Rabbits are a fun indoor pet for adults and supervised children. They tend not to bite, are sturdier than the small rodents, require less veterinary care than cats or dogs and have unique personalities. Most rabbits are docile, especially when neutered, and they can be litter trained. Males and spayed females live an average of ten to twelve years and unspayed females live eight to twelve years. Rabbits can be obtained from shelters or rescues, breeders or pet stores. All new pets need a veterinary exam when they are first obtained to ensure they are healthy and prevent any contagious diseases from being transmitted to family members or other pets. A stool specimen should also be checked for intestinal parasites at that time. Healthy rabbits should then be examined and checked for parasites annually from then on.
Diet and Nutrition
A rabbit’s digestive tract is very different from that of a dog or cat and the importance of adequate fiber cannot be overly stressed. A rabbit has an active cecum that allows it to digest hay. Many nutrients are made available by digestion that occurs in the cecum, which is located at the origin of the large intestine. In order to allow absorption by the small intestine, the rabbit “recycles” these nutrients by eating his own fecal pellets. Rabbits even make a different type of pellet, called a “cecotrope,” which has more nutrients. This behavior usually happens at night and is often unnoticed by the owner. The balance of bacteria and other organisms in the rabbit’s digestive tract must be just right to maintain normal motility, digestion, absorption, and elimination. We know that fiber, in the form of timothy or grass hay, is an essential aid to this process.
An example of a proper diet for a rabbit is:
- Free choice grass hay (oat or timothy; not alfalfa)
- 1/4 cup alfalfa pellets per 5 lbs. of rabbit per day
- 1 cup leafy dark green vegetables per 5 lbs. of rabbit per day (dandelion greens, kale, mustard greens, romaine, endive, carrot tops, parsley, etc.)
- Treats: 1 level teaspoon per 5 lbs. of rabbit per day (banana, apple, carrot, papaya)
- Free choice clean water
Feeding a rabbit a diet containing inadequate amounts of fiber or one that is too high in carbohydrates causes the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to function improperly. It begins to shut down, causing various degrees of what is called GI stasis. GI stasis, if not taken care of immediately, can cause your rabbit to die a very painful death. GI stasis refers to the slowing down of the normal motility of the GI tract. A rabbit with GI stasis will often stop eating and, if the anorexia lasts long enough, the rabbit will die. One easy way to assess how well your rabbit is eating and digesting food is to pay attention to his fecal pellets. A healthy rabbit produces numerous regular slightly moist pellets (we call them “rabbit raisins”). Loss of appetite causes rabbits to make fecal pellets that are smaller, drier and less numerous. Have your rabbit examined as soon as possible should you see this happen. In most cases, especially those caught early by observant owners, GI stasis can be reversed with time, patience and good advice from your rabbit’s veterinarian. Our goal is to prevent this from happening at all!
Litter and Cage Training
Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box inside and outside of their cages. Keep the following in mind as you choose your litter: most rabbits spend lots of time in their litter boxes, rabbits will always nibble some of the litter and rabbit urine has a strong odor. There are many types of litter available. Some reasonable options include organic litters, made from alfalfa, oat, citrus or paper. Non-clumping clay litter can be used for rabbits that do not ingest their litter.
Use a cage large enough to contain a small litter box (along with bunny’s food and water bowls, toys, etc.) and still allow enough room for the rabbit to stretch out. Place the box in the corner of the cage that he eliminates in. If possible, use a cage large enough to also house a nest box for your rabbit. The purpose of the nest box is to provide a space for your pet to cozy up in other than the litter box. A nest box can be as simple as a second plastic litter box with toweling to lie in. All rabbits will drop fecal “pills” around their cages to mark it as their own. This is not a failure to be litter-trained. It is very important for your rabbit to identify the cage as her property so that when she leaves the cage for the bigger world of your house, she will distinguish the family’s area from her own and avoid marking it. Try not to force him in or out of the cage: coax him in or out with treats and praise.
One trick to keeping your rabbit marking only his cage is to give him ownership of his cage:
- Don’t reach into the cage to take him out; open the door and allow him to come out on his own
- Don’t catch him and put him back in the cage or it will seem more like punishment. Herd him back towards his cage gently, and let him “choose” to go in. If the rabbit has been snuggling with you, it’s okay to carry him to the
- Door of the cage and herd him in–just don’t put him directly into the cage. Avoid chasing or trapping
- him to put him in the cage.
