Rabbits make wonderful companions – they are bright, affectionate, inquisitive, gentle and playful. Being social creatures, they enjoy the company of people, rabbits and other animals. Traditionally rabbits have been housed in a hutch in the garden, where they tend to be neglected during cold weather and when the novelty wears off. Now more and more people keep their rabbits indoors to protect them from predators and because it’s easier to meet their physical and social needs. With a little training rabbits can become a delightful addition to your household. If you have a balcony or garden, your rabbits can spend some time outdoors every day, and enjoy the best of both worlds.
Living with a companion rabbit
Caring for a rabbit is a big responsibility and extends to the whole of his life (7-10 years and up to 14 in some cases). You may be surprised to read that rabbits are not inexpensive, low-maintenance pets and require as much time devoted to them as a dog. Being timid and sensitive animals, they are not very suitable for small children (under 10 years old). Children want something they can hold and cuddle, while rabbits are ground-loving creatures who prefer to be on the floor. Rabbits can make excellent family pets provided adults are the main caregivers and are willing to supervise their children when they’re with the rabbits.
Adopt a rabbit and save a life
The best place to get a rabbit is your local animal shelter. Even better, why not adopt two rabbits so they can keep each other company. For details of your nearest shelter visit The Bunny Hopline. Rescue centres have rabbits of all ages, shapes and sizes in need of a home. Like people, each rabbit is an individual. Spend some time with a variety of rabbits and give them a chance to show you their personality before making your choice. Adult rabbits (over a year old) are easier to litter-train and less destructive, especially if they’re neutered. Older rabbits are usually more willing to be petted because they are less active and energetic than young bunnies. Large rabbits tend to be more laid-back and are also a better choice if you have children as they’ll be less likely to be picked up and dropped. Angora and other long-haired breeds need regular grooming and should only be taken on by very dedicated people.
Rabbits tend to urinate in just one or a few places and are fairly easy to litter-train. Start with one tray in your rabbit’s living area and at least one other in his exercise area. Fill it with newspaper covered with hay and straw or other organic/paper-based litter. Do not use softwood or clumping cat litters as they may harm your rabbit. To encourage your rabbit to use the litter tray, leave his food bowl or a treat in one corner – rabbits like to nibble on something when they go to the bathroom. If your rabbit urinates on the floor simply add another tray where it is needed. Later you will be able to remove the trays he uses less often. Like guinea pigs, rabbits need to reingest their soft, nutrient-rich droppings.
Chewing and digging
These are normal, natural and very pleasant activities for a bunny. Rabbits’ teeth and toenails grow continuously so your rabbit needs to chew and dig to keep them in trim. To prevent excessive damage to your home, cover wallpaper with perspex panels and offer your bunny other items to shred (e.g. old magazines). Protect your carpet with rugs and seagrass mats held firmly in place under furniture. Offer a digging box as well (see below). Beds and sofas can be covered with throws and blankets and you’ll need to wrap telephone and electric cables in plastic tubing from a DIY store. Most houseplants are toxic so take care to remove them from your rabbit’s chewing range. Neutering your rabbit and providing interesting activities will help to reduce destructive behaviour.
Favourite rabbit toys include:
• Closed cardboard box with 2/3 doors for hopping in and out
• Clay/cardboard tube and pop-up tunnel
• Chew toys: organic apple, pear and willow twigs, untreated willow baskets, maize and seagrass mats
• Toss toys: wire ball with a bell inside, bunch of keys, baby rattles
• A towel to dig in or drape over a chair for your bunny to run through
• Box full of hay, straw, shredded paper, spare bit of carpeting or anything else your rabbit likes to dig in
• Litter tray full of sand or soil to dig and roll in
The best diet for your rabbit should include grass, fresh fruit and vegetables, meadow/timothy hay and water. Offer two plates of different veggies a day and smaller amounts of carrot and fruit, which are high in sugar. Hay and water should be available at all times. You can also provide your rabbit with other sources of fibre such as apple and pear twigs, dried grass and straw. If you have a garden, let your bunny graze on grass, clover, dandelion, plantain and other weeds. Dried food is not necessary for most rabbits if you feed a healthy and varied diet as described above. It does not wear the teeth down as much as grass and hay and causes messy droppings in some rabbits. If you feed it, choose pellets rather than mix and offer about a handful a day per medium size rabbit. Make any changes in the diet very gradually. Shop-bought treats are best avoided.
