Holistic care and management for rabbits

Veterinary surgeon Stuart Marston looks at how adopting a more natural approach to looking after rabbits can make them healthier and happier pets.

Holistic, holism, whole-ism and similar terms are often bandied about without a clear definition as to what is meant by them. A basic definition of holistic is the concept of considering the whole animal rather than an individual system or part of the body and how it interacts with its environment. Holism addresses all the factors associated with a living body from its environment to nutrition; from mental welfare through to the internal and external stresses placed upon it. A holistic approach favours the care, management and treatment of illnesses by natural means i.e. not through chemicals, antibiotics or processed foods.  The concept is simple – the application probably more difficult as a change in mind-set is required.

The public perception of words like holistic, green, natural is that the product, food or whatever is better and safer for the animal, and not produced in an artificial or “manufactured” way. This is often far from the truth. Large companies have latched on to the holistic ethos and label many of their products with words usually associated with the natural approach to health and diet, but in reality these products are as “manufactured” and derived as they ever were and contain additives, preservatives and non-organic ingredients.

It is generally known that rabbits can be very sensitive to many commonly used medicines – both veterinary prescription preparations and off-the-shelf products, so all should be used with care. Rabbits are probably the third most common pet in the UK and many are kept in cages – often alone. Their anatomy and digestive system is markedly different to cats and dogs. But it is not within the remit of this article to give a detailed description of biological facts or a comprehensive list of the diseases that afflict rabbits; rather it is an attempt to encourage an awareness of the pet rabbit as a living entity with all that that it involves.

In the author’s opinion, many of the disease states and problems associated with pet rabbits can be laid at the door of management. The most important item is without doubt their food. Rabbits eat grass. That’s it. They will eat a few vegetables, a few weeds etc. but they are designed for – and do best on – large quantities of fresh organically produced grass. Grass provides all the nutrients, vitamins and a large percentage of the water requirements a rabbit needs. Any grass or hay produced commercially will almost certainly have been artificially fertilised and as such contains substances bad for the rabbit. All year round hay (dried grass) and straw can be used with available fresh water. Greens and root vegetables like turnips, mangles, carrots and swedes can be added in limited quantities.

Rabbits have permanently growing teeth that need to be continually ground down by chewing if they are not to overgrow and/or distort. This is why they need to chew such a lot. Pelleted food cannot provide the chewing, and no matter how sound nutritionally, is quite unsatisfactory. Pelleted food was originally developed in the USA for feed-lot rabbits in order to grow them as quickly as possible to slaughter weight. It was never designed for long-term feeding and anyway the rabbits did not live long enough for the negative effects to develop. Some breeds of pet rabbit may live up to thirteen years, so the way they are fed is very important to their longevity.

Health and environment
Rabbits are by nature sociable animals. They do much better if they have company, preferably other rabbits but humans will do. The older notion that a guinea pig was a good companion for a rabbit has largely fallen out of favour. Problems can arise when keeping rabbits together. Aside from the obvious reproductive proclivity, there are health issues. Female rabbits need to breed in order to maintain the health of their reproductive tracts. Pathology can be found in the uterus of does at less than a year old. If they are not intended for breeding then ovariohysterctomy is advised. The use of anaesthetic and the stress of surgery do carry some risks of course, but they are outweighed by the potential benefits for the long-term health of the rabbit. Neutering males is also a sound practice. Reproduction is prevented and there is generally a much lower incidence of inter-male aggression provided adequate space is available. Although it could be argued that surgical neutering is not holistic, it does benefit the overall health status of the rabbit in the broad sense.

Housing and their environment affects the well-being of rabbits. They need to feel safe or otherwise they become stressed. They need a place to sleep away from their toilet area and space to exercise. A small hutch with little room to move is not satisfactory. Excellent modular rabbit housing is now available on the market, along with exercise/play products similar to the hamster tube facilities in concept. The “runs” are not sealed at the bottom so the rabbits can get access to grass. Being enclosed, they are safe from predators and escape proof; movable so fresh grass can be accessed, as well as providing space for the rabbits. This type of hutch can be purchased as a “starter kit” and then tubes, hides and nesting areas can be added later.

Many owners keep their rabbits in the house and there is in fact a House Rabbit Society. There website at www.rabbit.org has a large database with much advice on keeping pet rabbits in doors. Precautions, of course, have to be taken when keeping a rabbit in the house as they love chewing wires! Thankfully products are available to protect furnishings, wiring etc.  To avoid any unfortunate toilet accidents rabbits can be trained to use a litter tray and these are commercially produced too. Rabbits are active animals who like to chew, scratch, dig, leap and throw. These needs have to be catered for by providing toys which can be either purchased or homemade. Boxes of shredded paper offer good entertainment, as well as hanging mobile toys, balls, old hand towels, ramps covered with carpet running to different levels in the house or climbing runs (the ones made for cats can be just as good for rabbits). All this helps maintain the mental health of the rabbit; for a bored rabbit is miserable and prone to vices such as aggression and self-trauma, or it can become depressed and susceptible to illness.

