We speak to Petplan Veterinary expert, Brian Faulkner, and look at 3 simple health checks for rabbits, that can be carried out at home.
Rabbits may pretend to be healthy even when they're in pain. This is so they don't appear weak to predators. However, as rabbit owners, this can make it difficult to spot the signs that your rabbits are unwell. Here's a reminder of 3 basic rabbit health checks you can do at home in between vet check-ups.
Rabbits' teeth grow continuously - their top front teeth grow as much as 3mm a week! Their teeth have evolved to be able to break down a diet that's high in natural fibre found in stalks and twigs, which wear their teeth down, keeping them at an even length.
However, as domestic rabbits tend to eat less fibrous food than wild rabbits, their teeth aren't worn down as quickly.
It's important to feed your rabbits a diet that mainly consists of long fibre in order to prevent dental problems. It's generally recommended that rabbits have constant access to grass or hay. As a rough guide, the portion of hay you feed your rabbit daily should be the same size as your rabbit itself. If your rabbits are suffering from dental problems, you may notice they:
- Stop eating their food
- Have dirty hindquarters - rabbits with sore mouths are unable to groom themselves or a fellow rabbit
- Have runny eyes - overgrown teeth can result in pressure on your rabbits' tear ducts
If you're concerned that your rabbit may be suffering from dental problems, make an appointment with your vet.
Check out the ‘dos' and ‘don'ts' below for keeping your rabbits' teeth healthy below:
- Take a look at your rabbits' teeth - rabbits have 28 teeth, but only the 2 main incisors at the top and at the bottom of their mouths are visible. If these don't meet, this is known as malocclusion, which can cause asymmetrical wear.
- Provide your rabbits with enough high-quality fibrous food to chew - a mixture of hay and grass is best, and should make up around three quarters of their food intake. The different textures help to evenly wear down your rabbits' teeth.
- Feed them fresh vegetables, as well as tree branches, twigs and leaves - ensure these have not been chemically treated.
- Get their teeth examined at least once a year by a vet. Your Petplan insurance provides dental cover as long as any treatment recommended by your vet is carried out within 3 months.
- Feed your rabbit too much pellet - overfeeding can stop them eating hay and grass, which are essential to their teeth and general health.
- Feed them muesli-based products.
Always consult your vet if you notice a change in your rabbits' eating habits.
While it may be difficult to tell if your rabbit is unwell from their behaviour, their poo holds clues to their general health. Rabbits have two different kinds of poo: small, solid pellets that they pass throughout the day, and larger, softer poo which they pass early in the morning called caecotrophs. You're unlikely to notice the caecotrophs because your rabbit will usually eat them as soon as they're passed, as these provide important nutrients produced by the bacteria in their guts.
If you do notice a number of caecotrophs in your rabbits' hutch, it can be a sign that your rabbit is unable to eat them due to feeling unwell. In contrast, if there aren't many pellets, your rabbit may be suffering from gastro stasis, one of the top 5 conditions for which Petplan receive claims from rabbit owners. You should consult your vet if you notice a change in your rabbits' toilet habits. “One of the earliest signs of dental disease is often a mucky rear end” says Petplan vet, Brian Faulkner. “This occurs when the rabbit's mouth is sore and they are unable to ingest their caecotrophs.”
Keep it clean
It's easy to help litter train your rabbits. Just watch where they choose for a toilet, and then put down a small tray with sawdust, which you can clean and replace quickly. Placing a small amount of your rabbits' poo in the tray can help encourage this spot to be used.
Clean your rabbits' litter tray daily, and give their hutch a deep-clean once a week. Unhygienic hutches can attract flies, especially in the summer months, and this, along with dirty hindquarters, can increase the risk of fly strike, so check your rabbits' hutch for droppings every day.
Make sure you check your rabbit's rear end regularly for any signs of soreness, swelling, discoloured fur or a waxy brown substance around their tail or genitals. If you notice that your rabbit has a dirty bottom, wash it gently in tepid water using an antiseptic solution, such as chlorhexidine (Hibiscrub®), and arrange an appointment to see your vet.
As part of your rabbits' regular checks at home, don't forget to keep an eye on the length of their nails. Long nails can be torn out of the nail bed, which can cause a lot of bleeding and even result in your rabbits' dislocating their toes. “Rabbits are burrowing animals and therefore their claws grow continuously” says Brian. “They can become curled and brittle and painful if they don't wear them down naturally.” Below are a few practical tips for cutting your rabbits' claws to make this task as stress-free as possible:
A) Choose a quiet room and place your rabbit on top of a table that's covered with a towel. Support your bunny's bottom (ask a friend or relative to help) as you separate each toe to take hold of the nail.
Never hold your bunnies on their backs, as this can cause them to go in to a ‘trance'; this means that they play dead, as if they've been caught by a predator, which is traumatising for your rabbits.
B) Rabbits have a vein and a nerve in each nail called a ‘quick'. Be sure to avoid cutting the quick, as it will result in significant bleeding. If your rabbits have translucent nails, the quick should be easy to see; otherwise the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund advise shining a torch from behind the nail to identify it.
Start by clipping the tip of the nail and assess for pain before continuing.
C) Have wet cotton swabs ready in case of any bleeding, keeping pressure on the area for a few minutes until it stops. Use talcum powder to help seal the wound should any bleeding occur.
If you have any concerns about cutting your rabbits' nails, you can ask your vet to do this for you.
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