Rabbits, monitoring their health

Rabbits are unique pets and to keep them happy and healthy there are a few things you need to know. Rabbits have teeth that continue to grow for most of their lives, they digest their food using hindgut fermentation and they stress easily.

Always make sure to lift and carry your rabbit correctly by supporting the hindlegs at all times. 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.

Nutrition has a great influence on your rabbit’s health. High quality fibre should make up 70-75% 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 daily.

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

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

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, a hunch up posture or teeth grinding. Bring your rabbit to the veterinarian as soon as possible. The quicker treatment is started, the better the survival rate is.

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).

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

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

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 a diagnosis and obtain treatment. Ringworm is a fungus that causes round lesions with hair loss. A topical ringworm ointment is required for treatment. Especially rabbits kept outdoors can develop severe problems with maggots (fly larvae) or mango fly larva on and in the skin. While normally maggots feed on dead tissue, the presence of too many larvae will result in healthy tissue being consumed as well.

Deworming is only necessary when rabbits show symptoms of having intestinal parasites. They will either overgroom the rectal area or have diarrhoea.

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


Leafy Greens I

(need to be rotated due to oxalic acid content and only one out of three varieties of greens a day should be selected from this list)

Leafy Greens II

(low in oxalic acid)



These should make up no more than about 15 % of the diet (About one tablespoon per one kilogram of body weight per day).


These should make up no more than 10% of the diet (About one teaspoon per one kilogram of body weight per day).

Beet greens

Mustard greens


Radish tops


Sprouts (from 1 to 6 days after sprouting, sprouts have higher levels of alkaloids)

Swiss chard

Arugula (garden rocket, rucola)

Basil (any variety)

Bok Choy

Borage leaves

Carrot tops



Cucumber leaves

Dandelion greens

Dill leaves



Fennel (the leafy tops as well as the base)

Frisee Lettuce

Kale (all types)

Mint (any variety)


Raspberry leaves

Romaine lettuce

Spring greens

Turnip greens



Yu choy

Bell peppers (any colour)

Broccoli (leaves and stems)


Brussel sprouts

Cabbage (any type)



Chinese pea pods (the flat kind without large peas)

Edible flowers (roses, nasturtiums, pansies, hibiscus)

Summer squash

Zucchini squash

Apple (any variety, without stem and seeds)

Cherries (any variety, without the pits)


Banana (remove peel; no more than about two 0.3cm slices a day for a 2 kg rabbit…they LOVE this!)

Berries (any type, uncooked)




Melons (any – can include peel and seeds)





Pineapple (remove skin)

Plum (without the pits)

Star Fruit


NOTE: unless otherwise stated it is more nutritious to leave the skin on the fruit (particularly if organic), just wash thoroughly. IF you are in doubt about the source of the fruit and you are concerned about chemicals in the skin, then remove it.


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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