The rabbit is a very endearing and sociable small mammal. It belongs to the lagomorph family. It differs from the rodent because it has an extra pair of maxillary incisors. Its teeth are all elodontal, which means that they all grow continuously. It is therefore important to give the rabbit hay, as it mainly wears out its teeth by chewing them, preventing them from becoming too long. Its lifespan is about 8 years, with sexual maturity reached at 6-7 months in males and 4-5 months in females. The rabbit is mainly diurnal. The female has a fold of skin on her neck called the dewlap, she will use it when it is time to make her nest, as she will tear off the hair there to make it.
The digestion of rabbits is characterized by a high bacterial activity. Thus, any slowing of the digestive transit will promote abnormal bacterial growth and cause health problems. Timothy hay is essential to a rabbit's diet, it must be offered at will and be available at all times. Hay also allows for normal wear of the teeth, preventing them from becoming too long and perforating the oral mucosa. Alfalfa hay should only be offered to young or pregnant rabbits because it contains a higher amount of protein and calcium. Since rabbits cannot control their calcium absorption, it may accumulate in the body and promote urinary stones.
Vegetables represent the second most important component of the rabbit's diet. The rabbit should be given 1 to 2 cups per day. Among those to be offered daily are kale, kale, romaine, chard, bok choy, carrot leaves, turnip leaves and endives. Spinach, broccoli (leaf and flower), rhubarb and parsley should be offered no more than twice a week as they contain a lot of calcium. Dandelion leaves and flower are also acceptable. Carrots are particularly sweet, so it is recommended that they be considered a treat (offered twice a week). Any new food must be included in the diet gradually, as rabbits have a fickle digestive system: a new vegetable offered in too large a quantity will cause diarrhea!
Kibble is not necessary and should be offered in small quantities, maximum 3 tablespoons per rabbit per day. Otherwise, it will provide too much protein and calcium, reducing hay consumption and promoting the development of urinary stones.
Finally, fruit is a treat only and should be offered in small quantities (e.g., one apple wedge per day). Too much will promote bacterial overgrowth in the digestive system and cause diarrhea. Rabbits produce a particular type of stool at night called ceocotroph. The stool has a slightly different route through the rabbit's digestive system and is therefore composed of a large amount of protein and vitamins, which the rabbit recovers by ingesting them. Normally, the rabbit will eat the coecotrophs directly from the anus, as long as he is able to reach them with his mouth, which is not a foregone conclusion when he is overweight. These softer stools will then tend to stick to the rabbit's hindquarters and cause dermatitis. It is preferable to offer the water in a bottle, since rabbits tend to spill their water bowl and prolonged contact of the water with the skin promotes the development of dermatitis.
It is important to provide the rabbit with a minimum of 1 hour of activity per day outside its cage so that it can run and stretch its legs, thus limiting the development of obesity. The rabbit's nails should be trimmed once every 2 weeks or so using a nail clipper. Rabbits with access to the outdoors in the summer should be treated for parasitic infections on a monthly basis, just like dogs! Female rabbits must be spayed to avoid the development of uterine tumours. Ideally, sterilization should be performed at around 6 months of age. It is essential to control the amount of food offered to prevent obesity.
The rabbit has a more fragile bone structure than other mammals. Therefore, you should always hold your rabbit's hindquarters when you lift it off the ground, to prevent it from kicking with its hind legs and inflicting a fracture or even a vertebral dislocation. The rabbit should not be held by its ears, as this can damage the skin or cause vagal shock, resulting in a severe slowing of the heart rate and potentially even death.
The rabbit should be kept in a cage while you are away, as it likes to chew on anything that comes into its mouth. It is therefore important to keep a close eye on it during its free time. The cage should ideally be screened to allow good ventilation and should be fitted with a strong lid, as the rabbit can jump and escape from the cage. The bottom of the cage should not be screened, as this can cause damage to the legs. A rabbit can be trained to relieve itself in a litter box or in one corner of the cage. This will limit the contact of the paws and belly with the urine, which could cause dermatitis (skin infection). The litter can be made of recycled paper, papier-mâché or aspen shavings. Pine and cedar shavings are NOT ACCEPTABLE as they are irritating to the rabbit's skin and respiratory tract. Rabbits do not tolerate heat, as they do not have sweat glands that allow them to cool down. Therefore, it is advisable to provide him with an ambient temperature of about 4 to 20 degrees Celcius, both in summer and in winter! Rabbits are sociable and can live together in cages. On the other hand, males tend to be more aggressive, especially if they are not neutered, and it is not uncommon to observe fights that can lead to serious injuries.
