Pets We Treat
Rabbit Care Tips: Everything You Need To Know About How to Care for Your Pet Rabbit
The life expectancy of a rabbit can be anywhere from 8-14 years. Rabbits are susceptible to early-life illnesses if not given the proper care and diet, and while they may not show signs of illness, kits are at a higher risk than older rabbits. For example, a clean enclosure can ensure that a rabbit is not introduced to unnecessary pathogens. This, together with an annual visit to your local rabbit vet, helps prevent, catch and treat illnesses as early as possible.
The natural history of rabbits
Rabbits are mammals. They have fur, feed their young milk and produce their own heat. Their taxonomic order, Lagomorpha, includes around 40 different species of rabbits, hares and pikas. Among these, the domestic rabbit is officially known as Oryctolagus cuniculus. While there are over 305 breeds of rabbits in the world, the American Rabbit Breeders Association has identified 48 different breeds of pet rabbit. These include Lionhead rabbits, Holland Lop rabbits, Mini Lop rabbits, New Zealand White rabbits and Dwarf Hotot Rabbits. Rabbits can weigh anywhere from 1.5 lbs to over 13 lbs. When considering adopting a pet rabbit, make sure that you do some research about what species of rabbit (and what size) you want to take home.
Rabbits as house pets
In 600 AD rabbits, were used by French monks as an acceptable source of food during Lent. It took over 2000 years for evolutionary and morphological differences to be noted between the wild rabbit and domesticated rabbit. They were considered easy to farm because of their small size, ability to weather the cold and affinity for eating food scraps. Rabbits are also great breeders because one doe (female rabbit) can have 4-12 kits (babies) at a time.
Rabbits gained popularity as house pets in the 1980s because they could be kept both inside and outdoors. Due in large part to their adaptive nature, rabbits have quickly become a common housepet. They can be litter trained and are very docile. Many families enjoy taking home a rabbit, particularly around Easter and in the springtime.
When raised in captivity, there are two important considerations to keep in mind:
Rabbits don’t like hard floors.
Rabbits need soft places to rest their feet because the bottom of their feet don’t have any fat covering the bone. There is only a thin layer of skin and fur to protect the rabbit. Your rabbits can become injured if they live on hard surfaces.
Rabbits love to hide.
Rabbits are a prey species in their natural habitat. To feel comfortable in their new home, your pet rabbit will want plenty of places to hide.
How to Care for Your Pet Rabbit
Rabbit cages and housing
The best option for your rabbit is to roam free, outside of a cage. If you’re able to give your rabbit free reign, make sure to keep her in a dedicated, rabbit-safe area! Hard rubber or plastic covers can protect your rabbit from wires, while NIC grids can protect baseboards, or be used as part of a DIY rabbit pen.
If you decide to keep your rabbit in an enclosure, make sure the rabbit cage measures a minimum of 6 x 2 feet. Rabbits need enough room to move around, stretch up on two feet, lay down and keep away from their from waste, without constriction. Some owners opt to buy multi-level enclosures. This is okay, as long as the ramps are padded or the height expected to jump is achievable by the rabbit.
Your rabbit’s cage should have a plastic bottom. Do not place your pet rabbit in a cage with a metal wire bottom, since rabbits the grating can injury your pet’s delicate feet. Wood is a good option, but keep in mind that it can retain urine or be chewed through.
Rabbits also need plenty of enrichment and exercise to thrive. If your pet rabbit lives in a cage, give her at least 2-4 hours of free play time each day and be sure to monitor the play sessions for safety. (The rabbit’s, not yours...)
Substrates that we recommend include washable fleece, towels, disposable wee wee pads, and all-natural, compressed cotton bedding. Monitor the substrate to make sure your rabbit is not ingesting the litter; this can lead to impaction.
NOTE: Do not ever put aspen or wood shavings in a rabbit’s enclosure as it’s very dangerous to rabbits.
How to keep your rabbit cage clean
We recommend taking time each day to clean the areas where your rabbit urinates and defecates. This will ensure that your rabbit always has a clean area to use the restroom. Without this, they will sometimes go in inappropriate areas.
