It is very important that the rabbit remains in a natural standing position whilst being fed to reduce the risk of it aspirating (taking into the lungs) any food. If the patient is unwilling to sit still, then you can use a towel to wrap them in the ‘bunny burrito’, which makes them easier to handle, supports their legs and backs and can make them feel calmer. Placing a hand over the rabbit’s eyes is another method that can help to calm them, as well as talking to them quietly in a soothing manner and stroking their head and ears. A baby’s bib around the rabbit’s neck may be more tolerable to the rabbit than a paper towel, and it helps minimise the mess and wetness that can be caused by assisted feeding.
Avoid touching the nose or trying to feed between the incisors. Rabbits will naturally shy away from this as it is a blind spot for them. Approach from the side instead and aim for the gap next to the incisors.
Do not try to rush the feeds. This will only result in the rabbit, and you, getting more stressed and less food being administered. It is vital that no more than 1ml of food is given per mouthful and that the rabbit is given time to chew and swallow. The syringe should be removed between mouthfuls, and the rabbit’s head should be stroked to encourage this.
If the rabbit is refusing to swallow at all, then the feeding should be stopped and the patient re-assessed to avoid the risk of aspiration and choking.
The head needs to be held gently but with positive pressure, as the rabbit will often try to turn away from the syringe. By placing a thumb on the top of the head and fingers under the chin or by placing the thumb and fingers on either side of the jawline, it gives you good control of the head. Always make soft, smooth movements and don’t ‘fight’ the rabbit. The slower and gentler that you are, the less the rabbit will resist you.
As the patient’s health improves, it will become more difficult to syringe feed them. As soon as they eat small amounts for themselves, assisted feeding can be reduced. Keep tempting the rabbit with their favourite foods and items such as fresh herbs (basil, mint, coriander and parsley). You can wave this in front of the rabbits, and often, they will get annoyed and bite it. This can be enough for them to get the taste and then eat the whole sprig. You can hand feed rabbits quite well – once they have started to eat, you can hold up the next sprig, so it goes in like a never-ending piece of spaghetti.
So be patient, be prepared and take time to sit quietly and nurse your patient. Syringe feeding is not a quick fix – it is ‘supportive nursing’ to be used alongside veterinary treatment and medication.
Take great care when doing this and if in any doubt at all, seek advice from your vet. Rabbits are delicate creatures, and serious damage can be caused by incorrectly administered syringe feeding.