Owning and caring for a rabbit is great fun and very rewarding, they have fantastic little personalities and are extremely cute. But, it is a big responsibility and a long-term commitment. If you own, or are responsible for, a rabbit, even on a temporary basis, you have to be committed to caring for him/her properly. You need to provide dry, safe housing, the correct diet, stimulation and be prepared for any visits to the vet – including the financial implications.
Pet rabbits are related to the wild European rabbit and the biology and behaviour of pet rabbits is very similar to that of their wild cousins, though there are the inevitable variations. Most rabbit breeds retain the most recognisable features of their wild cousins, namely the long erect ears, long hind legs and their short distinct tail, except the lop-eared.
There are some 35 breeds. Normal breeds have short dense coat and Rex breeds have magnificent velvet-like coats. Fancy breeds include lops, angoras (long hair which requires daily grooming), dwarfs and Dutch.
It is important when homing a rabbit that consideration is given to its natural behaviour patterns and needs. Rabbits are sociable animals that like to jump and burrow. Ideally, rabbits should be with a companion, preferably another rabbit, and have plenty of space to exercise and explore.
They need a weatherproof hutch (approximately 60″ wide x 24″ high x 24″ depth per rabbit) with a separate sleeping area that has a solid wall to protect the rabbits from the elements. The rest of the hutch should have an open area with a wire mesh door. Consideration must be given to the positioning of the hutch so that it is sheltered and away from the prevailing winds and it should be raised slightly off the ground to avoid rising damp. The hutch should have plenty of clean, fresh bedding provided. This can be either straw or fresh meadow hay and it should be thoroughly cleaned once a week. It should also be checked daily to ensure no excessively damp or dirty areas are developing.
Rabbits need exercise and they should either have access to their runs at all times or allowed to have daily access for at least eight hours per day. It is important that the run allows the rabbit to stretch out properly and use its powerful hindlimbs. A wooden frame covered with chicken wire measuring 4ft wide x 8ft long and 3ft high minimum is required. The chicken wire should be sunk at least 15 inches into the ground to stop the rabbits burrowing out. If the rabbits are unable to burrow within the enclosure it is important to provide sections of pipe of approximately 6″ diameter so that the rabbits can run and hide in them as substitute burrows. Items such as wooden boxes should be added to give the rabbits something to jump on (which helps strengthen their muscles) and gives variety to the floor area. Make sure that the sides of the pen are at least one meter higher than the highest box to prevent the rabbits jumping out (unless the pen has a mesh cover). It is possible to litter train rabbits and to allow them in your house but you must bear in mind that they are likely to chew wires and furniture.
Rabbits can live happily with other rabbits providing consideration is given to compatibility of the animals. In the wild, rabbits live in large groups, so one rabbit on its own will become lonely.
Female rabbits from the same litter can live happily together; males from the same litter can also live happily together provided that they are castrated at about 4 months. If males are kept together and they are not castrated they will fight, causing each other serious injuries. Females not from the same litter will fight if introduced to each other.
Another possible combination is to have a castrated male with one or more females (remembering that the females must be from the same litter, and that a castrated male does not become sterile until 4 weeks after neutering). Sometimes, especially with a mature male rabbit which has been castrated, it can take up to 6-8 weeks for his testosterone to reduce to a level at which he will no longer persistently try to mate the female rabbit. It is important to give the male and female or females a chance to get used to each other without having direct physical contact, as quite serious fighting may ensue. Start by putting them in individual pens separated by wire mesh partitions so that they can form a relationship through the mesh without risk of injury. Eventually after a few weeks they should have become familiar with each other and can be put together. There may be a little chasing around but as long as there are no serious injuries they should be alright.
Rabbits are best kept with other rabbits for companions. Guinea pigs may make successful pen-mates but because rabbits are much stronger they may harm the guinea pigs if they do not get on.
If you do keep a rabbit housed on its own, make sure set aside time to spend with your rabbit each day, paying him/her plenty of attention.
Rabbits are herbivores and ideally they should be allowed to graze on fresh grass, which is their main source of food in the wild. But their diet should also include fresh hay, concentrates (Russell Rabbit food or rabbit pellets), carrots, apples, cauliflower leaves, and cabbage. Concentrates form an important part of a balanced diet for the rabbit but it is essential that the rabbits learn to eat all the components of the mix to avoid dietary deficiency.
