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One of the first pets I was allowed to care for, with the help of my parents, was a rabbit. It was acquired for me because the care was less involved than that of a cat or dog. My rabbit happily lived on some pellets and the odd carrot or bit of fruit and maybe a bit of hay. He was in quite a small cage with no run attached. It goes without saying that he was protected from the elements and predators, but other than that and letting him out to run around the garden with me weekly, he got very little in the way of environmental enrichment. I might also add that he was a large white rabbit traditionally used for “production” rather than the pet trade and had very little health problems because of it.
These days, we know a lot more about rabbits’ biology and digestive systems, their needs in terms of the environment and welfare, and unfortunately we are far more acquainted with health problems we see in rabbits bred for the pet trade.
Rabbits are very sensitive to dietary imbalances and changes. The chain of events from even a slight imbalance or swift diet change can lead to a rabbit needing hospitalised for gut stasis (Ileus) or even death. It is important to understand that feeding your rabbit the correct diet is one of the most important things you can do for their health, so please seek advice if you are unsure.
The other problem “modern” rabbits suffer from is dental disease. This can happen for a couple of reasons, but is often the result of a combination of both breeding and improper diet early in life. What results is a mouth full of teeth that don’t quite meet up like they should (malocclusion), leading to overgrown teeth and spiky points that cause pain and damage to the rabbits mouth, ultimately preventing them from eating. To manage this problem, the rabbit will require sedation or a general anaesthetic so that the vet can file or rasp its teeth.
Contagious diseases are another problem rabbits face. Thankfully there is a combined vaccine to protect against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease, both of which can be fatal if acquired.
And finally a word about welfare. We now know that rabbits require either a companion or at least a lot of attention from us, a lot of exercise, and certainly a lot of room in their hutch and living area to hop around. A good source of information for rabbit owners is the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund website, www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk.
So, rabbits may not be the ideal first pet unless as a parent you are willing to be very involved in their care. I would say that they are very lovely creatures and they are one of my favourites – they just need looked after properly!
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Chapelfield Veterinary Partnership: 21 Chapelfield Road, Norwich, NR2 1RP, 01603 629046; Post Mill Close, Wymondham, NR18 0NL, 01953 602139; Wellesley Road, Long Stratton, NR15 2PD, 01508 530686; Bungay Road, Brooke, NR15 1DX, 01508 558228; 160-162 Norwich Road, New Costessey, NR5 0EH, 01603 743725.