Rabbit care is not as easy as thought

Everything seems to be happening slowly this spring, including the seasonal appearance of baby rabbits.

Rabbits are rapidly becoming the UK’s second most popular pet, but are not as easy to keep as you’d think. They are much closer to their wild cousins than dogs and cats.

Their natural territory can stretch to the size of 30 tennis courts so keeping them permanently in a hutch is no good at all. They should at least have access to a large run outdoors. Hutches ought to be tall enough for them to stand and long enough for at least three unobstructed hops.

Rabbits should live in pairs or groups, but the wrong pairing can result in fighting or unwanted kittens. Unfamiliar rabbits should be introduced very carefully. Probably the best pairing is a neutered male and neutered female. Guinea pigs make very poor companions for rabbits. Their diets are different, they communicate differently and often rabbits will bully them.

The majority of problems we see are related to poor diet. Seventy per cent of a wild rabbit’s time above ground is spent foraging and their dentition and digestive system is designed for lots of fibre. Quality hay and grass should form at least 80 per cent of a pet rabbit’s diet. Feeding pelleted or muesli mixes alone leads to disease.

Wild rabbits can pose a serious threat to pets through myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD). We see dozens of cases every year, but they can be prevented by vaccination.

Myxomatosis is spread mainly by biting insects. Fleas can travel long distances and find a way into houses. Affected rabbits will generally have a swollen face and discharge from the eyes and nose, and there is frequently swelling around the genitalia.

The disease is long and while we successfully treat a handful of cases, the suffering of an infected rabbit means that nursing them through is rarely in their best interest. Many will die despite early diagnosis and treatment.

VHD is highly contagious and is a swift and sudden killer. It can be spread by insects, as well as direct contact with infected rabbits or their droppings. Signs include fever, loss of appetite, lethargy and muscle spasms, but many rabbits die without showing signs of disease. Bleeding from the nose and mouth is sometimes seen.

Vaccinating against myxomatosis and VHD is straight-forward and offers excellent protection. At Robson and Prescott the new combined vaccine is £24.50, including a full health check. Next week is Rabbit Awareness Week so we are offering free health checks, even if vaccines aren’t due. The RAW website is full of useful information. You will find links at www.vetcentremorpeth.co.uk