Rabbits & Rabbit Care

Rabbits can make fantastic pets.  New rabbit owners are often surprised at how clever rabbits can be.  They can be toilet trained, taught to walk on a lead and play games. Their cheeky antics can be very amusing and enjoyable to watch.

 

There are many different breeds of rabbits, and they tend to have unique personality and behaviour traits. Before you choose a rabbit do some research into different breeds so that you can work out which would fit best into your lifestyle.  Larger breeds need more space and long haired breeds require a lot of grooming. You can talk to your local vet, a reputable rabbit breederrabbit club, and learn about different rabbit breeds.  This article Are rabbits good pets? is a great reminder about not buying rabitts on impulse, at easter time and to 'teach children responsibility'.

 

It is a common misconception that rabbits are an easy or low maintenance pet. To stay happy and healthy they require a high standard of care, good quality housing, and good environmental enrichment.  Maybe most importantly, most rabbits are very social animals – it is unnatural and cruel to leave them alone for long periods of time.

 

Taking on a pet rabbit is a serious commitment:

A common misconception is that rabbits only live for a few years and therefore can be an acceptable pet where time commitment to a companion animal is limited. This idea stems for the historically poor conditions that pet rabbits were, and often still are, kept in, leading to premature death. Rabbits can actually live between 8-13 years when well looked after [1 p.17] - just as long as cats and dogs! 

 

Several options are available if time commitment is an issue, such as adopting an older rabbit or fostering rabbits from rescue shelters. Both options include the experience of owning a pet rabbit, with the added bonus of providing a home to an animal in need. Furthermore, you will also be able to pick the nature of your rabbit, as rabbits can range from placid to energetic, and cuddly to bossy. A rabbit’s nature does not usually settle down until after a year old, with desexing a major contributor to behaviour. [1 p.54]

 

See our list of rabbit breeders, and other services for rabbits here - vets, rabbit boarding, rabbit food etc...

 

Housing your pet rabbit - your house bunny, rabbit hutches & cages.

Rabbits can make fantastic pets but they live the longest when housed indoors. This keeps them safe from predators, diseases, and the weather. [2]  In Australia, there are two main diseases that are released to cull wild rabbit populations. For one disease (Calicivirus) a vaccine is available that provides some protection, [3] however it is believed the virus may rapidly mutate and therefore can still kill vaccinated rabbits. No vaccine is available in Australia for the second disease (myxoma virus) despite consistent petitioning to bring it in [2]. These diseases are mainly spread by flies, mosquitoes, fleas and direct contact. [1 p.109]

Rabbits cope poorly in hot weather and are highly susceptible to heat stress. In the wild, rabbits build deep burrows where they hide to stay cool but pet rabbits kept in hutches or cages outdoors (or even indoors with no air conditioning) cannot cool down and will easily die of heatstroke. [2] 

Rabbits should not be kept in cages and hutches as they require room to run and jump to stay healthy, both mentally and physically. The ideal home for a pet rabbit is indoors, in a room or free roam of the house. [2] It is acceptable to keep them in a large hutch or large playpen when the owners aren’t home or at night during sleep, but it is still important that they are still given the opportunity to come out to play or ensure that the sectioned off area is large enough to keep them from being bored. This area should also be close where family members spend much of their time as it also provides with important social stimulation. Strong indicators that their area is not big enough for them include attempting to escape their enclosure, chewing on the enclosure or exhibition of aggressive or depressed behaviour. For a full list of indicative behaviours commonly seen in rabbits, refer to the “Behaviour” section of “Guidelines on Keeping Pet Rabbits” by the Victorian Government. [2]

One common complaint from first time rabbit owners is that their rabbit chews up everything. This can happen despite giving them more than enough chew toys. Some rabbits just love to chew, especially on things that they shouldn’t, such as the furniture and power cables. Rabbit-proofing your home, or at least the rooms that the rabbit will be allowed in, is a very important investment. Block off areas to prevent access, such as behind the TV cabinet, and use cable protectors (very cheap from hardware stores) on any cables that run along or near the floor. Not only would fixing or replacing appliances cost a significant amount of money but cable chewing is dangerous for the rabbit. Most indoor plants are also toxic to rabbits so ensure they are out of reach. [1 p.179-184] Even a few bites into the leaf of a fiddle leaf fig plant can cause death. 
 