Housing multiple rabbits
If you keep multiple rabbits in an enclosure, multiple litter boxes can reduce inappropriate urination and territorial behavior. Include one litter box per rabbit. Line the box with compressed paper bedding and some hay, and never use a wire litter grate.
Providing the right climate for your rabbit
Rabbits are not heat tolerant. They can become heat exhausted when kept in temperatures higher than 85 degrees F. Signs of overheating include panting, laying on one side, and lethargy.
If you think your pet rabbit might be overheated, contact a vet nearby right away.
Rabbit Diet and Nutrition
What do rabbits eat and drink?
Rabbits always need a source of water. Ceramic water bowls are the best option because they are easy to keep clean. If you use a water bottle, purchase a glass one that can easily be disinfected with boiling water, cooled and then placed back into the enclosure. Check daily to make sure your rabbit has enough clean water to drink.
Your pet rabbit should eat a healthy mix of hay, vegetables and pellets. Occasionally, you can offer your rabbit commercial treats or pieces of fruit. Despite what pop culture tells us, iceberg lettuce and carrots are not the main components of a healthy diet for rabbits.
Use 2 food bowls.
One for pellets and one for vegetables. Clean the bowls every 1-2 days.
Hay should be available at all times.
A rabbit must be able to chew on hay all the time. This helps keep their guts moving constantly. Most people either get a hay bin that rabbits can easily access or put it in a litter box that the rabbit can jump into to use the restroom and feed. You can also use a hay grid or cardboard box to keep hay in a general area of the cage.
Rabbits primarily feed on hay and it should make up 75-80% of their diet. There are many different types of hay. We recommend Timothy hay as a staple hay for rabbits because of its nutritional value. Other types of hay include oat hay, meadow hay, mountain grass hay, alfalfa hay, orchard grass hay, and more. It is important to always consult a rabbit vet before changing the type of hay being given completely. If you change brands of hay, make the transition gradually. This will reduce the chances of upsetting your bunny rabbit’s tummy.
More fiber, less protein
Rabbits need lots of fiber, and not so much protein. You should choose your hay accordingly. There are different types of hay cuttings and each one has different nutritional value. Commercial brands usually pick hay at the first or second cutting. This is when the hay has the least protein and most fiber.
Rabbits need all this fiber to keep their gut motility steady. They are hindgut fermenters which means they utilize their large intestines and cecums to digest the hard fiber they consume. As an additional benefit, the high-fiber hay is difficult to chew and it helps make sure that your rabbit’s teeth stay shaped correctly.
The reason rabbits are best off avoiding too much protein is because a high-protein hay can lead to weight gain and obesity. Carefully read the analysis facts on a hay bag to make sure that you are giving your pet rabbit the best nutrition. If you choose Timothy hay, orchard grass hay, oat hay or meadow hay, make sure that there is 7% crude protein and 32% crude fiber content. Alfalfa hay has 16% crude protein and 32% crude fiber which is not recommended for a full-grown rabbit. Many young rabbits and gestating rabbits will eat this food because they need the extra energy.
Avoid moldy hay
Hay should be inspected constantly for mold, wetness or anything that may make it seem soiled. If you purchase large amounts of hay, store it in a place with proper ventilation. To keep hay from breaking down too quickly, make sure that there are small holes in any container used.
Rabbits need their veggies!
Fresh greens should make up about 10% of your rabbit’s diet. Give your rabbit about 2 cups per 6 lbs of body weight each day. Rabbits can eat a variety of leafy greens, some which are listed here.
NOTE: There are some vegetables and fruits that should never be offered to a rabbit. These include nightshade plants, the stems of peppers and tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. Pepper and tomato can be offered in very small quantities. Avocado, chocolate, apple seeds and rhubarb should never be given to a rabbit.
Pellets can be served as a nutritional supplement, but they should make up only 5% of your pet rabbit’s diet. They are not critical to the rabbit’s health and should never be a rabbit’s only food source. The best way to determine the right amount for your rabbit is ask a rabbit vet to recommend the correct portion size for each individual rabbit.
