Rabbits and Guinea Pigs
Rabbits can make delightful pets, but before you decide to obtain one remember it will rely on you for its every need and will require daily care and attention 365 days of the year, regardless of any other plans you may have. The average life span is 5 to 10 years but they may live as long as 15 years.
Your children may become bored with their pet after a few months. You will then become responsible for all its daily needs.
Choosing your Pet
Some breeds of rabbit are too large for children to handle. The smaller and dwarf varieties are more suitable. The long hair Angora rabbit requires a great deal of grooming on a daily basis.
Male or Female?
Rabbits are social animals and in their natural state will be found in family groups. One lone animal may not thrive. Two or three young female rabbits could be a good choice, or a female and a neutered male. Two male rabbits can also live happily together, provided they are from the same litter and are neutered. Un-neutered male rabbits over the age of 3 months will almost certainly fight. Talk to your veterinarian about de-sexing your rabbits.
Most ready-to-buy rabbit hutches are too small. In its natural habitat, the wild rabbit moves swiftly and may cover several miles in a day. To confine the domesticated pet rabbit to a small hutch, with little opportunity for freedom, is unnatural and may cause unnecessary suffering.
Rabbits are easy to house train and can easily be kept in a secure garden (secure from neighbouring dogs, as well as secure from bunny escapes) with access to an overnight house. They also make good indoor pets with garden access.
A good roomy hutch, say, 4ft/5ft in length x 2ft x 2ft with two connecting compartments is essential. One third of the hutch should be enclosed for cosy, draught-free sleeping quarters. The other two-thirds are for daytime and should have a strong wire-mesh front to admit light and air. Each compartment should have a separate door well fitting with good hinges and catches, to facilitate easy cleaning.
The roof should be sloping and covered with roofing felt, tiles etc. for good weatherproofing. These should overhang the hutch to keep its sides dry and to prevent driving rain from saturating the interior. The hutch should be on raised legs to give protection from predators and should be in a well ventilated, but not draughty position, out of strong sunlight. Facing the morning sun is best.
A warm, dry, comfortable bed is of the utmost importance to animals that have to spend a good deal of their time in a hutch. The sleeping compartment needs a layer of peat moss, cat litter or wood shavings about 5cm deep with a deep layer of straw or shredded paper to provide warmth, insulation and an opportunity for burrowing. Avoid wood chippings that might have a high content of volatile oils or preservatives, as these can be poisonous. Avoid, too, artificial fibre bedding which can cause severe digestive problems or even death. The floor of the day compartment needs a layer of litter spread on top of newspapers that will absorb the urine. Rabbits urinate heavily and tend to use one special place for toilet purposes. Clean the damp corner and droppings each day.
A ramp or steps leading from the daytime compartment of the hutch to the ground of a strongly fenced enclosure will provide a more natural environment for your pets. Sink the perimeter fence 18" below ground level or cover the floor area with mesh to prevent rabbits burrowing out.
An alternative is a portable ark approx. 6ft long by 3ft wide will enable your rabbits to have access to grass and an opportunity to run about. This ark should be moved to a different area of grass each day. Part of the ark should be covered to provide shelter from sudden showers or hot sun and water should be provided. To prevent your rabbit burrowing out, the base should be covered with wire mesh. At night, your rabbit should always be shut safely in its hutch.
As rabbits usually soil only one corner of their living area, some owners enjoy having them indoors for exercise. Keep their litter tray or newspaper in the same spot, but do not expect your rabbit to be house-trained unless you have it indoors on a regular basis. Also ensure when inside that doors and windows are left shut and that cats and dogs are not bothersome. (Generally your rabbit will let you know where he wants his dirt tray/newspaper to be left.)
Rabbits need a diet consisting almost entirely of vegetable matter. Variety is essential and the food offered must be fresh. Special pellets are available from pet shops and form a good base for the diet which must include greens - i.e. puha, dandelions, dock leaves, cabbage, cauliflower and lettuce. Also vegetables such as carrots, swede, turnips, cooked potatoes and cooked peelings. And fresh fruit such as pears and apples.
Good quality hay is important and should be kept in a rack to avoid soiling.
Fresh water should be supplied daily via a drip feed bottle rather than an easily contaminated bowl.
Use heavy earthenware containers for food to avoid spillage.
Avoid sudden changes of diet, which can cause digestive problems.
