I have grown up with pets all my life. My family consists of pet lovers, and therefore we always had one around. The itch for me started when I was two years old; my aunt gave me a rabbit for my birthday. Looking back, that probably was not the best decision, and I’m sure my parents loved her for it! There are hardly any pictures of me at that age that don’t also have my rabbit “Bun Bun” with me! Looking back now, I wonder how Bun Bun survived for as long as she did, as she honestly did go everywhere with me when I was home. After Bun Bun, there were more rabbits in my life. In fact, I had owned a rabbit most of my life, up until recently when my beloved Flemish Giant rabbit “Pepper” passed away. I still miss him every day!
Rabbits are very popular animals to own, especially in urban areas where homeowners and apartment dwellers do not have a lot of living space. There is also a myth floating around that bunnies make great pets for children because they are “fuzzy and low maintenance.” This is not actually true! Numerous different sources of pet ownership statistics show that aside from dogs and cats, rabbits are the third most popular animal to be released into the wild or taken to animal shelters in the United States. Therefore, In honor of February being National Adopt a Rabbit Month, Let’s learn more about the proper care of rabbits and how they make excellent companions for anyone.
- Owning a rabbit is not a short-term commitment. Rabbits can live from 7-10 years old, and some even longer!
- Rabbits are not animals that you can put in a cage and feed once daily. They are very social animals and require exercise and time to stretch out, mentally and physically.
- Speaking of feeding, rabbits need a lot more in their diet besides the commercial pellets you buy from a pet store. Refer to the Diet and Nutrition section for more specific information.
- Like with cats, you can litter box train rabbits! You may find some stray rabbit poops around your house, but fortunately, their fecal pellets are small and not usually soft or sticky. Therefore, their poop does not generally stain or ruin surfaces.
- Like dogs, you CAN train a bunny to perform certain behaviors or do some special tricks. Clicker training is very effective for rabbits.
- It can be argued that rabbits can be “lower maintenance” health-wise than other animals such as dogs or cats as they usually do not need regular vaccinations. However, a once-yearly examination by a veterinarian is still a good idea to ensure that bunny does not have any parasites or is developing any health problems.
Rabbits are often thought of as a great “starter pet” for children. This is a big myth, there is no such thing as a “pet for the children.” Children cannot be given full responsibility for a pet. From owning a goldfish to a rabbit, or even a puppy, every child will need guidance and supervision from their parents to ensure the pet is properly fed, cleaned up after, and properly socialized.
Housing and Bunny Behaviors
As I already mentioned, rabbits are social creatures and do not thrive when they are housed in a cage with minimal interaction. Here are some facts about housing for rabbits:
- Traditionally, rabbits were housed in cages with wire flooring, so their urine and fecal droppings can fall out the bottom of the cage either on the ground or into a pan. It was quickly discovered that when rabbits are housed this way, they can develop very sore feet and hocks, which can lead to infections and even abscesses. Rabbits need to be housed in an enclosure with a soft floor to provide protection for their feet.
- Rabbits are sensitive to extreme weather and therefore, should not be housed outside without protection from the elements. They lack sweat glands, so they can quickly overheat and have a hard time cooling off. Cold weather can be dangerous to rabbits as they have less fur near their ears and paws, so those are vulnerable spots for frostbite.
- Housing a rabbit outside in a hutch can be hazardous as there are wildlife and even local predators such as neighbor dogs and cats that can get in your backyard and to the bunny. There have been many cases of neighbor dogs or coyotes ripping open a wire cage to get to the bunny. Even if the predator does not successfully reach the bunny, some rabbits become injured trying to escape. Some have even died due to the sheer fright of the situation.
- Rabbits are active critters and need a minimum of 4 hours of exercise outside of their enclosure daily to prevent obesity, boredom, and potential health problems.
- Rabbits are generally social animals and love exploring. They do not like too much loud noise and usually do not like being picked up and carried. Because of this, one would argue that rabbits would not be the right pet for children. However, with proper supervision and involvement from parents, rabbits can make a great pet for kids when appropriately handled.
- Some rabbits do enjoy sitting in your lap and being pet or having their head scratched, but most rabbits prefer to be near you rather than being directly held. Every rabbit has its own individual personality.
- Rabbits are very playful animals and enjoy having toys to chew on or chase around.
- Rabbits make great indoor pets, with proper precautions and preparations made in your house. They can be like puppies as they are natural chewers, and most rabbits enjoy digging and hiding under things, so if your rabbit is going to be a house bunny, care must be taken to “rabbit-proof” your house.
- Many rabbits that are “house bunnies” turn out to have similar personalities to dogs! My house bunnies would greet me at the door when I would come into the house, and even come running if I opened the fridge.
After you have considered the proper housing and natural behavioral traits for a rabbit, the next important thing is proper diet and nutritional needs.
Diet and Nutrition
Because of how a rabbit’s digestive system works, there needs to be constant mobility of food and water through their system. Read more about how a rabbit’s digestive system works here. If a rabbit does not have a proper diet, they could experience many different health problems, including GI Stasis, which causes intestinal mobility to slow down or completely stop. This condition is very time-sensitive and life-threatening to the bunny.
