The most commonly seen problem in rabbits is dental disease and it is very frustrating to treat. It is also very complex and is closely associated with nutrition, diet and husbandry and therefore makes a good basis for a general discussion on keeping rabbits.
Often rabbits are regarded as “exotic” even though they are native to this country. The description is a good one as they are not easy to keep correctly and involve more complex management than other domesticated species. For this reason we do not recommend them as “children’s pets”. Another reason why they may not be suitable for children is the fact they are very flighty by nature. They can suddenly kick out and can do so with such force they can break their own back! It is therefore important to hold them securely and always support their back when handling.
A rabbit’s digestive system classes them as a hindgut fermenter (similar to the horse) and therefore they require LOTS OF FIBRE in their diet. This means they should have access to fresh grass, dandelions and hay (good quality, presented as food and not bedding). Too many people make the mistake of feeding mainly “rabbit food” from the pet shop. This should only be fed as an absolute maximum of 20% of the daily food intake!
Dental disease can also cause secondary problems such as anorexia, poor grooming, facial abscesses, eye infections, colic, pneumonia and Cheyletiellosis (mites or “Walking Dandruff”) through immune suppression and altered behaviour. In the summer, it can be associated with fly strike due to failure to eat caecotrophs (the soft, often dark green pellets passed through the gut which the rabbit must consume again to extract nutrients). For this reason it is imperative to check your rabbit twice daily UNDERNEATH, especially in the summer. Each year too many rabbits die or are euthanased due to advanced fly strike. It is an emergency condition and must be treated immediately when found before the rabbit goes into shock.
Very simply, there are 3 contributory factors to dental disease. The first is genetic or inherited. The second is due to poor nutrition relating to growth and development of teeth and the supporting bones of the skull. The third is due to failure to provide enough roughage to naturally wear down their continually growing teeth. The first cause can only be solved by responsible breeding, however the second and third can be solved by responsible pet ownership.
It is best to feed a pelleted feed (e.g. “Supa-rabbit”), rather than a coarse mix of cereals – since rabbits are selective feeders they will tend to leave what they don’t like in the mix (a bit like the coffee creams being left in a box of “Quality Street”!) A pelleted food ensures they truly are receiving a balanced diet. It is also a good idea to allow them daily access to the outside in order to bask in the sun which activates vitamin D through the skin, enhancing absorption of calcium from the gut for healthy teeth and bones. Being outside also encourages grazing and wearing down of claws.
Fibrous food, such as good quality grass and hay should be fed “ad lib” (i.e. it should never run out) to provide dental wear and also improve welfare by decreasing boredom (ask us about the “Oxbow” range of rabbit forage foods). It is best to think of a rabbit as a child – the fibrous food is greens and the pellets are “sweets” (although these sweets are good for you!). A small bowlful of pellets is all that is required every day and this should be consumed within 2 hours – the majority of the diet should be fibrous. This can also be supplemented with non-poisonous weeds and wild plants such as dandelion, brambles and tree leaves (good sources of calcium and fibre) and vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, spring greens, spinach or cauliflower leaves. Root vegetables (such as carrots) and fruit are poor sources of calcium.
Do not forget to vaccinate your rabbit against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (at least annually). It is also important to consider neutering – especially spaying females because later in life they can develop uterine tumours or bleeding from their reproductive tract.