Rabbit Behaviour:

Rabbits are prey animals and therefore are usually not cuddly and do not like being carried around. This is because when they are picked up, they feel they lose their ability to escape a predator. [1 p.40] There are exceptions, of course, and as a rabbit learns to trust it’s owner it will tolerate being handled to some degree and with most being happy to sit on their owner’s lap. They certainly love to be petted and enjoy running around the house. Rabbits also love to dig and chew, so it is important to have plenty of chew toys available. Rabbits are usually happy to just dig in their litter tray but some require a digging pit to keep them from making too much mess. 


In regards to litter training, rabbits typically like to urinate and defecate in the same spot so placing a litter tray in that spot is the easiest way to litter train. Stray faeces should be transferred into the litter tray as soon as possible to help concentrate the smell, which will train the rabbit faster. Typical litter used include wood shavings, hay chaff, paper pellets, and non-clumping crystal cat litter. Wood shavings and hay chaff are usually the cheapest options but are bulky to store and absolutely must be dust free to avoid causing severe respiratory problems for the rabbit. Crystal cat litter is highly absorbent and is the best at controlling odour (although there isn’t a strong odour anyway) but some rabbits like to eat it. It is unknown whether eating the crystal cat litter, which is chemically comparable to sand, will cause health issues and so should be ceased if the rabbit begins to eat it. 


Rabbits are very social animals and therefore having just one can often lead to loneliness and depression. [1 p.20] It is acceptable to start off with just one but taking care of two is not much harder than just the single bunny as they share practically everything except food. However, care must be taken when introducing rabbits to each other. Some rabbits do not get along initially and can fight, sometimes resulting in serious injury and death. Therefore never leave newly introduced rabbits alone until it is clear that they are in love with each other. Before getting a second rabbit, obtain advice regarding how to bond two rabbits together and be prepared; this includes neutering at least one of the rabbits well beforehand. 


Rabbits can also exhibit unfavourable behaviour (such as nipping and spraying urine) and it is a common misconception that they cannot be trained. Always try to get help with altering the rabbit’s behaviour before considering more drastic options.    

 

Children & rabbits

Families with children can enjoy having a house rabbit as long as they are supervised and the children are shown how to correctly handle a rabbit. A responsible adult should always supervise young children under the age of 8 when handling a rabbit. Basket handling should be used for young children - this involves a basket with a cushion or blanket for the bunny to sit on and the young child can then interact with the rabbit from inside the basket. This makes the bunny feel secure and there are less risks of the rabbit being mishandled and hurt. 

It's very imortant that parents are the primary caregiver for pets.  A rabbit or any other pet should never be used as a tool for teaching children responsibility.  Only get a pet when the entire family is ready to take on an additional companion.

 

Family pets - dogs, cats & rabbits  

Most rabbit rescues have a trialling period and a lifetime guarantee that allows you to introduce the new rabbit to your family home to see if it is the right rabbit for your family. This is a great way to determine how your existing household pets react to the newly acquainted family member. Great care must be taken when introducing household pets to new pets to ensure no one gets hurt. No predatory animal (such as dogs and cats) should be left alone with a rabbit without supervision of a responsible adult. [2] This is because of the size difference and although the cat or dog may be playing gently, this may not look or feel that way for the rabbit. The rabbit may then react unpredictably, which may provoke the predatory animal to act on instinct, potentially hurting the rabbit.

Guinea pigs - It is common to see guinea pigs and rabbits on display together in pet shops but they are not ideal companions for each other. This practice originated from a time when neutering rabbits and guinea pigs was too risky so guinea pigs and rabbits were put together to keep each other company. [4] However, rabbits carry a bacteria called Bordetella sp. which does not harm that rabbit but can cause fatal infections if transferred to a guinea pig. Furthermore, rabbits can easily hurt guinea pigs with their strong back legs. [4]

 

Rabbit Costs

Rabbits require biannual vaccination to give them a good chance at surviving the Calicivirus. [2] Even if the rabbit is kept indoors, vaccination is still recommended due to how easily Calicivirus can be contracted. It is highly recommended that the rabbit also have their general health checked as they are good at hiding health issues. [1 p.32] Make sure to go to a rabbit-savvy vet or an exotic vet if possible, as general practice vets often do not have the expertise and experience to identify rabbit specific problems. If the general practice vet does identify a problem with the rabbit, they usually refer the rabbit to the care of an exotic vet anyway so it could potentially save you money to just visit an exotic vet regularly. Vaccinations typically cost around $100 each and a health check around $80 - the price of a general consult. Some vets will do both in one consult, which usually works out much cheaper. 
 
