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House rabbit’s health and upkeep

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Toilet/Litter Training Your Rabbit

Poop & Pee – An Overview

Rabbits excrete a myriad of poop shapes and a rainbow of pee colors. These shapes and colors will tell you a lot about your rabbit’s health.

Normal poops should be large, uniform in shape and size, and have golden flecks of hay in them.

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Normal healthy poop (Image source: Buns Inc)

Rabbits also produce another type of normal poop called a cecotrope, usually in the morning. These poops look like small bunches of grapes, have a strong odor, and are often mistaken by new rabbit owners as diarrhea. These poops are rich in nutrients and the rabbit eats them to absorb vitamins B and K.

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Cecotropes (Image source: https://www.petcoach.co/article/cecotropes-and-coprophagy/)

Abnormal poops come in all sorts of shapes and colors – any poop that is not large, uniform in shape and size, or has an absence of golden hay flecks is classed as abnormal. They are small, dark, can be doubled up, connected like a pearl necklace by fibers, be covered in mucus, be diarrhea, or even contain worms. In all of these instances, a vet needs to be consulted for a diagnosis and treatment.

Normal pee comes in a rainbow of colors from white to red, that is dependent upon plant intake. Healthy pee should be at the lighter end of the scale.

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Pee color examples by Greendale Veterinary Diagnostics (Image source: https://wabbitwiki.com/wiki/Urine)

Abnormal pee can be either a thick sludge or contain blood. In both of these instances, a vet needs to be consulted for a diagnosis and treatment. [To confirm blood, a simple test using hydrogen peroxide on the red component can be carried out – it will fizz if it is blood.]

Ensuring Life Remains Pleasant

We know now that rabbits poop and pee constantly – some also spray. It is a fact that having your bunny spayed or neutered will curb the need to mark territory. Fortunately, rabbits can be toilet trained and it is possible to toilet train an un-altered rabbit.

This is my experience, so will differ from other people. My method was 100% successful for all my bunnies, who were not desexed when trained.

If your rabbit is free-roam especially, the first thing you need to do is work out where he or she favors toileting. They will have certain preferred spots and it’s not likely they will initially go where you want them to. Put litter trays in all those spots. To counter issues such as digging up the litter and toileting over the side, a high-sided and/or covered tray works best. There are varied opinions on what is the best product to put in a litter tray for a rabbit – it can be hay, shredded paper, dirt, aspen wood shavings, or recycled paper pellet litter. It’s very much trial and error. Litters that are dangerous are pine/cedar wood shavings, crystals, and clay clumping litter (if ingested these can cause serious internal issues). I use recycled paper pellet litter as they can safely nibble on it, it’s super absorbent, and helps keep their feet clean. As a rabbit gets bigger, the trays have to get bigger as well – they should always be 2 to 4 times the size of the bunny.

Work according to the theory that rabbits like to eat while toileting. They will always have hits and misses around the trays, but the ultimate goal is to have them peeing in the trays every time. When they do miss the trays, soak the pee stain with a solution of white vinegar and water to neutralize the odor, and keep picking up the poop and putting it in the tray – especially while they are watching so they will get the message. Don’t over-do the cleaning of the tray though – there still needs to be a residual familiar scent that alerts the rabbit to toilet there. It also helps to have a favorite food (but particularly hay) suspended over or near/in the trays to lure them in. This will encourage hay eating at the same time.

Toileting habits will never be perfect. You may have to cover or cordon off certain areas you don’t want them toileting in, especially places that have beds and sofas – as humans leave strong scent on these items, they become a trigger for the rabbit to add their own scent markers.

Litter training a rabbit works on a similar principle to crate training a puppy (though a rabbit needs more space). Best practice is to initially confine them in a smaller enclosure (allowing for up to 5 days), and place several litter trays in that space with food in, near or above them.

It is crucial that they are not let out for this period, as it will derail the process. Even a free roam rabbit needs to be litter trained this way – they will continue to use the trays once training is complete.

