Rabbits as Pets
Guide to a Happy, Healthy Rabbit!
Rabbits have been around for at least 3 to 4 million years. They were first domesticated in Spain, and later they were widely distributed by the seafaring Phoenicians. Rabbits were domesticated and used (and still are) for many different purposes. They have a great capacity to multiply themselves, and can therefore be readily raised for many purposes.Rabbits are not rodents, but belong to their own order called Lagomorpha. They are also very different from hares!
Rabbits make wonderful pets! They are inexpensive to keep and very quiet, which makes them the perfect pet in many types of homes!
Hares are wild and undomesticated. They have quite a few subtle differences in their lifestyles from rabbits, which are domestic. Rabbit babies are born in underground burrows and are blind, deaf and naked; while hare babies are born in grass nests and are already furred with some vision and hearing.
Description: Rabbits come in several different varieties (at least 40 known breeds) and can vary in size anywhere from 2 to 20 pounds. Their fur and colors have a large range, from long to short in fur length, and black to white in color, with everything in between. To see some of the different breeds, click on the links on the main rabbit page.
Purchasing your Rabbit: When looking for a rabbit to purchase as a pet, a young rabbit between 2 and 3 months old can be ideal, but even an older pet rabbit can make a good companion. A healthy rabbit should be slim and sleek, have brilliant eyes, good sound teeth, and a healthy coat with no matted fur. The droppings should be dry and hard, and there should are no stains on the fur and around the anal area (which could indicate diarrhea). Either sex will make a good pet, although males sometimes have better temperaments. If you plan to buy more than one, two females would be the better choice since males that have not been neutered will almost certainly fight (especially if there are females around). But if they are neutered there is generally no problem.
Care and feeding: Rabbits are herbivores and much has been learned in recent years about what they need for a long, healthy life. In their natural environment they eat large quantities of leaves and grasses, and occasionally browse on flowers, fruits, and vegetables.
The important foods in the basic rabbit diet are grass hay, green foods, and cecotropes. Rabbits have an wonderful digestive system with a very unique ability. Their digestive tract develops a special dropping called 'cecotropes'. The cecotropes contain organisms rich in additional nutrients which the rabbit eats directly from the anus. In this way rabbits get the most nutrition out of the foods they eat. Cecotorpes are an essential part of the diet and you will generally not notice these special dropping in the cage.
Grass hay is made from timothy, meadow, oat, rye, barley or Bermuda grasses. A variety of grass hays should be available at all times and are good for all ages of rabbits starting at weaning. Grass hay is rich in nutrients, provides the "food" for the micro-organisms that make up the cecotropes, and has indigestible fiber to keep the intestinal tract working. It promotes healthy chewing activity which gives them proper wear on their teeth, satisfies their appetite, and may help keep them from chewing on inappropriate things such as furniture.
There is another type of hay called legume hay which is made up of alfalfa, clover, peas, beans or peanuts. Legume hay however has more nutrients than a house rabbit needs, so should be used as a supplement or when grass hay is not available.
Green foods are just as important in their diet as hay, containing a wider variety of micro nutrients as well as water. Greens can be fed to any age of rabbit starting with weaning. Feed one packed cup of greens for each 2 pounds of weight per day, more is fine. If you rabbit has not had green foods, they may get soft stools while their digestive tract is adjusting but this is not a health problem, just a bit messy until they are use to it. Start them with hay, and add the greens gradually. Some green foods include broccoli, brussels sprouts, bok choy, kale, cabbage, celery; romaine lettuce, water cress, and dark leafy greens like swiss chard, mustard greens, dandelion greens, parsley, and the tops of carrots or beets.
You can offer some supplements such as flowers, fruits, and vegetables too. These are also great as part of a reward or training system. These foods should be feed sparingly, at about 2 tablespoons for each 2 pounds of weight per day. Some fruits and vegetables you can offer include apples, pears, peaches, bell peppers, carrots, squash, bean sprouts; some berries such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries; and some flowers include roses, pansies, and snap dragons.
