Protecting rabbits from pain, injury and disease

Good health is an essential part of good rabbit welfare. A vet can advise you about routine health care for your rabbit.

Healthcare for rabbits

A vet can tell you how to care for your rabbit's health. Ask the vet about:

  • neutering
  • vaccination
  • internal and external parasite control for a rabbit

You should only give medicine when prescribed or recommended by a vet for your rabbit.

As the person responsible for your rabbit’s welfare you should consider:

  • prevention of disease; there are vaccines that are designed to protect rabbits from diseases such as Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) - both of these diseases are usually fatal and your rabbit should be vaccinated (your veterinary surgeon can provide information on the prevention of diseases)
  • provision of a healthy balanced diet
  • provision of the right environment that minimises the risk of injury and disease
  • prompt action if a rabbit becomes ill or shows a change in its behaviour
  • checking your rabbit daily

You should keep your rabbit away from wild rabbits or areas where wild rabbits have been.

Illness and rabbits

Healthy rabbits are alert with bright eyes, dry nostrils and clean, shiny coats. Droppings in their resting area should be small, firm pellets. You should ask a vet if your rabbit shows any signs of illness or a change in behaviour.

Rabbits are prey animals and, to avoid attracting attention from predators, they often do not look ill until they are very unwell. They can become worse very quickly, so you need to act quickly.

Indications of illness may include:

  • a change in behaviour, such as sitting still and hunched up
  • a change in eating and drinking habits, such as a lack of appetite or drinking more than normal
  • signs of injury such as a swollen limb or walking in an abnormal way
  • signs of disease or illness, such as leaking from the eye, ear or nose, difficulty in going to the toilet or diarrhoea
  • finding soft pellets (droppings) on the ground
  • any change in behaviour such as becoming aggressive or wishing to be more alone more often
  • signs of pain, such as not wanting to be touched on parts of its body
  • teeth grinding
  • flinching
  • difficulty with breathing, especially if your rabbit is breathing through its mouth rather than its nose
  • redness on skin around belly, bottom or on underside of feet

Routine health check

You should check your rabbit regularly for signs of ill health. 

Daily checks

Weekly checks

Behaviour - watch your rabbit at least once a day to make sure it is behaving normally as well as eating and drinking its usual amount nails - check that they are a suitable length and not damaged
Feet - check for bald patches and sores teeth - make sure the front teeth are a suitable length and shape. Only a vet can check a rabbit’s back teeth and these should be done at least once a year
Fur - check for parasites, dandruff, patches of baldness, itchy sores, scaly patches, damp or weeping patches and wounds mouth - check for a wet chin or drooling. As rabbits are very clean animals it may not be easily spotted. However, the fur on their chest and the inside of their front paws may be stained
Mouth/chin – check for signs of dribbling as this can suggest problems with overgrown teeth weight – check your rabbit’s weight at least once a week. Loss of weight may suggest a dental or other health problem. Being overweight or obese will cause your rabbit to suffer
Eyes - make sure they are clear and not weeping. Runny eyes are often signs of dental problems or respiratory infections which can easily turn into pneumonia  
Nose - make sure it is not runny. A runny nose is often a sign of respiratory infection which can easily turn into pneumonia  
Ears - check for crusty wax  
Rabbit’s bottom - check your rabbit’s bottom, as well as the floor of its living area, for signs of urine staining or diarrhoea. A rabbit with diarrhoea should be seen by a vet quickly  

During warm weather, rabbits should be checked at least twice daily underneath and around the bottom for droppings.

Having a dirty bottom can increase the risk of a condition known as fly strike which can kill a rabbit in a matter of hours. Fly strike occurs when flies lay their eggs in the rabbit’s dirty fur. The hatched maggots eat into the rabbit’s flesh, causing severe damage and releasing toxins. If untreated, this will produce shock, severe illness and even death. It is recommended that a daily check for any wounds or injuries is also carried out.

You should contact your vet immediately if you find maggots on your rabbit.

Contingency planning for rabbits

It is important that your rabbit(s) are registered with a veterinary practice and that you understand the out of-hours system that that veterinary practice operates. That will  make sure that suitable veterinary help is available at all times should an emergency occur.

Grooming for rabbits

Rabbits naturally moult (shed fur) at the end of the winter and summer. Variable temperatures in Northern Ireland and central heating cause many rabbits to moult constantly. Regular grooming is needed to keep your rabbit comfortable and prevent it swallowing lots of fur as this can cause a blockage of the bowel.

Rabbits with a short coat should be groomed weekly. Longhaired rabbits should be groomed at least once a day to avoid mats and tangles. Longhaired rabbits can also be clipped by a vet or pet care specialist.

Rabbits' nails

Rabbits' nails should be kept a suitable length. Rabbits' nails wear down naturally when they exercise on hard surfaces or when digging. How often your rabbits’ nails need to be trimmed depends on where your rabbit is kept.

Dental care for rabbits

Your rabbit’s teeth will grow continuously throughout its life. Dental health relies on a diet high in hay and grass which will wear down its teeth.

Check your rabbit’s front teeth to make sure that they are not misaligned or overgrown. Rabbits’ front teeth grow constantly throughout their lives and if they grow too long they can be very painful and feeding can become difficult.

Only a vet should fix misaligned or overgrown teeth. Back teeth cannot be seen easily and should be checked by a vet. They can be misaligned and grow sharp spurs which can cause pain to your rabbit when it eats.

Dental problems can cause a poor appetite, runny eyes, a wet chin or drooling. If your rabbit is showing any of these symptoms you should take it to see a vet quickly.

Neutering of rabbits

You should consider getting your rabbit neutered. The benefits of neutering can be discussed with a vet. Neutering prevents unwanted baby rabbits and provides other advantages.

Rabbits that are not neutered tend to show problematic behaviour and may suffer health problems.

If a female rabbit is not neutered it can:

  • be aggressive to other rabbits
  • try to make a nest by digging, which can damage its nails
  • develop a life-threatening womb infection or cancer

If a male rabbit is not neutered it can:

  • be aggressive to other rabbits
  • spray urine
  • mount other rabbits and animals

Un-neutered rabbits prevented from breeding may suffer frustration causing behaviour problems.

Rabbits are very sociable animals, and should be provided with a companion where possible. The best and most natural group is to have two rabbits, one neutered male and one neutered female. Animals that have not been neutered might not be able to be kept with other rabbits.

The age when rabbits can be neutered varies with the rabbit’s gender and breed. Females are usually neutered when they reach sexual maturity, at the age of four months, and males at the age of three months.

If you are considering breeding from your rabbits, you need to make sure that the welfare needs of the parents and their potential offspring are met. Ask your vet as necessary. You should make sure you have found suitable homes for the baby rabbits and you should avoid unplanned pregnancies.

A female rabbit can produce between four to 12 babies per litter, and will become pregnant again soon after she has given birth. If kept with an un-neutered male, the female may have six litters a year, potentially 72 babies.

Identification of rabbits

You should not allow your rabbit to escape. However, if it does escape and is found, a permanent identification such as a microchip will assist in re-uniting you with your rabbit.

What to do if your rabbit is missing

You should contact any local animal welfare charities, veterinary practices, and rescue centres to see if your rabbit has been handed in. You may also wish to put up notices locally where legally allowed.

Diet, housing, normal behaviour

Find out more about a suitable diet for rabbits, housing rabbits and normal behaviour patterns:

More useful links

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