Rabbits make wonderful quiet indoor companions! Pet rabbits are playful and loving social animals, can be litter box trained, coexist happily with non-aggressive dog and cats, live 10 years or longer, and provide affection and lots of laughs with their silly antics and curious nature. Rabbits enjoy being close to family activities — this allows them to develop their full personality potential, and become a cherished part of the family. Spaying or neutering makes pet rabbits healthier, happier, and more social. They also thrive best with daily exercise, affection, and companionship.
Rabbits should have plenty of room in their cage for a litter box, food bowl, water source (bowl or bottle), and toys. Some rabbits also like to have blankets or towels to bunch up and lay on. There should be enough room for the rabbit to ‘flop-out’ for a nap, sit upright without crouching, and periscope up to see what is going on somewhere else. Ramps or shelves in their living area can provide hours of entertainment. Rabbits need somewhere to eat, sleep, hide, use the litter box, plus room to hop, run, play, jump, and dig.
To provide enough space for all this, the minimum recommended size for the cage, is 12 square feet (6 feet x 2 feet) and an addition of a larger area 32 square feet for exercise. This is just the minimum though — try to give your rabbit as much space as you can. The bottom of the cage should be plastic or metal, not wire. Severe foot and hock problems can develop with wire cage bottoms. Provide a box inside the cage as a “house”.
Keep the cage clean by lining bottom of the cage with thick layers of newspaper, and change it once or twice a day. Heavy ceramic bowls should be provided for food and water because they may chew on plastic bowls and dump them over. If using a water bottle it should be cleaned daily and checked for clogs due to bacteria build up that occurs. Rabbits can usually be trained to use a litter box. If your rabbit has already selected a corner for elimination, place the litter box in this location. It sometimes helps to place some of the rabbit’s fecal pellets inside to encourage its use. Appropriate material for the litter box is shredded newspaper or recycled newspaper pellets. Use a simple, paper-based, recyclable litter to provide your pet rabbit with a safe litter that’s also environmentally friendly. Never use wood shavings, clay cat litter, corncob, or walnut shells.
Many people do not like to keep their rabbits inside a cage, so their rabbits live in an X-pen environment, with everything inside the pen that would normally be in a cage. An excellent set-up is to have a cage as “home-base” surrounded by a rabbit exercise pen for a place to roam. These pens can be taken apart and moved to make the pen area any size or shape desired. A height of at least 3 feet is required for most rabbits, and some larger breeds may require 4 foot high pens. The pen will keep the rabbit out of trouble from chewing on electrical cords or furniture, and can be assembled wherever you want to contain your rabbit. Purchase a solid piece of material to cover the floor of the pen to protect your carpet and to make it easy to clean up “accidents”.
If you are going to let your rabbit roam around the house, do so only under supervision, and be sure to “rabbit-proof” your house first! Rabbits love to chew electrical wires, telephone wires, TV antenna wires, etc. These wires can be covered by a plastic tubing available at most hardware stores. This tubing goes by several different names including Polycon tubing, plumber’s tubing, and vacuum tubing. It’s made in various sizes, thicknesses, and types of plastic (some are hard while others are soft and easily bendable). Use a utility knife to cut the tubing lengthwise and insert the wires inside.
Eliminate any areas your pet can get trapped or escape from, carpeting which rabbits like to dig up, and any toxic materials such as rodent poisons or plants that your rabbit could get into.
Provide a shaded area for your rabbit when it is outside to prevent heatstroke. All rabbits are sensitive to high environmental temperatures. Temperatures above 82 degrees F or below 50 degrees F can cause serious problems. Rabbits tend to be anxious and can be easily frightened so provide a hiding spot to prevent injuries caused when they are startled.
Rabbits are intelligent — they are curious and love to chew and explore. Prevent boredom by providing lots of safe things for chewing and exploring. A rabbit’s curious nature is fun for owners to watch, and it’s also a way for your rabbit to get mental and physical stimulation, and provide necessary tooth wearing.
What Should I Feed My Rabbit?
Fresh cold water should always be available and should be changed daily. Good quality grass Timothy hay must be available at all times 24/7. Rabbits should live indoors, and have at least 4 hours of quality running/playing time per day. This, along with a proper diet, will help keep your rabbit happy, healthy, and affectionate for a lifetime. Organize your rabbit’s food and hay with a food bin.
