Table of Contents:
The majority of a rabbit's diet should be hay. Free feed of timothy hay is very important to a rabbit's health. It contains necessary nutrients and roughage to help control hairballs. Alfalfa hay may be given occasionally as a treat but timothy hay should be made available at all times (see below for info on timothy hay as the litter box material). Alfalfa hay is very high in calories, protein, and calcium and can lead to obesity and/or kidney problems.
Carrots, carrot tops, broccoli, apple slices (no seeds as they are toxic!), banana slices, parsley, watercress, mint, cilantro, frisee, radish tops, alfalfa sprouts, kale (occasionally), bok choy, celery, chicory, collard greens, dandelion, green leaf and romaine lettuce (no head lettuce!!), pea pods (flat), tiny amounts of unsweetened cereals, and bits of bread are some of the additional food items that are acceptable for a rabbit to eat. Fruit should be limited to one tablespoon per day.
One thing to avoid is sugar; as it increases the bad bacteria in their intestines and can cause disease resulting in diarrhea and loss of appetite. Also avoid spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, mustard, raw beans, potato peals, rhubarb, or any spoiled food.
Fresh water should be available at all times! Change bowls and/or bottles at least once a day even if they are not totally empty! Heavy ceramic food and water bowls are recommended because they cannot be overturned. Wash bowls and bottles frequently to remove any buildup of scum.
Use commercially produced pellets purchased from a feed or pet store to insure that the quality of the food is consistent. Never purchase over an eight week supply of food at a time or it may spoil and cause the rabbit to stop eating. An adult rabbit will consume about five to ten pounds of food in this time period. Also, once a particular brand of food has been chosen, stick with it. Sudden switching of food can be detrimental to your rabbit's health. If a change in pellets is necessary, gradually change from one type to another by mixing them together until the old food is finished.
Protein: Short haired rabbits should eat pellets containing 16% protein, while Angoras should get 18 to 20%.
There is a controversy about the amount of pellets to feed a rabbit. Our experience is that pellets should be rationed. If your rabbit has a weight problem, restrict the amount of food to 1/4 cup per day (for an 8 pound bun) until his/her weight is normal. Experimentation will be necessary to determine the proper amount to feed.
You will get the most enjoyment from your rabbit - and vice-versa - if he/she lives in your home with you. People sometimes confine rabbits to a life in an outdoor hutch because they do not realize what wonderful house pets they can be. With a little training, your rabbit can be a delightful indoor companion.
Rabbits were not designed to live on wire floors! Living on wire floors can cause a condition known as sore hock to develop on their feet. Cages with wire floors were designed for the convenience of breeders who were looking for an easy way to clean up after the most rabbits in the least amount of time. Cages with wire floors must have a piece of untreated plywood, rice or maize straw mat, plexiglas, or carpet that the rabbit can sit and lay on. If you try carpet and the rabbit chews it, immediately replace it with something else.
An untrained rabbit can and probably should be kept in a cage or confined to a room while you're not home to supervise, but they must be let out for at least several hours each day, both to exercise, and to have social interaction with you and/or your other pets. Also, the more they are let out, the faster they will learn proper behavior through discipline. Younger rabbits tend to get into more mischief and must be watched and disciplined more closely. As time goes on and their behavior improves, more freedom may be given. If you don't want to confine your rabbit to a cage, a clean, rabbit-proofed room may be used. Rooms that are generally easy to rabbit-proof are the bathroom, laundry room, kitchen, and bedroom.
Eventually, when you feel you can trust your rabbit, free run of the house can be given. But first, you must inspect every room extremely carefully for any exposed wires and other dangerous objects (like plants) that could be harmful to your rabbit. You may have to deny access to one or more rooms if bunny proofing is difficult or impossible (such as a computer room). But the more space your rabbit has, the more delightful you will find him/her as a pet and companion. See rabbit proofing section for information on how to rabbit proof your house.
