Month: August 2018

Collapsing trachea

If you have a small dog that coughs every time it gets excited or pulls on its lead it may be suffering from tracheal collapse. Tracheal collapse results in narrowing of the airway and, if left untreated, can progress over time causing severe consequences for your pet. If your dog develops a cough that does not get better after 2 weeks you should make an appointment to see your vet.

The trachea (also known as the wind pipe) is a tube that runs from the throat down into the chest where it branches to form the major airways in the lungs. The normal trachea is a soft tube that is held open by numerous rigid rings of cartilage. In some dogs the tracheal rings gradually weaken over time so that they are not sufficiently rigid to hold the tube open and the walls collapse inwards narrowing the airway.

Tracheal collapse is mostly seen in toy breeds (e.g. Yorkshire terriers, Pomeranians and Poodles) but has also been reported in some larger dogs. In many toy breeds of dog there is a tendency to have softer tracheal rings which makes development of tracheal collapse more likely. Most dogs are middle-aged (around 7 years of age) when they develop signs but occasionally a congenital form is present from birth and can cause clinical signs in animals as young as 4 months of age. Animals with tracheal collapse that are overweight are more likely to show signs of coughing.

Dogs with tracheal collapse initially develop a classical cough which may persist for months or years before owners seek investigation. The cough associated with tracheal collapse is described as ‘goose honking’ as it supposedly sounds like the noise made by geese. The cough often comes on when the dog is excited or has been pulling on the lead and once an affected dog has started to cough they may have a prolonged bout during which they cannot stop coughing. Affected dogs may faint during a coughing spell. Severely affected animals may be unable to exercise normally and may even turn blue when they are excited or stressed.

Your vet will probably suspect a diagnosis of tracheal collapse based on the history and by listening to your dog cough. However, there are other diseases that can cause chronic coughing and it is important to make sure these are not present before a final diagnosis is made. Investigation of the condition involves X-rays of the trachea and the lungs and your vet may want to pass an endoscope (a small tube with a camera on the end) through the trachea to see if collapse is occurring.

In many cases it is possible to control the condition initially with simple changes to management. Weight loss in overweight animals will always help and, since coughing is exacerbated by exercise or pulling on a lead, exercise reduction and fitting a harness instead of a collar should help reduce the cough. Any respiratory diseases should be treated and environmental triggers such as pollens and cigarette smoke should be avoided.

Medical treatment may also be required to control the signs. Steroids can be used to reduce the irritation in the airways; sometimes these are given using an inhaler (similar to that used by asthmatics) as this reduces the side effects of steroids on other parts of the body.

Other drugs that may help to reduce coughing are cough suppressants, airway dilators and drugs to dry up secretions in the airways. Your pet may also need courses of antibiotics from time to time to reduce bacterial infections in the airways. Most animals cope reasonably well on medical management for years after diagnosis.

In some cases medical treatment alone is not sufficient and if this is the case it may be wise to talk to your vet about possibilities for surgery. The aim of surgery is to help improve the structure of the trachea to limit collapse as much as possible; this helps to improve airflow, but will not completely resolve other signs such as coughing.

An operation is available to place artificial rings around the trachea to hold it open; this technique can work very well, however this operation is very challenging as often the collapsing portion of the trachea lies within the chest so the procedure is not without risks. More recently techniques to provide internal support to the trachea using stents have had promising results. A tracheal stent is a flexible metallic tube, usually made of a special metal called nitinol (a nickel titanium alloy), which is designed to stay within the lumen of the trachea and hold it open.

Stents are placed under general anesthesia using fluoroscopy (real time movie like X-rays) to assess positioning. The stent needs to be carefully measured so that it is the correct size, but once in position, they are very well tolerated to the extent that the tracheal membrane will grow over the inert surface of the stent and they stay in position lifelong. Stent placement is much less invasive compared to open surgery with very encouraging long term results.

Surgical treatments of tracheal collapse should be performed by a specialised veterinarian with experience and specialist training in the technique, so your vet may make a referral to a specialist centre for the procedure. It is important to remember that the aim of surgery is to help improve airflow and that longer term medication will be needed after both artificial ring and stent placement to limit coughing and prevent inflammation.

Hyperthermia – overheating

With their dense fur, healthy rabbits in a sheltered environment are tolerant of low temperatures, but cannot tolerate damp or draughty conditions. On the other hand, they cannot pant effectively and don’t sweat, therefore are susceptible to overheating. Unfortunately, even with treatment, the prognosis for rabbits with hyperthermia is guarded to poor.

Rabbits can regulate their body temeprature to a degree using their ears; increasing blood flow (vasodilation) to the ears enables heat to be lost to the environment. However, unlike other animals like dogs, rabbits can’t pant to regulate their body temperature. Therefore they are very susceptible to their body overheating, or hyperthermia. Mouth breathing in the rabbit is extremely serious and a life-threatening sign.

If the rabbit’s body temperature rises over 40°C, they are very likely to suffer from hyperthermia.

Hyperthermia can have effects on many parts of the body, including the nervous and respiratory systems, the heart, digestive tract and kidneys.

There are several risk factors for hyperthermia in rabbits:

  • Excessive heating of the rabbit’s environment, e.g. on a hot sunny day (>28°C ambient temperature) without shade and drinking water. Direct sunlight, poor ventilation, high humidity and dehydration all predispose to hyperthermia.
  • Drugs including some anaesthetics can affect the rabbit’s ability to regulate its body temperature although this normal results in hypothermia.
  • Excessive exercise, particularly if it involves stress, e.g. chasing a rabbit to capture and handle it; exertion creates body heat.
  • Stress and anxiety due to other causes, e.g. confinement in a vehicle or small carrying box or being in the presence of predators.
  • Heavily pregnant does, obesity, elderly rabbits, a thick hair coat, and underlying disease, e.g. heart disease or infection, are also all predisposing factors.

