House Rabbit Network
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Bunny Basics

                                   
The House Rabbit Network.
http://www.RabbitNetwork.org
P.O. Box 2602
Woburn, MA 01888-1102
781-431-1211

Introduction

Your rabbit is an important member of your family who deserves love, attention, and proper care. When well taken care of, rabbits can easily live 7-12 years. While they can be challenging pets, the rewards of having a happy, healthy house rabbit are well worth the effort!

Diet

The most important element in your rabbit's diet is hay. Hay provides the fiber needed to keep the digestive tract working properly. Timothy hay (or another grass hay) is recommended over alfalfa since it is lower in calcium, protein and fat. Unlimited amounts of fresh hay should be provided on a daily basis. Because rabbits' digestive systems are designed to derive nourishment from foraging on low-nutrient food, they can actually be damaged by foods too high in protein, fat and calories.

Fresh leafy greens should be offered daily. We recommend at least three different ones from the following list: kale, dandelion, collard greens, red leaf lettuce, green leaf lettuce, romaine, escarole, chicory, dill, cilantro, parley, swiss chard, oregano and mustard greens. Carrots should be limited to about 1/2 per day depending on the size of your rabbit as they are high in sugar and calories, but the leafy tops can be fed freely. Typically they should receive 2 cups of greens per 5 pounds of body weight.

Pellets are the leading cause of obesity in rabbits and should be fed in moderation to help provide a well rounded diet. Some veterinarians recommend a hay and vegetable diet only, especially if your rabbit is overweight. Adult rabbits should not be fed more than 1/4 cup per 5 pounds of your rabbit's weight. When choosing a pellet, buy only freshly milled plain green varieties and avoid the ones that have treat foods in them. Flip over the back of the package. Ideally you are looking for brands that contain less than 2% fat, less than 14% protein and at least 20% fiber. High fiber or timothy-based varieties are strongly recommended.

Fresh water should always be available. Make sure that you not only replace the water daily, but that you clean the bottle or crock.

Rabbits should not be fed any human treats including cheerios, bread, chocolate, crackers, etc. Good treats include about a half inch of banana, a thin slice of apple or a couple of raisins. Other fruits may be offered in tiny quantities. All processed treats available in pet stores should be avoided, even if they appear "natural". The extra fat and calories can compromise your rabbit's digestive system and internal organs.

Housing and Rabbit Proofing

Your rabbit needs a large cage that can comfortably be considered his bedroom. The smallest size we recommend is 24"d x 36"w x 24"h, and possibly larger. Your rabbit should be able to stand up on his hind legs with his ears erect, and easily stretch out on the floor. You need to make sure that the door is wide enough to fit a litter box and that there is still ample floor space. It is important not to have a wire floor because these can wear down the fur on a rabbit's feet and lead to skin breakdown and infection. Wire floor cages are also very hard to keep clean, so we recommend having a solid surface and a litter box--both you and your bun will be happier! Dog crates and indoor puppy play pens make good alternatives: the play pen gives your rabbit an open area to stay in while you're not there to supervise, and can be easily moved aside when it's time to exercise. If you end up with a wire bottom cage, you can always put some wood, straw mats or another type of flooring on the bottom. Check to make sure the rabbit does not dig it up and expose the wires again.

Your rabbit needs at least 3-4 hours exercise time outside his cage every day. Some people limit the space to one room. Others give them an entire floor. Whatever you decide, you need to make sure the entire area is safe for your rabbits. Wires (electrical and telephone) are naughty favorites that seem to attract a rabbit's interest. You should either keep them blocked off or wrap them in a protective coating to prevent shock and fire. Keep plants that you don't want eaten out of reach. Rabbits will jump onto couches, tables, and often get into places that you might consider out of reach. They will also squeeze into tiny openings including behind radiators and under stoves.

Rabbits also need toys to play with but fortunately this need can be taken care of cheaply! Simple card board boxes, paper bags, slinkies, hard plastic baby keys and cardboard tubes are all great for their entertainment. An old phone book creates lots of deconstruction fun.

The House Rabbit Network advocates that all domestic rabbits be housed indoors all year round. Outdoor situations cannot adequately protect the rabbit from extremes in temperature, predators, or the fear rabbits endure when they sense that predators may be nearby even if they are safely enclosed. Furthermore, rabbits housed outdoors do not receive sufficient socialization from their human friends. Finally, owners of outdoor rabbits cannot observe the subtle changes in appetite or behavior that could signify serious illness.

