Many people who are contemplating owning rabbits, are under the impression that they are fragile creatures and prone to disease. Not so - they are very hardy little animals and they do very well in a wide variety of settings. But like any creature, a rabbit has certain living conditions that need to be met before we can hope for or expect optimum health and productivity.
We have looked at other aspects of rabbit care on other pages of our website. Here, let's take a look at some of the general issues that go into creating and maintaining a healthy rabbit herd. Most of the information here will apply to rabbits of all breeds, ages and sizes, regardless of how they are being housed and/or what role(s) they play at home, on a hobby farm/ranch, or in a commercial operation.
Whenever we are mentoring someone on how to add rabbits to their home or small farm business, one of the first questions is how best to house them. Most folks have seen, or at least know about, rabbit hutches, which generally is a wood-and-wire frame housing 4-8 rabbits. This hutch is often on a stand which elevates the rabbits several feet off the ground, making daily care and manure management quite a bit more convenient. Or, folks will have an all-wire cage in mind, often housing rabbits individually. This approach is very common in commercial operations, which feature row after row of rabbit cages, typically housing one rabbit per cell. These rows are often elevated for the same reason hutches are - easier daily access, and easier manure management. Those two approaches account for probably 90% of the rabbit housing used in the world at present.
Yet a variety of other options exist.
Some folks have been experimenting with raising rabbits on pasture, where the rabbits are kept in mobile pens that move to fresh browse every few days. Other folks are maintaining rabbit colonies, which often do away with cages entirely, and instead allow the rabbits to live together in social groups within a much larger pen, yard or room or other enclosure. And some folks have discovered that rabbits can be outstanding indoor pets. These rabbits are friendly, clean, gentle and quiet, making them more suitable for some families than other more typical indoor pets. We have tried to provide information on all these different options. Please see the text links for each category, or Contact Us if you are curious about an option you don't see listed above.
Rabbits are not only masters of escape; they are also masters of hiding their health issues. If you were on everyone' menu, you'd be a master of hiding weaknesses too.
Rabbits in any management system are subject to a variety of health issues. Unfortunately, they can hide all sorts of issues, from weight loss to dental problems to sore hocks to mastitis, because they'll simply sit there and do their normal thing. It's not until we handle them that we realize uh-oh, something is very much wrong. If we wait until they go off their feed, by then it's often too late to do anything to help them.
Some rabbit owners, particularly of large commercial herds, simply don't have the time or personnel to physically check every rabbit on a frequent basis. Pet owners, on the other hand, might handle their rabbits every day. Each owner will have to decide how much handling time is practical. Regardless of that answer, some basic quarterly health checks are warranted:
Check and record body scoring and condition: body score, also known as lumbar score, has become the preferred method for quantifying and describing an animal's overall health and condition. This scoring system uses either visual or in-hand assessment to determine how much muscle and fat is on the skeletal frame. Common points of examination are over the ribs, along the lower spine (thus the term lumbar score), and through the loin area. A scale of either 1-5 or 1-10 to describe how much fat and muscle an animal's frame is carrying in those locations. A score of 1 is emaciation; while a score of 5 or 10 is extreme obesity. The middle of the range, whether the range is 1-5 or 1-10, is considered ideal. So for instance, a rabbit with a lumbar score of 3 on the scale of 1-5, would have a nice amount of muscle alongside the spine such that the spine itself could only barely be felt. The hips wouldn't feel bony, the ribs would have some fat on them, but the loin would have a "waist". An obese rabbit would score either a 5 or 10, ie, the highest end of whichever scale is used. The rabbit's body would have layers of fat such that the skeleton couldn't be felt even with pressure, and the rabbit would be uniformly thick through the loin, or even have something of a belly such that the loin area would be larger in diameter than the heart girth. an emaciated rabbit, on the other hand, would probably look OK but would feel very bony. The spine wouldn't have a lot of muscle on either side, the hips would feel bony, the ribs would feel obvious beneath the fur, and the loin area would be noticeably smaller in diameter than the heart girth. One of the simplest health checks we can do on a quarterly basis, is to handle each rabbit, give it a body condition score, and record that score on the animal's feed card or health files.
Teeth - rabbits have incisor teeth that grow throughout their lives. Their incisors are similar to rodent teeth in that the rabbits need to gnaw constantly in order to keep them worn down. And like beavers, rabbits can go through an amazing amount of fiber in the process of keeping those teeth trim. At least each quarter, ideally while doing the body condition scoring, the rabbit's mouth should be visually checked to ensure that the incisors meet up nicely and evenly, and none of those teeth are broken off or growing longer than the others. If one is broken off, monitor it to ensure it grows out and mates up with the others around it. If one is longer than the others or misshapen, it can be filed down or trimmed (by a veterinarian) such that the rabbit's chewing is normal again. If a rabbit seems in good health but has gone off feed, the first thing to check is the teeth.
Weight - a mature rabbit's weight should be relatively stable. I won't list typical weights here because different breeds have vastly different average weights. Simply recording the rabbit's weight quarterly will help show if that rabbit is getting too much or too little feed. Comparing the amount of feed to the weight, will help an owner distinguish between thrifty animals and hard keepers.