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.
Since rabbits are herbivores, they require a special diet that is rich in vitamins and high in fiber. In order to promote intestinal motility and minimize intestinal disease, a rabbit’s diet needs to contain at least 15-16 percent crude fiber.
Recommended diets include unlimited access to grass hays like timothy, brome, oat, or wheat. Alfalfa hay is not recommended in rabbits over eight months of age because it is too calcium and protein rich. The above mentioned hays can be purchased from a local feed store or ordered from companies like Oxbow, (800) 249-0366.
In addition, for rabbits over eight months of age, provide about 1/8 to 1/4 cup of fresh commercial rabbit pellets per five pounds of body weight twice a day. Avoid those pellets that contain nuts and grains. For younger rabbits, less than eight months of age, offer unlimited plain alfalfa pellets – limiting the pellets in young rabbits can have a devastating effect.
Another crucial component that needs to be provided daily is fresh, green leafy vegetables. A minimum of one cup of vegetables per four pounds of body weight should be given daily. Examples of nutritious vegetables are alfalfa sprouts, basil, parsley, beet greens, broccoli leaves, Brussels sprouts, carrots and carrot tops, cilantro, collard greens, endive, green peppers, romaine lettuce, kale, raspberry leaves, wheat grass, pea pods (peas excluded), squash, raddichio, and dandelion leaves.
Like with all animals it is important to introduce any new food gradually to help avoid and prevent any gastrointestinal upset. If fruit is to be offered, it should be limited to no more than two tablespoons and restricted to the high fiber fruits like apples, pears, plums, melons, raspberries, papaya, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and pineapple. Avoid bananas and grapes due to their high sugar content.
In general, fruits, grains, cereals, and breads should only be given in limited amounts, and excesses can lead to fatal diarrhea. Fresh water should be provided daily in a clean water bottle or a heavy porcelain crock. Change the water daily and wash and disinfect the bowl weekly.
The minimum recommended cage space for a single rabbit is two feet by two feet by four feet. Although many cages are made from wire, it is important to provide an area that is made from a solid material like wood, Plexiglas or cardboard. This is to provide a “resting” area for the rabbit and to help prevent the formation of ulcers on the bottoms of the rabbits’ feet. These sores often occur when the rabbit is kept solely on a wire surface.
Since rabbits can be litter-trained like a cat, a litter box or two should be placed in a chosen corner and filled with substrates like Yesterday’s News, Cellu-Dri, Mountain Kitty Litter, or Harvest Litter. These recycled paper and pelleted grass products are rabbit friendly, and will not cause any intestinal problems if they are ingested like the standard clay kitty litters will. Other substrates to be avoided are wood shavings, corncob, and walnut shells.
Since rabbits are designed for running and jumping it is important to provide a safe exercise area for them to play in. This can be an indoor or outdoor facility, although certain restrictions apply. If an indoor area is used it must be “rabbit-proofed.” Keep in mind that rabbits will chew upon furniture, rugs, drapes and electrical cords. Therefore, all these items need to be removed or placed out of harm reach. Cords can be easily run through PVC pipe to help insure the rabbit’s safety and prevent electrocution.
If an outdoor area is to be used, it must be fully enclosed and the temperature below 80 degrees, because rabbits can become easily overheated due to their dense hair coat and their inability to sweat or perspire. The rabbit must be supervised at all times so that no predator can strike unexpectedly. Other hazards of outdoor living are external parasites, including fleas, maggots, ticks, and cuterebra. Careful vigilance and meticulous grooming should help to prevent these parasitic invaders. Make certain that no fertilizers or pesticides have been applied to the chosen play area.
Whatever exercise area is chosen, it is recommended that indoor rabbits have several hours of exercise time each day to insure both physical and mental well-being. Other suggestions to help enrich your rabbit’s life include offering raw untreated citrus branches or untreated scraps of wood unto which they can chew, a cardboard box or paper grocery bag filled with hay to provide a place to hide as well as an appropriate thing to chew and dig in. Other suitable toys are wire kitty balls with bells inside, Mason jar rings, and paper towel rolls. Please do not use toys made of Styrofoam or plastic since these can become ingested and present a life-threatening problem.
Common Diseases and Disorders
The House Rabbit Handbook by Marinell Harriman; also, the House Rabbit Society is a wonderful organization of rabbit lovers that with a small fee provides a quarterly newsletter and is a good source of information. Their website is www.rabbit.org