Several of these factors may combine in one instance.

Clinical signs may include:

  • Extremities, e.g. ears and feet, are warm to the touch.
  • Anorexia.
  • Increase in breathing rate, with open-mouth breathing.
  • In some cases, blood-tinged fluid from the nose and mouth.
  • Dullness.
  • Restlessness.
  • Inco-ordination.
  • If the rabbit isn’t circulating enough oxygen then their mouth and nose with by cyanotic, i.e. blue-tinged.
  • If allowed to progress, the rabbit may collapse, have seizures, and die.

Hyperthermia is an emergency and treatment must be given rapidly. Call your vet and take your rabbit to your local veterinary clinic straight away for emergency treatment.

In the meantime, these simple steps can help reduce your rabbit’s body temperature:

  • Take your rabbit out of the warm environment and place it in a cooler, well-ventilated area.
  • Reduce body temperature slowly; if this is done too quickly it can cause stress sending your rabbit into shock which can be fatal.
  • Wet the ears and blow them with a hair drier or convection fan on a cold setting.
  • Spray the body with cool water, in particular the belly area and between the back legs.

If the rabbit becomes more distressed, stop active cooling.

Check the temperature of your rabbit’s environment, it should be between 16-21°C.

Ensure your rabbit has accommodation which shelter it from excess temperatures, either heat or cold, and that it can move freely from a warmer area to a cooler area (and vice versa). In hot weather, fans or water sprays can help cool the environment. Bear in mind that the sun moves around during the course of the day, so ensure that if left alone, the rabbit will have shade throughout the day.

Obese or heavy-coated rabbits can have their hair clipped to reduce the risk of hyperthermia. Avoid stressing your rabbit by chasing it, especially in warm weather.

How to give eye medication to your rabbit

Eye problems in rabbits are quite common. Tears quickly wash out any treatment put in the eye so eye drops need to be given several times a day. This means you will have to learn how to give the treatment at home.

Some drops only need to be given once a day, others up to six times daily. Always follow the instructions given to you by your vet very carefully. Never give more than the recommended dose and, if at all possible, try not to miss treatments.

You will find it easier to hold your rabbit at a comfortable working height. Try placing your rabbit on a table or raised surface. If the surface is slippery, put a carpet tile or towel down so that your rabbit feels more secure. If your rabbit struggles a lot, you may need to wrap your rabbit in a towel or blanket to prevent them scratching you. You will need to get a friend to help you – one of you will hold the rabbit whilst the other steadies the head and puts the drops into the eye.

The person holding the rabbit should grip the rabbits head firmly under the chin and tilt the head upwards. The other person holds the dropper bottle in one hand and opens the rabbits eye using the thumb and forefinger of the other hand. Position the dropper bottle a few centimetres above the eye and squeeze gently to release the right number of drops. Avoid touching the eye with the bottle spout.

Ointments and creams are slightly more difficult to apply because they are thick like toothpaste. Hold the rabbit and open its eye as above. Holding the tube of ointment above the eye, squeeze out some ointment and let it drop onto the eye to lie between the lids. Detach this ‘worm’ of ointment from the tube by pulling the ointment down against the lower lid. Always avoid touching the eye with the nozzle.

As long as the treatment falls on the eye somewhere it does not matter where. When your rabbit blinks the drug will spread all over the surface of the eye.

The eye is one of the most sensitive parts of the body and putting anything into an eye may cause discomfort. However, eye drops and ointments are designed for use in the eye and any discomfort will be slight. Your rabbit may blink a lot or have a ‘watery eye’ for a few moments after you have put the drops in. On rare occasions your rabbit may paw at the eye(s), rub its face along the floor or the white of the eye becomes red and sore. If so, stop the treatment immediately and contact your vet.

Always continue the treatment for as long as your vet recommends. Eye problems often appear to get better very quickly once treatment starts but if you stop treatment too soon the problems may come back.

Most owners get quite good at giving eye drops with a bit of practice, but if you really can’t do it yourself tell your vet. He may be able to prescribe a different drug which does not need to be given so often or which can be given by mouth instead. In some cases a nurse may be able to help you, or your rabbit could be taken into the hospital for a few days to be given treatment.

How to clip your rabbit’s claws

Clipping your own rabbit’s claws may be something that you feel you would like to do instead of taking your rabbit to the vets and asking your vet or nurse to do it for you. If your rabbit is known to be nervous or flighty, then it is safer to get someone to help restrain your rabbit whilst you are clipping their claws.

You will need a sharp pair of claw clippers, either the ones designed for rabbits or small cat clippers will be fine. Scissors, or any other cutting instruments are not suitable – you may cause pain to, and injure your rabbit if you attempt to use anything other than suitable clippers. You will also need to have some cotton wool dampened with cold water, styptic pencils or silver nitrate and cottonbuds to hand, just in case you do cut your rabbits quick on any of the nails.

Place your rabbit on a non-slip surface, either a sofa or table with a rubber mat/towel under them so they don’t slip. If your rabbit doesn’t like heights, then sit on the floor with them instead. If your rabbit is very wriggly or nervous then wrapping them in a towel will give you extra control and make the rabbit feel more secure.

If you have one, your helper can restrain your rabbit by securely placing one hand either side of the body, making them feel protected and stopping them from running away.

With the hand that you don’t write with, gently take hold of the foot you are going to clip first, and hold your claw clippers in the other hand – this will give you the most control.

If your rabbit has white/clear nails then you will be able to identify the pink quick, which is the blood supply to the claw, which runs down the centre of the nail. You need to clip approximately 2mm past the end of this – if you clip the nail too short you will make the quick bleed. This can be painful for the rabbit, so try to avoid it.

