THINK OUTSIDE THE HUTCH!
Cottontails’ guide to living with free-range companion rabbits
Keeping your house rabbits completely free-range may seem daunting when most rabbit care advice mentions buying a hutch or an indoor cage. But with a little preparation it might be easier (and cheaper) than you think.
Are you the right person?
Rabbits are probably not the best choice if you run a busy household (with boisterous children, pets that may harm your rabbits, etc.) or are excessively house-proud. You will need to do more cleaning and accept some damage to your home, but this is normal when you have a pet – or a young family! Dogs and cats can also be destructive and have house-training mishaps, but we wouldn’t dream of confining them to a cage or banishing them outdoors. At Cottontails we believe rabbits deserve the same quality of life and the freedom to run around a safe and stimulating area 24 hours a day – the bigger, the better.
The right bunnies
Adult and senior rabbits (neutered of course!) make the best housemates: they can be litter-trained at any age, and they’re mellower and less destructive than youngsters. Click on The Bunny Hopline to find a local shelter with neutered, vaccinated, trained and socialised bunnies available for adoption. Rabbits are social animals and need to live in pairs; adopting two rabbits is better than introducing a second rabbit later as introductions can take a couple of months or longer.
Before you bring your rabbits home, it is essential to prepare a room or part of a room (your bunnies’ starter space). If possible choose somewhere without carpet, wallpaper or treasured furniture and furnishings, e.g. a utility room or boxroom. If you can’t devote a whole room to your rabbits, use a partition to section off a good-size area. Remove houseplants and protect telephone and electric cables with cable covers (available from computer and DIY stores). This is a simple, one-off job that needs to be done before the bunnies move in. All you have to do afterwards is check from time to time that the cable covers are still in place.
Rabbits tend to slip on smooth floors so provide a blanket, washable rug or seagrass mats to give them a good grip. Take care not to step on your rabbits when you walk around their space and supervise your children when they’re with the rabbits. Remember not to leave shoes, clothing or important paperwork lying around as bunnies love to chew!
At Cottontails we use pet gates if we need to confine our foster bunnies so they can always see and hear us. If you buy a pet gate from a shop you will need to attach a panel of welded mesh (not chicken wire) to stop the rabbits escaping through the gaps. Buy the tallest gate you can find as athletic bunnies can leap over 3’/90cm gates. Make sure other animals cannot get into the rabbits’ space, for example neighbours’ cats, garden foxes – take care with open doors and windows.
Your rabbits will appreciate somewhere to hide when they go to sleep or don’t want to be disturbed, but it doesn’t have to be a cage. Like dogs and cats, they will find their own spot, for instance under a chair or sofa. Provide a fleece rug and drape a blanket over the chair for extra comfort.
It’s a good idea to offer your rabbits multiple litter trays during house-training – later you’ll be able to remove those they use less often. We have found the best solution is a large plastic dog bed lined with newspaper and filled with lots of hay and straw. The rabbits love using it as a litter tray, digging box, chew toy and food station (we place a large bowl of veggies at one end). Leave a few droppings inside the bed to encourage your rabbits to use it. The bed’s high sides stop the hay and straw from scattering around the room and it’s easy to roll up the newspaper and dispose of the dirty bedding at the end of each day. You may find a few droppings outside the litter tray from time to time, this is normal, and if your rabbits are healthy and fed the right diet they’ll be dry, odourless and easy to clean. Keep a hand-held vacuum cleaner or dustpan and brush handy to tidy up your rabbits’ space when needed.
Toys are essential to keep your rabbits entertained and prevent damage to your home. Organic apple, pear and willow twigs and untreated seagrass mats are excellent to keep your rabbits’ teeth in trim. Cardboard boxes, taped closed and with at least 2 cut-out doors are a favourite with all rabbits and don’t cost a penny! We line them with a fleece rug and leave a twig and a handful of hay inside for the bunnies to nibble on. You can make rabbit boxes and tunnels out of plywood or buy them ready-made. Children’s pop-up tunnels, tents and playhouses are readily available from high street shops and are also suitable for outdoor use.
Keeping your rabbits free-range is the kindest thing you can do as no animal enjoys being confined to a cage that barely allows one or two hops. It also avoids the expense of a large indoor cage or hutch (difficult to source, and much harder to clean out than the plastic dog bed described above). Free-range house rabbits are no more destructive than those who spend time in a cage – it only takes seconds to nibble on an unprotected cable or leave a few droppings lying around; if you are not prepared to accept a bit of mess or damage, please don’t acquire rabbits in the first place.
In time you will be able to increase your rabbits’ living area, one room at a time, and give them as much freedom as you wish or is safe for them. If you have some outdoor space (e.g. a balcony or garden) your rabbits will enjoy running in the fresh air and nibbling on grass, dandelions and other plants. Make sure the garden/outside area is completely escape-proof and the rabbits have access to food, water, shelter and a safe place in case they need to hide. Provide toys, for example an apple tree branch, a large clay pipe and a litter tray filled with soil or sand for digging. Always supervise your rabbits when they are outside – this is the responsibility of an adult, not a child.
Need more info?
Please click on the following links:
- Bunny basics
- Rabbits with families
- A hutch is not a home
- Rabbit toys
- Outdoor safety