They can also be given fresh dandelions and clover (make sure they have not been sprayed with anything toxic and didn’t grow too near a road and that they have not been contaminated by dogs). The concentrates should be put in heavy duty earthenware dishes that the rabbits cannot tip over. Grass lawn mowings and more than the occasional lettuce leaf may cause diarrhoea so should be avoided. Water should also be freely available at all times.
Recent surveys have shown that rabbits are the third most common pet after dogs and cats, but when you also consider the number of guinea pigs, chinchillas and small rodents that are kept, this group of small mammals represents a huge pet population. It is for this reason why the veterinary profession strives to provide advice on neutering, vaccination, housing, diet, worming and common diseases. Village Vet group provides advice on your pet rabbit preventive health plan as well as more complex medical and surgical services for this companion animal.
We advice vaccination in rabbits against two potentially lethal diseases:
Myxomatosis is a viral disease that only affects rabbits. It is usually spread by direct contact with wild animals (rabbits, foxes) and blood sucking insects/parasites e.g. fleas, mites. The signs are pronounced swelling of the eyes and face, lethargy, anorexia, depression and in nearly all cases the rabbit dies within 4-10 days. This problem can strike at any time but it seems to be most prevalent in the spring and autumn months. There is no cure but you can protect your rabbits by having them vaccinated.
b. VIRAL HAEMORRHAGIC DISEASE- VHD
This is another fatal viral disease that only affects rabbits. It only entered the country during the early 1990s but has since spread throughout the South-East and into much of England. Cases are sporadic at the present time but because of the number of naive rabbits in the country, that is rabbits that have never had any exposure to the disease, there is a real danger of epizootic outbreaks and large scale mortality. Again there is no cure, but you can protect your rabbits with a yearly vaccination.
We offer a single dose protection for 12 months against myxomatosis and VHD (RHD in Europe). This is a new combined vaccine, Nobivac Myxo-RHD developed by MSD Animal Health with a convenient annual booster protocol.
As part of your preventive health plan for your pet rabbit, we advice routinely worming your rabbit with Panacur oral paste every 3 months as an aid in the control of Encephalitozoon cuniculi and intestinal worms.
Rabbits can leave their mothers from the age of 6 weeks, by which time they should be fully weaned. Their lifespan in captivity averages 6-10 years. The male is known as the buck and the female as a doe. When sexing young rabbits it should be noted that the distance between the anus and the genital opening is greater in the male. The male has a round genital opening which contains the penis and the female has a slit that is V-shaped. With maturity the male’s testicles appear. They are usually fully developed by the age of 4 months, from which age the male can be castrated.
If you choose to get your rabbit from a rescue centre, they usually have rabbits of all ages of ready to be placed in the right homes and adults can also make rewarding companions. Some people prefer to take on an older animal. The other alternative is to buy from a reputable breeder or a good pet shop where the staff are prepared to give you as much time as you need in order to make the right decision.
Rabbits are highly social
- Rabbits are territorial animals and form complicated social structures
- Wild rabbits live in large groups within warrens, which are divided into small family units of 2-8 individuals, with a common group being a male and female pair
Rabbits are intelligent
- Pet rabbits can be taught to respond to commands using positive reward-based training. They can also be house-trained
Rabbits have continuously growing teeth
- A rabbits top front teeth grow at a rate of 3mm a week!
Rabbits have an unusual digestive system
- Food is passed through their gut and special droppings, called caecotrophs, are produced. Rabbits eat these caecotrophs, allowing the food to be re-ingested.
Rabbits are prey animals
Rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk and usually remain underground in the day to avoid predators. They have lots of physical adaptations to help them avoid becoming another animal’s dinner:
- Eyes located on the side of their heads to give them a very broad field of vision
- Large, independently moving ears that make up to 12% of a rabbit’s body surface and enable them to hear really well
- A well-developed sense of smell to alert them to the presence of predators
- Strong, muscular hind-legs that are used to stand up on while the rabbit scans for predators and are also thumped to alert other rabbits to danger
Rabbits are highly productive breeders
- A single female rabbit (a doe) can produce approximately 30 young in a single breeding season and can become pregnant again within hours of giving birth