Here are the most important items that you should include in your rabbit’s diet:
The majority of a rabbit’s diet should be hay. Free feeding of unlimited quantities (24/7) of good quality Timothy hay is very important for your rabbit’s health. It contains necessary nutrients and roughage to help control hairballs. Alfalfa hay may be given to baby rabbits up to 7 months of age, because it provides the high caloric content necessary for their development, then gradually switch over to Timothy hay. A rabbit fed only commercial rabbit pellets does not get enough long fiber to keep the intestines in good working order. The long fibers in the hay push things through the gut and keep the intestinal muscles in good tone. In addition to keeping the intestinal contents moving at the rate at which nature intended, hay may also help prevent intestinal impactions caused by ingested hair or other indigestible items.
A small bowl of high quality pellets should also be fed daily. However, very little pelleted food is required for good health. Many experienced rabbit veterinarians are now recommending no more than 1/8 cup of quality pellets for every 4 – 5 pounds rabbit per day, and some even consider commercial pellets a treat that can promote obesity in spayed/neutered adult rabbits. A rabbit fed too many pellets will sometimes ignore hay, to the detriment of the intestinal system.
Never purchase more than an 8 week supply of pellets at a time because it may spoil and cause the rabbit to stop eating. If a change in pellets is necessary, gradually change to another by mixing them together until the old food is finished. A good quality rabbit pellet does not have dried fruit, seeds, nuts, or colored crunchy things. A good quality rabbit pellet should have at least 22% crude fiber, no more than approximately 14% protein, about 1% fat and about 1.0% calcium. Check the label on the rabbit pellets before you buy.
Baby rabbits may be fed unlimited pellets, because their bones and muscles need plenty of protein and calcium for proper growth. But, for a healthy adult rabbit, the calories and nutrients of commercial pellets is too much, and will not only promote obesity, but discourage the rabbit from consuming enough hay to ensure good intestinal health.
Gradually taper the quantity of pellets after your rabbit is about 8 – 12 months old. If your rabbit won’t eat hay, and the problem is not a medical problem — molar spurs and other dental problems can be the reason for picky eating — then it may be that the rabbit is eating too many pellets and isn’t hungry. Hay is vital for rabbit health. Cut back on the pellets until you are sure your rabbit is eating enough hay.
It is important to feed your rabbit a daily variety of fresh vegetables to help balance out the nutritional needs in his diet. Feed 2 – 4 cups of fresh vegetables for each 5 pounds of ideal body weight. All vegetables should be fresh, washed, and organic whenever possible. Wash with clean fresh water thoroughly to remove pesticide and fertilizer residues as much as possible. Even organic produce should be washed well to remove potentially harmful bacteria, such as E. coli. To make sure your rabbit gets the necessary nutrients offer at least 3 different vegetables daily, and make sure 1 or more contain Vitamin A. Remove any uneaten food after about 30 minutes to stop it wilting and producing bacteria which could be harmful to your rabbit.
Before serving to your rabbit, all fresh foods regardless of the source should be fresh, washed, and organic whenever possible. Scrub hard vegetables. When feeding your rabbit, remember this rule: “Don’t Feed it to Your Rabbit if You Wouldn’t Eat it.”
Add 1 new vegetable to the diet at a time. Eliminate if it causes soft stools or diarrhea. Rabbits love fresh, fragrant herbs from the garden. Serve the vegetables wet, as this will help increase your rabbit’s intake of liquid. This helps keep the intestinal contents moving well, and your rabbit healthy. Baby rabbits may start eating greens very gradually at the age of about 2 months. Add 1 new item at a time, in very small amounts, and if you see no intestinal upset, add another. Carrots, romaine lettuce, and kale are good starter vegetables.
Fruit is a treat, and should be fed in very limited quantities (no more than 2 tablespoons a day for a 5 pound rabbit), if at all. Safe choices are apple, apricot, banana, cherries, mango, peach, plum, papaya, pineapple, apricot, berries….just about any fruit you would like is okay for your rabbit. Be careful not to overdo these treat foods, as they may promote cecal dysbiosis, other intestinal problems, and create a desire to eat treats instead of normal, healthy foods.
