The domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), is a mammal of the
order Lagomorpha. The rabbit originated from the European wild
rabbit, its ancestors most likely developing in the Iberian
Peninsula and spreading throughout the Mediterranean area. Early
domestication of the rabbit occurred in Spain during the first
century BC and by the sixteenth century selective breeding and
more skilful domestication were ongoing. Rabbits were used for
stocking ships for meat supplies and so were inadvertently
introduced throughout the world with the result that by the mid
sixteen hundreds England was raising them to supply both meat and
There are now more than 30 breeds of domestic rabbit, ranging in
size and weight from the one kilogram dwarf breeds, all the way up
to the ten kilogram giant breeds. Rabbits are growing in
popularity as pets, particularly in urban areas where space is
limited and there are restrictions on keeping dogs and cats. They
have a lively and curious behaviour, which can be a great source
of enjoyment for their owner.
Rabbits have open-rooted teeth, which grow continuously throughout
life. They have two large upper incisor teeth adjacent to each
other, with two smaller incisor teeth lined up behind them called
'peg teeth'. These are met by two incisors on the bottom jaw and
continuously wear down against each other. This is significant
because where there is malocclusion, the teeth can rapidly
overgrow causing numerous problems.
The digestive system is also unusual in that rabbits have an
enormous caecum (appendix), which is often compared to the rumen
in a cow. Two different types of faeces are produced. The rabbit
eats the soft, vitamin-rich night faeces directly from the anus
(called coprophagy) and then produces harder droppings normally
during the day, which they leave. Normal rabbit urine varies in
colour and consistency, and white, yellow, orange, brown and
bright red urine are all normal. An excess of dietary calcium is
often responsible for the thick, white urine that may be seen in a
Rabbits are inquisitive and active and will chew anything such as
upholstery, children's' toys, wood and wire. They rub their chin
on objects leaving a scent mark that is undetectable by humans.
Twitching of the nostrils is a normal behaviour that is often
absent in rabbits that are resting or sick. In active animals,
regular exercise is important to help minimise osteoporosis and
stop them becoming bored.
Rabbits, particularly when neutered, are clean animals that will
often pick a corner or a low wall for a latrine. They can even be
trained to accept using a litter tray. Individual rabbits have
clearly discernable personalities that can range from timid
through to aggression. Thumping with the hind leg is an alarm call
and a severely frightened rabbit may make a terrible scream or may
remain completely immobile. An aggressive rabbit may thump his
feet, growl, grunt or even attack with teeth and feet when
approached. A rabbit in pain will often assume a hunched position
and may grind its teeth. Female rabbits, on reaching sexual
maturity, will often become aggressive towards humans and other
animals, and may bite, dig and chew up household items, such as
carpeting, and engage in nest building. They can spray urine and
will often attack other rabbits. For this, and other reasons,
neutering is often recommended for both male and female rabbits.
Having said that, the rabbit is a social animal and will often
interact well with other friendly pets such as dogs, cats and even
other rabbits. When rabbits are kept in groups, they are less
likely to fight if they have hiding places such as boxes, and they
have material to chew, such as hay, cardboard and paper.
In captivity, rabbits can live up to 10 years. The respiratory
rate is 30 - 60 breaths a minute, heart rate is 180 - 300 beats
per minute and temperature is 38.5 - 40°C. They should drink
between 50 - 150 ml water per kilogram body weight per day and
should eat approximately 50g per kilogram of food per day. They
reach sexual maturity between 4 - 8 months of age, but females
reach maturity earlier than males. Pregnancy lasts for between 28
- 32 days, when a litter of between 4 and 12 babies are born.
Weaning should occur at approximately six weeks of age.
Being social animals, rabbits should be provided with some sort of
companion wherever possible. For example, littermates can be kept
together, but should be neutered if different sexes. Unrelated
females will tolerate each other reasonably well provided they are
given enough space and room to hide from each other, but entire (uncastrated)
males will fight and inflict severe injuries on each other.
Neutering will always minimise the risk of fighting. The ideal
pairing should be a neutered male and a neutered female. It is not
recommended that a rabbit be kept with a guinea pig, as bullying
by both species will often occur, particularly bullying of the
guinea pig by the rabbit.
The ideal diet for a rabbit is mainly grass and a good quality hay with a
small amount of a high fibre commercially produced diet. This
should have fibre levels of between 18 - 24% and protein levels of
approximately 15%. At Battle Flatts, we recommend feeding Burgess
Super Excel. Other wild plants, such as dandelions and brambles,
can also be given when they are available. Alfalfa can be given,
particularly to growing animals, but care should be taken as this
is very high in calcium and can lead to bladder problems. Other
fresh vegetables, such as kale, cabbage, watercress, root
vegetables and their leaves, can also be provided. To make feeding
more entertaining for the rabbit, suspending things like carrots
from the cage roof can act as an edible toy and increase time
spent feeding. Whilst the requirements of the rabbit can be met by
feeding a concentrated diet only, this may lead to dental disease
due to lack of wearing of the teeth. It is essential, therefore,
that the commercially prepared diet is purely a supplement to the
main diet of hay and grass.
