The main aims of successful handling are:
Keep patient as calm as possible
Reduce any potential risk of injury to the patient or handler
Handle the patient correctly and competently
Reduce stress induced by handling and veterinary procedures
The majority of rabbits seen in practice are docile but be prepared for the potential of aggression; these are usually the rabbits that are frightened or haven't been handled very much by their owners. The main concern for the handler is scratches, particularly from the hindfeet and deep bites from the incisor teeth. In adult entire rabbits aggression can sometimes be worse at the start of the breeding season (March/April).
Always aim to handle in a quiet room, with the possibility of subdued lighting. Speak in a quiet calm reassuring voice. It must be remembered that these animals are prey species so avoid any sudden or threatening movements, and move slowly but deliberately.
If a rabbit is frightened several different behavioural responses may be seen:
Freezing in fear
Always handle with confidence as this helps the rabbit feel more relaxed and less likely to panic and struggle.
Use as little restraint as possible for the procedure to be carried out but have a towel ready just in case it is needed to wrap around the body.
Place one hand under the chin with your thumb behind the head and forefinger under the mandible. Use your second and third fingers to stabilise the front feet. With a scooping action use your arm to bring the rabbit into your body so it feels secure. Then using your other hand support the rest of the bodyweight and gently lift the rabbit.
If fractious place a towel over the top of the rabbit and with a scooping action wrap underneath whilst the main part of the body is supported with your body and arms. Or place the towel under and wrap over the back of the rabbit.
Care needs to be taken when handling, particularly if the rabbit is wrapped in a towel, to ensure that the rabbit does not overheat; this can prove fatal if not noticed and corrected.
The rabbit should never be held in a way which causes the abdominal contents to put pressure on the diaphragm causing respiratory distress.
Always be aware that rabbits can suddenly kick out with their hindlimbs - potentially fracturing a limb or their spine. The lumbar vertebrae are elongated to allow for flexion during their normal hopping movement but it does also mean they are susceptible to spinal fractures.
When the rabbit is placed on the examination table, use both arms along either side of the rabbit's body, with one hand restraining the head and your own body as a backstop. From this position the veterinary surgeon can examine the head, and if needed gain intravenous access using the jugular, cephalic or lateral ear vein. For auscultating the chest or performing abdominal palpation the handler can stand in front of the rabbit restraining around the head and forelimbs whilst the veterinary surgeon examines from the rear. To examine the ventral body place one hand under the thorax with the other hand supporting the rump and lift the rabbit so its rump rests on the table, with the spine held against the handler's body.
For access to the lateral saphenous vein the rabbit can be held close to the table edge with the limb overhanging which is then restrained by the person needing access.
Inadequate or inappropriate husbandry often predisposes to disease. If ammonia is allowed to build up within the hutch it weakens the lining of the nasal cavities causing respiratory disease, also if the bedding used is too dusty it can cause bronchitis. Overcrowding and poor nutrition can have a detrimental effect on the immune system, and inappropriate temperature and ventilation can cause overheating, which can be fatal or cause further respiratory problems. Incorrect diets can lead to digestive disturbances that can severely compromise the health of the rabbit.
The environment that you create or inform owners on creating should provide all the requirements for the chosen species:
Rabbits are social animals, and can be kept together providing there is enough space within the hutch and run; also neutering will help stop any bullying, unwanted pregnancies or sexual harassment.
Most hutches are made from wood; ideally this should be beech wood as it's not very absorbent and therefore easier to clean. The roof should be lined with felt, have a slight overhang at the front (protecting against the weather) and slope towards the back (to allow rain to drain off).
The hutch must be big enough for the rabbit to stretch out fully, stand upright and move three hops. (This is the minimum.) Ideally it should be three times as long as the rabbit when relaxed and stretched out. If the hutch is smaller the rabbit must have an area for regular exercise; this helps to reduce the risk of muscular atrophy occurring and the increased potential of spontaneous fractures to the limbs or spine.