- Don’t reach into the cage to get food dishes: anchor them near the door of the cage so they can be filled without reaching into the cage or wait until the rabbit is out of the cage to fill them.
- Don’t clean the cage while the rabbit is in it: wait until he comes out. He will supervise you and perhaps even help you relocate his cage furniture. As long as he is not in the cage he won’t see the cleaning as an invasion of his territory.
Grooming and Handling
Rabbits shed every three months and can develop hairballs because they are fastidious groomers. Unlike cats, they cannot vomit and the hair they ingest can block the exit of their stomach and cause them to starve if untreated. Rabbits therefore need to be brushed at least weekly in order to remove the loose hair before they ingest it themselves. House rabbits that spend all of their time inside periodically need to have their toenails trimmed. Excessive digging or scratching at flooring can be reduced by providing your bunny with an acceptable spot for digging, such as a large box of hay or straw. Soft, dry, clean resting pads (rugs) should be provided in the cage to protect your rabbit’s feet. Irritated skin is very likely to become infected, so prevention is essential.
Altered rabbits are healthier and live longer than unaltered rabbits. The risk of reproductive cancers (ovarian, uterine, and mammary) is virtually eliminated by spaying your female rabbit. Neutered male rabbits can be housed with other males since they won’t be tempted to fight or with females since they cannot mate. Altered rabbits also make better companions. They are calmer and usually more affectionate. They are also less prone to destructive chewing and digging along with diminished aggression towards their owners (biting, lunging, circling or growling and grunting). Avoidance of obnoxious behaviors is another reason to spay and neuter rabbits. Unneutered male rabbits spray and both males and females are much easier to litter train after they have been altered. Females can be spayed as soon as they sexually mature, usually around 4 months of age. While they can be neutered at any age, it is preferable to spay females prior to age three to prevent uterine cancer and before they are obese, which improves surgical ease and outcomes. Males can be neutered as soon as the testicles descend, usually around 3-1/2 months of age. Please review our surgical handouts for descriptions of the spay and neuter procedures for rabbits.
Just as in cats and dogs, obesity can cause many health problems for rabbits as well. It can contribute to stomach and urinary tract problems because of decreased mobility. It also causes pododermatitis (foot & skin inflammation or sore hocks) because the rabbit bears more weight on his feet, especially the hind feet. Obesity can also make grooming more difficult for the animal, which can lead to hair mats, hairballs, scalding from feces and urine and skin infections. Your veterinary team is best equipped to advise you regarding what your pet’s appropriate diet and feeding schedule should be to maintain his ideal body condition.
Rabbit’s teeth grow continuously and must be checked often to ensure that they are wearing down properly. While you are brushing your rabbit or clipping his nails also look at his front teeth to make sure they are aligned correctly and not overgrown. The upper incisors should meet the lower ones at the biting surface and should not overlap. Bunnies with straight teeth will keep them worn down with everyday gnawing and chewing. Bunnies with malocclusions, or crooked teeth, will need to have their front teeth trimmed regularly. If tooth overgrowth occurs and is left untreated, the rabbit will not be able to eat properly and overgrown teeth can cut the lips or even grow into the nose. Proper diet is essential to dental health and bunnies fed diets that are high in pellets and low in fiber will not wear their back teeth effectively. It is important to feed your rabbit timothy hay and fibrous vegetables to encourage constant chewing and tooth wear. Your veterinarian will use a speculum, or special flashlight and probe, to check your rabbit’s back teeth during his annual exam.
Rabbits can suffer from a respiratory condition known as “snuffles”. This condition is caused by a bacterium called Pasturella. Most bunnies are exposed to Pasturella when they are babies. The bacterial infection can manifest itself in two ways. The first is an upper respiratory complex that can include discharge from the eyes and/or nose and sneezing. If the symptoms are left untreated the rabbit can develop pneumonia, which is often fatal. The second syndrome is the formation of abscesses, usually in the jaw or neck area. The key to keeping your rabbit from developing clinical Pasturella is to reduce your pet’s stress by keeping his environment and housing clean, using appropriate bedding, a proper diet and eliminating any parasites your rabbit may harbor. Coupling good husbandry with annual visits to your veterinarian are the keys to keeping your rabbit happy and healthy!