Rabbits also should be desexed and this topic will be discussed in detail further below. The cost of desexing varies from $150 (lowest for males) to $400 (highest for females) so be sure to call around. When calling, ask how experienced the vet is with treating rabbits and do not be afraid to ask for their track record. Small animals like rabbits are very sensitive, especially to general anaesthesia, [1 p.110] and therefore do carry a risk of passing away on the operation table. Again, an exotic vet is recommended, as they typically have the best chance of success with fewer postoperative complications. This does not mean general practice vets cannot be a great choice - do your research into the vets in your local area.
 
If a rabbit does experience a health problem, treatment can be as expensive or more expensive than the corresponding treatment in a cat or dog. The reason being that when serious problems arise, an exotic vet is required as they have the tools and expertise and this is typically going to be more expensive. Therefore financial situations should be considered before commiting to a rabbit, just the same as should be done for any other animal. 
 
Some costs can be avoided by simply adopting a rabbit from a rescue shelter. All rabbits at shelters in Australia should be desexed once they are old enough (typically 3-4 months for males and 5-6 months for females). Potential adopters should also ask to inspect the rabbit to ensure that it is healthy to avoid any unexpected vet costs, or request a vet letter regarding the rabbit’s recent health.  
 
Finally, rabbits should also have an appropriate anti-flea and anti-mite treatment applied monthly, especially if they are taken outdoors for play. 
 

Desexing rabbits - the benefits 

Neutering, although costly and slightly risky, provides many benefits for the owner and the rabbit. Undesexed rabbits exhibit several troublesome behaviours such as spraying urine and leaving faeces everywhere (to mark territory), occasional aggression, phantom pregnancies, and humping (including other animals and even the owners). [1 p.145] These not only annoy the human but often also affect the overall mood of the rabbit, sometimes even frustrating them. Of course, real pregnancies can also occur when undesexed rabbits are put together. It is notoriously difficult to determine the gender of a young rabbit, which is typically the age of young rabbits found in pet stores, so it is never recommended to put undesexed young rabbits together despite what gender the pet store, breeder, or rescue think the rabbit is. [1 p.64] Furthermore, as young rabbits mature they become increasingly territorial and two rabbits of the same gender (even desexed pairs), which were getting along fine, may suddenly being to attack each other. [1 p.144-145]
 
Undesexed rabbits also have a significantly higher risk of developing cancer in their reproductive organs, especially for females. Therefore, desexing results in a happier and healthier rabbit. 
 
Finally, rabbits breed rapidly and can sometimes produce large litters of more than a dozen offspring. It is very difficult to find homes for so many rabbits at once and results in a significant burden on rescues. This is especially because the young rabbits will need to be cared for separately once they reach about 3 months old, to avoid further pregnancies as they may be too young to be desexed safely. 
 

Rabbit Nutrition - What do rabbits eat?

A rabbit’s diet should be about 85-90% hay, dried grass, or fresh grass and fresh water should always be available for them. Leafy greens provide additional necessary nutrients and should be given in small amounts daily. [1 p.117-121] Providing a variety of greens will also entertain them. Fruits and some vegetables should only be given as treats and many are not suitable at all for rabbits, therefore it is very important to check each fruit or vegetable before feeding - some can even be toxic. A daily supplement of high quality pellets should also be given to provide them with vitamins and minerals. Follow the recommended feeding amount as over feeding pellets, even high quality varieties, will cause rapid weight gain and obesity. Hay can be kept for long periods of time when stored in a cool, dry place. If in doubt, check for mould.   


Dangers for rabbits - predators, plants that are toxic to rabbits & other hazards

Protection from foxes, prey birds, stray cats, and harassment from other animals should be provided. Your rabbit’s living and exploring areas should be free from rodents and wild rabbits who can carry transmittable diseases and add stress to your pet rabbit. [2] Your home should be insect proofed and maintained as to further decrease the risk of transmittable diseases. Cable protectors should be used to cover all exposed cables that cannot be secured high enough off the ground, to prevent your rabbit chewing them and potentially being shocked which can be fatal. [2] All indoor plants are poisonous to rabbits and should be placed out of reach and regularly maintained to avoid withered leaves being left on the floor. [1 p.181] Growing or climbing stems should be placed against a stake with a plant tie. When taken outside for play, outdoor pots and garden beds with flowers/plants that are toxic to rabbits should be placed out of reach.

 

Rabbit Diseases

Rabbits can suffer from a variety of naturally occurring diseases but, unfortunately, they are also at great risk of diseases deliberately released by the Australian government. 
 
