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Rabbits

The domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), is a mammal of the order Lagomorpha. The rabbit originated from the European wild rabbit, its ancestors most likely developing in the Iberian Peninsula and spreading throughout the Mediterranean area. Early domestication of the rabbit occurred in Spain during the first century BC and by the sixteenth century selective breeding and more skilful domestication were ongoing. Rabbits were used for stocking ships for meat supplies and so were inadvertently introduced throughout the world with the result that by the mid sixteen hundreds England was raising them to supply both meat and fur.

There are now more than 30 breeds of domestic rabbit, ranging in size and weight from the one kilogram dwarf breeds, all the way up to the ten kilogram giant breeds. Rabbits are growing in popularity as pets, particularly in urban areas where space is limited and there are restrictions on keeping dogs and cats. They have a lively and curious behaviour, which can be a great source of enjoyment for their owner.

ANATOMY:

Rabbits have open-rooted teeth, which grow continuously throughout life. They have two large upper incisor teeth adjacent to each other, with two smaller incisor teeth lined up behind them called ‘peg teeth’. These are met by two incisors on the bottom jaw and continuously wear down against each other. This is significant because where there is malocclusion, the teeth can rapidly overgrow causing numerous problems.

The digestive system is also unusual in that rabbits have an enormous caecum (appendix), which is often compared to the rumen in a cow. Two different types of faeces are produced. The rabbit eats the soft, vitamin-rich night faeces directly from the anus (called coprophagy) and then produces harder droppings normally during the day, which they leave. Normal rabbit urine varies in colour and consistency, and white, yellow, orange, brown and bright red urine are all normal. An excess of dietary calcium is often responsible for the thick, white urine that may be seen in a rabbit.

BEHAVIOUR:

Rabbits are inquisitive and active and will chew anything such as upholstery, children’s’ toys, wood and wire. They rub their chin on objects leaving a scent mark that is undetectable by humans. Twitching of the nostrils is a normal behaviour that is often absent in rabbits that are resting or sick. In active animals, regular exercise is important to help minimise osteoporosis and stop them becoming bored.

Rabbits, particularly when neutered, are clean animals that will often pick a corner or a low wall for a latrine. They can even be trained to accept using a litter tray. Individual rabbits have clearly discernable personalities that can range from timid through to aggression. Thumping with the hind leg is an alarm call and a severely frightened rabbit may make a terrible scream or may remain completely immobile. An aggressive rabbit may thump his feet, growl, grunt or even attack with teeth and feet when approached. A rabbit in pain will often assume a hunched position and may grind its teeth. Female rabbits, on reaching sexual maturity, will often become aggressive towards humans and other animals, and may bite, dig and chew up household items, such as carpeting, and engage in nest building. They can spray urine and will often attack other rabbits. For this, and other reasons, neutering is often recommended for both male and female rabbits.

Having said that, the rabbit is a social animal and will often interact well with other friendly pets such as dogs, cats and even other rabbits. When rabbits are kept in groups, they are less likely to fight if they have hiding places such as boxes, and they have material to chew, such as hay, cardboard and paper.

GENERAL BIOLOGY:

In captivity, rabbits can live up to 10 years. The respiratory rate is 30 – 60 breaths a minute, heart rate is 180 – 300 beats per minute and temperature is 38.5 – 40°C. They should drink between 50 – 150 ml water per kilogram body weight per day and should eat approximately 50g per kilogram of food per day. They reach sexual maturity between 4 – 8 months of age, but females reach maturity earlier than males. Pregnancy lasts for between 28 – 32 days, when a litter of between 4 and 12 babies are born. Weaning should occur at approximately six weeks of age.

HOUSING:

Being social animals, rabbits should be provided with some sort of companion wherever possible. For example, littermates can be kept together, but should be neutered if different sexes. Unrelated females will tolerate each other reasonably well provided they are given enough space and room to hide from each other, but entire (uncastrated) males will fight and inflict severe injuries on each other. Neutering will always minimise the risk of fighting. The ideal pairing should be a neutered male and a neutered female. It is not recommended that a rabbit be kept with a guinea pig, as bullying by both species will often occur, particularly bullying of the guinea pig by the rabbit.

