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Rabbit Notes for Veterinary Nurses and Technicians

Rabbit in a top-opeing wire mesh cage. Click here for full page view with caption Removing a rabbit from a top-opening cage 4. Click here for full page view with caption Domestic rabbit hospital accommodation. Click here for full page view with caption. Pet carrier as temporary (rehabilitation) rabbit accommodation. Click here for full page view with caption. Hospitalised rabbit eating Timothy grass hay. Click here for full page view with caption Rabbit eating vegetables. Click here for full page view with caption. Feeding a rabbit using a syringe. Click here for full page view with caption Rabbit in pain. Click here for full page view with caption Rabbit in pain. Click here for full page view with caption Rabbit prepared for ovariohysterectomy (spay). Click here for full page view with caption. Doe with young kits. Click here for full page view with caption Feeding leveret. Click here for full page view with caption  Clipping a rabbit's nails. Click here for full page view with caption Claw clipping under Tonic immobility / Hypnosis / Trancing. Click here for full page view with caption Applying Xenex Ultra Spot on (permethrin) to a rabbit.  Click here for full page view with caption Intradermal injection picture 3. Click here for full page view with caption. Rabbit producing only a few faeces. Click here for full page view with caption Leveret release area. Click here for full page view with caption

Introduction and General Information

Note: information on this page should be used together with the detailed information on the linked pages such as the Treatment and Care page.

Rabbits are increasingly popular pets that are regularly encountered in most veterinary clinics. Nowadays pet rabbits routinely undergo a variety of diagnostic and preventative health procedures. Veterinary nurses have a primary role in providing advice to pet owners, it is therefore, essential that any advice and information regarding rabbit health problems, feeding and husbandry be both accurate and reliable. An appreciation of rabbit nursing techniques and a good knowledge of lagomorph’s biology and behaviour will ensure that these patients receive optimum standards of care. (V.w120)

NOTE: Rabbits are prey species and therefore, often hide clinical signs of disease until they are seriously ill. 

Initial telephone contact
  • Veterinary nurses offer a unique advisory position for pet owners, as they are often the first contact between a client and the veterinary surgery. 
  • Many rabbits are kept as children’s pets, if an enquiry is from a child; try to encourage the parent or an adult to accompany both child and pet to the clinic. This will aid the history taking process and legal issues, such as the completion of consent forms (B539.1.w1).
  • You may need to give first aid advice or make a clinical assessment over the phone. If a rabbit exhibits any of the following symptoms it should be examined by a veterinary surgeon:
    • Failure to eat and/or to produce droppings (or much reduced food intake/production of droppings).
    • Failure to drink, or suddenly drinking much more than usual.
    • Known traumatic incident - dropped, attacked by another animal, trapped in a door, leg trapped in the cage wire etc.
    • Problems breathing, particularly open-mouth breathing.
    • Collapse or inability to move
    • Obvious lameness
    • Head tilt
    • Mucky bottom/diarrhoea
    • Discharge from the eyes and/or nose
    • Maggots visible on the rabbit
    • Signs of pain, which can include. (B539.1.w1)
      • Immobility or hunching
      • Grinding its teeth.
      • Not eating
      • Unusual aggression
      • Any change in normal behaviour.
    • Rabbit limp and floppy.

      (B539.1.w1, V.w5, V.w143)

Basic rabbit biological and physiological information
  • Life span: six to 13 yrs (B600.3.w3) 5 -10 years. (B339.8.w8, P113.2005.w1)
  • Weight: 1 - 10 kg (depending on breed). (B339.8.w8) 0.5 -10 kg (breed dependent). (P113.2005.w1)
  • Heart rate: 220 bpm. (J15.13.w7) 180 - 300 bpm. (B339.8.w8, P113.2005.w1)
  • Respiratory rate: 60/min (J15.13.w7) 30 - 60 breaths/minute. (B339.8.w8, P113.2005.w1)
  • Body temperature: 38 °C. (J15.13.w7) 38.5 - 40 °C. (B339.8.w8)
  • Blood volume: 60 mL/kg. (B339.8.w8)
  • Food consumption: 50 g/kg bodyweight per day. (B339.8.w8, J15.13.w7, P113.2005.w1)
  • Water consumption: 50-100 mL/kg bodyweight per day. (J15.13.w7) 50 - 150 mL/kg per day. (B339.8.w8, P113.2005.w1)
  • Urine production: 10 - 35 mL/kg/day. (B339.8.w8, P113.2005.w1)

Reproduction

  • Puberty: four to eight months. (B339.8.w8); four to five months in small breeds; five to eight months in large breeds. (B600.3.w3)
    • May be earlier in does than in bucks. (B339.8.w8) 
      • About four to five months in does and five to eight months in bucks. (B601.1.w1)
  • Oestrus: January to October (northern hemisphere); reflex ovulation. (B339.8.w8)
  • Descent of testicles: 10 to 12 weeks. (B600.3.w3)
  • Gestation: 30 - 32 days. (B600.3.w3); 28 - 32 days (B339.8.w8); 29 - 34 days average 31 days. (J72.49.w1)
    • Pregnancy diagnosis: palpation 10 - 12 days. (B600.3.w3)
    • Note: pseudopregnancy is common following e.g. mounting by another doe, or a vasectomised or castrated buck, or if an entire male rabbit is nearby. This can last 10 - 23 days, usually 17 - 19 days. (J72.49.w1)
  • Litter size: 4 - 12 (B339.8.w8); average five to eight. (B600.3.w3)
  • Birth weight: 40 to 100g. (B600.3.w3); 40 - 80 g (B339.8.w8); 30 - 80 g (P113.2005.w1)
  • Eyes open: seven days. (B600.3.w3)
  • Weaning: four to six weeks. (B600.3.w3); six weeks. (B339.8.w8)

(B339.8.w8, B600.3.w3)

Rabbit behaviour
  • For correct husbandry of rabbits, an understanding of their natural behaviour is important. Domestic rabbits are not very far removed from their wild cousins and they have similar needs for companionship, exercise, digging, gnawing, "looking out" and available retreats to hide in. It is important to remember that they are a prey species, not predators like dogs and cats.
    • For example, as a prey species, a human picking up a rabbit is seen as a threat, particularly if they have not been handled from an early age. Grabbing a rabbit from above is not the best way to handle it. Allow rabbits to know you are present before touching them, and get down to their level to pick them up. 
    • Information on wild rabbits is provided in Oryctolagus cuniculus - European rabbit
    • Information on the behavioural requirements of rabbits is given in Mammal Behavioural Requirements

(B600.2.w2, B601.1.w1, B606.1.w1, B615.6.w6, D360, D375, J15.27.w2, J213.7.w3, J288.68.w1, J495.41.w7, V.w143

Rabbit Husbandry Notes for Owners
The following documents can be printed out and given to owners.
Rabbit Identification
  • It is important that individual rabbits are properly identified while they are in veterinary care. Ensure that each rabbit has been properly described in its notes and that the cages are labelled correctly. If the rabbit is microchipped, this information should be noted.
  • When dealing with wild lagomorphs, accurate identification of species (at least to genus level initially) is important, particularly with kits or leverets presented for hand-rearing, since a fully-furred infant could be a Lepus sp. leveret of just a few days old or an Oryctolagus cuniculus - European rabbit (in Europe) or Sylvilagus sp. (in North America) kit a few weeks old, which will affect its care. (J82.16.w1, J82.16.w2)
    • Correct identification will also become important for choosing an appropriate release site. 
  • For more information on identification see: Mammal Identification
Published Guidelines linked in Wildpro Domestic rabbits

Wild lagomorphs casualties

Natural History and Conservation

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Transporting a Rabbit to the Veterinary Clinic

Transportation to the surgery

  • The rabbit should be transported in a secure container with non-slip flooring, e.g. a cat carrier lined with soft bedding over newspaper, which will allow the rabbit to grip and prevent sliding on the bottom of the carrier. (V.w120)

    • Rabbits have fur on the soles of their feet and often find it difficult to grip surfaces (J15.29.w2). 

