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Chapter 2- Rabbits and guinea pigs
Prepared to become rabbit ready and cavy savvy?
Rabbits belong to the order of mammals known as ?lagomorphs?. This means that they have characteristics that distinctly separate them from rodents such as mice and rats: they have two pairs of upper incisors and are strict vegetarians. This correlates to unique dietary, environmental, and health requirements needed to keep them healthy and, let?s face it, CUTE!
Dental disease is a main cause of illness in pet rabbits. Their teeth grow continuously, at a rate of 5-8 inches per year! While it might be relatively easy to see the upper central incisors (the characteristic ?buck teeth? of rabbits), rabbits have 26 other teeth, too! Overgrowth or uneven wear of the teeth can lead to ?points? on the teeth which then rub or poke into the tongue and gums causing ulcerations. The pain associated with the mouth sores can then lead to a decreased appetite, excessive salivation, tearing of the eyes, and/or teeth grinding. All 28 teeth should be evaluated twice a year by an experienced veterinarian. If significant overgrowth is found, the teeth should be filed under general anesthesia. This is a procedure that requires specialized equipment and experience with the unique anesthetic requirements and risks of rabbits, and is thus often referred to veterinarians who specialize in this procedure.
Because of their teeth, their herbaceous (vegetarian) nature, and the design of their digestive tracts, rabbits require a specialized diet. Hay is very fibrous and the rabbit has to spend a long time chewing the woody pieces before swallowing (Cadbury bunny style!). This chewing action helps to evenly wear down the teeth and having hay available 24 hours a day is key. When rabbits are young, alfalfa (a legume) is the preferred hay to feed. Alfalfa hay, however, is too high in calcium for an adult rabbit and the excess mineral can lead to bladder stones which then require surgery to be removed. Adult rabbits should eat a diet of unlimited timothy (a grass) hay, a very small amount of high quality pellet diet, and at least one cup of fresh greens per four pounds of body weight a day. Offering a daily variety of fresh greens, with at least one that is known to be high in vitamin A, is recommended to ensure that your rabbit is meeting its nutritional requirements. The House Rabbit Society has a wonderful list available on its website. Fruits should be kept to an absolute minimum and used only as a special treat as rabbits prefer sweet fruits over veggies and can become quite ill if eating too many ?sweets?. Another important part of a rabbit?s diet is their own poop! Believe it or not, rabbits have a different stool at night called cecatrophs. This poop is high in Vitamins B and K and beneficial bacteria. Rabbits ?recycle? this stool by eating it directly from their anus. While this is pretty gross by human standards, it is an essential part of the rabbit diet. This stool has a characteristic shape, color, appearance and odor and should never be seen in the cage: if it is, then your rabbit is sick!
Hair is inadvertently another portion of a rabbit diet. Rabbits, just like cats, spend a fair amount of time grooming and, like cats, if your rabbit is being fed an appropriate diet, the hair should pass through the digestive tract and be eliminated in the day feces. Incorrect diets will slow the movement of food, and hair, through the system and will allow a hairball to form. If your cat had a hairball, he/she would just vomit it up. However, rabbits cannot vomit and the problem perpetuates: slow gut, accumulation of hair and fibers, slows the gut further?..and so on. Hairballs can lead to signs of a decreased appetite and weight loss and can become life threatening. Please see your veterinarian if you notice these symptoms.
A decreased appetite can also be caused by the heat. Rabbits are fairly heat intolerant and can very easily overheat when the temperatures exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Since overheating (?hyperthermia?) can occur rapidly and can be life threatening, it is best to keep a rabbit indoors when the weather gets too hot. With the weather in Cleveland finally starting to warm up, this could be a problem for our outdoor pet rabbits. If a rabbit must be kept outdoors, be sure they have access to plenty of fresh, cold water, shade and ventilation. Don't forget to regularly check that the water bottle in the cage is actually working appropriately as the little ball valves frequently get stuck!