The rabbit cannot cohabit with the guinea pig without health risks, and the reverse is also true. The rabbit is a natural carrier of Bordetella Bronchiseptica, a bacterium that causes a respiratory infection in guinea pigs. The guinea pig in turn is a carrier of Pasteurella Multocida, another bacterium that causes respiratory, skin and eye infections in rabbits. Therefore, these two individuals must not share the same environment. The rabbit is the natural prey of the ferret, so it is not advisable to bring them into contact. The mere presence of the ferret in the rabbit's environment will generate a lot of stress.
Enterotoxemia is a very serious digestive condition. It is due to the growth of some bacteria that are not normally present in the rabbit's intestine. These bacteria produce toxins that will enter the bloodstream and cause a state of shock. The rabbit will show the following clinical signs: severe and sudden depression, rapid and/or exaggerated breathing and dark red gums.
Unfortunately, there are many causes for the appearance of bacteria in the rabbit's intestine: inadequate oral antibiotics, drastic change in diet, gastric stasis, etc. This condition is suspected during the general examination of the rabbit and is confirmed with an X-ray of the abdomen. Early treatment is essential in order to slow down the evolution of this condition, but it only proves to be effective when implanted at the very beginning. It requires hospitalization in order to provide care via intravenous access.
The rabbit's digestive system is particularly dependent on a high fibre content. Inadequate nutrition (too much kibble, too little hay), stress, or any other health condition leading to anorexia (urinary calculus, uterine tumour, pasteurellosis, dental abscess, etc.) can cause a slowdown in digestive transit. In doing so, food spends more time than normal in the stomach, forming a plug made up of compacted food and hair. This can interrupt normal intestinal movement, cause abdominal distension and pain.
Rabbits suffering from gastric stasis show symptoms such as a loss of appetite, a decrease in the volume of stool produced and abnormally calm behaviour. A particularly ailing rabbit may grind its teeth or adopt a particular position: it lies down so that its entire belly is in contact with the ground (frog-like position).
A simple physical examination allows us to suspect this condition, but it will be confirmed by an abdominal X-ray. Treatment should be started promptly after clinical signs appear to prevent digestive obstruction and the need for surgery. To treat gastric stasis, the animal must be rehydrated, digestive transit must be stimulated with certain medications, and assisted feeding (force-feeding) and analgesics must be provided. Antibiotics are also an integral part of the treatment, since this condition leads to increased fermentation of food in the intestine, which encourages the exaggerated growth of certain bacteria normally present in small quantities.
Although there is a treatment for gastric stasis, the cause of its onset should be investigated to prevent recurrence. An evaluation of your rabbit's management can be done with your veterinarian, as well as some tests to detect potentially responsible medical conditions.
Skin Conditions and Parasites
Psoroptes cuniculi is a parasite causing redness and brownish scabs on the ears of rabbits. It is often associated with heavy scratching, or frequent head shaking. The scabs MUST NOT be removed, as severe damage to the skin underneath may occur. The diagnosis is made by microscopic examination of an ear smear and the treatment is the same as for skin mites.
Rabbits are susceptible to cat, dog and rodent fleas. The diagnosis is based on the visualization of live fleas on the animal or its droppings. The latter take the appearance of commas or black dots, which leave a red trace if crushed with a wet finger on a white surface. Fleas can be treated with an application of a product such as Revolution or Advantage.
Cheyletiella Parasitovorax is a skin mite that causes the appearance of white dandruff, hairless areas and scabs on the rabbit's back. Sometimes associated with excessive scratching, it can infect humans and cause the appearance of small red pimples at the site of contact, with or without itching. It is detected through microscopic examination of dandruff taken from the rabbit with sticky paper. The treatment consists of an injection of medication under the skin, which is repeated every 10 days for a total of 2 or 3 treatments depending on the results.
Pododermatitis is an infection or inflammation of the skin under the legs. It is usually more pronounced on the hind legs and is frequently associated with obesity; it can also be secondary to trauma caused by wire cage bottoms. Litter made from pine or cedar shavings can also irritate the skin, promoting pododermatitis.
Treating pododermatitis can take some time and requires the owner's patience. An antibiotic cream is used to address the bacterial infection. Hydrotherapy, on the other hand, promotes cell renewal to heal ulcerations. The animal must be resting in the cage for a variable period of time, depending on the extent of the ulceration and the speed of tissue healing. Subsequently, exercise becomes the key to treatment since obesity is often the cause and weight loss will reduce the risk of recurrence.
The animal's appetite should be monitored during treatment: pain often causes anorexia, which can lead to gastric stasis. Finally, correction of the environment is crucial: removal of wire surfaces and cedar or pine litter. Recurrences are common in pododermatitis, so you should frequently monitor the underside of your pet's legs to detect the onset of inflammation as early as possible.