They will get used to sitting in the trays to eat the food lure. Eventually, you won’t need to put food as a lure, and you can even reduce the number of trays according to which they favor.

Because rabbits are highly territorial, any change to their environment, no matter how subtly, can adversely impact on their toilet habits. Rabbits reinstate marking when their territory changes – moving to a new home, they get a new cage, redecorating, a new household member/pet, health problems, and using a new cleaning product. If you must make changes, try to make them not too dramatic.

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Cheese’s temporary toilet training enclosure (Image source: Buns Inc)

Physical & Medical Care of Your Rabbit

Grooming

Rabbits are clean animals who preen themselves. They should not be bathed just so they smell nice. The only time a rabbit should be bathed is when there is something on their fur or skin they cannot clean off themselves, or it would be dangerous for them to. It pays to invest in a good brush (or horse grooming block if you have a Rex rabbit), nail clippers and styptic powder/cornstarch to stop bleeding if you opt to trim their nails yourself (vets will trim nails for a small charge), and be aware that they have anal scent glands that sometimes you will need to help clean.

Understanding Gastrointestinal Stasis

Rabbits can develop a secondary condition to another issue called Gastrointestinal Stasis.

Gut issues are the biggest cause of untimely rabbit deaths… and gut issues can be prevented with the provision of a safe, balanced diet. If your rabbit refuses to eat anything (even their most favorite treat), becomes lethargic, and stops toileting for more than 3 hours – this is classed as an emergency, but treatable when caught early.

The first thing that needs to happen is a correct diagnosis by feeling the tummy for signs of blockage or bloat, as it may not necessarily automatically be Gastrointestinal Stasis. Blockage, bloat and stasis have differing treatments. A bunny’s tummy should normally feel soft if there is no issue. Gastric issues can also be present for several weeks before manifesting – less, small or irregular poops can be an indicator, though the bunny may still be eating normally. This would be a sign to reduce greens and increase hay intake.

Both bloat and blockages MUST be treated by a vet immediately because they require specific medication only a vet can administer (as with stasis), but the bunny could be dead within a few hours as these conditions are excruciatingly painful for them. There is no mucking around with syringe feeding, as intervention may even need to be surgical. Without knowing what is exactly going on, force-feeding could be dangerous. Putting anything into the intestinal tract in the presence of an obstruction or bloat can potentially rupture the bowel and be fatal. For bloat, a vet needs to perform gastric decompression. If the bunny has a blockage, attempting to syringe-feed will just create a dam effect and make the problem worse. Pineapple juice is commonly suggested as a treatment, however force-feeding concentrated sugary foods to a bunny with a gut issue will compound the problem. In most cases, surgery is required to remove the cause of any obstruction.

When calling the vet for an appointment, INSIST to the vet receptionist that the matter is URGENT, as your bunny will only have 3 to 12 hours to live. The longer gut issues go untreated, the harder they are to treat and the survival rate decreases.

Once stasis has been confirmed the treatment should be mobility and feeding to encourage the gut to move so toileting can commence. Tummy massages help, but must be done correctly so as not to cause any poop to move back into the intestine – so massage from front to back. When a bunny has gas, they try to sit with their belly as flat to the ground as possible, ears down, front legs wide apart.

If you cannot get to a vet a.s.a.p and you are 100% certain the issue is GI stasis, you can begin a rudimentary treatment by syringe feeding some form of Simethicone – Simethicone is the base ingredient for infant gas drops, which can generally be bought over the counter at pharmacies or in supermarkets. Put some drops in a syringe of slightly warm water and something mildly sweet to make it taste better (a homemade puree or baby food with rabbit safe ingredients), and massage your bunny’s tummy constantly. Once the drops have activated, attempt to get some water in via a syringe. The rabbit will likely clamp their jaw shut, so you need to wrap them in a towel like a ‘burrito’, and put the syringe in the side of the mouth where there is a gap in the teeth. Keep doing this at regular short intervals. As the rabbit begins to feel better, he or she will become more amenable to eating – so offer fresh sprigs of herbs (lemon balm, fennel, parsley and pineapple sage are good gut stimulants; so is ribwort, which also contains a lot of fiber).