How to choose rabbit pellets
Check that the pellets you choose do not include nuts, seeds or dried fruit. These can elevate a rabbit’s cholesterol or alter the types of sugars in their GI tract. Knowing whether your pellets are Timothy or alfalfa based is also important since alfalfa pellets should only be given to baby or senior rabbits.
NOTE: What NOT to feed your pet rabbit
Avoid giving your pet rabbit high amounts of any starchy vegetables or nightshades because they can upset your rabbit’s GI tract. Human food like bread, dairy and meat should never be given to a rabbit.
If your rabbit has ingested human food or anything else outside of their normal diet, contact a rabbit vet near you immediately.
The following is a list of common behaviors that you can expect to see in your pet rabbit from time to time.
Chewing: Rabbits enjoy chewing...a lot. If you’ve introduced your pet to a new environment, monitor him to avoid any destruction and to ensure your pet’s safety. A rabbit’s teeth are constantly growing and can bother your pet. Chewing helps alleviate the pain. Rabbits often have favorite spots to chew on. To protect your home and furniture, you can try coating tempting surfaces with bitter orange spray, vinegar or strong tape.
Spraying: Male rabbits who are not neutered usually spray urine when entering a territorial stage of their lives. Sometimes this behavior can be lessened by adding more litter boxes or areas where they can urinate. The best way to solve this is by neutering your male rabbit. With less testosterone flowing through their bodies, male rabbits will usually no longer feel the need to spray.
Thumping: Since rabbits are prey animals, they feel very susceptible to attacks. One defense mechanism they have is their feet. When provoked and angry, a rabbit will bang their feet against the ground to produce an alarming sound. Most pet rabbits do this when they feel displeasure or discontent rather than fear. If your pet rabbit is thumping regularly, you may want to contact your local vet to make sure they are ok.
Grunting: Vocalizations from rabbits are not common, but some rabbits are more vocal than others. This grunting can sound aggressive. Some rabbits use this noise to show displeasure in a situation or to show dominance to a subordinate.
Honking: This type of rabbit vocalization is related to sexual activity. A rabbit that is interested in mating will usually honk at something or someone. Honking is associated with a rabbit circling the object or person that they are interested in mating with. This behavior is common to unaltered rabbits.
Purring or teeth chattering: This is a vocalization that should be music to a rabbit owner’s ears. Most rabbits make this noise when they are resting and content with life. They do it as they eat, when being pet or simple because they feel at ease. This type of teeth chattering is audible but not very loud; some people describe it as more of a vibration. Loud teeth chattering or grinding is a sign of pain and should never be taken lightly.
Binkying: Rabbits who are very happy and excited by life will jump in the air and kick their feet to the side. This is a binky. It looks very ridiculous and some rabbits are not very skilled at binkying. Most binkies will start out as a rushed run and then a quick hop in the air. This is a good sign that your pet rabbit is enjoying themselves.
Bonding: Rabbits by nature enjoy being with more than one rabbit. This is not to say that a lone rabbit is unhappy. As with humans, some rabbits are happier alone. Rabbits in pairs essentially make sure that neither ever feel alone. They can groom, eat, sleep, and play together. Like with most animals, if a pair is bonded, they will likely find it harder to bond with other humans.
What do rabbits like to play?
Rabbits are playful animals and your pet should always be given appropriate toys. Good options include ink-free cardboard, paper towel rolls, toilet rolls, apple wood and other natural toys.
Sometimes a rabbit will enjoy soft blankets to dig at instead of toys. Dig boxes can serve as another form of enrichment for rabbits. Make sure that any dirt used is pesticide and fertilizer-free so that the rabbit can dig without a risk of illness. Rabbits should always be supervised when playing in a dig box, and it should be removed and cleaned as needed.
Rabbits love playing on the floor and outside, and they can even be taught tricks. But remember that rabbits can be scared at first. If you have a new rabbit, help them feel comfortable in their new home before you start teaching them tricks!