A gnawing block should be provided. (Refer to "Teeth")
Poisonous Plants: Do not feed rhubarb leaves, raw potatoes, potato tops, roots and seeds of dock or grasses from roadsides where there is any possibility they have been sprayed with herbicides or insecticides.
Rabbits need firm but gentle handling from an early age. Rabbits should never be picked up by their ears. Place one hand under the chest, the forelegs gripped between two fingers, with the hindquarters supported with the other hand, then cradle against your body. Never allow a rabbit to struggle violently as it may break its backbone. Never drop a rabbit on the ground as they cannot bounce. Remember rabbits have powerful hind legs with strong claws and can kick out and scratch if frightened.
The female rabbit, or doe as she is called, may be bred from when she is between 6 - 9 months. Female rabbits are induced ovulators meaning that the presence of a male, or buck rabbit, is necessary to stimulate the urge to breed. They do not have a specific season but once puberty is reached they will mate whenever they are introduced to a buck rabbit and can produce 2 - 3 litters a year. Gestation is 30 - 32 days. The kittens as they are called usually number 6 - 8 in any one litter. They are born naked with their eyes closed. Fur commences growth about 4 days later and their eyes open around the 7th - 10th day. They will leave the nest when they are 15 - 20 days of age and should be weaned at 7 - 8 weeks.
Rabbits are prolific breeders. Unless you are absolutely certain that you can find good homes for the offspring, it is unkind and irresponsible to breed from pet rabbits. If, after careful consideration, you do decide to breed a litter, there is special information you should be aware of, so talk with a breeder, veterinarian and research books from your library.
Rabbits pass 2 sorts of droppings. Hard fibrous pellets (usually excreted during the day) and soft faecal pellets (usually excreted during the night) which are eaten again. This is a normal part of the rabbit's digestive process and is in no way indicative of ill health.
Parasites/Discharges: Daily handling will give you a chance to check for mites, sores, wounds and discharge from eyes, ears and nose. If anything unusual is evident contact your veterinarian.
Diarrhoea: If a rabbit has diarrhoea for more than 24 hours, consult a veterinarian, as there are a number of serious diseases that can cause diarrhoea in rabbits.
Nails: If your rabbit does not have the opportunity of wearing his nails down, get professional advice on how to trim them correctly. Care must be taken not to cut into the blood and nerve supply.
Teeth: A rabbit's front teeth (or incisors) continue to grow throughout its life. Overlong teeth must be cut back regularly by your veterinary surgeon or the rabbit will not be able to eat. Try to avoid the problem by ensuring your rabbit has sufficient hard food, as well as a gnawing block such as a piece of deciduous wood permanently in its hutch (but don't use chestnut, laurel, privet or yew).
Guinea Pigs (otherwise known as Cavies) are small rodents indigenous to South America where several different species may still be found. They are grazing animals who in their natural habitat, live in extended family groups.
Before you decide to obtain a guinea pig, remember it will rely on you for it's every need and will require daily care and attention 365 days of the year, regardless of any other plans you have. Their average life span is 4 to 7 years.
Remember your children may become bored with their pet after a few months. You will then become responsible for all its daily needs.
Choosing Your Pet
Guinea Pigs come in a number of varieties and colours, but those with the short, smooth coat are easiest to care for. The long hair varieties require regular grooming.
Male or Female
One guinea pig on its own is unlikely thrive, but do not attempt to introduce two adult guinea pigs of the same sex as fighting will almost certainly break out. It is best to select two young littermates of the same sex, or a father and son or mother and daughter.
Guinea Pigs enjoy gentle handling and petting, but are inclined to be timid. It is important not to over-handle them, as they are susceptible to stress. They are animals that need plenty of rest. The best way to pick up a guinea pig is to put one hand around its shoulders and under the chest whilst the hindquarters are supported with the other hand. Serious injury may be caused if a guinea pig wriggles free and falls or jumps from your arms.
A good roomy hutch, not less than 4ft x 2ft x18in will house two small guinea pigs. One third of the hutch should be enclosed for cosy, draught-free sleeping quarters. The other two-thirds are for daytime and should have a strong wire-mesh front to admit light and air. Each compartment should have a separate door well fitting with good hinges and catches, to facilitate easy cleaning. The roof should be sloping and covered with roofing felt, tiles etc. for good weatherproofing and should overhang the hutch to keep its sides dry and to prevent driving rain from saturating the interior. The hutch should be on raised legs to give protection from predators and should be in a well ventilated, but not draughty position, out of strong sunlight. Facing the morning sun is best.