Litter Box Training

The most important thing you can do to improve your rabbit's litter box habits is to have him neutered or her spayed. Most altered rabbits will train themselves within a few days if you simply put a box in their cage and then place it or another box in a favorite corner every time you let your rabbit out to play. They are creatures of habit and will always return to the same place to "go". We recommend filling the litter box with newspaper, a layer of nontoxic litter (optional) and a large top layer of fresh hay. The hay will attract bunny to the litter box. This is not unsanitary, but rather a natural way for your rabbit to meet all his digestive needs efficiently! Just make sure there's always fresh hay on top: they usually use only one corner as their bathroom. Regular clay cat litters are not good for rabbits as they are too dusty. Never use a clumping litter as they can be fatal. Even though most pet stores sell them, cedar and pine shavings should be avoided as they cause liver and kidney damage. Safe litters for your rabbit include the recycled newspaper ones such as Yesterdays News or Carefresh. Another good choice is wood stove pellets that you can get at a hardware store such as Home Depot. Newspaper is the cheapest option but requires daily changing.

Spaying/Neutering

It is very important to spay or neuter your rabbit. Most importantly, it prevents unwanted litters and helps with the overpopulation problem. It also provides health benefits including prevention of reproductive system cancers which can strike both male and female rabbits. Also, both male and female rabbits can spray and exhibit sexually aggressive behavior unless they are altered. These behaviors include excessive digging, marking territory with urine or droppings, nipping, fighting with other rabbits, and "humping" everything within sight. Once your rabbit has been "fixed", the hormones and instincts which cause these behaviors are reduced and your rabbit will be happier, more relaxed, and more enjoyable to have around the house!

Ongoing Care

Rabbits do need care on a regular basis. They groom their coats carefully but need your help to brush them regularly so they do not ingest fur, which can lead to digestive blockages. Daily brushing is needed when they are shedding. Their nails need to be trimmed when they get too long. Every rabbit and environment are different. Some need to be trimmed every few weeks, others can go 2-3 months between trimmings.

Your rabbit should also go to your veterinarian at least once a year for a check up. Your vet will do a thorough job making sure your rabbit is healthy. Since rabbits are considered exotic pets, it is important that you find a rabbit knowledgeable vet.

Older rabbits should have a baseline blood test so that changes in organ function can be tracked as they age. Most important, you must closely observe your rabbit's behavior, eyes, coat, teeth, feet and eating habits. As prey animals, their instincts tell them to hide symptoms of illness or injury so they do not appear vulnerable to predators. This means that their human friends must be vigilant and take even small changes seriously. If your rabbit goes a day without eating, consult your veterinarian--delay in seeking care could be fatal.

Behavior

As noted above, house rabbits are domesticated prey animals. They are keenly aware of their environment and can be easily stressed by sudden motion or loud noises. Care should be taken to set up your rabbit's play and resting spaces to provide a balance between too much noise and too little opportunity for play and interaction with the family. An alternative space may be needed for the bun when lots of folks come by to visit or the kids have a birthday party, for example. Many house rabbits get along well with children, dogs and cats, but careful supervision by adults is essential.

Rabbits communicate through a variety of ways. They seldom vocalize but may occasionally snort or grunt if annoyed. A very frightened rabbit screams like a tea kettle. Unaltered rabbits hum little love songs, and happy rabbits "purr" by lightly grinding their teeth together. Body language is more important: happy rabbits dance, race around or leap in the air, flop over on their side or back, stretch flat out, etc. A rabbit who places his or her chin on the ground is usually asking to be groomed, by you or another rabbit-- this is called "presenting". If approached too abruptly, a rabbit may box, rear up and even bite. They have a blind spot in front of them because their eyes are placed to detect predators from above and behind, so a cautious approach from above where the rabbit can see your hand is recommended. Gentle, respectful handling and an understanding of rabbit behavior will help you and your bun enjoy your relationship.

The House Rabbit Network has experienced volunteers who can answer your questions about rabbit care and behavior. Please feel free to visit our web site at www.RabbitNetwork.org or call our hotline at 781-431-1211 and we will be happy to talk with you.

Copyright 2000-2001 - Suzanne Rubins and Suzanne Smith

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