Rabbits make intelligent, friendly and quiet pets. The average life span for a bunny is 7 to 10 years with records of up to 15 years of age reported.
Rabbits are herbivores meant to live on a diet composed of large quantities of grasses and leaves. They also graze on flowers and fruits that can be found at different times of the year.
Grass hay is one of the most important parts of your pet’s diet. Hay should be provided at all times in your pet’s cage. Hay is appropriate for all ages of rabbits, starting at weaning. Hay provides nutrients, indigestible fiber, healthy chewing activity for wear of teeth and mental health. There are two basic types of hay available: grass and legume. Legume hays are made from alfalfa, clover, peas, beans or peanuts. These hays are loaded with nutrients but have more calories, calcium and protein than a rabbit needs. Feeding only legume hays may lead to GI disorders and obesity.
Grass hays are made from timothy, meadow, oat, rye, barley or Bermuda grasses. If at all possible, try to feed mixed grass hay or provide two or more individual types. Grass hays are rich in nutrients but provide the lower energy diet appropriate for a rabbit. Do not feed straw as it is devoid of most nutrients and, although not harmful in small amounts, it will lead to serious nutritional deficiencies if it is a major part of the diet. Buy hay that smells fresh, never buy damp or old hay. Hay can be stored in a dry place that has good air circulation in an unclosed bag. Hay can be given via a hay rack attached to the side of the cage, in a box or basket within the cage or exercise area, or even placed in the litter box. You can also stuff hay into toilet paper rolls and other hiding areas as a fun way to increase mental exercise associated with foraging for food.
Greens are an important addition to the diet, but should never be the total diet. Green foods contain a wider variety of micronutrients and provide water. Even though you may be providing a water container in the cage, rabbits do not always drink as much as they should. Feeding green foods forces the rabbit to take in liquid and thus helps promote healthy GI function as well as kidney and bladder function. Feed a variety of ideally 3 green foods daily as variety provides a wider range of micronutrients as well as mental stimulation. Feed a maximum of about 1 packed cup of green foods per 2 pounds of body weight at least per day. Occasionally green can cause soft stool within 12 hours of feeding. If you are feeding a variety of greens and are not sure which one is causing the problem, then feed only one green food every 48 hours until the offending food is identified and then simply remove it from the diet. This is not a dangerous situation, but it can be messy.
- Baby greens
- Bok Choy
- Borage Basil
- Broccoli (leaves and top)
- Brussels sprouts
- Cabbage (red, green, Chinese)
- Carrot/beet tops
- Celery (leaves are good)
- Collard greens
- Dandelion greens (and flower)
- Leaf lettuce
- Mustard greens
- Parsley (Italian or flat leaf best)
- Romaine lettuce
- Swiss chard (any color)
- Water cress
Fruits and other Vegetables (Treat Foods) These items should be fed in limited quantities daily and can be used as part of a reward or training system. Find at least one food in this list that your rabbit likes and feed a small amount daily to check on how good your rabbit’s appetite is. If your rabbit will not eat her treat food, then there may be other problems brewing and you need to keep a close eye on your pet for health problems. Dried fruit can be used but use only one third the amount as fresh. So use one teaspoon vs one tablespoon. Careful with bananas and grapes since rabbits can become “addicted” to these foods. If you chose to feed them, watch your pet carefully to ensure that he is also eating sufficient quantities of green foods and hay. You can feed a total of 1 tablespoon per 2 pounds of body weight per day of any combination of fruits and vegetables such as:
- Bean or alfalfa sprouts
- Cactus fruit
- Edible flowers (roses, nasturtiums, day lilies, pansies, snap dragons)
- Green or red bell peppers
- Kiwi Fruit
- Pea pods (flat, NO peas)
Inappropriate foods that include high levels of starch and fat include the following:
- Any other grains
- Beans (of any kind)
- Refined sugar
Commercial Rabbit Pellets
Rabbit pellets should be grass hay derived (timothy, orchard grass, brome) not alfalfa hay. Rabbit pellets should generally only comprise a small portion of a rabbit’s diet as they can be high calorie, have low digestible fiber, don’t promote tooth wear, they do not provide chewing activity which may lead to behavioral issues and can provide low moisture diet which can lead to urinary disease. The recommendation for feeding pellets would be that they comprise ideally 10% of the healthy rabbit’s diet and maximally no more then 20%. In some cases it may be necessary to feed a higher amount such as: human allergies to hay, a rabbit that needs to gain weight or a diet limited in quality/variety. Look for a good quality pellet with: 18% or higher fiber, 2.5% or lower fat, 16% or less protein, 1.0 or less calcium. Do not use a pellet that also contains seeds, dried fruits or nuts. The amount to feed a healthy rabbit would be approximately ¼ cup of pellets per 4 lbs of body weight per day.
