The single, most important, simplest thing you can do to keep your rabbits healthy is to keep them clean.
A dirty cage is a breeding ground for bacteria and parasites. Droppings left unattended attract flies. Flies can cause health problems for rabbits.
The second most important thing to do is to make sure there is enough ventilation. If you don’t have air movement, ammonia can build up and cause respiratory problems. Of course, if you’re keeping the rabbitry clean, there is not as much ammonia to worry about.
Third, it is essential to pay attention to your rabbits. A sick rabbit will not advertise that it is sick until it is seriously ill, but by paying attention, you can pick up on a problem before it becomes serious. For instance, a bunny that is normally eager for breakfast that doesn’t greet you when you open her cage may be experiencing a tummy ache. A rabbit that is usually active that you see just sitting in the corner, may have a sore foot.
You also want to make sure that they are getting enough grass hay to eat. Grass hay is essential to a healthy rabbit because that’s what keeps things moving through their guts. You know your rabbit has a problem starting if their poop is mucousy or if it is strung together by hair. In that case, we limit the amount of food other than hay, but push hay and water, and give a dose of Benebac.
Disease prevention is important, and is the primary reason we don’t show our animals. The stress of travel makes a rabbit susceptible to catching things, and if irresponsible breeders put a sick animal on the table, yours can get sick, too.
The two diseases that rabbit breeders most fear are Pasteurella multocida, which is also called snuffles, and diarrhea.
100% of rabbits have been exposed to pasteurella multocida, according to some experts. I don’t know if I believe that or not, but I do know that trying to treat snuffles with antibiotics is a loosing proposition in a meat herd. The only sensible thing to do is to cull sick rabbits. You can tell that a rabbit has snuffles if he is sneezing, there is white, thick snot in his nose, and his paws are crusty and nasty from wiping his nose. Sometimes those symptoms are caused by bordatella, which can be treated with antibiotics, but, again, it is my feeling that in a meat herd, you cull sick animals, you do not treat them. If you are showing your rabbits, and this is a prize animal, and you can afford to take the rabbit to the vet, and what you’re dealing with is bordatella, and you have the time and inclination and space to isolate and treat the sick rabbit, you may not be jeopardizing your whole herd if you don’t cull that animal. But, a show herd is different from a meat herd, and what we have is a meat herd.
Diarrhea can be very difficult to treat. We are fortunate in that we’ve never had a rabbit death due to diarrhea. Rabbits are most susceptible to diarrhea when they are very young, before the bacteria in their gut has become well established. It is my feeling that, since the babies get the bacteria for their guts from their moms, the longer we leave them with her, the better off they are. So, in our herd we do not wean early. While it is true that in the wild a doe will abandon her litter sometime around when the kittens are four weeks old in order to give birth to the next litter, we don’t breed our does on a 35 day cycle, and the does don’t need to move on. We try to butcher at around 14 weeks, and we separate out the does at around 12 weeks. That is several weeks longer than I feel is absolutely necessary (I would never move the doe out before 8 weeks), it means that our operation is not as economical as it could be, but it also means that we don’t loose babies to diarrhea.
In our experience rabbit gut issues usually arise from diet – although they can also arise from dirty cages and feeding hay from a dirty floor. If you are feeding your rabbit too much in the way of greens and fruit and vegetables and not enough in the way of hay, you can make your rabbit sick. In particular, too much fruit is a problem. At the first sign of a rabbit tummy ache we stop feeding anything but hay, we dose with Benebac, and we give papaya enzyme. If the rabbit has diarrhea, we dispose of the droppings in the trash, and don’t compost those droppings. We clean the cage with bleach or a propane torch, and we continue to feed only hay until the droppings have been normal for a couple of days.