They May Be Cute as Buttons, but They're Not Everyone's Perfect Pet

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

rabbits as pets

Story at-a-glance -

  • Rabbits are very popular pets, but unfortunately, many people acquire them without understanding the time and effort required to properly care for them properly
  • For example, many prospective guardians don’t realize bunnies are relatively long-lived, have distinct personalities, need regular grooming and must be carefully supervised around other pets
  • Essentials for properly caring for a pet rabbit include housing him indoors in a bunny-friendly environment outfitted with a spacious habitat with a litterbox
  • Rabbits also need daily exercise and routine veterinary care

Rabbits are very popular pets for many reasons. For starters, they're impossibly cute and cuddly-looking. They're also a great size for apartments and smaller homes, tend to be very quiet and don't need to be walked. Like dogs and cats, bunnies bond closely with their humans and respond to both the sight and sound of them.

Rabbits can be the perfect pets for the right home, however, like any animal companion, they shouldn't be adopted on impulse, or because someone mistakenly thinks they require little or no care. Sadly, around this time each year, animal shelters fill up with abandoned Easter bunnies acquired on a whim by people who didn't understand what it takes to properly care for them.

Before committing to a bunny as a pet, it's important to learn all you can about these lovely little creatures so that you can make an informed decision as to whether a rabbit is a good fit for your home and lifestyle. Here are a few interesting things you may not know about pet rabbits:

They're relatively long-lived — Many prospective rabbit parents don't realize that a well-cared-for bunny can live 8 to 12 years or more, which is considerably longer than other types of small pets.

They have unique personalities — Like cats, dogs and other companion animals, rabbits are individuals with their own personalities. Some are shy and timid, while others are friendly and energetic. Plenty of gentle handling, petting and appropriate socialization of newly adopted rabbits can help nervous bunnies feel more comfortable in their new homes.

They require some grooming — Like cats, rabbits are self-groomers and keep themselves quite clean. However, they need their nails trimmed regularly, and long-haired breeds should have their coats brushed weekly to keep mats under control.

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. Professional grooming shouldn't be necessary; however, the occasional bath may be needed, especially if poop tends to stick to bunny's bottom.

They may be viewed as prey by other pets in the household — Rabbits are a prey species, whereas dogs, cats and ferrets are natural predators. For this reason, bunnies should never, ever be left alone with a dog, cat or ferret.

8 Essentials for Raising a Healthy, Happy Bunny

1. Indoor living — The safest place for your pet is indoors. Whereas wild rabbits are accustomed to temperature extremes, domestic bunnies are not. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, bunnies are prey for many animals, so they're vulnerable even in a safe outdoor enclosure. And unfortunately, just the presence of a wild animal nearby can cause life-threatening stress in bunnies.

2. A spacious habitat — Your bunny's habitat should be at least five times her size. She should be able to stretch out in her cage and stand up on her hind legs without touching the top 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 put a cardboard box in the cage, so she has a hiding spot. Everyone in the household should respect bunny's need for quiet time. Rabbits typically sleep during the day and overnight and are up and around at dawn and dusk.

3. A bunny-safe environment — Rabbits need plenty of time outside of their cage. It's extremely important to ensure 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 he has access to 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 (their teeth grow continuously), be sure to provide yours with a constant supply of chew-safe materials such as 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 objects that have sharp edges, loose parts or soft rubber that could be chewed into pieces and swallowed.

4. A litterbox — Rabbits can easily learn to use a litterbox, so place one in your bunny's cage to get her in the habit. If she's free-roaming, it's a good idea to place 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. Litterboxes should be scooped daily and completely cleaned weekly.

5. Safe access to sunlight or a suitable alternative — Though indoor living is best for pet rabbits, it does increase the risk for a vitamin D deficiency, which can contribute to dental disease, cardiovascular problems and a weakened immune system. To ensure 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 her so you can sit with her on clean (unsprayed) grass and allow her to exercise. Or if you can ensure 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 F and she has access to a shady spot in the cage.

If this isn't feasible, ask your veterinarian to recommend a full spectrum light appropriate for your rabbit's habitat. I don't recommend giving vitamin D supplements except under the advice and supervision of a veterinarian. Vitamin D is fat-soluble and can rapidly reach toxic levels in small pets.

6. Rabbits need species-appropriate nutrition — 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 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 owners 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. Read "The Best Nutrition for Rabbits" for more information on how to feed your rabbit for optimal health.

7. Rabbits need daily exercise and social interaction — 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.

8. Rabbits require gentle handling and regular veterinary care — Bunnies are fragile little animals and stress easily. 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 being 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.

Like any pet, your rabbit needs an annual wellness exam with a veterinarian experienced with small mammals (not every vet is), and many rabbits require spaying and neutering to avoid reproductive problems later in life. 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.

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