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Keeping Your Rabbit And Guinea Pig Happy And Healthy This Spring

Keeping Your Rabbit And Guinea Pig Happy And Healthy This Spring

As we move into spring the much anticipated warmer and longer days are on the way. The improved weather conditions give us the opportunity to ensure our rabbits and guinea pigs have exercise in the garden, rather than inside the house. We should also consider if we can improve the quality of our pets lives through enrichment and better welfare. Of course, the change of season can also bring challenges that we should be aware of to ensure that our small pets are kept safe.

What risks can occur as the weather becomes milder?

Warmer days see the garden return to life, with plants blooming and insects busying around. With rabbits in particular there is the risk of a condition known as fly strike. Fly strike occurs when flies are drawn to lay their eggs in moist or dirty fur around the pet’s back end. The eggs hatch into larvae (also known as maggots) and begin to eat the animal’s flesh. This is a very unpleasant and often fatal condition which can develop quickly. Rabbits or guinea pigs who are overweight, have a long coat, dental disease or are unwell will be especially at risk as they may not groom themselves efficiently. Steps which can help to reduce the risk of fly strike affecting your guinea pig or rabbit include:

  • Twice daily checks on your pet, ensure that their back end is not soiled.
  • Daily grooming for those pets which struggle to do it themselves due to age, illness, or coat length.
  • Removing soiled bedding from the hutch daily.
  • Being cautious with any new additions to the diet, and the quantity of leafy greens offered. Loose stools will attract more flies to the hutch or cage.
  • Disinfect the hutch at least twice weekly using a pet-safe product.

If you are concerned that your pet may have fly strike contact your veterinary practice right away.

Outdoor exercise

Where possible rabbits and guinea pigs should have access to an outdoor exercise area, preferably with grazing on a lawn. If you don’t have a lawn, grass can be grown in trays allowing a “turf tray” to be offered. Growing more than one tray will allow rotation and the grass to regrow. Even indoor pets will benefit from the opportunity to exercise outside as we say goodbye to winter. Any outdoor space needs to be secure. The run should prevent your pets from escaping from your garden and be predator proof to ensure neighbourhood cats or wildlife, such as birds of prey, cannot reach them. Rabbits and guinea pigs are prey animals and therefore require hides, shelters or tunnels in the run to help them to feel safe and secure.

Poisonous plants

Remember to be on the lookout for any hazardous plants which your pet may have access to. There is a long list of poisonous plants which are commonly found in our gardens. As a rule of thumb prevent access to evergreens, anything growing from a bulb, ivy, lilies, plants with berries or those which produce fruits with a stone. If you are in doubt about the safety of a particular plant, it is safer to prevent your pet from eating it. If you identify hazardous plants in your garden you could remove them, fence them off to prevent your pet accessing them, or use a secure run for your pet which you can situate a safe distance away. Poisonous plants often need to be consumed in large quantities to cause a serious problem, with plants from the yew and nightshade family the most likely culprits for causing serious illness. The most common symptom seen when a rabbit or guinea pig ingest a hazardous plant is digestive upset. If you suspect your pet has eaten a poisonous plant, contact your vet straight away.

Enrichment

Rabbits and guinea pigs are both social animals. They should be kept in appropriate (same species) pairs or groups. Beyond companionship there is much we can do to improve their quality of life and welfare. Our pets should always have the opportunity to express natural behaviours. There are many ways in which we can add value and interest to their lives.

Foraging for food is something that our pets would spend the majority of their awake time doing in the wild. We can simulate this by encouraging them to work for their food. Fresh foods can be hidden in their enclosures or runs, making use of tunnels or hides. Tubes can be stuffed with hay and fresh herbs to encourage your pet to find the added treats.

Toys provide an element of novelty for your pet’s enclosure or hutch and allow you to change the environment. Providing toys and rotating these regularly allows them to explore and manipulate and scent mark items. Toys such as woven balls made from willow and other similar natural materials prove very popular and can also be nibbled safely. Tunnels are a good option for both rabbits and guinea pigs who both naturally live in burrows.

Positive interaction with their human owners can provide enrichment and stimulation as well as time outside of their enclosure. Grooming your pet can help with bonding and allow you to check them over regularly for any signs of ill health or problems.

Mental stimulation can be provided in the form of food puzzles such as treat balls or mazes. Puzzles challenge your pet to work out how to get at the food and can be used to feed a small amount of their dry ration alongside their hay.

Safe chews give a positive outlet for gnawing which helps to keep the ever-growing incisor teeth in check. These are often wood based. Small branches from a pesticide-free apple tree could also be offered.

There are many ways in which we can improve the quality of our small pet’s lives, and of course this is an important part of our responsibility to them. The change in season is an opportunity to re-evaluate our pet’s welfare and ensure they too enjoy spring.

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About Dr Laura Waring BVetMed MRCVS

Dr. Laura Waring has been in clinical practice for over 10 years. She started in mixed practice dealing with farm equine and small animal patients, however the last 6 years of her career she focused on small animals. She particularly enjoys surgery, and the variety that each day brings. She has published research on wildlife during the course of her studies and won the Morris animal foundation wildlife second prize and the Royal Veterinary college prize for epidemiology. She has also written articles regarding hamster husbandry for the fancy. She has a loyal Labrador who is a fantastic companion.

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