Rabbit care

Brown Rabbit in cage

Rabbits are intelligent, often friendly, and quiet house pets. They come in variety of sizes, colors, and personalities. Their average lifespan (depending on breed and size) can range from 7 to 10 years.

It's important to understand that while rabbits are small in stature, they require a large housing area to stay happy and healthy and as such, properly caring for them can be expensive. Also, they prefer to not be picked up or cuddled which can be very frustrating for adoring caretakers  especially children.

In the wild, rabbits are a prey species. They are very aware of their surroundings — always on the alert for predators or any change to their environment. Because of this, the transition to a new home may be scary for your rabbit at first.

For the first three or four days, give the rabbit a chance to get used to their new surroundings. Set up its cage in a quiet, low-traffic area. Talk quietly to the rabbit and pet him or her gently, but refrain from picking it up. When your rabbit comes to you for attention, you will know it is becoming comfortable and you can begin picking it up and allowing it playtime outside the cage.

Forcing your attention on the rabbit will only cause it stress and make it more difficult for it to get used to its new home.

Housing

Rabbits should be kept as indoor pets. They are social animals and require daily interaction and playtime with their owners, which is more likely to occur if the rabbit is inside your home. Outdoor living makes them vulnerable to predators, disease, extreme temperatures, and loneliness. A rabbit should never be completely confined to a cage.

Cage and bedding

Your rabbits' cage should allow for plenty of movement. The size of the cage will depend on the size and number of rabbits. In general, giant breeds (greater than 12 pounds) require a minimum of 30x36 inches to 36x48 inches, medium breeds (7-12 pounds) require 24x30 inches to 30x36 inches, and smaller breeds can be accommodated by 18x24 inches.

Some sources report that no matter the size of the rabbit, they should be confined to a space no smaller than 4 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 4 feet tall, or a minimum of 12 square feet. In general, the bigger the cage, the better!

They should be able to hop at least 3-4 full hops in each direction and be able to fully stand up on their hind legs without touching the top of their cage. Often commercially available rabbit cages are too small. We recommend getting creative and making your own.

Solid floor bottoms are preferred over wire mesh bottoms to prevent irritation to your rabbits’ feet. The flooring should be covered with absorbent material. Unscented pelleted or shredded paper bedding along with fleece material can be used with care to avoid cedar or pine shavings. Soiled bedding, including their litterbox, should be removed or cleaned daily. Cages should be cleaned at least weekly with soap and water or a dilute bleach solution (1:10 ratio). Always rinse thoroughly.

You rabbit should also have a designated exercise area. You can use fencing panels and tie or pin them together, puppy play pens, or there are also commercially available exercise pens. Make sure there is non-slip flooring. The height of the panel should be at least 3-4 feet depending on the size and breed of your rabbit. If you are going to let your rabbit roam freely, then you need to bunny-proof their environment (see Bunny-proofing your home for more information). In either case, you should never leave your rabbit unsupervised, especially with other pets in the household.

Location

Because rabbits are susceptible to heatstroke, environmental temperatures should be kept between 60 to 70° F and high humidity should be avoided. Keep your rabbits' enclosure in a quiet, dry, well-ventilated area.

Cage accessories

Other supplies you'll need to care for your rabbit include a ceramic crock and/or hanging bottle for water, food dish, litter pan (one they can sit in), and a hay rack. Since they are prey animals, they need a place to feel secure. They should be provided at least one place to rest or hide. This can be a small cardboard box or a rabbit house available at your local pet store.

Your rabbit should be provided with a variety of toys and chewing material to provide enrichment. They tend to like things that they can chew on, move around, and make noise. Toys your rabbit will love include untreated wooden blocks, branches, baskets, toilet paper roll, cardboard, balls, cups, keys, baby toys, and so much more (see Playtime and exercise for more information).

Rabbits commonly can be litter box trained which makes cage and exercise area cleaning much easier. Learn how to set up your rabbit’s litter box.

Diet

Rabbit digestive systems are fairly complex. They need a diet that is nutrient-dense and contains a lot of bulk roughage to stay healthy.

A healthy rabbit’s diet includes:

  • Hay
  • Green foods
  • Pellets
  • Treats (non-leafy vegetables and fruit)
  • Supplements and vitamins (if required)
  • Water

If you see your rabbit eating its own droppings, rest assured this is completely normal and very important for your rabbit’s health.

Hay

High quality grass hay provides the necessary fiber to maintain a healthy GI tract and should comprise the bulk of your rabbit’s diet (approximately 80%). Timothy, meadow, oat, rye, barley, Bermuda, orchard, and prairie grass should be offered “free choice,” meaning it should be available 24 hours a day.