Commercial treats and other foods that are high in fat and/or starch should be avoided; though a rabbit can handle a very tiny amount they can cause health problems. Some of these include beans, peas, corn, breads, cereals, chocolate, refined sugar, nuts, seeds, wheat, oats, and other grains. It is better to use the supplements described above as treats for your pet.
The rabbit pelleted diet, which use to be recommended as the staple rabbit food, was actually designed for commercial use. Rabbit pellets are loaded with concentrated nutrition to promote rapid growth and they work great for industry purposes. But for a pet rabbit that will have a long life, they have been found to be too high in protein, have too many calories, and don't have enough indigestible fiber. Many brands today have changed their composition to be suitable for pet rabbits by increasing the indigestible fiber and reducing the proteins and calories, but some have also added seeds, nuts, and sugars which are nice to look at but not a good dietary staple. It is recommended that you use pellets only if hay is unavailable.
Make sure that a constant water supply is available, as water is very important. Gravity-flow water bottles, which can be found in pet stores, are a good idea. For a healthy rabbit It is not necessary to provide vitamins, nor do they need do a salt or mineral block.
Provide the green food in a heavy dish (ceramic works well) that can't be easily tipped over. You can put the hay directly in the cage or use a hay rack for less mess. Feed approximately once a day. Remove any fresh food at the end of each day so that it doesn't go bad. Clean food dishes with hot water at least once a week.
Housing: When considering what type of environment to provide for your rabbit, you will need to keep in mind that your pet will need to be able to jump and run around as well as sleep and rest. A rabbit cannot be strictly confined to a cage or they can develop both physical and behavioral disorders. Exercise is vital to the health of the animal. This can be accomplished with a cage that is open to an exercise area or an enclosed cage to house the rabbit for part of the day and then letting it out into an open area for several hours. A general rule is one rabbit per cage, unless they are kept in an outdoor hutch where they have plenty of room.
The cage or hutch needs to be large enough for your pet to stand up on it's hind legs without bumping it's head as well as having room for a resting area and a litter box. It should be easy to clean and not easily destroyed by chewing. A mesh wire metal cage is preferable. The bottom can be either solid or a wire mesh with a removable tray.
Cages can be kept either inside or outside, but make sure they always have a place to go to get away from drafts and direct sunlight. Keep the cage in a cool, well ventilated, low humidity area, with temperatures between 60° - 70° F. A plastic bottle filled with frozen water can help keep a rabbit cool in higher temperatures, but if temperatures reach the high 80's, they can quickly become over heated and this can lead to a fatal heat stroke. Rabbits housed outdoors need a shelter that protects them from heat, cold, and rain, and needs to be secure from predators. In the winter you can provide straw in the shelter for insulation, and if the water is freezing be sure to change it daily.
An exercise area can be a moveable enclosure such as those sold at a pet store for dogs. Be sure it is at least 3' high for small and medium rabbits, and 4' high for the giant breeds. If you let your pet run free in the house be sure to 'bunny proof' it. Block escape routes and block access to furniture, cords, and toxic materials or toxic plants. Closely supervise you pet at all times if you are letting it exercising outdoors.
The best bedding is a pelleted litter which is is non-toxic, digestible, and draws the moisture inside leaving the area dry. Other litters include wood shavings, corncob, and kitty litter. Do not use clay or clumping kitty litters because if they are ingested, they can be fatal.
Provide a litter box. Rabbits are pretty easy to train to use the litter box by placing it in the area where they have been going to the bathroom. To encourage them to use it put some droppings in it, even a small amount of hay can help them learn as they will go to the bathroom while they are eating it. In a large area provide one more litter box then the number of rabbits you have.
Rabbits need a resting and hiding place for some privacy. Such things as untreated straw baskets, cardboard boxes turned upside down with a hole cut in the side, a large cardboard tube, or just use your imagination to come up with a safe cuddly hide.
