Rabbits are quiet, friendly and intelligent pets. The average life span for a domestic rabbit is 7 to 10 years and the following information will hopefully give you some guidance to looking after your rabbit well.
Rabbits should never be completely confined to a cage. It is essential for a rabbit to allowed to exercise – they are designed to run, roam and jump in large areas. Confinement in a cage can lead to obesity, pododermatitis, poor muscle tone and bone density, gastrointestinal/urinary problems and behavioural problems.
A cage can be used as base/shelter for the rabbit for part of the day or left open within an exercise area. The cage should be tall enough for the rabbit to stand up on their hindlimbs, have a resting area and contain a litter box. It should be easy to clean and indestructible (preferably made of metal).The floor can be solid or wire (or a combination) and the cage should be kept in a well ventilated cool area. It is important to guard against fatal heat stroke especially in the summer months when the humidity is high.
Your rabbit should be allowed to roam freely for a few hours every day within an exercise area. An exercise area can be made out of gates or panels which prevent access for your rabbit to chew furniture, electrical cables and ingesting toxic materials.
Rabbits are easily trained to use litter boxes. By initially confining rabbits to a small area with a litter box in one corner (ideally with a little hay and some droppings placed inside) – rabbits will naturally use the litter tray. It is important to ensure the litter tray’s edges are low enough to facilitate easy access. Pelleted litter is the best bedding and preferable to corncob, wood shavings and cat litter (which can cause impactions in the gut if ingested).
Rabbits require a protected area to feel safe and secure. Empty large cardboard boxes or tubes and wicker/straw baskets full of hay provide excellent shelters. Also washable material, such as fake fleece or absorbant baby blankets, provide excellent flooring materials that are not abrasive to the feet and easily cleaned.
Toys can keep a rabbit mentally stimulated. Branches of trees, untreated wicker/straw baskets , cardboard boxes/rolls and wooden chew toys provide hours of enjoyment by chewing. Rabbits also like toys that make a noise like a set of keys, metal cans or hard plastic baby rattles. To make toys more interesting – food can be hidden inside to encourage their natural foraging behaviour.
When lifting a rabbit, it is important to support the hindlimbs to prevent serious spinal injuries. Rabbits’ spines are fragile and can easily fracture with one strong kick of the backlegs in the air. These serious injuries frequently lead to euthanasia of an affected rabbit. It is best to grasp the loose skin over the shoulders of your rabbit or lift under the chest and then place your other hand underneath the back legs to lift your rabbit from the floor. Be careful that your rabbit does not jump out of out of your hands leading to a serious fall! Wrapping a rabbit securely in a towel in an excellent way of restraining a rabbit.
Feeding your Rabbit
A healthy rabbit should not be overweight. You should be able to feel your rabbit’s ribs just beneath the skin without a thick layer of fat. There should be no folds of skin interfering or covering the openings of the digestive and urinary tracts. Also in female rabbits, the dewlaps should not be interfering with eating or grooming.
Rabbits are herbivores that are designed to live mainly on a diet of leaves and grasses. They are also capable of grazing on flowers and fruits. Rabbits are capable of digesting food that many other animals cannot. Rabbits produce caecotropes, which are a type of dropping that rabbits directly eat from their anus. Caecotropes are rich in organisms from the digestive tract, which are packed in nutrients such as fatty acids, amino acids and vitamins. Rabbits get their nutrients by eating these organisms and digesting them. You may detect caecotropes in the cage if your rabbit has a medical problem. They are elongated, green in colour, covered in mucus and strong smelling.
Grass Hay is an important part of any rabbit’s diet. It is rich in nutrients, provides the feeling of “stomach fullness” and aids in the production of caecotropes. It also provides indigestible fibre to promote healthy gut motility. Hay is very important for chewing that promotes proper wearing of the teeth and mental stimulation for a rabbit. There are 2 types of hay: legume hays (alfafa, clover, beans, peanuts, peas) and grass hays (timothy, meadow, Bermuda, rye, barley grasses). Do not feed straw as it is devoid of nutrients.