Open the clippers up and place them around the end of the nail, in a swift action close the clippers so they cut through the nail in its entirety. If you do happen to make the quick bleed, then hold a cold, wet piece of cottonwool, styptic pencil or cottonbud dipped in silver nitrate against the bleeding quick for a couple of minutes until it stops bleeding. If it is still bleeding after 10 minutes or pumping with force, then telephone your veterinary surgery for further advice.

If your rabbit has dark nails, you may not be able to see the quick. If this is the case then try taking a small amount off each nail in several clips – as a general rule, once the footpad hair covers the claw tip then don’t go any further. Some rabbits have a mixture of white and dark nails; in this instance clip the white nails first so you can get an idea of how short you can clip the dark nails.

Sometimes shining a torch under a dark nail will reveal the quick so you will know how short you can safely clip it. Ensure you clip all the claws on all four feet, including the dew claws. If you notice that any have grown into the foot then telephone your veterinary surgery before attempting to clip it, infection may be present so your vet may want to prescribe your rabbit with a course of antibiotics.

If your rabbit gets stressed during the process, then return them to their cage and try again in a couple of hours once they have calmed down.

Once you have clipped all of the nails make sure you check them all to ensure that none of them are bleeding.

If you feel unable to clip your rabbits claws, then book an appointment at your vets with a Veterinary Nurse who will be happy to clip them for you, they will also be happy to demonstrate how to do it, so you can do it in the future.

Check your rabbits claws every month to see if they need clipping; rabbits claws will grow at different rates depending upon the type of surfaces they exercise on – concrete will wear them down well, but soft surfaces such as grass or carpet will be of little use.

How to check your rabbit’s teeth

Small dental problems often go undetected in the early stages but as rabbit’s teeth grow continuously (2-3 mm per week), small problems can quickly become major problems. It is therefore important to check your rabbit’s teeth frequently – perhaps on a weekly basis.

Head and face

With your rabbit between your knees on the floor and facing away from you, feel along the sides of its face and under the jaw. The sides should feel equal with no bulges or swellings. If you apply slightly firmer pressure and your rabbit flinches, there may be a painful area inside the mouth. Remember that the scent gland is located under the chin so this can make the underside slightly bumpy.

Incisor teeth

With your rabbit either on its back or sitting facing away from you, gently part the lips back into a smile. The four large teeth (two top and two bottom) are the incisor teeth. Check that they are not loose and that the gums are pink and healthy rather than red or purple. If the teeth don’t meet properly, your rabbit may suffer from malocclusion (where the teeth don’t meet and wear properly). The teeth will overgrow and may stop your rabbit eating. The teeth will need trimming by your vet. Overgrown teeth can grow upwards into the rabbit’s eye socket or nasal passage, causing severe pain and infection. Most cases of malocclusion are hereditary and are seen before six months of age but malocclusions starting later may be due to trauma, infection or tumours. Rabbits who tug on the bars of their cage or who are dropped or fall may pull or knock their front teeth out of alignment. Lops and Netherlands often develop overgrown front teeth. Don’t breed from rabbits with maloccluded teeth.

Behind the incisor teeth are two small peg-like teeth called “peg teeth” or auxillary incisors. These rarely cause problems.

Cheek teeth

The molars or cheek teeth are too far back in the mouth to be easily checked. Vets usually give a general anaesthetic or heavy sedation to be able to give a rabbit a complete dental check. This should be carried out every year. You can check for signs of tooth-pain such as:

  • Drooling or wetness around the mouth
  • Swelling, pain or inflammation around jaw and under chin
  • Changes in the type of food your rabbit will eat, eg from hard to soft foods
  • If you rabbit stops eating and loses weight
  • Bad breath
  • Grinding teeth
  • Generally more bad-tempered or reclusive

Your vet may use an otoscope for a routine health check. If your vet suspects a dental problem, sedation or general anaesthesia will be used to examine the teeth properly. After a thorough examination, your vet will assess whether the problem is malocclusion of incisors, split or broken teeth, points or spurs on check teeth, foreign bodies, abscess, tooth root or bone infection, or warts. Bacterial infection may be difficult to treat as rabbits do not withstand many antibiotics. Your vet can trim the teeth (but this can cause splintering and infection) or file down the teeth with a dental drill (or dental burrs). Another option is to have the teeth extracted. Your vet may take an X-ray of the teeth and skull before deciding on the course of action. Removing the front teeth or incisors is a permanent solution and rabbits can easily manage without them.

Hay or grass should form the bulk of your rabbit’s diet. Always keep hay in your rabbit’s cage for your rabbit to chew on. This will allow your rabbit to wear its teeth down naturally. Paint -free cardboard toilet rolls or towel tubes are good for your rabbit to chew on as are unlacquered wicker baskets, straw mats. Don’t allow your rabbit to chew on electrical wires, rubber bands, paper clips or other small objects that could become stuck in your rabbit’s mouth.

You don’t need to brush your rabbit’s teeth and problems generally arise from either genetic deformities or a bad diet.

Grooming your rabbit

Grooming your rabbit is important to avoid matting of the fur and maintain a healthy shiny coat. It also helps to build a relationship with your pet and provides an opportunity for you to examine your rabbit to check for any signs of illness.

Start a regular grooming routine when your pet is young and introduce him gradually to the equipment (allow him to smell everything before using it). When you first start your routine, brush your pet for short periods of time then gradually lengthen the time.

A rubber mat placed on a table makes an ideal non-slip area for grooming your pet, or hold the rabbit on your lap. Remember that if your rabbit is frightened, he is likely to try to escape so having a grooming site high up could result in accidental injury. Sitting on the floor with your rabbit in your lap can help reassure your rabbit as well as providing a low grooming platform.

