Most of the patients coming into our hospital are dogs and cats, but they are not the only animals we see. We also take care of smaller animals that are commonly referred to as “pocket pets”. They include rabbits, chincillas, rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, hedgehogs and ferrets. Also among our patients are reptiles and birds. For the next few months, we will address some of the problems of our smaller pet friends.
Rabbits are a popular pet in this area and will be the subject of this month’s topic. The local 4H has a rabbit chapter and the local county fairs always have rabbits on display. Rabbits are not rodents, although they are similar and do have the large front teeth, called incisors, that continue to grow throughout their lives. This can lead to problems because if the teeth do not meet perfectly, they will not wear down and can even grow to the point where the rabbit can no longer eat. In these cases, the teeth need to be trimmed periodically. Rabbits also cannot vomit and can have problems with hair and other material, like carpet fibers, getting stuck in the stomach. Unlike cats, they cannot vomit up these hairballs. Rabbits with an obstruction in the stomach will not eat and have very scant amounts of stool. It can be life-threatening and the sooner they start treatment, the better the chance they will improve.
Taking care of rabbits properly can greatly decrease their chances of getting sick. Rabbits can be kept indoors or outdoors. If they are kept outside, care must be taken to keep them safe from predators, especially bears in this area, and also from flies. A sturdy hutch in a protected area and fly netting in the summer will help. There should be an area that the rabbit can hide in and be sheltered from the wind and rain. Straw or shavings make good bedding. Rabbits require a high level of fiber in their diet. It is important to feed a good-quality grass hay free-choice. A bale of hay will keep for months if shielded from the elements. Many people feed pellets, which are fine but not as the only source of nutrition. Rabbits require fiber such as hay. Pellets can make rabbits overweight if fed too much. Feeding fresh greens such as leafy lettuce, carrots, kale, etc are also an important part of the diet.
Rabbits are prone to digestive problems and diarrhea can be very serious in them. Unlike dogs and cats which can handle some of those disturbances better, rabbits can quickly deteriorate. However, rabbits do normally pass a looser stool overnight (called night feces) which they usually ingest (disgusting, but physiologically normal- it is thought to contain vitamins and other nutrients the rabbit needs).
Rabbits also can get a disease called “snuffles” that basically is a respiratory infection. It causes runny eyes and nose and they are congested (hence the “snuffling). It can worsen if not treated and become pneumonia, so rabbits with these signs should be seen right away.
We do not give rabbits routine vaccinations, but it still is important that they get check-ups. It is particularly important to have your new rabbit examined to make sure he is healthy and to discuss his care. Overall, rabbits make usually make good pets and if handled frequently, become quite docile and friendly. They can even be litter-trained! They are generally clean and quiet and can be kept in small homes or apartments. If you have any further questions about them or are considering acquiring one, feel free to call us to discuss that.