It's Rabbit and Guinea Pig awareness month throughout June.  In the most recent PDSA Animal Welfare Report, 3% of homes in the UK have a pet rabbit with an estimated population of 1.5 million pet rabbits in the UK. Inappropriate diet continues to be the most identified issue that affects rabbit health with 24% of pet rabbits still being fed muesli as one of their main foods.  Results also showed that pet rabbits are spending an average of 12 hours per day in their hutch, 52% of pet rabbits still live alone – equating to 780,000 rabbits – and 43% of rabbit owners stated that they would like to change one or more things about their rabbit’s behaviour.  Few facts and figures exist on ownership but the pet guinea pig population stands at approximately 500,000 in the UK.

Both species are very popular as children’s pets but advice on proper diet, housing, companionship, environmental enrichment and health needs to be highlighted to make sure their welfare needs are being looked after. 

Rabbits need access to fresh drinking water.  Water drinking bottles are normally used but some rabbits prefer drinking from a bowl.  Rabbits have a unique digestive system which is adapted to suit a high fibre low energy diet.  

The best sources of fibre are good quality hay and freshly picked grass. 85% of a rabbit’s diet should consist of good quality hay and fresh grass.  The hay should be fresh, smell sweet and be dust free.  In addition to this a small amount of pelleted diet can be given once a day.  Rabbits fed commercial muesli mixtures tend to selectively feed, leaving the most nutritious but least palatable pieces behind.  This unbalanced food source can lead to nutritional deficiencies, obesity and dental problems.  A complete pelleted diet is recommended to prevent this. 

Vegetables and fruits such as carrot, sweetcorn, celery, apple and greens should only be provided as a treat twice a week.  Commercially produced rabbit treats are usually very high in calories and should be avoided.  A diet high in commercial foods, fruit and vegetables will reduce the rabbit’s intake of hay and grass which is essential to their health.  

Any changes to a rabbit’s pelleted diet should be made gradually over 2-4 weeks.  Sudden changes can lead to loss of appetite but also liver disease and digestive orders.  

General points to consider: 
  •  Your rabbit should have access to fresh water at all times.  Make sure it doesn't freeze in the winter and remember that some rabbits prefer drinking from a bowl rather than water bottle. 
  • Any change to a rabbit’s diet should be made gradually.  Sudden changes can sometimes lead to loss of appetite. 
  • Even short periods of not eating e.g. 24 hours can lead to liver problems in rabbits. Changes to diet should be made gradually over 2-3 weeks to prevent this. 
  • Sometimes in older rabbits it is not possible to wean them off mixed diets onto pellets because they refuse to eat the pelleted food. 
  • Occasional soft stools are normal especially in a young rabbit whose gut may not be fully active yet. This should clear up in a day or so with no change of diet or you could try feeding only hay for a few days.  If the problem persists ring us for advice. 
  • Some fresh foods such as dandelions and cabbage may cause the rabbit to produce red urine.  This is normal and not a problem.  If you notice red urine and they haven't been eating these foods, your rabbit might be ill and we would advise you ring us. 
  • Rabbits should be vaccinated annually against myxomatosis and viral hemorrhagic diseases, this is advised for indoor and outdoor rabbits as indirect contact and also biting flies contribute to the spread of these diseases.
  • Soiling around the back end may be an indicator of disease or your rabbit may simply be overweight.  Soiling can cause a real problem for rabbits and can lead to fly strike - this can be life threatening. 
  • A rabbit that refuses to eat may have mouth problems or some other disease and again this needs to be checked by a vet. 
  • Feeding your rabbit correctly is one of the keys to a long and healthy life. Remember, hay and grass (high fibre) should make up 85% of your rabbit’s diet.  Since most rabbits choose other foods in preference, the best way to achieve the balance is to offer only small amounts of commercial diet and vegetables. Once that has been consumed, your rabbit will spend the rest of the day happily eating his or her healthy fibre. 
  • The silica in grass and hay when chewed evenly wear the rabbit’s teeth preventing dental problems. This is why the correct diet is so important for your rabbit to avoid dental disease.  Check your rabbit’s teeth regularly. Lift his lips and check the incisors. The rabbit has two upper and two lower incisors, there are also two peg teeth behind the upper incisors.   Rabbit’s molar teeth cannot be easily visualized. 
  • If your rabbit has discharge coming from its eyes or signs of dribbling under their chin, they will need to be examined as this could be a sign of dental disease. Other signs include reduced appetite and avoiding hard food.  Because of the positioning of their teeth, a full dental examination can only be carried out by your vet. 
Guinea Pigs have very similar requirements to rabbits – high fibre diet, the need for companionship, exercise and environmental enrichment, but unlike rabbits they do not need vaccinating annually. 

Rabbits and Guinea Pigs should not be housed together, their diet and husbandry needs are different and they need companionship with one of their own species to prevent disease, bullying and injury.

To book a free rabbit or guinea pig 12 point health check appointment with one of our nurse consulting team, please ring 01376 325511.  This offer only applies to appointment times in June.

Our next MVP client education event will be held on Thursday 13th July at 7.30pm, Braintree.  We will focus on "Promoting a health digestive tract in rabbits" this will also include an update on the three main rabbit diseases and corresponding vaccination options.  To pre-book a place please ring 01376 325511.