Hold your rabbit firmly but gently over the back of the neck (you do not need to scruff them), talking to him all the time for reassurance. If your pet becomes agitated and seems unhappy, stop and wait a few minutes, or continue the grooming another day. Check the whole animal for any discharges particularly from the eyes, nose, around the mouth, and around the rabbit’s backend. You should also check for:

  • Sores from soiling and discharges
  • Scabs from fights or wounds
  • Lumps such as skin cancer or fatty deposits
  • Parasites, e.g. fleas or lice
  • Condition of its coat – is there any damaged hair or scruffy skin?
  • It is also important to check the teeth regularly as they are continuously growing and tend to become overgrown if your rabbit’s diet and lifestyle are not as good as it should be.

Rabbits like to clean themselves by licking but, as they cannot vomit, hairballs can become a problem. Grooming will remove the dead hair and avoid the rabbit ingesting the hair.

Brush your pet from head to tail, followed by the sides and the underneath. Mainly brush the hair in its natural direction, but occasionally brush it in the reverse direction to check underneath for any signs of parasites, sores, etc. Pay particular attention to the area around the anus which can become dirty and soiled.

Most breeds of rabbit are easy to groom and just require particular attention during times of moult (spring or late autumn). If you have an Angora or other longhaired breed of rabbit, keeping his coat in good condition is however a time-consuming task. Most long-haired rabbits have their adult coat by 6 months of age but the very woolly baby hair is especially difficult to care for.

For a long-haired rabbit, it is best to start with a wide toothed comb to ease out any knots and then go over with a finer-toothed comb. Never pull roughly on the fur as rabbits have sensitive skin that can easily tear. To groom tummy and legs, place the rabbit on his back on your lap (be careful of its delicate backbone which can be easily damaged), or groom while your rabbit is lying outstretched.

Have everything ready before you start your grooming routine. This helps to keep the grooming time shorter and means that you don’t have to move around with your pet finding the equipment.

  • Medium to soft brush (to use around head and face of your rabbit)
  • Fine to medium comb (to use over the body area and legs)
  • Small animal shampoo (designed specifically for small mammals/rabbits, can be used to clean any soiling of the coat particularly around the backend)
  • Towel (to dry your rabbit thoroughly if a bath is needed)
  • Nail clippers (your veterinary surgeon can teach you how to clip nails)

Rabbits can become infested with mites and fleas. Mites are usually introduced via bedding and are visible in the fur around the neck and face and particularly the ear tips. There may be excessive scratching, fur loss or damage. If you are concerned about your pet having parasites, seek advice from your vet.

The other area your rabbit might have a problem keeping clean is its rear end (under the tail). This area may become soiled and matted and, with long-haired rabbits, might need to be trimmed (with electric small animal clippers – a second person will be needed to help). Never use scissors – a rabbit’s skin is very fragile and easily damaged.

A soiled coat is very dangerous for a rabbit. In the summer, flies will be attracted to a dirty, smelly rabbit. Flies can lay their eggs on the rabbit which, in turn, hatch into maggots and burrow under your rabbits skin causing infection, pain and even death. The rabbit becomes fly blown (having maggots on them). Maggots can hatch within a few hours. The condition is known as flystrike but can be avoided by regular grooming. For this reason, it is imperative that you check your rabbit all over regularly. If your rabbit becomes soiled with faeces, wash the soiled area and clean the matter away. Angora rabbits are particularly prone to problems in this area and owners may need to seek the advice of a vet or professional groomer.

Although they naturally keep themselves clean, most rabbits enjoy being groomed. Regular grooming is a good way to tame your rabbit, making him more friendly and easier to handle.

Grass and hay

To help promote normal dental wear and provide the high-fibre diet which is essential, rabbits should have access to ‘graze’ for 4-6 hours a day – this should include hay, grass and wild plants. This is the best way to help ensure that your pet stays healthy and happy.

What’s in grass?

Grass provides a balanced source of protein, digestible and indigestible fibre, vitamins and minerals. It is highly abrasive and is vital in providing correct dental wear. As rabbits teeth are open routed, and so grow continuously (approx 2-3 mm per week) throughout their life, chewing grass is essential for even tooth wear and to help prevent dental problems such as malocclusion.

Grass is 20-40% crude fibre with a protein content varying from 3% (very mature grass) to 30% (young, well-fertilised grass) although the range is generally 15-19%. Fibre content generally increases as protein content decreases. The fibre is essential to help to keep the gastrointestinal tract moving and thus prevent gastrointestinal stasis which can be serious and even fatal for the rabbit.

How much grass should be provided?

Ideally, a pet rabbit should be allowed to graze for several hours a day – mimicking the lifestyle of wild rabbits. However for a variety of reasons, this can be impractical for many rabbits kept as pets, and especially house rabbits.

Grass should be grazed or fed fresh cut. Lawnmower clippings must never be fed as they ferment rapidly and cause digestive disturbances.

How much to feed?

An unlimited amount of hay is an essential part of the pet rabbit’s diet – it can also be used as a substitute for grass, if this isn’t available, or fed in addition.

What’s in hay?

Species of grass used for hay in the UK are ryegrass, timothy, fescues, meadow grass, and Cocksfoot (orchard grass). These are generally referred to as meadow hay, and often contain a mixture of species, including some clover. Fibre content of grass hays varies from 29.8% (meadow grass) to 35.6% (orchard grass) with a protein content of 6.3-16.7%. Quality will vary depending on the time of year, the conditions the hay was grown in (such as the type of soil) and other environmental factors.

The best hay?

