Rabbits are a popular pet and owning and caring for a rabbit is great fun and very rewarding. They are highly intelligent, social and fun creatures and with the best care they can live as long as dogs and cats.
Taking care of your rabbit
Handling your rabbit correctly
Good handling of rabbits is absolutely vital to their safety and well-being, and there are several things to bear in mind about rabbits:
- Prey species
- Very good peripheral vision
- Constantly ‘on guard’
- Stronger than they look
- Make sudden movements
- Seldom bite but scratch with hind legs
- Sometimes nibble – this is often interpreted a precursor to an aggressive bite
- Will use you as a springboard
- Their trajectory can be surprisingly enormous and disastrous, as unlike cats, they do not have the wherewithal to land gracefully and safely!
Rabbits can be dominant or even dominant aggressive and WILL seize the upper hand if the opportunity arises but being heavy handed or rough will not resolve the situation and will result in the rabbit fighting harder and the rabbit being frightened.
- Never try to overpower a struggling rabbit.
- If you cannot control it, let it go into the kennel/hutch, allow time for it to calm down then try again later.
- Placing a tea towel over the head of ‘boxing’ or aggressive rabbits allows you to safely pick the rabbit up.
- Never pick the rabbit up without supporting the lower spine and hind legs – in the worst case a rabbit can fracture its spine if it kicks out too hard.
- Tucking the head into the crook of your elbow really helps but remember that rabbits only breathe through their nose so do not block the nostrils.
A rabbit’s environment has a direct impact on its health and happiness and diligent hutch maintenance is paramount in contributing towards that well-being.
It is well documented that commercially produced hutches are simply not big enough and the level of advice given to potential owners in pet shops is, at best, inadequate. At worst, it is non-existent.
Some larger pet store franchises keep more suitable housing and runs and, if the pet is also bought in the store, they can be quite good at giving responsible advice. However, runs are often offered as an option, rather than a necessity and as most of the hutches can be delivered online, it is not made clear to rabbit owners just how important it is to ensure that there is a safe and adequate place for their bunny to exercise in.
A good hutch should be:
- At least 6’ x 2’ x 2’ ft.
- Dry and free from mildew on the inside
- Sheltered at the front from direct sunlight or wind exposure.
It should also have a predator proof run attached which should be:
- At least 4 ft wide x 8 ft long x 3 ft high
- Made from sturdy mesh NOT chicken wire
- Be on firm standing to prevent rabbits burrowing out or predators burrowing in
- Provide shade and things to do
- Have good air flow and light
Cleaning and substrates
How often to clean out your rabbit will depend on how messy your rabbit is, but as a general rule, we would advise cleaning out damp toilet areas every night and doing a full clean out at least once a week. A damp environment, whether it is due to poor hutch maintenance or a poor hygiene regime is a primary cause of breathing and eye problems in pet rabbits. A paint scraper is great for getting soiled bedding out of corners!
Rabbits can be kept on a number of different bedding materials, or ‘substrates’. Using litter trays with a wood based cat litter under wood shavings is ideal as they are very easy to empty, they protect the hutch floor from the abrasive action of the urine and they train the rabbit to use the tray which increases hutch hygiene. Use thick bedding on the floor of the hutch and substrates such as wood shavings or finely chopped hay bedding are ideal as not only are they absorbent, they are also lightly fragranced and provide a deep, insulating layer. A layer of Readigrass in the litter tray will encourage the rabbit to use it.
Hay is a food source and should not be used to line the floor of hutches. When rabbits are accustomed to eating hay daily, it can be used in the bedding area but it should be on top of the wood shavings/straw so that the rabbit does not soil it. If the rabbit is not used to eating hay or tends to soil it, use a hay net or basket.
Sawdust is not an ideal substrate as it is too fi ne and can be inhaled by the rabbit. Newspaper is fi ne to be used under wood shavings in the summer but should never be used alone as there is not enough absorbency in it to protect the rabbits feet from urine scalds. Similarly, towels and blankets are not absorbent enough to keep your rabbit clean, dry and free from the risk of infection.