Social Behaviors: Rabbits are very sociable creatures and love to hang out with a friend or group of friends. Most rabbits will get along fine together, but there are some exceptions. Males that have not been neutered will almost certainly fight (especially if there are females around). But if they are neutered there is generally no problem. Females almost always get along.
Before putting two new rabbits together, let them get acquainted with each other first so you'll be sure they will get along. A good way to do this is to put their cages next to each other so they can see and smell each other, but not touch each other. This way you can be sure they won't get into a fight.
Rabbits are great companions for children, and it's okay to have only one rabbit as long as it is given a lot of attention. They should be kept away from other household pets unless they are well acquainted with each other. They can become good friends with cats and dogs on occasion, as long as they are supervised and you are sure they will get along.
Handling/Training: When picking up a rabbit make sure to support it's entire body, and not to only grab it by it's shoulders. The hindquarters especially need to be supported to prevent spinal injuries. Pick it up evenly with your hands by scooping it up under the chest with one hand and placing your other hand under it's hind legs, be careful not to drop it. Never grab a rabbit by it's ears! This can damage them since they have very delicate ears. It may take a while for your rabbit to get used to being handled and to get used to you. Work with him often, and eventually your bunny will love to be petted and handled by you!
Activities: You can let your rabbit out of his cage to explore designated areas of the house and yard. If you do this however, you'll want to make sure that he isn't near any electrical cords, toxic materials, or expensive furniture. Rabbits love to chew and this could be hazardous to the rabbit and expensive for you. If he is let out into the yard, make sure it is fenced with no holes, and make sure that there are no plants that are poisonous for rabbits (such as rhododendrons) and that the grass has not been chemically treated.
Rabbits love to chew! Their teeth are constantly growing and so therefore they should be provided with chewing material. Twigs and small logs from the backyard (as long as they haven't been chemically treated), or flavored chew sticks available at pet stores for both birds and small animals all make great chewing items. They also like chew things that move such as paper towel or toilet paper rolls, small cardboard boxes, and even some shredded paper.
Breeding/Reproduction: Neutering or spaying: This is very important to consider for your pet rabbit as there are definite health benefits for the rabbit as well as behavioral benefits for you. Health wise it has been found that female rabbits over two years of age are often prone to a malignant cancer, called uterine adenocarcinoma, that can be prevented by spaying. Though less frequent, male rabbits can also get a disease of the reproductive organs. Behavior wise, spaying and neutering can help avert aggression in both sexes, though especially in males. Some male rabbits can become aggressive as they move into adolescents between 8 -18 months of age, and they can also start marking their territory by spraying urine around the house or yard. These behaviors can often be prevented by neutering the male rabbit. Neutering or spaying can be done when your rabbit is over 4 months of age.
Breeding: Rabbits, depending on the breed, are sexually mature between 5 and 9 months old. The bigger the breed, the longer it takes for them to mature. They can produce 4 to 6 litters a year until they are 6 years old, but they shouldn't be bred that often or that long. The gestation period for females is almost exactly one month and they have from 1 to 12 offspring, with the average being 6. The babies are born blind and naked and nurse for 6-8 weeks, at which time they are ready to be weaned.
The mother and father rabbits should be kept in separate cages. Only put them together for a brief period (generally the male's cage works better) so that they can mate and then separate them again. Put a nesting box in for the mother rabbit, with hay, straw or wood shavings. The mother will also pull out clumps of her own fur to add to the nest. Leave the mother and her babies alone as much as possible until they get a little older (around 3 to 5 weeks). The babies will open their eyes around 10 days old, and gradually start moving around more after that.
If the babies loose their mother, they can be hand nursed. There are milk substitutes that are available to use when hand nursing the babies which you can give with an eyedropper or a rubber topped feeding bottle. They should be fed every 3 hours, and at least once through the night until they are weaned. At about 3 weeks offer them rabbit pellets and start teaching them to drink water from a dish. Eventually they can learn to use a water bottle and can be introduced to grass hay and green foods when weaned.