    • A pet carrier is secure and easily cleaned and hay can also be placed in a corner to comfort a stressed animal. (V.w120)

  • If the rabbit feels cold, keep it warm by wrapping it in a towel - wrap loosely taking care not to restrict chest movements particularly if the rabbit shows any signs of breathing problems (open mouth breathing indicates severe breathing problems). A warm hot water bottle can be placed underneath bedding during transportation. If the animal is comatose, gently wrap the rabbit in a towel or fleece. Place hot water bottles wrapped in towels adjacent to but not in direct contact with the rabbit, as the animal cannot avoid direct heat if it is too hot and may then be at risk of thermal burns. (V.w120).

  • If you suspect the animal is suffering from heat stroke, place the rabbit on soft bedding and cover it with a damp tea towel to lower the body temperature, take the rabbit to the vet as soon as possible. (V.w120)

    • Take care not to lower its temperature too low. (V.w143)

  • Do not attach a drinking water bottle whilst transporting your pet as water will spill and the bedding/rabbit will become wet and possibly hypothermic if unwell.

  • Do bring a small quantity of the rabbit’s usual food, water feeder and food bowl if the animal is likely to be hospitalised, as familiarity will reassure the patient. (V.w120)

Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

 

For wild casualty lagomorphs also see:

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Catching and Handling

Although most rabbits are usually quite docile, they are generally regarded as nervous animals that are easily stressed. It is important to consider the dangers and risk of injury to both humans and animal when handling a rabbit. 

When handling rabbits remember that claws may scratch and incisors may give deep bites. There are also dangers for rabbits that are being handled as they have powerful hind limbs that may lash out and fracture or dislocate at the lumbar spine. Severely stressed rabbits may collapse due to a cardiac arrest. (B541.15.w15)

Restraint Considerations

Before handling the rabbit consider if restraint is necessary, problems which may be made worse by handling, and how to minimise handling time:

  • Is the patient severely debilitated and in respiratory distress?
    • Handling should be minimised. If the rabbit is dyspnoeic (open-mouth breathing, panting) provide a quiet, oxygen rich environment before continuing with the examination. (J15.27.w1, B601.10.w10)
  • Is the rabbit used to being handled?
    • Wild lagomorphs and some pet rabbits, particularly hutch rabbits, are not used to being handled. Extra care is needed in quiet, gentle approach and handling.
  • Is the rabbit suffering from a metabolic bone disease? Is the diet deficient in calcium and vitamin D3 with the absence of access to natural sunlight?
    • These rabbits may have particularly fragile bones which are easily fractures.
  • Does the animal require medication?
    • If so, prepare the medication in advance so that this can be administered at the end of the clinical examination to reduce handling time.

(J15.27.w1, B601.10.w10, B541.15.w15, V.w5, V.w120)

Remember that:

  • Rabbits are obligate nose breathers;
  • Avoid touching the nose as this is a sensitive area: rabbits are unable to see directly under their nose.
  • The spine is fragile and fractures of the lumbar region are common;
  • The rabbit's thorax is small, compared to its large abdomen, so be careful about putting pressure on the chest.

(J15.27.w1, J15.29.w2, B612.8.w8)

Catching and Handling Wild Lagomorphs
  • Catching and handling of non-domestic animals requires an understanding of general principles as well as a recognition of the difficulties and problems which may be associated with the species in question.
  • It is always important to consider the risk of injury to humans and to the animal which is being caught or held in order to reduce the risk of injuries to humans or animals.
  • If handling is necessary, wrapping it in a towel or small blanket can help avoid injuries to the animal's hind legs and spine, and damage to the person holding the lagomorph, while still allowing easy access to the ears and mouth. (V.w143)
  • If available, a cloth bag of an appropriate size is useful: keep the lagomorph in the bag and only remove the part that needs to be looked at or accessed. (V.w123)
  • Remember that handling and restraint is stressful for wild animals.
    • Before catching for treatment, make sure that a list has been prepared of all procedures which need to be carried out, and that all equipment and medications required are ready. This will minimise handling time. (J213.9.w4)
    • Consider whether handling the animal conscious, or sedation or anaesthesia will be better for the animal (considering psychological stress, physiological stress and safety considerations). 
  • Information specific to catching and handling wild rabbits and hares is provided in Catching and Handling of Rabbits & Hares.
  • General information on catching and handling of wild animal casualties is provided in Wildlife Casualty Catching and Handling (with special reference to UK Wildlife)
Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

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Initial Assessment

Sometimes it is the veterinary nurse who is in the position of making an initial assessment about a rabbit when it arrives at the veterinary centre. (B539.1.w1)

Initially observe the animal 

  • If the rabbit is mouth breathing, perform a brief assessment and oxygenate the patient until treatment is administered. Rabbits are obligate nose breathers and only mouth-breathe in severe respiratory distress. (B539.1.w1). 
  • Record respiratory rate and character before handling.
  • Note: if the rabbit is dyspnoeic, provide oxygen during the examination. (B539.1.w1)

Perform a brief physical examination checking for and recording the following:

  • Wounds
  • Swellings
  • Bleeding
  • Fractures 
  • Discharges from orifices – ocular, aural, mammary glands and perianal area. 
  • Myiasis (flystrike)
  • Head tilt or circling when moving
  • Standard physiological parameters:
    • Mucous membrane colour and capillary refill time
    • Body temperature (normal 38.5 - 40.0 C)
    • Pulse rate, strength and regularity (normal rate 180 - 300 bpm)
    • Respiratory rate and manner (normal 30 - 60 per minute, with little thoracic wall movement).
    • Hydration status.

(B539.1.w1)

First-aid treatment:

  • If the rabbit is hypothermic, shocked or collapsed, provide warmth and (if venous access is possible) take a blood sample for analysis. Give fluids.
  • Wounds: stop any bleeding. Provide warmth, fluids. See: Treatment and Care - Wound Management
  • Fly strike: treat for endotoxic shock first, then remove maggots and eggs and flush the wounds with warmed saline. See: Myiasis
  • Heat stress: monitor the rabbit's body temperature. Cool it with wet towels and make sure the environment is well ventilated. See: Hyperthermia - Sunstroke - Heatstroke
  • Fractures: provide the rabbit with warmth, oxygen and fluids. Examine for open fractures. Stabilise the fracture if possible, and bandage to reduce swelling. Provide analgesia. See: Fractures in Rabbits
  • Respiratory distress (e.g. open-mouth breathing): place in a quiet, dimly lit place and provide supplemental oxygen.

(B539.1.w1, J15.27.w1)

Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

For wild casualty lagomorphs also see:

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Accommodation

Rabbits are somewhat different to cats and dogs; biologically they are herbivorous, social burrowing animals and will require specific dietary regimes and hospital accommodation that is suitable for an easily stressed animal. (V.w120).

