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Monday, April 15, 2013

B!nk(y) - Animal Welfare Advocate


How to Extend the Life of Your Pet Rabbit

How long could your beloved pet rabbit live? The answer is a lot longer than most people realize (we currently have a 16 year old rabbit!). With proper care, good sources of information, and qualified veterinary care, your pet rabbit could easily make it into his teens.

Generally speaking, the smaller the rabbit, the longer they live. Similar to dogs; where a large dog will only live about 7-9 years, so goes for a large rabbit. Where a smaller dog may live 16 to 18 years, so goes for the tiniest rabbit!

The Netherlands Dwarf is the longest-lived rabbit breed and also the smallest.
This silver marten marked palomino colored bunny can expect to live 10-15 years.
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The smallest breed of rabbit is the Netherlands Dwarf which averages one to three pounds. The largest breed of rabbit is the Flemish Giant which averages 15-20 pounds. Both of these breeds are abundantly represented in rabbit rescue groups so you should be able to adopt either of these preferred breeds (please check Petfinder.com).

So why would someone want to adopt a large rabbit if you are looking for the longest-lived breed of rabbit? Well, along with being a large rabbit also often comes certain personality traits that are very popular such as a mellow personality, cuddliness, etc. Along with being a tiny, hyper-aware dwarf rabbit comes an increased flight response and heightened prey sense, thus, not so mellow or cuddly. However, of course, each rabbit is an individual and these personality traits can be found amongst any of the sizes of rabbits.

Now that you've found your preferred size of rabbit, how do you make sure you can provide for his maximum longevity? Provide the healthiest diet, lowest stress environment and best quality, qualified veterinary care you can. Not every veterinarian can successfully treat rabbits. Rabbits are considered 'exotic' by veterinarians, as are parrots and reptiles. These species are not covered in veterinary school and to learn about them requires internships with veterinarians who are exotic specialists. So research your vet carefully.

The Flemish Giant is a shorter-lived breed of rabbit. Being so large, often 15-20 pounds or more, they suffer from a variety of health problems including spinal concerns. They are often docile and sweet though.
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 As for a healthy diet for rabbits. Take it from me, a veteran rabbit rescuer, the healthiest rabbit diet is comprised of 90% good quality horse hay or grass hays. Timothy hay, orchard grass, or brome hay provided in a variety of 'cuttings' - different qualities and sizes of leaf width will keep your rabbit's extremely delicate digestive tract humming along like an old Volkswagen.

A rabbit's digestive tract must always be in motion or it will shut down causing the rabbit to go into shock and die within a very short time, maybe just 12 hours. You will know this is happening because his poops will get smaller and smaller until they disappear and when that happens, it's too late. The main ingredient to keep this system humming along without causing obesity to the rabbit is the indigestible fiber from the hays mentioned above. These hays will also keep your rabbit's perennially growing teeth nice and trim. Well, you're probably wondering, 'I thought rabbits are supposed to eat mainly pellets?' That credo is from the meat rabbit industry which feeds rabbits a fattening diet to put weight on them as fast as possible as longevity is not a consideration.

This is not to say that rabbits don't, indeed, need pellets. They just need very little. The main reason to give pellets, which should be about 5% of the daily diet, is to provide a fortified source of nutrients in case the hays you are providing are of varying nutritional quality which happens with any crop. So the pellets are like vitamins for your rabbit and if you are feeding good quality fortified pellets, you shouldn't need to supplement with any other vitamins although there are plenty of these on the market. Just make sure those pellets are made from timothy hay and not alfalfa which is too high in calcium for adult rabbits.

The remaining 5% of your rabbit's daily diet should consist of appropriate vegetables which will provide more nutrients as well as provide enrichment and, hopefully, a satisfying culinary experience. Each rabbit is an individual and will have individual tastes, which may or may not be a good thing, so you will have to find out what your rabbit likes the best. The best vegetables to try are ones which will not cause gas. Gas attacks can be fatal for rabbits. Try to avoid cabbages; yes, they are inexpensive, but they also cause gas. Avoid spinach which is high in calcium, a mineral rabbits have trouble metabolizing and could, as a result, cause kidney or bladder stones or bladder sludge (ouch!).

Stick with the best, safest and most preferred vegetables; carrots - although these are fattening and so should be given in small amounts; romaine, green leaf, and red leaf lettuces are also wonderful and nutritious. Completely avoid iceberg lettuce which has no nutritional value and can cause runny stools. Cilantro is a favorite as well. Try to give organic whenever possible and when not, wash all of these thoroughly as rabbits are highly susceptible to pesticides.

And, of course, make sure you provide your rabbit with plenty of fresh, filtered water every day. You'll be surprised to know just how much water your rabbit actually needs to consume every day. Buy him the biggest water bottle you can find and fill it up with fresh water every day. Keep the bottle clean by using a bottle brush and untreated dish detergent such as Dawn or Palmolive (no antimicrobials containing deadly triclosan) or just scrub it with lemon juice (a natural antibiotic and disinfectant). Be sure to rinse it well before filling with drinking water.

When kept in altered (spayed or neutered) pairs, rabbits live longer, happier, healthier lives. They are highly social creatures and, in the wild, live in large groups called warrens comprised of sometimes several hundred individuals.
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 Giving your rabbit a safe, warm, indoor, comfortable cage (no wire bottoms!) in a low-stress area (not too much hustle and bustle), and make sure they are spayed and neutered to prevent cancers (and bad behavior). Give him a couple of comfy litter boxes to nap in and use for necessaries. Doing this should provide your rabbit with an enriching and thus life-extending sense of happiness and well-being. Perhaps the most obvious but often most overlooked part of your rabbit's happiness and well-being is to provide them with a compatible mate of their own kind. Rabbits mate for life in the wild1 and thus having an altered (spayed or neutered) opposite sex mate keeps them happy and feeling safe and cuddling with their mate does wonders for their immune systems, just as it does for ours.

Now that you know what the keys to providing the basics required to ensure longevity for your companion rabbit, you can rest assured that your rabbit will live happily ever after.

1 The Private Life of the Rabbit by R.M. Lockley, Introduction by Richard Adams, "They were not unusually promiscuous and in many instances retained the same mate for life."

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