By Matt Soniak
Rabbits are sometimes seen as low-maintenance, “starter” pets that can get by in an outdoor hutch with a few carrots and little monitoring. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Domestic rabbits are indoor pets that require as much attention as any other pet, including a specific diet and daily meals, regular cleaning of their quarters, daily monitoring and time out of their cage and medical care from a veterinarian with knowledge of and experience working with rabbits.
Rabbits are also highly social animals that crave contact and interaction with their human caretakers. They need a lot more time and effort than people assume, but the payoff is a curious, playful companion that will be part of the family for years.
Where Can I Find a Rabbit and What do I Need to Care for It?
Because of the rabbit’s misrepresentation as an easy pet, many shelters have rabbits that were given up by people that couldn’t take care of them. To adopt a rabbit, check with local animal shelters, small animal rescue groups or the closest chapter of the House Rabbit Society. Rabbit Rescue and Rehab, the New York City chapter of the House Rabbit Society recommends the following items as part of their rabbit supply checklist:
- Habitat: though they’re relatively small, rabbits need quite a bit of space to stretch out or hop around. Mary Cotter, founder of Rabbit Rescue and Rehab and vice president of House Rabbit Society, recommends a puppy playpen for your rabbit to call home, but if you have to use a cage, make it the largest one you can get. The House Rabbit Society recommends purchasing a cage or crate no smaller than four feet long, two feet wide and four feet tall. This provides enough space for a litter box, toys, food and water bowls and for the rabbit to stand or lay stretched out. The crate should have a solid bottom, and a mat, blanket or towel on the bottom of the crate will keep the rabbit from slipping and give it a comfortable surface to sit on.
- Travel carrier: to take your rabbit home or to and from the veterinarian, you’ll need a hard plastic animal carrier, lined on the bottom with something soft and absorbent like a towel or blanket.
- Litter box and litter: rabbits are tidy by nature and won’t do their business freely all around their crate. Instead, they’ll pick one corner of the crate as their bathroom and consistently go there. Once your rabbit has made their choice, place the litter box or pan there. Cotter recommends lining the box with a layer of newspaper and then filling it all the way to the top with hay. This creates a “miniature yard” for the rabbit, where it can sit, eat and do its business while the hay absorbs the smell.
- Food: including hay, vegetables and pellets. Rabbits also need to stay hydrated, or intestinal issues can quickly occur. Fresh, clean water should always be available.
- Bowls for food and water: rabbits are curious and playful, and prone to tipping and flipping lightweight bowls as they move them around and explore their living space. Heavy ceramic crocks or metal bowls will be harder for rabbits to spill.
- Grooming tools: a soft, rabbit-safe brush is essential for removing hair when your rabbit sheds and safety nail clippers should be used for trimming a rabbit’s nails.
- Toys: toys provide mental and physical stimulation to keep rabbits from getting bored, overweight and depressed. Good rabbit toys include paper bags and cardboard boxes for crawling into, scratching and chewing, small balls or cat toys that can be tossed around and kitty condos for climbing.
- Play and exercise area: rabbits need four to five hours each day outside of their crate to exercise, play and socialize. For that, you’ll need a fairly large, rabbit-proofed space. Ideally, this area is carpeted to provide traction as the rabbit runs and jumps, as they can slip or slide and injure themselves on a hardwood or tile surface.
How to Feed and Groom a Rabbit
Rabbits require a mix of the following items in order to maintain a healthy diet:
- Hay: stimulates rabbits’ normal chewing behaviors and provides appropriate wear on their teeth, preventing dental disease. The fiber in hay will also encourage proper digestion. Fresh grass hays (such as Timothy, oat, coastal, brome, Bahia or wheat hay) should be provided to the rabbit in unlimited amounts every day. “Hay is the most important part of the diet; they can survive on this alone,” said Dr. Darryl Heard, DVM and professor at the University of Florida’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
- Vegetables: leafy green vegetables are used to supplement the hay and provide additional vitamins and nutrients. The House Rabbit Society recommends feeding your rabbit a daily mix of three different vegetables like carrots, collard greens, beet greens, broccoli and romaine lettuce.
- Rabbit pellets: provide additional nutrients to a rabbit but should only be fed as an additional supplement to its diet. Rabbit Rescue and Rehab advises against pellets that contain seeds, nuts or corn, as these are not required in a rabbit’s diet and can contribute to health problems.