Site

  • Rabbits are prey animals and their accommodation should be chosen with this in mind, well away from the site and sound of predators including cats, dogs, ferrets, birds of prey etc.
  • For wild lagomorphs, accommodation should also be away from normal human activities. 
  • If a cage has previously been used for a predator species, it should have been thoroughly cleaned, removing the odour of the other animal.
  • The cage should be near to the ground as this is a comfortable location for the rabbit and it will be easier to lift and handle the animal from this height for treatment. (V.w120)
    • Rabbits have a weak caudal/lumbar spine area which is weak and subject to fracture/dislocation so lifting and handling rabbits should be carried out at floor level or over a table, making middle and high kennel cages impractical for rabbit handling. (J15.29.w2)
  • Remember that rabbit urine is very alkaline and stains cages if not removed promptly. (V.w120)

Bedding

  • Provide non-slip substrate and appropriate soft, absorbable bedding that is easily cleaned - hay is a good familiar bedding.
  • Avoid using sawdust and straw as these can be messy and easily adhere to wounds.
  • Vetbed is good for recumbent rabbits.
    • Only use vet beds and heated pads for moribund animals as healthy rabbits can be quite destructive and chew bedding and wires. (J539.10.w3)
  • Hay is both a food and offers comfort (sweet smell) and may be used in bundles for animal to burrow into. Indigestible fibre (hay) also stimulates gut motility, a bed of hay not only tempts a rabbit to eat it also reduces stress by creating a sense of familiarity. (J15.24.w4)
  • Owners should be encouraged to bring in an item of clothing, familiar toy or the rabbit's own food bowls, particularly if this is a hutch rabbit. (B601.3.w3)
  • Examine the hock region on the rabbit hind limbs daily, to check for pressure sores. (V.w120)

Cage

  • The cage should be big enough for the rabbit to move around, lie out and stretch. (B539.1.w1).
  • The hospital cage needs to be large enough for the patient to stretch out fully, stand upright on hind limbs and able to take a couple of hops. (B601.3.w3)

Cage Hide

  • Offer a cardboard box hide within the cage to provide shelter and privacy and seclusion. (P113.2005.w3)
  • Place a towel over the front or part of the front of the cage to provide a privacy screen. (V.w120)
  • If the rabbit is to be hospitalised only a short time, leave it in its carry cage within the hospital cage (not suitable for long periods). (B539.1.w1)

Litter tray

  • If the rabbit uses a litter tray at home provide a tray.
  • Line the tray with shredded paper and place it in one corner of the cage. 
    • Preferably find out what the owner provides in the tray and use the same material, which may be cat litter, straw or newspaper. 
Environmental temperature
  • The hospital ward should be kept at a comfortable temperature of around: 21-23.°C (B601.3.w3); and certainly below 25°C (B539.1.w1) to prevent heat stress.
  • Make sure the room is well ventilated to reduce respiratory disease risks, but avoid draughts. (B539.1.w1, V.w120)
  • Higher temperatures may be needed in the immediate post-anaesthetic period, with careful observation to avoid overheating the rabbit (B600.5.w5, J15.30.w2) - see Treatment and Care - Rabbit anaesthesia

Cage cleaning

  • Rabbit urine is turbid and alkaline and can stain cages, so ensure the cage has many layers of paper and sufficient bedding or substrate to absorb urine. (V.w120)
  • Soiled bedding should be removed promptly and a litter tray should be cleaned out at least daily. (B600.2.w2)
  • Whenever possible, schedule cleaning to occur when the rabbit is being disturbed anyway or has been taken out of its cage - e.g. during a daily examination, wound treatment, feeding or exercise period. It is particularly important to minimise disturbance of wild lagomorphs. (V.w5)

(B539.1.w1, B600.2.w2, B601.3.w3, J15.24.w4, J15.29.w2, P113.2005.w3, V.w5, V.w120)

Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

For wild casualty lagomorphs also see:

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Minimising Stress

Provide a reduced stress environment (not always easy in a busy veterinary clinic) ideally a quiet secluded area away from cats, noisy dogs and draughts. 
  • Causes of stress include disease and pain; unfamiliar surroundings; the presence of predators; the presence of a dominant companion which cannot be got away from; inability to exhibit normal behaviours; poor husbandry (wrong temperature, lack of good food and water etc.)
  • Stress can be reduced in hospitalised rabbits by:
    • Keeping the rabbit in a quiet, secluded place, away from cats, dogs, birds of prey etc.
      • For wild lagomorphs and timid domestic rabbits, also well away from human activities.
      • Clean and deodorise a kennel which has previously been used by a cat, dog, ferret etc.
    • Accommodation which is close to the floor.
    • Provision of familiar bedding such as hay, and preferably some familiar-smelling objects - its own food bowl, cloth or toy, for example.
    • Provision of a litter tray if the rabbit is used to having one.
    • Providing a box as a hiding place and/or draping a towel over the door of the cage to give privacy.
    • Gentle (but secure) handling, on a non-slip surface.
      • For wild lagomorphs, minimise handling and all disturbance.
    • Avoidance of sudden movements and loud noises; talk quietly, keep the rabbit away from telephones, radios etc..
    • Using sedation for procedures which are uncomfortable or painful.
    • Providing analgesia if the rabbit is known or suspected to be in pain.
    • Minimising the use of stressful devices such as Elizabethan collars and nasogastric tubes.
    • If a limb has been injured, ensure good immobilisation of the injury. 
    • Covering the rabbit's eyes during examination and minor procedures (this can have a calming effect).
    • Wrapping the rabbit in a towel for administration of oral medication or syringe feeding.
    • Minimise disturbance (including observation) and handling; keep care procedures as short as possible.
  • Consider keeping the ill rabbit's bonded rabbit companion in the hospital with the rabbit which is unwell.

(B545.8.w8, B600.5.w5, B601.16.w16, J15.13.w7, P113.2005.w3, V.w120)

Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

For wild casualty lagomorphs also see:

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Feeding and Anorexia

Water 
  • Rabbits normally drink 50-150 mL/kg per day. (B339.8.w8, P113.2005.w1)
  • Check with your owner’s history to ascertain how water is delivered at home, does the rabbit use a drinking bottle or a bowl? Provide whichever method of water delivery the rabbit is familiar with, as it may not use an unfamiliar water source. (B539.1.w1)
  • If a bottle is used, make sure this is at the correct height for the rabbit to use. (B539.1.w1)
    • Drinking bottles are more hygienic than bowls which can be easily contaminated with food and droppings. (V.w120)
    • Water bottles with ball valves often leak; spillage can be caught in a small towel or folded paper under the drip that is not in contact with the main bedding to avoid water wicking back to the rabbit bedding (V.w120).
  • If a bowl is used, check the chin and dew lap area daily as a wet dermatitis can develop in this region caused by rubbing against a wet bowl. (B539.1.w1).
  • Use a ceramic or metal bowl not a plastic type as rabbits will gnaw at cage items. (V.w120)
Feeding

There are obviously wide variations between diets suitable for different species. Diets fed to non-domestic animals must meet their nutritional needs and should be presented in a manner such that they are recognised as food. Incorrect diets may delay wound healing and cause illness. Knowledge of the natural diet of the species is useful when designing diets.

Rabbits are herbivores, adapted for a diet of high-fibre vegetations. A high-fibre diet is important for optimum functioning of the rabbit's gastro-intestinal tract.