The hutch should provide separate areas for sleeping, eating and a toilet. There should be bolt holes, tubes, partitions, or enclosed areas so the rabbit always has somewhere it can feel secure if threatened. Ideally the hutch should be at least 18 inches (45 cm) off of the ground, so that the floor has enough circulating air to dry and not rot, and also to act as a deterrent for predators. The hutch should be placed in a well-ventilated but not too draughty area.
Outside runs should be both rabbit and predator proof, so the sides should be buried about a foot into the ground if on a soft substrate like grass, and the top should also have a mesh roof to stop escape or access.
Initially the house rabbit should be kept within a small area until they have become litter trained. Provision of separate sleeping and eating areas is still vital, as is the placement of a litter tray for the toilet area. Once they are used to using the litter tray then they can be allowed to roam within the designated area that the owner wants them in. It is important to remind owners of the hazards within the home particularly wiring / cables, houseplants, the rabbit's normal behaviour of chewing and gnawing, and the potential interactions with other household pets.
Most of the cages within the practice are made of stainless steel as it is easy to clean; rabbits can be housed in these but be aware that rabbit urine can sometimes tarnish the steel. Cardboard boxes can be used as bolt holes, or even thick plastic tubing (thick enough that the rabbit cannot chew bits off and ingest them). Litter trays can be provided if they are house rabbits; if they are hospitalised for a period of time and are mobile, then an exercise area should be provided.
The hutch/cage should be lined with a substrate that is easily removed and easy to clean; newspaper with shavings on top can be easily rolled up and removed in one piece. Straw or hay can be used in the sleeping area. Daily cleaning should occur, with a thorough wash of the hutch on a weekly basis.
With a hospital cage using shavings may not be possible due to the patient having surgical wounds; cleaning should be done several times a day to ensure no contamination of wounds or soiling of the patient. If extra padding is needed then rolled up blankets/towels, or padding underneath the paper, can be used. Any soiling can be further reduced especially at night by using incontinence pads, as long as the rabbit is unlikely to chew them.
The food bowls used should be made of ceramic or metal, which are less likely to get chewed or be knocked over by the rabbit. Water can be supplied in either a water bowl or a bottle; the bottle is sometimes preferred as it is less likely to become contaminated with food, faeces or urine.
Rabbits are total herbivores, their natural diet consists of fresh grass (75–80%), dandelions, leafy greens and some herbs. They are classed as grazers and spend most of the day eating. The natural diet is low in energy, fat, protein and digestible carbohydrate, but high in indigestible fibre. Grass provides a large amount of the daily fibre that is vital for the normal wear of the teeth and the stimulation of normal gut motility, not cut grass as it causes fermentation within the gut and leads to colic.
Commercial pellets are often too low in fibre and too high in protein, fat and energy. Pellets are also eaten too quickly and with a crushing rather than side-to-side motion, so do not ensure adequate wear of the teeth leading to potential dental problems.
The pet rabbit diet should consist of:
Good quality hay
Wide variety of fresh leafy greens
Small amounts of pellets (10–15% at most)
Dandelions, parsley and herbs
Care has to be taken to avoid selective eating, especially if feeding high amounts of concentrates, as this can lead to obesity and yet further health problems. Hay should be offered daily and be of good quality and high in fibre; meadow grass hay is often recommended. Avoid dusty broken pellets, wheat chaff and broken cereals flakes or biscuit; hay should be free from dust and mould and sweet smelling.
Rabbits initially pass gelatinous smelly faeces called caecotrophs which are eaten directly from the anus. They are full of fibre and vitamins vital for the health of the rabbit, particularly vitamins B and K. Once the caecotroph has been redigested a solid faecal pellet is passed. Sometimes eating caecotrophs does not occur and can be due to obesity or spinal problems where the rabbit cannot physically reach the caecotrophs, or dental problems where they are not eating properly.
It is important for veterinary nurses to have a basic understanding of handling and husbandry so they can inform owners coming into the practice, but also to ensure the safe and professional care that these patients may need.