Rabbits can be rewarding and popular pets but they are sensitive animals and are best suited to teenagers and adults. Children should only look after rabbits under parental supervision.
Naturally sociable, rabbits like companionship and prefer to live in pairs or groups. It is really important that rabbits are able to exhibit their natural behaviour, so they must be kept in accommodation which allows them to hop, stretch and play. They can live for up to ten years, so you will need to make a long term investment in their living accommodation.
Outdoor rabbits need plenty of room with a hutch large enough to be able to stand on their hind legs, have the opportunity to stretch out, and hop around. There should be a separate compartment for them to hide away if they need to. The minimum hutch size for two large rabbits is 185cm x 90cm floor space, by 90cm tall. Rabbits kept in accommodation which is too small may become bad tempered and difficult to handle.
It is important that the accommodation is sited in a shaded area away from direct sunlight, strong winds, and rain. The rabbits must have extra bedding and protection from the elements during the winter months. Make sure that the accommodation is predator-proof as rabbits are prone to die of shock if frightened by domestic or wild animals.
The best type of bedding is clean, bagged straw, available from all good pet shops. The bedding needs to be checked on a daily basis and removed if soiled. Particular attention needs to be paid to the accommodation during hot weather as flies may lay their eggs on soiled bedding and the resulting maggots may burrow into the rabbit’s skin. Make sure your rabbits’ bottoms are kept clean – remember that rabbits are at risk from fly strike if not regularly checked during the hot weather.
Feeding your rabbit
Hay or grass should be the basis of your rabbit’s diet, and a few fresh vegetables should be offered as well. Cereal-based diets (the muesli-type) should not be given as they are high in sugar and low in minerals. Small quantities of high-fibre pellets are a better choice.
They need a daily variety of fresh vegetables and fruit, washed thoroughly before feeding. Carrots, spinach, watercress, broccoli, celery, apples and dandelion leaves are good for them, but give everything in moderation and make sure there is plenty of variety. Rabbits love to graze on grass, but should never be given grass cuttings as these will cause serious health problems.
Fresh water must always be available – in a heavy-based bowl or bottle – and be changed daily. If using a water bottle, you should check every day that it is working properly.
If you check your rabbit every day without fail you will notice any changes in appearance or behaviour. A healthy rabbit is alert and lively. Symptoms of poor health include a discharge from the eyes or nose, swellings, diarrhoea and scaly patches inside the ears.
Your rabbit’s back and front teeth must be checked regularly especially if they are beginning to lose weight for no apparent reason. Dental problems are common in rabbits.
All rabbits should be regularly vaccinated against the potentially fatal diseases, myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD). Check with your vet who will decide how often this needs to be done.
It is a good idea to have rabbits neutered as this lessens the risk of disease and behavioural problems. Neutered rabbits can also be easier to house train.
The most significant parasite is E. cuniculi, a microscopic organism that infects the nervous system. The infection is passed in the urine and picked up when rabbits eat contaminated feed, such as grass. Many of the rabbits that are infected do not have any serious symptoms, but some get eye problems or become unsteady on their feet. Diagnosis is via blood tests – ask your vet for advice.
Exercise and entertainment
Encourage your rabbits to keep active and practice their natural behaviour by
- providing things for them to chew such as apple wood or willow
- provide tubes for them to run through and hide in
- set up a cardboard box with an entrance and an exit your rabbit can hop in and out of.
- hang some root vegetables on a string for them to nibble.
Unwanted rabbits are a big problem – about 35,000 rabbits end up in rescue centres nationally each year (Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund). If unneutered, it is possible for a female rabbit to have 150 young in one year.
Female rabbits (does) can become territorial and aggressive from sexual maturity onwards (4-6 months of age) whether with males, females or siblings. They have false pregnancies, growl, scratch and bite other rabbits or their owners. Spaying can reduce or remove these problems. Neutered female rabbits have a long life expectancy – up to 80% of un-spayed does develop uterine cancer by 5 years of age, spaying will prevent this completely.
Unneutered rabbits living together will breed or fight. Most unneutered males (bucks) are territorial, spray urine and can be aggressive. Neutered bucks are surprisingly happier and more relaxed, even if the operation is performed later in life.
Most importantly, rabbits are sociable animals that need the company of others. If you neuter your pets they will be able to have a companion without the risk of unwanted pregnancies or fighting. Our policy is to either rehome rabbits in pairs or we have single rabbits if you already have a suitable neutered partner.
So, if you love rabbits – get them neutered, then get them a companion and they will live longer, happier lives!
Handling your rabbit
It is not natural for a rabbit to be lifted up with their paws off the ground! If you do need to pick up your rabbit, the safest way is to slide one hand underneath the body and in-between the front legs, with your other arm around its hindquarters, supporting its body weight. Place the rabbit against your body with its head towards your arm. Never pick a rabbit up by its ears or by the scruff of its neck. Always put a rabbit down gently, hind legs first, on a non-slip surface.
- Check your rabbit, and its food and water, twice a day, without fail.
- Keep two rabbits or a compatible group, as they are not solitary animals
- Neutered rabbits are happier and healthier
- Vaccinate your rabbits regularly against myxomatosis and VHD