  • Hay or grass is the best source of indigestible fibre in the diet; this is required to stimulate gut motility and should make up a large proportion of the diet. (B601.3.w3, V.w120)

Rabbits may need to be encouraged to eat in a hospital environment; an ideal diet of hay and pellets may not be suitable if the rabbit is fed a muesli (mix) food, since the new food items (pellets) will not necessarily be recognised as food. By referring to the owner’s detailed history (History & Documentation - Management / Human Activities) you can see what is a normal diet for this patient and what foods are preferred. Make sure the patient is eating first, then try to wean it onto a more suitable diet gradually. (V.w120)

  • Use foods that may tempt a rabbit to eat, such as freshly picked grass, kale, broccoli, cabbage, spring greens, dandelions, carrots or apple. Avoid soft fruits, lettuce and other salad items. (J15.24.w4)
    • When offering fresh green stuff such as grass and dandelions, pick them from a garden rather than a roadside as they may be coated with pollutants (V.w120)
  • Rabbits have a sweet tooth, so anorexic patients may be tempted to eat with sugar rich foods. (B539.1.w1)
  • Once rabbits are feeding properly, they can be gradually transferred onto an appropriate diet - a good quality pelleted or muesli-type diet. 
    • Muesli type diets offer a variety of food types within one mix; however rabbits selectively prefer high protein and carbohydrate over fibre. Selective feeding can lead to nutritional imbalances which affect gut motility and may lead to poor dental health. (B600.2.w2, B612.8.w8)
    • Pelleted diets avoid selective feeding, ensuring the rabbit eats a balanced diet. However, feeding on pellets involves an alteration from the normal pattern of jaw movement seen during mastication of grass, and this may play a role in the development of dental disease. (J213.6.w2)
    • Note: most rabbit foods, whether pellets, mixes or extruded, are "complementary" foodstuffs, designed to be fed alongside hay. Few complete foods (which can be fed as the whole diet) are available. (J523.15.w1)
  • A long saucer shape bowl may be more accessible to a sick rabbit as it allows the rabbit to graze on food at floor level. (V.w120)
  • Further information on feeding for rabbits under veterinary care is provided in:
  • Further information on longer term feeding of lagomorphs is provided in:
Caecotrophs

Rabbits are hind gut fermenters, designed to feed on a low quality high fibre diet of grass. The rabbit caecum contains a complex mix of bacteria, protozoa and yeast that break down the fibrous diet into nutrients that may be absorbed. Caecotrophs are the caecal contents that have undergone faecal fermentation; they are much softer than the normal hard pellet faeces and are usually covered with mucus and eaten directly from the anus, often at night. (J523.15.w1)

Anorexia
  • Nursing anorexic rabbits can be an intense challenging process of critical care requiring patience and skill to achieve a positive outcome. Rabbits have a specific gastrointestinal physiology adapted to deal with a poor-quality diet, requiring large volumes of low energy density food to be eaten daily; when a break in this process occurs there is a rapid deterioration in condition. 
  • Prevention of anorexia - by preventing/treating pain, minimising stress and providing tempting foods is always preferable to having to treat this condition.
  • Rabbit owners should be made aware that failure to eat means that their rabbit needs to be seen by a vet, not left for a couple of days to see if it starts eating again.
  • Once a rabbit has become anorectic, it is vital to provide nutritional support, including both digestible components to keep the rabbit in positive energy balance and avoid development of Hepatic Lipidosis in Rabbits, and fibre to encourage normal gut function and motility. Additionally, fluids, analgesics to treat pain, appetite stimulants, and gastro-intestinal motility stimulants may be needed. 

(B539.1.w1, P113.2005.w4)

  • Further information on anorexia, including causes, effects and treatment, is provided in:
Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

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Injections, Oral Medication and Fluid Therapy

Oral Medications
  • Medications in capsule or tablet form are difficult to administer to a rabbit; liquid medication is much easier to give by using a syringe or an avian gavage metal cannula, which is inserted in the diastema. (P113.2005.w2). 
  • If a rabbit needs multiple feeds and resents syringe feeding then a nasogastric tube may need to be inserted. A 4-8 F gauge paediatric tube or 6-8 F gauge dog catheter with extra holes can be used. (B601.3.w3).
  • For more information see: 
Injection sites and volumes

All the usual injection sites can be used in rabbits

(B545.8.w8, B601.2.w2, B601.3.w3, J539.10.w3)

Fluids

Administering perioperative fluids will reduce the risk of the rabbit becoming dehydrated postoperatively. In healthy rabbits subcutaneous fluids are beneficial perioperatively, however, debilitated animals will require intravenous fluids which offer greater support and aid recovery. (V.w120) Some fluids which may be used are:

  • Oral fluids; e.g. Lectade, can be used in the treatment of mild dehydration.
  • Hartmann’s (Lactated Ringer's): is a general purpose fluid useful for treatment of dehydration and for maintenance. It can be used in the treatment of metabolic acidosis e.g. in individuals with chronic gastrointestinal problems.
  • Protein amino acid/ Vitamin B supplements e.g. Duphalyte: 1 mL/kg/day in malnourished individuals or those suffering from nephropathy, protein-losing enteropathy, hepatic disease or severe exudative disease.
  • Colloidal fluids:  useful in the treatment of serious blood loss where an intravenous bolus will support central blood pressure.
  • Blood transfusions: used in rabbits with PCV <20%. 

(B541.18.w18)

A basic calculation of fluid requirements includes: 

  • Daily fluid maintenance (75 -100 mL/kg per day in rabbits) PLUS
  • Correction of dehydration (10 mL/kg per 1% dehydration) PLUS
  • Replacement of ongoing losses.
  • Note: If fluid deficits are large, rapid replacement risks overloading the patient's organ systems. It is preferable to rehydrate gradually over two to three days.

(B541.18.w18, B545.8.w8, B601.3.w3)

  • NOTE: In determining fluid volumes to be given to treat a deficit (e.g. hypovolaemia or dehydration), it is important to make adjustments according to the patient's response and and if necessary amend treatment until the required effect (correction of the hypovolaemia or dehydration) has been produced, not simply give according to a formula then stop. (J29.13.w1)

Further details of fluid therapy are given in Treatment and Care - Fluid Therapy

Associated techniques linked from Wildpro & published guidelines

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Blood Sampling and Other Sampling Techniques in Lagomorphs

In general, the same sampling techniques can be used in rabbits as in other species.

Blood samples can be taken relatively easily from the lateral ear vein of rabbits, using a 25 to 27 gauge needle.

  • It is easier to take samples if the ear is warmed (e.g. with warm cotton wool) to dilate the blood vessel.
  • If time allows, local anaesthetic cream can be applied (EMLA cream); this takes some time to work (at least 15 minutes, preferably 30 minutes or more)
  • Other vessels can also be used, including the jugular vein, 

(B541.15.w15)

See: Blood Sampling Rabbits (Techniques)

For wild lagomorphs, use of a sedative which provides vasodilatation is particularly useful for blood sampling. (B284.10.w10)

Volume of Blood

Up to 10% of the blood volume may be safely taken from a healthy rabbit. This means:

  • 5 mL in a 500 g rabbit;
  • 2 mL in a 200g rabbit
  • 1 mL in a 100 g rabbit
  • 0.5 mL in a 50 g rabbit
(B545.8.w8)

NOTE: 

  • If taking blood before surgery, remember that some blood loss is to be expected during surgery; this should be taken into account when calculating a "safe" volume to take for a blood sample. (V.w5)
  • Similarly, if taking blood from an animal following trauma, take into consideration that it has already lost blood either externally or internally. (V.w5)
  • With modern analysers, and remembering basic techniques such as a blood smear for differential white blood cell count, a lot of information can be gained from a small blood sample (J213.9.w4)

For further information and information on other sampling techniques see: Clinical Pathology of Lagomorphs

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Radiography

Positioning for radiography

It is preferable to sedate or anaesthetise rabbits to immobilise them for radiography to ensure the correct anatomical positioning is achieved. This also allows staff to vacate the immediate area, which complies with UK Health and Safety regulations regarding ionizing radiation. (B601.5.w5)

  • It has been noted that it may be possible to "trance" a rabbit, lay it gently in lateral recumbency, place a sandbag over its neck, and take a whole body or abdominal radiograph quickly without any sedation. (B600.3.w3)
    • This is useful only for lateral abdominal or body radiographs, not for radiography of the skull or chest. (V.w140)
    • This may be useful on occasion, rather than using sedation for a short, non-painful procedure. (B600.3.w3) However, it should always be remembered that the rabbit is not relaxed but rather in a state of "tonic immobility" - a state seen in wild rabbits caught by a predator. (B601.2.w2)
    • Additionally, trancing should not be used on a rabbit with breathing problems. (J15.29.w2)
    • It is important to remember that the rabbit may suddenly "revive" and leap off the table - this is more likely with nervous rather than docile individuals.
    • See: Mammal Handling & Movement - Restraint, Holding & Carrying for further discussion of "trancing."

