Caring For Rabbits

These tips about rabbit food, housing, training, companionship, behavior and more help you know what to expect as a rabbit owner and how to help your rabbit live a long, happy life.

Pet rabbits are living longer lives than ever before. artemisphoto/iStock/Thinkstock

By Caroline Charland

Because so much more is known about rabbits these days, some pet rabbits are living up to 15 years old. I have been lucky enough to have house rabbits as part of my life for more than 30 years; they mean the world to me. Provide the best for your rabbit and you will be rewarded as I have, with many years of binkies, bunny smiles, nudges, licks and purrs. Following are my recommendations based on years of rabbit care and rabbit rescue. I realize some other methods are used by people to care for rabbits, but the following work best in my opinion.

Tips About Rabbit Food

Food is one of the basic needs for rabbit care. So what do rabbits eat?

1. Hay, Hay And More Hay!

Eighty percent of a rabbit’s diet should be hay. Feeding too many pellets, vegetables or treats will fill up your rabbit and she will not eat enough hay. At the Bunny Bunch, the rabbit rescue I founded, we provide loose hay 24/7 for the rabbits in their litter boxes. For adult rabbits, offer your pet grass hays such as timothy, orchard or oat. For baby and young rabbits, provide alfalfa hay until they are about 6 months old.

2. Yummy Veggie Salads

A combination of three or four different types of vegetables makes a nice veggie salad. Some of the rabbit-safe veggies are: parsley, dandelion greens, cilantro, endive, escarole, red leaf lettuce, romaine, bok choy, radish tops, turnip greens, arugula and chard. Do not feed corn or legumes, as these may cause GI upset.

3. Pellets, Please

While rabbits enjoy pellets, for most rabbits these should be looked at more like a treat. The average-sized rabbit should only get an eighth to a quarter cup of pellets each day. This can be given all at once or split into two servings. Follow manufacturer instructions on portion size. A good-quality pellet is important, meaning a plain pellet high in fiber. It should not contain nuts, seeds, cereal, fruit or other bits. Adult rabbits should be fed a timothy pellet, while baby and young rabbits get an alfalfa pellet.

4. We Love Treats!

Rabbit owners love to spoil our rabbits but it’s best to feed them natural, healthy treats, such as edible flowers, grasses, twigs and herbs. Fruit can be fed in small amounts as a treat but don’t overfeed.

Fruits that rabbits enjoy include raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, bananas, apples, pears, peaches, papayas, mangoes and strawberries. If your rabbit is overweight or has GI problems, it is best to avoid fruit altogether. Consult your veterinarian for more information.

If you fed unhealthy treats in the past, once you switch over to healthy treats your rabbit will love them, and you, just as much.

5. Fresh Water

A bowl of fresh water should be available at all times for your rabbit. A nice heavy crock will prevent it becoming a toy and being flipped over. Clean the bowl and change the water daily.

6. Foods To Avoid Feeding Rabbits

In my opinion, rabbits should not be fed “junk food” pellets, meaning the kind that has nuts, seeds and colored bits of who knows what. I believe the same is true of many store-bought treats. Most have nuts, seeds, yogurt, cereal and rice. These are high in carbohydrates and most have sugar added, which are bad for bunnies.

Never feed cookies, crackers, bread, candy or other human snacks. Your rabbit may beg for them when you are eating these, so have a healthy rabbit snack standing by.

Also, who wants old hay? Always find a good reliable source for your rabbits’ hay. Rabbits know the good stuff when they see it.

Rabbit Housing Considerations

I believe that rabbits need to live indoors as part of the family. Why? There are so many dangers outdoors. Predators are a great danger to rabbits; some are clever enough to open latches and doors to a rabbit’s living area. Rabbits can literally die of fright, so just seeing a predator could kill them.

Heat and freezing temperatures are deadly for rabbits, too. Rabbits are unable to cool themselves enough to withstand high temperatures, so extreme care must be given to keep your rabbit cool. Indoors with air conditioning is best.

In my opinion, many cages and hutches are too small for a rabbit to live in. Cats and dogs don’t live in these, so why would a rabbit? Rabbits need lots of room to run and play. If your rabbit can’t live loose in your home or in a rabbit-proofed room in your home, then an exercise pen is a good way to provide enough room for a litter box, hidey-house, bed, food and water bowls and toys. The minimum size should be a 48- by 48-inch footprint; of course the bigger the better. Generally, a 30-inch high pen works well unless you have a jumper, then you may have to get a 36-inch or higher pen.

When it’s time for playtime outside the pen, make sure you have rabbit-proofed your home so there are no dangers. Rabbits love to chew, so make sure they do not have access to electric cords, dangerous plants or anything that could be harmful.