FEEDING:

The ideal diet for a rabbit is mainly grass and a good quality hay with a small amount of a high fibre commercially produced diet. This should have fibre levels of between 18 – 24% and protein levels of approximately 15%. At Battle Flatts, we recommend feeding Burgess Super Excel. Other wild plants, such as dandelions and brambles, can also be given when they are available. Alfalfa can be given, particularly to growing animals, but care should be taken as this is very high in calcium and can lead to bladder problems. Other fresh vegetables, such as kale, cabbage, watercress, root vegetables and their leaves, can also be provided. To make feeding more entertaining for the rabbit, suspending things like carrots from the cage roof can act as an edible toy and increase time spent feeding. Whilst the requirements of the rabbit can be met by feeding a concentrated diet only, this may lead to dental disease due to lack of wearing of the teeth. It is essential, therefore, that the commercially prepared diet is purely a supplement to the main diet of hay and grass.

HANDLING:

Rabbits should never be picked up by the ears. They should be held by the scruff with the weight of their bodies supported by a hand under the rump. Avoid twisting and kicking out by the powerful hind legs, as serious injury can occur to their back. Placing the rabbit on its back often results in a trance-like state known as hypnotisation. This behaviour is really a defence mechanism, i.e. playing dead.

NEUTERING:

We strongly recommend neutering your pet rabbit as soon as it becomes sexually mature – this is usually between 4-6 months of age.

WHY SHOULD I NEUTER MY RABBIT?

Rabbits are naturally gregarious animals and live in the wild in small social groups, therefore a pet rabbit will be happier if he has a companion to live with. However this can cause problems such as fighting and unwanted litters, especially if you have a male and female rabbit living together. Neutering your rabbit at a young age will eliminate these problems.

Research has shown that neutered rabbits live longer. Unspayed females are likely to develop uterine or ovarian cancer by the age of 5 years. This is virtually eliminated by spaying.

Neutered males live longer – they are less likely to be aggressive and will therefore be less stressed, friendlier companions. An aggressive rabbit can be quite frightening, especially to a small child. Aggression can be due to a number of factors. The rabbit may not have been handled sufficiently or socialised whilst very young. It may have been dropped or mishandled, or it may be just frightened. Neutering your rabbit can also reduce aggression by permanently removing the urge to mate and therefore making your rabbit calmer and happier.

Rabbits spray urine to mark their territory and in some cases will do so over their owners as a sign of affection, especially in the breeding season. Once neutered, male rabbits will generally stop spraying urine. Both males and females are easier to litter train once they have been neutered – a big advantage if you want to keep your rabbit as a house pet!

WHAT DO I DO NEXT?

Neutering a rabbit is a routine operation which is classed as ‘day surgery’. You will be asked to bring your pet into the Clinic between 8.30am and 9.30am where a nurse will give him/her a health check and ask you to sign a consent form authorising the operation on your rabbit.

WHAT HAPPENS DURING THE OPERATION?

A general anaesthetic will be given by injection. This takes five to ten minutes to take effect. If your rabbit is male then a small amount of hair will be removed from the area over the testicles. Castration involves removal of both the testicles through a couple of small incisions which are closed with stitches. These will dissolve by about 10 days but we normally ask that you bring your rabbit back to the Clinic a week after the operation for the nurse to check that the wound is healing correctly.

If your rabbit is female then an area from the middle of your rabbit’s tummy to between her hind legs will be clipped. An incision of between one and two inches will be made in the skin and the uterus and ovaries will be removed. Again, stitches will be placed in the skin. These stitches are non-dissolvable and will be removed by the nurse 10 days after your rabbit’s operation.

AFTER CARE

Your rabbit will take a couple of hours to wake up fully, during which time he/she will be monitored by a nurse to ensure that there are no problems and that your pet is comfortable. Either the vet or nurse will ring you immediately after the surgery on your pet has been completed to let you know that everything is all right. You will be asked to ring during the afternoon to arrange a time to collect your pet. This will normally be between 3.30pm and 4.30pm. A nurse will give your rabbit back to you and go through any special post-operative care and treatment that may be required.