Timothy hay is highly recommended as the most foolproof method for the litterbox material. It is very inexpensive (if purchased in bulk at feed and grain type stores), extremely easy to use, and provides the most natural environment for the rabbit. Simply put a layer of newspaper in the bottom of a large kitty litter box and a nice, thick, soft bed of hay on top of that. The rabbits will sit in the box and eat the hay in the front and go the bathroom in the back (it is very natural for them to graze and go at the same time and they usually take to it immediately). If this method is used, do not put hay in any other place! This will only confuse your rabbit as to where he/she is supposed to go.
If hay cannot be used, organic dust-free non-clumping kitty litters such as Care Fresh, Cat Country, Cat Works, etc. may be used instead - do not use clay litter. Whichever material you choose, make sure to change the litterbox regularly to keep it clean. The litter box can be rinsed out with white vinegar, which eliminates mineral buildup on the surface of the box. (During training, you may want a slightly "dirty" litter box to help teach the rabbit where he/she is supposed to go. If you are constantly cleaning it, they'll think that it's supposed to stay clean and won't use it. Also, their scent in the box is another attraction for them to continue to use it).
Confine the rabbit to a small area (without carpeting is preferred) with the litter box. Do not give the rabbit access to any other room until he/she is always urinating in the litterbox. Stay in the "training room" for as long as possible to observe its behavior. If the rabbit has an accident outside of the box, wipe it up immediately with a paper towel, partially bury the towel under the hay, and then place the rabbit in the litter box. This will teach the rabbit that the urine belongs in the box! If the rabbit deposits any droppings on the floor, immediately pick both the rabbit and the droppings up and put them into the litterbox. Pet your bunny while he/she is sitting in the box and say "good bunny". When you have to leave, put the rabbit back into its cage or enclosure with the litterbox. When the rabbit is using the litterbox all of the time, you can then let him/her out into other rooms.
Rabbits love to chew electrical wires, telephone wires, TV antenna wires, etc. These wires can be covered by a plastic tubing available at most hardware stores. This tubing goes by several different names including polycon tubing, plumber's tubing, and vacuum tubing and comes in various sizes, thicknesses, and types of plastic (some are hard while others are soft and easily bendable). Use a utility knife to cut the tubing lengthwise and insert the wires inside. If the bunny chews through the tubing, another type may have to be used. Another good product is Cord-mate.
Some wires can be taped up on the wall and the tubing won't be necessary, but check for hidden places that the rabbit may be able to get to that you can't see such as under a bed or behind furniture.
Some rabbits will chew on the corners of wood, walls, or windows. This is one reason to be patient and observe them before they can be allowed the run of the house. If they find a favorite spot to chew, you can purchase hard plastic corner protectors from hardware stores to affix over the area.
For items like chair legs, kitchen cabinets, baseboards, etc., a product called Bitter Apple (available at pet stores) can be applied to the area being chewed. This product has an extremely awful flavor and should deter any further chewing. Unfortunately, for some reason, a few rabbits may like the taste. In this case, try Tabasco or another hot sauce. Blocks, baskets, boxes, and other toys (see Toys section) should also be kept around the house to give the rabbits something to chew rather than your furniture. Just make sure that the material is natural and has not been painted, stained, varnished, or treated with any chemicals (no plywood, press board, particle board, pressure treated wood, etc.).
A bored rabbit is a destructive rabbit! Digging or chewing the carpet and chewing forbidden objects are just two examples. Whether inside the cage or out, your rabbit needs plenty of toys to keep him/her from getting bored. Following are a few examples of suitable toys:
* Toilet paper & paper towel rolls
* Untreated straw baskets of any size
* Natural wood blocks (no pressure treated wood, plywood, particle board, press board, etc.)
