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COVID-19 update: Client advice on what to do during the Coronavirus pandemic

Rabbits and Guinea Pigs

  • Rabbit healthcare
  • Rabbit diets
  • Rabbit Vaccinations
  • Neutering
  • Dental Problems
  • Guinea pig healthcare

Rabbit healthcare

In recent years, rabbits have become the third most popular pet in the UK. They behave and feel different from other common pets like dogs and cats, and also have specific requirements.

Diet

Your rabbit’s diet should be based on good quality hay and vegetables. A small amount of pelleted food will also be necessary to ensure an extra supplementation of vitamins and minerals. Half an eggcup for small rabbits or an eggcup for big ones should be enough. Muesli diets are not recommended as your rabbit will select the bits he or she prefers and will leave the rest, therefore getting an unbalanced diet. An appropriate diet will prevent dental and gastrointestinal problems.

Companionship

Rabbits are social animals and will always prefer to live in groups. Ideally a neutered female and a neutered male will be the best option although two females and two males can sometimes be kept together if they are neutered at an early age before they start fighting. Rabbits and guinea pigs should never be kept together due to behavioural and feeding differences and the risk of cross infection and trauma as the guinea pig could be kicked by the strong back legs of the rabbit.

Housing

A hutch as big as possible (minimum hutch size of 6' x 2' x 2') and protected from predators such as cats, foxes, birds would be ideal. Provide them with toys and places to hide as rabbits are very shy animals and need a place to hide in when they feel scared. A hutch should only be a shelter and not the only living space. It should be attached to a secure run of at least 8' x 4' where the rabbits can run and jump. The hutch should always be protected from extreme weather and kept dry and well ventilated with an additional indoor area where they can be kept when the weather is too cold. Good shading will also be essential to prevent heat stroke especially in hot or sunny days. Check RWAF's “A Hutch is Not Enough” campaign at: http://www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk

Vaccinations

Myxomatosis

This is a fatal disease transmitted by direct contact with affected animals or more often by biting insects like fleas and mosquitoes. Even indoor rabbits can be affected as biting insects can access any house.

VHD

Also a fatal disease that can be transmitted by anything that has been contaminated with the virus like clothes, shoes, car tyres, insects...

Both vaccinations are now given together from 5 weeks of age and need to be repeated anually.

Neutering

Advised at around 5 months of age as it will prevent health problems (womb cancer affects an 80% of entire females over 5 years old) and behavioural problems (urine spraying in the house, biting and fighting...). Note that after castration males will still be fertile for 4-6 weeks and therefore should be separated from entire females.

Mites - Very common. Can be treated successfully with a spot on.

E. Cuniculi - Parasite that affects a high proportion of wild and domestic rabbits. It can cause urinary, eye and neurological problems.

Abscesses - These can be challenging in rabbits as they can behave like tumours. Prompt and aggressive treatment is often neccessary.

Snuffles - Very common and mainly caused by a bacterial infection called pasteurellosis. Some rabbits might need longterm treatment.

Flystrike - Frequent in old or sick rabbits that won't groom themselves very well but it can happen to any rabbits. Routine prevention with Rearguard is advised during spring/summer.

Gut stasis - Rabbit digestive system is very delicate and can suffer from this disease which is very painful and can be fatal if left untreated.

Dental Problems - Routine check ups and a good diet will help prevent them.

Fractures - Rabbit bones are very thin and therefore prone to fractures. Good handling is essential.

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Rabbit diets

The phrase “you are what you eat” is especially true for rabbits. Many of the common diseases of pet rabbits could be avoided by feeding them the correct diet. Unfortunately, most pet rabbits are being fed the rabbit equivalent of “junk food”.

Wild rabbits eat mainly grass, which is high in fibre and silicates. Their teeth and digestive tract are designed to grind down and digest the high levels of fibre and silicates found in grass. Traditional rabbit mixes, however, are much lower in fibre, and high in carbohydrates (sugars and starches). This means the rabbit’s teeth are underused, and so overgrow. The carbohydrate also causes gut upsets - diarrhoea, bloat and colic. Rabbits will also often pick out their favourite bits of mixes - a process known as “selective feeding”, exacerbating the nutritional imbalance in the food.

