The Healthy Happy Rabbit Pet by Dr. Gigi Zeitoun

Have a pet rabbit? How to check that you’re doing everything possible to keep your rabbits happy and healthy. This blog will discuss some aspects of what is, and what a healthy rabbit is not.

Veterinary Examination

The reported lifespan of the pet rabbit varies, with many reports based on laboratory rabbit life expectancy, and ranges from 5-6 to around 10 years of age. Regular veterinary health checks should be performed more frequently than annually, with bi-anually suggested as a good start. Aged rabbits should be seen more regularly.


Rabbits should be vaccinated for calici virus – annually for adults. Rabbits under 14 weeks of age are usually given 2 injections, 4-6 weeks apart. Adults that have never been vaccinated do not need a booster unless they are located in an area currently experiencing high numbers of calicivirus deaths.

There are vaccines available for the myxomatosis virus as well every 6 months.


Desexing of non-breeding pet rabbits is recommended. In rabbits we can often find growths (neoplasms) of Uterine adenocarcinoma – endometrial cancer.

It is recommended to castrate non-breeding male rabbits. Many male rabbits have behaviour changes at 1-2 years of age, often becoming aggressive to the human owner and/or cage mates. Desexing will also remove any frustration from a male who has no opportunity to mate.

What to Feed Rabbits

Diet and exercise are essential for the healthy rabbit. The healthy pet rabbit will eat a fibrous diet consisting of fresh grass, weeds, hay and a variety of leafy vegetables.

Nearly all important disease problems in rabbits are directly or indirectly related to diet.

Rabbits have a gastrointestinal system designed to digest large amounts of fibre. Wild rabbits eat grass and weeds, some flowers and other plant material, occasionally fruit and also chew on bark and branches. These items are high in fibre, moderate in protein content and low in sugars and fat.

What most pet rabbits are fed is the opposite of the above – diets of poor quality rabbit mix or pellets that are usually high in calories, carbohydrates and low in fibre. What are the dietary requirements of a pet rabbit? Harcourt-Brown suggests the following food analysis as a starting point:

  • Crude Fibre > 18%
  • Indigestible Fibre > 12.5%
  • Crude Protein: 12-16%
  • Fat 1-4%
  • Calcium 0.6-1%; Phosphorus 0.4-0.8%; Vitamin A 10,000-18,000 IU/kg; Vitamin D 800-1200 IU/kg; Vitamin E 40-70 mg/kg; Magnesium 0.4%; Zinc 0.5%; Potassium 0.6-0.7%

Fibre is Essential

Here are some general guidelines for feeding pet rabbits. The basis can be summarized as the ‘Hay & Veggies diet’:

Grass & hay should be available at all times. They are ideal sources of both digestible & indigestible fibre. The majority of the hay should be grass hay (sometimes called meadow, pasture or timothy hay.) Lucerne hay should not be fed in large amounts. The main concern with lucerne hay is the increased calcium content and the decreased abrasive action on the teeth. Grasses of most kinds can be offered. Most rabbits will eat a variety of garden weeds.

A range of vegetables can be offered. Unless a large amount of a single item is fed for periods at a time, there is very little concern with the types of vegetables offered. Leafy green, fibrous vegetables and items such as spinach leaves, Bok choy, broccoli, herbs, sprouts, carrots (with tops) and lettuce mixes should be the mainstay of the vegetables offered.

Fruits are offered occasionally or as a treat. Many are low in fibre.

Feed limited quantities, if any, pelleted food. The concern with pelleted diets are many: they provide little dental exercise; are not a good source of indigestible fibre; are often lacking in vitamin D or calcium; can have sweetening agents added; many are high in carbohydrates and/or fats. Pelleted diets are usually offered ad libitum and the result is obese rabbits.

Rabbit mixes have many of the problems associated with pelleted foods. In addition, they often contain large amounts of legumes, cereals and/or nuts – even chicken pellets may be present! Selective feeding of these rations usually occurs, almost always leaving the diet deficient in fibre and calcium. Avoid rabbit mixes completely.

No salt licks or supplements are required.

Toxic Plants

There are many lists of plants suspected of being toxic to rabbits. Many of these are ornamental plants or shrubs, for example Daphne, or any of the various lily species.


All pet rabbits should have daily exercise outside of the hutch. Several hours free roam exercise daily would be ideal, with exposure to unfiltered light included. Exercise has an important part to play in ensuring a healthy gastrointestinal tract, preventing obesity and spinal concerns, promoting adequate skeletal strength and muscular tone and preventing behavioral disturbances. Continually caged rabbits can exhibit many behavioral problems such as obsessive grooming, aggression, lethargy and chewing of cage bars.

Exposure to unfiltered light is recommended. Rabbits living ‘free-range’ outside are likely to have far higher levels of vitamin D than those living in hutches

Rabbits obtain vitamin D either from their diet or after exposure to unfiltered daylight. Full-time house rabbits, and rabbits confined to hutches don’t have much, if any, opportunity to manufacture vitamin D from sunlight and must obtain all the vitamin D they need from their food. This is not a problem if the rabbit is eating a sensible diet as described above

Dental Disease

Dental disease is probably the most common illness for which rabbits are brought to a veterinary clinic. The healthy pet rabbit should have minimal, if any, dental concerns throughout its life. So what is going wrong? Much of this can be related to the long term feeding of an inadequate diet and the development of acquired dental disease.

The Healthy Rabbit Enjoys Life

The healthy rabbit should have fun and enjoy a fun-filled rabbit existence! What does this subjective comment mean? I believe we should be spending more time trying to assess the quality of life of such pets in more ways than just ‘are they in pain?’ and taking the time to provide the best environment for both physical and emotional wellbeing of the pet..

The Happy Older Rabbit

As our preventative health programs are instituted we are presented with an increasing number of ageing rabbits. There are a number of conditions commonly reported in the older rabbit such as spondylosis, osteoarthritis, pododermatitis and renal failure.

An important but often overlooked role of the veterinarian is to assess the quality of life, and provide palliative care where necessary, for the aging rabbit. Many geriatric rabbits with chronic illness live comfortably with palliative care before eventually succumbing to their illness.

Simple changes to the environment can help the older rabbit, such as providing litter trays with shallow lips so an arthritic rabbit does not have to jump to reach the tray. Regular grooming of the geriatric rabbit may be required. Other things to consider when looking after an older rabbit include the provision of non-slip surfaces, the feeding of an adequate diet, and the reduction of stressors. Physical therapy such as gentle massage may be helpful for rabbits with musculoskeletal problems.

The Healthy Rabbit Preventative Health Summary:

Diet: Based on fibrous vegetation: hay and vegetables

  • Calici virus vaccination annually
  • Annual veterinary examination
  • Exercise and exposure to sunlight
  • Spay and castrate
  • Environmental enrichment – the healthy rabbit has fun
  • Provide and monitor quality of life for elderly rabbits

Dr. Gigi Zeitoun sees rabbits and other small animals as well as select exotics at Brampton’s North Town Veterinary Hospital. To book an appointment for your rabbit at our animal hospital call us at 905-451-2000 or fill out a new client form here.