Rabbits should never be picked up by the ears. They should be held
by the scruff with the weight of their bodies supported by a hand
under the rump. Avoid twisting and kicking out by the powerful
hind legs, as serious injury can occur to their back. Placing the
rabbit on its back often results in a trance-like state known as
hypnotisation. This behaviour is really a defence mechanism, i.e.
We strongly recommend neutering your pet rabbit as soon as it
becomes sexually mature – this is usually between 4-6 months of
WHY SHOULD I NEUTER MY RABBIT?
Rabbits are naturally gregarious animals and live in the wild in
small social groups, therefore a pet rabbit will be happier if he
has a companion to live with. However this can cause problems such
as fighting and unwanted litters, especially if you have a male
and female rabbit living together. Neutering your rabbit at a
young age will eliminate these problems.
Research has shown that neutered rabbits live longer. Unspayed
females are likely to develop uterine or ovarian cancer by the age
of 5 years. This is virtually eliminated by spaying.
Neutered males live longer – they are less likely to be aggressive
and will therefore be less stressed, friendlier companions. An
aggressive rabbit can be quite frightening, especially to a small
child. Aggression can be due to a number of factors. The rabbit
may not have been handled sufficiently or socialised whilst very
young. It may have been dropped or mishandled, or it may be just
frightened. Neutering your rabbit can also reduce aggression by
permanently removing the urge to mate and therefore making your
rabbit calmer and happier.
Rabbits spray urine to mark their territory and in some cases will
do so over their owners as a sign of affection, especially in the
breeding season. Once neutered, male rabbits will generally stop
spraying urine. Both males and females are easier to litter train
once they have been neutered - a big advantage if you want to keep
your rabbit as a house pet!
WHAT DO I DO NEXT?
Neutering a rabbit is a routine operation which is classed as ‘day
surgery’. You will be asked to bring your pet into the Clinic
between 8.30am and 9.30am where a nurse will give him/her a health
check and ask you to sign a consent form authorising the operation
on your rabbit.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING THE OPERATION?
A general anaesthetic will be given by injection. This takes five
to ten minutes to take effect. If your rabbit is male then a small
amount of hair will be removed from the area over the testicles.
Castration involves removal of both the testicles through a couple
of small incisions which are closed with stitches. These will
dissolve by about 10 days but we normally ask that you bring your
rabbit back to the Clinic a week after the operation for the nurse
to check that the wound is healing correctly.
If your rabbit is female then an area from the middle of your
rabbit’s tummy to between her hind legs will be clipped. An
incision of between one and two inches will be made in the skin
and the uterus and ovaries will be removed. Again, stitches will
be placed in the skin. These stitches are non-dissolvable and will
be removed by the nurse 10 days after your rabbit’s operation.
Your rabbit will take a couple of hours to wake up fully, during
which time he/she will be monitored by a nurse to ensure that
there are no problems and that your pet is comfortable. Either the
vet or nurse will ring you immediately after the surgery on your
pet has been completed to let you know that everything is all
right. You will be asked to ring during the afternoon to arrange a
time to collect your pet. This will normally be between 3.30pm and
4.30pm. A nurse will give your rabbit back to you and go through
any special post-operative care and treatment that may be
When you arrive home with your rabbit, place it in its hutch on
hay (not woodshavings as these can stick to the wound), and ensure
that the hutch is in a draught-free environment. Your rabbit will
still be feeling a bit sleepy, so make sure that he/she is left
alone to recover quietly. Children will probably be keen to hold
or play with their pet but it is better to discourage this until
the day after the operation and then an adult should supervise any
handling. Food and water should be made available as soon as you
get home. Please check the wound in the morning and evening for
the week following surgery, to ensure that there is no swelling or
redness. If you are worried at all about your rabbit then please
ring the surgery. There is a vet on duty 24 hours a day.
WHAT VACCINATIONS SHOULD I GIVE MY RABBIT?
Vaccinating your rabbit is essential if you want to avoid it
contracting the two main diseases which are fatal to rabbits,
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease and Myxomatosis.
A. RABBIT VIRAL HAEMORRHAGIC DISEASE (RVHD)
This is a virus which is spread between rabbits by contaminated
bedding, hay or food. It can also be inadvertently spread by
humans on our clothes and shoes and can even be spread by birds.
The original strain, RVHD-1, was first introduced into this country from Europe in 1992 and
has since spread throughout the UK. In the last few years, a
second strain of the virus, RVHD-2 has been affecting rabbits in
WHAT SYMPTOMS SHOULD I LOOK OUT FOR?
