Rabbits, monitoring their health

To keep your pet rabbit happy and healthy, you should keep an eye on it. Rabbits are very special pets, while their teeth continue to grow for most of their lives, they digest their food using hindgut fermentation and they stress easily.

1. Always make sure that you lift your rabbit up correctly. It is important to support the hind-legs. A rabbit has very powerful hind legs and a relatively fragile skeleton. When the rabbit suddenly kicks, without hind leg support, it can cause a fracture in the spinal cord. Another tip: when you cover the eyes of a rabbit, it quickly relaxes.

2. The nutrition has a great influence on your rabbit’s health. High-quality fibre should make up 20-25% of the diet. A rabbit should have unlimited access to hay such as timothy, teff, meadow, oat or orchard grass. High fibre pellets should consist of more than 20% fibre and less than 16 % protein. This diet should be supplemented with fresh vegetables and fruits.

3. South African rabbits do not have to receive vaccinations for the deathly myxomatosis virus. This virus is not present in South Africa, for this same reason no rabbits can be imported into South Africa.

4. A rabbit’s teeth continue to grow during most of their lives. They require constant chewing on hay to wear down the teeth. Rabbits with teeth problems will often show loss of appetite, poor condition, ocular discharge, or digestive disturbance. If the teeth grow too long or painful points develop on the teeth they must be corrected under general anaesthesia. It is not possible to conduct the examination without sedation because of the fleshy tongue, long and narrow oral cavity, and skin folds.

5. Pain, dental disease, incorrect diet, intestinal obstruction, or stress can result in gastrointestinal stasis. This is a syndrome where the stomach and intestinal muscular contractions are diminished. This then results in an imbalance of the intestinal bacteria. Your rabbit will often show anorexia, a decrease in stool production, lethargy, hunch up or teeth grinding. Bring your rabbit to the veterinarian as soon as possible. The quicker treatment is started the better the survival rate is.

6. When rabbits show dirty fur around their anus it can indicate that your rabbit suffers from diarrhoea, bladder infection, bladder stones, obesity, or pain. It is important to find the cause of the problem. Always clean the area to prevent secondary dermatitis (skin infection).

7. Nasal discharge can indicate upper respiratory disease, if not treated it can develop into pneumonia. Your rabbit will require a visit to the veterinarian where he will receive antibiotics and even nebulization.

8. A rabbit that is showing hypothermia (low body temperature), pale mucous membrane, bradycardia (slow heartbeat) and low blood pressure, is most likely in shock and should be taken to the veterinarian as soon as possible.

9. Rabbits can get a variety of skin diseases. They are susceptible to fleas, lice, mites and ear mites. All these parasites can cause severe itching and hair loss. It is important to take your rabbit to the veterinarian to make the correct diagnosis and treatment. Ringworm is a fungus that causes round lesions with hair loss, a topical ringworm ointment is required for treatment. Especially rabbits kept outdoor can get severe problems with maggots (fly larvae) or mango fly larva on and in the skin. These larvae will eat away your rabbits’ tissue.

10. Deworming is only necessary when the rabbits showing signs of intestinal parasites. They will either over-groom the rectal area or have diarrhoea.

11. Urinary tract problems can occur, such as blood in urine, bladder infection or bladder stones. High calcium intake can result in urinary tract problems, while rabbits have a much higher excretion of calcium in the urine. Lucerne has a high calcium content, therefore it should only be given in moderation. If your rabbit shows signs of frequent urination, blood in the urine or straining while urination, then you should take your rabbit to the veterinarian.

Please contact us for more information.

Written by Dr Tessa Brouwer, BVSc, MSc, BSc


Fisher P.G. 2011, Rabbit medicine overview, CVC IN KANSAS CITY PROCEEDINGS, http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/rabbit-medicine-overview-proceedings.

Flecknell P. 2000, BSAVA Manual of rabbit medicine and surgery, BVSA

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