Having rabbits is more demanding on resources than is generally perceived. Regular work has to be carried out, and the tradition of having rabbits in hutches that are cleaned once a week is not sufficient if we are to take the rabbits’ welfare into consideration. These old and outdated ways of keeping rabbits are used by large livestock breeders and in farming where the focus is to simplify having many animals, and are not a part of modern pet animal ownership. Knowing what it takes to improve the welfare of your rabbits, your companion animals should not be made to live under such conditions.
Rabbits are very clean by nature and resent having to stay in dirty environments. Both free-range rabbits and those living in cages or enclosures must have a litter tray available. Rabbits like to keep their living quarters clean and so the litter tray should be changed daily or as often as necessary, dependent on how many boxes the animal has access to, and of course on how many rabbits are using it. Keep it clean and your rabbits’ home will stay odour-free. Fresh surroundings will also benefit the animal’s health.
One must ensure that good quality hay and fresh water is always available. The water should be replaced twice daily. In addition one must offer the recommended amount of supplementary food.
Rabbits are active animals so they need several hours of exercise each day. If they are free range they will regulate this themselves, while those living in cages must be given sufficient hours outside the hutch, particularly at times when they are naturally most active. Make sure your rabbits have appropriate company as well. If living together in a pair they will not need as much attention from you.
Check your rabbit for signs of injury or illness every day. A daily check-up like this should involve observation of the animal’s behaviour. Does the rabbit behave normally? Is it running around as usual or is it sitting hunched up in a corner? Has it eaten the same amount of food as it normally does? Signs of change must be taken seriously and one should always consult a veterinarian if the rabbit is ill.
One should gently go over the rabbit’s body, from nose to tail, and look for wounds that might become infected, sudden abscesses, running eyes, drooling, wetness around the nose or on the inside of the front paws, and look for urine stains and smelly droppings that are stuck to the fur around the tail. Unpleasant odour and dirty and damp fur must be taken care of immediately as this will attract flies and might cause fly strike During summer and in warm weather it is particularly important to check the rabbit for signs of fly larvae attack.
How to hold a rabbit
Rabbits should never be held by their ears. Rabbits should never be held in the scruff of their neck.
Rabbits should always be held in a firm and secure grip. Use both hands. Hold a hand under the hindquarters while supporting the body with the other. Hold the rabbit snug against your body so it does not feel like it will lose its footing.
A weekly examination is a more thorough variant of the daily check-up. Investigate the rabbit’s hind feet. The fur under the feet should be thick, like a carpet, and areas with no hair are a sign of sore hocks, which must be treated properly, although the very ‘heel’ of the foot has no fur directly growing from it and depends on the fur growing over to cover it from the side for protection.
Front teeth should also be inspected once a week. Healthy rabbits have a tiny overbite, and the upper incisors will barely overlap the lower. A veterinarian must adjust overgrown or damaged teeth immediately.
If the rabbit is living in a cage this must be kept clean. The cage itself can be cleaned thoroughly once a week while the litter tray must be changed more frequently. If not providing a litter tray one must ensure that the hutch is kept clean and dry.
Free-range rabbits only require that you clean the litter tray when necessary, apart from the normal tidying and cleaning of your home.
Your rabbit’s nails will require occasional trimming. How quickly they grow and how often you need to shorten them is dependent on bedding and substrate as well as how much time the rabbit has access to a run or play area and how active they are. Rabbits confined to a cage without the opportunity to run free will usually need to have their nails cut more often than free-range rabbits, but whether they live freely or in a hutch, a frequent check-up is important. A clipped nail should be about 4 mm longer than where the nerve stops. It is easy to see the blood and nerve inside light- coloured nails, and with good lightning it can be visible in dark-coloured nails. A good rule of thumb is to clip the nail level with the fur of the foot.
Many find it difficult to cut rabbits’ nails. However, this may be easier with some assistance. One can hold the rabbit gently but firmly, while the other carefully cuts the tip of the nail. It is important not to miss the small inner claw on the front paws.
Claw clippers can be bought at any pet shop or veterinary practice; precise, small and sharp clippers are preferred.
Regular checks at the clinic are important to keep your rabbit healthy and happy. All rabbits should be registered with a veterinarian and have their necessary vaccinations. At the time of writing, vaccination is neither necessary nor legal in some countries, i.e. Norway, due to the lack of particular diseases. In other countries it is strongly advisable but not legally required (e.g. UK and USA). Contact your vet for advice if you are unsure what applies in your country.
Preventive health care is neglected in rabbits, as revealed in the PWA Report. As many as 54% of rabbits are not vaccinated and consequently have no protection against potentially fatal diseases, and 44% are not registered with a vet. We hope this book will help rabbits by having more enlightened and responsible owners.