Rabbits make excellent pets. They are available in quite a number of variations, including short fuzzy hair, like the Rex, long-haired, like the Jersey Wooly, dwarf lops which are small, and rather large breeds such as Artic Hares.
- Rabbits are very curious critters. They are also very ardent chewers. In general, it is best to keep your rabbit caged when not supervised.
- Provide a roomy cage, six times the size of the adult rabbit.
- The door must be large enough for the litter box, and toys should be provided in the cage.
- Wire cages are readily available and work well by allowing the feces and urine to fall through the cage. However, it will still be necessary to keep the cage and the bedding clean.
- Rabbits that are allowed to come in contact with their urine for long periods of time can suffer urine burns (sores) on their hocks. Place a resting board covering a part of the cage floor for the rabbit's comfort.
- When lining your rabbit's cage, kiln-dried pine shavings or paper shavings are preferred. Cedar, pine or chlorophyll shavings should not be used.
The pleasures of being outdoors include fresh air, sunshine, and freedom to run, chew and dig. But for a rabbit, being outside can also be dangerous, most importantly from predator attack. Such attacks primarily occur at night, but can also happen in the daytime.
Hutches and cages do not provide enough protection to make it safe to leave a rabbit outdoors 24 hours a day. Even if the predator is not able to get into the cage, the rabbit may panic, injure herself, or die from shock or heart attack. Raccoons can open hutches. Coyotes, owls, hawks, possums, cats and dogs are also threats. For safe daytime exercise, we suggest a pen within your fenced yard, one with a top, bottom and sides. We strongly urge you to bring your rabbit in at night.
Proper handling of your rabbit is essential. Always support the hind end of your rabbit when you pick it up. Never pick up a rabbit by its legs or ears. Rabbits will frequently injure their backs when picked up without supporting the hind end.
Handle your rabbit often when it's young, to increase its acceptance of affection when it's older. Pet him on the broad area on top of his nose to help him get use to you. Never let him jump from heights.
By nature, rabbits choose one or a few places (usually corners) to deposit their urine and most of their pills (feces). Urine training involves little more than putting a litter box where the rabbit chooses to go. Pill training requires only that you give them a place to go where they know others will not invade them.
Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box. Begin with the rabbit and box in a small confined area. Once it learns to use the box, you can move the box to a larger area. All rabbits will drop pills around their cages to mark it as their own. This is not a failure to be litter-trained.
Organic litters are recommended, i.e., those made from alfalfa, oat, citrus or paper. Stay away from litters made from softwoods, like pine or cedar. Clean litter boxes often, to encourage your rabbit to use them. Use white vinegar to rinse boxes out — for tough stains, let pans soak.
Fresh water should always be available. A sipper bottle or a raised water bowl is more sanitary than a bowl, which sits on the floor. Provide a heavy pellet bowl or clip-on feeder for food.
In the past, it was recommended that rabbits be fed unlimited amounts of a pellet-based diet. Recent research and experience indicate that this is not necessary and could even be harmful. Pelleted diets have been implicated in soft, pasty stools, hairballs, obesity and its related diseases, and urinary diseases.
In the wild, rabbits have adapted to eating large amounts of food that make up relatively poor diets, e.g., grasses, tree bark and other vegetation. Pellets appear to be just too rich for them.
Rabbits need only 1/8 cup of timothy hay-based pellets per five pounds of body weight per day. In addition, an unlimited amount of clean, dry, non-moldy hay should always be available. Alfalfa hay is not recommended.
Fresh greens should also be fed. Every day, your rabbit should receive one heaping cup per five pounds of body weight of a mixture of at least three greens: Dandelion greens, parsley, romaine lettuce, carrot greens or kale. Spinach can also be occasionally given. Stay away from beans and rhubarb. High fiber fruits, such as apples and pears, can also be fed in small amounts.
To prevent hairballs, try Petromalt or Laxatone once or twice a week after the rabbit is at least 7 months of age, and depending on her coat, once a day during a molt.
Without challenging activities to occupy your rabbit when you're not home, your rabbit, especially a solitary rabbit, will get bored. This could lead to depression and/or destruction of your personal property. Toys provide mental stimulation, and can extend your rabbit's life by keeping him interested in his surroundings, by giving him the freedom to interact with those surroundings and by allowing him to learn and grow.
Your rabbit also needs physical exercise to keep her body in shape. She needs thing to climb on, crawl under, hop on and around, dig into, and chew on.
Toys also keep your house safe. By providing your rabbit with a good selection of toys, you will help bunny proof your home and minimize damage from chewing or clawing. Always bunny proof electric cords.
Some good toys include: Paper bags, cardboard boxes, cardboard rolls from paper towels or toilet paper, yellow pages for shredding, cat toys that can be rolled or tossed, and toys with ramps and lookouts, among many others.
Spaying and Neutering
Spaying and neutering are very important for your pet. If you have more than one rabbit, pregnancy will not be a concern if they are spayed and neutered. Spayed and neutered animals also tend to be better pets (i.e., they display fewer aggressive and sexual behaviors).
Spaying your rabbit also prevents a uterine tumor, which is very common in female rabbits. It prevents other diseases as well, such as uterine infections. Neutering your male rabbit will prevent testicular cancer and will also improve its health along with its behavior.
Groom rabbits with a flea comb. Most rabbits learn to love the attention and feel of being flea-combed.
Cat flea products (powders and sprays only) are generally safe for rabbits with fleas. Flea baths and dips are not recommended. If her skin is scratchy or flaky with bald patches, this usually indicates skin mites or an allergic reaction to fleas. Cat flea powder clears up both conditions.
Bathing rabbits is generally not recommended, and most rabbits would find even the occasional bath quite stressful. Never bathe a sick rabbit.
For mats, use a mat splitter or mat rake to take the mat apart. Rabbit skin is delicate and highly susceptible to cuts, so mats should not be cut off with scissors.
Toenails should be trimmed regularly if your rabbit spends all of his time in a home with carpeting and linoleum. When clipping nails, it is often helpful to wrap your rabbit in a towel. The towel will have to be wrapped tightly. Each foot can be individually pulled out of the towel for clipping. Nail clipping can be done with either animal or human nail clippers. A member of our staff can show you how to clip you rabbit's nails.
In addition, you should check the rabbit's front teeth for overgrowth. Unusual growth should be checked and clipped by a veterinarian.
Signs of Disease
- Skin disease will usually begin as hair loss, redness or itchiness.
- Respiratory disease usually starts as sneezing or discharge from the eyes or nose.
- Dental disease usually involves loss of appetite or drooling.
- Digestive disease usually begins as loss of appetite or soft stools.
- Watery diarrhea is very serious and must be treated right away.
- Ear problems usually result in scratching or shaking of the ears.
- Lameness or dragging legs may be a sign of sprains, bruises, fractures or spinal problems.
All of these diseases are easier to treat and more likely to be cured if treatment is begun early.
Although vaccines are not currently given to rabbits, yearly exams are advised. These exams will often identify problems before they become serious problems. Your rabbit's weight can be measured and recorded. New advances in rabbit care can be discussed.
This guide aims to provide you with the right information to help your rabbit live a longer and healthier life. An additional good source of information on rabbits can be obtained from the House Rabbit Society. They publish an excellent newsletter, which can be obtained by contacting them at:
House Rabbit Society
1615 Encinal Avenue, Almeda, California 94501
If you are looking for some fun treats for your bunny, or some nice things for yourself, try The Busy Bunny.
Dr. Alexandra Kilgore is Chief of Staff at Littleton Animal Hospital. A graduate of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, she has advanced training in avian and extoic medicine.