When you arrive home with your rabbit, place it in its hutch on hay (not woodshavings as these can stick to the wound), and ensure that the hutch is in a draught-free environment. Your rabbit will still be feeling a bit sleepy, so make sure that he/she is left alone to recover quietly. Children will probably be keen to hold or play with their pet but it is better to discourage this until the day after the operation and then an adult should supervise any handling. Food and water should be made available as soon as you get home. Please check the wound in the morning and evening for the week following surgery, to ensure that there is no swelling or redness. If you are worried at all about your rabbit then please ring the surgery. There is a vet on duty 24 hours a day.

VACCINATIONS:

WHAT VACCINATIONS SHOULD I GIVE MY RABBIT?

Vaccinating your rabbit is essential if you want to avoid it contracting the two main diseases which are fatal to rabbits, Viral Haemorrhagic Disease and Myxomatosis.

A. VIRAL HAEMORRHAGIC DISEASE

This is a virus which is spread between rabbits by contaminated bedding, hay or food. It can also be inadvertently spread by humans on our clothes and shoes and can even be spread by birds. It was first introduced into this country from Europe in 1992 and has since spread throughout the UK.

WHAT SYMPTOMS SHOULD I LOOK OUT FOR?

Nearly 50% of rabbits which catch the disease will die, and they will often do so suddenly and without warning. If your rabbit should contract this disease then the first symptoms that you will notice will be a loss of appetite and a bleeding nose and a quiet, dull and lethargic rabbit. The disease will progress very rapidly from this stage and it is important that you contact us as soon as you suspect that your rabbit is unwell.

In the acute form, blood clots can develop in the lungs which will be extremely distressing for your rabbit, as it will be unable to breathe.

HOW CAN I PREVENT THIS?

Vaccinating your rabbit is the easiest method of preventing the spread of the disease. We will do this when your rabbit is 9 weeks of age or older and this will protect your rabbit for up to a year. Revaccination is essential to maintain the protection, as the immunity will wane after a year.

Making sure that your rabbit’s hutch is kept clean and that any hay or straw for bedding is bought from a reputable shop will also help to prevent the spread of this disease.

B. MYXOMATOSIS

This is also a virus which was brought to the UK from France in 1953. It is spread between rabbits by blood sucking insects. The main transmitter of the disease in this country is the rabbit flea. Myxomatosis is not easily spread by direct contact between rabbits. However it is still best to be careful and avoid any infected rabbits which are normally found in the wild.

WHAT SYMPTOMS SHOULD I LOOK FOR?

The first signs of infection are puffy, fluid swellings around the head and face. Swollen lips, tiny swellings on the inside of the ear and puffy swellings around the anus and genitalia can also be found. These swellings can become so severe as to cause blindness and there may be distortion of the face, mouth and ears.

HOW CAN I PREVENT THIS?

Two main methods are used to control myxomatosis:

1. Control of insect parasites. The rabbit flea is the most important insect to prevent. This can be done by using insect repellent strips hung in the hutch. The domestic cat can also be a source of the rabbit flea, and therefore a cause for infection. It has been shown that mosquitoes may also be a source of infection in the UK, so making sure that your pet’s bedding is kept dry will prevent the moist conditions which mosquitoes prefer for breeding. Keeping your pet rabbit away from any wild rabbits as far as possible is important.

2. Vaccinating. This is an important and simple method of preventing your rabbit from contracting the disease. It requires a single injection given to your rabbit at any time after it is 6 weeks of age. A booster vaccination is required every year to maintain the immunity to the disease and a health check will be given by the veterinary surgeon each time your rabbit is vaccinated, as only healthy rabbits should be treated. Myxomatosis is most likely to occur in the late summer, autumn or winter months, therefore the best time of year to vaccinate your rabbit is in May or June, thereby ensuring maximum immunity during the high risk months.

HOW CAN I STOP MY RABBIT GETTING FLYSTRIKE?

Flystrike is an unpleasant and distressing condition which occurs in the summer months when flies lay their eggs around a rabbit’s rear end. The eggs hatch into maggots which feed on the rabbit, burrowing into its flesh. Sounds horrible? It is. Prevention is better than cure – some rabbits can be successfully treated, but flystrike is often fatal.

