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Caring for your rabbit

Caring for your rabbit

If you are thinking about getting a pet, you may want to consider getting a rabbit.
Rabbits make excellent house pets, as they have wonderful personalities and easily adapt to a domestic lifestyle, even adjusting well to living in apartments.
To stay healthy and happy, rabbits do need some special care, beginning with plenty of hay and veggies, a warm, cozy nest, and time to run and hop to their hearts' content.
Get an appropriately-sized cage. For an average-sized rabbit of 8 pounds or so, you'll need a cage that's at least four feet wide, two feet deep, and two feet tall. The bunny should be able to lay down and stretch out comfortably and still have room for food and water and a litter box.
  • Outdoor hutches for rabbits can be purchased or you can build one yourself. The hutch should have room for the rabbit to nest, hop around, space for food and water and a litterbox.
  • Get an exercise pen to provide extra space for the rabbit to move around.
  • Big bunnies will need larger accommodations. The rabbit needs to be able to move around and lay down freely. Make sure to have a large enough cage so that your rabbit can play!
Get the right type of cage. Look for a cage with a solid bottom and sides made out of wire designed for rabbits. Think of this as the “den” for the rabbit to sleep in and a source of food and water. The plan should be that the bunny spends 8-12 hours or so outside of the cage in an exercise pen or a room for bunny-safe exploration.
  • If you find a cage with a wire bottom, put a solid wood plank inside to line the bottom. Wire cage bottoms can hurt rabbits' feet.
  • An outdoor hutch should be sturdy and provide protection from the weather and predators. You can buy or build a hutch. You will need to make sure the rabbits are protected from predators and the elements.
  • Do not house your rabbit outdoors in a hutch all by itself. Rabbits are highly social animals, so get a companion rabbit when they are both young and have the rabbits spayed or neutered.
Line the cage with hay or soft wood shavings, such as those made of pine. There are also some specialty beddings made of recycled wood pulp that work well. Rabbits like to make cozy nests, so fill the bottom of the cage with soft natural material to keep them comfortable.
  • Hay, in addition to being great bedding, is the most important part of a rabbits diet, so make sure you choose the right hay for your rabbit. Timothy or grass hays are appropriate for rabbits. Avoid alfalfa hay as it is too high in calories, protein and calcium for long term feeding of most adult rabbits.
Place the cage in a rabbit-proof area. You'll want to be able to let your bunny out to hop around, so place the cage in a room that you don't mind sharing and that is safe for the bunny. For instance, remove all electrical cords, small objects, and furniture of value from the room and avoid having chemicals or plants that may harm the rabbit in the room.
  • Rabbits like to chew cords but you can buy cord protectors from hardware stores to stop your rabbit from chewing them.
  • Use a baby gate or exercise pen for dogs to prevent full access to the house to avoid damage to the furnishings and the bunny.
Provide a litter box. Rabbits will naturally use the same spot as a "restroom" over and over, usually one corner of the cage. Line a small litter box (available at pet stores) with newspaper, then fill it with hay, or litter made specifically for rabbits, and place it in the rabbit's preferred corner.
  • Consider putting a second litter box in the rabbit's play area.
Provide a hiding place in your rabbit's cage. Rabbits are burrowing prey animals, so providing hiding places, like logs or cardboard boxes, is good for their well-being. One or two per rabbit, depending on how much space you have, will give the rabbits plenty of room to huddle.
Provide cardboard boxes for the rabbit play in, hide in and chew on. Rabbits adore chewing, and it keeps their teeth healthy. If you don't provide rabbit chews as snacks, it may chew on your furniture or other items you have lying around.
  • Make sure your rabbit always has something safe to chew on. This will wear down its teeth and prevent injury.

Providing Food, Snacks and Water

Put out unlimited grass hay. This is the main component of a rabbit's diet and so it should be available at all times. Timothy, oat, and brome hay are good choices. Put it out on a daily basis in a clean area of the rabbit's cage.
  • For young growing rabbits (up to 7 months) or pregnant or lactating rabbits, feed alfalfa hay and pellets to provide extra calories needed for these life stages.
  • Dried ready grass hay is available from pet shops and feed stores or you can grow a tray of grass specially for the rabbit.
Give the rabbit a dish of rabbit alfalfa or timothy hay pellets. These contain protein and fiber, essential for growing bunnies. Adult rabbits should get 1/8 cup for every 5 pounds of body weight.
  • Rabbits are herbivores and even hay and vegetables can make them gain weight. Pellets are more concentrated energy than hay and should be fed sparingly.
  • Remember that your rabbit can't live on pellets alone. It is very important for the rabbit’s digestive tract to have long stem indigestible fiber in the form of Timothy or grass hay to prevent hairballs (trichobezoars) and to keep its digestive system happy and healthy. Chewing on long stem fiber also helps to wear down the rabbit’s continuously growing (hypsodont) teeth and prevent dental problems.
  • Baby rabbits can have as many alfalfa pellets as they want until they are 6-7 months of age.
Offer plenty of vegetables. Rabbits are famous for loving carrots, but these should only be given occasionally, as they have a high sugar content. Wash the veggies completely and, if possible, feed organic greens.
  • Provide leafy greens like spinach as well as collards and turnip greens. In addition mustard greens, cilantro/parsley, watercress, celery, and dandelion leaves are good vegetables for your rabbit.
  • Two cups of vegetables a day is a good amount for most adult rabbits.
  • Introduce greens a little at a time to avoid digestive upset. Younger rabbits, 12 weeks an older, you can add in one veggie a week, about a half an ounce at a time to avoid disrupting the cecum.
  • You can also feed your rabbit fruits like apples, blueberries, strawberries and bananas as special treats. Fruit is high in sugar, and should be fed sparingly, about 1 to 2 ounces per 6 pounds of body weight.
Avoid giving your rabbit foods that are bad for it. Some vegetables aren't good for rabbits, including corn, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, beans, peas, potatoes, beets, onions, kale and rhubarb. Also avoid feeding the rabbit with bamboo, seeds, grains, and any type of meat.
  • Human foods such as bread, chocolate, candy, dairy, and anything cooked should not be given to rabbits.
  • Do not give your bunny light lettuce (such as iceberg). It may kill them by causing diarrhea and digestive upset of the good bacteria in the gut. Romaine is best, but make sure it's organic if possible, and wash it before offering it to your rabbit.
  • Never give rabbits grass cuttings, as this will cause serious health problems. You can allow a rabbit to eat grass that has not been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides and let the bunny choose what to eat on the lawn. However, avoid cut grass that has been heated and crushed by the mower. The process of cutting it will hasten the fermentation process and can lead to bunny digestive problems.
Provide plenty of clean water. Fresh water must always be available and changed daily. You can put it in a bowl or in a bottle of the sort used to feed hamsters, but rabbit size, although a bowl of water can be easily spilled. Make sure it never runs out and clean it out frequently to prevent contamination.
  • Make sure, if using a water bottle, that it is working properly and is not stuck open or closed.

