There are about 30 breeds of rabbits, ranging in colours, shapes and sizes but all need similar care and attention. The following provides some general advice about rabbit care.
Rabbits need the companionship of other rabbits
Rabbits are a social species and should not be kept alone, or without at least one other rabbit with whom they are compatible. Generally rabbits should live as part of a bonded pair of rabbits; this is a process that takes some time and patience but, if successful, will hugely improve your rabbits’ quality of life. It is important that the rabbits are desexed, to prevent them producing lots of baby rabbits.
If kept outdoors, rabbits need a good-sized predator proof enclosure away from wild rabbits with two compartments:
- The hutch part of the enclosure should provide a safe place to sleep and hide. This compartment should be enclosed to protect the rabbits from draughts and rain. A ‘burrow’ type space should also be included with regularly cleaned bedding. Burrowing is a normal behavior for rabbits that they need to be able to express, and they require a safe and enclosed space to hide in for comfort. The shelter needs to be large enough for all of your rabbits to lie outstretched and sit down without restrictions so the rabbits can choose where they spend their time.
The hutch should serve only as a temporary enclosure for your rabbits, and a safe place to sleep.
- Your rabbits’ hutch must be attached to a run with plenty of space for your rabbits to run, jump, sit/stand upright, exercise and express normal rabbit behaviors.
The enclosure needs to be large enough to allow your rabbits to exhibit natural behaviors such as grooming and feeding, with a separate area for toileting. Many hutches marketed for rabbits are too small, these active and inquisitive animals need plenty of space. Your rabbits’ enclosure should be as large as possible but the minimum size for a rabbit enclosure for two rabbits should be 3m (length) x 2m (width) x 1m (height) as recommended by the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund. You can also use ramps to allow climbing, exploration and play behaviour.Even if they have a big enclosure, your rabbits will also need at least a few hours a day of exercise outside of their enclosure.
The hutch should be predator-proof, located somewhere that is rain-proof, and has netting that can keep out flies and mosquitos. Mosquitoes can infect rabbits with dangerous diseases such as myxomatosis or Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (calicivirus). Netting is also essential in order to keep out flies which can cause ‘flystrike’. Flystrike is a condition where flies lay their eggs on the rabbit, maggots then develop and the results can be fatal. So making sure flies and mosquitoes cannot enter your rabbits’ enclosure is very important.
The floor of the hutch part of your rabbits’ enclosure should be covered with newspaper with a layer of bedding material placed on top of the newspaper (straw, grass hay or shredded paper) to provide warmth, comfort and to prevent your rabbits from developing pressure sores on their feet, and also allow natural digging behavior. The floor and bedding material should be replaced when it becomes soiled. The hutch should be thoroughly cleaned every week or as required. Keeping the enclosure clean will also help to reduce attraction of flies to the area which assists with disease prevention.
Please ensure the area where rabbits are kept will not become too hot as rabbits are prone to heat stress which can be fatal. Your rabbits’ enclosure needs to be well-ventilated and have adequate shade to prevent it from becoming too hot. An entry and exit hole should be made at each end of the hutch where air can circulate. The enclosure also needs to have a part that is weather proof, dry and warm. Hutches need to be well ventilated.
Another option is to keep your rabbits inside your house. This often results in people spending a lot more time interacting with their rabbit companions, getting to know them really well and forming a close bond. Your rabbits would still need a safe escape proof area to themselves inside but can be kept ‘cage-free’. They can even be toilet trained. Ideally, your indoor rabbits should have some access to a safe place outdoors some of the time, or they can be trained to use a cat flap to a secure safe outdoor area. Remember to also keep any poisonous cleaning products and foods out of reach, and protect your rabbits from potentially chewing power cords.
Exercise and enrichment
Rabbits are intelligent animals that need plenty of exercise and room to run around to keep them mentally and physically stimulated. You should make their environment as interesting as possible and provide opportunities for running, jumping, and digging on a daily basis. This is best achieved by regularly letting your rabbits out into a safe, predator proof protected grassy area away from wild rabbits, where they can move around freely. You must keep a watchful eye on your rabbits while they are out otherwise they may burrow and escape, or be attacked by predators such as cats or dogs. Remember that dogs and cats will often chase and kill rabbits.
Make sure to spend dedicated time with your rabbits every day, to provide them with human companionship and to groom them and play with them.
Your rabbits’ environment needs to be interesting and varied, so you need to enrich it with lots of things for your rabbit to do such as using food and toys to stimulate play and foraging behaviours, and providing opportunities to dig, burrow, and chew. Any items provided to your rabbits must be non-toxic and safe. For example:
- Add hiding places in your rabbits’ enclosure such as non-toxic cardboard boxes to allow safe and natural chewing behaviour.
- Provide food-stuffed toys and objects to encourage play and exploratory behaviour. Toys don’t have to be expensive – food wrapped in paper, tunnels made from cardboard boxes, plastic flower pots hiding food, cat litter trays filled with soil for digging, and sturdy bird toys which rattle all make great, inexpensive enrichment options for rabbits. Keep in mind toys should be rotated to avoid boredom and must be safe.
