It’s not all that surprising that rabbits are becoming increasingly popular as pets. They’re small, easily tamed and don’t have to be walked. They usually master the use of a litter box with little trouble, are social as well as active and playful. They’re not normally aggressive and even tolerant of young children (if handled properly). And they come in an incredible range of varieties.
Worldwide, there are some 50 recognised breeds of domestic rabbits featuring an amazing array of sizes, shapes, colours and coat types. Smaller rabbits like the Dutch and Polish breeds just barely tip the scales at under two kilograms, while the larger breeds weigh in at five kilos and over. One, the Flemish Giant can weigh as much as eight kilograms. The dozens and dozens of colours range from pure black to creamy white. Just to give you an idea of the variety: lilac chinchilla, sable marten, cinnamon, red, blue otter and frosted pearl. Then there are the ones with ticking, agouti, tortiseshell and tri-colour patterns. The coats can be thick or fine, short or long, silky or stiff, wavy or smooth. And those are just the purebreeds. When you consider that the rabbits you’re most likely to find in a pet shop are crossbreeds, your choice becomes infinitely wider.
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Some other characteristics – The life expectancy of rabbits varies with the breed; it can be anywhere from five to 15 years. Unlike dogs, the larger breeds tend to live longer. Rabbits reach breeding age around six months of age, and everything you may have heard is true: they breed like rabbits. Pregnancies last just 30 days and litter sizes average four to 10 bunnies. That’s why we strongly recommend desexing your rabbit at the age of five months. Not only will this help keep the number of dependants manageable for you, it will also help prevent medical and behavioural problems for your rabbit.
Compared to other pets, the skeleton of rabbits is much lighter in relation to the rest of their body. Because the bones are more delicate, you (and your children) have to be especially careful when handling or carrying your pet. (We’ll go into this a bit further on.)
Did you ever wonder why rabbits have such large ears? Well, aside from featuring large veins that make it easier for us to draw blood samples, those ears also give rabbits acute hearing and serve as a way to regulate their body temperature.
If you look closely, you’ll see that rabbits have two pairs of upper incisors, one hidden behind the other. Like rodents, rabbits’ teeth grow continuously and, like rodents, they should always have something handy to chew on to help avoid overgrown incisors. Blocks of wood are good. If your rabbit’s front teeth do become a problem (it’s fairly common with pet rabbits), they’ll likely need trimming. In some cases, the best option is removing them altogether.
Buying a rabbit – Whether you buy purebred or mixed, from a breeder, pet shop or shelter, probably the most important determinant is getting one your child can easily handle. The rabbits in pet shops tend to be medium sized, about two to four kilos. Ideally, choose a young one that has been weaned from its mother. However, that doesn’t mean you should rule out getting an older rabbit. You’ll be able to get a good sense of their personality, and they will bond with new owners just fine. You should have a close look at where the rabbits are kept to see that it’s clean and uncrowded, both conditions which reduce stress and disease. Also check to make sure the babies are well socialized.
Here are a few more pointers:
- Look for a rabbit that moves about freely and appears alert and inquisitive.
- Observe how the rabbit reacts to people; ideally pick a rabbit that is relatively calm about being approached and petted.
- Feel the rabbit; it should be neither fat nor skinny, with no swellings.
- Check for parasites such as fleas and ear mites; evidence of the latter would be dry, flaky skin or a waxy black goo inside the ears.
- The rabbit’s coat should be well groomed, with no bare patches that could indicate mange or ringworm and no soiling around the rear end which may be due to diarrhoea. Normal droppings resemble small, dry, brown pellets.
- Look at the ears, they should be pink, not red, and free of discharge. The ear flaps should be undamaged.
- The eyes should be bright and free from scabs or discharge. Check the coat around the eyes for signs of wetness or tear staining.
- Check the nose; it too should be free of scabs or discharge.
- Try to get a look at the teeth; they should not be over-grown and should be well-aligned, the gums light pink without any discolouration. Also check for wet or matted fur on the chin.
- Observe the rabbit’s breathing, which should be quiet and not laboured.
- It is wise to resist the tempation to adopt a sickly rabbit unless prepared for the possibility of expensive treatment and heartbreak.
