Owning a rabbit is not always straightforward. For many pet rabbits, life is actually pretty bleak. Many people who buy rabbits do so on impulse, with little to no understand of what a pet rabbit actually needs. Rabbits are often kept in hutches which are too small and with little or no enrichment. Given that a pet bunny can live up to 12 years, this is a long time to be bored and lonely. Imagine being in lockdown for 12 years with nothing to do and no one to socialise with!
Rabbits are intelligent, curious and very social creatures. When they’re cared for correctly, they make very rewarding and entertaining pets. The happier your bun is, the more their unique personality will shine! For a rabbit to live its best life it’s important to consider these 5 welfare points:
As a prey species, rabbits will feel safest if you interact with them on their level rather than picking them up. Be patient while building a bond with your pet bunny and socialise frequently in short bursts. Once bonded, they may groom you or purr like a contented cat by softly grinding their teeth. If a rabbit is very excited or happy it’ll do zoomies and binky! Binkies are when they jump and twist in the air.
• Intelligence and Habits
Rabbits are very clever and should have a selection of toys and puzzle feeders on rotation to avoid boredom. Did you know that they have a dirty habit? They eat their poo! They pass two types of poo, the 1st is a sticky caecotroph which they eat to absorb the nutrients that they didn’t absorb fully the 1st time, then they pass a hard, round pellet which is the non-digestible waste.
Wild rabbits live in colonies, otherwise known as fluffles! They are highly social creatures that feel safe and content in the company of others. The best pairing is a neutered male and spayed female. Never keep entire rabbits together unless you want them to breed. Females can produce 30 young in a season and can conceive within hours of giving birth!
Rabbits need a specific diet to avoid overgrown teeth, gut stasis and obesity. It should be high in fibre to help wear down their ever-growing teeth (they grow 3mm a week!) and consist of 85 – 90% hay, a small amount of rabbit nuggets, and a handful of fresh greens. Providing willow sticks for them to gnaw on will also help maintain the teeth. Muesli type rabbit food should be avoided as it enables selective feeding and leads to weight gain. Fresh water should always be available too.
Top Tip: Rabbit friendly greens include basil, cauliflower, coriander, dandelion, parsley, watercress, broccoli, celery, curly kale, mint and thyme.
Whether you have an indoor or outdoor bunny the core principles of a suitable environment are the same. Rabbits need space, lots and lots of it – in the wild their warrens alone can cover over 2 miles, and they can reach speeds of up to 50mph in short bursts! Their living area should be well ventilated and away from extremes in temperature.
Rabbits are masters of hiding when they’re unwell. This is because in the wild, sick rabbits would be more easily picked off from the colony by predators. The best way to monitor a rabbit’s health is to become familiar with what is normal for them. Daily grooming will give you a chance to check them over. To make sure your rabbit is healthy, you need to ask yourself:
• Are their eyes bright and clear?
• Are their ears free from mites?
• Is their rear end clean?
• Are their feet and legs free from sores?
• Are their nails overgrown?
• Is their body in good condition?
Although softly grinding their teeth can be a sign of contentment, if they do it loudly or often, it could be a sign that something isn’t right and they should be examined by a vet. If a rabbit is not keeping its rear end tidy and it’s clumped with faeces they may be unwell, or overweight and cannot reach to clean themselves. Having a dirty bum will attract flies, resulting in a painful condition called flystrike. Pododermatitis is another common issue in pet rabbits. It’s inflammation of the skin, usually on the paws, which can lead to a bacterial infection. It’s caused by contact with inappropriate or unclean bedding.
Just like dogs and cats, rabbits need annual vaccinations – even if they’re house rabbits as they can be at risk of disease passed on by flies or from items that have been outside. They can be vaccinated from about five weeks old, after which, they would need regular booster vaccines to prevent serious disease.
Neutering and spaying is recommended as it can ease aggressive, dominant behaviour in males and prevent females from developing uterine cancer. Spaying or neutering actually adds to the life expectancy of your bunny and can also help benefit their wellbeing.
Although traditionally rabbits and guinea pigs have been housed together, we now know that they shouldn’t be. Rabbits carry a bacteria called Bordetella Bronchiseptica which can cause life-threatening pneumonia in guinea pigs. They also have different dietary needs, so it doesn’t actually make much sense to house them together.
Rabbits are clean animals and will toilet in one area and they can even be litter trained! Ensure that their toilet area is away from their sleeping and eating areas. Their set up should be spot-cleaned daily and dirty bedding and uneaten food removed. All of their bedding should be changed weekly, and a deep clean should be conducted monthly with a rabbit friendly cleaning product.
The minimum housing requirements for a pair of rabbits is a hutch that’s 2m long and 60cm tall with a run that’s 2m wide and 1m tall. They should be able to lie fully stretched out, hop at least 3 times and stand on their hind legs without touching the ceiling. As they’re prey animals, they need bolt holes to feel secure which can be provided with play tunnels or boxes. They also need things to investigate and play with. If you do keep your rabbits indoors, ensure that you’ve bunny proofed the house by putting cables and toxic house plants out of reach.
Rabbits definitely make good pets, but just like most, they’re a lot of responsibility. If you do decide that a pet rabbit is right for you, always try to adopt. There are always plenty of bunnies at shelters and rescue centres who are waiting for their furever families.