Cutting hay before flowering gives the best quality but opinion varies as to the best age of hay to feed. Some rabbit owners recommend feeding hay that is at least 4 months old as young hay may lead to scours, but others feed new hay with apparently no problems. Prolonged storage of hay can lead to loss of nutrients, in particular vitamins A and D, and especially if the temperature is warm.

Good hay is sweet-smelling and with no mustiness. Hay should never be black, mouldy, dusty or wet, and ideally should be stored out of direct sunlight. Ideally hay should not be stored in plastic bags.

Haycakes are another option if you own a houserabbit and would prefer not to keep finding pieces of hay strewn across your home! These come in both alfalfa and timothy varieties.

Can Lucerne be used?

Lucerne is used widely in the USA and other parts of the world for haymaking but is not common the UK. High in protein (16.5%) and calcium (1.5%), lucerne is very useful for young, growing rabbits or pregnant does who require higher calcium and protein levels, but has been pinpointed as being a cause of obesity and urolithiasis in mature rabbits, so is best not fed to adult rabbits. Other legume hays, e.g. clover, are similarly high in protein, calcium and energy, and for the same reasons are not recommended for the adult pet rabbit.

Often a common problem, as unless hay is eaten from an early age, a lot of rabbits don’t seem to associate hay as being edible and wont eat it. On top of this, if they are bombarded with a selection of other foods, they will rarely opt for the hay. You can try and incorporate eating hay into a game, to try to encourage them to eat hay. Putting hay in a toy may tempt them to nibble on it and you can also try chopping hay into small piece (approximately 1 inch long) and mixing this in with their dried or fresh food.

Make sure that you aren’t feeding your rabbit too much dried food and it may also be worth getting your vet to perform a thorough dental check, as sometimes teeth problems may be making it uncomfortable or even painful for the rabbit to eat hay.

Straw is not recommended as, although eaten by rabbits, it is low in nutrients and will lead to deficiencies if it forms a major part of the diet. The feeding of silage is generally not practical – a study indicated that the high moisture content restricted dry matter intake and lower growth rate in farmed animals.

Anecdotal reports on the use of artificially dried grass have indicated that rabbits seem to find it very palatable. Nutrient content is often superior to sun-dried hay, although Vitamin D content will be low. Some of the newer rabbit foods do provide a good level of fibre and protein but do try to encourage your rabbit to eat grass and hay.

And finally another important reason to feed hay and grass:

Eating hay will keep a rabbit occupied for hours so no more bored and destructive rabbits, just happy, healthy bunnies!

Giving your rabbit a health check

It is important to give your rabbit a thorough health check every so often to ensure they are healthy and so any problems can be detected early and treatment commenced as soon as possible. Problems that are treated early stand a much better chance of being resolved, are generally cheaper to treat and mean that the rabbit doesn’t suffer unnecessarily.

Feeding

Make sure that your rabbit is eating what would be a normal amount of food for them each day. Ensure that they are not refusing to eat foods that they would normally eat, dribbling saliva from their mouth, pawing at their mouth or have any sores around their mouth. Any changes in how much or what your rabbit eats can indicate a medical problem and you should take your rabbit to see your vet straight away. This is especially important if your rabbit isn’t eating anything.

Drinking

Some rabbits drink more than others but excessive drinking, or drinking less than normal can both indicate problems. Check daily to see how much your rabbit is drinking and if you feel they are drinking a lot more or less than normal then you will need to consult your vet for advice.

Urine and faeces

Rabbit urine varies dramatically in colour from clear, pale yellow, yellow, brown, red and all shades in-between. All of these are normal, but you should check that there is no blood in the urine, and that the urine isn’t looking thick and sludgy, you should also check that your rabbit is passing urine without straining. If you notice anything concerning about your rabbit’s urine then speak to your vet.

Back end/bottom

Every day and two or three times a day during the warmer months of the year, you need to make sure that your rabbit’s back end and bottom area are clean of faeces and dry with no urine scalding. This is particularly important during the warmer months of the summer where flies are attracted to rabbits whose bottom is dirty for whatever reason, and lay their eggs in this area. Within 12 hours the eggs hatch out into maggots which start eating into the rabbit, with often fatal consequences. This is referred to as flystrike.

If your rabbit is dirty then you will need to make sure you clean them – there is often a health reason behind rabbits that get dirty bottoms or urine scalding, so speak to your vet if this becomes an issue.

Incisor teeth

Most rabbits will let you check their front teeth (incisors) by gently curling their lips back. If you think that your rabbit’s teeth are too long then book an immediate appointment with your vet. Also, if you notice that your rabbit isn’t eating as much as normal, is dribbling and wet around their chin, has watery eyes or appears to be favouring soft foods then these are all signs of dental problems which may be associated with the molar (back) teeth which are impossible to check without specific equipment which your vet will have access too.

Eyes

Have a look at your rabbit’s eyes to make sure there is no discharge coming from them. This may also manifest as sticky or matted fur under the eye or on the inside of the rabbit’s front legs as they wipe their eyes. Ensure that the eyes aren’t looking sore and the rabbit is able to open and shut the eyes without any problems. Eye problems can also be related to a rabbit’s teeth, so if you notice anything wrong with your rabbit’s eyes you should ask your vet for advice.

Nose

It’s rare to see a rabbit with a runny nose, they like to keep themselves clean so will wipe their nose with the inside of their front legs. If your rabbit has matted fur on the inside of their front legs, is sneezing, has laboured or noisy breathing, or you notice any discharge, then take your rabbit along to see your vet.

Ears

It is pretty much impossible to see down a rabbit’s ears just by looking, and you should never poke anything down your rabbit’s ears even if you do see some wax or discharge. But, if you notice a horrible smell coming from your rabbit’s ears, they are scratching at them more than normal or you see any discharge coming from one or both ears, then your rabbit may have an ear infection and veterinary treatment will be needed.

