Introduction to Rabbits

Before you consider adopting or buying a rabbit, you should research what rabbits are really like, and how to properly
care for them. It is essential┬áthat rabbit owners understand their rabbit’s basic needs, instincts and behaviours.

You’ve already taken a step in the right direction by visiting this web site, and our Bunny Basics for Beginners is the best place to start. In this section we debunk many myths about rabbits and discuss some of the common mistakes people make when considering a rabbit for a pet. You will also find basic care guides and information regarding rabbits and children. Being aware of misconceptions and accepting your rabbit for what he is will make you and your rabbit much happier.

Begin by learning some of some basic information about a rabbit’s needs. To read more detailed information about rabbit diet, care, behaviour and health issues be sure to visit the other areas of our web site.

Diet

Important: The following diet information is to be used as a general guideline only. Not all rabbits will tolerate the same foods. What may be suitable for one rabbit may not be suitable for another.

Rabbits have complex digestive systems that are designed to efficiently process food. Introducing new foods too quickly or offering inappropriate foods can disrupt the delicate balance of a rabbit’s intestinal flora and possibly make the rabbit ill. Rabbits should typically have a nutritious daily diet of hay, fresh vegetables and pellets. Please note that this is a generic dietary guideline for adult rabbits. Not all rabbits will tolerate, or even like, exactly the same foods. It is important to find a diet that is suitable for your rabbit.

Young rabbits (under 7 months old) should have a slightly different diet than adults. Babies under 3 weeks need mother’s milk; at 3-4 weeks, mother’s milk with small nibbles of alfalfa hay and pellets; at 4-7 weeks continue with mother’s milk and give access to alfalfa and pellets; at 7 weeks to 7 months provide unlimited pellets and alfalfa hay; at 12 weeks offer a small amount of greens. Remember to introduce new foods slowly and watch carefully how your rabbit reacts.

More information: General Diet Information

 

Hay

Hay is the most important part of an adult rabbit’s diet. It is high in fibre, which keeps the digestive tract moving, helping to prevent blockages and stasis. In addition, hay helps to sustain healthy teeth by helping to reduce the risk of molar spurs. Alfalfa has more protein and calcium than adult rabbits (over approx. 7 months old) generally need. Therefore, adult rabbits should be fed an unlimited amount of grass hay (Timothy, Brome, Orchard, etc) each day. Good hay should always smell like grass. Never feed moldy hay, because it can make a rabbit seriously ill.

More information: Hay

Suitable green vegetables

Try to offer your rabbit at least 3 different types of greens daily. A typical daily serving of vegetables would be approximately 2 cups per 6 lbs of body weight. Introduce new vegetables slowly in small quantities, while closely observing the rabbit’s droppings. Remove any vegetable that causes gas pain, soft stool or diarrhea from your rabbit’s diet immediately. Remember to wash the greens thoroughly and do not feed spoiled vegetables because they can make the rabbit seriously ill. Avoid members of the cabbage/cauliflower family because they can cause gas, and do not feed iceberg lettuce, since it has little nutritional value.

Try some of the following: Beet greens (tops only), Bok choy, Carrot tops, Cilantro, Dandelion greens (no pesticides), Endive, Kale**, Kohlrabi, Mustard greens, Parsley (curly & plain)**, Romaine, Red and Green Leaf lettuce, Spinach**, Swiss Chard (red & green), and Watercress.

*Carrot tops, dandelion greens, kale and parsley are higher in calcium than other vegetables. Excess dietary calcium, along with other factors, may lead to bladder stones in some rabbits.

**These vegetables are high in oxalates, which may cause kidney problems if ingested in large quantities or on a daily basis.

More information: Vegetables

Pellets

Pellets should be high in fibre (ideally a minimum 18%), low in protein and low in calcium. Plain pellets are a healthier choice than pellets that include seeds, nuts, corn or dried fruit, which are unnecessarily high in sugar and fat. Some rabbits over-consume pellets, which can lead to obesity and other health problems. If your rabbit has had a diet that consisted solely of pellets, introduce grass hay (Timothy, Brome or Orchard, etc), and slowly add a variety of greens, while gradually reducing pellet intake. Remember to make dietary changes slowly and to watch your rabbit closely. As you limit your rabbit’s pellet intake, make sure he is eating an increased amount of hay and greens. Do not restrict pellets too much if there is no other food source.

A daily guideline for an adult rabbit’s pellet intake is approximately 1/8 cup for 2-4 lbs. of body weight.

Older rabbits or rabbits that are thin or ill may require more pellets to help maintain their weight. Timothy based pellets are higher in fibre and lower in calcium and may be beneficial to rabbits who have stones or sludge, those who are overweight or those who suffer from intermittent soft stool.

