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Care of the Older Rabbit

By: Margie Wilson

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You've had him since he was a baby, full of energy, tearing through the house. Now he is nine, and you realize, he is a senior citizen. Has it been that long?

The average life span for a pet rabbit is 8 to 10 years but with excellent care and feeding, you can have your rabbit around for up to 15 years. Rabbits that live outdoors or are used for breeding tend to have shorter lives. For those fortunate to have rabbits that live out their full lives, there are certain changes in behavior and health you may notice as they get older.

Activity

Rabbits slow down in their general activities after age two or so. They will sleep more, tire easier, and be a much calmer pet. As the years increase, some slow down even more. Sometimes with this decrease in activity, pain may play a part.

Medical Concerns

Older rabbits, over 6 years, are susceptible to joint problems and arthritis, much like older humans. You may notice your bunny cannot go upstairs easily or avoids them, moves slower or favors a leg. It is important to have a good rabbit veterinarian who may prescribe pain relievers for joint pain or other medications. However, never medicate your bunny without the advice of a veterinarian. Pain may be indicative of many other things.

Some other common concerns are dental problems, urinary tract problems (bladder stones, incontinence), all of which, again, require the supervision of a rabbit veterinarian. Dental problems can be present in younger rabbits, as well. Whatever the age, if you have a bunny who stops eating his hay, stops eating hard things, or only likes pellets, it is time for a check up. It could be anything from a hairblock to more serious dental spurs on the back molars, often overlooked by many rabbit owners. There are rabbit veterinarians now that specialize in anesthetizing rabbits and performing dental procedures (filing down pointy molars). Teeth problems can be quite painful for a rabbit.

Bladder infections, bladder stones, incontinence, while all possible in younger rabbits, seem to present themselves more in the elder bunny. Symptoms of bladder problems are urinating on his bed and in abnormal places, straining or pain during urination. In more severe cases, bladder stones can be excruciating for your bunny. The bunny will strain as he urinates, possibly pass some blood. Sadly, for those who wait and don't notice the above symptoms, the stones grow larger, and the bunny may make crying noises when he urinates. Without immediate help and surgery, the rabbit will rapidly become ill and may not survive. Early detection often avoids the need for surgery as the veterinarian can use fluids and various procedures to flush the bladder.

Incontinence may also include soft stools that will mess up the bunny's cage. This can be corrected with dietary changes.

Diet Can Help

One of the common complaints of owners of older rabbits is the soft, chain-like stools left in their rabbit's cage. They can create quite an unsightly mess. Rabbits normally consume the cecal pellet droppings, those chain-like pellets, often shiny, comprising nutrients and partially digested materials. Eating these pellets affords the rabbit his opportunity to get the nutrients the second time around. Older rabbits fed too many carbohydrates (nuts, seeds, pellets, alfalfa), often do not need to eat the cecal pellets as they are getting way too many carbohydrates in their food. This can lead to obesity and a much shorter life.

You can begin to correct this in rabbits over 8 months by eliminating alfalfa hay, which is very high in protein and calcium (alfalfa is not needed as much in the adult). Less calcium may mean fewer bladder stones. Replace alfalfa hay with lots of timothy (such as from www.oxbowhay.com) and golden oat hay. It is best to get these hays at a place like Oxbow or your local feed store. Pet store hay is not the same quality as off-the-bale, fresh hay you would feed to your horse. This makes all the difference in the world to your rabbit's desire to eat it, and subsequent increased health because of it.

Increase the greens (carrot tops, parsley, cilantro) and decrease broccoli or those foods high in calcium and decrease treats. Some greens may cause problems for your rabbit and make the condition worse. Some rabbits cannot tolerate much kale so be careful to see what works and what doesn't. Avoid cabbage and lettuce for older bunnies.

Cut down or eliminate the pellets in your older rabbit's diet, but only if your rabbit is eating significant amounts of hay and greens. The House Rabbit Society recommends feeding 1/4 to 1/2 cup of pellets per day per six pounds of body weight, providing the rabbit is eating plenty of hay and greens.

Older rabbits are quite a delight as the terrible teenage years are past, leaving you a mature, loving rabbit to greet you morning and night. By providing the best care and diet for him, you may give him a long and healthy life.

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