Our culture is filled with images of children and rabbits together (think the Easter bunny and Peter Rabbit) resulting in many people seeing rabbits as low-maintenance starter pets for kids. It’s true that children are naturally energetic and loving, but “loving” to a small child means cuddling or carrying an animal around—things that frighten most rabbits. Rabbits can’t cry out when distressed. Instead, they may start to scratch or bite to protect themselves. Thousands of rabbits are abandoned at animal shelters every year for this reason. Rabbits are physically fragile creatures and may die of heart attacks from stress; for instance from screaming kids at play or seeing a predator close to their outdoor hutch - a feral cat or the family dog whose instinct tells it to kill the rabbit.
There’s a lot of variety among domestic rabbits. The more than 60 breeds include the Dutch, droopy eared German lops and furry Cashmeres. Rabbits range in size from teeny two-pounders to the 13-pound Flemish Giant. If possible ask to see the parents before you take a baby rabbit so that you will have an idea how big it will grow. Rabbits are inquisitive, intelligent, sociable and affectionate - and if well-cared for, rabbits can live for 10 or more years. Your choice of breed will influence the cost of keeping a rabbit.
While a rabbit may be a great pet for your family, an adult should be the primary caretaker. The best place to get a pet rabbit is through adoption. There are many homeless pet rabbits in local rescue around West Cork.
Rabbit's Social Life
Although being outdoors is the natural habitat for a rabbit, a backyard hutch forces these social animals to live in unnatural isolation. Make sure you spend either enough time with your rabbits or bring them indoors for quality time.
Ideally, rabbits should not be housed alone. However, keeping them with other rabbits is only a good idea if they are all spayed and neutered - unless you would like a hoard of baby rabbits. Spaying or neutering also prevents spraying in males and uterine cancer in females.
Rabbit social introductions can be difficult. They are territorial animals and may injure each other when first introduced. You can try to introduce rabbits to each other in neutral territory and under careful supervision, and only if you are confident. Ask for help if you are not sure!
Housing & Exercise
When you first get a rabbit, you’ll need to allow for the cost of a cage, a carrier and a litter box, litter and bedding material. Then there is food, toys and treats. Many rabbits have ended up in shelters because of destructive behaviour. Usually they get bored for lack of company and lack of appropriate toys to fulfil their natural urges to dig and chew. Safe chew toys include cardboard boxes, an old telephone directory (that’s no joke!) and commercial chew sticks. A rabbit greatly appreciates his own digging box, such as a cardboard box filled halfway with soil or shredded paper.
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. 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 untreated wood or corrugated cardboard which can be regularly replaced. Better yet, buy a cage with a solid bottom, line the bottom with newspaper and then untreated wood shavings. Put down plenty of straw or hay so your pet can make a cozy nest.
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. This does not include exercise space (a run). Recommended exercise time for pet rabbits is several hours per day. 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.
Rabbits can appear to be messy because of their digging and playing. You will need to clean the rabbit cage once a week. Put your rabbit in a safe room or alternate cage as you sweep out the cage and scrub the floor with warm, soapy water.
Rabbits are very clean by nature, and will do their best to keep their living quarters spotless. Most rabbits will choose one corner of the cage as a bathroom. As soon as your rabbit’s choice is clear, put a litter box in that corner. Fill it with hay or wood pellet litter (not clay cat litter as it might eat this). Change the litter box daily to keep the cage fresh and odour-free. Don’t use pine or cedar shavings; the fumes may affect a rabbit’s liver. Do not be alarmed if you see your rabbit eating his faeces. It may seem strange, but it is perfectly normal and perfectly healthy. A rabbit eats it as an extra source of nutrients and to aid digestion.
Veterinary Care & Health
You should bring your pet to the veterinarian for a check-up at least once a year. Go to the veterinarian immediately if the rabbit stops eating or moving its bowels for 12 hours or longer, or has watery diarrhoea. Other signs of illness include:
- Runny nose and eyes
- Dark red urine
- Fur loss
- Red, swollen skin.
Rabbits can acquire parasites such as fleas and mites but there are few licensed products available in Ireland. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you what product is best to use should treatment be required. If you are concerned about your rabbit getting parasites from other domestic animals in the household, regular treatment can be given to cats and dogs in spot on form to help prevent them passing the parasites to your rabbit and are available from most veterinary practices.
Rabbits can also get flystrike a condition where flies lay their eggs in dirt or pooh attached to the rabbit’s coat. A fly strip can be easily placed in the rabbit’s enclosure to help prevent this condition. If you notice any signs of this, such as a dirty coataround the tail and reduced grooming contact your veterinarian immediately as this can develop in to a very serious condition which can be difficult to treat, so check for this daily especially in the summer months.
Rabbits should be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD) and myxomatosis by the Vet. Such diseases are highly contagious and can be fatal to your rabbit. Your Rabbit can be vaccinated from the ageof eight weeks old.
Contact your veterinarian for advice on what vaccination regime is best suited for your rabbit. Rabbits in high-risk areas of myxomatosis should receive regular vaccination every six months.
Food & Drink
Some people think you can feed a rabbit every few days (when the bowl is empty). This is a myth. A rabbit, like other pets, needs daily attention when it comes to food and water. The most important component of your rabbit’s diet is grass and meadow hay but make sure no chemicals are used on the feed as this will harm your rabbit. These grasses are crucial for keeping his intestinal tract healthy. Unlimited good-quality hay should be available at all times.
Clean, fresh water, dispensed in a bottle or sturdy bowl, should be available around the clock too. A rabbit’s diet has two more parts to it. Rabbits also need pellets for food; pellets should be fresh and plain, without seeds, nuts or coloured titbits. Fresh leafy greens make up a third component of the rabbit’s diet. He’ll enjoy dark leaf lettuces, greens and carrot tops. These must all be of a quality fit for human consumption or he may get stomach upsets.
One of the great things about owning a pet rabbit is that you can actually grow a lot of this food yourself. In fact, you don't even have to be a master gardener or own a huge plot to grow a few of your rabbit’s favourites!
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 and how best to keep his mouth healthy.
Unlike dogs and cats, rabbits have a completely different kind of teeth. Dogs, cats and humans start with baby teeth and develop permanent teeth as they grow up. That is why dental care is so important as these permanent teeth must last for life. Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously, so they are constantly being worn down and the teeth are being renewed. It is for this reason that the teeth do not need to be brushed, but they do need to be worn down. This is why diet and toys are so important to keep both your rabbit‘s mouth and mind healthy.
The first and most important rule of picking up a rabbit is to never pick him up by the ears, the scruff, legs or tail. It is painful and can cause serious injury. You wouldn't want to be lifted by your ears, would you?
Remember that rabbits are fragile. They are fast, but have weak skeletal systems and they do not always enjoy being picked up. Some of them will tolerate it, but many will struggle when you try to lift them. Firstly, approach your rabbit slowly and get down to his level. It will help put your bun at ease. Petting the rabbit will also have a calming effect. When you feel confident your rabbit is ready to be picked up, scoop him up by placing a hand under the torso and pull your bunny close to your body. Support the rabbit's hindquarters. The rabbit needs to feel secure in your arms.
If your rabbit struggles when being picked up, hold him firmly, but be ready to put him/her down. Your rabbit may try to leap from your arms and this can cause serious injury. When putting your rabbit down, slowly squat down while holding your bunny close, and let him down gently.
Your rabbit may respond with a thump or may kick up his hind legs at you while scampering away. It's nothing personal; he just disapproves of being picked up. They also thump when they sense danger or don’t feel secure.