Keeping Your Rabbit Healthy

Clean the cage every week. Make sure the bunny is under supervision while you work. Empty the dirty hay or shavings from the cage, wash it with hot, soapy water, rinse it thoroughly, and let it dry. Fill it with clean hay or shavings.
  • You should wash out the water dish or bottle every day.
  • The litter box needs to be changed out every day, and thoroughly disinfected every week or so with a 10% bleach or 10% white vinegar solution. Rinse well and allow to dry. If the litter box is plastic or metal, you can also place it in the dishwasher.
  • Have more than one litter box, so that you can switch a clean one while the other box is dirty or in the process of being cleaned.
  • Rabbit urine is very alkaline and crystals can build up on the surface of the litter box and require the use of a descaling solution.
Keep the temperature right for your rabbit. Optimum temperature for rabbits is 61 to 72oF. If your rabbit is outside, provide plenty of shade and, if it gets really hot, bring them indoors to air conditioning or place frozen water bottles in the hutch to help the rabbit keep cool. Rabbits can die of heat stroke.
  • The rabbit’s ears are really the main temperature control part of their bodies.
  • If they were in the wild, the rabbit would go underground where it is cool to get out of the heat.
Brush the rabbit. Bathing isn't necessary, but you can use a soft-bristled brush to carefully remove hair every day or two. If you have two rabbits, you may notice them grooming each other.
  • Rabbit shampoo can be purchased if your rabbit is extremely dirty. Rabbits generally do not need to be bathed unless they get very dirty and are not able to groom themselves properly.
  • Discuss bathing frequency with your veterinarian, but in general, bathing a rabbit every 1-2 months, if at all, is plenty.
Take the rabbit to the veterinarian at least once a year. Rabbits need annual checkups to make sure they're healthy. Many veterinarians who treat cats and dogs do not have expertise in treating bunnies, so you may need to find a vet who treats "exotic" animals.
  • Depending on where you live, your veterinarian may recommend vaccination for certain diseases like Myxomatosis if you live in the United Kingdom.
  • In the United States, Myxomatosis vaccination is not currently recommended.
  • Your veterinarian will do an examination and discuss their findings and make recommendations based on your rabbit’s current condition.
  • Managing healthy dentition in rabbits may require anesthesia to fully examine the teeth and address any sharp points discovered on the back teeth (premolars and molars).
Myxomatosis is caused by the myxoma virus, a poxvirus spread between rabbits by close contact and biting insects such as fleas and mosquitoes.  The virus causes swelling and discharge from the eyes, nose and anogenital region of infected rabbits.  Most rabbits die within 10-14 days of infection however highly virulent strains of the myxoma virus may cause death before the usual signs of infection have appeared.

Myxomatosis was introduced to Australia in 1950 to reduce pest rabbit numbers.  The virus initially reduced the wild rabbit population by 95% but since then resistance to the virus has increased and less deadly strains of the virus have emerged.  Pet rabbits do not possess any resistance to myxomatosis and mortality rates are between 96-100%.  With such a poor prognosis treatment is not usually recommended.

There are two vaccinations against myxomatosis, however these are not available in Australia. Thus the only way to prevent infection is to protect your pet rabbits from biting insects such as fleas and mosquitoes.  Put mosquito netting around your rabbit’s hutch even if indoors (this will help to prevent flystrike as well).  If your rabbits are allowed to exercise outside avoid letting them out in the early morning or late afternoon when mosquitoes are more numerous.  Please talk to your vet about flea prevention for rabbits. You can use Revolution (Selamectin) or Advantage (Imidocloprid) for flea prevention, but you must check first with your vet for dosages.  Do not use Frontline (Fipronil) as this has been associated with severe adverse reactions in rabbits.

If your pet rabbit does develop myxomatosis, your vet will advise the best course of action, which may be euthanasia. Treatment is rarely successful, even if commenced early in the infection and the course of disease is very painful and stressful.  Thoroughly disinfect your rabbit hutch, water bottles and food bowls with household bleach, rinsing it off so that it cannot be ingested by any other rabbits.  Bringing a new rabbit home is not recommended for at least four months after a case of myxomatosis as the virus is able to survive in the environment for some time.
Owners are reminded to vaccinate their rabbits against rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), especially as a new strain known as RHDV2 which has been reported as causing deaths of domestic rabbits. The current RHD vaccine may offer only limited protection against this strain but additional precautions can be taken to help minimise risks.
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