Water should always be available and changed daily. A dirty water container can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Use either a water bottle or a heavy bowl that is weighted or secured to the side of the cage so that it does not tip over. Do not use medications or vitamins in the water because your pet may not drink the water if the taste or color is altered. Please remember that if your pet is eating a large quantity of greens that the water consumption may be minimal. Monitor outdoor water bowls during cold weather to be sure not frozen.
Exercise is vital for the rabbit’s health. Ideally, a cage can be used as a home base for part of the day or it can be open all the time within an exercise area. The cage should allow the rabbit to stand up on his hind legs without hitting the top of the cage, provide a resting area, and have space for a litter box. It should be easy to clean and indestructible, so metal is a good choice. The floor can be solid or wire. Keep the cage in a well ventilated, cool area. The optimum temperature range for a rabbit is 60F to 70F. If temperatures reach the upper 80s and beyond, especially if the humidity level is high, there exists a potential for a fatal heat stroke. On hot days when air conditioning is not available, leave a plastic milk jug filled with frozen water in the cage for use as a portable air conditioner. Rabbits can be caged outdoors if they are provided with a shelter to protect them from rain, heat and cold. Make sure the cage is secure from predators such as dogs, coyotes and raccoons and is kept clean so it won’t attract parasitic insects. In the winter, use straw bedding in the sheltered area for insulation.
It is vital to the health of your pet to provide an exercise area where your rabbit can roam for a few hours every day. The easiest way to accomplish this is to use exercise fencing panels sold for dogs (at least three feet high for small and medium rabbits and four feet high for giant breeds). The pen can also be used outside as a moveable enclosure to allow your pet access to grassy areas, be sure safe from predators. If you are going to allow your pet free access to your house you need to bunny-proof it. Block all escape routes, cover or block access to electrical, phone and computer cords, cover furniture to protect it from the rabbit’s teeth and claws and remove access to toxic plants, rodenticides, insecticides and other toxic materials.
Rabbits can be litter box trained relatively easily. When beginning training, confine your pet in a small area, either in a cage or a blocked off section of the room, and place a litter box in the corner; try to pick the corner your pet has already used for a toilet. Make sure the sides of the box are low enough so your rabbit can get in and out easily. It is helpful to put some droppings in the litter box. Some people have also found it helpful to put some hay in the box to encourage defecation there as rabbits usually pass stool while they are eating. In exercise areas, provide one more litter box then the number of rabbits you have. Pelleted litter makes the best bedding and is preferred over wood shavings, corncob and kitty litter. Pelleted litters are non-toxic and digestible if eaten, draw moisture away from the surface which keeps it drier, control odor well and can be composted. Do not use clay or clumping kitty litter.
Some rabbits like to sit in a box full of hay, others like a completely enclosed box in which to hide. Try providing places to hide, such as untreated wicker or straw baskets, litter pans or other shallow boxes filled with hay, cardboard boxes with an entrance hole and the bottom removed, or large cardboard tubes. If the cage has a wire floor, provide a solid area on which the pet can rest.
Rabbits get a fair amount of mental exercise from their diet of grass hay and green foods, but additional toys are appreciated. Rabbits like to chew, so give them branches from untreated trees (dry the wood for at least a month to prevent any adverse reactions to the sap), wooden chew toys designed for birds, or unfinished unpainted wicker or straw baskets. They like things that make noise such as keys on an unbreakable key holder, empty plastic or metal cans, air filled balls, hard plastic baby toys and jar lids. They like things that both move and can be chewed such as toilet paper or paper towel rolls, small empty cardboard cartons and small piles of shredded paper. To make a toy more interesting, you can hide in it healthy treats or stuff hay in hiding areas, toilet paper rolls and old tissue boxes. Giving the rabbit a sense that he or she is foraging for food is an excellent mental activity.
The main thing to remember is to always support the hindquarters to prevent serious spinal injuries. Rabbit backbones are fragile and can fracture if the hind legs are allowed to dangle and the animal then gives one strong kick. Never pick up a bunny by her sensitive ears because it’s painful and totally unnecessary! It is better to grasp the loose skin over the shoulders or scoop up under the chest and then place your other hand under the back legs to lift your bunny from the floor. Work near the floor when first learning to handle your pet so that if she jumps out of your arms there isn’t a chance for a fall.
Uterine adenocarcinoma is a malignant cancer that can affect female rabbits over two years of age. The best prevention for this disease is to spay females over four months of age. Spaying a rabbit also prevents pregnancy and can help control some aggressive behavior.
Male rabbits can also develop disease of the reproductive organs (the testicles) but with much less frequency than females. However, some male rabbits have a tendency to become aggressive in their adolescence (8-18 months of age) and can also start spraying urine on vertical surfaces outside the toilet area to mark their territory. Castration/neutering, can control these behaviors if it is done before the behavior occurs or shortly thereafter, anytime after four months of age.