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Nursing Rabbits: How To Care For A Sick Rabbit

By Hannah E Davis

A sick rabbit should only be nursed at home by veterinary instruction i.e. if your rabbit is sick, always see a vet first and foremost. There are several circumstances in which your vet may ask you to nurse your rabbit at home rather than keeping it at the vet’s surgery. For example, if your rabbit has had an operation, most commonly neutering or spaying, or is suffering from a long term illness such as Pasteurella or E.Cuniculi.

Environment

Sick rabbits should always be kept in a warm, draught free environment. If you have an outdoors rabbit, you will need to bring it indoors so you can keep it warm and supervise it properly. Set up an indoor cage with some blankets and a litter tray in it and make sure there is always clean, fresh water available.

For house rabbits (no cage), you can let them go to their usual den or sleeping area but make sure it is comfortable, clean and they have fresh water close by.

Medication

Rabbit medicines commonly given at home such as Metacam, Baytril, Panacur and Fibreplex are administered orally so it important you know how to syringe feed your rabbit (see below).

Syringe feeding

Whatever illness your rabbit has, the most common outcome is that your rabbit is unwilling to eat. Rabbits have very sensitive digestive systems and any kind of pain is likely to affect their eating habits first. It is very important to keep their digestive system moving to avoid the risk of gut stasis and rabbits who are not eating need to be syringe fed every couple of hours.

Recovery Food or Critical Care is available from vets, some pet stores and online retailers. It comes in sachets and needs to be mixed with a little water to form a paste. This is then fed to the rabbit with a small syringe (again, available from vets or retailers); about 2 to 3 syringe-fulls every 2 hours.

Settle your rabbit on a non-slippery surface on a table – it sometimes help to wrap them in a blanket. Place the rabbit facing away from you with its bottom against your tummy. Hold the rabbit’s head gently but firmly with one hand while you insert the syringe into its mouth. If the rabbit clenches its teeth, move the syringe round until you find the gap at the side of its mouth and wiggle it in gently. Depress the syringe slowly – this is critical so the rabbit has time to swallow as otherwise there is a risk the rabbit will inhale the food and choke. Hold the rabbit until you are sure the food has been swallowed as many rabbits hold it in their mouth then spit it out. If the rabbit spits any food out onto its chest, wipe it away – for rabbits with large dewlaps it helps to tuck a napkin or tissue over the dewlap.

Syringe feeding can be tricky and takes practice so it is advisable to ask your veterinary nurse to demonstrate first and to have two people present the first time you try it.

Cleaning / bathing

Rabbits are normally very clean and groom themselves from head to toe several times a day. A sick rabbit, however, may be unable or unwilling to do this and this can lead to skin problems if the rabbit is not kept clean. Full rabbit baths should be avoided whenever possible but if your rabbit has poo stuck around its bottom you can give it a bottom bath. Put a few inches of warm water in a sink and gently lower your rabbit’s bottom into it. Loosen the poo from its fur with gentle rubbing – you can use a pet or baby shampoo if necessary. Dry the rabbit thoroughly with a towel and put it by a radiator or other warm place until its fur is completely dry.

If your rabbit’s chin (dewlap) is dirty from dribbled food wipe this clean with a soft damp cloth, otherwise the skin can become irritated and sore.

Nursing a rabbit at home is time consuming and can be stressful, particularly syringe feeding, but the rabbit will generally do better in its own environment away from the stresses of a vet surgery. However, it can be difficult – particularly with more obstinate rabbits – so if you are in any doubt about whether you can manage it ask your vet to care for the rabbit instead.

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