Some bunny out there wants to be a part of your family—but he has special requirements to stay happy and healthy. Here’s what to do.
They can be trained to use a litter box, they’ll come when called, and some will engage their owners in a daily game of tag! Domestic rabbits are delightful companion animals. They are inquisitive, intelligent, sociable and affectionate—and if well-cared for, indoor rabbits can live for seven to ten or more years.
There’s a lot of variety among domestic rabbits. The more than 60 breeds include the Dutch, who’s very popular in the United States, droopy eared German lops and furry Cashmeres. Rabbits range in size from teeny two-pounders to the 13-pound Flemish Giant.
Rabbits and Children: Some Words of Caution
Our culture is so filled with images of children and rabbits together (think the Easter bunny and Peter Rabbit) that many parents see rabbits as low-maintenance starter pets for kids. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rabbits are physically delicate and fragile, and require specialized veterinary care. It’s true that children are naturally energetic and loving, but “loving” to a small child means holding, cuddling, or carrying an animal around—precisely the things that frighten most rabbits. Rabbits can’t cry out when distressed. Instead, they may start to scratch or bite to protect themselves from well-meaning children. Thousands are abandoned at animal shelters every year for this reason. Many rabbits are also dropped accidentally by children, resulting in broken legs and backs. While a rabbit may be a great pet for your family, an adult should be the primary caretaker.
When you first get your rabbit, you’ll need to spend about $90 for a cage, $30 for a carrier and $25 for a litter box. Food runs about $125 a year, plus $25 annually for toys and treats, $125 for veterinary care and $400 annually for litter and bedding material.
The best place to get your bun? Adoption is your first, and best, option! There are many homeless companion rabbits at shelters and rescue groups all across the country.
Housing and Exercise
Where’s the only place for your rabbit’s cage? INDOORS! Although an outdoor hutch has been the traditional housing for a rabbit, today we know better. A backyard hutch forces these social critters to live in unnatural isolation. Furthermore, rabbits can die of heart attacks from the very approach of a predator or vandal. Keep your bunny safe indoors, where he can have plenty of interaction with family members.
They may be small, but rabbits require a lot of room for housing and exercise. They have powerful hind legs designed for running and jumping. Get your pet a cage that allows him to move freely. The minimum recommended cage space for a single rabbit of a small- to medium-sized breed is four feet wide, two feet deep and two feet tall. Although wire-bottom cages are common, they can ulcerate a rabbit’s feet. If you have a wire cage, cover the bottom with a piece of wood or corrugated cardboard. Better yet, buy a cage with a solid bottom. Please put down plenty of straw, hay or aspen shavings so your pet can make a cozy nest.
Please note, rabbits should not be housed with other rabbits unless all are spayed and neutered. Introductions are often difficult and injuries can result, so please introduce them in neutral territory, under careful supervision.
Did you know that many rabbits have been surrendered to shelters because of destructive behavior? In most cases, their owners failed to provide them with appropriate toys to fulfill their natural urges to dig and chew. Safe chew toys include cardboard boxes, an old telephone directory (that’s no joke!) and commercially made chew sticks. You bun will greatly appreciate his own digging box, such as a cardboard box filled halfway with soil or shredded paper.
Your rabbit needs a safe exercise area with ample room to run and jump, either indoors or out. Any outdoor area should be fully enclosed by a fence. Never leave a rabbit unsupervised outdoors—even for a few minutes! Cats, dogs and even predatory birds can easily get around fencing material. Also, rabbits can dig under fences and get lost. You can rabbit-proof an indoor area by covering all electrical wires and anything else your pet is likely to chew. Recommended exercise time for pet rabbits is several hours per day.
The most important component of your rabbit’s diet is grass hay, such as timothy or brome. This is crucial for keeping his intestinal tract healthy. Unlimited hay should be available at all times.
You’ll also need to feed your bunny good-quality rabbit pellets. Opt for a formula with at least 15 to 19 percent protein and 18 percent fiber. Until your pet is fully grown (around six months), he can have all the pellets he wants. After that, pellets should be limited to 1/8 to 1/4 cup per day per five pounds of bunny body weight. Pellets should be fresh and plain, without seeds, nuts or colored tidbits.
Fresh leafy greens make up a third component of your pet’s diet. He’ll enjoy dark leaf lettuces, collard greens, turnip greens and carrot tops. We recommend a minimum of two cups per six pounds of rabbit.
Clean, fresh water, dispensed in a bottle or sturdy bowl, should be available at all times.
Rabbits are very clean by nature, and will do their best to keep their living quarters clean. Most rabbits will choose one corner of the cage as a bathroom. As soon as your rabbit’s choice is clear, put a newspaper-lined litter box in that corner. Fill it with timothy hay (or any other grass hay except alfalfa) or pelleted-newspaper litter. If the litter box is changed daily, your rabbit’s home will stay fresh and odor-free. Don’t use pine or cedar shavings! The fumes may affect your rabbit’s liver enzymes, which can cause problems if the animal needs anesthesia for surgery. Avoid using clay cat litters (both clumping and non-clumping), as these may result in respiratory or gastrointestinal problems.
Handling and General Care
Rabbits can be messy, so you’ll need to clean your pet’s cage once or twice weekly. Put your rabbit in a safe room or alternate cage as you sweep out the cage and scrub the floor with warm, soapy water.
Pick up your rabbit by supporting his forequarters with one hand and his hindquarters with the other—failure to do so can result in spinal injuries to the rabbit. Never pick up a rabbit by his ears; this can cause very serious injury.
Brush your rabbit regularly with a soft brush to remove excess hair and keep his coat in good condition. Brush from the back of the head down to the tail. Ask your veterinarian how to clip your pet’s nails.
Health and Veterinary Care
Rabbits should be spayed or neutered by a veterinarian experienced with rabbit surgeries. Spaying or neutering prevents unwanted litters, spraying in males and uterine cancer in females. To find a qualified rabbit veterinarian, please visit the House Rabbit Society.
You should bring your pet to the vet for a check-up once a year. If your rabbit stops eating or moving his bowels for 12 hours or longer or has watery diarrhea, don’t wait--seek expert veterinary care immediately. Other signs of illness include runny nose and eyes, dark red urine, lethargy, fur loss and red, swollen skin.
Written for the ASPCA by Mary E. Cotter, Ed.D., licensed educator, House Rabbit Society; additional information provided by the ASPCA
Rabbit Supply Checklist
- Cage, preferably solid-bottom
- Good-quality rabbit pellets
- Litter box with hay or pelleted bedding
- Grass hay and hay rack
- Sturdy ceramic or metal food bowl
- Ceramic water bowl or water bottle that attaches to cage
- Grooming brush
- Digging box and safe chew toys
More Rabbit Care Tips:
- He’s doing what?! Do not be alarmed if you see your rabbit eating his feces. This may seem strange, but it is perfectly normal and perfectly healthy. The small, soft pellets are an extra source of nutrients and aid in digestion.
- When they sense danger or don’t feel secure, rabbits thump their back legs on the ground. So that’s how Thumper got his name?