Holistic therapies
There is a range of holistic treatments suitable for rabbits including herbal medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, reiki, chiropractic, Bach flower remedies and aroma therapy. However, it’s important to know that the rabbit is not suffering from a serious underlying condition before any of the complementary/holistic therapies are used.

In the UK it is an offence for anyone except a veterinary surgeon to undertake diagnosis and/or treatment of animals other than their own, so the possibilities open to lay persons (i.e. non-veterinary surgeons) are limited to the supply of products for the owner to use on their own animals. These products mainly comprise of homeopathic preparations, some herbal products and Bach flower remedies. Due to the sensitivity of rabbits, essential oils can be dangerous and are best left to suitably qualified veterinary surgeons to administer.

Rabbit owners ideally should have a first aid kit for their animals. Rabbits can move from mildly ill state to a terminal condition very quickly. A digital rectal thermometer, a heat pad, some alcohol wipes, a styptic pencil (useful to stop nails bleeding) and some bandages would seem to be the minimum. There are also several books available to owners offering advice on common health conditions.

Some of the common ailments that can be helped with first aid before a veterinary surgeon is consulted are: fright/stress, shock, torn nails, fight wounds, overgrown nails, ocular discharges, conjunctivitis, faecal accumulation around anus, bloat, electrical burns and spinal injuries.

Herbal remedies
Herbal preparations vary in their active ingredient levels and should always be used with caution. Herbal does not always mean harmless. Some preparations can enhance the action of conventional medicines and so should only be used under veterinary instruction in that circumstance.

  • Euphrasia – conjuctivitis
  • Blackberry/Raspberry – diarrhoea
  • Ginger – general digestive aid
  • Chamomile – conjunctivitis
  • Apple cider vinegar plus Olive oil – ear mites
  • Raspberry leaves/extract – assists labour
  • Willow bark – general pain relief
  • Garlic – helps removal and prevention of internal parasites
  • Arnica tincture – bruises injuries
  • Rosemary – exhaustion/weakness/depression (fresh is best)
  • Echinacea – enhances immune system “antibiotic” properties
  • Marigold – slow healing wounds, strains/bruising
  • Comfrey – stressed rabbits; also excellent for promoting bone healing

Homeopathic remedies are readily obtainable. They can be provided without prescription and are safe to use along with conventional treatment or herbal preparations. There are some licensed veterinary homeopathic preparations available – Arnica, Aconite, Arsenicum album, Belladonna, Nux vom and Rhus tox.

Homeopathic remedies have no side-effects and rabbits respond very well to them. Some remedies and the associated conditions that lend themselves to the use of homeopathy are:

  • Arnica – injuries, bruising
  • Aconite – shock, stress. Trips to the vet/boarding. Acute onset of any condition
  • Arsenicum album – restlessness. Acrid nasal/conjunctival discharges.
  • Belladonna – fevers. Agitation. Acute onset pain. Acute inflammation
  • Nux vom – digestive upsets. Inappetance (lacking the desire to eat). Low faecal output. Overeating of unsuitable food.
  • Rhus tox – musculo-skeletal problems. Strains/sprains. Damaged muscle.
  • Apis mellifica – conjuctival swelling. Vulval swelling post-partum
  • Caulophyllum – pre, during and post-partum. Helps with birth and uterine contractions.
  • Ignatia – issues of abandonment or bereavement. Loss of companion, weaning a litter.
  • Sepia – female temperament problems relating to reproduction. Aggression, rejection of litter.

This list is not exhaustive and many other ailments can be helped with homeopathy. Owners should always consult their veterinary surgeon if in any doubt. A sick rabbit can deteriorate very quickly and delay could be fatal.

This is a very useful therapy and helps many musculo-skeletal problems. Only a qualified veterinary surgeon is able to perform this.

This form of healing is practiced by many people. It is gentle and free from side-effects. To the author’s knowledge as long as the practitioner has the permission of the attending veterinary surgeon this therapy can be undertaken by non-veterinary surgeons.

This form of therapy involves manipulation of the vertebrae and muscles. It can be hazardous to the rabbit if applied by an inexperienced practitioner, so should only be undertaken following a referral from a veterinary surgeon.

Bach Flower remedies
These were developed by Edward Bach. They address the mental state rather than the physical. They are safe and can be used alongside any of the other therapies including conventional medicine. Some of the remedies used and their indications are:

  • Chicory: possessiveness – bedding food etc.
  • Gentian: dependency – does not like to be left.
  • Walnut: does not like change – hutch, house etc.
  • Rescue remedy: pain, shock and distress.

Aroma therapy
As mentioned above, this form of therapy is best used by veterinary surgeons qualified in its use or by referral from a veterinary surgeon. Rabbits are highly sensitive animals (i.e. their use in laboratories) and the concentrated oils can prove dangerous even in low amounts.

Managing rabbits holistically can be challenging but there are plenty of opportunities for owners to do this effectively, and I hope they will find the advice I’ve offered in this article will help them to achieve this.

Stuart Marston. B.Vet.Med. Vet.MFHom. MRCVS

This article first appeared in the Pet Gazette