Keeping Rabbits as Pets
Rabbits come in a variety of breeds, shapes and sizes, and each bunny has their own unique personality. They typically live for 8 to 12 years, but some may live for longer. Take a look at our rabbit care advice to find out how to keep your bunnies happy and healthy.
Rabbit fact file
Pet rabbits are related to the wild European rabbit, and the biology and behaviour of pet rabbits are very similar to that of their wild cousins.
Here are some more top facts about rabbits:
- Rabbits are highly social – they’re territorial animals and form complicated social structures.
- Rabbits have an unusual digestive system – food is passed through their gut and special droppings, called caecotrophs, are produced. Rabbits eat these caecotrophs, allowing the food to be re-ingested. Ensure your rabbit’s digestive system is kept in tip-top condition by feeding them a healthy diet.
- Rabbits have continuously growing teeth – a rabbit’s top front teeth grow at a rate of 3mm a week! Keep your rabbit healthy by following our health and welfare advice.
- Rabbits are intelligent – pet rabbits can be taught to respond to commands using positive reward-based training. Discover more about the behaviour of rabbits.
Rabbits are classified according to their body weight i.e. large breeds weigh more than 5 kg, medium breeds (2-5kg) and small breeds less than 2kg. Small breeds are sometimes sub-divided to cover dwarf breeds of less than 1 kg. Rabbits can become stressed very easily and are prone to digestive disorders. Rabbits are intelligent, affectionate and social animals.
Rabbits require enough room for housing, play and exercise. They have powerful legs designed for running and jumping. Rabbits should not be housed in cages or hutches as they prohibit the normal behaviour and movement of the animals as well as predisposing them to certain health conditions. Rabbits should be housed in escape-proof and predator-proof pens that have a safe, comfortable sleeping and hiding area. Digging is a natural part of rabbit behaviour. Artificial tunnels leading to a hiding area can be useful in limiting this to a manageable area. The area should be well enriched and well managed. Rabbits are sociable animals, usually enjoying the company of other rabbits. If two or more rabbits are kept together, it should be ensured that they have been neutered.
Sawdust/wood shavings are commonly used as bedding material which should be free of fine dust, and microbial and chemical contaminants. At least 4 cm of bedding should be placed in the habitat. Resinous wood shavings, especially cedar and pine, can be hazardous and should be avoided.
The welfare of rabbits is enhanced by environmental enrichment. Chew toys such as untreated wicker baskets, untreated wood blocks, and dried-out pinecones will keep rabbits happy and busy. Cardboard boxes can be used for play and hiding. Pens can be enriched with non-toxic plants (protected by fencing at lower levels to prevent chewing), artificial tunnels, wooden platforms, and suitable toys.
Rabbits choose to manipulate their own microenvironments via activities such as huddling, nest building and tunneling. Optimal temperature range for keeping rabbits is 16° C to 22° C. In contrast to low temperatures, heat and draught are not well tolerated. Temperatures above 30° C in combination with high relative humidity lead to a risk of heat stress, which can cause infertility and mortality. Temperature regulation should be such as to ensure that there are no undue fluctuations that could cause unnecessary stress or clinical welfare problems.
A regular day/night cycle is essential for establishing normal behaviour patterns and for the normal expression of many physiological processes.
The most important component of a rabbit’s diet is grass, hay or lucerne. This is crucial for keeping the rabbit’s intestinal tract healthy. Unlimited hay and/or lucerne should be available at all times. Good quality rabbit pellets are also needed. Fresh leafy greens should make up the third component of the rabbit’s diet. Clean, fresh water in a bottle or sturdy bowl, should be available at all times.
Routine cleaning and maintenance, and a high standard of hygiene are essential for good husbandry. Remove wet spots daily; change bedding weekly or more often, as needed. Housing systems, stocking densities and ventilation is deciding factors on frequency of cleaning.
Signs of a healthy animal:
Active, alert, and sociable, eats and drinks regularly, healthy, clean fur and clear eyes, breathes clearly and hops and moves normally.
Signs of ill health:
Skin lesions, abnormal hair loss, distressed breathing, lethargic, overgrown teeth, eye and nasal discharge, diarrhoea or dirt around the anal area.
No matter how the connection with Easter originated, rabbits and chicks have not benefited from the association. The Easter holiday seems to bring out the bunny and chick lovers in people who think these animals are perfect “starter pets” to teach children responsibility.