Pet rabbits are related to the wild European rabbit, whose scientific name is Oryctolagus cuniculus, which means ‘hare-like digger of underground passages’. The biology and behaviour of pet rabbits is very similar to that of wild rabbits and they have very complex needs. Traditionally thought of as good pets for children, rabbits are not easy to look after correctly and an adult must always be responsible for overseeing their care. When looked after well, pet rabbits can live up to 12 years and there are lots of ways you can enrich the lives of these clever, curious nose-twitchers.
A place to call home
Pet rabbits need a large shelter (think more garden shed than cramped hutch) that’s dry, draught-free, well ventilated and protected from predators and extremes of weather and temperature, with a spacious, secure exercise area permanently attached to it. Their home needs to be tall enough for them to be able to stand up fully without their ears touching the roof (so a medium-sized rabbit needs a height of at least 75cm), and for at least two rabbits (as they should be kept in pairs as a minimum) to lie fully outstretched in any direction, to take a number of consecutive hops, and to run, jump, explore and forage and do all the things that come naturally to bunnies.
- It’s vital that you rabbit-proof any areas that your rabbit will have access to. Look at your home and garden from your rabbit’s viewpoint, and ensure that everything that they may be able to reach is safe for them.
- As a prey species, rabbits must have constant access to safe hiding places where they can escape if they feel afraid, as well as platforms from which they can scan their environment for threats.
- Your rabbits will need enough bedding to keep them comfortable and warm – it should be safe for them to eat so provide suitable insulating bedding materials such as dust-free hay .
- They also need constant access to a suitable place where they can go to the toilet – such as a litter tray – which should be separate to where they sleep. Never use cat litter – a handful of bedding will do with a clump of hay (as most rabbits like to chew on it while they’re toileting).
- Intelligent and curious, rabbits need to have lots of things to do – so provide a variety of safe toys, tunnels and cardboard boxes with holes cut into them for them to play with. Different rabbits enjoy different types of toys, so try providing a variety of items until you find out which ones your rabbits like best.
- Rabbits use scent that’s not detectable by humans as an important means of communication so provide objects and areas within your rabbits’ home where they can scent mark using chin secretions, urine and droppings. This is a rabbit’s way of marking his/her territory and making it smell familiar and reassuring.
- Many rabbits love to dig, so provide your rabbits with some form of ‘digging box’. A large plant pot or litter tray filled with earth, or a sandpit filled with child-friendly sand, provides a safe place for them to have fun.
- Good housekeeping is essential to keep your bunnies happy and healthy. Their toilet area should be cleaned at least once a day and the whole home should be thoroughly cleaned once a week using non-toxic cleaning products. Cleaning is potentially stressful for rabbits, so a small amount of the used bedding should be placed back into their home after cleaning as this will smell familiar to the rabbits and reduce stress.
- If you have house rabbits, they will need a large indoor pen or a ‘rabbit-proofed’ room in your home – remember to protect wires and cables by covering them or removing them from reach as rabbits just love to chew.
On the menu
- Rabbits need to eat lots of good quality feeding hay to keep their digestion healthy and help wear down their continually growing teeth. Feeding some hay from a hay rack or hanging basket keeps it clean and above floor level.
- They also enjoy a daily portion of high quality rabbit nuggets and a handful of leafy greens such as kale and mint. While grazing on fresh grass is fine, don’t feed them lawnmower clippings as these can upset their digestive system and make them ill. A small cube of carrot or apple can be given as occasional treats, once or twice a week. They also need fresh, clean drinking water, which should be checked every morning and evening. You can find more rabbit nutritional advice and details of the Excel 5 Stage feeding plan, recommended by vets, here.
- Rabbits are highly social and playful and should be kept with at least one other friendly, neutered rabbit. A good combination is a neutered female and a neutered male that have been brought up together. If you want to introduce unfamiliar rabbits to each other, you’ll need to get some advice from your vet or local rabbit rescue centre – just to make sure they will get on well together. Never keep rabbits with guinea pigs as they have very different need. Rabbits can also carry diseases which can be very harmful to guinea pigs.
- Rabbits kept together will naturally form a ‘pecking order’ with some animals being more dominant than others. A rabbit can be bullied if he/she cannot get away from other rabbits that he/she doesn’t like. So, make sure all your rabbits have constant access to places they can go to get away from each other if they want to and that there are enough hiding places for all your rabbits at all times.
- If gently handled in the right way from a young age, rabbits can learn to see humans as friends, but make sure children under 10 are supervised. Many rabbits enjoy interacting with people and can be taught to respond to commands using positive reward- based training. They can also be house-trained.
- To hold your rabbits correctly, you should pick them up gently but firmly, making sure that one hand supports their back and hindquarters at all times and that they feel secure against your body.
- Rabbits will usually be scared of cats and dogs because they are natural predators. Never leave your rabbits unsupervised with a cat or dog, even if you know they are good friends.
- Rabbits can be susceptible to a range of potentially life-threatening conditions, many of which can be avoided by means of correct diet, good preventative care and annual vaccinations. Always keep a close eye on your rabbits to spot signs of pain, illness, injury or changes in behaviour. Talk to your vet if you suspect any problems.
- Rabbits should be neutered to avoid unwanted babies and to reduce the risk of fighting with each other.
- Check the length of your rabbits’ nails and teeth every week to make sure they’re not too long.
- Their bottom and tail area needs to be checked every day to make sure they are clean. Urine staining and stuck-on droppings attract flies, causing flystrike. Flies lay their eggs on or around an animal’s rear, which hatch within hours into maggots that eat the animal’s flesh and release dangerous toxins. If you spot any maggots, your pet will need emergency treatment