Rabbits make fantastic pets but there are a few important things that you ought to know if you are considering welcoming one into your family. They may look like ideal children’s pets that are easy to care for, but they are a long-term commitment with complex care needs and require the whole family to be involved in their life-long care.
Rabbits can live for 10-12 years – if you adopt them for children will you (or they) still be interested when they’re teenagers/young adults in caring for them?
Rabbits need company; they are social animals and should be kept in pairs or groups. A neutered pair of the opposite sex (male and female) is often the most successful match, but not always. Kept together they offer each other entertainment, grooming and support, which help to lower their stress levels and reduce boredom - enriching their lives and helping to keep them healthy.
Historically many people used to keep a rabbit and a guinea pig together as pets, this is not now recommended. Rabbits and guinea pigs have different dietary requirements, can cause injury to each other and also do not benefit from each other’s company in the same way as they do their own species, as they cannot communicate with each other as well.
Rabbits need gentle handling – they should have their bottoms and backs supported at all times. They have the tendency to kick when they don’t feel secure, which can injure themselves or their handlers. Children should be taught how to pick up and hold rabbits safely and be supervised by adults at all times. Rabbits can also deliver a sharp bite with their front teeth if startled or unhappy.
We recommend that all rabbits are neutered; this is to avoid unwanted pregnancies but also has other health benefits. Males are castrated and females are spayed. Male and female rabbits can be neutered from about 4 months of age as they can breed from 3-4 months. Be warned – litter-mates will still breed with each other; rabbits do not have the same social values as us! It is particularly important that females are spayed (even if kept with other females/a castrated male) as up to 60% of unspayed rabbits develop uterine (womb) cancer by the age of 3 years and this risk increases as they get older.
Gone are the days of keeping rabbits in small hutches at the bottom of the garden – did you know that this was a Victorian tradition stemming from when rabbits were bred for meat? This housing wasn’t designed with rabbit’s welfare, social or behavioural needs in mind - just to fatten them up quickly - and it is not appropriate for our pets.
The minimum space requirement as recommended by the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund (RWAF) is an area of 3m x 2m (~10ft x 6ft) with a height of 1m (~3ft) (to allow standing to full height without ears touching the roof). Make sure that you can provide this. Rabbits can be kept happily either indoors or outdoors, providing their needs are met. Remember that if keeping rabbits indoors you must ‘rabbit-proof’ the space they have access to, as they may chew through electric cables (electrocuting themselves), carpet etc.
This is providing entertainment and supporting natural behaviour to help enrich our pets’ lives. The following normal behaviours should be catered for in rabbits:
- Foraging/grazing (grass/hay/forage boxes)
- Standing and stretching up to full height
- Running, jumping and binkying
- Lying and stretching out to full length
- Hiding (any huts should have at least 2 ways in/out)
- Digging (either in a garden or by providing a digging box)
There are lots of fun ideas that you can use to provide entertainment for your rabbits and these can often be a fun activity to do as a family, particularly with younger children. Making ‘lucky-dip’ forage boxes (hiding treats in hay) can be great fun to make and watch.
Rabbits are strict herbivores and have unique digestive systems that are very different to cats, dogs and humans. They have a high requirement for fibre – some of this fibre is broken down in the rabbit’s large caecum to release energy, and forms small sticky poos which the rabbit eats again to release essential proteins and nutrients.
The rabbit’s diet should consist of:
- 80% grass or good quality long-stem feeding hay (this equates to a portion a similar size to the rabbit’s body).
- 10% fresh greens (a portion the size of bunny’s head)
- 5% healthy treats (dried herbs/flowers)
- 5% high fibre pellets (~1 tablespoon per kilogram of rabbit weight).
Traditional ‘muesli’ type diets aren’t recommended as they encourage selective feeding with insufficient fibre and nutrients as rabbits pick out their favourite bits.
There are three diseases which can currently be vaccinated against:
- Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease 1 (RVHD 1)
These are important for both indoor and outdoor rabbits and must be repeated at least every 12 months, depending on the vaccine and risk. At the same time at the vaccine your rabbit will get a health check including teeth which is important.
Common Health Problems
Like any pet, rabbits can become ill and require a trip to the vets. As rabbits are prey animals they are fairly stoic and often won’t let you know there is a problem until it is fairly advanced. This means that as soon as you notice or suspect an issue with your rabbit you must seek urgent veterinary attention.
The most commonly seen conditions that we treat are:
- Dental disease: this can require regular (every 6-8 weeks sometimes) dentals under general anaesthetic to correct the issues. Good diet can help to prevent this issue, but not in every case.
- Gut stasis/ileus: this is when the guts stop moving and is a very serious, sometimes fatal, condition which requires immediate treatment and sometimes hospitalisation. Good diet with no sudden changes is important in helping to manage/prevent this condition.
- E.Cuniculi: a microscopic parasite that can cause neurological damage and death.
- Flystrike: most common in the spring/summer and can affect any rabbit. Flies lay their eggs around a rabbit’s bottom; these develop into maggots which burrow into the rabbits skin. It’s very painful and can be quickly fatal. It is preventable by checking your rabbits daily for eggs and using certain topical treatments which our veterinary team will be able to recommend.
If after reading this you feel that rabbits are the right pet for you and your family then great! Many rescue centres will have bonded pairs of rabbits who are already neutered and have had their first vaccinations so it is worth speaking to them about adopting. If you need any more advice, please call our friendly reception team who will be willing to help.