More information: Pellets

Treats

Processed “people food” such as cookies and bread should not be fed to rabbits. Fruits and veggies with high sugar content such as bananas, apples, pineapples, raisins and carrots can be given as treats, but in very limited quantities. At most, only give 1-2 tablespoons per 5 lbs. body weight per day. Limiting treats will prevent your rabbit from developing a sweet tooth and ignoring his healthy foods.

More information: Treats

Care

Housing

There are many housing options available for house rabbits, such as traditional wire rabbit cages, metal dog crates and custom built “Neat Idea Cube” or “Creative Cube” cages. If you choose to use a cage with a wire bottom, be sure to provide a piece of cardboard, synthetic fleece cloth or newspaper so that the rabbit has a comfortable place to sit. This will help to prevent hock sores. If you use cloth as a cage liner, make sure that the rabbit isn’t chewing it and ingesting fibres. A bunny who loves to chew may chew holes in the cloth, and possibly get his head stuck in a hole and strangulate himself.

The cage needs to be big enough for the rabbit to be able to comfortably stretch out, and allow space for a litter box, food/water bowls and toys. Choose a cage with the door at the front so that you don’t have to lift the rabbit out.

Some people prefer plastic bottomed cages because they are easier to clean. This is fine, as long as the size of the cage is adequate. In a bunny-proofed home, some rabbits do not need to be caged. However, this is not recommended for new rabbit owners who are not yet entirely familiar with their rabbit’s personality. Also, keep in mind that even rabbits who live in really large cages need regular daily exercise time out of their cage.

Do not use:

  • Aquariums or other solid walled/topped cages as they do not provide enough air circulation.
  • Pens made from chickenwire: rabbits can chew the chickenwire, causing mouth injuries.
  • Dog crates/kennels for babies or small breeds. A small rabbit may get his head caught between the metal bars, possibly causing serious injury or paralysis.

(Note: When making a custom pen, be sure that the bars are close (1 to 1-1/2″) together. Also, the pen should ideally have both vertical and horizontal bars.)

More information: Housing

Bunny-proofing

Exercise is very important to your bunny’s well-being. With a little forethought and preventative steps to make your home rabbit-friendly, your rabbit can easily come out and play. First get down on your rabbit’s level and see what trouble lies in his path. Use cardboard, wood or Neat Idea Cube Panels to block access from areas that your rabbit can squeeze behind, especially refrigerators, stoves, and entertainment units, etc. The same precautions should be taken to block off access to the area underneath couches and beds where your rabbit may go to chew fabric and crawl inside. Watch that your rabbit is not ingesting dangerous materials, such as carpet fibres, styrofoam, insulation, drapes etc.

Electrical cords can pose the greatest danger and need to be concealed behind objects or in plastic tubing. There are various types of tubing that can be used for this purpose, such as the accordion type of tubing used for engine wires, aquarium tubing, or solid electrical tubing found at building supply stores. Cut the tubing lengthwise and push the cords inside. Some types of tubing are not thick and can be chewed through, but it will give you some extra time to stop the bunny from getting to the wires inside.

Also, be careful to prevent falls from furniture or tables and keep houseplants, which may be toxic, out of reach (this includes fallen leaves). Bunnies are smart and fast! You need to watch yours closely to see what dangerous objects he is interested in “playing” with.

More information: Bunny-proofing

Toys

Rabbits are playful and intelligent and can benefit from mental stimuli. Not all rabbits enjoy the same activities – some like to dig and some like to chew. Experiment to find the best toy for your bunny. Toys help curb destructive behaviour by preventing boredom.

Try any of the following toys: Unwaxed cardboard boxes filled with shredded paper (cut a hole in the side for an opening), cardboard tubes, toilet paper/paper towel rolls, plain paper grocery bags, mason jar lids, hard plastic baby key rings with no removable parts that can be chewed and ingested.

More information: Toys

Litter Training

To start litter training your bunny, place a litter box in your rabbit’s cage and fill it with litter and hay: the hay makes the litter box a more enjoyable place to visit. Also, place a couple of large litter boxes (plastic storage containers work well) outside of the cage in your rabbit’s exercise area. Rabbits often eat and defecate at the same time, so adding hay to these boxes will help to increase your bunny’s chance of success. Babies and adolescents will have a more difficult time with the training process, than altered adult rabbits.

Rabbits reach sexual maturity between 3-6 months, at which time they will likely start to mark territory. Having your rabbit spayed or neutered will greatly improve his/her litter box habits. You can gradually increase your rabbit’s freedom as he shows signs of good litter box habits.

Also, remember to keep your litter boxes clean. Litter training may not be an overnight success, so be patient and never scold your rabbit for slip-ups.