Will my rabbit cuddle with me?
In general, rabbits are great pets for people who like to watch their pets enjoy their surroundings with minimal interaction at times. Other times, rabbits can be very affectionate and loving when they feel comfortable. Many enjoy being pet on the head and by their ears or cheeks. The backside and belly of a rabbit are sensitive and most rabbits won’t want to be pet there.
What to do when you take home a new pet rabbit
One of the most important things to remember when you get a new pet rabbit is that they are a prey species. This means that anything larger than them is frightening. Trying to pick up a rabbit will frighten them because something is scooping them off the ground. Trying to run after a rabbit is frightening.
If you want to help your rabbit gain confidence and want to play in their new home, the first step is to make them comfortable and allow them to set the pace. Every rabbit will be different. Without patience, rabbits will find it hard to bond to anyone.
It can take anywhere from a day to more than a year to gain a rabbit’s trust.
Floor time is crucial to making a rabbit more comfortable around people. Let your rabbit explore and investigate their new home. Don’t make any fast moments. Instead, try sitting on the ground and reading a book without making too much contact with the rabbit. It can take anywhere from a day to more than a year to gain a rabbit’s trust. A rabbit will slowly show their comfort by resting near you with no barriers around them and by lying down. A well-adjusted, happy bunny might even flip over completely onto their back for a period of time. This is a rabbit that is certain that the area they are in is not a dangerous one!
NOTE: If you have a new pet rabbit, be sure to schedule an appointment with a nearby veterinarian.
Teaching an old rabbit new tricks
Once trust has been achieved, some rabbits like to learn tricks. Use treats to incentivize repetitive actions. For example, if you say “Bunny, come!” and offer them a treat every time, they will learn to associate that phrase with a good action.
Medical Care for Your Pet Rabbit
Spaying or neutering your pet rabbit
The most important decision that someone can make for a rabbit is to alter them. Spaying or neutering a rabbit will prevent many diseases and the decision to alter a rabbit can extend their lives up to 4 years. Unfortunately, a rabbit’s uterus or testicles can become infected or grow masses. This can lead to many complications that will require veterinary intervention. Making the decision to spay or neuter early lowers any chance of surgical risk and later-in-life illnesses. Plus...it ensures you won’t end up with a house full of dozens of rabbits!
Recommended checkups for a pet rabbit
A rabbit should be brought in to see a vet soon after first being brought home. A general check up will let the veterinarian identify the baseline health of the rabbit and can help rule out any unknown illnesses. Your rabbit veterinarian should also do blood work to ensure that your pet is in good health. This information will be useful in the following years as your vet continues to monitor your rabbit’s health. Finally, a fecal screening will allow doctors to diagnose any internal parasites and some GI tract abnormalities.
Common rabbit diseases
The following is a list of common rabbit health concerns. Observing your pet rabbit and bringing them in for an annual physical will help prevent these ailments or catch them early on, while they can be treated:
E. cuniculi infection
Uterine or Testicular cancers
Ear and eye infections
Parasites & other GI abnormalities
How can you tell when your rabbit is sick?
If you have a sick rabbit, they may show you in one of the following ways. If you witness any of these, contact your rabbit veterinarian right away:
Changes in appetite or fecal output
Constant scratching or fur loss
Difficulty balancing, walking, or head tilt
Drooling/Changes in food choices
Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
The following is a list of rabbit emergencies or signs that your pet rabbit might need critical care. If your rabbit exhibits any of the following, seek veterinary care immediately.
Not eating, drinking or pooping
Difficulty urinating or blood in the urine
Discharge from the eyes and/or nose
Boarding for Your Pet Rabbit
At Long Island Bird & Exotic Pet Vet, rabbits are offered a large cage to stay in most of the day. They will have plenty of hay, pellets and veggies to eat, as well as water in their cage. Rabbits are given time to play outdoors, when weather permits. We snuggle with our guest pet rabbits, give them treats, play with them and place them in a clean, fresh cage for rest. We promise to provide your pet with lots of TLC, so you can travel stress-free.