Rabbits love treats, but they should not be given too often. Do not feed store bought treats! Never give chocolate as it is toxic to rabbits. Do not feed your rabbit items high in carbohydrates like breads, chips, crackers, pasta, pretzels, cookies, or cereal. Although branded for rabbits, many commercially sold rabbit treats are high in fat and sugar and should not be given. Fruit is the best option for a treat, but again you should give it only in small amounts because of the sugar content.
Rabbits need a constant supply of cool fresh water. They can drink from a heavy ceramic bowl or water bottle. Water bottles will keep water cleaner than a bowl because it keeps hay and other debris out. Be sure your rabbit is drinking daily.
- Bunny 500 is running through the house at top speed, alone, chasing you, or another rabbit just for the fun of it.
- Binky/Happy bunny dance: a jump straight up with a mid-air half turn and a twist usually executed in mid-run. A sign of pure joy and happiness. This “dancing” includes leaping and/or spinning in the air, and racing around.
- Chinning: Rabbits rub their chins (which contain scent glands) on items to get their scent on them. This indicates that the items belong to them and also defines their territory.
- Thumping or Stomping: Your rabbit is either frightened, mad, or sensing danger (real or imagined). Reassure your rabbit that everything is ok.
- Teeth grinding: Soft grinding indicates contentment and is usually heard when petting your rabbit. Loud grinding can indicate pain and is usually heard during an illness.
- Circling your feet usually indicates sexual behavior (even when neutered) but basically means “I love you”.
- Playing: Rabbits like to push or toss objects around. They may also race madly around the house, jump on and off the couch, and act silly!
- Grunts can express anger — watch out or you could be bitten!
- Spraying: Unneutered males will mark female rabbits and their territory in this manner. Unspayed females can also spray.
- Territorial droppings: Droppings that are not in a pile, but scattered, are signs that this territory belongs to the rabbit. This will sometimes occur upon entering a new environment, or if another rabbit is brought into the house. Territorial droppings may be temporary or ongoing. Droppings in piles indicates that the rabbit needs more litter box training.
- Don’t touch my stuff!: Some rabbits do not like when you rearrange their cage as you clean, and may grunt, charge, or even nip you when you try. They are creatures of habit and once they get things just right, they like them to remain that way.
- Shrill scream can mean your rabbit is hurt or dying.
- False pregnancy: Even though a rabbit may not be pregnant, unspayed females may sometimes build a nest and pull hair from their chest and stomach to line the nest. They may even stop eating which usually occurs the day before they give birth.
The process of introducing 2 rabbits together is called bonding. Rabbits are very social and in their natural environment live in large groups. If you decide to get another rabbit as a companion, make sure all rabbits in the household have been spayed or neutered, as this greatly reduces hormonal and territorial aggression in both males and females. The easiest and most natural pairing of 2 rabbits is a neutered male and a spayed female. Always make sure they get along before leaving them together unsupervised or caging them together.
Start off by placing each rabbit in adjoining cages so they will get used to each other’s sight and smell.
Introduce the rabbits slowly in neutral territory for short 20 minute sessions in a new pen, the kitchen floor, or the bathroom. There must be enough room for them to get away from each other. Also provide a cardboard box with a hole in either end that a stressed rabbit can retreat into or jump on top of.
Rabbits may spend as much as a couple of hours pretending they don’t see each other. Or they may immediately attack each other. Or they may touch noses, and suddenly be “in love.” The most common reaction is for them to spend some time avoiding each other. Don’t force them to be together! If you have the time to remain with them, and they are getting along well, you can allow the rabbits to remain together for several hours. If you can’t stay that long, let them be together for at least 20 minutes (assuming there are no actual fights), and repeat the introduction again later.
If you see the rabbits laying next to each other throughout the day, they probably can be caged together safely. Provide a large cage with multiple separate areas so they can escape from each other if needed. Some rabbits may play well together and even like each other, but never get along well enough to be caged together, needing their own space to sleep and eat. But, most often, if you take the time to properly introduce your rabbits, they can easily become lifelong friends who are inseparable.
