Two of the most important aspects of maintaining your rabbit’s health are proper diet and sufficient exercise. Provide these two things and you’ll go a long way to giving your rabbit a healthy life.
Become familiar with your rabbit's normal behavior, so you can detect any changes that might indicate health problems. In particular, you should know how much hay and pellets he normally eats in a day, how much water he drinks and his activity level when exercising. If you have a bonded pair, you must be even more diligent about knowing your bunnies and their habits in order to know which bunny does what. If you notice a change in any of these behaviors, it’s cause for concern.
Rabbits do not require periodic medications, such as heartworm medication or vaccinations. It is a good idea to have your rabbit examined by a veterinarian experienced in rabbit care once per year. A professional can spot problems that you might miss.
Maintaining your bunnies’ weight at the proper level is one of the best things you can do for his health, and it’s not difficult. By controlling your bunnies’ diet, you can usually prevent him from becoming overweight, which will help him in lots of ways. So, how do you evaluate your bunnies’ weight? In this section, we’ll give you some guidelines.
Keeping extra weight off your bunny will have many benefits, both for him and you. The cardiovascular system (heart and lungs) of an overweight rabbit will need to work extra hard and suffer for it, just like in humans. The joints will also be taxed carrying the extra weight around. An improper diet (and/or lack of exercise) is the usual cause of an overweight bunny. An improper diet can also cause soft stools and the accompanying messy hind end. In fact, this is one sign that your rabbit is overweight. Fixing the diet not only results in a better weight, the messy bottom can clear up too - which makes everyone happy! Your rabbit’s intestinal system is highly efficient; in fact, some of the food is processed twice in order to extract all the goodness. The result are cecotropes - small, glossy and smelly “droppings”. The rabbit will usually eat these directly from the anus when they are produced, so you usually don’t see them. However, if your bunny is overweight, he might not be able to reach around himself to reach them. Thus he is denied their nutrition and they can make a mess. So, if you see cecotropes lying around, it’s time to take a careful look at your bunnies’ weight.
It’s always a good idea to pay attention to your rabbits’ weight. Become very familiar with how he looks and how his body feels, so you can detect any changes. Weighing him once a month gives you a more precise way to detect changes when they start to occur. When you run your hands over a healthy rabbit, you should readily feel the spine and ribs, with a thin layer of padding. As a rabbit gains weight, it’s spine, ribs and even hips become more difficult to feel distinctly. Fat accumulates on the chest and stomach areas, and may even hang down. When your bunny is standing “at attention” (i.e. up on all legs), his stomach should not be on the floor. When a rabbit is overweight, he can have rolls of fat around the tail and ankles.
When you look at your rabbit, you should be able to see definition of his hind hips. Look at her from above - his hips should tuck in a bit just ahead of the hind legs. If he looks like a pear, he’s overweight! A rabbit that is too thin will feel “bony” along its spine and ribs. Depressions on each side of the pelvis and spine will develop.
If you bunny is overweight, it’s time to evaluate his diet. Stick to unlimited quantities of good quality timothy hay and very LIMITED quantities of timothy pellets (just pellets - not the type mixed with treats) and fresh greens. If he’s overweight, he’s probably not eating right, so you need to take care of him by eliminating treats from his diet. You can probably cut back on the pellets as well. You want him to be eating mainly hay. It’s so much fun to give them treats, but they’ll eat way too many of them - and it doesn’t take much to be “way too much” as a rabbit doesn’t process sugar very well.
Have fun with your bunny by interacting with him in other ways than sweet treats. Get him some new toys to play with, rather than giving him treats. Or some timothy cubes, which can be fun because they are compressed. He’ll happier and healthier.
Rabbits need plenty of exercise. Their personality will come out the more they are allowed to exercise and explore. Furthermore, their intestinal system needs the motion of hopping in order to function properly. A rabbit that is not sufficiently active has a good chance of developing stasis - a kind of shutting down of the digestive system that can be fatal. (See Health section for more information.)
Place the rabbit’s pen in a room you frequently use, so that when he is exercising he can interact with you. He’ll like the stimulation your activities provide. A room where you read or watch television can make a good room for your rabbit. Some bunnies hop up on the couch to be with you when you are reading or watching.
Your rabbits time outside his pen is essential to his good health. So it is essential that you provide him several hours a day outside his pen. A rule of thumb is that the smaller the pen, the more time he’ll need outside of it to get sufficient exercise and stimulation.
Give your bunny run time when he or she is most likely to be active - usually early in the morning and later in the evening. Make that free time count! Rabbits will be active throughout the night. Once you are comfortable with him in the bunny-proof room, leave his pen door open all night long. He’ll get lots of extra exercise while you are sleeping!
