Rabbit nursing care – the 4 essentials

Follow our 4 essentials guide to provide the best possible care for rabbits in your practise

Posted: 06 March 2018

Rabbit nursing care – the 4 essentials


Rabbits are more and more frequently being hospitalised in veterinary practice as our knowledge and skills in small mammal care improve. Vets and veterinary nurses are ideally positioned to look after them and give them the best chance of recovery from illness and injury.

They do however have very specialised needs and it’s vital we’re all able to provide for them consistently and well. Below we go through 4 of the most important areas to get right when caring for rabbits in your practice.

1. The rabbit ward

We’ve all got dog and cat wards, but what are the needs of the rabbit? Below is a short tick list of some of the more important requirements.

  • Bedding - newspaper or hay bedding works well. Rabbits like to hide and burrow, so a plentiful supply of shredded paper will enable a simulated digging and burrowing behaviour.
  • Shelter and stress management – cardboard boxes and tubes provide ideal hiding furniture. They’ll be used and appreciated by most rabbits.
  • Cleanliness – many rabbits will use a litter tray at home, so don’t forget to include one in the animal’s cage when hospitalised.
  • Food and water – this should be made available at all times. Water should be provided in either a bowl or bottle depending on which the animal is used to. If you’re not sure, provide both.
  • Companions - a bonded pair of rabbits shouldn’t be separated even if one has to be hospitalised. We generally find that having their companion with them will reduce stress and thereby help support the patient.

2. Specialised foods

Nutritional support must be provided to hospitalised patients, especially those with high metabolic rates where anorexia rapidly results in cachexia. Rabbits have a high metabolic rate and should never be starved. Read our article on the rabbit nutrition to find out more.

Rabbit Nutrition

When stressed or in pain, they’re susceptible to a variety of gastrointestinal problems, including stasis. These problems can often be more critical than the presenting problem, so it’s most important that all the clinical team are on the look out for signs of a complication. Have you seen and heard our Webinar on Gut Stasis in rabbits? There’s still time to view it. Click here to get access to our free webinar.

Weigh the patient – by far the best way to determine if a patient is receiving sufficient and appropriate nutrition is to weigh them daily. Accurate electronic scales are readily available so there shouldn’t be a problem for most practices. Depending on the results, supplemental feeding can then be adjusted as appropriate.

Calculate the requirements - the calorific requirements of each rabbit should be calculated. Make sure that the food offered is being eaten, and if the daily requirements aren’t being consumed then you should consider assisted syringe feeding as an alternative.

Fibrevore diet - pellets, hay, and fresh salad greens may be used to tempt the anorexic rabbit to eat. Avoid carbohydrate rich seeds.

3. Assisted feeding – sometimes it’s necessary

If the patient isn’t eating, assisted feeding using a syringe should be considered and implemented. There are a variety of products available these days that will help to support and feed an anorexic rabbit. 

Emeraid – produced by Lafeber, is specially formulated and produced for use in critically ill patients. It comes as a powder that is mixed with water and then syringe fed. Available for herbivores, it’s an ideal critical diet for rabbits. Its key benefit is that it provides the critical care nutrition in a simplified form, allowing essential nutrients to be absorbed with minimal effort. It’s usually recommended that you feed it as the sole source of nutrition for no longer than 5-7 days.

Excel Dualcare – produced by us at Burgess Pet Care. A specially formulated diet which when mixed with water, can be easily syringe fed to both rabbits at times of stress and recovery. It contains long chain fibre, pre-biotics, methionine, tryptophan and Vitamin C – all essential when looking for nutritional and GIT support. As Dualcare contains long chain fibre, it can be fed for long-term support of fibrevores - rabbits and guinea pigs in particular.

Read our article on Syringe feeding >

4. Keep them warm – don’t forget the basics

Supplemental heat is critical for patients that have lost or don’t have the ability to thermo-regulate their own body temperature. By providing an external heat source you’ll reduce the physiological stress on the animal during its stay in hospital.

  • Incubator – you can use either a pediatric or veterinary incubator. They both work well and can be lifesavers for hypothermic critical patients.
  • Radiant heat - radiant heating lamps can be attached to cage doors when an incubator is unavailable. Make sure the patient and potentially flammable materials aren’t in direct contact with the lamp as burns and fires are possible.
  • Heat pad - heat pads are good alternatives for providing supplemental heat for patients that are able to get up and move about. 
  • Hot water bottles - temporary heat can also be provided with hot water bottles or gloves filled with warm water. This is especially useful post anesthesia or surgery. Never put the bottle in direct contact with the patient as burns can easily occur.
  • Care with heat - a non-ambulatory animal should never be left on a focal heat source without constant monitoring. They can easily become hyperthermic or develop skin burns.
  • Care with electric leads - caution must be used when using heating pads for rabbits as they may chew on the power cord and get electrocuted.