Toys are important for rabbits because they prevent boredom and provide mental stimulation, and physical exercise. Try these:
- cardboard boxes for crawling inside, scratching, and chewing — with at least 2 entry points into the boxes
- cardboard roll from paper towels or toilet paper stuffed with Timothy hay.
- untreated wicker baskets or boxes with shredded paper, junk mail, magazines, straw, or other organic materials for digging
- grass play balls
- cat toys that roll or can be tossed
- parrot toys that can be tossed, or hung from the top of the cage and chewed or hit
- Igloo Hideout
- nudge and roll toys like large rubber balls, empty Quaker Oat boxes and small tins
- chew toys
- hiding, chewing, jumping toys
- pine cones
- jungle gym type toys
- hand towel for bunching
- untreated wood, twigs, and logs that have been aged for at least 3 months — apple tree branches can be eaten fresh off the tree, but no cherry, peach, apricot, plum, or redwood which are all poisonous
- natural grass mats
- boxes to jump up on (they like to be in high places)
How to Approach a Rabbit
A big object quickly coming at a rabbit can be quite scary! Move slowly, make yourself seem small, and wait for your rabbit to come to you instead of the other way around.
The safest way to approach pet rabbits is open the cage door, sit down on the floor (or get even smaller and lay down) and your curious rabbit will approach you. If he stomps his foot, runs, hides in the corner, or freezes in place it means he thinks the situation is dangerous. Just hang out near him until he relaxes before approaching closer. Set a treat such as a small piece of apple, melon, carrot, or pear on the ground near you instead of holding it out to him. He’ll be more likely to approach and won’t accidentally nibble your hand while trying to get the treat. Wait until he is either done or nearly done eating the treat before petting him, and make sure your rabbit notices your hand approaching so that he isn’t startled.
After he is quiet and settled down, slowly and lightly stroke the top of the head. Most rabbits do not like having the tips of their noses, ears, chins, stomachs, or feet touched, so avoid those areas until you and your rabbit are well acquainted.
Rabbits’ eyes are located on the side of their heads, so they cannot see well right in front of them. Your rabbit will tilt its head to the side when trying to see something directly in front. Do not offer your hand for a rabbit to sniff the way you would for a dog. Many rabbits seem to find this gesture of hand sniffing offensive and may attack. Since rabbits don’t vocalize like dogs and cats, their attack is a lightening fast lunge with a snort (grunt), sometimes accompanied by flailing paws.
Rabbits have very fragile spines. When picking up your rabbit, place 1 hand under the rib cage and the other hand under its rear, scooping up the back legs, making it impossible for your rabbit to kick. Improper handling can cause serious injuries, such as fractures and dislocations of the back. When a rabbit becomes frightened it may struggle and kick its back legs, causing these injuries. If your rabbit struggles while you are attempting to hold or pick him up, and you feel you are losing control, IMMEDIATELY kneel to the floor and release the rabbit right away! Never pick a rabbit up by its ears. If you are worried about being scratched place a towel over your rabbits back and wrap it around the body. Another method involves sliding a hand under its breastbone and grasping both front legs between the fingers of this hand. Gently work the other hand under the hindquarters to fully support your rabbit.
It is normal for rabbits to eat their “soft” stools, also called cecotropes, or night droppings during the night or early morning. These special stools are rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Rabbits must obtain nutrients this way. The droppings are not made up of waste materials. They are rich in organisms that have come from the area of the intestinal tract called the cecum. These organisms are packed with nutrients such as amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), fatty acids, and a variety of vitamins. In order for the rabbit to get these nutrients, the cecotropes must be eaten and digested. In this way, rabbits can extract the maximum nutrients from low-energy food materials. They literally produce some of their own food! Healthy rabbits will eat their cecotropes directly from the anus and you will not see these droppings in the cage.
Rabbits are very clean animals and will continually groom themselves several times a day. Brushing your rabbit’s coat reduces the amount of loose fur and will help prevent hairball impactions. Do not brush too aggressively and use a soft bristle brush. Rabbit skin is delicate and can tear, and do not brush fur in the wrong direction. Brushing your rabbit regularly helps prevent mats from forming and trapping moisture near the skin, which can lead to skin infections. In most cases, you do not need to worry about your rabbit getting “hairballs”, as this is really not a condition caused by accumulation of hair at all, but rather GI stasis due to a poor, low fiber diet. If your rabbit is on a good diet of hay and fresh greens with minimal pellets, then ingestion of fur during normal grooming will not cause a problem. Use a rubber bristle brush to help remove more fur. Use a narrow toothed flea comb to comb your rabbits fur.
