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Advice for rabbit owners

What does a rabbit eat and how should your rabbit live? How do you tell if your rabbit is sick and how do you get a rabbit to enjoy walking on a leash? Veterinarian Marianne Tornvall, specialist in the treatment of exotic animals, has the answer to these questions and much more.
Advice for rabbit owners

What does a rabbit eat?

Like horses and cows, rabbits are grazing animals. In the wild, they eat the grass, weeds, leaves, branches and plants that they can reach. When we have rabbits as pets, we give them hay, branches and leafy vegetables to make it as similar to the natural food as possible. In the summer, you can pick a lot of the rabbit's food outdoors.

As a treat, you can give a small piece of carrot, fruit or berry once a week or a few pieces of dried fruit or a piece of crisp bread. Nuts, seeds, cookies, chocolate, breakfast cereals, sweets and other sweetened foods should be avoided altogether. Dog and cat food must be placed so that rabbits can't access it.

What does the rabbit need to feel good?

It is important that the rabbit lives as large as possible and that the rabbit is let out at least once a day. A thick layer of straw in their living space is good as it is soft and comfortable for them to walk on, and most rabbits like to dig in and play with the straw. Rabbits like to dig, not just in straw. Let the rabbit dig in the soil when you are outside or give it a box with deep layers of soil or bedding material.

In the toilet corner you can have a toilet drawer or just fill the corner with something that absorbs, for example paper pellets. Rabbits can be trained to use a litter tray if you want to give them access to more of your home.

There must be a house or a tunnel for your rabbit to hide in. It is also good to think about stimulation in the form of scattered feed, activation toys, trick training, hay balls, etc. Water can be given either in a bowl or a water bottle. You must change the water at least once a day.

Can you keep your rabbit outside all year round?

This is fine as long as the rabbit has a dry, clean and insulated house to go into if it gets cold. You can fill the house with straw, which insulates well on really cold days.

Should you have one or more rabbits?

In the wild, rabbits live in large family groups. They therefore feel best if they are joined by one or more buddies. It is best to get two or more rabbits from the start. Keep in mind that it can be difficult to put together two rabbits that don't know each other. Ask someone knowledgeable if you are in doubt about the best way to do it. Rabbits that live together (and are not to be used for breeding) should be castrated to reduce the risk of accidental breeding or conflicts between the rabbits.

Are there different breeds of rabbits?

Yes, there are many different breeds. Everything from the little ermine rabbits to the big Belgian giants.

How old does a rabbit get?

A rabbit lives for about 8-10 years, but can get older than that. The really large breeds live a little shorter.

How to tell if the rabbit is sick?

It can be difficult to tell if a rabbit is sick. Because rabbits in the wild can be attacked and eaten by predators, they are good at pretending to be healthy. The slightest change in how the rabbit behaves can therefore be a sign that your rabbit is sick. It may be that your rabbit does not jump forward when the food is served, that it suddenly starts biting, that it urinates in the wrong place or that it loses a lot of fur.

Really serious signs of illness are if the rabbit does not want to eat or it can't poop. Then there is always a rush to the vet!

What diseases are common in rabbits?

It is common for rabbits to get runny noses. They are also prone to stomach problems.

Rabbits can get ear infections and dental diseases. There is also a troublesome parasite that can cause diseases of the nervous system or the kidneys.

How do you get your rabbit to like walking on a leash?

Being harsh with a rabbit never pays off. On the contrary, when they become stressed and afraid which makes them very difficult to handle. Therefore, you have to slowly and carefully get the rabbit used to the harness. Give small treats while you're at it so that the rabbit thinks it's "worth it" to wear the harness.

What is good for a rabbit to gnaw on?

Rabbits like to gnaw on most things, even things that aren't suitable, electrical cords for example. The best thing to give are natural branches of various kinds. A favourite is usually branches from fruit trees. Of course, the trees must not be sprayed.

About the Author

Marianne is specialist vet working for Agria Djurförsäkring. She specialises in small and exotic animals.

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