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A beautiful, yellow-eyed cat receiving treatment. Doug Hall feeding a well-loved client.

Paws For Thought- Article 8

23rd May 2019

Rabbit and Guinea Pig Husbandry


It's time for us to give our smaller patients some of the limelight- this week we're discussing rabbits and guinea pigs and giving you some tips on how to keep them healthy and happy. Just in time for everyone to get excited about Rabbit Awareness Week on 1st-9th June 2019!

Rabbits and guinea pigs can be friendly and affectionate pets, but they do require a lot of attention and appropriate conditions for them to thrive. They are prey animals and because of this, they often hide signs of weakness from us so that they don't seem vulnerable. Therefore, it is important to try and prevent health issues as much as possible by maintaining good husbandry. Below, I've outlined some of our key tips to keeping them well, and a few subtle signs that may mean that they need a trip to the vets.

Although this article is grouping rabbits and guinea pigs together, they don't always like being housed together. Rabbits can be quite dominant towards piggies, and they have different nutritional requirements, so it’s not advised to keep them in the same hutch. They are both sociable animals though, so having company of humans or the same species is preferable.


1.      Nutrition

    An appropriate diet is one of the most important things to ensuring you have a healthy pet. With rabbits and guinea pigs, this is particularly crucial, as without access to the appropriate nutrition, they will start to have problems very quickly.

    One of these issues involves their dentition, as both species have teeth that continue to grow throughout their lives. The best way to keep these teeth short is by having them constantly grazing hay or grass.

    We recommend that they have a complete pellet and not the 'muesli' style food- as they quite often will pick through the muesli and choose the tastiest morsels, therefore not getting the correct nutrients.

    Fresh vegetables are a nice treat for them, but if they are on hay and grass and a small number of pellets, they don't need a huge amount of fresh vegetables- avoid giving lettuce/cabbage as this can cause diarrhoea. Just as a side note- chard and beetroot can cause their urine to be tinged red!

    Did you know guinea pigs are one of three species that require vitamin C to be supplemented in their diet? Adding drops to the water is the easiest way to achieve this. Oh, and the other two species that need Vitamin C are... humans and chimps!


2.      Housing

    Small furries can either be kept indoors or outdoors. They should always be given an area to exercise and as they are very clean animals, either a litter tray or a separate area to toilet is recommended.

    Depending on the season, be careful that they don't get too cold or hot. Generally, if their hutch is outside but near the house and it can be covered, you should be fine but if you have the option to bring them in on really cold days, they will appreciate it.

    Hay can be the perfect substrate as they can eat and use this as bedding. Straw is fine but can be quite rigid and is more likely to cause damage to the eyes or nose. Newspaper is also appropriate, but I prefer to stay away from sawdust as the excess dust can cause sore eyes and allergies.


3.      Neutering

    We recommend neutering both rabbits and guinea pigs, as this can prevent unwanted litters, reduce some behavioural issues and protects against cancer of the reproductive tracts.

    Neutering can happen from 4-6months- we perform the surgery at the Cape Veterinary Clinic, and if you are interested in having your rabbit or guinea pig neutered, please phone us to book an appointment on 01483 538990.

    Guinea pigs should never be allowed to get pregnant after 6 months of age, as by this age their pubic bones are fused, and they have real problems with giving birth. Unfortunately this can be fatal.


4.      Vaccination

      We vaccinate against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD & VHD-2). VHD-2 is a new strain that shows fewer symptoms that VHD-1, but can be just as dangerous, sadly with most infected rabbits not surviving the disease. We can combine the Myxomatosis and VHD vaccine, but then VHD-2 is given 2 weeks after the first combined vaccine. Both vaccines should be given yearly unless advised otherwise by one of our vets.


5.      Signs of illness

    Being quiet or withdrawn

    Inappetence/reduced appetite

    Reduced number or size of faeces (or not eating their caecotrophs)

    Losing weight

    Nasal discharge/sneezing/coughing

    Closed eyes/discharge from the eyes

 If you see any of these signs, or notice any change that you are concerned about, we recommend phoning us to book an appointment with one of our vets. When rabbits or guinea pigs become ill, they can quickly decline and go into gut stasis (where their guts stop moving). This is a serious condition and can be very difficult to treat.

So, as you can see, there's a lot more to looking after rabbits and guinea pigs than initially thought. They are complex creatures, but hugely affectionate when in the right environment.

If you would like any further information or you are concerned about your pet, please do give us a ring at The Cape Veterinary Clinic on 01483 538990.


Catherine Hannah BVSc MRCVS

References: 100 Top consultations, VetWest animal hospital