Cleaning dirty areas with an application of baby cornstarch and then gently combing out the dirt with a fine flea comb is better than a wet bath. You can also use unscented baby wipes.
Bathing a rabbit can make it become quite upset, even causing it to go into shock, and rabbit fur takes a long time to get wet, and an even longer time to get dry. Spot bathing extremely dirty areas (feet, tail, etc.) is best. Sometimes bathing is necessary. In these cases, do it in a small sink in warm water. Never immerse the entire body of your rabbit in water (water level should never be higher than belly level). Have your rabbit stand on its hind feet while you support the upper body from the front. Slowly let your rabbit put all 4 paws into water. Use a cup to soak and rinse body. Rinse thoroughly and slowly, from behind the head, down towards the tail with warm water. A wet rabbit can quickly become hypothermic (a dangerous drop in body temperature), so gently dry your rabbit thoroughly with a towel, and allow it plenty of time to rest in a cage or housing area that is warm and dry. Do not use a hair dryer!
Like dogs and cats, rabbits need their toenails trimmed. Generally, the easiest way to do this is the bunny burrito (wrap them in a towel to hold them) and clip using cat clippers. Press gently on the foot pads to expose the nail and be very careful to avoid clipping the sensitive quick (the living portion of the nail that contains blood and nerves). It’s probably a wise idea to have some styptic powder handy such as Kwik Stop within reach to stop bleeding should you cut into the quick. Darker nails make spotting the quick very difficult.
If you are still uncertain about doing this yourself, your veterinarian will clip nails for you during a routine visit. However, don’t wait for a veterinarian visit, a rabbit’s nails should be checked every week and clipped every 6 – 8 weeks.
Rabbit teeth are similar to horse teeth and they grow continuously throughout their lives. Your rabbit should visit your veterinarian at least once a year to make sure the teeth are healthy and in good condition. Your veterinarian will check his teeth, and trim them if necessary using special dental tools. Between checkups, watch closely for signs of abscesses or tooth pain. These include drooling, rubbing his face with his paws, swelling along the sides of the face, and foul-smelling, or bloody discharge from the mouth. It is important for a rabbit’s teeth to match up perfectly so that the continuously growing teeth wear down. Malocclusion (improperly aligned teeth) usually results in overgrown teeth. Initial signs of this disorder include failure to properly chew and swallow food, salivation, and a wet dewlap. Lack of appetite and weight loss soon become noticeable. Death from starvation can occur if the problem goes untreated. Treatment consists of periodic trimming of the teeth.
Try to make ear cleaning a gentle and non-forceful experience for your rabbit. Keeping your rabbit comfortable will make the process of cleaning easier and make the overall experience more pleasurable for you and your rabbit. Check inside each ear for wax or dirt build-up. If there is, you can gently clean this out with baby wipes or alcohol insert a cotton swab into the outer part of your rabbit’s ear. Some people lightly wet the cotton part of the swab to reduce fuzz. Press the cotton swab gently against the inside of the ear underneath a wax buildup. Scoop under the wax buildup gently with the tip of the swab in a rolling motion. Drag the buildup outwards until it is free of the ear. Repeat as necessary.
- While you are cleaning your rabbit’s ears, check for any unusual buildup, redness or discharge. Consult your veterinarian if your rabbit’s ears look sore, scaly, or have any black discharge. This may be a sign of mites or other type of infection.
- Be careful not to push any wax deeper into the ear as this can lodge it inside and cause damage to the sensitive inner part of the ear.
- Do not touch or enter the ear canal or any areas that are not immediately visible.
- Rabbit’s ears contain a fragile blood vessel system with many veins running through — do not pinch or scratch the veins.
- Do not pour water or anything else directly into your rabbit’s ears — ask your veterinarian about cleaning solutions and how to use them.
If ears do not appear clean, see a veterinarian. Rabbits regulate body temperature by their ears. Very cold or hot ears could indicate a fever or a drop in body temperature. This, along with other warning signs, indicates the veterinarian should see your rabbit.
