Care of Rabbits
The domestic rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, is a descendant of wild rabbits living in Western Europe and Northern Africa. In their natural environment, rabbits are gregarious and live in colonies. They are completely herbivorous and tend to forage in the twilight or nighttime hours. They use their claws to dig and burrow into the ground. They rarely stand their ground when threatened, but instead run to escape harm. Domestic rabbits, however, can show an amazing degree of aggression when upset or threatened.
Rabbits live an average of 5-10 years, with a potential life span of 15 years. They can reach breeding age from 5-10 months old. Pregnancy lasts 31 days on average, and they usually have 4-10 bunnies in a litter.
In the wild, rabbits eat lots of grass, leaves, etc and a small amount of concentrated nutrients such as seeds, fruits, roots, etc. It is important to keep this in mind when feeding your pet rabbit. Hay is a very important part of the diet, to keep the intestinal track moving (rabbits are like horses in their intestinal makeup, and need lots of rough fiber every day for their colon to work properly) and to keep their teeth worn down. Rabbit’s teeth grow continuously, and tooth overgrowth is very common in rabbits who do not get hay regularly. The two common types of hay available are grass hay and alfalfa. Alfalfa is actually a legume (bean family) and therefore is very high in protein and has a very different calcium and mineral composition than grasses. It is too rich for rabbits, and can cause problems such as obesity and urinary stones. Therefore, we recommend a handful of good grass hay (mixed grasses such as orchard and timothy are great-make sure the hay is not moldy or overly dusty) every day. The average rabbit should have about 1/2 cup of pellets a day in addition to the hay (see below for pellet recommendations). This may vary with age and breed of rabbit. Other food items (such as carrot tops, carrots, very small amounts of dark green lettuces or other greens) can be offered in small amounts. A very small amount of fruit such as apples can be given a few times a week. Treats such as yogurt or yogurt pellets and commercial chews can be given, but only a few times a week as well. Some people like to give papaya tablets to their rabbits on a regular basis for intestinal health. This may decrease the amount of hair accumulating in the intestine, but it is not a proven fact.
There are many commercial types of pellets available in pet and feed stores, but they are not all created equal, and many were designed for meat rabbits (to cause rapid weight gain) who are not expected to live a long life. We strongly recommend Oxbow brand pellets as this company has consistently been the leader in pet rabbit (and guinea pig, rat, etc) nutrition research. Their products are made with consistent high quality ingredients. These pellets are available for sale at our clinic. We recommend a timothy based pellet called Bunny Basics T for adult rabbits (over 8 months of age) because the alfalfa is too rich as mentioned before. Growing, pregnant or sick rabbits (or rabbits that have trouble maintaining their weight) should have the Oxbow 15/23 pellets in unlimited amounts. Pellets should be as fresh as possible (as refusal to eat rancid pellets can be a common cause of inappetence in rabbits). You may wish to refrigerate your pellets to keep them fresher.
Fresh water should be offered daily, either in a drop bottle or a heavy ceramic dish that cannot be overturned easily. Clean the water bottles several times a week.
Rabbits on the Oxbow diets do not require salt blocks, but definitely can benefit from items to chew on such as clean, untreated wood or commercial chew sticks. No other supplements are needed or recommended.
Eating of Night Feces
Rabbits engage in an unusual but normal behavior when they deliberately eat small, soft, moist fecal pellets directly from their anus. These special “night stools” are especially rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. This way their food is essentially digested twice to get the most nutrition out of the forage. Rabbits must obtain these nutrients in order to be healthy. This behavior is most often carried out in the early morning hours and is rarely observed by an owner.
Handling and Restraint
Improper handling may cause serious life-threatening injuries. Fractures and dislocations of the back, often resulting in paralysis of the hind legs are the most common injuries. These injuries may also occur when rabbits are suddenly frightened and attempt to escape from a small enclosure. A rabbits spine is lightweight and fragile. When a rabbit becomes frightened, it struggles and kicks it’s powerful back legs, which may cause a back fracture. If a rabbit violently resists physical restraint, it should be immediately released.
A quiet, relaxed approach works best with rabbits. Covering the eyes and lightly stroking a rabbit will usually result in a trance like state. Rabbits should never be picked up by their ears. You may place a towel over the rabbit’s back and wrap in around the body before picking the rabbit up to avoid being scratched. Another approach is to slide one hand under the rabbit’s chest, grasp both front legs between your fingers, then cup the hind end with your other hand and roll the rabbit up against you facing outwards. Always support your rabbit’s hind end well so they do not kick out. A “football” hold or “baby” hold are also effective. We will be glad to show you the proper ways to hold your rabbit when you bring them in for their annual exams.
Rabbits can be housed indoors or outdoors. We, along with the house rabbit society, encourage keeping rabbits as house pets. They do very well and make affectionate and amusing pets. Indoor rabbits should be confined to a suitable enclosure when their activity cannot be actively supervised. They should never have unsupervised freedom within the home, as they love to chew, and may be injured by biting into electrical cords, and can be destructive to household furnishings.
A roomy wire cage with at least half of the floor surface covered with plexiglass or towels is recommended (to prevent hutch sores from the wire). If rabbits are housed out of doors, the cage should be elevated off the ground, and a shelter box provided inside the cage. Indoor rabbits benefit from a hiding box as well (where they can retreat to if they feel scared or stressed). Outdoor rabbits also need sufficient shade, as heat is very detrimental to rabbits. On hot summer days, they should be brought into a cooler building, or use fans and ice blocks to prevent overheating.
Indoor rabbits can be litter box trained. If a rabbit has selected an area for elimination, place the litter box there with some of the rabbit’s own pellets in it. The house rabbit society has excellent handouts with information on this and many other aspects of pet rabbit care (house rabbit society).