The following rabbit diseases can all be directly or indirectly caused by diet:

  • Dental disease
  • Colic
  • Obesity
  • Fly strike
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Bloat
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abscesses

Grass and hay should form the major component of your rabbit’s diet, to ensure adequate fibre intake. A small amount of vegetables daily will help to provide essential vitamins and minerals - but don’t feed too much, and avoid fruits as their high sugar content can cause gut upsets.

Supplement this with a small amount for commercial rabbit food. Cheack the fibre content of the food - it should be marked on the packaging, and should be at least 14% - ideally 20%. Using pelleted foood rather than mixes will prevent “selective feeding”.

Avoid rabbit treats such as chocolate drops and honey carrots they are high in sugars.

Grass and hay

  • Your rabbit should have unlimited access to hay and / or grass
  • Avoid lawnmower clippings, as these ferment, causing tummy upset
  • Let your rabbit run around the lawn - the exercise will do them good
  • Ensure hay is good quality, and make sure it doesn’t get wet
  • Feed hay from a height using racks or hay bags, so it doesn’t get soiled

Dry rabbit food

  • Check the fibre content on the label - it should be a minimum of 14%, and ideally 20%.
  • Some rabbits will pick out their favourite bits of rabbit mixes, and leave the rest - this is called selective feeding
  • Selective feeding can be prevented by not topping up the bowl until your rabbit has emptied it
  • Alternatively, feed rabbit pellets to prevent selective feeding
  • Feed no more than a small handful of dry food a day

Vegetables

  • Feed a small vegetable portion daily as a source of vitamins
  • Green leaves such as kale spring greens and dandelions should only be fed occasionally as they can cause urinary problems
  • Avoid fruit as the high sugar content can cause tummy upsets

*Remember to change your rabbit’s food gradually to avoid stomach upsets*

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Rabbit Vaccinations

Rabbits are the third most popular pet in the UK. Just as with cats and dogs, vaccinations are available to protect rabbits against common diseases. Vaccinations can prevent diseases which are distressing and usually fatal.

How do vaccines work?

A vaccine is a liquid containing bacteria or viruses that is used to stimulate an immune reaction. Because the immune system has memory, it will produce a quicker and stronger response to subsequent contact with the infection being vaccinated against.

The bacteria or virus in the vaccine is killed or altered so that it stimulates an immune reaction, but does not cause disease. Killed vaccines are less likely to cause disease, but also produce a weaker immune response.

What can rabbits be vaccinated against?

Myxomatosois

This is a viral disease that is spread by rabbit fleas and other biting insects.

Affected rabbits are depressed, and develop swelling around the eyes and ears, accompanied by discharge from the eyes and nose. This disease is usually fatal with the only option being euthanasia. Very mild cases may respond to symptomatic treatment.

Wild rabbits with myxomatosis can often be seen at the side of the road.

Viral haeamorrhagic disease (VHD)

This is a disease that is spread by direct contact with an infected rabbit or with contaminated objects such as hutches, food and clothing.

The virus causes severe damage to several internal organs, but primarily the liver. Because the disease is so acute, affected rabbits are often found dead. Other symptoms include depression and bleeding from the eyes and nose. There is no treatment for this disease and it is always fatal.

Do house rabbits need vaccination?

Because of the way they are spread, both these diseases can affect rabbits kept indoors.

Myxomatosis can be caught from biting insects such as midges, which can fly substantial distances. Viral haemorrhagic disease can be spread on bedding, feed, or on people’s feet, over several hundred miles.

When can I get my rabbit vaccinated?

Vaccination can be given from five weeks of age. There is now a combined vaccine that covers against both myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease.

Annual boosters are advisable. The new vaccine provides a longer immunity against myxomatosis, so that six- monthly boosters for myxomatosis are no longer necessary.

What are the risks?

As with most vaccinations, a localised swelling can sometimes be seen at the site of injection, but it is not painful and usually disappears within three weeks. Allergic reactions have been reported, but are uncommon.

For further information on rabbit vaccinations, please contact the practice.

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Neutering

Why?

It stops them from breeding - Baby rabbits need a lot of attention and finding the right owners for each of them can be challenging. There are already many breeders and rabbits that need rehoming and therefore breeding them yourself is unnecessary.

