Dr. Alondra Martin
Over the past several years, the popularity of the domestic rabbits as pets has risen considerably. In fact, rabbit numbers now exceed equine numbers in the United States with an estimated five million rabbits in just under two million households. Since they are so popular, it is important to know how to care for these special herbivores properly to ensure that they live as long and as well as possible.
A well-cared-for indoor rabbit can have an average life span of seven to 10 years with the record being 18 years. It is also important to note that rabbits are not rodents but belong to the order Lagomorpha ("shaped like a hare") and the family Leporidae. Pet rabbits are descended from the European hare, Oryctolagus cuniculus. Other members of the Leporidae include wild hares (Lepus), cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus) and pika (Ochotona).
Members of these genera are reproductively isolated and breeding of these various genera will produce sterile offspring. There are over 50 recognized rabbit breeds. They range in size from small/dwarf breeds, which weigh under two kilograms, like Dutch and Polish, to medium breeds, which weigh between two to five kilograms, like California and New Zealand, to large breeds over five kilograms, like the Flemish Giant or Lop-Ear.
General care of your rabbit should include daily brushing of your rabbit's coat with a flea comb to check for fleas. Remember, if you find fleas, call your veterinarian before treating, since many flea products are hazardous to your rabbit's health.
Use a slicker brush to remove excess hair especially when your rabbit is molting and losing a lot of hair. This will also help to prevent hairballs, which is often associated with the ingestion of hair by the rabbit when grooming. A soft cat brush is also a useful grooming tool and your rabbit will probably enjoy it when you brush his coat.
Rabbits also need to have their nails trimmed about every eight weeks. This can be done with a human nail clipper at home or by your veterinarian. In general, since rabbits are such fastidious creatures, it is typically not necessary to bathe your rabbit routinely as you do with a dog or possibly even a cat.
It is important to remember when playing, grooming or even bathing your rabbit, that their forelimbs and hindquarters must be supported at all times. Failure to handle them properly can result in spinal injuries that could result in euthanasia. Also, never pick a rabbit up by his ears; this can also result in serious harm to the rabbit.
It is important to closely monitor your rabbit's teeth, eyes and nose weekly for any abnormalities. It is also important to note your rabbit's appetite, bowel movements and activity level. If your pet does not eat well and has little to no droppings these are signs of illness and intervention by a veterinarian is needed immediately. Ideally, when you first notice that your rabbit is ill, try to make an immediate appointment with your veterinarian if at all possible.
In order to improve the health and longevity of your bunny, you should consider spaying or neutering your pet. Some veterinarians recommend waiting until after puberty in females and after the testicles have descended into the scrotum in male rabbits, but it might be best to spay or neuter before sexual maturity, which is about four to six months of age.
There are many reasons to have this procedure performed. One reason is that unspayed female rabbits have a very high risk of developing uterine, ovarian and mammary cancer. One study found the unspayed female rabbits have an 85 percent chance of developing uterine and/or ovarian cancer by the age of three. By the age of five years, this risk increased to over 96 percent. Also, intact rabbits tend to live an average of three to six years and the average neutered rabbit lives eight to 10 years with the record being 18 years.
Another good reason is that upon sexual maturity behavioral changes may be noted. Mature rabbits often exhibit territorial biting and nipping, urine spraying, destructive chewing and digging, growling, aggressive lunging, biting and thumping. When rabbits are neutered before maturity, they are much less likely to display these unpleasant hormonally induced behaviors.
Although there are some inherent risks associated with rabbits under anesthesia, there are some precautions that can be taken to insure your rabbit's safety. These include a thorough physical prior to the surgery, various blood tests, and the care of an experienced rabbit veterinarian. Although there is some risk of death in performing elective surgery, the chances of developing cancer or behavioral problems are much greater than the risk of dying.
Finally, neutered rabbits do not contribute to the domestic rabbit overpopulation problem, where thousands of rabbits are abandoned and often euthanized every year. Remember that your rabbit depends on you for his care and well being, and if you choose to free your rabbit from his domesticated life, you are sentencing your rabbit to certain death.
Rabbits are wonderful pets that come in a variety of sizes, colors and personalities. They are highly intelligent, interactive, social and affectionate when certain guidelines are followed. Rabbits are not for everyone, especially young children, because they require special care and handling – they need a lot of attention, exercise, and special dietary requirements. But if you are ready to fulfill your obligations, a rabbit can be a delightful and loving companion.