Some rabbits are small: Dutch and Polish dwarf breeds weigh under 4 ½ pounds (2 kilograms). Some rabbits are large: Flemish Giants or Lop-Ears weigh over 11 pounds (5 kilograms). With some 50 different breeds you can pretty much have your choice. Whichever you choose you will have lots of company: In the United States some 5 million pet rabbits are divided among just under 2 million households.
These descendents of the European hare are active, relatively long-lived companions. With good care an indoor rabbit can live from 7 to 10 years (the record is 17 years).
Housing Your Rabbit
The minimum cage space for a single rabbit is 2 feet by 2 feet by 4 feet. Although many cages are made from wire it is important to provide an area that is made from a solid material. Newspaper with a sea grass mat works well. The mats can be safely used for chewing. (Sea grass mats can be found at Cost Plus stores or contact your local House Rabbit Society at www.rabbit.org.) Another option is to use a towel or synthetic sheepskin if your rabbit does not chew it. If all else fails, a plain cardboard box can also be used. These provide a “resting” area for the rabbit and helps prevent the formation of ulcers on the bottoms of the rabbit’s feet. These sores occur when the rabbit is kept solely on a wire surface.
Rabbits can be litter-trained like cats, so a large litter box or two should be placed in corners of the cage and filled with shredded newspaper or rabbit-friendly recycled paper or pelleted grass products such as Carefresh or Cat Country. If ingested these will not cause intestinal problems as will standard clay kitty litters. Avoid wood shavings, corncob and walnut shells.
Feeding Your Rabbit
Rabbits require a diet rich in vitamins and high (15 percent) in fiber. Provide unlimited access to grass hays like timothy, brome, oat or wheat. Alfalfa hay is not recommended because it is too calcium- and protein-rich for adult rabbits. Hay can be purchased from a local feed store or ordered from companies like Oxbow, (800) 249-0366. In addition, for rabbits over 8 months of age, provide about 1/8 to 1/4 cup of fresh commercial rabbit pellets per 5 pounds of body weight twice a day. Avoid those pellets that contain nuts and grains. For younger rabbits, less than 8 months of age, offer unlimited plain alfalfa pellets. Limiting the pellets in young rabbits can have a devastating effect.
Fresh, green leafy vegetables are crucial. Feed a minimum of one cup of vegetables per 4 pounds of body weight daily. Try alfalfa sprouts, basil, parsley, beet greens, broccoli leaves, brussel sprouts, carrots and carrot tops, cilantro, collard greens, endive, green peppers, parsley, romaine lettuce, kale, raspberry leaves, wheat grass, squash, raddichio and dandelion leaves. Rabbits seem to like everything but, as with all animals, it is important to introduce any new food gradually to avoid any gastrointestinal upset. In general, fruits, grains, cereals and breads should only be given in limited amounts because excesses can lead to fatal diarrheas. Limit fruit to no more than two tablespoons, and stick to the high fiber fruits like apples, pears, plums, melons, raspberries, papaya, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and pineapple. Avoid fruits with high sugar content such as bananas and grapes.
Provide fresh water daily in a clean water bottle or a heavy porcelain crock. Change the water daily and wash and disinfect the bowl once a week.
Exercise and Play
Rabbits enjoy running and jumping so it’s important to provide them with a safe exercise area. Rabbits should have several hours of exercise time a day to ensure both physical and mental well-being. This can include indoor or outdoor activities, with certain restrictions. Indoor areas must be “rabbit-proofed.” Rabbits will chew on furniture, rugs, drapes and electrical cords so remove these temptations or keep them out of harm’s way. Run cords through PVC pipe to help ensure the rabbit’s safety and prevent electrocution.
Outdoor areas must be fully enclosed. The temperature must not be above 80 degrees. Rabbits become easily overheated because of their dense coats and their inability to perspire. Rabbits must be supervised at all times so no predator can strike unexpectedly. Other hazards of outdoor exposure include external parasites such as fleas, maggots and ticks. Careful vigilance and meticulous grooming should help to prevent these parasitic invaders. Lastly, make sure that no fertilizers or pesticides have been applied to the chosen play area.
You can further enrich your pet’s life by providing him with raw untreated citrus branches or untreated scraps of wood on which they can chew. A cardboard box or paper grocery bag filled with hay provides a place to hide as well as an appropriate thing to chew on and dig in. Other suitable toys include wire kitty balls with bells inside, Mason jar rings and paper towel rolls. Do not use toys made of Styrofoam or plastic since these can be ingested.
Grooming and Care
Brush your rabbit’s coat daily with a flea comb. If you find fleas call your veterinarian before beginning treatment since many flea products are hazardous to your rabbit’s health. Also use a slicker brush to remove excess hair, especially when the animal is molting and losing a lot of hair. This will help prevent hairballs which, as in cats, is associated with the ingestion of hair when grooming. A soft cat brush can be a useful grooming tool that rabbits seem to enjoy. Closely monitor your rabbit’s teeth, eyes, and nose weekly for any abnormalities. Rabbits need to have their nails trimmed about every 8 weeks. This can be done with a human nail clipper at home or by your veterinarian.
Whenever playing or grooming, be certain to support your rabbit’s forelimbs and hindquarters. Improper handling can cause spinal injuries. Also, never pick a rabbit by his ears. Keep a record of your rabbit’s activities. If he does not eat well and has few to no droppings, he may be ill and you need to call your veterinarian immediately.