When you first adopt a pet rabbit it’s important to have a good working knowledge of the key rabbit care tips and tricks to give your new rabbit the best chance of a long, healthy and happy life. For a rabbit to flourish, they need safe and comfortable housing, good diet, exercise and socialization with other rabbits (or pets) and their humans.
Rabbits are very easy pets to look after and part of getting to know them is understanding their body language and vocalization which will give you a snapshot of their general wellbeing. Their dietary needs are straightforward.
Rabbits must be securely housed so that they are safe from predators (such as foxes, stray dogs or coyotes) particularly if housed in an outdoor cage. Their housing must also provide suitable shelter from extremes of weather. You will also need to bunny-proof your house to prevent your rabbits nibbling on electrical cables or furniture and drapes.
If you are not a rabbit breeder, it’s worth getting your rabbit spayed or neutered once they reach maturity. Rabbits are social animals and respond well to affection and pets from their human overlords and they also love to play with chew toys.
In this article we will walk you through the most important pet care tips for new rabbit owners.
Creating a safe indoor or outdoor habitat for your rabbit
The first thing you will need to organize before bringing a new rabbit home is a comfortable, safe and secure rabbit hutch or cage for them to rest and sleep at night where they can be safe from any predators.
You can keep your rabbits either indoors or outdoors – depending on your preferences, your rabbit’s breed, how many rabbits you have and the climate where you are planning to house them. You can’t safely house rabbits outdoors (even in a rabbit hutch) in either extremely hot or cold temperatures unless your rabbit housing is robust enough to protect them extremes of weather.
An effective rabbit hutch will have a waterproof design and sections which are dark and dry for your rabbits to huddle and rest with a pillow of fresh hay. Your rabbit hutch must have a good airflow and adequate ventilation. Hutches constructed of wood are better than those made of metal – as metal cages can heat up quickly in hot weather. Wood is a better insulating and building material for rabbit cages.
You might want to check out our article on How to Build a Rabbit Hutch if you are starting from scratch. You can also buy commercially built rabbit hutches which you can set up indoors or even in your barn or garage if appropriate. Your decision to locate your rabbit hutch should be based on temperature and size considerations.
The rabbit hutch must have enough space for your rabbit to be able to stretch out and stand on their hind legs without bumping their heads on the ceiling. It’s also recommended that your rabbit hutch doesn’t have wire floors as this can irritate your rabbit’s delicate feet. A good sized rabbit hutch is big enough for your rabbit to take three large hops around from one side to the other.
After you have found the ideal spot for your rabbit hutch or rabbit cage, you need to furnish their home with straw (as bedding and food), terracotta bowls or sippers with plenty of fresh drinking water and bowls of pellets.
Your rabbit hutch must be kept clean and it’s important that you remove soiled bedding (like urine-soaked straw) as this can irritate their skin, as well as encouraging flea and mite infestations and even respiratory infections from the smelly ammonia build-up (from concentrated rabbit urine). A maintained and clean rabbit hutch will keep your rabbits happy and healthy.
Your rabbit hutch should also be in a central part of your home so you can visit and pet your rabbits frequently and they feel like a part of your family. Next up, you need to bunny-proof your house for the times that you let your rabbit explore their new home outside of their cages.
Toilet-training your rabbits
After you have set up your rabbit hutch, think about litter training your pet rabbit and placing a cat litter tray in the corner of their rabbit hutch. This teaches them to toilet consistently in the same place which makes cleaning your rabbit hutch so much easier. It is good practice to position your kitty litter box (choose a medium-sized cat litter tray) near their food and water bowls and their hay feeder.
When setting up your litter tray, don’t use clay or clumping cat litter or wood shavings as these can be harmful to rabbits. Wood shavings can be toxic to your rabbits and potentially cause liver damage if they inhale the fine particles. Clay-based clumping cat litters can cause zinc poisoning in your rabbits – so avoid these. Recycled paper cat litters are the safest and best to toilet train your pet rabbits.
While you are toilet training your rabbits, expect the process to take a few weeks. Be patient with your rabbit and never scold them for toileting in the wrong area. Instead say firmly and gently “in the tray” and pick them up and place them in the litter tray. After a few weeks they will understand where they are expected to toilet.
Bunny-proofing your house
Rabbits love chewing on pretty much anything in their field of vision. Before you let your rabbits roam around your home you must make sure that all your electrical cables are protected from inquisitive rabbits’ prying eyes and teeth. You should cover all electrical wires with plastic sleeves or even flexible rubber tubing – you can also simply lift your electrical cabling so that it’s out of reach of your rabbits.
Rabbits also love to gnaw on the undersides of beds, bookshelf corners, baseboards and even house plants. Some house plants are quite toxic to rabbits so it’s important to move these out of easy access by your rabbits.
You can also let your rabbits roam in smaller enclosed spaces (even infant playpens) if you don’t want them having a full run of your house. This option gives them a manageable (if somewhat small) exercise area. If you can manage it, you should also allow your pet rabbit some outside time in nature – hopping around your backyard – which is supervised.
Key dietary requirements for a healthy rabbit
Getting the dietary mix for your rabbits is really quite simple. You start with a base of straw (timothy or oxbow hay), a plentiful supply of fresh water and a measurement of food pellets and leafy green vegetables. You can also supplement their diets with sensible treats of fruit and vegetables periodically.
The trick is to not overfeed your rabbit and make sure you know which foods are safe for them to eat and which types of food are unsafe for them. The biggest part of your rabbit’s diet is fresh hay which should be available all day.