It reduces the risk of reproductive diseases - such as uterine infections (pyometra) and uterine cancer (usually adenocarcinoma). This is especially important in females as up to 80% of entire females develop uterine cancer by 5 years of age.

Neutered rabbits are calmer and easier to handle. They aren’t as territorial (entire rabbits are more likely to spray the house with urine, chase and bite you...) and they also make better companions for other rabbits (entire rabbits are more likely to fight).

Neutered rabbits are easier to litter train.

What is Done? 

Castration (males): both testicles are removed through small incisions in the scrotum or lower abdomen.

Spay (females): uterus and ovaries are removed through an abdominal incision. This is a bigger operation than castration, but if it has to be done at a later age due to reproductive disease, then the risks would be much higher.

When?

Ideally when they are around 5 months old. Older animals will still benefit from neutering as it will still prevent reproductive illnesses but it might not be always as effective at changing unwanted behaviours if they have already become habit.

On the day of the operation we will:

  • Ask you to bring your rabbit in the morning. Rabbits SHOULD NEVER be starved overnight.
  • Examine your rabbit to make sure it is in a good condition to have a general anaesthetic.
  • Keep your rabbit in our “only small mammal” kennel area far from predators such as cats and dogs to reduce the stress and fear.
  • Give your rabbit a pain killer before the procedure.
  • Pre-oxygenate your rabbit prior and during the anaesthetic to improve the anaesthetic outcome. 
  • Intubate him/her to ensure airway access during the operation.
  • Keep your rabbit warm during the procedure as hypothermia is one of the main risks in small mammals under GA. We might even keep him/her in our incubator after the operation.
  • Send him/her home as soon as possible after the operation (usually around 3-5 oclock) so he/she can go back to his/her normal life straight away. A nurse will discuss postoperative care when you come to pick him/her up.
  • Check him/her 2 and 10 days after the operation to make sure he/she is having a smooth recovery.

Male rabbits will still be fertile and therefore able to mate for up to 6 weeks after the operation so we will advise you to keep him away from any entire females you might have.

Main Possible Complications

Anaesthetic risk in rabbits is always slightly higher than in dogs and cats, but this risk can be substantially reduced by performing good anaesthetic procedures.

Older animals or those with medical problems such as obesity and snuffles will be at higher risk so we recommend you to discuss it with one of our vets in order to choose the best option for your pet.

After the operation you need to make sure your rabbit starts eating and going to the toilet as soon as possible as it is very important that the digestive system starts working again. If you experience problems with this, your rabbit might need extra medication to stimulate the gut. If in doubt it is always better to contact us and we will give you some advice or will ask you to bring your rabbit back to be examined.

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Dental Problems

Tooth problems are one of the most common diseases encountered in domestic rabbits and they can cause pain and stress and in severe cases even lead to death. This is such a big problem because rabbit teeth will grow continually throughout their life, unlike human teeth, and so they need to be worn down constantly and properly.

Signs of tooth problems in rabbits

  • Reduced appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Change in food preferences
  • Drooling
  • Discharge from eyes
  • Diarrhoea
  • Reduced grooming
  • Facial abscesses

What causes dental problems in rabbits?

Misalignment of teeth: especially round headed breeds like Lops and Netherland Dwarfs.

Any events causing trauma (fractures of the teeth).

Diet: this is one of the main factors in dental disease. A diet based on unlimited hay and greens and with reduced amounts of pellets (half an eggcup daily) will ensure a continuous use of their teeth as they will have to chew large quantities of both hay and vegetables to get their daily energy requirements. If your rabbit is eating large quantities of pellets he will quickly get all the energy he needs and won’t need to eat much more for the rest of the day. This will lead to long teeth that aren’t worn down properly and therefore to dental disease.

Lack of sunlight: This is especially important in indoor rabbits. Sun light is essential for calcium metabolism and the lack of this will lead to weak tooth cavities and therefore teeth problems. Rabbits should have access to sunlight at least 2 hours every day.

Diagnosis of Dental Disease 

Regular examinations by a vet are very important as back teeth are very difficult to check without the appropriate tools. A general anaesthetic might be necessary for a better understanding of the problem.

Xrays will show bone abnormalities and will allow your vet to assess the root of the tooth. This is especially important when dealing with tooth root abscesses.

