Taking on a new rabbit is a very rewarding, not to say fun, undertaking! However, in contrast to popular belief, they have complex needs and shouldn’t be considered an ‘easier’ alternative to a dog or cat. Sadly, it is estimated that 35,000 rabbits a year are given to rescue centres in the UK, the majority within 3 months of being acquired. They can live for 5-10 years or more and will cost on average £1500 to keep a year, excluding treatments beyond vaccinations. To help you get off on the right track we have prepared this information sheet of general advice which you can follow. Remember, if you are thinking of getting a rabbit, rather than heading straight to the pet shop, consider heading to your local rescue centre to give a lonely bunny a new loving home!
Most importantly, rabbits are highly social animals and need to be kept with at least one other rabbit, unless advised otherwise by a vet or qualified animal behaviourist. Bunnies from the same litter will generally get along, but unrelated rabbits need to be introduced gradually: please contact us for further advice on this should you be introducing new rabbits.
A good companion combination is a neutered male with a neutered female. Neutering is important because it will reduce territorial, aggressive behaviour and protect against unwanted pregnancies: brothers and sisters from the same litter will mate, and can do so from an early age! Neutering can be done by 5 months of age. As prey animals, rabbits will be afraid of others pets like cats and dogs, so shouldn’t generally be kept together. But, if they are introduced gradually and from a young age, it is possible for friendships to form.
The best diet for rabbits is one that mimics as closely as possible the grass-based diet they evolved to eat. This is very important to prevent obesity, dental disease and digestive disease. 80% of the diet should made of good quality fresh hay or fresh growing grass; this means a rabbit should eat about a pile of hay equal to the size of its body every day! Lawnmower cuttings should not be given as these ferment and cause digestive problems which can be fatal.
Leafy green vegetables should make up 15-18% of the diet: feed one handful once a day of washed dandelions, brambles, dock leaves, cabbage, watercress, rocket, salad leaves (but not iceberg lettuce as this can cause diarrhoea and has little nutritional value), broccoli, carrot tops, kale or spinach. Rabbits also loves herbs which make their food smell more interesting! Try fresh parsley, basil or coriander. The remaining 2-5% should be made of complete commercial rabbit pellet or nugget. Muesli diets are strongly discouraged because they increase the risk of dental disease and rabbits will only eat their favourite bits and not get a balanced diet. Fresh water should always be available, ideally in a bowl and a drinker (some rabbits may have a strong preference for one or the other).
This is an important activity for both rabbit and owner. Daily head to tail grooming with a soft brush or comb encourages bonding, will improve behaviour and is often the way that early health problems such as lumps or sore spots are identified. Longer coated breeds may need more frequent grooming using more specialist equipment. Rabbits should never be turned upside down onto their back for grooming or cuddling. This is known as ‘trancing’ because bunnies lie still, as if asleep. In contrast to popular belief, they are not asleep and enjoying their grooming but, as prey species, they are terrified, playing dead and displaying a fear response.
Regularly handling your bunny gets them used to being held and examined. This makes life easier when at the vets in later life. Handling them regularly means you will spot any changes in their health early, which is important for treatment.
The best time to do a health check is while grooming. You should stick to a simple, quick routine. This allows you to check all potential problem areas without taking so long that your rabbit becomes upset or bored. You should check: that eyes and nose are free of discharges; the bases of the ears for any lumps; the skin, particularly on the legs and around the bottom, for sore spots, dirt or parasites; the mouth to make sure there is no abnormal growth of the front teeth; the jaw to check for any lumps or bumps. As prey animals, rabbits do not easily show signs of pain, so regular health checks are important to spot potential issues.
Pet insurance is extremely important and strongly advised. Nowadays, there are a number of companies that offer pet insurance for rabbits. Always make sure you read all options in detail to ensure you get the right policy for you. A good policy should cover vet bills including those for long term conditions lasting more than a year. Be aware that policies do not generally cover long term dental work (even more of an incentive to keep your bunny’s diet tip-top!).
We strongly recommend all our rabbits are vaccinated against Myxomatosis and Viral Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease. These are both fatal diseases, seen in our area and easily preventable. Routine worm and flea treatments are not generally required. Bunnies that live or share gardens with other dogs and cats will be protected given these pets are routinely treated. Fly repellent products are recommended in the warmer months.
Training, behaviour and exercise
A major reason for rabbit abandonment is because of behaviour, particularly aggressive behaviour towards an owner. Many problems result from misunderstandings between bunny and owner and can be prevented with proper exercise, handling and training. Rabbits need lots of space to exercise and to stand up with ears pointed: a hutch is not enough! As well as hutch area, they should have a run large enough to hop 3 paces in a line. As prey animals, need lots of hiding areas like tunnels and boxes. They should also have free access to exercise a few hours per day. Gentle daily handling will allow you and your bunny to bond; avoid lifting rabbits because this is stressful for them, they would prefer to sit next to you and be petted rather than being carried around at height. Please note that it is important that children are always supervised around rabbits because rough handling is very scary for bunnies and they can easily break their backs. Rabbits are highly intelligent and you can even train rabbits to preform tricks and behaviours on cue with clicker training! This is another excellent way to stimulate your rabbit and to encourage bonding.
The other major reason for bad behaviour is pain due to disease, such as dental disease, which makes your daily health checks and regular vet visits even more important.