The two diseases released by the Australian government on a regular basis are the Calicivirus [3] and the Myxoma virus [5]. Both are released to cull the wild rabbit population which threaten agriculture but as a result, will almost certainly kill any pet rabbit that contracts this disease. Both diseases can be spread by parasitic insects which feast on a dead or dying rabbit’s tissue or blood, the most common examples being fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. [3,5] A vaccination for the Calicivirus is available and significantly increases the chance a normally healthy rabbit will be able to fight off the infection. However, the vaccination may become less protective if the virus mutates in the wild after being released or if a new strain of the virus is released by the government. A vaccination is available for the Myxoma virus in other countries but it is not allowed into Australia despite constant petitioning. [2] The best way to prevent companion rabbits from being killed by these viruses is providing them an indoor home as free from insects as possible, regular application of anti-flea treatment, and regular vaccination (at least annually, some vets recommend biannually). 
 

Transporting your rabbit - rabbit cages & carriers

A secure animal carrier should be used when transporting your rabbit in a car or other form of transport. It is not recommended to be holding your rabbit in the car or be using an item without a secure top (cardboard boxes for example) as they rabbit may escape and become a dangerous distraction. The backseat is the safest place to put your carrier, with the seatbelt restraining the carrier. An appropriate transport carrier means that it is of suitable size to allow the rabbit to turn around or lay down. It must have good ventilation and allow the rabbit to be taken in and out of the carrier with ease. [2] During transit, your rabbit should be shaded from direct sunlight. Transporting a rabbit without food or water for more than a period of 24 hours is not acceptable. Regular offerings of food and water during your rabbits transport should be done when the vehicle is not moving and, if possible, a small tray of water should be placed inside the carrier at all times. Transporting during hot weather without air conditioning in the car should be avoided and you should never leave an animal unattended in a vehicle, even if the windows are down. 
 

Care for your rabbit when you're going away:

As with any pet, someone will need to look after your rabbits when you go away. The problem typically faced by rabbit owners are, firstly, that their friends and family are not able to recognise when the rabbit is unwell and, secondly, good rabbit boarding facilities are few and far between. 
 
Although friends and family can usually be trusted to feed and water your pet, rabbits are notoriously good at hiding signs that they are unwell. This is especially true when they feel stressed, which can happen simply because they do not recognise the person who is now looking after them. Sometimes the only sign the rabbit is unwell is that they are quieter than usual. Therefore, someone who is not familiar with your rabbit will often miss this very subtle sign that something is wrong. In preparation for going away, the rabbit should be made familiar with the person who will be looking after them. Rabbits identify very well by scent and sound so encourage this person to hold your rabbit. One trick to help identify when the rabbit is unwell is to take advantage of its favourite treat. Advise the carer to gauge the rabbit’s response to the treat. If the rabbit does not respond to being hand fed the treat, advise the carer to leave it on the ground and watch from around the corner. Disinterest in what would normally excite your rabbit is a clear sign that something could be wrong and further investigations are warranted, perhaps even an immediate vet visit.  
 
Rabbit boarding services are the other option for looking after your rabbit while you are away. However, there are few boarding services that will even take on a rabbit, let alone know how to properly care for one. Research boarding services well in advance as they can be costly too. Ask the service provider questions to determine whether they really know how to look after a rabbit and never board at a place where you are not allowed to inspect the facility. Rabbits stress easily when in an unfamiliar environment so it is important that they will be kept comfortable, with enough room to move around and be provided plenty of stimulation during their stay. It is a health hazard to your rabbit if they are kept in a cage or hutch the entire time you are away, particularly if they are normally used to free roaming a room or house. 
 
 
 
Thanks to Four Cotton Tails Rabbit Boarding and Boutique for this comprensive guide to rabbits and rabbit care. 
 
References:
1. Buseth ME, Saunders R. Rabbit behaviour, health and care. Oxfordshire: UK; 2015. 
2. The State of Victoria. Guidelines on Keeping Pet Rabbits [Internet]. Victorian Government. 2017 [Updated 2017 May 11; cited 2018 March 22]. 
3. The State of Victoria. Calicivirus in Pet Rabbits [Internet]. Victorian Government. 2017 [Updated 2017 May 11; cited 2018 March 22]. 
4. RSPCA. Keeping rabbits and guinea pigs together [Internet]. RSPCA. n.d. [Cited 2018 March 26]. 
5. The State of Victoria. Myxomatosis in Pet Rabbits [Internet]. Victorian Government. 2017 [Updated 2017 May 11; cited 2018 March 26].