Daily exercise is absolutely vital to the mental and physical health of rabbits. The minimum exercise they should have is about 8 hours a day and this can be facilitated by a predator proof run attached to the hutch. The most beneficial exercise opportunity is one which lasts several hours. It is true that most rabbits will take a siesta and snooze in the afternoon, but the opportunity to exercise is extremely important to their health and mental well- being – even if they don’t always take advantage of it. If an exercise area is not yet in place then the absolute bare minimum should be about an hour twice a day although this is inadequate and steps should be taken to rectify this.
A lonely life…
Rabbits are social animals and need the companionship of other animals, ideally from another rabbit. Rabbits are happiest when they are half of a bonded pair and it is lamentable that the majority of pet stores and breeders do not give this information to new owners nor offer any advice about how to bond the newcomer to an existing rabbit.
Rabbits also have their own strong personalities , as well as individual likes and dislikes so it is not necessarily the case that they will bond with a new rabbit, especially if they are bonded to their human, so what is the answer?
2. Guinea pigs as friends?
Bonding a lone rabbit to a mate (in the neutered sense of course!) can be time consuming, space consuming, and can often result in either two lonely rabbits, two fighting rabbits or the rehoming of one of the rabbits. Many rabbit rescue centres are absolutely overrun with abandoned single rabbits and as such, most of them offer a bonding service whereby they will take in the clients rabbits, assess its personality and start bonding it to a suitable rabbit in a purpose built environment. Sometimes, the rescue centre will trial bonding with several rabbits, if the incoming rabbit is not proving receptive.
Guinea pigs are often kept quite satisfactorily with rabbits, but it is not something that we would recommend for the following reasons:
- The rabbit can often bully and harass the guinea pig – but often without the owners witnessing this
- Their feeding needs are completely different and often the rabbit will consume the guinea pigs Vitamin C enriched muesli whilst the guinea pig becomes slowly deficient
- The kennel cough bacteria can be carried without symptoms in rabbits but if they are carrying it there is potential to transmit it to the guinea pig – in which it will cause pneumonia.
Many diseases in rabbits can be associated with poor husbandry and feeding. The natural food of rabbits is the concentrated growing shoots and leaves of grasses but not the ‘fruit’ (e.g. oats, barley and wheat) that are so frequently offered in pet shop mixes. The high sugar content of these foods leads to dental disease, obesity and gastrointestinal disorders. In natural feeding, grass shoots assist in wearing down the crowns of the fast growing teeth. If incorrectly prepared or processed fibre is fed, the food can become impacted in the stomach. This doesn’t happen if the rabbit can obtain natural fibrous food (growing grass or hay) and can chew it so that it is properly presented for storage in the stomach and transportation through the intestine.
A balanced diet should contain good quality hay, and Timothy hay is best. Alfalfa is frequently recommended but is too high in calcium and protein for routine feeding so should be reserved for use in pregnant and nursing does. The use of pelleted food should be avoided altogether, or at least restricted to one tablespoon per rabbit per day. This encourages your rabbit to take in more fibre. Access to leafy greens is advised for pet rabbits in order to exercise their jaws and assist in the normal wear of the teeth. In the UK, spring greens are usually available all year round in supermarkets. Muesli type mixes should be avoided all together as they are not a balanced diet and encourage your rabbit to pick out the bits they like and leave the others in the bowl.
A general rule for feeding is that the diet should comprise:
- 85% grass/hay
- 12% leafy greens
- 3% (or less!) pelleted feed.
Neutering and behaviour
Neutering rabbits from around 4 months of age is a vital contributing factor to longevity and a good quality of life. The benefits of neutering include:
- Helps to reduce the number of rabbits. If there is one thing this country does not need more of, it is baby rabbits. The rescue centres are spilling over with the results of accidental pregnancies.