Healthy eyes in rabbits should always be clean and bright. They should not weep any discharge, there should not be any dust or debris on or around its surface, or be cloudy in appearance. There should be no visible cuts or abrasions on the eye and neither should there be an inflammation or redness. Each eye of the rabbit has a tear duct and this is responsible for maintaining the correct lubricating conditions it requires. In addition to keeping the eye moist, the rabbit has a third eyelid which also provides the eye with protection. If the rabbit’s eye is swollen and red, with discharge at the corners, take it to the veterinarian for an examination. Reducing the amount of dust in the animal’s living area is very important. Keeping the bedding and all areas clean plays an important role in maintaining the health of rabbits, and this is also true for keeping their eyes in good condition.
Male and female rabbits have scent glands, both under their chin and around their anus. You can usually tell if your rabbit has scent gland build-up as they often have an unpleasant odor. To clean the glands, dip a Q-tip into warm water and hold your rabbit in a safe hold that gives you access to the genitals. Locate the 2 slits on either side of the rabbit’s genitals. Take the Q-tip and carefully swab away the brown buildup.
When male rabbits are between 3 and 5 months old, they are old enough to be neutered. Female rabbits are generally old enough to be spayed between 4 and 6 months; this is when they first reach sexual maturity. When rabbits have reached middle age (5 – 6 years old) they can be considered too old to be altered. Altered rabbits are healthier and live longer than unaltered rabbits, as the risk of cancer and urinary tract infections are greatly reduced. The risk of reproductive cancers for an unspayed female rabbit is more than 80%, and is virtually eliminated by spaying. A rabbit that is spayed/neutered becomes calmer and easier to manage.
Spayed and neutered pet rabbits are easier to bond, and an altered female and male rabbit will not end up with a litter of baby bunnies! Altered rabbits make better companions. Rabbits are calmer, more loving, and dependable once the urge to mate has been removed. In addition, rabbits are less prone to destructive (chewing, digging) and aggressive (biting, lunging, circling, growling) behavior after neutering. Also, neutering makes males and females much easier to litter train.
Pasteurella multocida: This is a major respiratory pathogen in rabbits. It is transmitted through direct contact and often stress induced. Clinical signs are upper respiratory disease (nasal discharge, conjunctivitis), lower respiratory disease (pneumonia), chronic skin abscesses, vaginal discharge, and wryneck. It is treatable with antibiotics, but not curable.
Ringworm: A fungal skin disease in rabbits. It is transmitted easily by direct contact with fungal spores on hair coat, bedding, and soil. Most commonly it affects young rabbits, usually causing multiple areas of hair loss with slightly reddened skin. Theses areas are often covered with a slight crust. Ringworm can be transmitted to people, so caution should be used when handling an infected animal.
Ear Mites: Infestations of ear mites can cause accumulation of a light brown crusty material that nearly fills the external ear canal. The ear tissue gets very raw and irritated.
Cheyletiella Mange: A parasitic infection of the skin indicated by an accumulation of dried scale and dandruff within the fur and limited hair loss, sometimes in clumps.
Coccidiosis: Caused by a protozoan parasite and affects the liver and/or intestinal tract. Rabbits can become infected by eating food or consuming water contaminated with fecal matter from an infected rabbit. Clinical signs include anorexia, diarrhea, weight loss, soft to watery feces, mucus or blood in feces, increased thirst, and possibly death.
Hairballs (Gastrointestinal Stasis): Like cats, rabbits can develop hairballs within their stomachs. But unlike cats, rabbits cannot vomit. Rabbits ingest large amounts of shedding hair when grooming themselves. As a result, hair that is swallowed from frequent grooming passes into the stomach and remains there. Over time, the hair develops into a solid mass. This can result in a slowing down (stasis) of a rabbit’s intestinal tract. The hair sometimes can form a hairball and actually blocks the intestine, but more commonly the hair mixes with the food and slows down its passage, causing a sludging of the gastrointestinal contents. As the hairball increases in size, it begins to occupy more and more of the stomach, leaving less room for food. Rabbits become uncomfortable with the stasis and may stop eating and drinking. Hairballs can be prevented in rabbits by feeding grass hay in the diet.
Rabbit Fast Facts