Common radiographic views include

  • Right lateral.
  • Ventrodorsal or dorsoventral.
  • Oblique views of head to gives separate views of the dental arcades.
  • Dorsoventral view of head to compare tympanic bullae and dental arcades.

Further information on radiography, including restraint and positioning, is given in Imaging in Lagomorph Diagnosis and Treatment - Radiography

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Recognising Pain in Rabbits

Rabbits and other lagomorphs are prey animals. For a prey animal, showing weakness makes you more likely to get eaten, therefore rabbits will tend to hide their pain - and general illness - as much as possible.
  • Rabbits are more likely to show signs of pain when they don't know they are being watched. If possible, observe the rabbit without it knowing you are there.
  • Knowledge of normal behaviour of the species, and of the individual if possible, is highly beneficial in recognising abnormal behaviour which may indicate pain.

Signs of pain or discomfort tend to be subtle and can include:

  • Inactivity/immobility
  • Hiding at the back of the cage
  • Hunched posture
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Polydipsia
  • Anorexia
  • Hyperthermia or hypothermia
  • Tooth grinding
  • Over grooming or lack of grooming
  • Self-trauma over painful area
  • Aggression

(B600.3.w3, B601.3.w3, B602.22.w22, B615.7.w7, J213.1.w1)

NOTE: Wild lagomorphs are even more likely to hide their pain than are domestic rabbits.

Further information is provided in: Physical Examination of Mammals - Observation

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Anaesthesia and Analgesia

General considerations
  • Anaesthetic considerations should include the rabbit's age, breed, weight, body condition and health status. Remember that many rabbits have sub acute respiratory disease and may require pre-oxygenation. 
  • Keep the anaesthesia time as short as possible; this can be achieved partly by ensuring that all necessary equipment, drugs and staff for the procedure are prepared prior to the start of the anaesthesia. 
  • Set up the postoperative recovery area in advance.

(B539.1.w1, B540.12.w12, B545.8.w8)

Pre-anaesthetic preparation
  • Rabbits cannot vomit and do not need to be starved before anaesthesia - in fact starving them may increase the risk of development of gut motility problems.
  • Removing food about 30 minutes before anaesthesia is helpful to ensure no food is in the mouth when the rabbit is anaesthetised. (B539.1.w1)
  • When arranging for a rabbit to be brought in for anaesthesia/surgery, give the owner an information sheet explaining that they should not starve the rabbit overnight (as they would expect to do for their cat or dog before an anaesthetic or operation) and explaining the procedure that will be carried out on their rabbit. (B539.1.w1)

Premedication

  • Rabbits under going gaseous anaesthetic should be premedicated to reduce breath holding. Breath holding can lead to hypoxia and stress-related release of catecholamines which can cause heart failure and death in the early stages of anaesthesia. (B539.1.w1)
  • For further information on appropriate pre-medication see: Treatment and Care - Anaesthesia and Chemical Restraint

Intubation

  • Intubation ensures that a patent airway is available for oxygenation. If the rabbit is not intubated, pull the tongue forward as rabbits have a large tongue in a narrow oral cavity which may obstruct the airway when under anaesthesia.
  • Several methods of endotracheal intubation have been described, and naso-tracheal intubation is also useful in some circumstances.
  • See: Endotracheal Intubation of Rabbits (Techniques)

Anaesthetic circuits

  • The circuit chosen should have a low dead space volume and allow for intermittent positive pressure ventilation throughout the procedure. Suitable circuits include an Ayres T-piece, Bain or Mapleson C. 

Gaseous anaesthetic agents

  • The most commonly used gaseous anaesthetic agent for rabbits at the present time is isoflurane, which has generally superseded halothane. Sevoflurane can also be used, and desflurane may be used.

Induction

  • Gaseous induction is not ideal either with a face mask or in an induction chamber, because rabbits find the gaseous anaesthetic agents noxious and tend to breath-hold. Pre-medication should be used if a gaseous agent is used for induction.
  • Several injectable anaesthetic agents or combinations may be used in rabbits.

Monitoring

As with other species, the cardiovascular and respiratory function of rabbits should be monitored throughout anaesthesia. This may be challenging in a small animal with little lifting of the rib cage during inspiration, and which may be mostly hidden under drapes during some operations.

  • Cardiovascular function may be monitored using mucous membrane colour, capillary refill time, and heart rate and pulse detected by stethescope, palpation (femoral artery) pulse oximeter or ECG. The rate, depth and character of respiration should be assessed.
  • A pulse oximeter can be used to give a measure of the oxygen saturation content of blood. This gives an indication of respiratory depth and anaesthetic problems, such as problems with the anaesthetic circuit and respiratory obstruction. (V.w120)
    • The probe can be attached with a clip over the central artery of the ear, or to the tongue, tail or nail bed. (B541.15.w15, B545.8.w8)
    • Aim to achieve 100% oxygen saturation; hypoxaemia is indicated by levels below 90% and will require assisted ventilation. (B541.15.w15)
  • Body temperature should be monitored throughout the anaesthetic.
  • Anaesthetic depth monitoring:
    • Light plane - loss of righting reflex and swallow reflex.
    • Surgical plane: loss of ear pinch reflex, hind limb pedal withdrawal reflex (rabbits often retain pedal reflex on front paws).
    • Too deep: palpebral reflex lost (rabbits may retain this until deeper planes of surgical anaesthesia than other species)
      • Depending on the anaesthetic used: lost early with inhalant gases, but not until much deeper anaesthesia with ketamine. (B541.15.w15)

(B539.1.w1, B541.15.w15, B545.8.w8)

Signs of anaesthetic emergencies include:

  • Respiratory: Decreased respiratory rate, cyanosis of mucous membranes (with oxygen saturation below 50%; note: a drop in oxygen saturation of 10% is an emergency situation).
  • Cardiovascular: increased capillary refill time, cyanosis, pallor, hypothermia.

(B545.8.w8)

Information on response to anaesthetic emergencies is provided in Treatment and Care - Lagomorph Anaesthetic Emergencies

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Surgical Preparation, Peri-operative care and Post-operative care

Rabbits do not need to be fasted before anaesthesia, because they cannot vomit. Taking their food away for perhaps 30 - 60 minutes before anaesthesia ensures there will be no food in the mouth, so it is clear for endotracheal intubation. Withholding food can lead to gut stasis so plan surgery times carefully and remove food only when sure that the procedure is imminent. Record an accurate weight for drug dosages. (B539.1.w1, B541.15.w15, V.w120).
  • Record an accurate weight for drug dosages. (V.w120)
Surgical preparation, skin fragility and hypothermia

It is important to remember that rabbit skin is fragile, therefore good-quality clippers suitable for clipping the fine, dense fur of rabbits should be used, and the skin should be kept flat. See: Treatment and Care - Surgery - Pre-operative preparation

In preparing a rabbit for surgery, it's important to remember that since most rabbits are quite small, there is an increased risk of their becoming hypothermic under anaesthesia. This risk increases if large areas of the body are clipped and if large amounts of fluids, particularly alcohol, are used in aseptic preparation. To reduce the risks of hypothermia:

  • Clip only the minimum area required.
  • Do not soak the skin.
  • Avoid the use of ethanol in skin preparation.
  • Ensure the environmental temperature of the operating room is warm. (V.w120)
  • Use bubble wrap to reduce heat loss, or place the rabbit on soft bedding on top of a heat mat. 
    • A water circulating heat pad can be used, or hot water bottles filled with warm water and placed adjacent to but NOT in direct contact with the patient.
    • Burns can occur if hot water bottles are in direct contact with the patient's skin. (B541.15.w15)
  • Monitor both the rectal temperature of the rabbit and the temperature of the surface of any heat pad used (to avoid thermal burns).
  • For further information see: 

(B541.15.w15, B600.15.w15, B602.22.w22, J34.17.w1, J213.7.w2)

Peri-operative care, support and monitoring
  • Apply a topical ophthalmic lubricant to protect the cornea of the rabbit eye during anaesthesia. (B540.12.w12)
  • The position of the rabbit for surgery will depend on the operation area and access required. Elevate the cranial end of the rabbit when in dorsal recumbency so that the weighty hind gut falls away from the diaphragm, as this weight may press against the diaphragm causing resistance to inspiration. (B541.15.w15)
  • It is important to monitor temperature. (J15.13.w7, J15.23.w6)
  • Fluid therapy may be given during before, during and after surgery to avoid dehydration. (B541.15.w15)
  • See: Treatment and Care - Anaesthesia and Chemical Restraint  

Postoperative care

  • The essentials of good postoperative care are warmth, oxygen (if required), fluid replacement (if indicated), analgesia, nutritional support and gut motility support. The rabbit should be placed in a warm, quiet recovery area and monitored carefully, remembering that they are susceptible to hyperthermia as well as hypothermia. They should be given soft bedding which will not stick to wounds, eyes, nose or mouth (i.e. not shavings or sawdust). 
  • The rabbit should be monitored for signs of pain, including e.g. immobility, drawn in abdomen, tooth grindings, lack of eating and drinking, and uncharacteristic aggression. 
    • Rabbits are sensitive, nervous animals and are often tense in a hospital ward environment making the assessment of pain, discomfort or distress difficult.
    • Pain management is essential to the postoperative recovery process. Analgesia should be routinely in the initial post-operative period and afterwards if there are any indications the rabbit may be in pain. 
  • It is important to encourage the rabbit to eat, with hand-feeding or syringe feeding if necessary to maintain positive energy balance and encourage normal gut motility and function, avoiding development of Hepatic Lipidosis in Rabbits. High-fibre food is essential for normal motility, but syringes may become blocked if high-fibre foods are fed by this route.
  • Ensure the amount actually eaten is recorded and monitor faecal production. When the rabbit returns to the owner ensure they are aware of the need to monitor both appetite and defecation in their pet rabbit. It may take up to three days for faecal output to resume. (P113.2005.w3)
    • Some practices prefer not to allow rabbits home until they are eating and voluntarily passing droppings. (P113.2005.w3)
  • See: 

(B539.1.w1, B541.15.w15, B545.8.w8, P113.2005.w3)

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Wound and Abscess Management

Wounds

Wounds are examined, cleaned and debrided, then sutured, or left open to heal by second intention. Puncture wounds should not be sutured.

  • Deep wounds should be filled with K-Y Jelly or similar before the area around the wound is clipped, to prevent hair and other debris dropping into the wound.
  • Care is needed when clipping, due to the fragility of rabbit skin.
  • When treating bite wounds, it is important to think about deeper structures which may have been damaged. 
  • If left open, the wound should be cleaned daily and a suitable dressing applied. It is important to remember that body bandages are not well tolerated and may slip and hinder respiration. (B539.1.w1)
  • Topical applications of medicines are often ineffective as rabbits will groom the area medicated; preparations used topically should be non-toxic as they may be ingested. Elizabethan collars can be used to prevent interference of medication; however these collars may also prevent the consumption of caecotrophs which are usually eaten directly from the anus. They may be a temporary solution following topical medication to allow the product to be absorbed following application. (V.w120)
  • Further information (general and specific to rabbits) is provided in: Treatment and Care - Wound management

(B539.1.w1, B600.15.w15, J213.7.w2, V.w120)

Abscesses
  • The ideal treatment for subcutaneous abscesses is excision of the abscess together with its capsule. (B600.8.w8)
  • If excision is not possible, e.g. due to involvement of deeper tissues, the abscess should be lanced, the pus expressed, and then the tissues debrided. After this, antibiotic impregnated beads can be placed into the abscess. (B600.8.w8)
  • Alternatively, the abscess is opened up and marsupialised, followed by topical treatment with e.g. honey and gentamicin drops. (B600.8.w8)
  • Note: Systemic antibiotic treatment (e.g. with enrofloxacin) is also given, following any of these methods of treatment. (B600.8.w8)
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De-matting, Cleaning & Bathing

Rabbits may need to be de-matted if they have developed mats of fur which they are unable to groom out for themselves. They may need to be clipped and cleaned around their hind ends due to urine scalding or faecal matting. Less commonly, they may need to be bathed all over if it is thought they have become contaminated with something toxic.

When removing mats of fur it is important to remember that rabbit skin is fragile.

  • Use a plastic rather than a metal comb if possible.
  • Tease mats of fur carefully. Do not pull too hard or the skin may tear.
  • If a mat of fur will not come out with gentle use of the comb, cutting through or clipping under the mat is needed.
  • Take care to keep the rabbit's skin flat while cutting through a mat of hair - if it gets tented up, it is very easy to cut through skin as well as the mat of hair, and a very small piece of skin in the scissor blades appears as a much larger skin deficit on the rabbit.
  • DO NOT clip the soles of the feet even if they are matted as the fur is very important as a protective shock-absorbing layer. (V.w122)
For treatment of urine scalding or faecal contamination, sedate the rabbit if necessary, and remove matted fur by careful clipping as close to the skin as possible, before gently washing the area and then drying the skin and fur before applying a suitable barrier cream . (B601.3.w3)
  • Take care since the perineal skin is easily damaged and torn. (B601.3.w3)
  • Some rabbits will allow a hairdryer to be used for drying the skin and fur, others will not. (B601.3.w3)
  • Silver sulfadiazine cream is useful (e.g. Flamazine cream, Smith & Nephew), covered with a layer of zinc and caster oil, or vaseline, to keep the cream in contact with the skin for longer. (B601.3.w3) Alternatives include Dermisol cream (Pfizer Animal Health) and Opsite spray dressing (Smith & Nephew) which can be used to protect the area, providing a waterproof barrier. (B601.3.w3)

See also:

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Flystrike

Flies are attracted to soiled or damp areas of skin, particularly in areas the rabbit isn’t grooming, where they lay eggs. As maggots hatch and penetrate the underlying tissue they secrete a local anaesthetic to mask their presence to the rabbit. The first clinical sign is a bad smell and wetness, or lethargy as bacterial toxins are absorbed into the blood. (P113.2005.w5)

Treatment of flystrike includes:

  • Medical treatment of endotoxic shock and loss of fluids (intravenous or intraosseous fluids, possibly shock doses of steroids, or an NSAID as an anti-endotoxic agent).
  • Physical removal of maggots.
  • Treatment of the wounds remaining after the maggots have been removed.
  • Analgesia.
  • An appropriate parasiticide to kill any remaining eggs and larvae once as many as possible have been removed from the rabbit.
  • Identifying why the rabbit was attractive to flies, and correcting the problem if possible.

