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Basic Rabbit Care

I want to start out by saying that rabbits can make fantastic pets. They are intelligent, silly, fun and adorable little fuzzballs. Many people think they are classified as rodents, but the truth is, they are actually classified as lagomorphs. This grouping of animals is herbivorous, with two pairs of incisors, and includes rabbits, hares, and pikas. That doesn’t have much bearing on their care, but I felt it was important to note. There is a lot to consider when bringing a rabbit into your home. Rabbits can range in size from 4 to about 12 lbs, depending on breed. Like any animal, they have certain requirements that must be met for housing, diet, exercise, grooming and health care. And don’t forget to have fun with your rabbit too!

Housing

Rabbits enjoy exploring, but they need a safe cage to be kept in at night or when you can’t keep an eye on them. Because rabbits come in many sizes, you will need to take into consideration how big of a cage they need to comfortably lie down and stretch out. It doesn’t hurt if it allows for hopping back and forth. Get to know the breed of rabbit you are considering. Visit some, if possible, to get an idea of their general size. A rabbit that looks very small when sitting as they normally do, may still be a foot long or more when fully stretched out. Ideally, for smaller rabbits like Netherland Dwarfs and Polish, their cage should be no shorter than 3-foot long and at least 2 foot tall. Because they may lay different ways, a cage that is a 3′ by 2′ by 2′ could work for the smallest breeds, while even bigger would be better for the larger breeds.

A good starter cage could be this. Though I would remove the shelf. This also allows room for a water bottle or bowl, a feeder or food dish, and a corner litter pan. Some rabbits prefer peeing in a certain corner and having this litter pan can help with clean up. Rabbits tend to poop all over no matter what.

If you choose to get the type of cage that has a tray underneath for cleaning, provide a chunk of flat wood or a ceramic tile for your rabbit to lay on to get off the wire floor. The cage itself should be metal to prevent chewing. Be sure anything in the cage is chew-proof to prevent the rabbit from chewing it, aside from things that are okay to be chewed like wood blocks.

The spacing between wires should be no bigger than 1” by 2” so even dwarf rabbits can’t fit their head through. The cage should be in an area that is away from predatory animals, like your dog or cat. The cage should also be placed where the rabbit is unable to pull anything into the cage for chewing, such as away from curtains and cords. If there are no other animals allowed in the room, a rabbit cage can be placed on the floor. Rabbits don’t really care for heights, but if up on a stand, it should be okay if you carefully take your rabbit out for playtime. Cage cleaning should be done AT LEAST weekly, but if you have a litter pan or your rabbit pees in a certain corner, you may want to clean that daily. Rabbit urine is very pungent.

While some people do keep rabbits outside, indoors is best. Keeping rabbits outdoors does open up the chance of predators getting to them, them to suffer from heat exhaustion or freezing, introduce them to parasites, and possibly expose them to the other elements. Some people have ideal outdoor setups for them, but many don’t know how to properly set these up and the rabbits suffer.

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Diet

It is very important to feed your rabbit a healthy diet. Luckily, rabbits have a pretty simple diet. There are commercial pelleted feeds available that can meet most of your rabbit’s needs. The minimum protein content should be 18%. These offered with a large amount of timothy hay and fresh water, will make up most of her diet. If you have a bunny that is still growing, you can offer alfalfa hay until full-grown, as this contains more protein and calcium. Timothy hay, possibly with a mix of oat or other hays, is ideal for adult rabbits and should make up 80% of their diet. Hay should always be available to your rabbit, as well as fresh water, while pellets can be given once or twice a day to equal around a half cup. If your rabbit is a healthy weight, it doesn’t hurt to leave pellets available, as long as there is always hay. Since rabbits groom themselves with their tongues, they end up with a lot of hair in their stomachs. If they don’t have enough roughage, they can end up with a hairball that cannot go through the system and cannot be hacked up.

Along with hay and pellets, leafy greens (like Romaine lettuce) are great to keep your rabbit healthy. It is ideal to rotate through many different kinds every week or so. These should make up only about 10% of the diet. Treats can be given sparingly. Some treats can include carrots, broccoli, bell pepper, and hard treats that are made for horses. Starchy vegetables, ones high in sugars, grains, and legumes should not be given to rabbits, as they can cause digestive upset. Never give your rabbit sweets. Fruits generally are only good in very small quantities, ideally not acidic types. They have a sensitive digestive system and a simple diet is best. It should also be noted that rabbits cannot vomit so if they eat something that does not digest well, it cannot be thrown back up.

Additionally, rabbits have what seems to be a strange habit. There is a special kind of poop that rabbits produce, called cecotropes, which allows the rabbit to re-digest food that was not digested completely. These poops look like a little cluster and are soft, so different than the little harder balls of poop they normally produce. If you see your rabbit doing this, please let him, it is to maintain a healthy gut.

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Exercise

Rabbits should be allowed ample exercise, every day. If you consider wild rabbits are running, leaping, bounding, digging, searching for food and avoiding predators all day, a domestic rabbit leads a pretty boring life. If you only keep your rabbit in a cage, he will not be a happy rabbit. Allowing a rabbit out of cage time is a must. The room or space that a rabbit is allowed to run must be large and rabbit proof. This means no cables, cords, treasured furniture, other pets that might chase, or anything the rabbit might injure himself with. Also don’t forget, rabbits tend to poop all over so a floor that is easy to clean up would be best. He also may not run back to his cage if he needs to pee.