Claws

Rabbit’s claws grow continually throughout their life, so each month check the claws on all four feet to make sure that they aren’t too long and they aren’t beginning to grow into the rabbit’s foot. In particular, you need to keep a special eye on the dew claws on the front feet as these don’t get worn down by hopping around on concrete or digging, and are usually the first to begin to curl round into the rabbit’s foot.

You can either learn to clip your own rabbit’s claws or take your rabbit along to your vet who will be happy to clip them for you.

Foot pads

Check the rabbit’s foot pads on all four feet to ensure that there are no signs of pododermatitis – this is where the fur on the foot pads wears away and sore patches appear. This is more common in large breeds and the Rex breed whose fur is a lot thinner.

Pododermatitis can be very painful and if the sores are infected then they will require veterinary treatment. Measures that you can take at home to try and prevent the problem or help a rabbit who is suffering from it include, keeping litter trays and hutches as clean and dry as possible, providing extra padding on the rabbit’s floor space and taking them off really hard surfaces such as concrete.

If the rabbit has any kind of shelf or box that they jump on and off of, these are best removed to stop any further damage to the rabbit’s feet.

Skin and fur

You should check the condition of your rabbit’s skin and fur to pick up any potential mite problems or wounds that may be on the skin. Signs of mites will include bald patches which may be scaly and pink, dandruff or irritation which will manifest as excessive scratching.

You also need to have a thorough root through the fur down to the skin to detect any cuts, scratches or wounds which may have appeared.

If you see signs of mites then your rabbit will need treatment from your vet for this. Any wounds should also be seen by your vet in case the rabit requires antibiotics or stitches.

Remember – every 6 months your rabbit will need a Myxomatosis booster and a yearly booster for Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD)

Giving medicines to your rabbit

Effective administration of medicine is a key part of most veterinary treatments. In many cases Veterinary Nurses are responsible for administration of medicines to hospitalised patients. It is also important to ensure that you are able to continue medicine administration once your rabbit has been discharged from hospital. Veterinary Nurses may be able to demonstrate administration techniques to you when your rabbit is discharged.

To be most effective treatments have to be given regularly and for a sufficient length of time. If medicines are not given correctly active ingredients may be lost, or poorly absorbed, which reduces the dose that the patient receives. Always dispose of unused medications and consult your veterinary surgeon before giving your pet any new treatments.

There are two elements to medicine administration:

  • Ensuring effective administration of treatment
  • Ensuring safety of both the patient and the personnel involved in the procedure.

In almost all cases it is far easier to administer treatment effectively if there are 2 people to help one to restrain the rabbit and the other to give the treatment. However, it is possible for experienced owners to give medication by most routes to a reasonably co-operative patient.

Many medicines are designed to be given by mouth largely because this is a convenient route for owners to administer at home. Oral medicines can be given as tablets, capsules, liquids and pastes. Most medicines given by mouth enter the stomach but pass through into the intestine before they are absorbed into the blood. The presence of food in the stomach helps absorption of some drugs but prevents others from entering the body. The timing of administration of oral medication in relation to feeding can be critical.

Oral administration of medication obviously involves dealing with the animals mouth. This may be a real problem in aggressive patients and alternative routes of medicine administration should be used if there is a significant safety risk.

Tablets and capsules

Tablets are made from compacted, powdered drug (usually mixed with something like chalk to make the tablet the right size, and often with a flavour to make it more palatable). Capsules contain powdered drug inside a gelatine case once inside the gastrointestinal tract the gelatine dissolves to release the drug. Some tablets have special coatings to protect the drug from the action of stomach acids the coating is dissolved in the stomach and the drug released once the tablet is in the intestine.

Tablets are often put into food, but often the rabbit simply refuses to eat the food containing the tablet. The tablet can be hidden in a tasty morsel (or specially designed treat) and given to the animal to eat. This can work quite well but if an animal bites into the tablet they are likely to spit it out and will be reluctant to be fooled by the same trick again. It is far more effective to give the tablet by hand (see section Administration of tablets below) so that you can be sure the rabbit is receiving its medication regularly. It is becoming a less popular route of administration – most treatments are now available in liquid form.

Pastes

Drugs mixed into pastes can be particularly useful for use in rabbits. The sticky paste is smeared onto the tongue and the rabbit is unable to spit it out so has no alternative but to swallow. Some of these medications can be smeared onto an area of fur for the rabbit to lick off while grooming.

Liquid formulation

Liquids can be very tricky to administer effectively to rabbits unless they can be mixed with food. If they are mixed with food it is important to ensure that the medicine is thoroughly mixed in and that the patient eats all the food containing the medication. The best way to achieve this is by adding the medication to a small amount of food to ensure it is eaten and then give the rest of the diet but as rabbits are all-day browsers you cannot easily assess when they are hungry and will eat at times the medication is needed.

Some liquid medications taste unpleasant so need to be mixed with quite a large volume of strongly flavoured food to disguise them. Powdered or canned fruit flavoured baby food can be used but always consult your veterinary surgeon before doing so. Animals will often refuse to eat contaminated food or eat around bits of food containing the drug if it has not been mixed in well.

Liquid medications are usually administered directly into the mouth using a syringe. It is very easy for rabbits to refuse to swallow liquid medications and to dribble it from their mouths. When giving liquids by mouth, great care must be taken, to ensure that the patient swallows the medication and does not breathe it in. Oily medications, e.g. liquid paraffin in the lungs, can cause severe pneumonia.

Topical application of medicine can be used to treat specific areas or as a simple way of applying medication which will then be absorbed through the skin to affect the whole animal. A lot of drugs are readily absorbed through the skin and if given frequently, or for prolonged periods, can build up in the body causing side effects, e.g. corticosteroids put onto the skin can cause signs of Cushings disease.