Offer your rabbit a variety of types of grasses, but do not give alfalfa or clover hays as these are too rich in protein and calcium. Also, never give your rabbit straw.

You can offer your rabbit hay in a hay rack, box, or basket within the cage or exercise area, and in their litterbox. Rabbits will usually not eat any hay that has been soiled. You can also provide enrichment by stuffing hay into toilet paper rolls.

Green Foods

Green foods provide additional micronutrients as well as water content. It's best to make sure your rabbit is eating grass hay for two weeks prior to providing greens and to introduce new foods slowly.

In general, the darker the green food, the higher nutritional content. You should offer your rabbit one cup of greens per two pounds of body weight per day or split into multiple feedings. About 75% of what is offered for the fresh diet should be leafy greens.

There is a wide array of green foods you can offer including: spinach, mustard greens, carrot/celery tops, cucumbers, turnip/radish greens, basil, parsley, and a variety of lettuces. Make sure they are organic or washed thoroughly to remove any pesticides. Offer a mixture daily (ideally three different types) and change what you offer weekly. Uneaten fresh foods should be removed after 3-4 hours.

If the rabbit’s stool becomes runny or soft, it could be due to receiving too much liquid from fresh foods. In this case, restrict fresh foods for a day to see if the issue resolves.

Pellets

Rabbit pellets can be purchased from most pet stores. Make sure to get a pellet that is grass hay-based and not alfalfa and try to use them within 90 days of the manufacturer’s date. Also, try to stay away from pellets that contain seed, nuts, or corn.

Pellets need to be rationed. The amount of pellets to feed your rabbit is based on its size, breed, and if there are any medical concerns. On average, feed your rabbit about 1/4 cup of pellets for every 4 pounds of weight (dwarfs eat about 1/8 cup daily, 5-7 pound rabbits eat 1/4 cup daily, 8-10 pound rabbits eat 1/2 cup daily, 11-15 pound rabbits can eat 3/4 cup daily).

Pellets are usually offered in a ceramic bowl because ceramic is heavy enough to prevent being tipped over and can't be chewed like a plastic bowl.

Treats (other “non-leafy” vegetables and fruit)

Part of the fun of owning a rabbit is giving it special treats. Treats are fine in moderation, but too many can easily upset a rabbit’s delicate digestive system and cause weight gain. Feed treats by hand or place them in a separate small treat dish.

Vegetables such as carrots, squash, turnips, radishes, bell peppers, potatoes, cauliflower, and broccoli are good options. These can be fed to your rabbit about one tablespoon per two pounds of weight per day.

Some fruits can also be fed in small amounts and are really great for training and bonding with your rabbit. Fruits such as melons, berries, peaches, apples, and pears are okay. Bananas are most often rabbits' favorite and should be fed in moderation. Typically you can leave the skin on the fruit and feed your rabbit about one teaspoon per two pounds of weight per day.

Just like with green foods, try to buy organic or wash the vegetables and fruits thoroughly prior to offering them to your rabbit.

Be sure to avoid foods that contain high levels of starch, fats, and that are in the onion family.

Supplements and vitamins

Some veterinarians recommend adding vitamins, however, if rabbits are fed an otherwise adequate diet, additional vitamins should not be necessary.

In some cases, adding vitamins to your pet's water might affect the taste of the water which could prevent your rabbit from drinking enough water. Adding vitamins to water can also speed up bacterial growth. For these reasons, it's suggested that nothing be added to a rabbit’s usual water supply unless some additional dietary supplement is required.

Water

Rabbits need fresh water daily. It's best to provide water in a ceramic bowl versus a sipper water bottle. Some pet parents will provide both options for their rabbit. Whichever you and your rabbit choose, make sure to wash the water container daily. Remember, if your pet is receiving an adequate amount of greens, their water intake may be minimal.

Medical needs

All pets, including rabbits, need regular examinations. Rabbits can occasionally get sick and their illnesses can be severe. They should be examined annually and have their feces tested for parasites during the annual visit.

All newly adopted rabbits should be examined by a qualified veterinarian (who's knowledgeable about rabbits) within two weeks of adoption. Many problems are caused by misinformation, and the first veterinary visit can help prevent well-intentioned owners from making mistakes. 

Spaying or neutering your rabbit is highly recommended. This helps prevent uterine cancer in females and aggressive behavior in males.