- It also removes the risk of pregnancy, false pregnancy, womb infections and cancers and mammary cancer.
- Reduces the level of territorial aggression, thus reducing the risk of fight injuries if he lives with another male.
- Hormonal influences, such as wanting to escape to find a mate, can increase stress levels if he is confined. This can lead to anxiety and may escalate to inappetence or injury in trying to escape.
Rabbits are prey creatures so if they feel under threat they will either take flight, fight or freeze. If they are caught they will use their claws, teeth and powerful hind legs to fight for survival. Wild rabbits also will be territorially aggressive. This is particularly true of female rabbits who can be very aggressive when protecting their young, are in the latter stages of pregnancy or are competing for prime nest sites.
Like other companion animals, rabbits respond well to very early handling and are very receptive to being in a routine and being trained. Youngsters which associate being handled by humans as a positive or pleasurable experience are far less likely to be nervous or aggressive as they grow, and are far more likely to be amenable to being picked up or coming when called than those who have had little human contact, or whose formative experiences include being chased or handled inappropriately.
Reasons for aggression in pet rabbits include fear, territorial defence, hormones, pain and deafness. However, not all ‘aggressive’ behaviour is true aggression. Like many other small mammals, young rabbits often nibble or ‘test bite’ objects as part of their development. This, like other young animals, can often lead to mouthing behaviour towards their humans. This will be particularly prevalent if the owners fingers smell of something tasty – such as sweets, grass or herbs. Rabbits who are over excited can also ‘bite’ in giddiness!
How to prevent or control aggression in your rabbit:
- Provide sufficient environmental enrichment for them such as a ‘dig pit’ in their run
- Learn to pick up the rabbit correctly
- Neutering is extremely important for both males and females
- A routine is vital such as the one described above. Erratic opening and closing times of the hutch and run can lead to boredom and is more likely to lead to the rabbit having to be rounded up and chased to go back in at night – which will perpetuate all his negative feelings about humans and will exacerbate the aggressive behaviour.
Neutering and behaviour problems in rabbits
- Encourage a routine as in the example below; 7.30am Open up the hutch and run. Give hay and water. Ensure they have toys 5-6 pm Go out, interact. Reward good behaviour. Sit in run and allow them to hop on to you without trying to touch them but stroke freely if they are happy to be touched . Talk to them quietly. Move calmly. Give treats such as basil or other herbs. 9pm Go to hutch. Give small amount vegetables as treat. Clean out toilet areas and sort out bedding and overnight hay. Call them into hutch. Reward with small amount pellets and some veg/herbs.
- Stop trying to touch the aggressive rabbit. During the first two weeks start to hand feed nutritious treats such herbs and speak calmly. Sugary treats such as the commercial honey sticks etc should be avoided as they will cause sugar rushes and sugar crashes and may also lead to more demanding behaviour and selective feeding.
- After two weeks, try to stroke the rabbit whilst he is eating the treat. If he won’t allow this, you may have to spend longer on the initial stage. A long handled soft brush may be used to stroke if the rabbit is liable to bite.
- Once the rabbit will accept being touched by hand or brush, increase the time and areas that are being touched. If you are still using the brush, try to introduce your hand.
- Once you feel confident with touching, you can begin to introduce picking the rabbit up. This should be in small stages i.e. start by scooping the rabbit into your lap to eat the treat.
- Never use verbal or physical punishment. It will be interpreted as a threat and will probably increase the aggression problem.
Do I need to vaccinate my rabbit?
Yes. We advise vaccinations against myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD), both of which are fatal. Vaccines should be given at least once yearly, but pet rabbits who are in regular contact with wild rabbits should be vaccinated twice yearly.
Do I need to routinely worm my rabbit? Routine worming of rabbits is not necessary, although we do use rabbit wormers to treat a condition called E.cuniculi, and we will advise this if your rabbit is at risk.
