What to Know About Owning a Rabbit

By: Ariana Finkelstein, DVM

TVMA Member
San Antonio, TX

Published December 2014

Rabbits can make great pets, but before adopting one, learn more about the species and the requirements for caring for one, such as their size, habits, diet and housing requirements. The following are some guidelines to consider before purchasing or adopting a rabbit.

Before Adopting a Rabbit

First, be sure you and your household members are not allergic to rabbits. This is important to discover before bringing one permanently into your home! Spend time with a rabbit playing and handling it at the pet store, animal shelter, local rescue group or house of a rabbit owner. If you show signs of an allergic reaction, such as runny eyes, sneezing, hives or irritated/itchy skin, during and/or after handling a rabbit, reconsider your choice to adopt one.

While rabbits are associated with the Easter season, never adopt one for this purpose. Rabbits can live for up to 12 years and require long-term care. Rabbits can produce litters at 30-day intervals. Proper rabbit ownership includes providing the necessary diet and bedding, appropriate housing, social interaction and appropriate medical care, all of which may be costly.

What to Feed Your Rabbit

Hay is the staple diet for rabbits and must be available at all times. Pelleted diets should also be offered (about 1/3 cup of pellets per 5 lbs. of a rabbit’s weight) as part of a healthy diet. An adult rabbit’s diet should consist of grass-hay-based pellets and timothy hay. Rabbits under a year of age should have a diet that consists of alfalfa-hay-based pellets and alfalfa hay. There are many different brands of pelleted diets currently available, including Oxbow, Mazuri, Kaytee and Zupreem. Fruit and other pelleted diets containing nuts, seeds and dried fruit should be avoided as they are high in sugary carbohydrates. Vegetables should also be included in a rabbit’s diet. Dark, leafy greens are preferable; carrots can be included in moderation.

Where Should Your Rabbit Live?

Rabbits should be housed in a cage that is as large as possible and fits inside your home. However, rabbits should spend a moderate amount of time out of the cage. Rabbit-proofing your home is essential if your rabbit will play outside of its cage. Rabbit-proofing your home means taking the necessary precautions to avoid exposing your rabbit to potential household hazards. Rabbit are notorious chewers, so keep electrical cords out of reach, remove area mats or rugs, cover accessible furniture edges and put away small toys and trinkets. Other pets in the household may attack or play roughly with your rabbit, so housemates should be kept in a separate area. Children should be supervised while interacting with rabbits to prevent injuries to the rabbit and/or children. Young children may drop a rabbit, resulting in broken limbs or back. In turn, frightened rabbis may scratch or bite to protect themselves.

Rabbits can be housed outside safely if the proper safety measures are taken. Outdoor habitats should be predator-proofed. A double fence around the rabbit’s enclosure is recommended. There should be a tarp or covering over the enclosure to avoid attacks from flying predators. An enclosed box should be provided where your rabbit will be protected from the elements. When utilizing an outdoor enclosure, protection from the heat and cold is essential. If the temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, safe heating elements must be provided. If the temperature goes above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, cooling measures such as fans blowing into the cage or frozen water bottles should be provided. If these safety measures cannot be taken, your rabbit should have a permanent indoor home.

Whether your rabbit lives in an indoor cage or outdoor enclosure, proper bedding must be provided. Regular hay, straw or shredded newspaper can be used. CareFresh brand bedding may be used but with caution as a rabbit may ingest it possibly causing an intestinal blockage. When using litter in a litter box, it must be organic. Do not use cedar or aromatic shavings because they are toxic to rabbits.

Veterinary Care for Your Rabbit

Like cats and dogs, rabbits should have annual wellness exams. Common health problems include dental problems (incisorA narrow-edged tooth at the front of the mouth, adapted for cutting. overgrowth), upper respiratoryOf, or relating to, the action of breathing. problems, ear mites and gastrointestinal stasis or upset. Annual bloodwork is recommended as they get older. A rabbit does not need any sort of vaccines but should be spayed or neutered.

There may also be emergencies that require a trip to a veterinary office or emergency room. If your rabbit is not eating or not producing stool for a period of 12 hours or more, becomes extremely lethargicSluggish and apathetic., seems disoriented or is minimally responsive, he or she should be seen by a veterinarian immediately. These signs could indicate gastrointestinal stasis, a very dangerous condition that should be treated aggressively as soon as possible. If it is after-hours and your regular veterinary office is closed, take your sick rabbit to the veterinary emergency room. Make sure the emergency room you go to has a veterinarian on staff that will treat your rabbit. There are other situations that constitute an emergency, so when in doubt, seek medical attention right away.

Ariana Finkelstein, DVM currently practices at Mission Pet Emergency in San Antonio, Texas.