If kept in clean surroundings and fed a good diet, rabbits rarely fall ill. However, rabbits are prey animals and usually once they begin showing signs of sickness, they are very ill. Even the most subtle change, like not wanting to eat their favorite treat, could be an early sign of disease. You should seek prompt medical attention for a rabbit showing signs of illness such:

  • Lethargy
  • Lack of appetite or drinking
  • Lack of stools, change in shape
  • Diarrhea
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal, eye, or ear discharge
  • Head tilt
  • Urinary incontinence, red urine, inability to urinate
  • Marked change in behavior
  • Fur loss, scratching

Signs of disease can be vague and non-specific, and any deviation from normal should be a cause for concern and requires immediate evaluation by your veterinarian.

In October of 2021, the Board of Animal Health approved a vaccine for use against Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2. Reach out to your veterinarian to determine if vaccination would be appropriate for your pet.

Grooming

Long-haired rabbit breeds will require a daily brushing. Short-coated breeds can be brushed once a week. All rabbits go through a molting process about every three months which will require additional brushing.

Hairballs can be a serious medical problem for rabbits and regular brushing will help reduce the amount of fur the rabbit ingests while grooming itself. Never give your rabbit a bath.

All rabbits should have their nails trimmed about once a month. During a petting session or playtime, get your rabbit accustomed to being on its back and to handling its paws. This will make nail trims less stressful. A cat nail trimmer works well for rabbits. Trim only the sharpest part of the nail, being careful not to cut into the quick.

Handling

The rear legs of a rabbit are so strong, that if they are not handled appropriately, they can actually break their backs. Learning how to correctly pick up and hold your rabbit is very important. If you need further guidance or assistance on how best to handle your rabbit, please speak with your regular veterinarian.

Start with your rabbit on the floor. Pick up your rabbit by scooping one hand beneath the chest and the other supporting the hind legs and hips. Bring the rabbit against your body and hold the rear end firmly. Rabbits do not like to be suspended in the air and a rabbit will struggle less if it feels secure.

Never pick up a rabbit by the ears or scruff. Most rabbits prefer “four on the floor” and will be more comfortable being petted on your lap or the floor. Do not allow small children to pick up your rabbit.

Playtime and exercise

Rabbits are most active in the morning and evening, and sleep during the day and night. Rabbits need at minimum 3-5 hours of exercise daily outside the cage. They are naturally curious and enjoy opportunities to explore. Start off with a small area of your house, allowing only as much freedom as they can handle. To prevent destruction to your house and protect the rabbit from harm, don't allow access to electrical cords, houseplants, furniture, any woodwork, carpeting, and other items irresistible to chewing. 

Toys can provide stimulation for a caged rabbit. Offer new toys and rotate toys monthly. Suggested toys include: toilet paper tubes, large cardboard tubes they can run through, plastic whiffle balls, and hard plastic cat toys (especially if they rattle). Rabbits also love to dig and burrow, so try stuffing a cardboard box with hay or paper for your rabbit to explore. 

Bunny-proofing your home

Part of living with a house rabbit is bunny-proofing your home. Wild rabbits chew through tree roots and brambles to make their burrows, and pet rabbits will instinctively chew items in their environment too. Prevent damage to your property, protect your rabbit from harm, and give her safe and fun chewing alternatives with these helpful tips.

Bunny bonding basics

House rabbits are social by nature, and are often deeply emotional creatures that crave the companionship of their own kind. They often do best when kept in at least pairs. They form bonds that are so powerful that loss of a companion can cause depression and illness. Like any relationship, though, the bonding process itself can be slow and may take patience, time, and a commitment from you to foster the relationship. Learn how to begin the process.

Meeting new friends (human and otherwise)

Children should be taught to speak softly and move slowly around rabbits. Loud, high-pitched voices and quick movements will scare them. Show older children the proper way to pick up a bunny so as not to accidentally harm or startle it. An adult or parent should always supervise any child-pet interactions.

As mentioned, it is best to house rabbits at minimum in pairs. Some rabbits have already bonded with others and should be kept together. If your rabbit has not bonded, you will likely need to add a new friend. If you plan to add a second rabbit, review these tips.

Cats can sometimes be playtime companions as well, but dogs are usually not a good choice because of their hunting instincts. Introductions to other pets should be calm and gradual. Initially, you can allow other pets to investigate the rabbit while it’s safely caged. Out-of-cage interactions should be closely monitored.

Activities for you and your rabbit

Rabbits love to jump, explore, and be social. Agility programs and socializing provide exercise and mental stimulation for rabbits, as well as a fun way to interact with them.

Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society hosts a variety of rabbit agility classes and Hoppy Hours for rabbits and their owners. Learn more about rabbit training and class schedules.

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

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