Sunday 6 January 2013

Bright Eyes - 3 things to consider before getting a pet rabbit

'A robin redbreast in a cage
puts all heaven in a rage'
William Blake

This is a blog about rabbits. That may be a little hard to decipher from Mr. Blake's quote above, but the sentiment in it gets across my feelings about the all-too-common fate of the pet rabbit, which is to get stuck in a hutch at the bottom of the garden and never given a first, let alone a second, thought. I did try and modify the quote to make it a little bit more relevant, but the best I could come up with was this:

'A rabbit in a hutch at the bottom of the garden
makes God sit up and say 'What? Pardon?'
Nick Marsh

which I can't help but feel loses a little something from Blake's original. Let's leave poetry to the experts, and just get on the with blog, eh?

Now, personally, I'm not a huge rabbit person (that would be a great film, though, eh? Like a cross between King Kong and Watership Down) (and that, incidentally, is the first and last time I'm going to mention Watership Down, title aside, because if I keep thinking about it I'm going to end this blog in a blubbery pile of tears, and I think I've done quite enough blog posts like that recently) in that I haven't ever owned a rabbit. However, they are swarming to the practice in increasing numbers (which is also another idea for a film...along the lines of Dawn of the Dead, with bunnies) and are easily the third most common animal I'm called upon to see, after cats and dogs, which makes it a shame that they suffer from neglect so often.

You see, a rabbit is something of a specialised creature, with some very specific requirements, not a single one of which is served by leaving a rabbit stuck in a small wooden cage at the bottom of the garden as if it was an inmate of some kind of bunny Guantanamo bay. Just getting their diet right is about as much fun as trying to cater for a group of wheat-intolerant vegans. Now, a lot of the clients who bring rabbits in to me nowadays are smart, savvy owners who know what they are doing, so it would be easy for me to think that things have changed. Unfortunately, I also see a fair proportion of owners who aren't quite so savvy, and real suffering is caused as a result - and these are the people who think enough of their rabbits to bring them to the vets when they're sick.

So, here's my effort to try to alleviate and prevent some of that unnecessary suffering. If you're thinking about getting a pet, and thinking that a rabbit is sounding like a funky idea, please just have a quick read over some of the points below first.

1. A rabbit is really, really NOT a child's pet

I'm not sure how rabbits got a reputation for being a great 'first' pet, sort of a starter before you move on to something else, but there's a number of reasons why I don't think a rabbit should be the sole responsibility of a kid.

For starters, rabbits live a long time - six to eight years. (in fact, there's some evidence to suggest that they have the potential to live a lot longer than this, but as pets they generally don't). Six to eight years. That's, like, long enough for George R. R. Martin to write a book! And it is, sorry to say, easily long enough to for a child to get bored with their pet. It might sound cruel for me to say it, but believe me, it happens a lot, so as a parent you've got to be ready to take over when that happens.

Secondly, rabbits are prey species. As Watership Down teaches us (oops, damn it), that means that the world and his mother wants to eat them dead. As a vet, this makes rabbit diseases more challenging to diagnose than cats and dogs, because if a rabbit shows weakness in the wild, likely as not someone will come and eat it. As a pet, this means that rabbits, as a general rule, do not like all the cuddling, tickling and squeezing that usually is part of the job description of a child's pet. Don't get me wrong, some rabbits adore it, especially those that have been brought up to expect it, but a lot of them find it extremely stressful, and will attempt to escape from it or just suffer in silence, all of which adds to the risk of the child getting bored.

Thirdly, rabbits are just not as easy to look after as dogs or cats, or, for that matter, hamsters, gerbils, rats or mice, and the next section will go some way to explaining why.

2. Rabbits like fast food just as much as the rest of us

Earlier in the post, I alluded to the fact that it's fiddly to give a rabbit the correct diet. It's a pain. So, I'm about to give you a quick rundown of all the things you need to feed your rabbit to keep it healthy. Brace yourselves.

Braced? Ooookay, here we go.

1. Grass.

That's it. That's as complicated as a rabbit's diet needs to get. Grass has everything in it that a rabbit needs to live, thrive and survive. A few other plants for variety and vitamins will help, but in the main, let your rabbit eat plenty of grass, and get lots of exercise while it grazes, and you won't be going far wrong.

So why do I keep suggesting that it's hard to get a rabbit's diet right? Because a lot of rabbit owners have a yearning, aching need to feed their bunny all manner of other junk, the vast majority of which will shorten their rabbit's life.

Let's go back to basics a little bit. Grass, it turns out, is a real pain to digest. You'll know this if you have a dog which is an enthusiastic grazer, because you'll often have to help to grass out when it pokes out, completely intact, at the other end of the dog (I suppose you'll also know this if you, yourself, are an enthusiastic grazer, but that brings to mind all manner of mental images that I'd rather not dwell upon). Grass is full of cellulose, and it takes a real effort to get anything useful out of it at all. It needs to be fermented, and getting grass to ferment takes a lot of digestive effort. Cows, and other ruminants, deal with it by having a ridiculous number of stomachs (well, okay, four), and repeatedly regurgitating the semi-digested gunk for another chew (cudding).