Effective hutch hygiene is by far the best defence. Follow our simple 3-step guide below to ensure that the risk to your rabbit is reduced:

STEP 1 Examine your rabbit each day, to check that his fur is clean, dry and not matted.

If you see any sign of maggots, remove them using soap and warm water, thoroughly dry the affected area and contact your vet immediately. A rabbit with diarrhoea or a dirty bottom is far more at risk, as it also indicates that your rabbit is not cleaning itself properly, and so should be examined as soon as possible by your vet who will also check out its general health, and its teeth. Ensure that your rabbit has a balanced, complete diet to avoid the side effects of digestive disturbances. Diarrhoea is often the sign of a diet lacking in fibre. Feed a diet such as the Russell Rabbit range which are high in fibre and protein and provide all the goodness your rabbit needs in one handy bag.

If you want to give your rabbit a treat, avoid leafy green or watery vegetables, and try instead one of the treats suitable for small animals which you can buy from your pet shop.

STEP 2 Change soiled bedding every day.

Use plenty of good quality absorbent bedding in your rabbit’s toilet area to avoid excess moisture. It is possible to buy ultra-absorbent bedding which is medicated with an organic disinfectant based on natural oils, which is entirely safe for your rabbit, even if he eats it.

STEP 3 Once a week, thoroughly clean and disinfect the hutch.

Remove everything from the hutch and disinfect with a purpose-made solution suitable for use with small animals. Buy a cleaner which is free of chemicals but is fungicidal, bactericidal and virucidal. Many of these come in trigger spray bottles, and there is no need to rinse out the hutch.

 

Guinea Pigs

Guinea pigs have individual nutritional needs. Unlike rabbits, they are unable to generate their own Vitamin C, and therefore need to be fed on a specially formulated food, such as ‘Gertie Guinea Pig’, which is supplemented with Vitamin C. Like rabbits, guinea pigs need hay and grazing, plenty of fibre to prevent dental problems and barbering (fur chewing due to inadequate fibre in the diet).

‘Scurvy’ Hypovitaminosis C, occurs due to restricted Vitamin C intake. Clinical signs include joints becoming swollen and painfull, animals refusing to move, loosing condition and eventually dying. In adults, other conditions arise, such as respiratory diseases and poor wound healing. Treatment is Vitamin C intake.

How to supply Vitamin C to your guinea pig:

  • Supplemented food, such as Gerty Guinea Pig food
  • Grazing on actively growing grass is an excellent source
  • Freshly cut fruit and vegetables.

Hamsters

Hamsters are rodents from the family Cricetidae. There are several species kept as pets, more common is the Syrian hamster, which originated from hamsters bred in 1930 at the Hebrw Univerity in Jerusalem. They are also referred to as ‘Golden Hamsters’ as this was their original coat colour. However, today different coat colour variations exist, for instance grey, black and cinnamon.

The other common hamster kept, is the Russian Dwarf hamster. More rare species that can be kept as pets are Roborovskis, Campbellis and Chinese, or Striped hamsters. The Chinese hamster has a longer tail than other dwarf hamsters and tends to be more aggressive to fellow cage mates, so is better housed alone.

Hamsters are nocturnal, solitary animals, and will hibernate if the room temperature is too low. Hamsters normally live for between 1.5 – 2 years, although the Chinese Hamster will live for up to 3 years. They reach sexual maturity at 6 – 8 weeks of age, and pregnancy lasts between 15 – 18 days. Litter size is normally between 5 – 9 young.

Hamsters require an omnivorous diet that consists of some animal protein, inverebrates, fresh vegetable material and seed. Most small animal mixes are low in protein, low in fat soluble vitamins, low in calcium and low in fatty acids. Feeding nothing but these mixes can cause nutritionally deficient, undersized animals. To meet the nutritional requirements you should supplement these seed mixes by also feeding:

* fresh fruit and vegetables

* vitamin and mineral supplements

* animal protein / table scraps.

Giving, table scraps, whatever you have been eating, provides variety and will meet all dietary requirements. Also ensure that you provide plenty of things for them to nibble as this helps to keep their teeth worn down.

Mice & Rats                                          

The most common pet rat (Rattus norvegicus) and the mouse (Mus musculus) are both rodents of the family Muridi. These two species are the ones most likely to be kept as pets and they are often also kept to show standards and exhibited. They have been kept and bred for exhibition purposes for at least one hundred years. There are numerous different classifications of mice.

