Health Topics


(By P. Alderson DVM)

The domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) descended from the European wild rabbit originating in the Mediterranean. They were introduced into England in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. There are presently 38 breeds registered by the American Rabbit Breeders Assoc. The Dutch Breeds (such as the Holland Lop Ear and the dwarf breeds) are the smaller pet rabbits.

The healthy rabbit shows evidence of self-grooming with no stains on the pelt. Eyes and nose should be clear of discharges. Evidence of discharge may be obvious excessive secretions, or excessive discoloration of the fur (white fur will stain a rusty-reddish colour). There should be no evidence of "noisy" breathing (should be silent). The animal will be alert and continuously examining its environment when not nesting or resting. The rabbit should be well socialized, and not demonstrate undo stress when handled (i.e. should not have excessive increases in heart rate or respiration). Signs of disease include diarrhea or constipation, eye and nose discharge, "noisy" respiration, discoloration of forepaws, sores and abscesses under paws, poor and dull coat, and huddling in cage. It is important to check the rabbits teeth. The teeth should be straight and properly occluded. Malocclusion (improper closing) of the teeth is common in rabbits and can lead to malnutrition or starvation. Once there is a problem with malocclusion, there will always be a problem.


Rabbits do well both inside and outside, but special considerations must be made for both.

INSIDE: Rabbits can be litter trained and develop wonderful temperaments if handled regularly. However, rabbits love to chew things and can do damage to themselves and your furniture (and electrical wiring) if not properly trained. Tabasco sauce or bitter apple spread on objects you have noticed your rabbit chewing will help stop this behaviour. The indoor rabbit loves to go for walks and can be harness trained. Be sure to purchase a harness that crosses over the back and will put weight on the abdomen and NOT the neck. It is best to put the rabbit in a suitable cage when unattended.

OUTSIDE: Rabbits can be housed well in outdoor hutches. The hutch need not be fancy, but it should provide fresh air, indirect sunlight, and protection from the elements. It should also be easily cleaned and disinfected. Some people recommend keeping the rabbit hutch off the ground on a wire mesh flooring, so the feces will drop to the ground leaving the cage clean. There should be a flat, solid area where the bunny sleeps to prevent "sore-hock". You can provide straw or wood-shaving bedding for warmth and comfort. If you prefer to house your rabbit on the ground, be sure to provide a dug-under wire mesh floor to prevent your rabbit from digging and escaping. Also remember that the underground burrows in this type of cage do not provide adequate protection from the environment (they are too shallow) and an insulated "house" should be provided. Hutches should be at least 48 X 24 X 24" for each rabbit.

Rabbit urine is very caustic to certain metals. Aluminum is preferred to galvanized metal.


Rabbits are strict vegetarians. They are also caecal fermenters, which means they get most of their nutrients from the last stages of digestion in the bowel. For this reason, rabbits eat their feces (known as coprophagy). While most of us find this a disgusting concept, it is a normal and necessary behaviour in rabbits. At night they excrete a soft, nutrient-rich feces that is eaten directly from the anus. This is necessary to provide adequate nutrition to the rabbit.

Many rabbits have the tendency to become overweight. The majority of the diet should be hay. Hay provides essential fibre and good nutrition for a rabbit. Hay also encourages chewing which keeps teeth and gums healthy, prevents boredom and fur chewing, and allows for good digestion. Pellets should supplement the hay diet. Keep the pellets to a minimum (approximately one tbsp daily). Buy all food as fresh as possible and in small quantities to prevent the food from becoming stale and losing its nutritional value. Many vitamins and minerals decay over time, so avoid buying in bulk, unless you have many rabbits. If you are switching to a new diet, do this slowly to prevent diarrhea. Remember, diarrhea can be deadly to a rabbit.

Don't give "goodies" to young rabbits, wait until they are at least 3 months old. Young rabbits are very sensitive to diet-induced diarrhea. Adults can tolerate moderate amounts of greens, carrots, etc. Lettuce is 80% water and can produce diarrhea in rabbits, so it is best to avoid it. These "treats" provide no additional nutrition to the rabbit if fed a good balanced diet.

Offer water at all times. It is best to give room-temperature water to young rabbits to prevent diarrhea.

Papain or papaya enzyme tablets can be given to prevent hairball obstruction.


Rabbits have relatively fragile bones that can be easily broken, so it is essential that the rabbit be handled properly. The rabbit should NOT be grasped by the ears. The animal is lifted with its HIND QUARTERS SUPPORTED. Not supporting the hind end may cause damage to the spine and may lead to a broken back. A rabbit's primary defense is its claws. They are powerful and sharp. Be aware of both the fore- and hind- paws at all times when handling even the gentlest of rabbits. A rabbit may unintentionally scratch you when frightened. Like cats, they can transmit "Cat Scratch Fever", a mild fever and flu-like disease, to humans. Rabbits have a habit of leaping as the hind legs leave the ground. Be aware of this when lifting a rabbit out of a cage and be sure its back is protected from injury. If during restraint the rabbit begins squealing, gently release and calm it to prevent sudden death from heart failure. NEVER DROP A RABBIT FROM ANY HEIGHT!!


Rabbits respond to aggression by aggression. So, NEVER hit a rabbit to discipline it, it may become aggressive and develop nasty traits such as biting and scratching. If you need to train your rabbit, use a squirt gun filled with water. This creates a noxious stimulus that the rabbit will try to avoid, hence the rabbit will attempt to "be good". Rabbits respond best by visual and olfactory (smell) clues. Voice is also a stimulus, but not as important. Your rabbit will respond well to a gentle tone of voice, but recognition of individuals appears to be by visual and olfactory cues.

Veterinary Care

Yearly physical examinations are advised to detect early signs of disease. The most common ailment is malocclusion, or an irregular dental bite. This can lead to serious problems, such as starvation, if not attended to. Some rabbits need teeth trimming every 3 - 4 months. Fecal analysis should be run yearly to rule out intestinal parasites, a very common problem. Rabbits are also frequently spayed and neutered to prevent unwanted pregnancy and for general good health. Rabbits do not require vaccinations.