Most animals, particularly rabbits, will lick off any topically applied medication they can reach. This should be prevented by the use of dressings, Elizabethan collars or other protective devices.

Topical treatment for local effect

Ocular treatment

Eye conditions are not uncommon in domestic pets and are often most effectively treated by application of topical therapy. Eye treatments come as drops or creams/ointments. Drops can be easy to apply to the eye (see section Ocular administration of treatment below) but are washed out quickly and may need to be given many times daily. Ointments and creams persist in the eye for longer and some only need to be given once daily.

Aural (ear) treatment

The inside surface of the ear canal is just modified skin. However, this skin is very sensitive, so only treatments specially made for use in this area should be put into the ear canal. Drops or creams can be used effectively (see section Aural administration of treatment below).

Before giving medicines into the ear it is important to check that the tympanic membrane (ear drum) is intact as many drugs can damage the middle ear if they are able to cross this barrier. This should be confirmed through consultation with your veterinary surgeon.

Skin treatment

To be effective, a topical treatment must come into contact with the skin. If necessary, hair should be removed from the area to which the treatment is applied. The skin surface should be cleaned to remove grease, previously applied medication and any build up of crusting or secretions.

Medication for topical application can be mixed with oily or water-based carriers to produce gels, ointments or creams. Creams or ointments are massaged gently over the skin surface until they are absorbed into the skin.

Alternatively, application may be means of washes or shampoos. Remember when treating skin lesions that the area being treated may be sore to touch, so be gentle and ensure that the patient is adequately restrained, also the owner should wear gloves and clean their hands so not to introduce infection to open skin and wounds. In many cases a combination of topical and systemic treatment is used, eg shampoos and antibiotic tablets.

Topical treatment for systemic effect

The advantage of administering medicines by this route is that they do not have to pass through the gastrointestinal tract and so this method is effective for drugs that would be destroyed in the gut.

Flea treatment

Some of the topically applied flea treatments are absorbed through the skin and then enter the blood stream. Spot-on treatments are dropped onto an area of the coat that the rabbit cannot reach when it grooms – the hair is parted to reveal the skin on the back of the neck and the flea treatment dropped onto the skin. It is best to do this just before the rabbit is to be left alone for a few hours as any petting of the fur will remove some of the medication onto the handler’s hands and therefore potentially medicating the handler as well. The active ingredient is absorbed through the skin and enters the blood, fleas ingest the drug when they next bite.

Pain relief

Sticky patches containing some forms of analgesics (pain killers) are now available. These can be applied to hairless areas of skin in the recovery from anaesthesia and slowly release small doses of the drug over several hours. This gives the patient a pain free recovery from surgery, without the need to keep re-administering medication. Remember that drugs can be absorbed even more easily through human skin so gloves should always be worn when handling topical treatments.

  • Most treatments given by mouth are usually available in liquid form as they are easier to administer than tablets. If tablets need to be given you may be able to crush them and mix them with water – advice should be sought from your veterinary surgeon to ensure whether the tablets are coated and need to be swallowed whole.
  • The handler restrains the patient in a sitting position on a non-slip surface so that it feels secure (preferably with its back to a corner). It is often easier to restrain rabbits at a working height so place a towel or blanket on a table. If a rabbit struggles a lot or tries to scratch it may be necessary to wrap it in a towel.
  • The person administering the medicine selects the correct dose of tablets in one hand.
  • The patient’s chin should be cupped in the other hand to secure the head and ensure no movement. The rabbit’s lip at the side of the mouth should be slightly lifted and the syringe should be gently put into the side of the mouth between the incisors and the molars. Rabbits have a natural gap in their teeth called a diastema which enables easy access into the mouth rather than pulling the jaw open. A small amount of medication or food should only be given at a time and the rabbit should be allowed to swallow several times (by removing the syringe). If a larger volume needs to be given, this procedure stops the potential of the rabbit aspirating leading to pneumonia.
  • If the rabbit is to given tablets or capsules, a ‘pill popper’ might be easier to use as the rabbit’s mouth may be too small to get both your finger and tablet into, especially to place at the back of the mouth to ensure the rabbit swallows it.
  • The patient should be watched closely immediately after medicine administration to ensure they do not spit the tablet out again.
  • The handler restrains the patient in a sitting position on a non-slip surface so that it feels secure (preferably with its back to a corner). It is often easier to restrain rabbits at a working height so place a towel or blanket on a table. If a rabbit struggles a lot or tries to scratch it may be necessary to wrap it in a towel.
  • The handler should cup the rabbit’s chin in one hand and gently tilt the rabbit’s nose upwards to allow better access to the eye. The lower eyelid can also be gently pulled downwards with one finger.
  • Alternatively, the head can be secured by placing your hand over one side of the head with the fingers wrapped under the chin and the thumb over the head to slightly pull the eyelid upwards.
  • The person administering the medication should hold the bottle or dropper above the eye and gently squeeze so that the correct amount of medication flows over the eye – care should be taken not to touch the surface of the eye as injury can occur, also contamination of the rest of the medication. With creams or onitments a small thin line should be trailed along the eye again without the tube touching the eye, then it may need to be gently touched onto the lower eyelid to detach it from the tube.
  • Resting the side of the hand against the muzzle whilst holding the applicator btween thumb and forefinger helps to steady the applicator away from the eye.
  • Keep the rabbit restrained for a few seconds to allow the treatment to spread over the surface of the eye, blinking will also help with this process.
  • If the rabbit has an infection in one eye but both are to be treated, then two tubes of medication could be used, or the good eye should be medicated first then the bad and then thoroughly cleaned before the next usage.
  • The handler restrains the rabbit in a sitting position on a non-slip surface so that it feels secure (preferably with its back to a corner). It is often easier to restrain rabbits at a working height so place a towel or blanket on a table. If a rabbit struggles a lot or tries to scratch it may be necessary to wrap it in a towel.
  • The handler restrains the patient from the side cuddling it to them with the head held gently but firmly with the ear pinna (flap) lifted, this exposes the ear canal to the person applying the medication.
  • The ear canal must be cleaned to remove any discharges or previously applied medication before putting in new treatment.
  • The nozzle of the treatment applicator is passed into the ear canal and the correct amount of drops or cream administered into the ear canal. You do not have to place the nozzle deep into the ear as when the nozzle is removed with gentle massaging of the ear canal, the medication can be dispersed even further into the ear.
  • Take care as you release the patient as they are likely to indulge in vigorous head shaking.