The best prevention for flystrike is to ensure that the rabbit is checked daily (checking it is not soiled with urine and faeces, and allowing prompt treatment of any wounds) and that the hutch is cleaned out frequently, particularly in summer. If there is a long-term problem causing fur soiling which cannot be cured, cyromazine (Rearguard (Novartis Animal Health)), can be applied to the rabbit to prevent flystrike. Cyromazine is an insect growth regulator; it does not prevent the rabbit becoming attractive to flies, but it prevents hatched first stage maggots from developing further.

(B602.19.w19, B603.4.w4, J15.28.w1, P113.2005.w5)

For further information see the treatment and prevention sections in Myiasis

Information for rabbit owners is provided in: 

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Preventative Healthcare and Vaccination

Owners should be encouraged to have their pets examined every six months at a time that coincides with their vaccination protocol. During the consultation neutering, vaccination, husbandry, diet, flea treatments, worming, behavioural concerns and insurance can be discussed.
Vaccination
External parasites

Rabbits should be protected against the following external parasitic infections:

Protection against external parasites is particularly important in summer, when invertebrates are most active.

  • To protect against flystrike, regular, frequent cleaning of the hutch is important. Also, rabbits should be checked daily to make sure they are not becoming soiled with urine or caecotrophs, which will encourage flies. See section above - Flystrike
  • Rearguard (Novartis Animal Health) (containing Cyromazine - an insect growth regulator) is a product specially designed to prevent flystrike in rabbits and is active for up to 10 weeks. It is particularly useful for rabbits which are less able to groom themselves or eat their caecotrophs (e.g. due to arthritis or obesity), but it should not be used as a substitute for good hygiene and general rabbit care. 
  • In summer, it is advisable to protect the hutch against mosquitoes (which carry Myxomatosis) with a fine wire mesh on the hutch. (J72.47.w1)
Helminth parasites

Rabbits are susceptible to a variety of gastrointestinal parasites.

Protozoal parasites

(P113.2005.w5)

The Rabbit Welfare Fund provide a variety of information leaflets for rabbit owners including:

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Danger Signs for Rabbit Owners

Danger signs for ill health which need IMMEDIATE veterinary investigation include:

  • Rabbit stopped eating, or eating much less than normal.
  • Rabbit stopped producing faeces, or producing only a few, small pellets.
  • Diarrhoea or production of soft pellets which are not eaten.
  • Mucky bottom (wet and/or with faeces).
  • Rabbit not drinking, or drinking much less than normal.
  • Change in behaviour - rabbit quiet and withdrawn, or alternatively unexpectedly aggressive.
  • Breathing problems - open-mouth breathing is an emergency.
  • Collapse or inability to move.
  • Rabbit obviously cool to the touch, or obviously hot.
  • Discharge from the nose and/or eyes (may be noticed first as matting on the inside of the front legs where the rabbit has wiped its face).
  • Saliva dribbling out of the mouth/drooling.
  • Rabbit unable to open its eyes.
  • Obvious lameness, or only slow movement, or dragging one or more legs/dragging its hind end.
  • Visible injury.
  • Visible maggots or fly eggs on the rabbit.
  • Head tilt, loss of balance.

See also the Rabbit Welfare Fund leaflet Bunny M.O.T. How to keep your rabbit running smoothly

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Dangerous Plants

A wide variety of plants are reported to be toxic in rabbits, or are known to be toxic in other species and might be toxic to rabbits. (B600.2.w2, B603.3.w3, B616, J213.11.w2) However, confirmed plant toxicity in rabbits is rare. (B600.2.w2, B601.8.w8)

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Neutering

Male rabbits can be neutered once they are at least three months old (as soon as the testes have descended), females once they are at least five months old. (B600.3.w3, V.w138)

It is important to remind the owner that, following castration, the buck may remain fertile for at least four weeks (D356) and occasionally longer than this; the buck should be kept apart from any does until six weeks after castration. (B600.3.w3, P113.2005.w6)

Owners should be reminded that there are a variety of reasons why it is good to neuter your pet rabbit. These include:

  • Being able to keep a male (buck) and female (doe) together for company without her getting pregnant and having kits.
  • Reduced aggression.
  • Neutered males are less likely to spray urine.
  • Neutered females are less territorial.
  • Prevents pseudopregnancy.
  • Spayed females are no longer at risk of several diseases (uterine infection, tumours) which are common in unspayed does as they get older. Spayed does are likely to have a longer, healthier life.

(B600.3.w3, B601.1.w1, J213.2.w2, P113.2005.w6)

  • Following neutering, females in particular may be quiet in the first few days, and may need tempting to eat e.g. with fresh grass or herbs. (D356)
  • If two rabbits of the same sex are living together, they can be neutered at the same time and kept together after the operation. (D356)
  • If a male and a female rabbit are being kept together, the female needs to be kept away from the male for the first 14 days - place them in cages next to each other. (D356)
  • A Rabbit Welfare Fund (RWF) leaflet on neutering is available: The RWF guide to having your rabbit neutered can be printed out and given to owners.
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Managing a Rabbit Doe with Kits

If a pet rabbit has kits unexpectedly, the owner may not know what to do. The following information should help you guide the owner.
  • Don't panic because the doe is not spending all her time with her young. (B601.1.w1, N34.Winter07.w1) It is important to remember that a rabbit doe suckles her kits only once every 24 hours, for a few minutes, and then leaves them. (B601.1.w1, B616.7.w7, J72.49.w1)
  • If the doe is kept with another rabbit and it was thought they were both females, it is essential that the other rabbit is checked to confirm that it is a male, and then that the male is neutered. A female can get pregnant again very soon after giving birth (post-partum oestrus) so the male will have to be kept apart from the female for several weeks after he has been castrated - see Neutering section above.
    • It is possible that the doe will produce another litter about a month after the first litter. In this case it is essential that there is sufficient room for all the rabbits, including room for the female to get away from the first litter of kits if she wants to. If it is necessary to separate the first litter from the female then the kits should be kept together until they are eight weeks old; they should not be rehomed earlier than this.
    • If both rabbit are females, then either (a) the female was pregnant when she joined the household (gestation is about a month) or (b) a male rabbit got in to the female e.g. while she was in the garden. If this was a wild rabbit, then the kits will be half-wild and may not become tame. A wildlife rescue centre may be able to give them a permanent home.
  • If you find one or more young outside the nest, place it straight back with its siblings if it is warm. If it is cold, first warm it: either place it right next to your skin (e.g. under your shirt) or place it in warm water up to its neck (make sure its head, and particularly its nose stays out of the water) to warm it, then dry it (if you've used water to warm it) and place it back in the nest with its siblings.
  • The doe should not be shut in with her kits. Keep to her usual routine, but make sure that she is left alone in the evening in the hour either side of dusk, which is when she is most likely to feed her young (or for a period around whatever time she usually feeds them, if this is a different time of the day).
  • Make sure the doe has enough food, but do not overfeed too soon: the energy demand on the doe will increase to x 3.5 maintenance at peak lactation. The food should be increased gradually starting five to seven days after parturition (early overfeeding may lead to obesity or mastitis if there is excessive milk production). (B541.16.w16)
  • Kits will start leaving the nest, and nibbling small amounts of food when they are about 16-21 days old. Fresh green food and hay can be available to them at this stage.
  • Kits are weaned at four to six weeks. (B601.1.w1, J72.49.w1)
  • Kits should be left with their mother to eight weeks old. 
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Hand-Rearing

Successful hand-rearing requires provision of appropriate heated accommodation, the right type and quantity of milk, fed at the right intervals, assistance with urination and defecation in the very young, weaning, and (with wild animals) preparation for release.