Once at the vet, pain relief (generally Metacam/Meloxicam), upper AND lower gut stimulant (Ranitidine, Cisapride, Simethicone, Metamide or Metochlopramide or a combination) and subcutaneous fluids should be administered. Having not eaten, the bunny will be dehydrated and this can prolong stasis, so fluids are essential. An x-ray to confirm diagnosis may be required in some instances. Unless there is some kind of infection, antibiotics should not be required.

DO NOT leave the vet without Oxbow Critical Care, 5 days worth of extra gut stimulant, and pain relief. Treatment is not a one-off at the vet – it needs to continue UNTIL the rabbit is eating, moving and toileting 100% normally again.

It is also important to note that medication impacts on a rabbit’s capacity to control their temperature – so they need to be kept warm and inside. If they have a bonded mate, it helps them both to be together.

It also needs to be noted that if you live in a place that does not give you access to vets, Critical Care, pellets, hay, baby food, or infant gas drops, you need to seek advice from a group more local to you to find out what practical treatment options are specifically available.

bunny rabbit
Beauty undergoing treatment for early-onset GI Stasis (2018), Image source: Buns Inc

The Importance of Having a Bunny Emergency Repair Kit

As bunnies often become unwell in non-pay weeks or the second the vet shuts, it is a good idea to have a small med kit on hand that contains things you can treat at minor ailments at home UNTIL you can get to a vet. Being prepared can save your bunny’s life.

ESSENTIAL ITEMS:

* Infant gas drops that contain Simethicone

* Pain relief – in some countries Metacam/Meloxicam is available over the counter, but rabbits can have NSAIDS

* Oxbow Critical Care powder – this is a nutritional feeding supplement only; available from vets and online

* Infant puree (especially if you cannot make your own puree) – it helps to mix the Critical Care in this to make it more palatable; use a sugar-free and/or organic one that is made of bunny safe fruit/greens (avoid the porridge based ones & those that contain potato/quinoa)

* 200IU vitamin E for floppy bunny syndrome (which is often due to vitamin E deficiency)

* Topical antiseptic ointment/cream – skin irritation (eg: sore hocks, urine scald) – Sudocrem, A&D Cream, Neosporin (original, not the pain relief one), Calendula Cream, Lucas Papaw, Bag Balm, Silvadene

* Betadine solution (it’s a safe iodine) for treating minor cuts & wounds to stop infection

* Styptic powder/matches or cornstarch to stop bleeding nails

* A selection of different size syringes or a dropper to hand-feed medicine

ADDITIONAL ITEMS:

* Saline to clean eyes (conjunctivitis) – you can make a water & salt solution as needed

* Hydrogen peroxide – not to be given or put on the bunny – this is to confirm whether or not there is a patch of blood on the floor or in urine (if there is, it will fizz when you spray some of this on it)

* A selection of pads & bandages

* Q-tips for removing debris where needed

* Apple cider vinegar – a teaspoon in your bunny’s water bowl can help settle gas when it occurs

* Goats milk or kitten milk replacer if you find yourself in the unexpected position of having to hand-rear kits

* Vegetable oil – to wipe away mites post-treatment

* Chamomile tea (organic) to relieve stress prior to a car ride

* A pill cutter or crusher

* Scissors

* Bunny fur & baby booties in the event you need to wrap a sore hock

* Surgical gloves

* Bene-Bac contains good bacteria and helps other good bacteria grow in the GI tract. This is good when a bunny’s on antibiotics because the antibiotics can kill these bacteria. It’s like eating yogurt when you’re on antibiotics

IMPORTANT NOTE: Your emergency bunny repair kit does NOT replace vet care. Always see your vet immediately if your bunny is displaying signs of illness. Product brands will vary depending upon country.

10 House rabbit's health and upkeep
Image source: Buns Inc

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