- Water: as mentioned, rabbits should have access to fresh, clean water at all times. Sipper bottles can be used, Heard said, but should be checked regularly to ensure they are working properly, as rabbits will chew on the ends and can cause them to jam.
- Treats: every pet deserves a treat now and again, but be careful which ones you pick for your rabbit. Too many simple sugars or starches can throw the balance of bacteria in their intestinal tracts off, causing illness.
When it comes to keeping your rabbit clean, rabbits are prodigious self-groomers and don’t need a whole lot of help from us, Cotter said. They’ll need to be brushed during their sheds and have their nails clipped every few months, but that’s is generally all that’s needed. Be sure to talk to your veterinarian about any nail-trimming questions you have before you attempt clipping at home. Rabbit Rescue and Rehab recommends changing your rabbit’s litter box daily and cleaning the crate once or twice a week by emptying it, sweeping it out and scrubbing the bottom with warm water.
How to Keep a Rabbit Safe Around the House
“Rabbits are very inquisitive and can get into trouble anywhere,” said Nickol Finch, head of the Exotics and Wildlife Department at Washington State University Veterinary Hospital. “They can open cupboards and chew on cleaners, they will chew on wood work, carpeting [and] wires, which can result in electrocution.”
To rabbit-proof your pet’s play area, move houseplants or cover them with sheets and protect cords and wires with flexible plastic tubing. Cotter recommends putting sport socks on any furniture legs that the rabbit can get to. They won’t save the wood from being chewed, but can buy you a few minutes to redirect your rabbit’s attention to its own toys.
Rabbits are small and delicate, and great care needs to be taken when handling them. Adults should be the primary caretaker of a pet rabbit and carefully supervise children interacting with them. When a rabbit must be held or carried, support their front half, under their rib cage, with one hand and their rear end with the other, holding them close to your body like a football. Keep their legs tucked underneath them to avoid back injury, and never lift a rabbit by the ears of scruff.
What Type of Medical Care Do Rabbits Need?
There are no recommended vaccines for rabbits in North America, but pet rabbits should be seen by a veterinarian at least once a year for a checkup and all pet rabbits should be spayed or neutered when they reach maturity. This helps prevent uterine cancer in female rabbits, aggressive behaviors like mounting and spraying in male rabbits and unintended breeding.
Finding a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about rabbit care and skilled in treating them can sometimes be difficult. The House Rabbit Society maintains lists of veterinarians around the country and your local chapter or rescue society can likely also recommend a local veterinarian with rabbit experience.
Caring for a Rabbit Over the Course of Its Life
There are dozens of different rabbit breeds that vary in size, color and body and ear type, but all have their own charms. A common misconception is that smaller breeds need less space than larger ones, but they actually need just as much room to run and hop around in.
Some breeds have special needs that owners need to keep in mind. Angora rabbits, Heard says, are predisposed to hairballs because of their long fur and must be groomed regularly to prevent these. Rex rabbits, meanwhile, don’t have enough cushioning on the bottoms of their feet and they often experience foot ulcers or other foot problems. Domestic rabbits can often live ten years or longer, sometimes well into their teens. As they age and grow, they’ll have different needs, especially as it pertains to their diet.
Since baby and adult rabbits have different nutritional requirements, Rabbit Rescue and Rehab suggests the following timeline as a guide for your rabbit’s changing diet:
- Seven weeks to seven months: unlimited pellets and alfalfa hay; at 12 weeks, introduce vegetables in half-ounce amounts.
- Seven months to one year: introduce other hays and decrease alfalfa; decrease pellets to half a cup per six pounds body weight; increase veggies gradually to two cups per six pounds of body weight.
- One to five years: unlimited Timothy, grass and oat hay; half cup pellets and two cups veggies per six pounds of weight.
- Six and older: if normal weight, continue regular diet; if rabbit is frail or losing weight, more pellets may be needed maintain healthy weight. Rabbits can also become obese and suffer health effects from extra weight, so it is important to stay in the healthy range.
Health care needs change with age, too. Younger rabbits are susceptible to intestinal disease as they develop the ability to digest hay and establish normal gut function, Heard said, and irregular bathroom use or loss of appetite can signal a problem. Older rabbits, meanwhile, often develop arthritis and kidney problems. “Regular examination by a veterinarian can identify these issues and provide therapy to make your animal more comfortable,” he said.