Ailments/Treatments: Rabbits are hardy animals and rarely get sick. However, if not taken care of properly they can become ill. Most ailments are preventable simply from making sure the rabbit has the right food, plenty of water, a clean cage, and plenty of exercise. You can have your rabbit vaccinated for Viral Hemorrhagic Disease (VHD) and Myxomatosis which can be administered at six weeks and then annually.
Signs that the animal is not feeling well include: listless, huddling in a corner, a dull matted coat, refusing food, labored breathing, runny nose, watery eyes, and constipation. In some cases there are remedies available at pet stores which can be used to aid in treating the animal. In other cases a trip to a veterinarian may be required.
Respiratory Signs (Snuffles):
Respiratory problems are indicated if your rabbit is sneezing, coughing, has nasal discharge and a runny nose and eyes. It is often caused by a dirty cage or overcrowded conditions. It can also be caused by airborne irritants, poor air circulation, damp environment, hot environment, and dental disease. Clean the cage thoroughly and make sure it is in dry, draft-free conditions. If this doesn't work, consult your veterinarian.
Intermittent Soft Stools (ISS): True diarrhea is the lack of a formed stool, rather it is all watery, and this is very rare in rabbits. What is most often seen is what is called intermittent soft stools or ISS. This is where the dropping is very soft, somewhere between a thick pudding to a soft blob, it may have a foul odor, and it is usually sticky. This is cause by a diet that is too high in carbohydrates, (many times from offered treats) and/or too low in indigestible fiber. The simple remedy to this is to give them a healthy diet of grass hays and lots of green foods. See diet above. If it persists or is severe, then see a veterinarian.
Urinary Disease: Urinary disease is indicated if your rabbit has blood in it's urine, is not able to urinate or is straining to do so. Take the rabbit to the veterinarian. The best prevention of urinary disease is adequate water intake, by feeding plenty of green foods and providing fresh water daily.
Dental Disease: Dental disease is common in the pet rabbit. The best way to prevent it, as well as treat it, is through a proper diet. The two main causes of dental disease are genetics, results of breeding that change facial structures; and improper diet, offering foods that do not allow normal tooth wear. Rabbits teeth are constantly growing. Teeth that are misaligned or do not get worn down properly can cause eating problems as well as creating other health problems for the rabbit. Have your rabbit's teeth examined by a veterinarian at least once a year.
Hairballs - Gastric Stasis: Often the term 'hairball' or 'wool block' is used to describe a condition known as gastric stasis, a dehydration and impaction of material in the digestive system. The rabbit gradually stops eating and drinking over a period of time, the droppings become smaller, and a "ball" of material develops in the stomach (it usually has some hair). The most common cause for gastric stasis is an inappropriate diet. Generally foods that are too high in carbohydrates and too low in indigestible fiber such as commercial rabbit treats, grains, and legumes. If you notice these signs this is an emergency, seek veterinary assistance immediately.
A rabbit on a healthy diet of grass hay and green foods will not have a problem with hairballs. Rabbits shed regularly, going from a light shed followed by a heavy shed about every three months. When they groom themselves they ingest some of this shedding hair, but their intestinal tract is designed to handle the hair consumed. The only exception to this is longhaired breeds such as Angoras and Jersey Wooly's, which may ingest larger amounts of hair. For these frequent grooming will reduce the amount of hair eaten.
Heatstroke: Rabbits are extremely sensitive to heat. If your rabbit is subjected to heat for long periods of time, you may see him lying on his side breathing heavily. He is trying to cool himself off. The best thing you can do for him is make sure he's got access to plenty of water, is in a cool place (preferably indoors), and wrap him in a cool wet towel. Don't dump him in cold water or use ice cubes! This could cause him to go into shock.