Grass hays are rich in nutrients and provide the low energy diet required by house rabbits. Ideally, a mixed grass hay should be fed or two or more individual types of grass hay fed. Legume hays are very rich in nutrients but provide too much calcium, protein and energy for a house rabbit leading to obesity and gut problems. At Acorn, we therefore do not recommend feeding legume hays. It is important to ensure the hay smells fresh, is dry (not damp) and not contaminated (e.g. with mould). You should keep the hay stored in a dry area with good air circulation. Leave the bag open and give it daily to your rabbit. It can be placed in a rack or box in the cage or alternatively, stuffed into toilet rolls or cartons to encourage food foraging by your rabbit.
Green vegetables are a very important part of a rabbit’s diet. They provide all the same benefits of hay but also provide extra micronutrients and water to your rabbit. Rabbits naturally do not drink a lot of water so feeding green vegetables help to force rabbits to ingest water. Generally, the darker green vegetables contain more nutrients. Iceberg lettuce and cucumbers have very little nutritional content. Good vegetables to choose include bok choy, choi sum, broccoli, cabbage, celery (especially leaves), kale, lettuce (romaine or leaf) and radicchio. Ensure that you wash the vegetables first and also try to feed a variety of different types (at least 3) a day. Feed a maximum of about 1 packed cup of vegetables per kg of bodyweight a day. It is important to note that a rabbit diet should not only consist of green vegetables since grass hay is essential to ensure sufficient calories for your rabbit.
It is acceptable to feed some treats in limited quantities. Commercial treat foods should be avoided since many are rich in starch and fat which can lead to health problems. Good treat foods include fruits such as berries (black, blue and raspberries), apples, melons, mango, kiwifruit, peaches, pears, pineapples, cherries, as well as, carrots and bell peppers. You should feed no more than 1 tablespoon of treats per kg of bodyweight. It is worth mentioning rabbits are particularly fond of bananas and grapes, which they can become addicted to and as a result refuse to eat anything else!
Rabbit pellets should comprise of only a very small portion of a rabbit’s diet. They are often high in calories leading to obesity and also low in indigestible fibre leading to poor gut motility. Commercial pellets are also low in moisture leading to inadequate water intake (which can cause urinary problems). Finally, commercial pellets do not provide adequate chewing for the rabbits and sense of “fullness” leading to boredom and excessive eating. If you decide to feed your rabbit pellets, it should comprise ideally no more than 10% of the diet. Occasionally, you may choose to feed more pellets to your rabbit in certain situations such as pregnancy or to encourage weight gain (during an illness). Normally, for a healthy rabbit, no more than a ¼ cup of pellets per 2 kg bodyweight should be fed daily.
Clean water should be provided daily. It is important to remember that rabbits drink very little and obtain the majority of their water requirements from green vegetables.
Supplements such as probiotics, vitamins, mineral blocks and enzymes should not be required for healthy rabbits that are fed on a good diet of grass hay and green vegetables.
Guinea Pig Care
Guinea pigs make wonderful pets for families and normally live for between 5-10 years. There are four common breeds that we encounter, which are:
Guinea pigs can be housed within escape-proof enclosures made of glass, strong plastic, stainless steel or wire. Wood and less durable plastic should ideally be avoided as they will often be destroyed by gnawing. At least one side of the enclosure should be left open to provide adequate ventilation and no sharp edges should be exposed. It is important that the guinea pig has enough space to move around and exercise comfortably.
Solid flooring tends to be better than wire meshing. Although wire mesh flooring is easier to maintain and provides a cleaner environment, it is a common source of problems. We often see feet injuries (due to abrasion) and occasionally broken bones as a result of wire flooring.
The bedding material used should be clean, dust-free, non-toxic and absorbent. Commonly used bedding includes shredded newspaper, commercial pellets, ground corn cob and wood shavings. Some bedding materials, especially dusty ones, can predispose to respiratory infections.
