Basic Care: Rabbits

Rabbits

Insights into rabbit behavior

Most rabbits are gregarious animals that do better with a companion. However not all rebbits get along and some rabbits are best kept alone. Rabbits will thump their hind feet if they are upset and may hum when they are happy. Happy rabbits may jump in the air and kick or turn around.

Housing

If you have room, a rabbit should be kept in an exercise pen. It’s easier to lift a bunny out of an exercise pen compared to the small doors of most rabbit cages. A rabbit in an exercise pen is easier to bend over and pet as you walk by compared to one in a cage, so it provides more time for social interactions. A cardboard box big enough to hide in (but not so cramped a rabbit can't turn around) is essential or a more permanent dark nest box. Place this cardboard box in the middle of the exercise pen. A litter pan should be placed in one corner. The litter pan should be about twice as long as the rabbit, and wide enough to allow the rabbit to easily turn around.  If an exercise pen is not practical as a permanent house, then a 5 lb rabbit needs a cage at least 4 ft long, 3 ft wide, and 2 ft tall, with a solid floor. Most rabbits appreciate a small ledge above ground as a perch. A cardboard box for hiding is a must. The cage should be well-ventilated. Daily exercise outside the cage is a must, such as within a bunny-proofed room or yard, or an exercise pen.

Substrate

Most rabbits quickly learn to use their litter boxes on their own but you may need to place a some soiled material (urine and fresh feces) in with the litter to get them started.  Paper pulp products, such as Yesterday’s News™ or Carefresh™, or compressed straw pellets, such as Eco-Straw Litter, should be used in the litter box.  A layer of litter about 2 inches thick will absorb urine and trap odors even if you miss a cleaning one day. Some people place newspaper on the bottom of the litter box and then place the litter on top to make cleaning the litter box easier. It can be dumped into the trash without having to scrape litter stuck to the bottom of the litter box.  Clean the litter box daily, more often if needed, so that your rabbit does not develop dirty fur on its hind feet and tail from going into a soiled litter box.  If the litter box isn’t spot-cleaned daily, a rabbit may not urinate as often which may lead to bladder problems. Keeping the litter box clean will make sure your rabbit’s area is free of unpleasant odors. You should clean the litter box once every 1 to 2 weeks in hot soapy water, rinse well, and then wipe it down with vinegar to disinfect it. The vinegar will also break down hard crystal deposits that sometimes form in rabbit urine and stick to the litter box.

If the cage or exercise pen has a solid floor, you may not need to put anything down as long as your rabbit is litter box-trained. If your rabbit has accidents outside the litter box, you may try newspaper, brown paper, or special paper cage liners.

Some rabbits with special health needs may have trouble getting in and out of the litter box, or may be unable to control urination. These rabbits often do well on a fleece blanket placed over dog potty-pads.  Urine quickly drains through the fleece and gets trapped in the dog potty-pads. The fleece can be washed and re-used but it’s best to have several changes of fleece available so you are not having to do a load of wash daily.

Light and Heat

Rabbits are most active around sunrise and sunset so that may be when your rabbit wants to play. Many bunnies will adjust their schedule so that they are most active when you first wake-up and between your dinnertime and bedtime.

Rabbits can become overheated easily.  Do not expose to temperatures above 85°F or below 60°F for any length of time.  If your yard is securely fenced and has plenty of trees and cool shady areas, your rabbit will appreciated time outdoors in the early morning or very late afternoon to early evening except during our hottest months, June through September. It’s important that you check on your rabbit every 10 to 15 minutes, or watch it while it is outside, since a rabbit can quickly overheat. Also, feral cats sometimes end up in fenced yards and hawks and owls are threats to outdoor rabbits in some Arizona neighborhood.

Diet

Timothy hay and other grass hays, such as Bermuda grass and orchard grass, should be available all the time and should be the main food your rabbit eats.  This provides the right amount of fiber to keep their gastrointestinal tract healthy and helps prevent problems developing with their teeth.

We recommend offering a small amount of timothy hay pellets (e.g., Oxbow Bunny Basics/T™) in the evening.  Rabbits under 5 lbs should get no more than 1/8 to 1/4 of a cup of pellets daily while larger rabbits should be offered no more than 1/2 to 3/4  cup daily.  Other kinds of hays (e.g., alfalfa hay, oat hay, etc.) may be given sparingly as treats.

Depending on the size of the rabbit, one to three cups of dark green leafy vegetables, fresh grass, mulberry leaves, and hibiscus leaves and flowers may also be given daily.  Tiny treats of fruit such as banana or watery vegetables such as carrots are okay in very small amounts.  Give no more than a 1” slice of banana or a baby carrot a day. This amount may be too much for a dwarf rabbit. Overfeeding of these treats often causes diarrhea.  For a listing of what treats are healthy and what’re not, please see www.rabbit.org/care/veggies.html orwww.rabbit.org/care/fruits.html

Salt blocks are not necessary for rabbit.

Alfalfa pellets (e.g., Oxbow Bunny Basics 15/23) may be given to growing rabbits or rabbits with special needs but are not recommended for healthy adult rabbits.