Training Rabbits

Can rabbits be trained? The short answer is yes. Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box, trained to do agility jumping and trained to do tricks.

Litter box training is easy. Rabbits are very clean animals, therefore if you provide a nice big litter box (big enough for your rabbit to lay down in stretched out), with rabbit-safe litter on the bottom and hay piled on top, your rabbit will hop in, munch on the hay and start using this as his place to go to the bathroom. If your rabbit is not spayed or neutered, he may not use it 100 percent of the time, so it’s another reason to have your rabbit spayed or neutered.

Tricks can be taught by rewarding your rabbit with a small healthy treat. For instance your rabbit may stand up on his back legs, turn in a circle, or even jump through a hoop. Keep in mind some rabbits just may not be comfortable doing this. Never force or punish a rabbit for not doing what you want.

One Rabbit Or Two?

The more the merrier. Rabbits naturally live in groups, so having a friend for your rabbit is important. Of course both must be spayed or neutered. It is best if you adopt a pair or trio who are already bonded. If you have a single rabbit, then take your rabbit on a bunny date to visit adoptable rabbits and see who he hits it off with. If you just bring home a rabbit without letting them meet first, they may not get along.

A Healthy Rabbit Is A Happy Rabbit

The proper diet, exercise and health care all help your rabbit live a long, happy, healthy life. Spaying can prevent uterine cancer and neutering can prevent testicular cancer. A yearly trip to an exotic vet for a checkup can help catch any health problems early on. As rabbits age they can experience the same illnesses as elderly cats, dogs and humans, such as arthritis, cataracts and heart problems. Many medications are available to help rabbits with these and other conditions.

Time For The Bunny Spa

Keeping your rabbit looking good also helps you to keep your pet feeling good. Time for grooming!

Too Much Hair

Rabbits go through several bad sheds each year. Because rabbits do groom themselves and ingest their hair, it is very important to brush them. When it’s shedding season, brush your rabbit daily to minimize the amount of hair your rabbit ingests and prevent GI blockages.

Nail Trims

An adult rabbit’s nails should be clipped about every four to six week. Baby rabbits have tiny little points at the ends of their nails. An emery board works well to file down the point.

The Stinky Scent Glands

Rabbits have two scent glands that need to be cleaned out. You can have your veterinarian or a groomer do this, or ask them to show you how to do it. These glands are located on either side of the genitals. The scent glands are two small pockets that collect a brownish-black clump of debris. It has a pungent odor, so don’t get too close when cleaning these out.

Signs That Something Is Wrong

It’s time to go to your veterinarian if your rabbit doesn’t come running when the pellets, veggies or treats are given, is sitting in a hunched position, is grinding teeth (grinding teeth in a rabbit is a sign of pain), or is just acting a bit off. Act quickly and don’t wait. It could save your rabbit’s life.

Car Travel With Your Rabbit

For short car trips, such as to the vet, your rabbit should be in hard plastic-type carrier; a top opening works well in my experience. Soft material carriers will not protect your rabbit, plus your rabbit may chew out. Put a thick bath towel in the bottom of the carrier and add a pile of hay and a few veggies. Carry a bottle of water and a small bowl so you can offer your rabbit a drink when you get to your destination. If it’s a hot day, take along a couple of frozen water bottles to keep your rabbit cool in case your air conditioner breaks or you get stranded out in the heat. Avoid traveling on a hot day with your rabbit in a car that does not have air conditioning.

Common Questions Rabbit Owners Ask

1. Why does my rabbit jump in the air and twist around?

That is called a binky. Rabbits love to run and jump in the air and twist their body around. They do this when they are really happy.

2. Why does my rabbit thump?

For wild rabbits, thumping (pounding a rear leg on the ground) is a signal of danger to alert the other rabbits. But for house rabbits thumping can mean, “No I don’t want to go back to my exercise pen,” or “Why did you just rearrange my living quarters?” It can also be because they see a stray cat outside, see people they don’t know or to get your attention.

3. Why does my rabbit act like he is dead?

That is called a bunny flop. Rabbits will all of a sudden flop on their side and fall asleep. Of course it’s scary when you first see it happen. But when you look closer, you can often see their nose and whiskers twitching while dreaming.

4. Why does my rabbit’s mouth vibrate?

This is a rabbit purring. They do this when they are being stroked, getting ear rubs or just because they are happy lying next to you.

5. Why does my rabbit lay down with legs stretched out behind him?

That is called a bunny smile. Legs stretched out behind a rabbit means he is really relaxed and enjoying life.

Article Categories:
Critters · Rabbits