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Bringing home the bunny: Important information for rabbit owners

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They are cute and cuddly and can be fun to watch as they play and hop for hours. Rabbits are gentle, social creatures with big personalities and even bigger popularity with pet parents.

These little cuties are commonly thought of as part of the rodent family but they are in fact lagomorphs.

There is also a misconception that small animal pets such as rabbits are low cost and low maintenance. But just like dogs and cats, these small animal pets need regular veterinarian check-ups and have their own specific needs. Rabbits are often adopted at Easter time and given as gifts- unfortunately many of these rabbits end up in shelters. Commonly thought of as a low maintenance pet rabbits in fact require as much care as a cat or dog.

All that aside they are playful, spontaneous and sometimes mischievous creatures with big hearts. They love human affection and companionship and can be great pet partners in crime. These are the realistic and important facts a first time rabbit owner must know when welcoming the new pet into the family.

Cages and bunny rooms
Cages and bunny rooms Photo by Svadilfari Foter.com CC BY-ND

Cages and bunny rooms

Rabbits are very social and can be kept in pairs but it is important to keep unneutered males and females separated since rabbits can reproduce quickly. Rabbits need a cage that is 30” x29” x18” minimum- or six times the size of your rabbit-  and if you have multiple rabbits the cage should be much bigger. Multi-level cages are a great way to keep your rabbit exploring and encourage active play.

It is best to use a pet specific cage- the rabbit could chew the cage bars and pet cages don’t use materials such as lead and zinc that are harmful if ingested. The cage should have a solid bottom but no wood- it absorbs the animals waste and is impossible to clean. Wire bottoms can cause foot deformities and arthritis. Rabbits will chew anything in their home so the bottom should be a pet friendly plastic.

The wire spacing of the cage should be small enough that the bunny can’t get a foot or paw caught in between the bars. Some pet owners allow their rabbits to roam free in their own bunny-proofed room. If you chose to do this it is best to get a pet fence to keep the rabbit from chewing any harmful materials. Some rabbits will chew anything which can include molding or walls. The floor of the bunny-proofed room should be kept clean. It is almost guaranteed that the rabbit will rearrange its home- rabbits like their habitat a certain way and love flipping things around.

There are pet owners that keep rabbits outside as they do not need to hibernate in the winter but rabbits are prey animals so there is a chance it could be attacked by another animal. Outdoor rabbits are also more prone to diseases so frequent trips to the vet and keeping up to date with vaccinations is very important.

Habitat and homemaking
Habitat and homemaking Photo by Cloudtail Foter.com CC BY-NC-ND

Habitat and homemaking

Rabbits love to dig and play in their bedding. It is important when choosing a bedding to avoid anything with cedar in it. If your rabbit starts to eat the bedding you should switch immediately.

Never use any gravel litter or cat litter in the cage. If you use litter make sure it is for rabbits but there is no litter necessary as the bedding works to absorb the waste as well as enhance the pet’s habitat. Hay can be added to the floor to mix with the bedding and is also great for the rabbit to eat.

Most bunnies are fairly easy to litter train. Rabbits will often pick a corner of their cage to urinate and continue to use that corner as their regular restroom. A litter tray can be added to the corner to make cleaning easier. But most rabbits will defecate anywhere in their habitat so daily cleanings are important.

Rabbits love places to hide and rabbit owners often purchase a hiding box for their furry family member made of chewable materials. Rabbits also need a lot of chew toys since their front teeth never stop growing. Chews will clean their teeth and control over growth. Keep your rabbit’s home out of direct sunlight in a low humidity area to keep it happy and healthy. The recommended temperature is 65-75 degrees F (18-24 degrees C.) A water bottle must be available with fresh water at all times but water should never soak the bedding. Wet bedding should be removed as soon as possible.

Grooming and cleanliness
Grooming and cleanliness Photo by Stacey McIntyre-Gonzalez

Grooming and cleanliness

Grooming is a big part of the rabbit’s day. Rabbits keep themselves pretty clean and most shorthaired rabbits only need to be brushed during the spring and fall shedding seasons. Longhaired rabbits however need frequent grooming and brushing.

Most rabbits enjoy getting brushed but you should do it lightly as they have very sensitive skin. It is important to keep your rabbits nails trimmed and clean. Overgrown nails can be painful and can lead to other health issues. Trimming their nails should be done with small cat or kitten nail clippers and keeping Quick Stop on hand will aid in stopping the bleeding if an accident should occur.

Oral care for rabbits is fairly simple. Since rabbits front teeth never stop growing chew toys are a requirement. The chew toys will file the teeth and the hay and hard pellet diet will help with teeth cleaning. Be confident when grooming the animal. Most rabbits- especially spayed/ neutered rabbits- rarely ever bite and if they do it’s usually because of hormonal issues, being territorial, insecurity or fear.

Rabbits can be bathed but since they clean themselves often it is not necessary to bath them on a regular basis. Provide treats and positive reinforcement to make grooming and nail clipping a fun experience for your pet.

Food and nutrition
Food and nutrition Photo by pictographic Foter.com CC BY

Food and nutrition

Rabbits are herbivores and should not be fed meat. Hay is an important part of their diet. If the bunny is less than a year old it should be fed alfalfa hay which is rich in protein and calcium. Rabbits over a year old should eat timothy hay.

