Rabbits are now becoming popular as pets, but have very specific needs in order to live a healthy, happy and long life – which can be in excess of 12 years. A popular misconception is that they are well-suited to living alone in a hutch, only being let out for cuddles and play.
This could not be further from the truth. The reality is that rabbits require a lot of effort, time, attention; and are better suited to being free roam like cats and dogs. They are also NOT appropriate pets for children. When looked after properly, they are also expensive.
NEVER get a rabbit without researching the pros and cons first. This article provides a basic overview on what is involved in having a pet bunny, and has been inspired by what my greatest teachers, my rabbits, have taught me.
- A female rabbit is called a doe; a male rabbit is called a buck – they reach sexual maturity from 3-6 months.
- Rabbits gestate for 28-35 days (usually giving birth at around 31 or 32 days) and can produce up to 14 babies per litter.
- They can sometimes carry two litters at once – it’s called superfetation – but is more common in hares.
- Baby rabbits are called kits (or kittens) and are born with closed eyes and no fur – they require their mother’s milk twice a day for 3 to 5 weeks.
- Rabbits are lagomorphs, not rodents, because they have four incisor teeth as opposed to two.
- Rabbits are not nocturnal – they are crepuscular – most active at dusk and dawn.
- Rabbits have almost 360 degree vision and can turn their ears 180 degrees.
- Rabbits can jump up to 90 centimetres in one go.
- Rabbit nails and teeth never stop growing so need regular maintenance.
- Rabbits eat their droppings, known as cecotropes, for extra nutrition.
- Rabbits cannot vomit or breathe through their mouths when their noses are blocked, so a runny nose is an emergency.
- Even a spayed doe can manifest a false or phantom pregnancy.
- Rabbits have anal scent glands that sometimes need help with cleaning.
- A rabbit’s tail is called a scut and they can wag it.
- Rabbit digestive systems are comparable to horses – rabbits are fibervores/vegans.
- Like cats, rabbits spray.
- Unlike cats and dogs, rabbits don’t have skin pads on their feet.
- Rabbits do make sounds, but don’t vocalize unless absolutely necessary.
- Rabbits play dead when scared.
- Rabbits are not suitable starter pets for kids or as Easter gifts.
- A buck’s testicles can be seen from 3 months of age.
First Things First – Find an Exotic or Rabbit Savvy Vet
Before getting a rabbit, you need to consider what assistance is available when there is a medical problem. Rabbits have somewhat weak physical constitutions so can become ill very easily, usually after hours and in non-pay weeks! It also does not help that they have the genetic propensity of a prey animal to hide illness right up until the point where it’s too late.
Vets who are knowledgeable about rabbits are few and far between, so it is important to find out if there are any vets in your area who are rabbit savvy, as those who are not familiar with them will treat them the same as cats or dogs – which can be highly detrimental to the rabbit. There are certain medications rabbits cannot have due to their complex physiology and digestive systems, and certain medical procedures have to be done differently. There are also some medical conditions that are only peculiar to rabbits. You may have to travel quite far to see a vet, but it is better than going to a local vet who lacks the correct knowledge.
The first thing you should always do when you get a new bunny, no matter where you got him or her from, is get a full health check done – this will confirm gender, in some cases age, rule out any impending medical serious conditions, address parasites, and ensure vaccinations are administered if you live in a place where viral rabbit diseases have been introduced (eg: Calicivirus, Myxomatosis).
A savvy rabbit vet will:
- Understand the rabbit digestive system, therefore know how to correctly treat gut issues…
- Know rabbits cannot vomit, therefore not recommend nil by mouth pre-surgery…
- Appreciate that a bonded pair need to be together at the vet, no matter who needs treatment…
- Advise you to provide your rabbit’s normal food while staying at the vet so as not to cause problems from a sudden dietary change…
- Know what medicines are safe and best suited to rabbits…
- Provide a pre-op assessment and post-op check…
- Not advise placing an Elizabethan collar/cone on a rabbit to prevent the rabbit agitating a wound site…
- Know how to examine a rabbit without placing them on their back…
Once you have found a rabbit savvy vet, it is important to get 6-monthly health checks carried out. Vets will also be able to trim their nails. Rabbit teeth never stop growing, so dental checks are necessary. Just like cats and dogs, they can get parasites (which require very specific treatments and should only be prescribed by a vet).
Handling & Transporting Your Rabbit
Contrary to popular opinion, rabbits do not like being picked up or held – there are some exceptions to this rule, but the owners of such rabbits have obviously earned their trust in some way. If a rabbit is picked up or held incorrectly (which is easy to do given their pear shape), they can sustain injury to the back or hind legs, as well as the person. They are often so scared, so violently kick and bite, sometimes breaking their backs. When picking up a rabbit, always securely support the hind legs and face the rabbit away from you [image 1]. NEVER hold a rabbit by the ears or scruff – it’s cruel, dangerous and painful. Examination hold is the best way to stabilize a rabbit for nail trimming and checking – where the rabbit is held firmly with its back against the chest, with support of the rear on the holder’s lap [image 2].
When you need to transport your rabbit for some reason on a short trip, eg: to a vet or because you are moving house, etc, a safe carrier is needed. The carrier should:
- Be made of a sturdy hard non-chew material. Plastic is a good option as it can be easily cleaned. Place a fleece blanket on the bottom to stop slipping and to absorb pee.
- Have a frontal door so the rabbit can access it voluntarily.
- Be the right size for the breed of rabbit – large enough for the rabbit to move and stretch out. Bonded rabbits should travel in the same carrier and be together at all times – for comfort and smelling the same (this is explained in more detail later in this article).
- Have a cover so they are in dim light and air holes for ventilation; but also be draft-proof.
- Have a handle.
Do not transport your rabbit in open baskets/boxes, cardboard boxes, fabric bags/carriers, cages/crates, free roaming in the vehicle, or on your lap. All of these options are unsafe because they are easy to escape from, can cause the rabbit injury if an accident happens, result in pee in places you don’t want it, or make the rabbit feel scared and stressed. [It pays to feed some fresh chamomile or a cold organic chamomile tea prior to a car ride, as this helps to reduce stress.]
Bunny-proofing Your House & Garden
Rabbits like to explore – like human toddlers – everything goes in their mouth and they will gnaw and chew things! Rabbits are inquisitive and curious, therefore you need to provide a safe environment for your rabbit and protect your home. Essentially, the same principles apply to a rabbit as for a toddler. This means:
- Unplugging anything that does not need to be on and stowing away all electrical cables – it has been suggested rabbits chew electrical cables because they are attracted to or are annoyed by the hum they make (that only they can hear). You will need to cover all wires you cannot stow away safely with plastic sleeves or flex tubing, or lift them well out of your rabbit’s reach.
- Covering baseboards with plastic guards or furring strips.
- Ensuring there are no potted plants within reach.
- Blocking or cordoning off certain areas with toddler gates, pens, screens, or closing doors.
- Covering certain carpeted areas with ceramic tiles or furniture.
- Keeping chemicals and unsafe foods out of reach.
- Removing toxic plants from the garden.
- Blocking escape points off the section or access to under the house.
- Making sure, just as your rabbit cannot get out onto the street, nothing else can get in – you need to consider human predators as well as animal ground and airborne ones.
- Providing you bunny, even if free roam, with an area they identify as their own – with hay, water, litter trays, toys and bedding they can access 24/7.