Rats and mice can be very suitable pets for both adults and children alike. Rats in particular make extremely good pets as they rarely bite, especially if well socialised from an early age, and they display far more individual personality than mice and can be trained.

Rats tend to be rather more nocturnal than mice and will often spend most of their day asleep, thus they make good pets for those of us who are out at work all day. Mice, however, tend to be far more active and can move faster than rats. They may leap out of a small child’s hands, so be careful! They cannot be trained in the same way that rats can. However, the more enrichment and time you spend with them, the more their personalities will come accross.

As a rough rule the males tend to be more docile than the females. Males do tend to smell rather more than females, however neutering will reduce the smell to some extent. Many female rats will develop mammary tumours (breast cancer) later in life. Both rats and mice do benefit from being housed with a companion of the same species, and they will then demonstrate a wide range of behaviours when group housed. A pair of rats or mice from the same litter will often live together for the whole of their lifetime without fighting, however introducing adult males to each other is not recommended. It is easier to introduce older females of both species.

Life expectancy of a mouse is between 1.5 – 2.5 years, whilst a rat is that of 2.5 – 3.5 years. A rat becomes sexually mature at between 6 and 8 weeks of age. Pregnancy lasts between 20 – 22 days and they then have a litter of 6 – 16 babies. A mouse reaches sexual maturity between 6 and 7 weeks of age. The pregnancy lasts for between 19 – 21 days and they produce between 6 – 12 babies with an average of 8.

Determining the sex of your rat or mouse is performed by comparing the shorter distance between the anus and the vulva in the female and the longer distance between the anus and the penis in the male. Rats are easier to sex than mice as the testicles are even visible in a baby, and generally, both newborn rats and mice are much harder to sex than adults. Where more than one sex is available, comparison does enable distinction to be made more easily.

HOUSING:

Rats and mice like to chew and so a cage made of wire with a solid plastic bottom, or an aquarium with a mesh roof is recommended. The former is preferable as this has better ventiation. Frequency of cage cleaning should be balanced against the stress that it causes by the removal of scent marking that the mouse or rat will have made to determine its territory. The cage should be sufficiently big enough for the occupants to exercise and allow them to have a degree of environmental enrichment. It should provide them with a shelter, a bolt-hole and a place to sleep. The cage floor should be covered with an abosorbent substrate such as sawdust or woodshavings, with nesting material, e.g. shredded newspaper or even commercial bedding. Some of the diet should be scattered in the sawdust to allow forraging and there should be provision of other environmental enrichment including empty carboard boxes, sheets of paper to chew up, drain pipes suspended from a lid and even an exercise wheel. Exercise wheels should have a solid back to prevent their long tails being caught in the side supports as the wheel turns. It is important, where possible, to give the pet ‘out of cage’ time, allowing them the run of the room or even the house, to improve bonding between the rodent and the owner.

DIET:

Rats and mice are both omnivorous and herbivorous. Ideally feed them on a commercial rodent diet that can then be supplemented with a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables in moderation. However, excessive supplementation can result in dietary imbalances, obesity and tummy upsets. It is important to make sure that the food bowl is heavy enough to avoid being tipped over. Water should always be made available.

COMMON DISEASES:

As they spend a considerably large portion of their time grooming, which keeps their coat well kempt, clean and shiny, signs of ill health are frequently reflected in their external appearance, where the coat can become ruffled and staring. When ill they will also eat and drink less, and lose weight. Their activity will decrease and they may display a characteristic clinical picture of a hunched rodent with an unkempt coat, often isolated from their cage mates, and disinterested in their surroundings.

Most common diseases include dental disease. In contrast to the molar teeth, the incisor teeth at the front are open rooted and so can over-grow. This particularly occurs where the upper and lower incisors are not meeting (malocclusion). This may be an inherited condition, or can be due to trauma. One of the more common causes is gnawing on the cage bars, causing a loosening of the tooth root. Treatment is by regular trimming, often every 4 – 5 weeks. Clipping with nail clippers may shatter the teeth, so ideally burring them with a dental burr is best.