It’s important to have an emergency supply of a liquid diet, such as Oxbow’s Critical Care for Herbivores, on hand in the event your bunny loses its appetite or has abnormal stools. If you see problems, start your bunny on this diet and get it to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Water

Fresh water should always be available.  A water bowl should be washed daily in warm soapy water, rinsed well, and filled with clean drinking water. Some rabbits will dirty their water bowls quickly or have skin folds that may get infected from becoming moist while drinking from a bowl. For those rabbits, water bottles work well but the water should be changed daily.  Disinfect the bowl or bottle with a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 cup of water at least once a week and rinse thoroughly with fresh water before refilling it for your rabbit.

Some rabbits with special needs may be given water flavored with fruit juice so that they drink more, but this should only be done with a veterinarian’s approval.

Handling Tips

Always scoop up a rabbit with your arms so that its back legs are supported.  A rabbit that kicks and dangles can break its back. Children should always have an older experienced rabbit handler help them get a rabbit out of its pen or cage, and to be nearby while they hold the rabbit. As a general rule, children under the age of 12 may not understand or remember how important it is to be careful with rabbits and need supervision at all times. Some children under this age are very careful and some children older than this may play too roughly with pets, so it is important to use your judgment about your child’s abilities before leaving him or her alone with a rabbit.

Rabbits learn routines very easily and look forward to their play time outside of their cages.  Most may be trained to hop on a leash.  There are actually agility competitions for rabbits in Europe that look similar to the more familiar dog agility trials!

Preventive Medicine

The accelerated life span of a rabbit means than a year between health check-ups is like us waiting 5 to 8 years between doctor’s visits!  With that in mind, take a few minutes to read our rabbit wellness recommendations we designed to help your rabbit live a longer healthier life.

Spay & Neuter: Spay or neuter your rabbit at 4 to 6 months of age.  Spaying and neutering makes your rabbit a more pleasant pet and also prevents diseases like tumors. Additionally, rabbit rescues are overwhelmed with rabbits that have been abandoned. If your friends like your rabbit and want one of their own, recommend that they adopt a rabbit from a rescue.

Common Problems

On average, dwarf breed rabbits live longer than giant breeds.

Loss of appetite and change in stools: Many rabbits will lose their appetite or have hard tiny stools when they are sick.  If a rabbit goes more than 24 hr without eating, it needs to be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.  In the meantime, it is important you to start giving your rabbit a liquid diet by mouth as soon as possible.  A veterinarian is better able to help a rabbit that has been getting the liquid diet than one that has been hungry and thirsty for a day or longer.  (See below for instructions on giving the liquid diet “Critical Care for Herbivores”.  You should have a packet of this as part of your rabbit's "first aid" kit.

Malocclusion of the teeth: Many rabbits, particularly of the dwarf breeds, may develop problems with their teeth.  When the premolars and molars (i.e., cheek teeth) don’t wear properly they form sharp points that can cause ulcers of the cheek and tongue.  This can cause a rabbit to lose its appetite, drool, and develop abnormal hard small fecal pellets or diarrhea.  Treatment normally requires anesthesia so that the cheek teeth may be filed into more normal shapes.  Some rabbits may need filings every 4 to 6 weeks or other procedures such as tooth extraction in order to do well.  This is one of the most common problems of adult rabbits.

Mandibular abscess: A rabbit may develop a lump and a discharge from its jaw or neck.  Many times this is due to an infection of the root of the teeth and will not clear up on antibiotics alone.  Surgery is typically required to remove the infected tooth and associated infected bone.  This may be a very difficult problem to resolve and may take weeks to months of treatment.

Congested or runny nose:  A rabbit may develop a clear runny or thick yellowish discharge from its nostrils and dried crusts around its nose.  Sometimes the rabbit may sneeze frequently and may also have problems breathing.  This may be secondary to problems associated with malocclusion of the teeth but is frequently an infection caused by bacteria, particularly one called Pasteurella or “snuffles”.  Pasteurella may cause very serious illnesses such as abscesses, sinus infections, inner ear infections, pneumonia, and bone infections which may require surgery and long-term antibiotic treatment.

Runny eyes: A rabbit may develop a watery or thick yellowish discharge from either or both eyes.  There are many possible causes for this and a thorough ophthalmic exam is needed to uncover the underlying problem.  It may also be caused by overgrown roots of the teeth, a condition associated with malocclusion of the teeth.  Radiographs (i.e., X-ray films) of the skull may be needed to identify the cause of runny eyes.

Head Tilt: A rabbit may develop a head tilt from an ear infection or a fungus calledEncephalitozoon cuniculi, as well as head injuries, heat stroke, and many other conditions. The sooner a rabbit with a head tilt is examined by a veterinarian, the more likely it will be able to be helped.

Matted hair: This may be secondary to malocclusion of the teeth since a rabbit uses its incisor teeth like a comb to groom its fur.  If the incisor teeth are normal, this may indicate back pain, arthritis, or some other discomfort that makes the rabbit reluctant to curl into the positions needed to groom itself.  Sometimes this may happen as a result of a dirty litter box, or diarrhea or “sludgy” urine accumulating around its hind end.

Hair loss: Some rabbits may groom themselves or their companions excessively and cause patches of hair loss, a condition called “barbering”.  Other causes of hair loss include the ringworm (a fungal infection and not a true “worm”), mites and fleas, irritation from urine scalding, endocrine problems, and other conditions.

Tumors: Unspayed female rabbits have a high incidence of uterine tumors and mammary tumors (breast tumors) that can dramatically shorten their life.  These are one of the main reasons that we recommend spaying a rabbit when it is young.