You will get the most from your rabbit – and vice versa – if he lives indoors with you. Many house rabbits are completely free-range just like a cat or dog. If you need to confine them you can simply put them in one room and fit a pet gate in the doorway. Your rabbits will benefit from exercising in an escape-proof run/garden in the daytime with supervision. The run must be at least 4’X10’X2½’ and have a roof, floor and sheltered area.
If it’s not possible to keep your rabbits indoors, they can be housed in a secure shed, playhouse or other outbuilding, preferably with a run attached. Provide a litter tray, dog bed and toys to make them feel at home.
Rabbits in the garden are at risk from predators’ attacks, which can also happen in the daytime. Make sure the garden is well fenced and don’t leave your rabbits outdoors unsupervised or after dark. Even in a sturdy pen, a rabbit can become very stressed and die of a heart attack if he’s frightened by a fox, dog or other animal. Never use slug pellets, insecticides and other chemicals on your plants and grass and keep poisonous plants such as poppy, lupin, bluebell, foxglove and buttercup away from your rabbits.
Rabbits need friends
Rabbits are social animals and need the company of human and animal friends. If you are away from home during the day or keep your rabbit outdoors, it is essential to provide him with a companion. Before you introduce two rabbits, you must have them both neutered to reduce aggressive behaviour. If possible, let the rabbits smell one another through a partition (e.g. a pet gate) for a few days so they get used to each other’s scent. Do your introductions on neutral territory where neither rabbit has been before, e.g. a child’s playpen or a friend’s room. Chasing, mating and scuffles are normal in the beginning but be prepared to separate the rabbits if necessary (by making a loud noise, switching on the vacuum cleaner, spraying them with warm water, etc.). Introducing rabbits can take several weeks but is worth the effort because in the end your rabbit will have a companion for life. The easiest introductions are between a mixed pair (neutered of course) and two spayed females. Rabbits can also become good friends with guinea pigs and well behaved dogs and cats. Again, neutering will help minimise fighting. Supervise introductions carefully and never leave your companion animals alone together until you’re certain it is safe to do so.
Contrary to stereotype, most rabbits don’t like to be held and prefer to sit next to you to be petted. However there are times when you have to pick up your rabbit, for instance if he needs care. Therefore it’s a good idea for an adult to practice lifting and setting down their rabbit every day. To pick up a small bunny, put one hand under his forelegs and one under his bottom and scoop towards you. To pick up a large rabbit, do the same but lift facing away from you. Hold the back feet securely in your hand to prevent kicking. Never lift a rabbit by the ears or the back of the neck. Take care when putting your rabbit down as he may leap in anticipation. The best way is to bend your knees and gently release him. Follow this exercise with praise and a food reward so your rabbit will see this as a positive experience.
Neutering & vaccinations
Neutering is one of the best things you can do to help your rabbit live a long, happy and healthy life. It prevents unwanted litters and enables two rabbits to live peacefully together. Neutering also improves litter-training, prevents spraying, reduces destructive and aggressive behaviour and generally makes your rabbit calmer and easier to manage. Spaying females is particularly important as 8 out of 10 female rabbits may develop reproductive cancers by the time they are 4 or 5 years old if they are not spayed. Male rabbits can be neutered from 3/4 months and females from 5/6 months, depending on the breed. Neutering is not a risky operation provided it is done by an experienced rabbit vet. All rabbits (including house rabbits) should be vaccinated against RHD, RHD2 and Myxomatosis. Ask your vet for advice.
It’s important to examine your rabbit every week for possible health problems. Put your rabbit on a non-slippery surface, e.g. a table top with a towel underneath, and have somebody to help you if necessary. Look out for:
• red or scaly patches inside the ears
• a discharge from the eyes or nose
• wet chin
• overgrown teeth
• wet fur on the front paws
• loss of fur and sores under the rabbit’s feet
• overgrown nails
• wounds, swellings and signs of parasites
• dirty bottom area
• anything unusual in his appearance or behaviour (e.g. loss of appetite, unwillingness to move, glazed look, loud grinding of the teeth, changes in droppings)
If you are worried your rabbit may be ill, take him to the vet straight away.