Types of recommended litters: shredded newspaper, litters made of Aspen bark, or recycled newspapers like Yesterday’s News, or dust-free unscented clay cat litter without deodorant crystals (not to be used if the rabbit digs in the litter box, since they are never completely dust-free. Note that clay cat litter can be ‘sandwiched’ between two sheets of newsprint to help control dust).

Things to consider: Clumping cat litter or corn cob litter may cause blockages when ingested. Cedar and pine wood shavings have aromatic hydrocarbon (oils) and prolonged exposure may cause respiratory problems and liver damage.

More information: Litter Training

Rabbits with children

The first point to consider: Does your family have time for a rabbit? This includes time for cleaning, feeding and socializing.
Rabbits generally do not like, and some may even fear, being lifted off the ground or carried. They have a delicate skeletal structure, and may be easily injured trying to escape from a child’s arms. A rabbit’s sharp nails and powerful back legs may also cause injury to the child. If your child is calm, a rabbit may be an appropriate addition to your family. On the other hand, if your child is loud, tends to interact physically/aggressively, or frequently needs to be reminded of rules, then a rabbit probably isn’t a good choice. Always remember that a rabbit, or any other companion animal, is not a toy for a child. Most children are not responsible enough to assume such a job on a daily basis, so it is necessary for an adult to be the primary care taker. Children learn by example, so it is important for adults to set a good one.

More information: Is a Rabbit Right For Me?

Rabbits with other animals

Rabbits can get along very with other animals. The nature of their relationship will depend upon the personalities of the animals involved. Some dogs and cats can be quite friendly and may enjoy the companionship of a rabbit pal. Some rabbits have been known to have a “take charge attitude” and dominate a 70 pound dog. These relationships may take time to develop and should be closely supervised. For example, a playful puppy may accidentally injure a rabbit. Dogs and cats that intend to inflict harm should never have contact with your rabbit.

Spaying and neutering

Rabbits sexually mature and are able reproduce at a young age (3-6 months). At sexual maturity, males may spray urine and become very “aroused”. Females may become territorial and aggressive, and develop uterine cancer or disease later if life, if left unaltered.

It is very difficult to accurately assess the gender of young rabbits – even vets sometimes have trouble determining rabbit gender – making accidental litters common. A newly neutered male can impregnate an unspayed female for about 30 days after the surgery, so keep your rabbits separated during this time. Also, females can become pregnant again within a day of giving birth. Even housing two siblings of the same sex together can become a problem when they reach sexual maturity. Previous friendships may turn into fights for dominance. Many rabbits end up in shelters or dumped on the streets shortly after they reach sexual maturity because their owners did not understand this new behaviour or how to fix it.

Spaying and neutering greatly reduces this negative behaviour (including destructive digging and chewing) and can make a rabbit a much nicer pet. With all surgeries come some risks, therefore only an experienced rabbit vet should spay or neuter your pet. Some vets will not spay a female before 6 months of age, but males can be done as soon as their testicles descend. Surgical risks increase when spaying a female who is over 5 years old. It’s important to have a rabbit-savvy vet perform surgery on your rabbit.

More information: Spaying and Neutering

Health

Shedding: Rabbits shed every 3 months, and need to be brushed gently or massaged with damp hands to eliminate some of this fur.

Intestinal blockages/GI stasis (decreased motility): Pain (from gas or an underlying condition) or insuffient fibre or water intake may cause GI Stasis. Decreased motility can lead to an impaction of hair/fibres and food that can become hard (dehydrated) and may not pass through the digestive system. If a rabbit has only eaten or defecated a small amount in the last 12 hours, seems listless or is uninterested in food or has other noticeable behavioural changes, he needs immediate veterinary attention. Sustaining water intake is necessary to prevent dehydration.

Heat stroke: Keep your rabbit in the coolest, least humid part of your house, out of the direct sunlight (but not a damp basement). The room should ideally be 68-72┬░F. Make sure your rabbit always has plenty of water available.

Molar spurs: Rabbit molars (deep inside the mouth) can develop sharp edges (spurs) that can cut into the cheeks or tongue and make eating difficult. If your rabbit has stopped eating certain foods and is showing changes in behaviour, have his molars checked immediately by your vet. Spurs can cause pain, which can quickly lead to GI stasis.

Penicillin: Antibiotics in the penicillin family, such as Amoxicillin, should not be given orally to a rabbit. They can destroy a rabbit’s natural intestinal bacteria, possibly causing death.

Nail trims: Rabbits need nail trimmings. There is a “quick” running inside the nail (like cats and dogs) and it will bleed if cut. Have an animal technician cut the rabbit’s nails or show you how it is done.

Runny eyes or nose, sneezing: Visit your vet if your rabbit has discharge from his eyes or nose.

More information: Health Issues