Baby rabbits do well with some alfalfa hay and pellets – consider alfalfa hay and pellet products a bunny growth formula. Adult rabbits however should only be given alfalfa hay sparingly as it can make them obese. Adult rabbits do best with timothy hay or grass or oat-based hay. It’s really useful to add a large hay feeder to your rabbit hutch to manage distribution of their daily hay rations. This will keep their hay dry, clean and easily accessible.
Measure their food pellets according to your rabbit’s weight. A ten pound rabbit should receive between one-quarter to one-half of a cup of food pellets every day. A rabbit requires around ⅛ to ¼ of a cup of Timothy pellets for every five pounds of your rabbit’s bodyweight.
Benefits of spaying and neutering your rabbit
This section is intended for rabbit owners who are not breeders and not interested in showing their rabbits. It’s generally recommended that you sterilize your pet rabbits once they reach maturity to manage your rabbit population but also for their general health and wellbeing. If you are not intending on breeding your pet rabbits, there’s no logical reason to keep them intact.
The ideal age for you to get your rabbits spayed or neutered is between four to six months of age. Rabbits reach sexual maturity around six months. Your vet can advise on the best time for your individual rabbit to be sterilized based on their age and general health.
Spaying is when you sterilize a female rabbit and this procedure involves the surgical removal of the uterus and ovaries. Statistics show that around 80% of unspayed female rabbits over the age of two, develop a very common malignant cancer called uterine adenocarcinoma which develops quickly and will spread to other vital organs and is usually fatal.
Spaying your female rabbits at age 6 months is the perfect preventative. A spayed female rabbit is much calmer and content than an intact one. A spayed female is less likely to develop other uterine complications experienced by intact females such as pyometra (an infected uterus), uterine aneurysm (blood clots) and endometriosis (inflamed lining of the uterus).
Neutering is when you sterilize a male rabbit. Neutering or castration is a simple surgical procedure done under general anesthetic where the vet will remove the testicles by making two small incisions in the scrotum. It can only be done after both testicles have descended.
By neutering your male rabbit you are immediately removing their risk of developing unpleasant diseases such as testicular abscesses (from bites from other rabbits), hematomas and different types of testicular cancers. A neutered male will be calmer, much less aggressive and he won’t be spraying around the rabbit hutch as well.
The importance of socialization, toys and enrichment
Rabbits are intelligent creatures who can get bored easily. It’s when they get bored that they can become destructive by chewing on parts of your home. Rabbits are social animals and if you adopt a rabbit, consider adopting a pair so they can keep each other company in their new home. Just make sure they are of the same gender or both your rabbits are spayed and neutered (if adults) unless you want a much larger rabbit family in a very short period of time.
An excellent rabbit care tip is by stimulating your rabbit’s brain by providing environmental enrichment in the way of toys, your affection, other rabbits to play with and some outside time where they can roam and explore.
A simple rabbit toy you can make yourself is a cardboard castle constructed out of old cardboard boxes which your rabbit will love burrowing and digging through. There are dozens of cool rabbit toys you can purchase online or toys which require your pet rabbit to dig or forage for something – in a similar way a dog will enjoy a Korg rubber ball filled with yummy peanut butter. When you give them toys or items to play with, consider objects which allow them to dig or where they can mark their scent by chin rubbing or nudging.
The best forms of environmental enrichment and creative expression for rabbits are toys or activities which encourage them to develop their natural foraging behavior in the wild – giving them a place to dig a burrow even. Toys for your pet rabbits are particularly important if you leave home during the day for extended periods to go to work or run errands. Your rabbit will notice your absence and either another rabbit companion or suitable toys can keep them company while you’re away.
Grooming your Rabbit
Another important pet rabbit care tip is around grooming your rabbit. Rabbits are quite clean animals and they groom themselves using their tongues and their paws in a similar fashion to cats.
Rabbits will appreciate you taking the time to help them with their grooming needs – particularly regular brushing at least once a week. The frequency of brushing will largely depend on your rabbit’s breed – some breeds require more brushing than others (particularly long-hair breeds which have a tendency to develop matted fur if not managed).
You should also be doing a basic health checkup on your rabbit while you are grooming them as well and looking out for any unusual behavior which could be a symptom of illness.
The main grooming tasks you need to keep your rabbit happy and healthy are: weekly brushing, cleaning eyes, ears and rear ends of any buildup of wastes or normal secretions, and nail clipping. You may also need to get your rabbit’s teeth filed down if they develop malocclusion – but your vet can advise on how best to do this.
Choosing the best veterinarian
Our final rabbit pet care tips is about finding the most suitable and skilled veterinarian for your rabbit or rabbits. When looking for the right vet for your pet rabbits, phone around your area and make a shortlist of suitable small animal vets. Find out what their pricing and appointment policies are. While you are making these inquiries, ask their front desk staff or their vets, who they refer their rabbits to in the event of a serious illness. If they can’t confidently answer this question, consider finding a different vet who specializes in rabbits.
You should also ask the vet practices you are screening, on average, how many rabbits are treated at their practice every week. Ask them how many rabbits have they spayed or neutered over the past three months.
Rabbit owners who are also professional breeders and who may show their rabbits should have a shortlist of expert rabbit vets and most would be happy to share that information with you. The American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) may also have suggestions about the best vets in your area who specialize in treating rabbits.
As well as having a really good vet on hand, it’s also important to be doing your own mini health checkups on your rabbit every day. This involves keeping a close eye on how much and how often your rabbit is eating, whether they are drinking enough water and their general activity levels.
Rabbit owners who have a good general understanding of rabbit knowledge, can spot when something is wrong with one of their rabbits. Rabbits have all kinds of ways of letting us know whether they are happy, sad or angry and afraid. So pay close attention to their behavioral and vocal cues expressed in their rabbit language – this is a good indicator of their general wellbeing.