Rabbits are intelligent, athletic and complex pets, and if cared for properly can live to be up to 12 years old. They are sensitive animals, best suited to teenagers and adults. Young children should only look after pet rabbits under parental supervision. Everyone should be aware that ‘a hutch is not enough’!
Naturally sociable, rabbits like companionship and prefer to live in pairs or compatible groups and their behaviour, as a pet, will reflect this. There are many breeds to choose from, although a rabbit of mixed breeding can offer just as much fun and companionship, but a rabbit with long fur needs extra care and requires daily grooming.
In the winter rabbits share body warmth to keep out the cold and are hard-wired to be sociable, and when kept in pairs will spend most of their time together. Studies have shown that they will seek company even above food. Mutual grooming is a joy to watch, and it’s a vital natural behaviour for rabbits. Rabbits kept in pairs are healthier than those kept alone. Rabbits do a great job of cleaning themselves but a partner will be able to get to the parts they cannot reach themselves, the eyes for example.
Depression-type behaviour has been observed in widowed rabbits, that then improves when the survivor finds a new companion. In the wild, rabbits naturally rely on each other for ‘safety in numbers’ and that instinct is still present in domestic rabbits – they’ll feel more confident if they are living with another rabbit. Introductions have to be conducted carefully. Rabbits may be sociable, but they’re also territorial. Your resident rabbit will be naturally wary of a stranger being brought into its home. Both rabbits must be neutered if they are old enough. If you already have a rabbit, arrange for him/her to be neutered and wait a few weeks before adopting the second rabbit.
One of the first choices you will need to make is where your rabbits will live. Rabbits can live equally happily outdoors in the garden, or indoors as ‘house rabbits’, as long as the accommodation allows them to behave naturally. Rabbits are active animals, and can develop painful skeletal problems if kept permanently confined. A hutch or cage should only ever be a shelter, never the sole/main accommodation for your rabbits.
Outdoor Rabbits: We suggest a hutch no smaller than 6x2x2 or even better a shed with an exercise run permanently attached or a fenced area surrounding it, so that the rabbits can decide when they want to shelter, and when to exercise. Aim to provide an overall area of 10ft x 6ft x 3ft high (3m x 2m x 3m high).
It is important that the accommodation is sited in a shaded area away from direct sunlight, strong winds, and rain. Make sure their accommodation is predator-proof. Rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk – they’re ‘crepuscular’ (active dusk and dawn) – so lifting them from hutch to run for a few hours in the daytime just doesn’t suit their body clocks and instincts, with an attached exercise run of 8ft long, 6ft wide and 3ft tall. This sounds very large but in reality this is only four hops on average! In total this will provide an area of 10ft x 6ft x 3 ft high, which should be the minimum for a pair of rabbits – and a single rabbit will need just as much room as this!
Rabbits whose exercise run is on a lawn will enjoy access to grass every day, which is great for their teeth and digestive systems with rabbit forage and will keep them busy. But be aware that unless you take appropriate precautions, they are likely to dig their way out, which could put them at risk from predators.
Indoor Rabbits: If you decide that you’d like to share your home with your rabbits, before getting too carried away, remember that you will require some modifications to your home, or your house rabbits will modify it for you! Rabbit-proofing your home is essential and there will be nibbles, spills, possibly an occasional toilet accident and a lot of hair to vacuum up in the moulting season. Don’t take on house rabbits unless you can live with the results.
Rabbits are generally quite easy to litter train, although occasional accidents may occur. The quickest way to house-train your rabbits is to start off with a litter tray in a smaller area (put some hay in it – rabbits like to poo and chew at the same time!), usually where they have chosen to ‘go’, and gradually increase the area they are allowed to access only once they are reliably using their tray. It is also vital to have your rabbits neutered as soon as they are old enough. Be aware of the dangers of things such as house plants and electrical wires. You will need to be careful and bunny proof your home!
All pet rabbits should be neutered and vaccinated. Neutering allows rabbits to be kept in the pairs or groups that are so vital to their welfare; prevents life-threatening health problems (especially in female rabbits) and, of course, prevents unwanted pregnancies. Regardless of you having a mixed-sex pair of rabbits, or same sex pair, they both need to be neutered in order to live together harmoniously.
Another health problem to be aware of is flystrike. All rabbits are at risk from flystrike so you should never be complacent, but certain factors increase the risk: Time of year – flystrike is especially common during the summer, but can occur at any time of the year. Rabbits with open wounds, a dirty bottom, most likely because of poor diet, orwet fur, are at very high risk of flystrike.
If you discover fly eggs or even worse maggots on your rabbit you must take your rabbit to the vet immediately. Do not delay.
Digging is a natural behaviour, you will need to provide them with a digging pit, which could be a large litter tray or planter filled with earth. This will need to be changed regularly. They will also need a hayrack to give them access to hay that hasn’t got wet from the ground – and also to encourage them to stretch up.
Tunnels are important. They will encourage your rabbits to be much more active, and provide a substitute burrow. These can be bought from pet shops or can be as cheap and easy as a cardboard box with a hole cut at each end. Toys such as willow balls will finish the exercise run off nicely.
Finally, don’t forget to protect part of the run from extremes of weather with a cover of some sort (it need only be a tarpaulin), not only to protect from rain and snow, but also from hot sun. You need to make sure that all parts of your rabbit habitat is secure, so choose something with strong wire mesh and bolt-operated locks – don’t rely on turnpin fastenings. Avoid anything that a fox or dog would be able to access.
Hanging baskets (the type sold at garden centres) make great hay racks because they are cheap and hold lots more hay than purpose-built rabbit hay racks. A run covered by a tarpaulin and attached to the hutch, means that the rabbits can play whatever the weather. Make sure that there is room for running and jumping! They also need this space to stretch up fully in their exercise run and climb onto their toys.
In the garden, they must be supervised in case of predators (including next door’s cat!) and the risk of them getting out of the garden and harming themselves. Make sure your exercise run has some cover and is safe with strong mesh and bolts. Using a large hutch or shed as a base, you can create a fun area for your rabbits to play. Run, rabbit run! Providing the correct environment can be fun, and doesn’t need to take up the whole garden.
Be inventive! Sheds are lovely spacious homes for rabbits, but they can become very hot inside. Consider a secondary wire screen door which provides extra ventilation. Windows can be covered with curtains to provide some shade, and it’s easy to insulate the roof of a garden shed. Try to site your shed or hutch in a shaded area, but if none is available, think about planting rabbit-safe shrubs or climbers to provide shade once they grow. Make sure you have room for toys and a hay-rack.
This is a very brief over view of rabbit care and preventative health care.
Don’t underestimate the cost of keeping pet rabbits. Good quality housing, food and veterinary care can add up to about £10,000 over the life of a pair of rabbits.
Companionship: Pet rabbits should be neutered and kept with at least one other compatible rabbit.
Housing: Two average sized pet rabbits need an area of 3m x 2m x 3m high at all times
Diet: Feeding hay or grass should make up at least 80% of a rabbits diet. 5% nuggets and 15% greens.
Health: Rabbits should be neutered and vaccinated against Myxi, RVHD1 and RVHD2.
Behaviour: Rabbits should have access to somewhere to dig, stretch up tall, hide, run, jump and forage at all times.
by Richard Saunders BSc(Hons) BVSc MSB CBiol DZooMed (Mammalian) MRCVS