- Hiding food to encourage foraging or providing it in a way which stimulates the rabbits mentally and physically (such as treat balls, food wrapped in paper etc) are a good form of enrichment. Rabbits should always have unlimited access to good quality grass hay and fresh water, as well as any dietary enrichment items.
Please see our article ‘How can I keep my pet rabbits happy?‘ for more details about making your rabbits’ environment interesting and stimulating.
Feeding the right diet is one of the most important aspects of maintaining a healthy rabbit. Rabbits are herbivores (they eat plant material). Providing a constant supply of grass and/or grass hay (e.g. timothy, oaten, wheaten, pasture, paddock, meadow or ryegrass hay) is paramount in providing a balanced diet. Grass/hay should make up 80% of your rabbits’ diet and is vital for gut health. Chewing continuously throughout the day also helps keep your rabbit’s teeth worn down, and can prevent dental disease.
Rabbits should also have plenty of fresh leafy greens and vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, Brussel sprouts, celery and others; these should make up about 15% of your rabbits’ diet. You can offer a small quantity of high quality rabbit pellets (though this should be no more than 5% of your rabbits’ diet), and carrots and other root vegetables can also be offered in small quantities as treats.
Please see our article ‘What should I feed my pet rabbits?‘ for more details about rabbit nutrition.
Regular grooming will help to keep your rabbits’ coat in good condition. This also means that the rabbits will ingest less hair themselves and reduce the risk of hairball blockages in their gastrointestinal tract. This is especially important for long-haired breeds. While brushing your rabbits, take the time to check their fur for any parasites or dirt, especially under the tail. If the soiled areas are not cleaned, it can lead to a fatal condition called flystrike. Also, check the length of your rabbit’s toenails regularly and if they are too long, have them clipped by someone who knows how to do this safely.
When you first obtain your rabbits, their health should be checked, ideally by a veterinarian. A healthy rabbit is alert, has bright eyes and free and easy movement. The rabbit should not feel “bony” and the muscles along either side of the spine should be firm and full. The rabbit’s coat should be in good condition and there should be no lesions or no sores on the body, or discharge from the ears, eyes or nose.
Rabbits can live for up to 10 years provided they are well cared for. Rabbits should be vaccinated yearly against Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus to protect them against this fatal virus.
Make sure you find a veterinarian who is experienced with rabbits.
Rabbits should have regular yearly veterinary check-ups. At this time your veterinarian can check your rabbits’ general health, vaccinate them, check their teeth for signs of dental issues (which are very common), and discuss your rabbits’ care and husbandry. In addition, you should take your rabbit to the veterinarian if you notice any signs of a problem such as poor appetite, lethargy, weepy eyes, sneezing, diarrhoea or any scratches or cuts.
Your rabbits should be desexed to prevent unwanted litters. Therefore, you need to factor in the cost of desexing when you are considering the costs of having rabbits. Ask a local veterinarian who is experienced in desexing rabbits for indicative costs.
During hot weather, rabbits can suffer from heat stress which can easily be fatal. Make sure they have plenty of water and shade, and adequate ventilation. A fan on a low to moderate speed can be placed outside the enclosure on warm days but should not blow directly onto where the rabbit lies. On very hot days you should keep your rabbit in a cool place inside (ideally air-conditioned) for the day.
Rabbits who are properly socialised (including being handled appropriately) from a young age tend to be calmer and more confident when handled. They are also more likely to be less stressed and even enjoy being handled if they have been adequately socialised.
Rabbits always need to be treated gently, and handled carefully and securely. Even when they are calm and well socialised, sometimes rabbits can panic and may struggle or jump from your arms; this can lead to injuries (to the rabbit or person) and potential escape. Rabbits can be easily hurt if they struggle; their spines are particularly prone to injuries, which can be serious, even fatal.
A rabbit should never be ‘tranced’ or ‘hypnotised’; this involves holding a rabbit on their back, causing them to freeze. This is part of the flight, fight, freeze response and is how some a prey animals react when captured by a predator. Rabbits exhibiting this behaviour are extremely distressed. It is unacceptable to subject rabbits to this kind of treatment.
Rabbits should not be held or lifted by the scruff of their neck; proper gentle handling should be used instead. Appropriate handling will be safer and less distressing to the rabbit.
A rabbit must never be lifted or held by the ears. This is distressing, painful, and cruel, and can also damage the ears.
Please see this article for more detail on handling rabbits properly.
When you are considering whether to add some rabbit companions to your family, we urge you to consider adopting, as good homes are always needed for the many rabbits being cared for by animal shelters and rescue groups. Reputable shelters and rescue groups will ensure their rabbits are vaccinated and desexed as well as given an overall health and behaviour assessment prior to being available for adoption. Check out the RSPCA website Adoptapet to see rabbits that are available for adoption.