In rabbits, ringworm is caused by a fungus, Trichophyton Mentagrophytes. It leads to the appearance of round, hairless patches that tend to grow larger. This fungus can also infect humans by causing the appearance of red patches on the skin at the site of contact, often associated with pruritus. To diagnose this fungus, a few hairs are removed from the periphery of the lesions and placed on a culture medium. Handling of the animal and movement in its environment during treatment should be limited. It is important to wear gloves when handling the animal during treatment. Ringworm is treated with a medicated cream applied to the affected areas. Oral medication may also be required depending on the extent of the lesions. The environment should be disinfected with Imaverol diluted in a 1:50 ratio.
Scabies (Skin Mites)
Sarcoptes Scabei is a parasite that can infect several animals including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, ferrets and rabbits. Transmission occurs through direct contact (with the carrier animal) or indirect contact (with recently infected objects or surfaces). The rabbit affected by this parasite will suffer from severe itching and scabs will appear on its skin, most often located on the legs and belly. The diagnosis is made by identifying the mite under the microscope by scraping off the skin from the animal. The treatment is done with 2 Revolution applications, carried out 30 days apart. It is essential to isolate the animal from other furry pets in the house and to wear gloves during handling, as this parasite can also infect humans. Indeed, scabies is a zoonosis and it manifests itself in humans by red patches associated with severe itching. If you suspect this infection, please consult your doctor immediately so that treatment can be started as soon as possible. Be aware that you cannot transmit scabies from one animal to another human, but you can infect any other furry animal.
Uterine adenocarcinoma is a malignant tumour that affects 50 to 80% of female rabbits aged 4 years and older. Clinical signs observed are the appearance of blood in the urine, weakness, weight loss and anorexia. Discomfort upon palpation of the abdomen is frequently observed on examination, sometimes associated with the palpation of a mass. The tumour is strongly suspected with certain changes in the X-ray and its presence is confirmed when the uterus and ovaries are removed in surgery. This routine procedure should be performed in all rabbits at about 6 months of age to prevent this condition and to control births. Chest X-rays are recommended prior to the procedure to detect possible lung metastases.
Pasteurella Multocida is a bacterium normally found in guinea pigs, which affects rabbits in many ways. This bacterium can cause skin abscesses, pneumonia, infections of the nasal passages and internal ear infections. The infected rabbit rarely succeeds in completely eliminating the bacteria and becomes a carrier of the agent for life. Like the guinea pig, it can transmit pasteurellosis to other rabbits even if it doesn't show signs of disease. Transmission is through direct contact or by aerosols (airborne droplets). Clinical signs vary according to the form of the disease, ranging from a simple bump on the skin to purulent nasal secretions, head tilted to the side and dyspnea (difficulty breathing). Diagnosis is made based on clinical signs and medical history, when the sick animal has been in contact with new rabbits or guinea pigs. When otitis media or pneumonia is suspected, X-rays are taken to confirm the diagnosis and to assess the severity of the condition. Pasteurellosis is treated with antibiotics for a varying period, depending on the animal's response to treatment. Given the persistence of the agent in the animal following treatment, recurrences are frequent and must be treated with antibiotics each time. Stress plays an important role in the recurrence of infections in the carrier animal.
E. Cuniculi is a parasite transmitted by contact with the urine of infected animals (rabbits, cats, others) and can be found in different locations in the body, causing different symptoms. It most often lodges itself in the brain, causing the animal to hold its head tilted to the side and can even make it roll over on itself. There is also an up and down movement of the eyes when the animal is motionless (called vertical nystagmus), as well as loss of balance and weakness in the hind legs. All these signs are mostly accompanied by loss of appetite and the animal is despondent. The parasite can also settle in the kidneys, preventing them from holding water from the body. The animal then urinates and drinks more, while also being despondent. Finally, E. Cuniculi can settle in the eyes and lead to uveitis (infection of the inside of the eye) or cataracts. The animal's eye will then change in appearance: a white circle in the centre of the eye, half-closed eyes, purulent discharge, or redness.
It is important to consult a veterinarian as soon as possible if your rabbit shows these clinical signs, because the earlier the disease is treated, the less likely it is that irreversible damage will occur. In addition, this disease is transmissible to humans through contact with the infected animal's urine. Therefore, it is important to wash your hands thoroughly after each handling and to limit contact with the suspect animal. Symptoms of the disease in humans include headache, stiff neck, muscle pain, fever, etc. The treatment in infected rabbits is an antiparasitic administered orally once a day for 28 days. There is also a blood test to check if the animal has been exposed to the agent. The sick rabbit should also be separated from other rabbits for a period of 3 months, since the parasite can be excreted in the urine of the infected animal during this time. Unfortunately, some lesions are incurable and the animal may retain after-effects for the rest of its life, such as a head tilted to the side, despite adequate treatment.