A warm, dry, comfortable bed is of the utmost importance to animals that have to spend a good deal of their time in a hutch. Bedding should be divided into two parts: a lining material to absorb urine and an overlay of straw or shredded paper to provide warmth, insulation and an opportunity for burrowing. Peat, cat litter, woodchips or shavings of natural wood fibre make a good absorbent lining for the bedding, but avoid woodchips that might have a high content of volatile oils or preservatives as these can be poisonous. Also avoid artificial fibre bedding which can cause severe digestive problems or even death. The floor of the day compartment needs a layer of litter spread on top of newspapers that will absorb the urine.
A ramp or steps leading from the daytime compartment of the hutch to the ground of a strongly fenced enclosure will provide a more natural environment for your pets. Inside the enclosure there should be some hollow logs and pipes, shrubbery or rocky caves to provide cover and protection.
Alternatively, a portable ark or exercise pen is desirable so that the animals can have access to grass and an opportunity for exercise. Ensure part of the pen is covered to provide shelter from sudden rain or strong sun. The pen should be moved to a fresh grassy spot daily.
In bad weather your pets may be exercised in an indoor pen. This can be a large shallow-sided wooden tray, filled with straw, in which the guinea pigs can run about and burrow. You will need to cover the base of the tray with newspapers and a spread of lining material like peat, cat litter or wood-shavings on top before you add the straw. Water must be available.
If you allow your guinea pigs some freedom inside your house they will need constant supervision as they have a tendency to chew things - including electrical cords and cables!
Guinea Pigs need a diet high in Vitamin C and consisting almost entirely of vegetable matter. Variety is essential and the food offered must be fresh and free from contamination. Special pellets are available from pet shops and form a good base for the diet, which must include greens, raw fruit and vegetables - and good quality hay. Keep this in a rack to avoid soiling. Greens must be carefully washed to ensure they are not contaminated by pesticides. Carrots and beans slivered with a potato peeler are much enjoyed, as are carrot tops, celery, cabbage, and silver beet. Fresh water should be supplied daily via a drip feed bottle and replenished daily. Use heavy earthenware containers for food to prevent spillage and avoid sudden changes of diet that can cause digestive problems. Keep all food containers scrupulously clean.
Like all rodents, guinea pigs need something hard to chew on and will gnaw their hutch if there is nothing else. A piece of deciduous wood kept in the hutch will provide useful exercise for their teeth and help to keep them in good condition.
The gestation period is unusually long for a rodent, being approximately 63 days. The young are born well developed with a full coat, their eyes open and their teeth already cut. They are able to move around and will begin to take food within a few days, although they will also suckle from their mother for their first 2 - 3 weeks.
Guinea pigs are not bred until 4-6 months of age, although breeding as early as three months is not detrimental. If the boar is left with the sow permanently, it is possible for her to bear five litters a year. Such an intensive rate of breeding is most undesirable. Finding good homes for the offspring can be a major problem too. We strongly recommend that you do not breed from your pet guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs may be spayed or neutered to prevent unwanted litters. It is also a means of controlling fighting amongst males.
Guinea pigs should have an alert, active appearance. Their coat should be sleek and their gait smooth with no signs of lameness. Their droppings should be dry and firm, their eyes bright and clear, and their teeth clean and not overlong. Vaccinations and worming are not usually required but a high standard of cleanliness and care is necessary to ensure your pet's good health.
A deficiency of Vitamin C can cause loss of weight, swollen joints, difficulty walking, generalised weakness and excessive salivation shown by a wet chin.
Overgrown teeth occur when your guinea pig has not been fed enough hard food or a gnawing block has not been provided in the hutch.
Skin ailments can occur if the hutch is not cleaned out properly and soiled bedding removed. They can also be caused by lice that are a very common problem.
Diarrhoea may be due to an infection from contaminated food or a sudden change in diet. Withhold greens for 24 hours, feeding only hay and water. If diarrhoea continues, consult your veterinarian.
Many ailments can be dealt with quite easily, especially in the early stages, but small mammals deteriorate quickly if illness is ignored.
Observe your guinea pigs carefully and consult your veterinary surgeon promptly if you are in any way concerned about your pet's health.