Also provide plenty of toys (see sidebar to the right for specific suggestions.) You want him to have several things to play with (chew) so that he doesn’t become bored with the same old thing. Every once in a while, give him something new. Be sure to try lots of different types of toys so you learn what he likes, and he has plenty of variety to keep him engaged. Its’ good for his mind as well as his body.
Rabbits will normally be active for a relatively short period of time, then take a short break. The break can consist of sitting quietly, grooming or lying down. After the break, he’ll be active again. The cycle will repeat itself. So, if your bunny is exercising and takes a break, it doesn’t mean he is done exercising and needs to go back to his pen.
Never, ever, pick up your rabbit by his ears or scruff of his neck. You’ll hurt him and can do permanent damage.
You want your bunny to be well supported and held firmly, which helps him feel safe.
The position in which you’ll hold and carry your rabbit is with his side against your chest, pointed towards the left, with your right hand around his front shoulders and your left arm and hand supporting his underside and hind feet. (If you are left handed, reverse these instructions for left and right.) In this way, if he struggles, you have a good hold of him. Hold him firmly enough so that he knows he won’t fall. Now, to get him into this position!
Approach him calmly and slowly. Stroke his head or back a bit. Then, put your hands around his front shoulders. Lift him up and against your chest and, once he is there, slide your left hand down to support his hind feet, with his underside resting on your left arm. Keep your right hand on his front shoulders and your right arm against his body, pressing in slightly. In this way, if he struggles, you have a good hold of him.
An alternative to holding him with his side against your chest is to have his underside against your chest, while you have one hand supporting his hind feet and one hand around his front shoulders.
If he keeps running away from you, look where he his headed and reach your hands in front of him. Frequently your hands will get there when he does and you can catch him at his front shoulders, which is the easiest and safest way to stop him.
He won’t like being held in the air as it will feel unsafe to him. So, prior to picking him up, get down as close to him as you can, to minimize the amount of time he is in the air. Likewise, when you put him down, don’t hold him out in front of you in both of your hands, with him facing away from you. From his perspective, he’s just facing open air in front of him and will feel very vulnerable. Get down as low as you can and move him down from your chest, but don’t rotate his body away from yours. Keep a firm grip on his front shoulders and your left arm supporting him for as long as you can.
If your bunny struggles when you are picking him up, it’s not unusual that you end up with your hands around his middle or hind portion. Don’t increase the pressure of your grip in an attempt to restrain him. It is easy to damage your rabbits back or hind skeletal structure. His bones are actually quite delicate as nature has built him for speed, so his bones are light and fragile. So, if he slips in your hands from the position you want, it’s frequently better to just let him go and try again.
If he is in his pen that has a top or a cage, you’ll need to first get him outside of it. The best way is to open the door and let him come out on his own. If you need to remove him from the cage, it’s usually best to do so hind end first. Put your hands around his front shoulders and middle section area. Lift him as little as possible and bring him through the door - hind end first. If he struggles too much, or he slips forward so that your hands are around only his middle or hind end, it’s usually better to let him go and try again. If that happens, gently pet him and talk reassuringly to him, then try again.
You will need to trim your rabbits toenails; probably every four to six weeks. Have clippers and tissue with you. Put a towel in your lap and turn your bunny over on its back. Be very gentle when doing so - he’s going to struggle at first. You can orient him away from your body, between your slightly separated legs (see picture), or alongside your stomach with one of your arms alongside his body on the side away from you. Keep his head slightly lower than his rear end. He will go into what is commonly called a trance - but it's not actually a trance. It’s a self defense method of playing dead, used sometimes when caught by a predator. When the predator drops the rabbit, it will burst into action and try to escape. So, you need to be ready for your bunny to burst into action when you are working with him this way. If your bunny won’t settle down and continues to struggle, you can wrap him in a towel (with his head outside). This will make it more difficult for him to struggle and, frequently, rabbits will then settle down.
Once your rabbit is relaxed, gently take a paw and examine the nails. You need to identify the vein, also called the quick, that is inside the nail. It will extend down from the paw, part way to the end of the nail. You need to cut between the end of vein and the end of the nail, avoiding the vein. Squeeze the clipper blades until there is a gentle pressure on the nail. If the rabbit doesn’t pull the paw, go ahead and cut. Use a quick, firm cut, square to the nail. You’ll be gently but firmly holding the paw with one hand during this procedure; use a finger or thumb of that hand to support the nail while you cut, so that the nail doesn’t move while it’s being cut.