Feeding your rabbit

The phrase ‘you are what you eat’ has never been truer for the rabbit. Recent research by veterinary surgeons and rabbit food companies has shown that most of the common illnesses that rabbits suffer from could be prevented by feeding them a healthy diet. Unfortunately, many pet rabbits are being fed a diet that is the rabbit equivalent of ‘junk food’. Feeding your rabbit the correct diet is not difficult – simply follow these guidelines.

Your rabbit’s health almost entirely depends on the food you feed it. An incorrect diet can be a contributing factor in all of these common problems in pet rabbits:

  • Dental disease (maloccluded/overgrown teeth)
  • Obesity
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fly strike
  • Gut stasis
  • Snuffles

It may be surprising, but some of these conditions can be fatal. It’s hard to believe that you can significantly reduce the risk of your rabbit developing these conditions just by feeding it the right diet.

Pet rabbits are the same species as wild rabbits but their diets are very different. Most pet rabbits are fed a diet consisting of commercial rabbit mix and greenfood: this can be high in carbohydrate and protein but low in fibre. Wild rabbits, however, eat mainly grass and hay (dried grass): this is high in fibre with moderate levels of protein. Wild rabbits are much less likely to suffer from the conditions listed above because of the fibre content in their diet. Therefore, the correct diet for a pet rabbit is one that is high in fibre.

Grass and hay should be the major components of your rabbit’s diet as they are high in fibre. Vegetables and greenfoods are also important. There are also some commercial rabbit mixes that have been developed to provide pet rabbits with a high-fibre diet.

Provide your rabbit with unlimited hay and grass. Ensure that the hay is good quality. Generally, hay that is sold in bales to feed horses is generally better quality than that available ready-bagged from pet shops. If you do buy large quantities of hay, store it carefully to prevent it becoming damp or mouldy – do not store it in plastic bags. Provide the hay in a hay rack to prevent it from being contaminated by droppings.

Allow the grass in your garden to grow long and pick it daily to give to your rabbit, or allow your rabbit to graze directly by placing it in a secure run on your lawn. (NB Never feed your rabbit lawn-mower clippings.) You can also grow small tubs of grass especially for rabbits from packs now sold in pet shops. Freeze-dried grass is also newly available for rabbits (called ‘Supa forage’ from Burgess, ‘Dried grass’ from Friendship Estates or ‘Readigrass’ from Spillers).

Provide your rabbit with these on a daily basis. Carrots, baby sweetcorn, celery, broccoli, chickweed, clover and sow thistle can be given daily. Dark green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale and spring greens) and dandelions contain high levels of calcium and should be fed in moderation. They should not be given to a rabbits with urinary or bladder problems.

Never pick weeds from the side of a busy road, or from places where dogs are exercised. Always wash vegetables and greenfoods before you give them to your rabbit. Only give your rabbit fresh vegetables and greens – if they have started to wilt or ‘go-off’ throw them away!

Rabbits will thrive on a diet of grass, hay and vegetables alone. However, many owners also wish to feed a commercial mix. There are two excellent rabbit mixes with a high fibre content: Supreme’s Russel Rabbit and Burgess Supa Rabbit Excel.

Supa Rabbit Excel is an extruded feed and the pieces of mix all look the same. Russel Rabbit mixes are made up of lots of different cereals and dried vegetables. Some rabbits will pick out only the pieces they like (called ‘selective feeding’) – this means they may not be getting a properly balanced diet. It is important to feed only small quantities of mix and to leave the food in the bowl until most of the pieces have been eaten.

Check on the packet for the recommended amount to feed your rabbit per day. Weigh this amount out carefully – do not try to estimate it! Overfeeding commercial food to your rabbit will lead to obesity and may also result in crystals forming in its bladder. Remember that your rabbit does not have to have any commercial mix, and in fact many vets will argue that rabbits will be healthier if fed an hay, grass and vegetables alone.

It is very important not to change or alter your rabbit’s diet suddenly. Make gradual changes over a period of at least 2 weeks so that your rabbit’s digestive system has time to adjust. Give your rabbit a healthier diet by introducing hay, grass and greens as discussed above and change it’s rabbit mix to one of the high-fiber ones. Introduce grass and greens gradually to reduce the likelihood of diarrhoea.

Mix the new mix in the same feeding bowl with your rabbit’s normal food in a ratio of 20:80 or 25:75. Feed this for 3-4 days to ensure that your rabbit is eating all of it (and accepting the new food). Watch carefully for signs such as loss of appetite, bloating, abnormally runny droppings and changes in behaviour or demeanour, as these may indicate that your rabbit is not adapting well to the new diet. If your rabbit is normal, increase the quantity of new mix to give a ratio of 40:60 or 50:50 and again feed this for 3-4 days, watching for problem signs as before. Increase the mix to 60:40 or 75:25 for another 3-4 day period, then to 80:20, and finally to 100% new mix.