  • If the owner is not willing or able to provide the necessary care, it may be possible to contact an experienced rabbit carer e.g. via the Rabbit Welfare Association.
  • For wild rabbits and hares, contact an experienced wildlife rehabilitator.
Important points to remember are:
  • Warm the babies to normal or near-normal temperature before trying to feed them.
  • Give a suitable rehydration fluid for the first feed, then gradually change onto a milk replacer.

  • Do not feed the rabbit too fast, as this increases the risk of aspiration.
    • One of the two main causes of death in hand-reared rabbit kits is aspiration pneumonia (the other is diarrhoea). (B601.1.w1)
  • Keep kits warm - 27 - 30 °C environmental temperature in the first week, then gradually reducing. (B601.1.w1)
  • Weigh daily and keep accurate records of weight, feeding (formula used, amounts, times).
    • Growth and development can be monitored by weighing the kit daily and recording the amount of food eaten (V.w120). 

  • Provide access to solid food from about day 16. 
  • Weaning is a critical time; diarrhoea is common at this time and can be fatal. (B601.1.w1)

    • Consider using a probiotic around this time.

  • Initially offer only hay. (B601.1.w1) then small amounts of vegetables and concentrates. Avoid giving too much concentrates which may lead to alterations in the caecum with resultant severe digestive disturbances causing diarrhoea; this can be fatal. (B601.1.w1)
  • Provide a water bottle once the kits are about three weeks old. (B601.1.w1)
  • Offer caecotrophs from a healthy rabbit for the kits to nibble on once they start eating solid food, to assist with development of a healthy microflora.
    • Caecotrophs can be collected by putting an Elizabethan collar on the donor rabbit overnight, so it cannot eat its caecotrophs. (B601.1.w1)
    • Caecotrophs can be offered for the kit to nibble on, or fed to the kits mixed with milk formula. (B601.1.w1)
  • Nursing young are difficult to rear; any which are successfully raised are a bonus.
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Euthanasia

Euthanasia is sometimes the most humane option for an animal. It is important to consider first whether euthanasia should be carried out and second what method of euthanasia is most appropriate for the individual animal and circumstances.

Psychological aspects of pet rabbit euthanasia

  • When euthanasing a pet rabbit, it is important to consider the psychological impact on the owner(s), including any children involved.
  • House rabbits can be very much a part of the family, and their owners may mourn just as much as if this was a cat or a dog.
  • Owners may feel guilty about not having noticed their rabbit's illness in time for treatment.

Consider the following: 

  • If it is known in advance that this is a euthanasia consultation, discussing all the arrangements for payment, disposal of the body etc. in advance, and arrange the euthanasia consultation for a time which is usually a quiet time in the surgery.
  • Make sure all staff (e.g. receptionists) know the client is bringing their pet in for euthanasia, to avoid potentially embarrassing and upsetting miscommunications with owners. (V.w5)
  • Make sure the area used for euthanasia is a quiet one, with an appropriate non-slip surface on the table, and an experienced person to hold the rabbit - preferably someone who has a good rapport with rabbits.
  • Providing a time and space for the owner(s) to say "goodbye" to the rabbit - this may be after appropriate sedation has been given and/or after the euthanasia has taken place.
    • If the owner wants to be present for the euthanasia, it may be best to take the rabbit away briefly to give it a tranquilliser and place an intravenous catheter (explain what you are doing) and then bring it back into the consulting room and allow time for the owner to be with the rabbit before the final injection.
    • Try to make sure that facial tissues are available; an offer of a glass of water while the owner is saying "goodbye" to their euthanased rabbit may also be appreciated.
    • If the rabbit has died or been euthanased at the surgery without the owners present, provide the opportunity (if the owners want it) for them to visit the body. The rabbit should be laid on a table or in a nice box, on an absorbent pad to absorb any urine which may leak, and with a cloth or towel draped over it leaving the head and neck exposed. 
      • The body should be clean, not covered in blood, faeces etc. Surgical wounds (e.g. from exploratory laparotomy which led to the decision to euthanase) should be closed. (V.w5)
    • The owner(s) should be given time to talk about their rabbit - with the vet, vet nurse, and/or other members of staff.
  • Providing a route out from the consulting room which doesn't go through the waiting room.
  • Whether after a scheduled or emergency euthanasia, make a telephone call in the first few days, and again a week or two later, to check the owner is okay and provide information on pet loss support counselling if appropriate.

(B601.6.w6, V.w5)

For wild lagomorphs, euthanasia is appropriate if the animal has permanent injuries which will reduce its chance of survival in the wild, and there is no appropriate place where it can be housed long-term. If euthanasia is appropriate, this decision should be made as early as possible after the animal is presented, so that suffering is minimised. (J213.9.w4)

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Release of Wild Lagomorphs

Releasing a wild animal after it has been in care should not just be a matter of opening a door or window and letting the individual go. There are many factors which should be considered when releasing an animal. Some of these factors are related to the individual and others to the habitat into which it will be released.

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Record Keeping

Observation skills are important when nursing rabbits as they do not vocalise to indicate pain or hunger (J539.10.w3). The hospital record should also contain a daily nursing plan depending on the particular illness/injury. 

Record keeping fulfils two main functions:

  1. It assists with the care of an individual animal by providing an objective measure of its progress and by notes indicating specific care and treatment procedures (e.g. feeding, medicating) which have been carried out.

  2. It assists with the development of future improved care protocols, by comparing treatment regimes and their outcomes.

Hospital sheets should record all medications/treatments and basic biological parameters, with particular attention to appetite and the presence of faeces and caecotrophs. (V.w120)

  • Record the size, consistency, frequency and volume of faeces and caecotrophs (caecotrophs are usually passed 3-8 hours after feeding). (B601.3.w3). 

  • The amount of food offered or left in the cage should be recorded as a quantity or weight so that accurate assessments of food intake can be made - e.g. record the number of pieces of vegetable left with the rabbit, and then the number of pieces still in the cage (needing to be removed from the cage) before food is replenished.

  • Keep records of water intake and of urination.

  • Records of basic parameters (drinking, eating, production of urine and faeces, weight changes) are particularly important for wild lagomorphs.

(B545.8.w8, B601.3.w3,  V.w120)

Further information on record keeping of particular relevance to wildlife is provided within the appropriate individual technique pages and in Wildlife Casualty Record Keeping (with special reference to UK Wildlife)

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Legislation for care of Wild Lagomorphs

When caring for and treating wild animals it is important to be aware of their legal status and the possible legal protections for the animal in question, in order to avoid accidentally breaking the law while trying to assist the animal. 

Note: Legislation changes between countries and over time. Wildlife Information Network has made every effort to ensure that the legislative information referred to in Wildpro is correct at the time of publication of a given volume, however it is the responsibility of the individual using the information to ensure that they follow current guidelines and comply with current legislation for their country or state.

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Human Health Considerations

When dealing with animals it is always important to consider potential hazards to human health. These may be physical risks due to risks of being bitten, kicked etc., and risks of transfer of zoonotic infection from the animal to a human.

A number of diseases of rabbits are zoonotic infections. Common zoonoses which may occur in lagomorphs include:

A full list of diseases seen in rabbits which are also zoonoses is provided in: Diseases reported to affect Lagomorphs - Zoonoses

Note: Good hygiene will greatly reduce the risks of zoonotic diseases being transmitted between lagomorphs and their human carers.

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Authors & Referees

Author Jackie Belle RVN BSc MSc MBVNA (V.w120); Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referees Bridget Fry BSc (Hons), V.N. (V.w143); Frances Harcourt-Brown BVSc FRCVS (V.w140); Virginia Garner-Richardson MA VetMB MRCVS (V.w138)

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