It can be difficult to see the vein, especially if your bunnies nails are dark. You can use a flashlight to illuminate the nail from the side away from you, which may allow you to see the vein. It will be lighter than the nail, usually like pink in color.
If you do cut the vein, it will bleed and your bunny will likely struggle to get up. Don’t apply too much force to keep him on his back, or he’ll hurt himself. Use a tissue and apply gentle pressure for about a minute. That should stop the bleeding. Let your bunny clean up his paw as he wishes.
You can also give your rabbit a basic examination for obvious problems. His eyes, nose and mouth should be clean without any discharge or fur with dried discharge. Ears should be clean, with no wax or dried, crusty appearing material. Do not put anything in his ear (such as a Q-Tip) to clean it. If there are problems, have him examined by your veterinarian.
Check around his genitals for cleanliness. Rabbits with long fur can sometimes have droppings stuck in their fur or the fur can be matted. If so, use a fine-tooth comb to gently brush them out. If need be, use witch hazel to wet and soften the fur and material, then gently brush them out. Chronic problems should be seen by a veterinarian.
Rabbits have a very complex digestive system, designed to get all possible goodness from their diet. In addition to the normal droppings produced (round and hard), which is waste material, their digestive system also produces cecotropes. Cecotropes are soft, gel-like droppings, frequently clustered together. They are covered in a shiny film and have a strong odor. Unlike the normal droppings, cecotropes are not waste material. In fact, they are rich sources of proteins, certain vitamins, fiber and other nutrients. Most rabbits will eat them directly from the anus as they are produced. However, you might find them around your rabbit's pen (or elsewhere). It is best to leave them for your bunny, as they are very good for his health. Rabbits that are too heavy can have problems reaching their anus in order to collect the cecotropes. If you see cecotropes on a frequent basis, you should evaluate your bunnies weight.
The information below is a useful reference for understanding your rabbit. However, if you are concerned about your rabbit’s health, it is not a substitute for diagnosis and treatment by a veterinarian experienced in the care of rabbits.
One of the more common problems that rabbits develop is gastrointestinal stasis. It is a slowing down of the digestive process. It is a very serious condition that can cause rapid deterioration and death. Symptoms include a reduction or stopping of eating or a reduction in the amount and size of droppings.
Stasis can be caused by many factors including lack of sufficient exercise, stress, gas bubbles in the stomach, an abscess, changes in their diet (i.e. new pellets), eating the wrong foods or disorders of the gastrointestinal tract. Some rabbits become prone to stasis as they get older.
If your rabbit is showing any of the symptoms of stasis, you need to take action right away. The health of a rabbit that is not eating properly can deteriorate very quickly. Take your rabbit to a veterinarian who has experience treating rabbits.
A rabbit with teeth problems can also stop eating. An examination of a rabbit that is not eating should include a thorough examination of its teeth and mouth.
Diarrhea is another symptom of possible serious problems in a rabbit. A rabbit with diarrhea should see a qualified veterinarian right away.
If your rabbit becomes overheated he can develop heat stroke. Symptoms include labored breathing, panting, flaring of the nostrils, distress or disorientation or, in some cases, convulsions. Heat stroke can lead to death and requires treatment. Mist his ears with cool water. Never put your rabbit into cold water or run him under cold water; the sudden change in temperature can kill him, and in any event, the process will only add to his stress. Take him to his veterinarian for treatment.
If your rabbit stops (or significantly reduces) his eating, stops urinating or defecating, or becomes listless you need to get him to a qualified veterinarian right away. Rabbits frequently don't show signs of health problems until they have progressed - so don't delay in seeking professional advice.
Most veterinarians do not have significant experiences diagnosing and treating rabbits. Rabbits have unique biology, diseases and reactions to medications. Find a veterinarian who has treated many rabbits. And do so before problems arise - having a sick bunny is no time to be searching for a veterinarian.
Providing lots of toys will keep your bunny stimulated, active and exercised. Remember, the more he is interested in chewing on toys the less interested he'll be in your belongings!
Different rabbits like different toys, so experiment until you find what your bunny likes. These items are frequently enjoyed by rabbits:
Willow and wicker baskets - untreated.
Books - hardbound, paperback, phone books.
Tree branches - Apple, willow, weeping willow and maple are favorites. Make sure the tree has not been treated with pesticides.
Corrugated cardboard hidey houses.
Plastic whiffle balls, with and without “jingly” bells.
Cardboard boxes or rolls. Stuff them with hay to make them more interesting.
You'll find a good selection of toys at: