Rabbit Care Basics 101 for a Happy Healthy Bunny
"On a good day, I am a bunny, On a bad day, I am still a bunny." - Bunny Buddhism
Rabbit care on a daily basis is easy! A house rabbit will be a wonderful quiet indoor companion. Pet rabbits are playful and loving social animals, can be litter box trained, coexist happily with non-aggressive dogs 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 need at least 1 bunny-sized bundle of hay every day. Alfalfa Hay (a legume (beanstalk) is high in fiber, protein, and calcium. Alfalfa Hay is best for baby rabbits between the ages of 3 weeks and 7 months. It should be given to adult rabbits in limited amounts.
Rabbits older than 7 months need to be given grass hays that are high in fiber and low in both protein and calcium such as Timothy Hay or Orchard Grass. Accompany this with a handful of washed leafy green vegetables or herbs such as kale, lettuce, broccoli, sage, or mint. Try and offer variety to ensure your rabbit gets a good mix of nutrients. Lawnmower clippings are NOT safe for your rabbit to eat.
When choosing pellets, get the best quality. Generally, use these amounts:
- 1/4 cup for 5-7 lb rabbits
- 1/2 cup for 8-10 lb rabbits
- 3/4 cup for 11-15 lb rabbits
Young rabbits can be fed pellets but, if your young bunny is not eating its hay, then limit the amount of pellets. For bunnies, pellets taste really good. Check the ingredients to make sure that Alfalfa hay (or alfalfa grass) is the first ingredient on the list and get plain brown pellets. Plain pellets don't have dried fruits, vegetables, sugar, or seeds that are bad for your rabbit’s digestive system. Rabbits can be fed a limited amount of treats per day.
Treats - After your rabbit is 6 months old, you can start introducing (a very limited amount) of treats. About 1 tablespoon or less a day. Introduce fresh produce on a very slow basis. Baby rabbits will have diarrhea from eating fresh fruits and greens, and this is a serious symptom that can lead to death very quickly. After your bunny is 6 months old, gradually switch to adult pellets.
How to Approach a Rabbit
A big object quickly coming at a rabbit can be quite scary! Rabbit eyes are located on the sides of their head, 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 an extremely fast lunge with a snort (grunt), sometimes accompanied by flailing paws.
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 to 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 finished 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.
Never pick a rabbit up by its ears! Rabbits have very fragile spines. Improper handling can cause serious injuries, such as fractures and dislocations of the back.
Most bunnies do not like to be picked up. Rabbits are prey animals and don't like to be picked up because in nature it means they are about to be eaten, and they will go into panic mode. Being restrained is like being captured to a rabbit. They will freeze in place as a defense mechanism (frozen in fear). It's best to groom or interact with your bunny on their level.
If you must pick up your rabbit, do it VERY gently. 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. Another method involves sliding a hand under the breastbone and grasping both front legs between the fingers of this hand. Gently place the other hand under the hindquarters to fully support your rabbit.
If you are worried about being scratched, place a towel over your rabbit's back and wrap it around the body.
When a rabbit becomes frightened it may struggle and kick its back legs, causing 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!
Provide the largest amount of space for your bunny to play with toys, hide, sleep, eat, and use the litter box. 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 of 32 square feet for exercise. This is just the minimum though - try to give your rabbit as much space as you can. Rabbits also like a 2 story condo with a ramp joining the levels.
The bottom of the cage should be plastic or metal, not wire. Severe foot and hock problems can develop with wire cage bottoms. Keep the cage clean by lining the bottom of the cage with thick layers of newspaper, and change it once or twice a day. It's best to clean the cage when your bunny is not in it.
Most pet bunnies don't want their cage environment rearranged because they dislike change, and it's theirs to move things around as they want. If your rabbit relocates the litter box, blankets, toys, or food bowl - leave it alone!
When cleaning your rabbit's cage, put your bunny in a safe place away from the cage to prevent your bunny from getting angry - rabbits are nosy, and you are in their house messing with their stuff so it's better if they don't watch you!
Do a thorough cleaning once or twice a week. Every day do a spot cleaning - remove your rabbit's droppings and uneaten vegetables or fruits.
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. You can start litter training your rabbit around 4-6 months old after bun has been neutered or spayed. 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.
The best litter will be absorbent, dust-free, control odors, and be environment friendly. 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, walnut shells, or scented litter.
Change the litter about every 2-3 days depending on your rabbit's size, and amount of fecal material and urine smell. Dump out the entire contents and clean everything. Rabbits will not use a dirty litter box, so keep it fresh.
Clean your bun's litter box every other day. Soak the box in a mixture of white vinegar and water to remove odors. Then rinse it clean with water and let it dry. Do not use any chemicals! Also, bigger is better for litter boxes.
Many people do not like to keep their bunny inside a cage, so their rabbits live in a playpen environment, with everything inside the pen that would normally be in a cage.
An excellent set-up is to have a cage as a "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, but rabbits that can jump real high may require 4 foot high pens. The pen will keep your rabbit 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 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!
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.
Rabbits love to chew electrical wires, telephone wires, TV antenna wires, etc. These wires can be covered by 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.
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 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 inseparable lifelong friends.
Rabbits and cold weather are an excellent match, because of their fur and other methods of adaptation, rabbits have ways to comfortably maintain core temperature without an increase in energy expenditure.
However, rugged winter weather will increase energy expenditure and have an impact on growth, weight maintenance, and productivity if feeding rates are not adjusted accordingly.
Do not assume that the rabbit who does fine on 5 ounces of feed in the summer will need only 5 ounces in the winter. Feed your rabbits often to make sure they are not losing weight, and observe them for evidence of being cold. Make sure that while your rabbit has adequate ventilation, it is not exposed to drafts. Rabbits should have a "house" they can go into, and if you have wire flooring in the cage, set a small plank or solid item for the rabbit to sit on, to avoid the cold wind coming up under its belly.
Rabbits don't do well during heat and humidity. Rabbits are unable to sweat and reduce heat by panting - they can only dissipate heat - but they aren't very efficient at it, so they can easily become overheated. Rabbits don't perspire, instead, they lose body heat through their breath and from air movement across their bodies. A rabbit's ears also help regulate its body temperature. As the body temperature rises, the blood vessels in a rabbit's ears expand and the blood flows through the ears increases. You can dab their ears with cool towels to help cool your bunny down a bit.
Rabbits will often reduce feed intake during the hot summer months to reduce the heat produced by the metabolism of food. This can negatively impact growth, weight maintenance, and lactation. Switching gradually to a more nutrient-dense feed at the beginning of summer can help to maintain production (weight gain or lactation) when rabbits reduce intake due to heat.
During the summer, keep your rabbit in the shade with plenty of air movement around it. You can use a small fan to keep air moving on a single rabbit or large fans at either end of a rabbitry. Provide plenty of fresh cool water all the time. In extreme heat, rabbits enjoy a sealed plastic bag full of ice placed in their pen. They will lie against it or even on it to help keep their body temperature down.
Toys prevent boredom, provide mental stimulation, and physical exercise. Here are things you might have around the house that rabbits love to play with, and toys you can buy.
- Cardboard boxes for crawling inside, scratching, jumping on, and chewing - with at least 2 entry points into the boxes
- Paper bags from the grocery store, with a little hole in the bottom to hop in and out
- Paper towel tubes filled with hay
- Tunnels for an exercise run
- Nudge and roll toys like large rubber balls, empty Quaker Oat boxes, and small tins
- Untreated wicker baskets or boxes with shredded paper, junk mail, magazines, straw, Timothy hay, or other organic materials for digging
- Natural grass play toys
- Cat toys that roll or can be tossed
- Cat scratcher to lay on
- Hurdles for hopping
- Parrot toys tossed or hung from the top of the cage
- Hideout or shelter for the bunny to feel safe either outside or indoors
- Untreated pine cones to nibble on
- Small baby blanket
- Safe chew toys grind down teeth naturally to prevent overgrowth
- Jungle gym-type toys
- Hand towel for bunching and twisting
- Untreated wood, twigs, and logs aged for at least 3 months
- Apple tree branches fresh off the tree
- Natural woven grass mat for chewing, and to protect your bunny's sensitive paws from wire bottom cages
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. Normal rabbit feces are dry, crumbly, and odorless. They are small, firm, individual balls that are low in moisture and appear dull. round, fibrous pellets with almost no odor. and glossy clusters of dark cecotropes. Cecotropes are soft, sticky, and pungent. They are larger, soft, shiny, and cluster-like (similar in appearance to a blackberry or cluster of grapes that stick together with a strong smell.
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.
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. Healthy rabbits will shed a few times a year, with the change in seasons.
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. A short fur bunny should be brushed 2-3 times a week, and a long fur bunny should be brushed every 1-2 days.
Rabbit skin is delicate and can tear - brush in the same direction as the fur grows! Brushing your rabbit regularly will 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 the 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 the 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 rabbit's fur.
Clean dirty areas with an application of baby cornstarch and then gently comb out the dirt with a fine flea comb is fine or you can use unscented baby wipes.
DO NOT BATHE A RABBIT! Bathing a rabbit can make it quite upset, even causing it to go into shock. Stress, shock, and hypothermia can kill them. A wet rabbit can quickly become hypothermic (a dangerous drop in body temperature) and die. Rabbit fur takes a long time to get wet, and an even longer time to get dry. Bathing with water can upset or stress a rabbit, causing them to panic and injure themselves. Any time you take a rabbit out of its comfort zone, your rabbit may go into potentially deadly shock. Rabbits can die from stress-induced heart attacks.