Being a prey species, guinea pigs feel most relaxed and comfortable in a quiet area that is away from direct sunlight. Ensure their environmental temperature is not too warm especially during the humid summer months as they are prone to heat stroke. Shade and good ventilation, together with air conditioning and cool misting with water can help to prevent overheating.
Guinea pigs are nocturnal and therefore, tend to be most active at night. They can be housed individually or in groups. Occasionally, dominant or entire (not desexed) guinea pigs may fight. Guinea pigs should not be housed with rabbits, who tend to bully them.
Guinea pigs tend to be fairly inquisitive and friendly animals. They therefore are quite easy to handle. They can be lifted by one palm of the hand scooping their body whilst the other hand supports their body from above. They can be restrained by scruffing their loose skin over their neck with your thumb and index finger, while the base of the tail is held between the fourth and fifth fingers. They like to struggle so it is important to have a firm grip with both hands to prevent a serious fall!
If females are to be bred, it should happen between 4-7 months of age. Breeding after this can lead to fatal problems during the delivery of the babies. The reason is that the pelvis of the female guinea pig fuses from a young age and leads to narrow birth canal which can cause problems during labour. Males should be at least 4 months of age before being used for breeding. Guinea pigs have long gestation periods (pregnancies) of around 63-70 days. Sows (female guinea pigs) bred after 7 months of age will normally need a caesarean section, which we are happy to perform at Acorn Veterinary Hospital.
If you do not plan to breed from your guinea pig, we strongly recommend de-sexing your guinea pig at a young age to prevent certain behavioural and medical problems often encountered later in life.
Commonly encountered problems are:
The Shorthair (English) – short haired coat
Peruvian – very long silky coat
Silky – medium length silky coat
Abyssinian – short, wiry coat with whorls/rosettes of hair.
If you encounter any of the above or other symptoms of disease, you should contact us as quickly as possible as often guinea pigs can be very sick even when showing very mild signs of disease!
Skin disease – most commonly mites and lice, which can cause itchiness and scabs. These may come from the bedding or feed e.g. hay.
Teeth problems – overgrown or poorly aligned teeth can lead to inappetance (and weight loss), pain, infections and drooling.
Overgrown nails – from inadequate exercise which may need clipping
Scurvy – vitamin C deficiency which can lead to painful bones and teeth, inappetance and bleeding.
Pneumonia – by bacteria or viruses which may cause breathing difficulties, discharges from the eyes or nose and even sudden death.
Middle or inner ear infections – which can cause head tilting, incoordination, rolling or circling.
Heat stroke – especially overweight or those with thick fur. Inadequate shade, ventilation, overcrowding and high humidity/temperatures can lead to this fatal condition. They may appear collapsed, panting, convulsing or weak.
Guinea Pig Diet
Guinea pigs are herbivores and therefore are fed a diet based solely on plant material. Fresh grass hay (such as Timothy Hay) is the main part of their diet. Grasses allow the abrasion of their teeth by the teeth having to grind up the tough fibrous hay. Grass hay also provides many nutrients and indigestible fibre, maintaining healthy gut motility and intestinal bacteria (that are essential for production of amino acids and vitamins).
Legume hay, such as alfafa hay, can occasionally be used for guinea pigs needing to gain weight such as ill or pregnant ones. General use of this type of hay should be avoided in healthy guinea pigs since it is high in calories and too rich in certain nutrients. Hay can be provided loose in the enclosure or alternatively within a basket, feeder or stuffed into cartons/boxes.
Guinea pigs do not produce their own vitamin C (like us humans!) and as a result are prone to a deficiency leading to Scurvy. Feeding fresh vegetables daily will help to prevent any problems developing. Chopped green leafy vegetables (one quarter of a packed cup) such as kale, mustard greens and bok choy, can provide the daily requirements of vitamin C for your guinea pig. Other fruit and vegetables can also be fed such as berries, broccoli and apples. Every day, your guinea pig should not be fed more than ¼ to ½ cup of packed fruit/vegetables.