Do I need to routinely treat my rabbit for fleas and other external parasites?
Rabbits can get fleas, mites and lice but routine treatment as for your dog or cat is not normally necessary. If you think your rabbit has some extra passengers then please make an appointment and we will have a look for you!
Do I need to routinely clip my rabbit’s nails? If your rabbit has access to areas where it can dig and behave normally it will not need regular nail clips. Remember, nails are supposed to be long as this is normal for a rabbit but if they are becoming a problem they can carefully be clipped back. A vet or vet nurse at the clinic can do this for you.
What is flystrike?
Flystrike describes the situation where flies lay eggs on your rabbit and these hatch out, causing a maggot infestation. High risk factors for flystrike are:
- Poor hutch hygiene! Toilet and bedding areas should be refreshed DAILY all year round, should be fully emptied weekly and scrubbed and swilled out at least once a month with an appropriate and safe disinfectant such as Trigene or Russell Rabbit Cleaner. Use plastic litter trays with sawdust in, in the places he or she urinates and use a paint scraper to get into the corners. This will stop urine soaking into the wood and attracting flies.
- Overweight or lazy rabbits. Rabbits who are fed inappropriately will become overweight and are more susceptible to problems such as uneaten caecotrophy (the sticky poos rabbits eat) which will then stick around the back end and lead to flystrike.
- Older rabbits – they often can’t reach their bottoms to clean themselves due to arthritic changes in their spine or hips. Ask one of our vets for advice about arthritis and pain management.
- Dental pain – this can go undetected at first. If your rabbit eats less due to pain, it will stop moving around as much or may not be able to eat its caecotrophy. Both lead to sticky bottoms and increase the risk of flystrike.
- Inadequate hutch – small confined areas with poor ventilation both attract flies and afford the rabbit very little chance to move away.
- Lack of access to fresh air and exercise. Rabbits should be out of their hutch all the time that you are home. Even if it’s raining or snowing, they should have the option of playing out. No rabbit should be in a hutch for more than six consecutive hours during the day – at any time of the year!
- Poor diet. Feeding a diet of good quality hay instead of mix and veg is the best way to make sure that the guts keep moving, the teeth keeping grinding, the weight stays down and the droppings are dry. Obese rabbits with dirty bottoms are more prone to flystrike, as are those with wounds, but ANY rabbit can be affected by this hideous and often fatal disease. In order to prevent flystrike your rabbit must be kept free or urine and faecal scalding and examined at least twice daily for signs of maggots, particularly in the warmer months.
Can my rabbit roam free during the day now that it’s getting warmer?
Rabbits should have the same access to fresh air and exercise whatever the weather or the season but extending exercise to a lawned area is popular in the summer and most bunnies will love sweet, fresh grass. However, things to be aware of include:
- The rabbit MUST be in an enclosed predator proof run on hard standing if they are to be left unsupervised during the day. A padlock would also be advisable.
- The rabbit must have shelter, shade and a large bowl of fresh water.
- Be aware of toxic plants. Rabbits are not invincible and you may be surprised at some of the common garden plants which cause problems.
- Predators – dogs, cats, foxes, owls and people!
Now summer is here, can I leave my rabbit out at night? I’m worried his hutch will be too stuffy if it’s a hot night.
Leaving your rabbits out overnight is not advisable. Don’t forget – rabbits are prey animals, and there are a lot of predators around at night, including humans! If the rabbits cannot safely be contained with shelter, warmth and water within a predator proof run overnight and you’re worried the hutch will be too stuffy, then perhaps look at modifying his existing hutch so that there is more air circulation. Modifications include creating a couple of mesh covered ‘windows’, attaching a battery operated fan to the front of the hutch and using 2 litre drinks bottes with frozen water to keep the hutch cool.
Can rabbits get heatstroke?
