A plea to veterinary nurses – rabbits need us! - Veterinary Practice
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A plea to veterinary nurses – rabbits need us!

NIKKI CUMBERBEACH highlights the plight of the rabbit, a pet not suitable for all and which has very special dietary requirements that many actual and would-be owners tend to overlook, to the animal’s detriment

I LOVE rabbits! There, I have said it. Those who know me may well tell you I have a bit of rabbit in me – I am known to stomp my foot and have a tendency to stand with my hands raised up with limp wrists not looking unlike a periscoping rabbit. I even like to twitch my nose…

I first owned a rabbit as a teenager and despite wanting to do my best for this rabbit I fed muesli mix on the advice of books and pet shop owners, believed my vet when he said that rabbits shouldn’t be neutered if kept on their own and I felt I was doing my best for that rabbit. I was devastated when said bunny died of ovarian cancer after also having mandibular abscesses due to poor dental health.

Now this was 20 odd years ago and things have changed enormously. Or have they? I still have clients coming in who feed muesli mix on the advice of pet shops, who don’t know that their rabbits produce two types of poo, who say that they don’t need to neuter their rabbits as they are both the same sex and are unaware that their rabbits have teeth other than their incisors.

For clients who research rabbit husbandry the correct care information is out there, but for clients who rely on the advice given by the pet shop or breeder, they can set their rabbits up for years of problems and/ or a shortened life just by not getting their diet correct.

Sadly rabbits still have a reputation for not living that long and “just dying” so owners don’t always think that the outcome could have been avoided.

When I started veterinary nursing I was also shocked at how little teaching there was for vets about rabbits (it has improved somewhat now but could still be much better) and I started my own little crusade to help vets I worked with love and not dread their rabbit patients, educate owners whenever I could and improve rabbit patient care while they were in the clinic.

I remember as a SVN going to one of the first rabbit welfare conferences and going home thinking I could make a difference in practice as well as educating clients.

Again, prevention is better than cure, and education whenever it is possible is of the utmost importance. Rabbit owners are less likely than dog or cat owners to visit the vets in the first place so when they do seek out the vets that chance needs to be seized.

Offering rabbit clinics for new owners with a nurse, having rabbit packs on offer, information boards, social media articles – all these can help.

When you see clients with their rabbits, when they express that they did not realise how complex a pet they are (as is so often the case), encourage them to then spread the word to rabbit-owning friends.

So what are those “take home” bits of information that you should stress?

  1. Rabbits eat fibre – most of their diet should be grass and good quality hay.
  2. Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously – eating grass and hay helps keep them worn down.
  3. Do not feed muesli mix food – and pellets should be a complement to the diet.
  4. Rabbits are prey animals – they don’t show pain and being picked up is scary.
  5. Rabbits should be vaccinated – even house rabbits.
  6. Rabbits should be neutered.
  7. Rabbits are social creatures – they need a friend.
  8. They are not easy or cheap pets to keep correctly and are not ideal children’s pets.
  9. If they stop eating or seem subdued – go to your vet now.
  10. If in doubt and they haven’t already got said rabbit – consider a hamster!

This list is by no means exhaustive – but a great opener if you can keep clients listening that long! A rabbit handout is a good back-up.

Where I work we offer clinics and also rabbit bonding sessions and help for those “one bunny owners” who want to get a friend. When the myxomatosis vaccine became yearly we started to offer health checks every six months with a nurse.

Rabbit Awareness Week is a great opportunity to organise a rabbit evening for clients – if you register, information booklets and free samples will be sent to the practice.

I became a veterinary nurse all those years ago to try to do something that mattered – and as jaded as I can sometimes feel, I know that rabbits certainly need us nurses fighting for their cause and we can make a difference to them – so yes, I love rabbits, and not only for their cute twitchy noses.

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