By Dr. Becker
Many people who acquire a rabbit as a pet mistakenly believe the size of an animal dictates how much care it will need. Or they believe smaller pets with their own habitats don’t require much attention.
The truth is any creature we bring into our homes needs certain things from us, and rabbits are no exception. They have a number of specific care and handling requirements, and compared to other small pets, well-cared for rabbits live a relatively long life of 10 or more years.
If you’re thinking of adding a bunny to the family, I encourage you to do some research beforehand so you’ll know what to expect and how to proceed once you get little Thumper home.
Keep in mind that rabbits are social creatures who tend to be happier if they have a bunny friend or two for companionship, so consider adopting a bonded pair. (And unless you want to start up a bunny factory, you’ll want to adopt a same sex pair or arrange for well-timed spaying/neutering.)
If you decide to add a rabbit or rabbits to your family, please check your local animal shelter or rabbit rescue group for adoptable bunnies.
5 Important Pet Rabbit Care Guidelines
- Pet rabbits should live indoors. Knowledgeable rabbit guardians know that the safest place for their pet is indoors. While wild rabbits are accustomed to temperature extremes, domestic bunnies are not. In addition, rabbits are prey for many animals, so even in a safe outdoor enclosure your pet is vulnerable to predators. Sadly, just the presence of a wild animal nearby can cause so much stress in a rabbit that he may suffer a heart attack and die of fear.
There is one problem with keeping rabbits indoors all the time, though – they can become vitamin D deficient. A lack of vitamin D in rabbits is thought to contribute to dental disease, cardiovascular problems, and a weakened immune system.
To insure your bunny gets enough of the sunshine vitamin, I encourage you to find a way to allow her safe access to direct outdoor sunlight on a daily basis if possible. Consider harness-training your pet so you can sit with her on clean (unsprayed) grass and allow her to exercise. Or if you can insure there are no wild animals in the vicinity, you can move her indoor wire cage outdoors for a few hours every day as long as it’s not over 80 degrees F and she has access to a shady spot in the cage.
If taking your bunny outdoors isn’t feasible, ask your veterinarian to recommend a full spectrum light appropriate for your pet’s habitat. I don’t recommend giving rabbits vitamin D supplements except under the advice and supervision of a veterinarian. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that can rapidly reach toxic levels in small pets.
- Free-roaming rabbits need a bunny-friendly environment. If you plan to allow your pet free access to either your entire home or an area of the house, it’s really important to insure everything in his domain is rabbit-proof. Put all electrical cords out of reach and cover all outlets. Bunnies are big chewers, and if yours chews through a plugged-in electrical cord, it can be fatal.
The urge to chew also means your rabbit can be poisoned if she gets hold of potential toxins such as insecticides, rodenticides, cleaning supplies, and even common plants such as aloe, azalea, Calla lily, lily of the valley, or philodendron.
Since chewing is part of a rabbit’s natural behavior, be sure to provide yours with a constant supply of chew-safe material. Examples: untreated wood blocks or cardboard, bowls, balls, and rings made of willow wood, and paper towel or toilet paper cardboard rolls that you can throw away once they’ve served their purpose. Avoid giving your bunny any objects that have sharp edges, loose parts, or soft rubber that could be chewed into pieces and swallowed.
- Rabbit cages should be spacious. Your bunny’s cage should be at least five times the size she is. She should be able to stretch out in there and stand up on her hind legs without touching the top of the cage with her head. Rabbits don’t have protective pads on their feet like some other animals, so wire flooring is a bad idea. If the cage is wire, layer the floor with cardboard or another material.
You’ll also want to outfit your rabbit’s habitat with a cardboard box so she has a hiding spot. Family members need to respect bunny’s need for quiet time – she’ll want to sleep during the day and overnight, and will typically be sociable at dawn and dusk.
Rabbits can easily learn to use a litterbox, so place one in your bunny’s cage to get things rolling. (If your pet is free-roaming, consider placing litterboxes in several locations around your home.) The litterbox should be big enough for her to sit in, since many rabbits like to relax in their litterboxes. A number of litters on the market can cause serious health problems in rabbits, so stick with organic litters made of paper, wood pulp, or citrus. Newspaper is another good choice, but it’s not as absorbent.
If your rabbit is confined to her habitat, she’ll need to be let out several hours every day for exercise. Bunnies like to run, jump, and investigate their surroundings, so make sure yours has a safe area to play in and explore. This is a good time for family members to interact and play with bunny as well.
- The right nutrition for rabbits. As with any pet, it’s very important to offer your bunny a species-appropriate diet. Many health problems in rabbits are caused by foods that are incompatible with their digestive physiology. Rabbits are hindgut fermenters. They have simple, single-chambered stomachs and are equipped with bacteria that digest the cellulose from plants. Hindgut fermenters can consume small amounts of varying qualities of forage all day long and are able to pull more nutrition out of small quantities of feed.
Many rabbit guardians mistakenly think feeding hay as a dietary staple isn’t nutritious or doesn’t offer enough nutritional variety. However, the natural diet of rabbits is a variety of grasses, forbs, herbs, and leaves. Since this diet is difficult to imitate for domestic bunnies, a hay-only diet is recommended over a diet containing commercial fruit and most commercial vegetables (green leafy veggies are fine), fruit and seed mixes, grain mixes, and grain-based pelleted feeds or bread, and is also preferable to forage-based pelleted feeds.
For more information on how to feed your rabbit for optimal health, read “The Best Nutrition for Rabbits and Rodents.”
- Pet rabbits require careful supervision and handling. Bunnies are fragile – their bones are delicate, and the muscles in their hind legs can easily overwhelm the strength of their skeletons. An unrestrained, struggling rabbit can break his own spine.
Some rabbits do not enjoy being picked up, so go slowly and let yours get used to be handled. The proper way to lift a rabbit is to place one hand underneath him in front, the other under his backside, and bring him against your body for support. Never let your bunny’s body dangle free, and never lift him under the stomach or by the ears.
Since rabbits groom each other around the head and down the back, most enjoy being petted on their heads. Bunnies don’t vomit, nor can they cough up furballs like cats, so try to remove loose fur from your rabbit when you can – either by petting or brushing him if he’ll allow it.
Like any pet, your rabbit needs an annual wellness exam with a veterinarian experienced with small mammals (not every vet is). Locating an exotic vet will narrow your choices considerably, so I recommend finding one before you have a need. I also recommend knowing the location of the closest emergency animal clinic that can treat rabbits as well.