Before you bring your rabbit home, you will need to prepare suitable housing, select a proper diet, and plan for your pet’s exercise needs.
A rabbit hutch placed in the back yard, basement, or garage is a common way of housing rabbits. The hutch should be easy to access for proper care of the rabbit because diseases of neglect are common in rabbits that are kept in a hutch at the back of the yard. There should be adequate ventilation and protection from dogs and other predators.
Rabbits can become a more integrated part of the household when they are kept indoors. They can be trained to use a litter box and accustomed to being kept in a cage part of the time. However, rabbits tend to chew on things and may gnaw furniture, curtains, carpeting, or electrical wiring. Chewing on electrical wiring is dangerous for the rabbit and creates a fire hazard. Rabbits should be confined to safe quarters when unsupervised.
Because rabbits gnaw, caging must be constructed of materials that will hold up. Cages should be easy to clean and sanitize. All-wire cages with a minimum of 12-gauge wire are preferred; 16-gauge wire is recommended for cage flooring to support the weight of the rabbit. Cages can be suspended from the ceiling with wire or set on metal frames. The size of the hutch depends on the size of the rabbit. Giant breeds, greater than 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms), require a minimum cage size of 30 by 36 inches (76 by 91 centimeters) with a height of 16 to 18 inches (41 to 46 centimeters). Medium to large breeds, 7 to 12 pounds (3.2 to 5.4 kilograms), require 24 by 30 inches (61 by 76 centimeters). Smaller breeds can be accommodated in cages measuring 18 by 24 inches (46 by 61 centimeters). These are minimum requirements for 1 rabbit, and the cage should be larger for 2 or more rabbits housed together.
The cage should be equipped with a feed hopper and a watering system. Feed hoppers are best constructed of sheet metal with holes or a screen in the bottom for removal of small broken feed particles. Rabbits drink more than other animals of similar size and they should be offered fresh water at all times. Rabbits often chew on the watering valve and eventually destroy it unless it is made of stainless steel or has a stainless centerpiece. Water bottles with sipper tubes work well. Crocks and cans are sometimes used for food and water; however, these containers are easily contaminated and should be washed and disinfected daily. A cage with no cage furniture or toys is inadequate; the cage environment should be enriched to give the rabbit something to do. Optimally, rabbits should be given run time outside the cage daily.
If the rabbit is going to be bred, a nest box should be included in the cage. Nest boxes should be constructed so that they can be easily placed in the cage and later removed for cleaning and disinfecting between litters. Disinfecting the nest box after cleaning and again just before placing it in the cage helps reduce incidence of disease. The box should be large enough to prevent crowding but small enough to keep the kits warm. A standard size nest box for medium-sized rabbits is 16 by 10 by 8 inches (41 by 25 by 20 centimeters). Wooden, metal, or plastic nest boxes with nesting material such as straw or hardwood shavings work well in either warm or cold weather. Shredded paper, hay, leaves, and other materials have been used with less success. Rough edges, such as splintered wood, should be avoided because they contribute to mastitis (bacterial infection of the mammary glands) when the doe hops in and out of the nest box.
Pens should have a nonslip floor and may be bedded with straw or shredded paper covered with straw or hay to increase absorbency. Shavings or sawdust are not ideal because the scent is too powerful. Pen sides should be at least 4 feet (1.2 meters) high to prevent rabbits from jumping out.
When setting up group housing, compatibility is a major factor. Personalities should be evaluated for docility and aggressiveness. Rabbits that have grown up together are best, although adults may be so aggressive toward each other that serious fights occur. Neutering may improve compatibility. Letting rabbits live in separate pens next to each other before housing them together is a good idea. Cages or pens should provide enough space for multiple rabbits. Floor space recommendations vary from 3.5 to 10 square feet (0.33 to 0.93 square meters) per rabbit to allow territory establishment. Others recommend 3.5 hop lengths per rabbit as a rule of thumb. Regardless, group-housed rabbits should be provided escape and hiding places and should be frequently monitored.
Cleaning frequency depends of the type of cage and number of rabbits. Rabbits typically choose a preferred elimination site, such as a corner of the cage or hutch. Poor sanitation leads to disease and deaths; therefore, cleaning and sanitizing must be regular. Nest boxes must be disinfected between uses. Cages, feeders, and watering equipment should be sanitized periodically with an inexpensive sanitizing solution such as diluted household chlorine bleach (1 ounce of bleach in 1 quart of water (30 milliliters of bleach in 1 liter of water) or other less corrosive disinfectants. Complete cleaning should be performed before housing new rabbits. Loose hair should be removed regularly to decrease the likelihood of hairballs. One of the most effective methods to remove hair from cages is washing. Pens or wire-floored cages should be brushed or hosed every 2 weeks. An acid wash may be required to descale rabbit urine from solid floor pans. Frequent manure removal is essential. Excess manure leads to unacceptable levels of ammonia in the air, which can cause respiratory disease.
Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box. Rabbits naturally prefer to use the same area (usually in a specific corner) when passing waste. Note where your rabbit likes to go and place an appropriately sized, sturdy litter box in that spot. The rabbit should able to get in and out of the box easily. Depending on available room within the cage, a medium-sized box works well for small breeds, and a large box works best for rabbits that weigh 5 to 10 pounds. Larger breeds may require an extra-large box. Placing a few rabbit droppings in the box when it is first introduced into the cage will help the rabbit associate the smell with the new area to be used.
Many types of litter are available. Be sure the litter you use is safe for your rabbit. Your rabbit will spend a lot of time in the litter box and will often eat the litter. Litters made from recycled newspaper pellets, paper pulp, or ground corncob are good choices for rabbits. You may also use a handful of hay as litter. The hay should be changed daily. Adding a few layers of newspaper under the hay is useful to absorb urine. Litters that are unsafe for rabbits include cedar or pine shavings, clumping litter, and clay litters.
It is important to clean the litter box often to reduce the odor and ensure the health of your rabbit. The litter box should be completely emptied and disinfected at least once a week.
Rabbits are herbivores (plant eaters) with specialized ways of eating and digesting food. They are selective eaters and choose nutrient-rich leaves and new plant shoots over mature plant material that is higher in fiber. They have a high metabolic rate and can meet their nutritional requirements only by selecting the most nutritious plant parts. Most rabbit droppings are small, hard pellets. Rabbits also expel “soft droppings,” which they eat. These soft droppings provide microbial protein, vitamins, and other nutrients essential for rabbits.
Rabbits digest fiber poorly. They need a generous amount of fiber in the diet (about 15% crude fiber) for proper digestion and to reduce the chance of intestinal disease. Fiber may also absorb toxins produced by bacteria and help expel these toxins through the hard droppings. Diets low in fiber increase the risk of intestinal problems such as enterotoxemia, which can cause severe diarrhea and death. A proper balance between fiber and other dietary components is essential for the health of your pet.
A dietary supply of vitamins A, D, and E is necessary. Bacteria in the gut produce B vitamins and vitamin K in adequate quantities, so dietary supplements of these vitamins are usually unnecessary. Diets containing alfalfa meal generally provide sufficient vitamin A. Lack of vitamin A in the diet may cause abortion or problems with fetuses. Vitamin E deficiency has been associated with infertility, muscular dystrophy (a gradual wasting and weakening of muscles), and fetal and newborn deaths. Disease and stress may increase daily vitamin requirements. High-quality commercially available pelleted diets for rabbits should contain the proper nutrients and should be stored in airtight containers under cool, dry conditions to ensure that vitamins are not destroyed.
The essential components of your pet’s diet (such as protein, fiber, fat, and energy) are the same throughout its life, but the amounts needed vary according to the life stage (growth, pregnancy, nursing, or maintenance), breed, condition, and lifestyle of the rabbit. Ratios should meet the nutrient requirements of the National Research Council (see Table: Nutrient Requirements of Rabbits).
Pelleted rabbit feeds provide good nutrition at reasonable cost. Fresh, clean water should always be available. Adult rabbits should have timothy hay available at all times to avoid hairballs and maintain a healthy digestive tract. Prolonged intake of typical commercial diets containing alfalfa meal may lead to kidney damage and calcium carbonate deposits in the urinary tract. Lowering the calcium level to 0.4% to 0.5% of the diet (for non-nursing rabbits) helps reduce these problems. Calcium reduction can be done by feeding pelleted diets that have a timothy hay base. Adult pet rabbits not intended for breeding should be fed a high-fiber pelleted diet, restricted to 1/4 cup per 5 pounds of body weight (59 milliliters per 2.3 kilograms body weight) per day to prevent obesity and maintain a healthy digestive system. Some plants are toxic to rabbits and should be avoided (see Table: Plants and Foods that are Harmful to Rabbits).
Plants and Foods that are Harmful to Rabbits
Exercise is necessary for the health of your rabbit. A roomy cage that allows space to move around helps maintain physical and emotional health. Allowing your rabbit some time each day to roam freely outside its cage (under constant supervision) and providing it with a variety of toys and items on which to gnaw provides some exercise and helps keep your pet from becoming bored.
Rabbits are quiet, friendly, playful pets if treated correctly. They are social, but not all rabbits enjoy being handled. Before housing rabbits together, carefully assess them for compatibility. Rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk.
In general, small rabbits do not really like to be handled and tend to struggle if picked up. Medium to larger rabbits may be calmer and easier to handle. When picking up or holding a rabbit, support its hind end and legs to prevent injury to the back. Proper handling and restraint of your rabbit is important. Rabbits have powerful hind limbs, which can kick out and lead to broken backs if they are not held securely. Rabbits should never be held by the ears. Toenails on the rear limbs may severely scratch unprotected arms when holding a rabbit.
Also see professional content regarding management of rabbits.