4 rules that can help make rabbits wonderful, happy pets

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to care for a pet rabbit

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you’re planning to adopt a rabbit, be sure to do your homework so you have a good understanding of the level of care pet bunnies require
  • For starters, rabbits require careful handling and supervision, they should live indoors in a spacious habitat, and if they’re free-roaming, their environment must be carefully bunny-proofed
  • The right diet is foundational to your rabbit’s health and longevity; an improper diet can cause several serious diseases, including GI stasis

Rabbits can make wonderful pets, as long as their human family understands how to care for them properly. Just because they're small and have their own habitats doesn't mean they don't require much attention or upkeep.

In fact, bunnies have a number of specific care and handling needs, and it's also important to realize that compared to other small pets, well-cared for rabbits live a relatively long life of 10 or more years. So, if you're thinking of adopting one of these little creatures, I encourage you to do some research ahead of time, so you'll know what to expect once you bring Mr. Rabbit home.

One of the first things to consider is the fact that rabbits are social creatures who tend to be happier if they have a bunny BFF or two to hang out with, so give some serious thought to adopting a bonded pair. And to avoid going into the bunny business, you'll want to adopt a same sex pair or arrange for well-timed spaying/neutering. Also, be sure to check your local animal shelter or rabbit rescue group first for adoptable bunnies.

The necessities of life for pet rabbits

Your rabbit will require careful supervision and handling — Bunnies have delicate bones, and the muscles in their hind legs can easily overwhelm the strength of their skeletons. In fact, an unrestrained, struggling rabbit can actually break his own spine.

Some rabbits don't appreciate 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 gently bring him against your body for support. Never let his 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 gently stroked on their heads. Bunnies don't vomit or cough up hairballs like cats, so try to remove loose fur from your rabbit's coat 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.

Your rabbit should live indoors — The safest place for pet bunnies 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 secure outdoor enclosure, your pet is vulnerable to predators.

Rabbits instinctively understand the potential perils of being out in the open, and believe it or not, just the presence of a wild animal nearby can cause so much stress that your bunny can suffer a heart attack and die of fear.

That said, there's one problem with keeping your rabbit indoors all the time — she 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 ensure your bunny gets enough sunshine, find a way to allow her safe access to direct outdoor sunlight on a daily basis if possible (as sunlight through windows filters out the vitamin D).

Consider harness training her so you can sit with her on clean (unsprayed) grass and let her get some exercise. Or if you're positive there are no wild animals in the vicinity, you can move her indoor wire cage outdoors for a few hours on sunny days when 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 possible, ask your veterinarian to recommend a full-spectrum light appropriate for her 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.

Your rabbit's habitat should be roomy — Your bunny's cage should be at least five times the size he is. He should be able to stretch out in there and stand up on his hind legs without touching the top of the cage with his 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 include a cardboard box in the habitat, so bunny has a hiding spot. Family members need to respect his need for quiet time — he'll want to sleep during the day and overnight and will typically be sociable at dawn and dusk.

Like cats, rabbits can easily learn to use a litterbox, so place one in the cage. (If your pet is free-roaming, consider placing litterboxes in several locations around your home.) The litterbox should be big enough for him to sit in, since many rabbits like to relax in their litterboxes. A number of litters on the market can cause serious health problems for 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 his habitat, he'll need to be let out several hours each 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 him as well.

Free-roaming rabbits need a bunny-friendly environment — If you plan to allow your rabbit free access to either your entire home or an area of the house (which I recommend), it's really important to ensure everything in her 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 into 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.

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The right nutrition for your rabbit

Rabbits really like to eat, and the quality of your bunny's diet will play a huge role in his health over his lifetime. An improper diet can cause a number of serious diseases in rabbits, including a condition known as gastrointestinal (GI) stasis, in which the digestive process slows down or stops in the stomach and intestines.

"Rabbits are vegetarians, herbivores and lovers of fiber," veterinarian Dr. J. Jill Heatley, an associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, told online newspaper The Eagle. "As such, their gastrointestinal tract should always be moving."1

GI stasis in rabbits can be caused by several things, but it's most commonly the result of a lack of dietary fiber, poor dental health, insufficient exercise, toxins or antibiotics. It can also be the result of an imbalance in the gut microbiome that results in gas, pain and fever.

Signs of GI stasis in your bunny include a hunched posture due to pain, a decrease in activity or appetite, small dark droppings and sometimes, drooling. If you see one or more of these symptoms, make an appointment with a veterinarian who treats rabbits right away. As with any condition, the sooner a pet is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances for a full recovery.

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce the risk of GI stasis in your rabbit, starting with the diet you feed. As with any pet, it's very important to offer your bunny a species-appropriate diet, since 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."

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