For the best rabbit care, spot bathing just on dirty areas (feet, tail, etc.) is best. However, if bathing is necessary do it in a small sink with 2.5 inches of lukewarm water. Use a hypoallergenic, non-medicated rabbit shampoo to wash your rabbit. Place a towel on the bottom of the sink, so that the rabbit has some grip to stand on. Never immerse the entire body of your rabbit in the water! 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 the water. Use a cup to soak and rinse the body.
Rinse thoroughly and slowly, from behind the head, down towards the tail with warm water. Do not get water on their heads or in their ears. Dry your bun with a towel VERY gently, and allow it plenty of time to rest in a cage or housing area that is warm and dry. Do not use a hairdryer! Try to keep the baths as short as possible to minimize stress. If your rabbit seems abnormally stressed with bathing, stop the process and do not continue.
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 footpads 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). Have styptic powder handy within reach to stop bleeding should you cut into the quick. Darker nails make finding the quick difficult. You can shine a flashlight behind the nail. The light coming through will show you where the quick ends, and where it's safe to cut. If the edges are sharp after trimming, use a diamond nail file on the edges (don't use a paper emery board nail file - they wear out too fast.)
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 because 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.
A rabbit's teeth should match up perfectly so that the continuously growing teeth wear down evenly. 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.
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.
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 another 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 can see far distances really well (farsighted), but their close up vision isn't that great, because of where their eyes are located - high on the sides of their skull. They have very large protruding eyes and have a visual field of about 360 degrees, which gives them the ability to see danger coming from all directions, and they don't have to move their head. They also can see above their head.
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 inflammation or redness. Each eye of a 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 in the butt area. 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. Spread the skin on either side of the anus to see the scent glands. Take the Q-tip and carefully swab away the brown buildup.
Spaying and Neutering
When male rabbits are between 3-5 months old, they are old enough to be neutered. Female rabbits are generally old enough to be spayed between 4-6 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 is 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 or neutered becomes calmer and easier to manage.
Spayed and neutered pet rabbits are easier to bond with, 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. Also, rabbits are less prone to destructive (chewing, digging) and aggressive (biting, lunging, circling, growling) behavior after being altered. Also, it makes males and females much easier to litter train.
- Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) are not rodents - they are part of the lagomorph family related to hares and pikas.
- Rabbits can't walk, crawl, or run - they have to hop!
- The world record for a rabbit's highest jump is more than 3 feet.
- The world record for the longest jump is over 9 feet!
- The largest litter of baby rabbits ever recorded is 24. It has happened twice. Once in 1978 and again in 1999.
- The longest ears were 31.125 inches long. They belonged to an English Lop, Nipper's Geronimo.
- The longest-lived rabbit was a wild rabbit named Flopsy, who was caught on in 1964 and died 18 years and 10.75 months later at the home of L.B. Walker of Longford, Tasmania, Australia.
- The biggest rabbit ever recorded - 26 pounds.
- A rabbit has 18 toenails - 4 on each of the back feet, and 5 on each of the front feet.
- Bunnies purr by clicking their teeth.
- Rabbits only breathe through their noses - not their mouths like humans and other animals.
- Some rabbits pad their nests with fur plucked from their belly.
- Rabbits can see behind them without turning their heads.
- Rabbits can sleep with their eyes open, which protects them - they appear awake and are less vulnerable to predators.
- Male rabbits can hold sperm up to 4 weeks after being neutered, and can still impregnate females.
- There are over 150 different rabbit coat colors, but only 5 eye colors (brown, blue-grey, blue, marbled, and pink).
- Rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk.
- Netherland Dwarf rabbits are the smallest of all rabbits - weighing only 2 pounds.
- Polish Dwarf rabbits can follow voice commands and hand signals, which they learn through repetition.
- The Netherland Dwarf and Polish Dwarf are used by magicians for their magic acts.
The most common diseases pet rabbits get are digestive system problems, respiratory infections, and skin disorders:
GI (or gut) stasis is a common health problem where the digestive system slows down or stops completely. Veterinarian care can usually stop it from becoming a deadly condition. It can occur for several reasons including low-fiber diets, pain, stress, and dehydration.
Pasteurella multocida ("snuffles") is a major respiratory pathogen in rabbits transmitted through direct contact and is 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 is a fungal skin disease transmitted easily by direct contact with fungal spores on the coat, bedding, and soil. Most often it affects young rabbits, usually causing multiple areas of hair loss with slightly reddened skin. These 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 mite infestations can cause the accumulation of a light brown crusty material that nearly fills the external ear canal. The ear tissue gets very raw and irritated.
Cheyletiella Mange is a parasitic infection of the skin with an accumulation of dried scale and dandruff within the fur and limited hair loss, sometimes in clumps.
Coccidiosis is caused by a protozoan parasite and affects the liver and/or intestinal tract. Clinical signs include, diarrhea, weight loss, soft to watery feces, mucus or blood in feces, increased thirst, and possibly death.