Keeping rabbits with birds

We have been asked whether it is safe to keep rabbits in the same area as poultry, primarily chickens. We don’t advise this for several reasons

  • Dietary needs are different. Poultry birds need grain feeds. This is high calorie and low on fibre. It’s a completely unsuitable diet for rabbits, will cause obesity and doesn’t provide the dietary fibre they need to keep teeth worn correctly nor to keep the gut moving properly
  • Water is generally fouled by birds. Rabbits need to have a constant supply of fresh water and if they are sharing living quarters with chickens etc that will not be possible as it will become contaminated with faecal matter
  • Salmonella is a major problem with poultry. Whilst rabbits are reasonable resistant to it, it is nevertheless an unacceptable risk
  • Hens and particularly ducks turn grass into bare earth or mud quickly. This is removing a valuable food source from rabbits and turning the area they live on into something potentially harmful
  • There is potential for injury and there are anecdotal tales of this happening

For these reasons we recommend that rabbits are not housed with poultry species

There is further information on this topic in the BSAVA Rabbit Manual. It states that where birds and rabbits are housed together, large psittacines (parrot species) may cause trauma to rabbits, although in most cases where rabbits share an aviary with birds the birds are more commonly smaller members of the parrot group and also other perching birds.

It is not common for micro-organisms to be able to transfer directly between avian and mammalian species, but if it does happen in one bird or mammal, the others in the group should be suspected of being infected also. This is particularly the case with intestinal diseases and fungal skin conditions.

Where hens and rabbits are kept together, the coccidian affecting each animal are different and should not cause problems to the other species but the main health problems are as mentioned above.

Cardboard

A message from our Specialist Veterinary Adviser, Richard Saunders

We are aware of lots of comments regarding cardboard at the moment.

Cardboard toilet and paper towel roll inners can be very useful as an enrichment tool, and many many rabbit owners use boxes filled with hay and with holes cut inside, or toilet roll inners stuffed with hay etc without problem, and have done for years, because we didn’t have the vast array of toys to chose from that we have now. Cardboard boxes filled with bedding are useful for extra insulation in the winter. Cardboard boxes with 2 holes cut in them are useful as a bolt hole for the rabbits to feel safe.

Obviously as rabbit owners, if you see your rabbits eating a lot of the cardboard, rather than just enjoying destroying it, then remove any cardboard items, and consider seeking veterinary advice.

As a Specialist Vet, I see rabbits eating both appropriate and inappropriate fibrous and indigestible materials when they have GI problems, and this may be a sign of such issues. As with “hairballs” it’s often that the fur, hair, cardboard etc is in the gut in large amounts BECAUSE the GI tract is moving slowly, not causing the problem. What I am saying here is that when the rabbit starts to become ill, they often eat things that are not appropriate, and the cardboard or hairball is in the gut because of the gut slowdown, and is not the cause of it. Of course, there are certainly rabbits out there (as with dogs etc), who definitely eat things to excess, inappropriately, and in such cases, in any species, it’s sensible to prevent a problem by not allowing access to the material in question.


So let your rabbits enjoy their cardboard toys, but as with any toy, be sensible and monitor them. There are lots of things that you can give your rabbits to actually chew and eat that are safe such as apple branches, willow branches, hazel branches and forage trays.

Richard Saunders
BSc (Hons) BVSc FRSB CBiol DZooMed (Mammalian) DipECZM(ZHM) MRCVS; RCVS Specialist in Zoo and Wildlife Medicine (Mammalian); European Specialist in Zoological Medicine (ZHM); RWAF Veterinary Specialist Adviser

Unhealthy ‘rabbit treats’

We have been contacted by a concerned member who found ‘rabbit treats’ for sale and contacted us. Our Specialist Veterinary Adviser, Richard Saunders has written as follows to the manufacturer Happy Pets and the retailer which has already withdrawn them from sale.

‘We are writing to you to express concerns regarding a number of products sold in your stores, with regard to the ingredients of fruit, yogurt and, particularly, chocolate. (eg the Critters’ choice chocolate drops). It’s worth noting that rabbits have both very low requirements for simple carbohydrates, and can develop potentially life threatening caecal dysbiosis if they ingest too much sugar, but that they do select sweet food items. Selling these is therefore a rather cynical case of feeding something that is popular with the animal, but very much not good for it. In a risk:benefit analysis there would appear to be no benefit whatsoever to feeding such items, and a potential risk of severe and expensive GI stasis, and potentially even death.

However, chocolate has far greater potential to cause health issues in rabbits, as it contains the alkaloid theobromine which can cause diarrhoea and death by heart failure in a number of species, notably dogs, but also rabbits. It is proving rather difficult to obtain a nutritional breakdown of this brand, but if this contains theobromine, it is quite a risk selling a product with a known toxin to a susceptible species and we would strongly recommend that you discontinue stocking it as soon as possible. A similar risk:benefit analysis clearly identifies no benefit and a very significant and well known risk of death, which would be indefensible should such morbidity or mortality result.’

Richard Saunders BVSc DZooMed MRCVS European Veterinary Specialist in Zoo Health Management