Looking after your new pet – Rabbits have a variety of health needs. For starters, they need vaccinations against rabbit calicivirus (RCD). Because the disease is usually fatal and there’s no known cure, we should do this as soon as possible, ideally at 8 – 12 weeks of age, then a booster one month later and then current guidelines are every 6 months, in conjunction with a general health check. We’ll also expand on the advice you find here regarding housing, proper diet and common diseases and problems that rabbits are prone to. As discussed earlier, your rabbit should also be spayed or neutered.
Housing. Rabbits need to be kept in specially designed hutches, one type for outside, another for inside. Both types should be relatively large. And kept clean. With patience, rabbits can be house-trained.
Company. They need companionship, which means someone must be prepared to spend quality time with your rabbit. And when let out of the cage, it should have supervision as they are fond of chewing electrical wires! However, while rabbits like being near their owners, many often prefer not being held. This should be made clear to young children as even a rabbit who doesn’t mind being handled could react violently to a youngster, who might be too rough when picking it up or playing with it.
Exercise. They need time every day to run around. While rabbits are quiet by nature and don’t demand a lot of attention, they must have time out of the cage for physical exercise. This means that wherever your pet is free to roam should be carefully rabbit-proofed.
Feeding. They need a varied and balanced diet. The key ingredient is fibre, which helps minimise problems such as diarrhoea, bladder stones and hairballs. We see diarrhoea in rabbits fairly often, and in most instances can put it down to an inappropriate diet or an intestinal parasite such as roundworm or coccidia. In the former case, rabbits with a diet too high in carbohydrates (pellets or lucerne hay) are more likely to develop intestinal problems than those eating one with high fibre (grass hay). Young rabbits sometimes present with a diarrhoea containing mucous. Called mucoid enteritis, it can be fatal. However, feeding adequate hay in the diet can prevent the problem.
As with numerous other pets, rabbits too can develop bladder stones. It’s a serious problem and one that requires surgical removal. The first signs to look out for include frequent urination, straining to urinate and blood in the urine. Sometimes we can feel the stones during an examination, other times we have to X-ray. Because the cause can be a diet high in pellets, switching to one lower in pellets and higher in hay often helps.
A high-fibre hay diet (i.e., not lucerne hay in adult bunnies ) will also help prevent blockages caused by hairballs. (See the grooming advice next.)
Grooming. Rabbits need regular brushing, not only to help keep them healthy but because most quite enjoy it. If you have a long-haired breed, brushing becomes even more important in order to remove excess hair and help prevent hairballs. Because rabbits cannot vomit, hairballs are likely to cause intestinal obstructions. To help break down hairballs, you can give your rabbit either one-to-two papaya tablets each day or a few millilitres of pineapple juice, which contains the protein-digesting enzyme bromelain.
Rabbits need periodic nail trimming – for everyone’s sake. Since rabbits have sharp nails, they can leave some rather nasty scratches when they kick out their back feet. All you have to do is ask us and we’ll show you how to properly trim your rabbit’s nails or do it for you at the time of vaccination.
Medication. They need special care when it comes to medicines. Some medicines that are perfectly safe to use on other pets can kill your rabbit. In particular, some oral antibiotics are extremely toxic. It is best to see us for advice. If your rabbit develops diarrhoea during any treatment, immediately stop the medication – whatever you’re using – and call us.
Handle with care – Rabbits also need careful handling. As we’ve already said, they have unusually delicate skeletons which make their bones especially susceptible to fractures. You should pick up your rabbit by gently securing the front of its body with one hand and slipping the other hand under its rump and hindquarters. To carry it, tuck its head under your arm while still supporting its hindquarters. Never pick up your rabbit by its ears; they are much too sensitive and easily damaged. If you handle your rabbit too roughly, it could panic, kicking strongly with its back legs, scratching and/or biting. If it struggles too violently, it could damage its spine and become paralysed. It could even die of heart failure.
Danger signs – When it comes to health problems, rabbits are more deceptive than most other animals. The difference between an animal that looks perfectly healthy and one that’s close to death can be barely discernable. It is really important that they eat constantly and a rabbit that is not passing motions regularly throughout the day is an emergency. They can develop gut stasis, which can be rapidly fatal if it is not identified and treated intensively. To learn more about detecting a sick rabbit, see the Fact Sheet Rabbit Emergencies.