowth. Either or both the front teeth (incisors) and back teeth (molars and premolars)may develop a variety of problems. Some teeth can grow so long that they penetrate the soft tissues of the mouth such as the roof, cheek or tongue. Tooth roots can overgrow and penetrate the jaw bone. These conditions can lead to extreme pain and in addition can result in abscesses and other signs such as nasal and eye discharge, drooling and the inability to eat.

If the incisors are overgrown they will need to be trimmed every 6 to 8 weeks. Do not use pet nail trimmers because this can result in fractures of the teeth and deep root infections. Your veterinarian will use a special dental instrument to trim the teeth more safely. If the molars are involved, or if the animal is very skittish, a general anesthetic may be required for the teeth trimming procedure. It also may be recommended to take some head x-rays of your pet to evaluate more effectively the extent of the tooth root disease. A permanent cure for overgrown incisors is the complete removal of the incisors under a general anesthetic. Rabbits are able to eat normally afterwards and teeth trimming will obviously no longer be necessary. If your pet has dental problems, please discuss the options with your veterinarian.

Loss of Appetite - There are a variety of reasons why a rabbit will lose its appetite. The most common cause is pain. This can be anywhere in the body but the two most frequently encountered causes of pain are dental disease and gastrointestinal disease. The most common cause for gastrointestinal pain in our experience is a diet low in fiber and high in calories. This combination can lead to obesity, fatty liver disease, sluggish movement of the intestinal tract, accumulation of a dry impacted food ball in the stomach and excessive gas in the intestines which is uncomfortable. When the rabbit doesn't eat, then the intestinal tract stops moving and the problem escalates.

Less common, but very serious conditions that can also lead to appetite loss include uterine infections, abscesses, respiratory infections, gastrointestinal infections, gastrointestinal blockage, inner and middle ear infections, strokes, parasitic disease, eating toxic materials and bladder and kidney infections.

Loss of appetite in a rabbit that is otherwise acting normally is something that should be investigated by your veterinarian within 48 hours. Rabbits rapidly develop a deteriorating condition of the liver when they go without food for long periods of time. If the liver deteriorates excessively, there may be no way to reverse the process. Early diagnosis and treatment of appetite loss is the best way to save your pet's life.

A loss of appetite accompanied by obvious lethargy or depression should be investigated immediately and should be considered an emergency. The classic sign for rabbits developing a gastrointestinal obstruction is that they are fine one day and then suddenly stop producing stools and are very depressed the next.

"Hairballs" (Gastric Stasis) - Hairballs are commonly cited as the reason for rabbits to stop eating. The problem with rabbits that stop eating and have an accumulation of food in their stomachs is NOT hair. All rabbits groom themselves and accumulate some hair in the stomach normally. If the rabbit is on a high fiber diet and has access to plenty of water (in the form of fresh foods and water bottle) this condition rarely exists. The material in the stomach remains fluid and has an "open-lattice-work" type consistency and can move normally out of the stomach. However, when a rabbit has any combination of the following: Low fiber diet, small particle diet (pellets as exclusive diet), not enough water intake, lack of exercise, or any condition, such as something painful, that causes it to eat or drink less it results in a gastrointestinal tract that moves much more slowly. Then what happens is that the food ball in the stomach starts to dehydrate and compact. The less the rabbit eats or drinks, the more the food ball becomes compacted until the rabbit stops eating entirely. On an x-ray the stomach will appear full with a halo of air around the food ball because the material is so dehydrated. If you looked at the food ball directly you would see a mixture of hair and dried food present. The hair is left behind because it is of a larger particle size and stays in the stomach. Therefore, people have the mistaken idea that the original problem was hair, when the original problem was a much larger issue such as diet or other disease.

Pineapple juice or papaya enzymes DO NOT break down hair (which is not the total problem anyway) and are not useful alone for this problem. Surgery should be avoided unless it is felt that there is actually an obstruction present of if all medical therapy has failed. Medical therapy should be aimed at rehydrating the food ball in the stomach with oral fluids, rehydrating the rabbit with injectable fluids, getting food orally into the stomach, stimulating the gastrointestinal tract to move again with various drugs and pain relief. Please consult your veterinarian for the particulars of the treatment of this disorder. We prefer to call it gastric stasis (which means the stomach has stopped moving) as opposed to "hairballs" which are not the problem.

Pasteurellosis - A large percentage of rabbits harbor a bacteria in their upper respiratory passageways called Pasteurella multocida. This bacteria doesn’t cause a problem in most bunnies with a healthy immune system. However, under certain stress situations, such as poor diet, high environmental temperatures, poor air circulation, overcrowding, etc., this bacteria can reproduce rapidly and cause potentially serious disease.

This bacteria may cause infections of the upper respiratory tract, uterus, skin, kidney, bladder, tear ducts, middle ear or lungs. Please have your pet examined if you observe any discharges around the eyes, nose or anal area, or if there is a loss of appetite, depression, diarrhea, head tilt, loss of balance, or labored breathing. NEVER attempt to use antibiotics without veterinary supervision. Your pet's gastrointestinal tract is an extremely delicate organ, dependent on large populations of healthy bacteria to digest the food. If inappropriate antibiotics are given indiscriminately, death may result because the antibiotic killed the normal bacteria in the gut which led to an overgrowth of deadly bacteria.

Diarrhea - True diarrhea is not common in the rabbit. This is a situation where all stool being passed is in a liquid form. This is a very serious condition and should be seen by your veterinarian immediately. Some gastrointestinal conditions that result in diarrhea can be fatal in less than 24 hours.

What most people refer to as diarrhea, is an intermittent passing of soft liquid or pudding-like stools. The rabbit will also pass normal formed stools. The soft stools may be seen more frequently at certain times of the day (many times overnight), may have a strong odor and accumulate on the rabbit's fur. The liquid stools are actually the cecotropes (see section on Night Droppings) that are unformed. There are a variety of reasons for this condition, but by far the most common reason is a lack of sufficient fiber in the diet and obesity. Eliminating the pellets from the diet and feeding good quality grass hay only for two weeks to three months may clear up the problem. Consult your veterinarian if your pet has this condition before making any drastic changes in the diet.

Urinary Disease - The urine color of the pet rabbit can range from light yellow to dark orange in color. It may be clear to so cloudy as to almost appear white. These color and clarity changes are due to the production of pigments in the urine called porphyrins ( which can be related also to plant pigments and/or the rabbit's emotional state) and calcium precipitate. The calcium that is taken in through the diet is excreted through the urine, therefore the urine may appear cloudier if the rabbit is eating a high calcium food such as some pellets, alfalfa hay or some greens than if it is eating no pellets or low calcium foods.

Rabbits can also develop urinary tract disease such as bladder and kidney stones, infections or cancer. Signs of these diseases may include any of the following weight loss, poor appetite, frequent small urination, tinged blood and painful urination. It should be noted that female rabbits with uterine disease may also produce what appears to be bloody urine which is actually blood being discharged from the reproductive tract just after urination. Your veterinarian will be able to help you distinguish between the two. The most important preventatives to urinary tract disease is a healthy diet, plenty of fresh water available' exercise and a clean environment.

 

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Urban Rabbits