Up to 100% of rabbits which catch RVHD-1 which catch the disease
may die, and they will often do so suddenly and without warning.
If your rabbit should contract this disease then the first
symptoms that you will notice will be a loss of appetite and a
bleeding nose and a quiet, dull and lethargic rabbit. RVHD-2 is
slightly different, with a lower mortality rate, however it has
now become more common than RVHD-1 in parts of Europe and is
increasing in the UK.
HOW CAN I PREVENT THIS?
Vaccinating your rabbit is the easiest method of preventing the
spread of the disease. We will do this when your rabbit is 9 weeks
of age or older and this will protect your rabbit for up to a
year. Revaccination is essential to maintain the protection, as
the immunity will wane after a year. Separate vaccinations are
required in order to ensure rabbits are protected against both
RVHD-1 and 2 and myxomatosis (see below). For more information
Making sure that your rabbit’s hutch is kept clean and that any
hay or straw for bedding is bought from a reputable shop will also
help to prevent the spread of this disease.
This is also a virus which was brought to the UK from France in
1953. It is spread between rabbits by blood sucking insects. The
main transmitter of the disease in this country is the rabbit
flea. Myxomatosis is not easily spread by direct contact between
rabbits. However it is still best to be careful and avoid any
infected rabbits which are normally found in the wild.
WHAT SYMPTOMS SHOULD I LOOK FOR?
The first signs of infection are puffy, fluid swellings around the
head and face. Swollen lips, tiny swellings on the inside of the
ear and puffy swellings around the anus and genitalia can also be
found. These swellings can become so severe as to cause blindness
and there may be distortion of the face, mouth and ears.
HOW CAN I PREVENT THIS?
Two main methods are used to control myxomatosis:
1. Control of insect parasites. The rabbit flea is the most
important insect to prevent. This can be done by using insect
repellent strips hung in the hutch. The domestic cat can also be a
source of the rabbit flea, and therefore a cause for infection. It
has been shown that mosquitoes may also be a source of infection
in the UK, so making sure that your pet’s bedding is kept dry will
prevent the moist conditions which mosquitoes prefer for breeding.
Keeping your pet rabbit away from any wild rabbits as far as
possible is important.
2. Vaccinating. This is an important and simple method of
preventing your rabbit from contracting the disease. It requires a
single injection given to your rabbit at any time after it is 6
weeks of age. A booster vaccination is required every year to
maintain the immunity to the disease and a health check will be
given by the veterinary surgeon each time your rabbit is
vaccinated, as only healthy rabbits should be treated. Myxomatosis
is most likely to occur in the late summer, autumn or winter
months, therefore the best time of year to vaccinate your rabbit
is in May or June, thereby ensuring maximum immunity during the
high risk months.
HOW CAN I STOP MY RABBIT GETTING FLYSTRIKE?
Flystrike is an unpleasant and distressing condition which occurs
in the summer months when flies lay their eggs around a rabbit’s
rear end. The eggs hatch into maggots which feed on the rabbit,
burrowing into its flesh. Sounds horrible? It is. Prevention is
better than cure – some rabbits can be successfully treated, but
flystrike is often fatal.
Effective hutch hygiene is by far the best defence. Follow our
simple 3-step guide below to ensure that the risk to your rabbit
STEP 1 Examine your rabbit each day, to check that his fur is
clean, dry and not matted.
If you see any sign of maggots, remove them using soap and warm
water, thoroughly dry the affected area and contact your vet
immediately. A rabbit with diarrhoea or a dirty bottom is far more
at risk, as it also indicates that your rabbit is not cleaning
itself properly, and so should be examined as soon as possible by
your vet who will also check out its general health, and its
teeth. Ensure that your rabbit has a balanced, complete diet to
avoid the side effects of digestive disturbances. Diarrhoea is
often the sign of a diet lacking in fibre. Feed a diet such as the
Russell Rabbit range which are high in fibre and protein and
provide all the goodness your rabbit needs in one handy bag.
If you want to give your rabbit a treat, avoid leafy green or
watery vegetables, and try instead one of the treats suitable for
small animals which you can buy from your pet shop.
STEP 2 Change soiled bedding every day.
Use plenty of good quality absorbent bedding in your rabbit’s
toilet area to avoid excess moisture. It is possible to buy
ultra-absorbent bedding which is medicated with an organic
disinfectant based on natural oils, which is entirely safe for
your rabbit, even if he eats it.
STEP 3 Once a week, thoroughly clean and disinfect the hutch.
Remove everything from the hutch and disinfect with a purpose-made
solution suitable for use with small animals. Buy a cleaner which
is free of chemicals but is fungicidal, bactericidal and virucidal.
Many of these come in trigger spray bottles, and there is no need
to rinse out the hutch.