Commercial pellets with added vitamin C can be fed in limited quantities. It is important to feed guinea pig food and not to feed rabbit pellets!! Ideally, these commercial pellets should be based on grass hay and less than 3 months since the production date (lower levels of vitamin C in older pellets). Adult guinea pigs should be fed no more than ¼ cup of pellets a day, together with grass hay and small amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables. Commercial foods can easily lead to obese guinea pigs!!
It is important to avoid certain foods, which include snack food (cereals, bread, grains, nuts) and peans/beans as these are high in starch and fat and can lead to serious imbalances in the gut bacterial flora which can be fatal. Also these foods are quite addictive leading to your guinea pig refusing to eat any other food!
Fresh and clean water should be provided every day. It should be available in either a sipper bottle or a non-spill dish. It is important for your guinea pig to have an adequate water intake (from drinking and fresh fruit/vegetables) to prevent dehydration and potential kidney and bladder problems.
Food can be given loose or hidden within toys, old toilet paper rolls and baskets. This will encourage some mental stimulation for your guinea pigs, as well as exercise as they forage for their food!
Chinchillas originate from the mountainous regions of South America. They tend to be clean and friendly pets but can be easily scared and stressed. Their fur is very soft and as a result, chinchillas are bred for their pelts. The main species we encounter in the veterinary world is the Chinchilla laniger species.
Chinchillas can often live for up to 8-10 years, although some chinchillas have been known to live even longer such as 16 years!
Chinchillas will breed throughout the year and the female oestrus cycle normally is about 40-50 days. The pregnancy normally lasts for about 110 days and it is common to give birth to two babies in a litter.
Like most pets, chinchillas should be kept in a well ventilated, cool, dry and well lit environment. It is important to be careful in Hong Kong, as chinchillas do not cope well with the heat and high humidity. Chinchillas tend to prefer cooler temperatures and ideally, should be kept in temperatures of around 18-20°C.
It is often preferable to keep chinchillas housed separately. Females, in particular, can be aggressive to other chinchillas. Dust baths are important for chinchillas and should be provided once or twice weekly. There are many types of Chinchilla dust available for sale from pet shops but it is important to ensure the dust bath is deep and large enough for the chinchilla to roll around in. We often recommend only providing the bath for a short time during the day e.g. a few hours otherwise, a lot of dust may begin to accumulate in the air!
Cages for chinchillas are often made of a wire mesh, coming with or without a solid floor. Wire is an ideal material for housing as it allows good ventilation and is difficult for the chinchillas to gnaw at. Chinchillas are very active and acrobatic so please ensure they have a cage large enough for them to exercise in and also containing a nest box for them to hide/sleep in.
Chinchillas are easy to handle and not aggressive to humans and therefore, rarely ever bite. It is worth mentioning that chinchillas can get easily stressed and if held too firmly or handled roughly, patches of their fur may be shed known as “fur slip”. This can be avoided by holding the base of a chinchilla’s tail with one hand and allowing them to rest on your other arm beside your body. Chinchillas can also be held by supporting their chest. It is worth noting that we have known chinchillas to occasionally urinate on us when scared!
Although commercial chinchilla food is available, it is not always easy to find in Hong Kong. If this is the case, standard rabbit or guinea pig food normally is acceptable as an alternative.
In addition to the commercial pellets, chinchillas should be fed fresh and clean grass hay such as timothy hay. Grass hay is better than alfafa hay which is quite high in calcium. Hay is important to allow them to chew during the day as well as providing essential fibre to the diet. Fresh green vegetables and carrots can also be fed in moderation. Chinchillas enjoy eating dried fruit, nuts and raisins as treats!
Clean water should be provided daily in a sipper bottle.
Common diseases we see in chinchillas at Acorn
Enteritis – this is an infection of the intestinal tract caused by a variety of infectious agents. Dirty housing and food is a common cause. Most chinchillas will present with diarrhea and may exhibit other signs, such as inappetance and abdominal pain. At Acorn, we often may analyse their stools for causes and begin aggressive treatment immediately. Sadly, enteritis can be very serious in chinchillas and lead to death.