Always purchase pet friendly hay at the local pet store- some hay from farms is unclean or treated with pesticides. Hay should always be available to the pet either loose in the habitat or in a hay manger.

It is recommended that a rabbit always have a pelleted diet available to them. Pellet diets are made to be rich in nutrients and will ensure that the rabbit has a balanced diet. Mixed diets work better as treats since rabbits will often pick through and only eat the parts they like.

Rabbits have a tendency to over eat just like dogs so it is important to limit its food to only healthy amounts. Rabbits under seven months can burn off a lot of calories but once they pass that age their food consumption should be monitored to keep the pet from becoming obese. Fruits and vegetables can be offered everyday while pre-packaged treats should be offered sparingly and should never exceeded ten per cent of the pet’s diet.

Dark, leafy greens are great for rabbits. For treats try kale, bok choy, carrot tops, collard greens or romaine lettuce. Some rabbits under the age of 12 months get diarrhea from greens. Fruits like the tops of strawberry, raisins, apple and melons make good treats as well. Vegetables such as carrot, cucumber, celery, peas and zucchini are safe to feed your rabbit. Foods to avoid are chocolate, salt, beans, nuts and sugar. Rabbits should be given clean, fresh water twice a day in their water bottle so that it is always available to them. Your rabbit should never consume its bedding.

Proper care and socializing
Proper care and socializing Photo by Robobobobo Foter.com CC BY-SA

Proper care and socializing

The first thing you will need to do is get your rabbit used to you. Start by feeding your rabbit treats by hand. Let the pet smell you then slowly pet the rabbit going with the fur- never against it.

Remember all pets can bite. Rabbits are not known to bite but they can when they feel threatened, insecure or are suffering from hormonal issues. Once the bunny feels comfortable with you slowly but confidently pick it up. Be gently but also make sure that the rabbit is secure in your arms by supporting its whole body. Support its hind end and hold its body against yours. Be very careful with the rabbits hind end- holding a rabbit wrong can give it severe back issues that can be painful and expensive to treat.

Some rabbits like their lower jaw stroked. They will want to play with objects by pushing, tugging and flipping them. Most rabbits will flip and food dish with a ridge around the edge. Rabbits often play alone but can be very interactive with their owners and will often run circles around them. It is important to supervise and playtime rabbits have with children, dogs and cats.

The fear of injury isn’t the only concern- rabbits are prey animals and can be ‘scared to death’ by load noises or any extremely threatening actions made towards them. Rabbits communicate with their pet parents using ear placement and body language so getting to know your bunny is key. Rabbits should never under any circumstances be picked up by their ears.

Common illnesses and symptoms
Common illnesses and symptoms Photo by Robobobobo Foter.com CC BY-SA

Common illnesses and symptoms

When bringing a new bunny home it is important to make a veterinarian appointment as soon as possible. Annual vet appointments are also important in maintaining a happy and healthy rabbit.

Common signs of illness in rabbits include bare patches of fur, sneezing, discharge from the nose or eyes, diarrhea, decrease in appetite, drop in weight, lethargy, head tilt, shaking and decreased activity. Cloudy, sunken or swollen eyes can also be linked to a bigger problem. Trouble with urinating or blood in the urine could be a sign of kidney issues or a urinary tract infection. The most common diseases and illnesses in rabbits are over grown teeth, upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal complications, parasites, uterine cancer, kidney disease and heart disease.

Most indoor rabbits live longer and healthier lives. The average life span of a rabbit is nine to 12 years for dwarf breeds and seven to nine years for medium breeds. It is possible to vaccinate a rabbit although it is not as common as doing so with a dog or cat. Testing for the parasite Encephalitozoon  cuniculi is recommended by most vets, especially if your rabbit has had access to wild rabbits. It is also recommended that rabbit owners see a small animal veterinarian so that their furry family member gets the best care.

Rabbit’s size can vary by breed but most medium breeds weigh in at four to eight pounds. Dwarf breeds tend to weight three pounds or less. Giant rabbit breeds exist weighing in at 10 to 12 pounds or more. Since rabbits will gorge on food it is important to make sure your rabbit doesn’t become obese. Providing lots of hay, a healthy, portioned diet and plenty of activity can help achieve that.

Those are the basics in rabbit care. But remember- every rabbit is different. Each rabbit will have different needs and personalities. It is important to spend a lot of time with your pet and get to know it. Monitor it closely to discover its likes and dislikes as well as its wants and needs.

Rabbit owner shopping list
Rabbit owner shopping list Photo by Dulup Foter.com CC BY-SA

Rabbit owner shopping list

I hope this helped you prepare for your new rabbit friend. Rabbits are so diverse and with so many sizes, breeds and personalities out they can be a great new edition to your family. The following is a shopping list for new rabbit owners. Happy Easter!

Shopping List

-Large multi-level cage

-Water bottle

-Bedding

-Hay

-Pelleted rabbit diet

-Chew toys

-Corner litter pan

-Exercise pen or pet fence

-Hiding house

-Hay manger

-Food dish/manger

-Pet safe cage disinfecting cleaner

-Poop scoop

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