* Canning jar rings
* Rolled oats box with ends cut off
* Soft drink can with a few pebbles inside for noise
* Rubber balls (unless they chew on them)
* Wire ball with bell inside (available at most pet stores in the cat section)
* Baby toys such as rattles and giant key rings
* Hanging bird toys with bells
* Rice or maize mats (available at Pier 1 Imports)
* Cardboard boxes with openings or "doors" cut in the sides
* Things to jump up on (they like high places where they can look around)
* Busy Bunny Baskets available from: The Busy Bunny, PO Box 1023, San Bruno, CA 94066
* Large "bouncy" balls
Because of shedding, rabbits need to be brushed at least weekly. In addition to removing loose hair, this weekly brushing session helps prepare them for the multiple daily brushings that they must undergo during their heavy sheddings. Rabbits will shed in different ways: some rabbits will take a couple of weeks or more to lose their old coat, while others will lose theirs all in one day. These rabbits cannot be neglected once they start shedding. A very large percentage of the hair can often be removed by just pulling it out with your hands.
Bald spots on rabbits are quite common when they are shedding. If you notice bald spots during your rabbit's shedding season, do not be alarmed; the hair will begin to grow back within a week or two.
Rabbits nails can grow to be very long and sharp and can be uncomfortable for both you and the rabbit. If the rabbit has light colored nails, the quick (the portion of the nail containing the blood) is highly visible making them very easy to trim - just clip the nail right before the quick. Dark colored nails make it much more difficult to see the quick, and therefore, harder to trim the nails. A scissors or guillotine type nail clipper available from any pet or pet supply store is suitable.
People are often afraid to clip the nails for the fear that they will cut the quick and draw blood. If bleeding occurs, it can be stopped by one of the following methods: apply flour to the area by dabbing it on with your fingers and applying pressure (the flour will help clot the blood); apply pressure to the nail with a cotton ball; or use a product called Qwik Stop which is available at most pet shops. Your veterinarian will also clip nails for you. They should be checked every 4 to 6 weeks. Never declaw a rabbit! It is unsafe, inhumane, and is not recommended for rabbits (or any other animal for that matter).
These types of rabbits are truly wonderful to look at but require much more attention than short haired rabbits. They must be groomed daily to prevent matting of the fur and, of course, hairballs.
Grooming also provides an excellent opportunity to give your rabbit a quick overall check- up (see health check section). This includes checking teeth for misalignment (malocclusion), eyes and nose for any discharge, condition of fur and skin, etc.
Rabbits urine varies in color from clear to yellow to brown to bright red. This is usually not a cause for alarm unless there are additional signs such as sitting and straining to urinate, loss of appetite or a temperature. When you see red urine, don't panic; just keep your eyes open for other signs that may indicate a problem. The red color will usually be gone in a day or two but can last for a much longer time. Actual blood in the urine would look like urine with red specks. If you're in doubt, don't risk your bunny's health -- have your vet test for blood in the urine.
Rabbits shed their hair every three months alternating heavy and light. Because rabbits are very clean and are constantly grooming themselves and/or their companions, they ingest a great deal of hair. Over time, this hair may build up and block the stomach exit causing the rabbit to starve to death while its stomach appears fat. Unlike cats, rabbits cannot throw up a hairball when it threatens their health; this is the largest cause of problems and deaths in rabbits! The first sign of a hairball or blockage of any kind (such as carpet) is a loss of appetite. Their droppings will also get smaller and will often be strung together or will contain hairs or pieces of carpet fiber. The rabbit's stomach will then become bloated as it loses weight on its way to starving to death.
To prevent blockages, regular brushing and combing is a must. Also, free feed of the loose timothy hay every day (do not give the small compressed hay blocks as the fiber is too small and therefore ineffective); plenty of exercise (in order to help the hair that they do ingest to pass through their system); and a daily serving of either papaya, dried papaya, 1 or 2 papaya enzyme tablets, pineapple, or dried pineapple (these all contain papain/bromelain which help break down the hair) are all very important in preventing hairballs. Petromalt, Femalt, or Laxatone (all available in most pet stores) may also be used as hairball preventative, especially during heavy molting, but should be used carefully as they may cause diarrhea. Also include a daily serving of green veggies for roughage.
