Rabbits have become increasingly popular pets among city dwellers. They are well adapted at living in apartments, are easily toilet trained and have the sweetest nature teamed with big personalities. Though there is more to rabbits than twitchy noses and cute long ears!
Rabbits have forever been considered a low maintenance pet, appropriate for children and people with busy schedules. Though with specific dietary requirements for an ever working digestive system, sensitivity to the slightest of weather changes and teeth that continuously grow, rabbits do not always meet their expected life expectancy in captivity.
So here are a few things to consider, to help you make an informed decision about whether or not a rabbit is the right choice of pet for you and your family.
Rabbits are very much like horses, just miniaturised!
They are hindgut fermenters, which means their digestive system is forever moving and working. They require a very fibrous diet to keep their hard working guts happy and healthy.
A rabbit’s diet should ideally consist of 80% fresh grass and grass hay, 10% leafy green vegetables, 5% treat foods such as fruit and root vegetables and 5% pellets.
Hay and Grass
Grass hay and grasses should make up the bulk of your rabbit’s diet. Not only is it good for their gut health, it also assists in keeping continuously growing teeth trim. Grass hays that can be offered include meadow hay, timothy hay, orchard hay and oat hay. Straw has no nutritional value to rabbits, and should not be confused with grass hay.
Lucerne hay should only ever be given to baby rabbits or lactating mother rabbits, as it is high in calcium, and can cause urinary issues if fed in place of grass hay to adult bunnies.
Appropriate greens that can be given include mesclun mixed leaves, bok choy, choy sum, chicory leaves, herbs such as parsley, coriander and dill (in small amounts) as well as silver beat and kale (also in small amounts due to their high calcium content) .
Good quality rabbit pellets can be provided in small amounts daily, but should never be given in excess. Commercial rabbit mixes that contain nuts and seeds should be avoided completely.
Pellets should be seen more as a treat food than a complete diet (as they are often advertised). Pellets can be scattered through hay and can also be given in toys that need to be pushed and played with to release them. This encourages foraging behaviour and provides enrichment.
Contrary to popular belief, rabbits do not live off carrots! And although they love to chomp them down, these definitely belong on the treat list.
Other foods that can be given as treats are most root vegetables including carrot tops, strawberries, grapes, bananas, blue berries, apples, broccoli, spinach and other high oxalate vegetables.
Foods to Avoid Entirely
Apple pips, avocado, potato, potato tops, rhubarb (leaves & stalks), tomato leaves, locust pods and beans, any plant that grows from a bulb, bluebell, yew, foxglove, garlic, onion, shallots and chives, hemlock, buttercup, dock, ivy, poppy, privet, primrose, ragwort.
Rabbit Calicivirus is a fatal disease that is passed through biting insects such as fleas, contaminated grass or food and through contact with other infected rabbits. It was introduced as a means of controlling wild rabbit populations, though is easily transmitted to pet rabbits.
Thankfully there is a vaccine available against Calicivirus. Vaccinations should be given between 8-10 weeks of age and followed by a booster vaccine one month following the initial vaccination. It should then be given either bi-anually or annually for the entirety of their lives in order to keep them protected against this deadly disease.
Myxomatosis is another fatal disease that was introduced in Australia to reduce wild rabbit populations and is also easily transmitted to pet rabbits. It is most commonly transmitted through mosquitoes and fleas as well as contact with infected rabbits.
There is unfortunately no vaccine against Myxomatosis available in Australia.
The best form of prevention against this deadly virus, is to keep your rabbit up to date with monthly spot on flea treatment. There is no rabbit specific flea and tick treatment, so check with your vet clinic to find out what might be safe to use for your rabbit.
Keep rabbits indoors at dusk when mosquitoes are most active, install fly screens on windows, doors or on the hutches of outdoor rabbits to prevent mosquitoes.
Rabbits should always be desexed, for females desexing greatly reduces the risk of ovarian, uterine and mammarian cancers. As well as painful pyometras and unwanted litters! For males, spraying urine is a problem in unneutered bunnies.
For both males and females, neutered bunnies are less prone to destructive behaviours such as chewing and digging and aggressive (biting, lunging, circling, growling) behaviours. Neutered rabbits (both male and female) are calmer, more loving and dependable and are much easier to litter train and much more reliably trained.
Desexing should be done at 4-6months of age.
Rabbits make great indoor pets, and can really thrive with free roam, however, if you did want to keep your rabbit outdoors it is important to consider the risks involved with outdoor housing.
They are more vulnerable to contracting myxomatosis and calicivirus through contact with mosquitoes, and are also susceptible to heat stroke. Rabbits are very sensitive to heat, and even a mildly warm day can be fatal for them. Rabbits should always be moved in doors on warm days that exceed 25 degrees Celsius.
Outdoor rabbits are also at a higher risk of becoming fly blown, so keeping hutches and toileting areas clean as well as changing bedding daily is imperative.
Outdoor hutches should be large enough to allow roam and should ideally be multileveled with designated toileting and feeding areas. They should ideally have a run that allows free roam onto fresh grass.
Rabbits are burrowers, so providing tubes and tunnels can be very enriching for them, as well as providing them safe areas to hide.
Dental Disease and Tooth Problems
As rabbits teeth continuously grow they can encounter issues with keeping them trimmed down.
Unfortunately, some rabbits are predisposed to dental issues as their jaws may not always align correctly, making it difficult to grind teeth down themselves. It is important to provide hay and grass to encourage chewing and teeth grinding, as well as having their teeth checked during your bi-annual or annual visit to the vet.
As mentioned previously, rabbits’ guts are continuously in motion. Gut stasis can often be a result of dental issues in rabbits, as rabbits stop eating due to trapped tongues, ulcers or abscesses due to overgrown teeth.
Rabbits are prey animals, so will instinctively mask signs of illness.
Things that warrant a prompt vet visit include:
- Change in faeces such as fewer, smaller, softer, harder or smellier faeces.
- Facial swelling or swelling around the eyes or ears
- Discharge from the eyes or nose
- Sudden onset of lameness and lethargy
It is important to note that it is an emergency if your rabbit does not eat or defecate for more than 12 hours or develops diarrhea. They require urgent vet treatment should this ever occur.
Rabbits are very social animals and live in the wild in warrens of large numbers.
It can be enriching for rabbits to live in pairs, though indoor rabbits are often known to build close relationships with other pets in the house such as the dog or cat. If you are considering introducing a rabbit to your dog or cat, it is important to always supervise interactions.
It is also important to consider that although rabbits make fantastic pets, they differ quite greatly to dogs and cats. Rabbits do not always tolerate being picked up, held on their backs and restrained, and don’t appreciate being dressed up in embarrassing frilly outfits, no matter how cute! This can actually be very distressing for rabbits and can affect their well being greatly. So if a handbag pet is what you’ve always dreamed of, despite their size, unfortunately bunnies just don’t quite make the cut.
But the things that make bunnies awesome, are the zoomies, the adorable binkies (please YouTube!), the contented side flops, their love of ear massages, head rubs and the appreciative licks you will receive in return.
And let’s be honest, they are just so darn cute.