What can we do when there is dental disease?

  • Incisors can be burred down and this doesn’t usually require a general anaesthetic. Trying to do this at home could damage the tooth root causing pain.
  • Cheek teeth can also be burred down when overgrown or when they have formed spurs. In this case it will always be done under a general anaesthetic.
  • Incisors can be removed when necessary but removal of cheek teeth will only be considered in very severe cases.
  • Tooth root abscesses can be treated but will usually require extraction of that tooth too.
  • Tear ducts can be flushed and secondary infection can be treated, but it often reoccurs.

Unfortunately rabbits with dental disease will often require frequent treatments.

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Guinea pig healthcare

Guinea pigs are very social animals and make great pets, but they have specific requirements that need to be fulfilled to ensure a long and happy life.

Diet

Guinea pigs are unable to produce vitamin C themselves so they require a balanced diet that provides it. It is always worth supplementing it in sick animals..

A balanced diet will be based on:

  • Good quality and unlimited hay (limiting alfalfa hay to young cavies, pregnant or nursing females or malnourised adults due to its high content of calcium that could lead to bladder stones).
  • Green vegetables and herbs.
  • Concentrates: it is always better to feed pelletted food to prevent selective feeding.
  • Try to limit fruit and provide it only occasionally and in small amounts as a treat.

Companionship

Guinea pigs are very social animals that prefer living in groups. It is best to keep animals of the same sex that have grown up together. Even then males might start fighting due to dominance problems. In these cases increasing the size of the cage and increasing food and water resources might improve the situation. If not, castration can sometimes reduce aggressive behaviours but it needs to be done as soon as possible as these can become a learned behaviour and therefore a habit. If keeping males and females together it will be advisable to castrate the males (spaying a female is more invasive and risky) as they can start breeding from very early ages.

Housing

The cage must be at least 0.9m2 per guinea pig and 30 cm high, and solid flooring is always best as wires can cause damage to their legs. Absorbent bedding material will be neccessary (wood shavings, shredded paper) but straw is definitely contraindicated as it can damage their eyes and genital tract.

Indoor housing will be essential during extreme weather conditions (freezing days in winter or very hot days in summer) but an outdoor cage will be essential as well, to ensure exercise and grazing. They will need places to hide as they are very nervous animals, and toys to keep them entertained.

Always ensure they are protected from predators such as birds, cats.

Bladder Infections and Stones

One of the signs is blood coming out with the urine. Investigation might include xrays, scans and urine examination...If left untreated it can be fatal.

Signs of Pain in Guinea Pigs

  • Lack of appetite
  • Changes in toiletting
  • Excess water consumption
  • Heavy breathing
  • Squealing
  • Flinching
  • Pressing his/her tummy on the floor
  • Sunken eyes
  • Weight loss
  • Fitting episodes
  • Lameness
  • Scaly coat
  • Change in behaviour
  • Pulling his/her own hair out
  • Drooling

Guinea Pigs are not small rabbits!

Guinea pigs have different needs to rabbits and behave and communicate in a different way too. Keeping them together can affect them emotionally as they wont be able to understand each other and it would be a health risk as rabbits can carry diseases that guinea pigs are extremely sensitive too. Due to different nutritional needs guinea pigs should never be fed rabbit food either.

Common Diseases

Parasites

Very common. Can be treated with a spot on/ injection by your vet.

Dental Problems

This can affect the front or back teeth and is best checked by a vet, as access to the back teeth is not easy without the appropriate tools.

Sores on Feet

Keeping a dry and clean cage is the best way to avoid this problem. Avoiding wired flooring is also essential. Obesity is a risk factor.

Diarrhoea

Can be fatal if left untreated. Sudden changes in the diet, stress, innappropriate food or other illnesses can cause it.

Scurvy

Guinea pigs can't produce vitamin C so they depend on the content of it in their diet. A lack of it can cause lameness, joint swelling, dermatitis, weight loss. Cheap or innapropiate food may not have enough in it.

Ovarian Cysts

Very common. Xrays and scans may need to be carried to confirm, and most times neutering to remove the ovaries is the treatment of choice.

Heat Stroke

Guinea pigs are very sensitive to high temperatures and humidity.

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