Treating the first signs of a blockage is controversial, but the first thing to do is to get them to eat as much roughage (hay, tree branches, etc.) as they will. Make sure to be offering the rabbit plenty of greens (esp. broccoli) and other foods that you may usually consider "treats." This is critical in order to have the bunny maintain digestive flora. As you treat the condition, stay in constant contact with your rabbit vet as they may need to give you subcutaneous fluids spiked with electrolytes so that the rabbit does not become dehydrated.
Why spay/neuter? 80 to 95% of unspayed female rabbits will get uterine or ovarian cancer between two and five years of age, and a very high rate of males will get testicular cancer. Spaying or neutering your rabbit will give him/her the potential life span of eight to twelve (or more) years of age. Also, upon reaching sexual maturity, rabbits will often display such undesirable behavior as spraying, chewing, nipping, fighting with other rabbits, etc. In most cases, neutering totally eliminates this behavior.
When the time comes to have your rabbit neutered, it is extremely important to make sure that your vet is knowledgeable and experienced with the procedure and with rabbits in general. A rabbit neuter or spay can be dangerous or even life threatening if improper technique or general anesthesia is used. If the rabbit is older, tests may need to be done to assess liver and kidney function prior to surgery.
Rabbits' teeth are constantly growing. This is why they are always chewing - to help keep their teeth the proper size. Some rabbits, however, have misaligned or "maloccluded" teeth which means that their teeth do not wear down properly and continue to grow. A rabbit with this condition needs to have his/her teeth clipped periodically so that the they can eat. Your vet can do this for you or can show you how to do it yourself. The misalignment of the front teeth can be easily seen, but the back teeth may need to be checked by your vet. One indication that the back teeth may be a problem, is a wet chin that is caused by drooling. Teeth should be checked at each grooming session.
Contrary to popular belief, these are very bad for rabbits and other animals. "Aromatic hydrocarbons from cedar and pine bedding materials can induce biosynthesis and heptic microsomal enzymes" which are known to cause liver disease (quoted from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services guide for the care of laboratory animals). Use timothy hay (on top of newspaper) or organic kitty litter for your rabbit's litter box and timothy hay for other small animals' cages. Do not use corn cob- if rabbits eat it, it can get lodged in their stomach and create a serious blockage.
Sneezing may or may not be a sign of trouble. If sneezing is accompanied by a runny nose and/or runny eyes, a vet should be seen immediately, especially if there is also a loss of appetite. If the rabbit is sneezing but has no other symptoms and is eating well, it may be allergies or even nothing at all, but keep a close eye out for the development of any other symptoms and keep in touch with your rabbit vet.
Rabbits can get the common dog or cat flea, but be very careful about the products you use to treat the home and yard as well as the products you use on your rabbit. If the yard is treated, do not allow your rabbit on it for at least a week and then water it thoroughly to wash off any residual chemicals. If use of chemicals is absolutely necessary, the one currently considered safe on rabbits is called Carbarryl which must be purchased through your vet.
A mite that lives on the skin dander of rabbits, will cause your rabbit to scratch, and if left untreated, will eventually cause thick crusts to develop on the rabbit's body. Your vet can administer a drug called ivermectin to eliminate this problem.
Earmites cause rabbits to shake their heads frequently and scratch their ears. If left untreated, a middle ear infection could develop which may cause a problem with their balance. Ivermictin is also recommended for earmites.
An internal parasite called coccidia can infect the small intestines. Symptoms can be a loss of appetite to chronic diarrhea and occasionally death. Testing for coccidia is as easy as taking a fecal sample to your vet during the rabbit's annual check-up.
If your rabbit is free of any of these parasites, it is unlikely that they will get them as long as they are kept inside, their home is clean and they are not exposed to other animals who may carry these parasites.