Watching a happy rabbit jump into the air and side kick is very entertaining. It’s good for his health, happiness, weight management and even for bonding with you. If you have a safe outdoor area (preferably enclosed even on top to stop predatory birds) you can watch him dig into the soil and munch on grass. Just make sure you never leave him alone or he may dig out or be captured by an animal!

Always remember when you bring your rabbit out of the cage, support his feet and hold snugly. It is also okay to lightly hold the scruff of his neck while supporting all of the feet. If a rabbit feels scared they will jump and possibly even injure themselves. Rabbits who get too stressed can also end up sick or dead.

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Grooming

While rabbits do groom themselves much in the same way as a cat does, it is always a good idea to keep your rabbit brushed so they don’t ingest as much hair. You can use a soft bristle brush or even a comb. If you have an angora breed, you will definitely need a comb. Brushing your rabbit can also help with bonding as they tend to enjoy it and will associate you with that. Of course, brushing is not the only grooming that needs to be done. Nail trims should be done since their nails continue to grow and in the wild, they would be digging to get those nails shorter. Only attempt to clip your rabbit’s nails if you have been shown how and use very small nail trimmers. Otherwise, some groomers and most vets will do nail trims for you.

While you are caring for your rabbit you can also check the ears to be sure they don’t look dirty and check the back end to make sure things are staying clean. Rabbits do not need baths, in fact, they should not be placed in water. Rabbits can catch a chill and most don’t enjoy the water. If you notice dirty areas, there are spray or dry shampoos that can be used. Just be sure they are rabbit safe. If the back end is very dirty, you can use a wet washcloth and very shallow water to try and rinse the area. Overall most rabbits should be fine without much grooming, but if you notice a lot of poop build up, it may be time for a vet visit.

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Health Care

While rabbits tend to be fairly healthy animals and don’t require any vaccinations, it is a good idea to monitor health. When you first get your rabbit, you can take him to a vet who sees rabbits, to be sure he healthy. You can also discuss spaying or neutering your rabbit. It is actually not that uncommon for female rabbits to end up with mammary and uterine cancers, so ideally your rabbit should be spayed. It seems to be even more common in rabbits than dogs. Male rabbits that are neutered tend to not spray or get as “cranky” as intact males. Just be sure the vet you use has altered rabbits before.

If you fix your rabbits you can also them keep a couple together for company, but a slow introduction is a must. Rabbits can be territorial but are less likely to be if fixed. Rabbits, in general, are pretty sociable animals and live in colonies in the wild and often play together. Please be sure you have same-sex pairs, or altered rabbits as a pair so you don’t end up with baby bunnies. There actually is quite a lot of rabbits in shelters. Sometimes people let rabbits loose because they have too many or can’t care for them. However, domestic rabbits can’t fend for themselves in the wild. Allowing your pet rabbits to breed can quickly become an overwhelming situation of too many rabbits and not enough homes.

One very important health consideration is that rabbits have continuously growing teeth and must be allowed to chew. You can buy pet safe wood for them to gnaw on, as well as chunks of wood that have not been treated with anything and are parasite free. Rabbits should not be given cedar wood as its oils are not good for rabbits. Rabbits also should not be given woods with sap, only kiln-dried versions of these. Usually, there are plenty of things available for rabbits to chew, at pet stores or even online. Maple, kiln-dried pine or aspen, apple, cottonwood, and willow are just some examples of safe woods.

Rabbits can live anywhere from about 8 to 12 years or more if taken care of properly. Always keep that in mind when considering their diet, if you want that long of a commitment to a pet, and what your future may hold. If you are a teen who will be going to college in the next few years, find out if your parents would care for your rabbit while you are away, or if it is even fair to get a rabbit. If you are an adult, will you be moving soon? Possibly somewhere that you can’t have a rabbit? Are you planning a family soon and will you have time to care for your rabbit and give out of cage time still? Ideally, rabbits should be able to remain in the same home all their lives, much the same for any other longer-lived pet like dogs or cats. Rabbits most definitely bond with their owners similar to how dogs and cats do.

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Fun with Your Rabbit

As mentioned above, rabbits need out of cage time to get exercise. While your rabbit is running around, take this time to get on level with your rabbit. Lay on the floor and let him come up to you and sniff. Go nose to nose and give him petting. Rabbits can actually be similar to dogs in that they enjoy head scratches and being stroked. Many even play similar to dogs where they will chase you around and then turn around to be chased. Of course, only do this if your rabbit is used to you and he seems to be encouraging it. Better yet, if he has a buddy, they can chase each other around for fun.

Surprisingly, rabbits enjoy playing with toys. These can be blocks of wood they can chew and toss, balls they can roll with their noses, or even tunnels or sheets to burrow in. Lightly placing a sheet over your bunny, he can burrow his way out. He can “dig” tunnels into it as well. You can buy balls with bells inside that your rabbit can play with, some seem to enjoy making the bell ring. Some rabbits will learn to push a ball back to the owner in a game of rolling back and forth. Try various toys for your rabbit to see what his favorite is.

Along with regular play, rabbits can be taught some tricks. Rabbits are obviously great jumpers and can be taught to jump over raised bars or through hoops. Some can do a series of small agility tricks including going through tunnels and weaving poles. The easiest way to teach tricks is to use a favorite snack to motivate him. Rabbits can even learn to pull levers or push things to receive treats or cause other things to happen. They may not be quite as trainable as dogs, but they are smarter than many realize. Enjoy your rabbit, and have fun!

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