The domestic rabbit descended from the wild rabbits of Western Europe and were originally raised for meat and fur. Today the domestic rabbit is also a common house pet both in Europe and the United States. Males are called “bucks,” females “does,” and babies are “kits.” Average lifespan is 5-7 years but with adequate housing and nutrition can live up to 10-12 years of age.
Rabbits are generally docile in nature but if undersocialized can be timid or skittish as they are a prey species. With regular, appropriate handling rabbits can learn to enjoy their human companions. Scared or cornered rabbits will retreat and may thump a hind leg on the ground as a warning or alarm call. An aggressive rabbit may growl, grunt, charge, or attempt to bite. However, biting is fairly rare. A relaxed rabbit will explore its environment, and while not particularly a playful species, will on occasion pick up an object and toss it around. Rabbits will scent mark by rubbing their chin on an object and also enjoy chewing wood, hay, cardboard, and paper. Rabbits who are housed together that are left intact may begin to fight.
Rabbits should be fed a commercial pelleted diet specially formulated for their species. There are often formulas for both young and mature rabbits, each containing specific dietary fiber percentages. The pelleted diet should be supplemented with an unlimited supply of timothy hay. Other fresh, leafy vegetables such as kale, cabbage, watercress and other root vegetables with their leaves can be provided.
Rabbits can be housed indoors or outdoors with appropriate shelter from the elements. While generally a hardy species, rabbits should be protected from extremes of weather. Avoid drafts, predators, flying insects, and direct sunlight as heat stroke can occur easily. A rabbit hutch or cage should be big enough that the rabbit can stretch out fully, stand up on his hind quarters, and be able to perform at least three hops from one end to the other. There should be a sufficient amount of hay for bedding material and if wire flooring is utilized it should be cleaned regularly to remove any hair or feces. Rabbits can be easily trained to eliminate in a litterbox by repeatedly placing them in the box and adding some of their droppings to it. A paper based litter should be used and any commercial cat litters should be avoided. Rabbits are social animals who enjoy the presence of other rabbits, however intact adults should not be housed together as unwanted litters or fighting may occur.
Regular supervised exercise out of the enclosure is encouraged. Because rabbits have a propensity to chew supervision is necessary to prevent any harm to the rabbit or damage to household items. Rabbits can be trained to wear a harness, or an exercise pen may be utilized, so that they can be taken outside to enjoy grazing on clover or dandelion. Rabbits may become bored with a commercial diet; by providing them with a variety of appropriate leafy greens or vegetables, as listed above under “Diet”, it can enrich their daily life. Suspend vegetables from the top of their enclosure so the rabbit has to sit up on his hind end to reach them. Other environmental enrichment can include adding hide boxes, chewable toys, cardboard boxes, or commercial bird toys.
Regular handling is necessary to teach rabbits to enjoy human company. By stroking gently and hand feeding a positive association is created. If a rabbit needs to be picked up or transported they should be held by the scruff and the weight of their body supported as if holding a football. Rabbits should never by picked up by the ears!
General Health Care
At minimum an annual examination by a veterinarian who is well-versed in rabbit healthcare is essential to the longevity of your pet. During the physical exam the veterinarian will check your rabbit’s teeth, which are sometimes prone to overgrowth, examine ears and eyes, and listen to their heart and lungs. Your veterinarian can also show you how to perform routine husbandry procedures such as nail trimming and ear cleaning if necessary. Spaying and neutering has become increasingly more popular to help prevent unwanted aggressive behavior between individuals, unwanted litters, and aids in training to eliminate in a litterbox.
Courtesy of Jessica Fritschi, LVT, CPDT-KA