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    Rabbit Health | Summer 2012 Out Here Magazine

    Your bunny's well-being depends on recognizing potential problems

    person using a syringe to give a rabbit some liquid
    Rabbits have their own specific care issues, just as cats and dogs, so it's vital to feed them correctly and be aware of potential health problems so you can get treatment quickly.
    Out Here

    By Patty Fuller

    Photography by iStock

    Rabbits have long been considered a great small-animal project for 4-H members, but they're also the pet of choice in more than 2 million households around North America. They're fun, personable animals that can be raised indoors or out.

    But just as dogs and cats come with specific care issues, so do rabbits. It's important to feed them the correct diet and to be aware of potential health problems unique to them so you can get treatment quickly.

    Your rabbit's diet is the most important part of raising a healthy animal, says Dr. Joanne Paul-Murphy, a veterinarian and professor at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

    "An inappropriate diet is probably one of the biggest health concerns veterinarians see with pet rabbits," she says. For example, an adult rabbit diet strictly of alfalfa, either in pellet or hay form, has too much protein, which can lead to obesity and all the accompanying health problems, Paul-Murphy says.

    "Avoid high-sugar foods such as bananas and grapes, and certainly no sugary treats," Paul-Murphy says.

    "Many of our overweight rabbit patients receive inappropriate treats such as fruits, chips, cereal, cheese, and other dairy products."

    Rabbits should always have grass hay available and get an assortment of leafy greens each day. Dark leafy green vegetables, such as kale, collard greens, and dandelion lettuce are best.

    Carrots can be fed to your rabbit, but only in moderation. They contain more starch and should be given in small doses. Pellets made of timothy hay are also a good rabbit food choice.

    Paul-Murphy encourages domestic rabbit owners to spay or neuter their pet when they're from 4 to 6 months old. Not only are they usually more calm and friendly after they've been altered, but spaying helps prevent several cancers — such as uterine cancer — common in some rabbit populations.

    Rabbits, whose teeth continue to grow throughout their life,can suffer from misalignment of teeth, or malocclusion, which prevents them from keeping their teeth ground down through normal chewing.

    Teeth will grow too long, leading to such ailments as mouth sores, weight loss, and "slobbers" — when food cannot be swallowed properly and instead dribbles out the mouth.

    Carrots can be fed to your rabbit, but only in moderation. They contain more starch and should be given in small doses.

    Rabbits are also prone to gastrointestinal (GI) stasis, in which food moves too slowly, or stops completely, in the animal's intestines.

    A slowdown can cause ingested hair and food to get blocked, allowing harmful bacteria to multiply and ultimately damage the rabbit's liver, says Dr. Dana M. Krempels of the University of Miami (Fla.).

    The problem isn't hairballs because, although rabbits do ingest their fur through instinctive licking and cleaning, they don't get typical hairballs like cats do, Krempels says. What might be mistaken for a hairball is usually simply food held together by hair and mucus.

    GI stasis is very painful, so if a rabbit stops eating for 12 hours or more, consider it an emergency and get him to a rabbit-savvy vet, Krempels says.

    Symptoms of GI stasis include very small — or no — fecal pellets; very loud, violent intestinal gurgles, which is gas moving around painfully; and a lethargic animal that may hunch over, crunching his teeth in pain, Krempels says.

    Though rabbits do require some special care, the efforts are well worth the results.

    "Domestic rabbits are fascinating animals, with individual personalities and are fun to watch and interact with," Paul-Murphy says. "Rabbits can be great companion animals."

    Patty Fuller is a California-based writer.


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