Never let a vet give your rabbit amoxicillin (an antibiotic that is pink in color and smells like bubble gum). Amoxicillin and other forms of penicillin kill the "good" bacteria in the rabbit's intestines and can cause other organs to malfunction. There are other antibiotics that can safely be given to rabbits such as Albon, Bactrin, and Baytril.. Occasionally a rabbit cannot tolerate an antibiotic (signs are a loss of appetite, diarrhea, and others) and another may have to be tried instead. If your vet says that just this once will be okay or that they have no other antibiotic to dispense --find another vet!
Food and water should not be removed from a rabbit the evening before surgery! Ignore this direction if given by the front office staff and discuss with your vet if the instructions come from him/her. Not only do you want to do the right thing for your rabbit but you need to educate for future rabbits this vet may see! Rabbits cannot throw up and possible vomiting is the reason that food is removed from cats and dogs. It is harmful to rabbits and causes a longer recovery time if food and/or water is denied them. The rabbit should also be tempted to eat as soon as it awakes from surgery to assist with the recovery process. After surgery, offer lots of things you would normally consider "treats" in order to help them back on to food!
A simple checkup, as outlined below should be given to your rabbit every 6 to 8 weeks. This does not take the place of a full physical exam which should also be given by your vet once a year (more if the rabbit has a condition that requires monitoring). Regular checkups are necessary for the health and longevity of your rabbit.
Check and trim nails as needed (see Nails under Grooming section). If you find a broken nail, make sure it has healed properly since these are prone to infection. It is common for a rabbit to break a nail and is usually nothing to worry about unless it becomes infected.
Check the soles of each rear foot for worn hair and/or sores. This is usually the result of living on a wire floor but can also be due to an overweight rabbit sitting on hard surfaces. It is very easy for pasteurella or other infections to start in these sores so see a vet right away if they are found!
Make sure that they are properly aligned and not maloccluded. The top teeth should be directly in line with the bottom teeth with a very slight over-bite. If the top teeth are extremely long and actually hang over the bottom, it is likely that your rabbit is maloccluded and will need his/her teeth clipped (see Teeth under Health section above).
Rabbits can sometimes have a little bit of crust-like substance in the corners of their eyes; this is nothing to worry about and can be wiped clean with a cotton ball or tissue. If the eyes have a pussey discharge, the rabbit will need to be taken to a vet immediately. Other than that, their eyes should be clear and bright with no sign of discharge from their tear ducts. Note: The smaller dwarf breeds seem to have eyes that protrude more than their larger cousins. You will often find a strange substance that floats on the surface of their eyeballs. Because of the shape of their eyes, they are frequently unable to wash this material (hair and moisture) and you will need to remove it for them. never use human eye drops such as Visine!! If necessary, you can purchase a hypo-allergenic eye wash or Artificial Tears from the drug store and use ONE drop of that in each eye to wash the material to the corner. Often, a tissue or cotton swab can be used to gently lift the material off of the eye without using an eye wash (this should be done daily).
Check inside each ear for wax or dirt build-up. If ears do not appear clean, see a vet.
Look for moisture or discharge around the nasal cavities or for a "snotty" substance inside. Even if you don't hear sneezing, if you see a slightly moist nose, check the insides of each front leg for dirty spots. Rabbits will wipe their nose with the insides of their front paws and can easily mask the early signs of pasteurella (snuffles) problems.
Check the underside of their chin for a waxy type of buildup from their scent gland. If you find this condition, you can try to wash it off with warm water, but it will often be mixed in with their hair and will need to be cut off with cuticle scissors. Rabbits that often drink from bowls can sometimes get dermatitis, so also look for redness and irritation.
In addition to the scent glands under their chins, rabbits also have much more powerful scent glands on both sides of their genitals. This area needs to be checked and will probably always need cleaning. Sometimes you'll find just a few moist flakes from dried skin, but more often you'll find a very dark brown, hard, waxy type of build-up. Either of these can be easily removed with a cotton swab dipped in hydrogen peroxide. If this substance is not cleaned and allowed to remain, the area could become infected.