Dermatophytosis (ringworm) – this is a fungal infection affecting the skin and can be contagious to humans. It will often lead to hair loss and inflamed skin especially around the face. It is normally responsive to anti-fungal medication.
Dental disease – Malocclusion of the teeth can lead to overgrown and painful teeth. Chinchillas may become inappetant, salivate excessively and have sores in their mouths. Common causes include an inappropriate diet (with mineral imbalances) and a genetic tendency for poorly aligned teeth. We will often need to file or clip the affected teeth under anaesthesia. We recommend using wood or mineral blocks for chinchillas to chew on to reduce the likelihood of recurrence.
Heat stroke – In Hong Kong, it is vital to keep chinchillas in well ventilated and air conditioned environments. Avoid leaving them in direct sunlight. Affected animals may be collapsed and panting. Spraying cold water as a mist or cold bathing can help, as can rubbing alcohol to their feet and ears. Heat stroke can be fatal!
Fur chewing – Barbering is the condition where chinchillas chew their fur leaving it patchy and unkempt in appearance. Poor diet and boredom can be causes of this disease. Providing a good diet and suitable toys to chew on can help with this condition.
Pneumonia – There are many bacteria that can cause respiratory infections in chinchillas. Clinical signs can include eye and nose discharge, inappetance, coughing and sneezing. Respiratory disease can lead to death in chinchillas. It is important for us to see any chinchilla exhibiting these signs as quickly as possible. Well ventilated housing that is regularly cleaned and kept dry can help prevent this disease.
Hamsters are popular pets, especially for children. They normally live for 2-3 years. There are 3 main varieties of hamsters all which have arisen from the Syrian hamster:
In Hong Kong, we also occasionally encounter dwarf hamsters, also known as the Chinese hamster, which are smaller and have a dark brown coat.
There are many types of cages available for hamsters. Often they include luxurious furniture such as tunnels, exercise wheels and boxes to hide in. The cages should contain rounded corners and there should be no sharp edges. The cages should be made of hard plastic, glass, stainless steel or wire to prevent damage from chewing. One side of the care should be left open to allow good ventilation. Hamsters are very good at escaping so it is important that your cage is strong, made of durable material and escape-proof!
The flooring should ideally be solid and contain deep bedding material. Suitable material for bedding includes shredded newspaper, wood shavings or processed corn cob. There should be sufficient litter depth to allow the hamster to nest and burrow. The ideal environmental temperature is 15-30˚C and (day) light provided for 12 hours. Hamsters are nocturnal creatures and so are active during the night when it is dark.
The cages and accessories should be ideally cleaned once a week. Cages can be cleaned with hot water and a non-toxic detergent and then rinsed thoroughly afterwards. Water bottles and food dishes should be cleaned daily.
Hamsters should be housed individually. In particular, female hamsters tend to be aggressive to other hamsters (both male and female). Males can also be aggressive to each other and so we recommend that all hamsters are kept apart to reduce the incidence of fighting.
Normally, hamsters are fed a rodent pellet mix that contains at least 16% protein and no more than 5% fat. Seed diets can also be fed as a supplement but care should be exercised since these diets are high in fat and can lead to obesity and nutritional deficiencies. Fresh fruit and vegetables can also be provided. Other snacks can also be occasionally given such as pasta, sugarless breakfast cereals and wholegrain bread. Hamsters will normally eat around 12g of food a day (mainly at night-time).
Fresh water should be provided daily in sipper bottles. It is important that the bottle tubes are low enough for the hamster to be able to reach easily.
If handled from a young age, hamsters are docile pets that rarely bite. Hamsters can be lifted by cupping one or both hands and holding them against your body. As hamsters are nocturnal creature, it is advisable to rattle the cage first to awaken the hamster before putting your hand in. Otherwise, a large hand suddenly picking up a sleeping hamster is enough to scare it and for it to understandably try to escape by biting!!