With the heat, come fleas. Just like dogs and cats, rabbits are susceptible to fleas as well as ear mites and mites known as ?walking dandruff?. Luckily, these are all easily treatable with the appropriate medication. The most common complaint for these ectoparasites is scratching. It is best to have your pet rabbit examined to find out what is the cause of the itching so we know the best way in which to treat it. If your rabbit is kept outdoors or one of your other pets has been diagnosed with fleas, it is recommended to apply flea prevention regularly. However, many products available can very toxic to bunnies and, those that aren?t, must still be dosed appropriately. It is best to consult your veterinarian to ensure that the skin problems are diagnosed and treated correctly and safely.
Ectoparasites are not the only ?bugs? that rabbits are susceptible to. There are many types of infectious diseases which can cause an upper respiratory infections, diarrhea, and/or neurological disease. If you notice that your rabbit is sneezing, excessively grooming its face, or you find that the wrists and paws are discolored or matted with debris, it?s time to call the vet! Similarly, signs such as falling over or holding the head tilted to the side are symptoms of potentially serious disease and your rabbit should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Enough about about our floppy eared friends, let?s talk about pigs! Not the ?oink, oink? pig, but the ?squeak, squeak? pig: guinea pigs! Guinea pigs (or cavys) make great pets for children as they are generally very docile and easy to handle. But, you guessed it, they have their own unique needs and health concerns. Top of the guinea pig health problem list is hypovitaminosis C. Since we are making funny sounds, here's another: ?Argh there, matey!? Many people have heard of pirates (or sailors in general) suffering from a disease called Scurvy. Scurvy occurs when the body cannot make enough collagen leading to bone, joint, and skin issues. It is due to a lack of Vitamin C. Neither humans nor guinea pigs can make their own Vitamin C and therefore they must get enough in their diet to prevent this disease. Fresh fruits and vegetables are very important in a guinea pig?s (and yes, a human?s) daily diet. Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, parsley, cabbage, and other foods such as red bell peppers, strawberries, and cauliflower are not only very high in Vitamin C but are also quite tasty for your pet pig to snack on. While vitamin C drops are available, be careful when adding this to their water as it can change the taste, causing your guinea pig to drink less, predisposing it to dehydration and bladder stones.
A proper diet is not only important for preventing Scurvy, but also for the prevention of guinea pig dental disease. Guinea pigs, just like rabbits, have continuously growing teeth and suffer from dental disease frequently. Therefore, don't forget to schedule their twice yearly exams. Timothy (grass) hay is the recommended hay to feed a cavy. There are also timothy hay-based pellets which are recommended to feed daily. To help supplement, they are usually infused with Vitamin C but lose potency quickly so are insufficient on their own.
Whether you adopt your guinea pig from a breeder, a rescue organization, pet shop, or the county fair, it is always recommended to have your pig examined by a vet once you bring your new pet home. This is particularly true if your pig shows signs of itching. Sarcoptic mange is a mite found on the surface of the skin in which is highly contagious; not only to other pigs but to cats, dogs, and people, too! The mite cannot be seen with the naked eye but the scratching done by your new guinea pig is usually more than obvious. If you notice your pig scratching, please bring it in for testing to determine if it has this mite. Don't panic, though, if your new furry friend has this mite; it is treatable and so are you. I know you were probably hoping for a two for one, but unfortunately you will need to see your own physician to receive treatment because our products are for pets only.
There is one last disease which is also more common to see after bringing a guinea pig into your home. Guinea pig upper respiratory disease can be quite contagious as well. Luckily this disease is not something humans can get. We were recently asked, ?How often can I bathe my guinea pig? He gets stinky!? The answer: while pigs love to be bathed, you shouldn?t need to do it very often and the chill associated with drying off can make your pig susceptible to an upper respiratory infection?. As can the dirty bedding that is making him stinky! Regularly cleaning the cage and exchanging out the bedding with a low dust product can keep both you and your guinea pig happy. If you notice your pig sneezing, cleaning its face more than normal, experiencing runny eyes, or a decreased appetite, it should be seen by a veterinarian.
As you can see, ferrets, rabbits and guinea pigs have some specialized needs and health care. Like our dogs and cats, even ourselves, learning how to properly care for them can require some investigation and learning?.and routine medical examinations along the way! If you or a friend is the pet parent to a pocket pet, don't hesitate to schedule your next appointment at Happy Pet and we will gladly help you to keep your furry friend healthy and happy!