The rabbit may have to be turned on its back to do this. Keep one hand pressed firmly on the stomach so that he/she cannot suddenly flip over and injure their back. Use your fingers to find the genitals and then to separate the area directly adjacent to the genitals. When you find the scent glands and separate the overlapping skin, the dark substance will become visible.
If your rabbit ever has a "skunky" smell -- it's time for a cleaning!
This is also a good time to inspect your rabbits body all over: legs, the stomach, head, butt, between the legs, etc. Both male and female rabbits will have nipples on their stomachs, but other than that, if you feel any strange lumps or bumps, have a vet check them out. Just as with humans, the earlier you find and treat a problem, the easier it is to cure.
If your rabbit likes a bath, you can bath him/her in warm water, or use a gentle spray from your kitchen sink attachment to wash flea dirt and eggs away. Make sure bunny is dried thoroughly. If your rabbit is afraid of the water, don't take a chance as they can break their back if they fight wildly. See previous section regarding parasites about using Carbarryl. DO NOT use powder or spray on the rabbits head! As with any insecticide, if there is a negative reaction of any kind (such as diarrhea) discontinue use immediately. Note that flea dips and baths can kill a rabbit.
Is it dandruff or is it fur mites? If you can only see flakes, it is almost impossible for you to tell without a microscope. A sure sign of mites is what will look like white scabs or a crust on the skin and it will often start around the neck area. In addition, your rabbits can become very thin with bald spots as the mites become worse. You can also see very thin hair and dandruff caused by scratching due to flea infestation.
All of the above are simple things to check, but sometimes it may be easier with two people. If check-ups are done every two months, you'll begin to know your rabbit well enough so that you can spot a problem in the early stages.
Never hit a rabbit! Not only is it cruel but they don't get the message anyway! They can also become very angry and aggressive if provoked. When you find your rabbit displaying undesirable behavior, try one or more of the following:
* Clap your hands together and say "NO"
* Thump your foot like a fellow rabbit
* Whistle loudly * Shout loudly
Rabbits usually do not bite, but if one does, it must be stopped immediately. If a rabbit bites, it is usually not because it hates you; there are many reasons within a rabbit's social structure that bring about a bite. A rabbit may also accidentally bite while tugging at your pant leg. Whatever the reason, if you get nipped, you must immediately let out a shrill cry. Rabbits do this when they are hurt. Since they usually do not intend to hurt you, they will be surprised that you have cried out and will usually stop the behavior after a few times.
Rabbits love the company of other rabbits. If you have one bunny, think about getting him/her a companion (males are usually good with only females, but females can be friends with males or other females). Local shelters often have rabbits who have been abandoned and who will be put to sleep if not adopted!
It is a joy to watch rabbits play outside, but certain precautions must be taken:
Do not let your rabbit onto grass that has been sprayed with fertilizers or pesticides. Always supervise your rabbit while outside. It only takes a few seconds for a dog to jump a fence and attack or frighten the rabbit (literally) to death. * Under no circumstances should a rabbit be left outside after dark, even in the middle of cities. Predators such as hawks, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, dogs, and occasionally even a cat will attack a small rabbit. Even if you have an enclosure that is very secure, a rabbit can die of fright while a predator attempts to break in - even if the attempt is unsuccessful. Using an H-type harness or leash is the safest way for bunny to enjoy the outdoors.
* Amoxicillin: Antibiotic for use in humans and
cats - kills rabbits!
* Cedar/Pine Shavings: Causes liver disease.
* Houseplants: Do not let a rabbit chew on ANY houseplant! (Philodendron, for example are deadly poisonous to rabbits)
* Electric wires: Protect with plastic tubing
* Stray/strange dogs: Always supervise your rabbit around any dogs.