Proper nutrition will not guarantee that a bunny will have perfect health, but it does play a massive role in overall health. Here is what a rabbit’s diet should consist of:
- 75-80% of Grass hays, available to bunny always. Hay provides fiber, contains a good number of calories for the bunny, and helps stimulate a healthy digestive system. Hay is also very healthy for a rabbit’s teeth, as it is tough to chew and helps keep their teeth worn appropriately.
- 20% of a high-fiber pelleted food will also help with calories and will provide protein, vitamins and minerals, and essential fatty acids. Pellets do NOT have the same nutritional value as hay and vegetables, and therefore they should be fed as a limited amount and cannot be the ONLY thing that bunny gets in their diet. The amount of pellets to feed a rabbit depends on their age, breed, and for female rabbits if they are pregnant or nursing.
- 5-15% of green vegetables. Greens provide proper amounts of vitamins and minerals, as well as water. Like with any animal, some vegetables can be harmful to bunnies, so make sure to check out the House Rabbit website for more information on safe vegetables for rabbits.
- Fresh water should be available to bunnies at all times.
Other Diet Considerations
- Rabbits will also produce a very soft stool called Cecotropes, which they will actually re-ingest as it helps re-introduce healthy bacteria into their system. A proper diet ensures the adequate formation of cecotropes.
- Avoid giving bunny sugary treats such as yogurt drops, popcorn, bread, crackers, nuts, seeds, or dried fruits. Too many sugars can cause an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the rabbit’s intestinal tract, causing health problems.
As mentioned, a proper diet is essential to the overall health of the bunny, but it will not guarantee your rabbit will always be in excellent health. Other factors in the bunny’s health need to be taken into consideration.
- There is a reason that the rabbit is the symbol of fertility! Rabbits reach sexual maturity between 3-6 months of age and can have litters every 30 days. They also can get pregnant very soon after giving birth! This is because nature created rabbits as a prey species, and therefore they will keep producing litters to keep their species alive. If a person is getting two rabbits, it is essential to get them spayed or neutered as people tend to mistake the sex of rabbits when they are younger. Suddenly, the two “sisters” you have adopted have expanded their family!
- Like dogs and cats, rabbits should be spayed and neutered to avoid unwanted behaviors and health problems. When rabbits reach sexual maturity, they can be quite territorial to other rabbits, other animals, and even humans. They could get a little upset when you are reaching your hands into their house to pick them up, or do some cleaning. Furthermore, studies show that unspayed female rabbits have a 70-80% chance of developing uterine cancer later in life.
- Rabbits have teeth that are continuously growing; therefore, they must always have something to chew on! If they cannot wear down their teeth, they could become long enough to curl inside the rabbit’s mouth and nasal area, causing extreme discomfort and many medical problems.
- Rabbits should be brushed regularly (even short-haired ones!) to prevent them from ingesting too much hair while grooming themselves.
- Find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian BEFORE you need to see them. The truth is, there are not that many veterinarians out there that will treat rabbits, and rabbits can be very sensitive to certain medications, as well as anesthesia. It is essential to have a veterinarian that is familiar with rabbits, so they know what to look out for.
So… WHY own a rabbit?
Now that we have learned about the housing, diet, and health needs of rabbits, why would someone adopt a rabbit? Why not just get a dog or a cat? The truth is, just like there are dog people and cat people, there are just as many rabbit people!
- Rabbits are great to own when you have a smaller house with not a lot of room or property.
- They are generally quiet critters as they don’t bark or meow.
- Bunnies are very social and affectionate animals. When given the time and developing trust, some rabbits are happy to follow their owners around the house and bond with them.
- Coming from natural instincts with living in the wild, rabbits tend to be the most active in the morning and in the evening when you are usually home!
- Rabbits have very comical personalities with all their hops, jumps, and methods of play with their toys.
- Rabbits are usually clean animals and don’t require much grooming, other than the occasional brushing.
- Although rabbits do require exercise, they certainly don’t need that three-mile walk daily that a dog might need.
If you decide that a rabbit would be the right fit for your lifestyle or family, that’s great! Like dogs and cats, there are many different breeds of rabbits available. You can find rabbits at pet or feed stores, rabbit shows, 4H shows, from private breeders, and of course, shelters or rescues.
If you are not picky at all about the breed of rabbit you want, please think twice before buying a rabbit from a store, there are always rabbits in shelters and rescues! Rabbits that are in store settings can get sick if they are housed incorrectly or are too stressed out by being handled all day long. As mentioned, rabbits are the third most popular pet being relinquished to shelters, so consider checking out a shelter or a rescue. Because of overpopulation and how fast rabbits will breed, usually, about 70-75% of rabbits that are taken to the shelter are adopted out. The remaining are at risk of being euthanized due to lack of space. If you adopt a rabbit, you are also saving TWO lives, the rabbit you adopted, as well as making room for another rabbit to have a chance at the shelter.
For more great information about rabbits, check out the House Rabbit Society website at www.rabbit.org.
Proper Housing information: “Housing Update”
Information on Rabbit-proofing your house: “Rabbit Proofing”
Proper veggies and fruits to feed bunnies: “What to Feed Your Rabbit”