Yes. Rabbits are extremely susceptible to heat, much more so than cold. Even bringing outdoor rabbits indoors can be too overwhelming for them. Important points to note are:
- Make sure rabbits have shelter AND shade. They aren’t the same thing! Putting the hutch up on bricks will give a cool, shaded area underneath to lie when the sun is hot.
- Provide large, plastic feed bowls around the pen filled with water. Place in shade if possible. REMEMBER – older rabbits may find it difficult to drink from either half full bowls or dropper bottles.
- Fill empty 2 litre plastic pop bottles with water and freeze them. Place them in shaded areas in the play area so your rabbit has something cool to lean against.
- Don’t keep them locked up in the hutch.
- Apply childrens sunblock to the tips of white ears!
Is my rabbit healthy enough to winter outside? Won’t it be too cold for him?
Healthy, robust rabbits who are used to outdoor life tend to take our cold winter weather in their stride, but problems like arthritis, or dental pain can be much worse in cold, damp conditions, and could lead to your rabbit losing its appetite – an emergency situation!
A health check with the vet or nurse during the autumn would identify any areas of concern before they cause serious health problems.
Is it okay to keep them in the hutch more when it’s cold?
No! Rabbits need space, fresh air and lots of exercise all year round –come rain, snow or sunshine. Remember, they have thick fur coats and are designed for outdoor living. Sitting still in a hutch all day, in the cold, is a recipe for disaster!
The nights are really cold now but I can’t bring my rabbit indoors as I haven’t any room.
How do I keep him warm overnight?
Rabbits can tolerate quite cold weather but they cannot tolerate damp or draughty conditions so follow these tips for a snug rabbit:
- Clean out toilet areas and damp flooring every night. Litter trays with a wood based litter are ideal as they are easy to empty. Damp dirty floors, toilet and bedding makes damp, dirty rabbits, very susceptible to illness.
- Use thick bedding on the floor of the hutch such as sawdust or Russell Rabbit bedding as these are more absorbent than hay or straw.
- Create a burrow inside the hutch using a front opening cat box or large storage box. This will prevent draughts and cold air getting into the bed. If your hutch only has a small sleeping compartment, try a smaller storage box or a litter tray.
- Use an absorbable Vetbed TM in the burrow. The urine will soak through the bed leaving the surface dry so your bunny won’t be sat in a damp, cold bed. Vetbeds are really good as they are deep, fluffy, stay dry and also are virtually dry when they come out of the washer.
- If your rabbit is usually inactive or is elderly – or you just want to warm his cockles, invest in a SnuggleSafe TM microwaveable heat pad for under his bedding.
- Make sure you repair or stuff up any gaps in the hutch walls or doors. If your hutch has a large wire front then cover over. Good night-time covers for hutches include with thick plastic sheeting, Perspex sheets, old duvets or carpet.
- Creating a warm, dry ‘burrow’ inside the hutch will help even elderly rabbits weather a winter outdoors.
My rabbit likes to play out during the day but is it okay to let him out when it’s freezing or wet, or should he stay in his hutch and keep dry?
Definitely let him out. Keep the hutch open so that he has access to go back in but rabbits need fresh air and exercise all year round, whatever the weather. They particularly seem to enjoy snow! Don’t forget, your rabbit has a thick fur coat to protect him from the cold and from the wind and as long as he has somewhere clean and dry to retreat to when he’s had enough, he’ll be happy.
Many people think that a rabbit sitting in a hutch in cold weather is conserving energy and keeping warm, but it is actually the worst thing possible. Rabbits gut motility is wholly dependent on high fibre and activity so being inactive in a hutch lowers the body temperature and restricts activity – both of which contribute massively to a reduction in gut motility.
Do I need to feed more in the winter?
Active, slim rabbits may benefit from some extra ‘fuel’ in the winter, so giving some complete pellet such as SupaExcel, along with small amounts of veggies won’t do any harm. Rabbits which are overweight or a bit lazy shouldn’t get any extra food as they won’t burn it off.