It can be useful to use a towel to restrain an aggressive hamster or to try and coax it to go into a small container such as a can. It is often necessary to “scruff” a hamster by grasping a large amount of skin around the neck. A hamster’s skin is very loose and so it is important to grasp enough skin to prevent the hamster turning around and biting!
Female hamsters tend to be larger than male ones. Male hamsters contain large and prominent testicles and their genitourinary to anal separation distance is wider than in females. Hamsters become sexually mature very early on (from 6 weeks of age).
Female hamsters on heat will often stretch out their bodies and sway their backs. You may also notice a small amount of mucus coming out of her vagina. Males can be bred with females on heat – normally placed in the cage for a short period maybe an hour) before the onset of darkness. It is worth noting that females can be very aggressive and so if they attack the male, the hamsters should be separated immediately and you can try again the following night.
Pregnancy normally lasts for only 2 weeks and litters of 5-10 pups are common. If any babies are born, it is important not to disturb the mother or babies for the first 2 weeks to prevent her attacking and killing the young. Plenty of fresh food and water should be available before the babies are born.
Hamsters will normally start eating solid food from one week of age but weaning will not be complete until 3 weeks of age. It is necessary to soak the pellets to soften them for the young baby hamsters.
At Acorn Veterinary Hospital, the most commonly encountered diseases we encounter in hamsters are:
Common “golden” hamster
Coloured short haired “fancy” hamster
Long haired “teddy bear” hamster
Skin problems – often causing hair loss. Sometimes, this may be caused by nutritional deficiencies or fighting. Other causes include mites, hormonal problems and kidney disease.
Wet tail – this is a bacterial infection often affecting young hamsters. The hamsters may appear inappetant, thin, dehydrated with watery diarrhea and matted fur especially around the tail. This is a serious disease that often can lead to death. If you suspect your hamster may be suffering from this, it is essential for you to bring your hamster in immediately.
Geriatric diseases – often from the age of 1 year onwards, hamsters can suffer from internal organ problems. The most common include amyloidosis, where protein is deposited onto organs leading to kidney and liver failure. Also cardiac thrombosis is quite common, where blood clots develop within the heart.
Other commonly encountered diseases include dental problems (such as overgrown teeth), tumours (where surgery may be curative) and stomach ulcers.
Dental disease in small mammals such as rabbits is a very common problem and can lead to infections, anorexia and pain.
The main reasons for teeth problems are genetics (breeding has lead to changes in skull shape and therefore, teeth alignment) and diet.
Many commercial pellet foods break down easily in the mouth and so leave little work for the teeth to do and as a result, the teeth have little opportunity to wear down naturally. Also because pellet food is a very concentrated source of nutrients in a small volume– rabbits do not spend anywhere near the length of time chewing their food as their wild counterparts do.
You should feed your rabbits a diet of unlimited good quality grass hay. In addition to this, a variety of raw fresh leafy green vegetables should also be fed daily. A natural diet has both dental and other health benefits. It is important to avoid feeding a diet exclusively of commercial pellets. It is also advisable to offer other items for your rabbit to chew on. Good examples include untreated wood pieces, fresh tree branches and untreated wicker baskets. This will help to ensure adequate wear of the teeth.
It is important for a vet to examine your rabbit’s teeth every year. Problems discovered with the incisor and cheek teeth should be dealt with promptly before more severe problems develop such as abscesses which can affect the jaw bones and in serious cases even lead to death.
Desexing your Rabbit
At Acorn,we frequently perform spay (in females) and castration surgeries in rabbits. Uterine adenocarcinoma is a common cancer of the uterus of adult female rabbits. This terrible disease can be prevented by spaying your rabbit from the age of 4-5 months. Spaying also prevents unwanted pregnancies and aggressive behaviour.
Castration of male rabbits will help to prevent spraying of the urine (to mark territory) and unwanted aggressive behaviour. Castration will also help to prevent possible future problems in the reproductive tract. Male rabbits can be desexed from 4 months of age.