Rabbits, like horses, take a different pathway - they ferment with their hindgut, not their stomachs, which leads to a very complicated and specific bowel set-up. I don't want to get into the complexity of it too much here (not least because I don't quite understand it myself. Ahem) but bear in mind that although it looks like a simple process for a rabbit to chew on a bit of grass and then pop out a pellet, there really is a wondrous and complicated alchemy going on inside that compact little belly (assuming that alchemy was concerned wasn't concerned so much with converting lead into gold as converting grass into rabbit poo). Here's a nice simple, and better discussion than mine on rabbit digestion for those who are interested.

This means that rabbits have a digestive system wonderfully evolved to deal with grass, and really not great at dealing with just about anything else.

The problem is, nobody seems to have mentioned this to rabbits. See, eating grass looks like hard work to me. There's an awful lot of chewing involved, it tastes like...well, like grass, and you have to be outside to do it, which is this country means getting rained on. Rabbits seem to feel much the same about this state of affairs as we would, and so, given the choice, they would rather eat pretty much anything else. So, if you give them a tray full of rabbit food that is, basically, the rabbit equivalent of a KFC party bucket, and they'll forget all about that grass.

Okay, let's take a slightly more serious look at what you should be feeding your pet rabbit.

1. Grass/Hay. 

I was a little facetious about this above, but not very. Grass or hay needs to be about 90% or your rabbits diet, and they'll get along for a very long time eating just this and nothing else. Grass (or the dried version, hay) is full of dietary fibre, and it's fibre that drives the rabbit's digestive tract. Not only that, because grass is such a pain in the arse to chew, and is gritty, it actually wears the teeth down. This is fine for rabbits - in fact, it's not just fine, it's necessary.

Rabbit's teeth, just like horses, grow continually throughout their lives, and if they aren't continually worn down by eating grass, they end up with a mouthful of teeth. Dental problems caused by a lack of grass or hay in the diet are the number one problem I see rabbits for. It's completely preventable. Feed your rabbit grass or hay. Please.

2. Other plants/fruit/vegetables.

Yes, okay. If you must. But not too much! Definitely not more than 10% of the diet. The point of this is just to add a little variety to the diet, and a few extra vitamins and minerals that aren't found so much in grass. 

To be honest, if you let your rabbit just free range around the garden, it'll get everything it needs from nibbling at other plants as it grazes. So, feel free to give a small amount of a fruit or veg as a treat. But really, not a lot.

3. 'Rabbit food'

Harrumph. Really? I know it's tempting. I know it says 'rabbit food' on the packet, probably next to a piccie of a rabbit looking extremely pleased, but really, you almost certainly don't need to feed any of this at all if you've got the first two right. Maybe if your rabbit is too thin, and you need to bulk it up, but I can't think of many other circumstances where rabbits need to eat this stuff.

If you really, really must, here's a few tips. Firstly, get pellets, like Burgess Supa Rabbit. Yes, they're boring, and look not unlike rabbit poo, but it prevents the rabbit from picking out all the really tasty bits, and leaving all the vitamins and minerals that they're supposed to be getting. Rabbits are just as bad as us as voluntarily missing out the important bits of the diet, so try not to give them too much opportunity to do it.

Secondly, this food should make up a tiny portion of your rabbits diet, unless you want a fat, unwell rabbit. My advice would be that if it's taking your rabbit more than ten minutes to eat it's pellets, then you're giving too many pellets.

Hopefully I've got my message across there. FEED GRASS! Ahem. I have been subtle, I think.

I have gone on about it at length because, as I hope you can see, although a rabbit's digestive system is complicated, it's diet really doesn't need to be. If I could forcibly restrain all rabbit owners from feeding cheap crappy rabbit food, and just get them to feed even cheaper grass instead, I would see far fewer rabbits in the practice. Yes, they can have the odd treat, just like horses - but bear in mind a horses weighs roughly two- to three-hundred times what a rabbit weighs, and so can cope with a lot more treats than a rabbit can.

3. Rabbits make great house pets

No, really, they do!

My first two points were rather negative, and coupled with me saying that I'm not a big rabbit person myself, I'm worried that I've left you with the impression that I don't think rabbits should be kept as pets at all. Not true! They can be wonderful pets, and, perhaps unexpectedly, make wonderful companions in the home. 

A couple of vets in our practice have rabbits living with them, and they are evangelical about them - they love them to bits (not literally). Yes, you need to have a think about where they can get to and what they can chew (rabbit-proofing electrical cables and such) but it's far less work than worrying about what a toddler might get up to in your house. They're very easy to house train, and (generally) get on pretty well with dogs and cats. 

So why stick them in a hutch in the garden instead? Have them in the home, like you would with your other pets (with the possible exception of horses). Yes, they need to go out to graze in the garden, but that doesn't mean they have to live their whole lives out there.

So, let's summarize, shall we? Summarizing's always fun.

1. A rabbit doesn't make a good child's pet. Parents need to pitch in and help with rabbit care too.
2. Feed grass or hay and not much else.
3. Rabbits are much more pleasurable pets when they're house pets.

There we are. I hope that's helpful if you're thinking about getting a rabbit. Feel free to send me any questions (and I'll rather lazily pass them on to my rabbit-oriented colleagues).

Now, I'd better get back to practising some poetry...


  1. To keep a rabbit in a hutch beside the shed
    Is a crime; it would be better dead.

  2. Very good! Definitely expresses the sentiment I'm trying to get across

  3. The trouble with owners of rabbits,
    is they f*** up their dietary habits

  4. ...and that, ladies and gentlemen, may be the pithiest summation of all of rabbit medicine that has ever been written.