Rabbits - Everything you need to know
It's not surprising that rabbits are the third most popular pet in the Ireland after cats and dogs as they are loveable, playful and intelligent animals. Rabbits make ideal pets for older children or teenagers who can handle them easily. There are many different breeds and varieties of rabbit, varying in size, body shape, coat and personality. On average a pet rabbit lives between 8-12 years, but if they are well-loved and looked after they can live for longer.
Some Rabbit facts you need to know
- Rabbits are active animals and in the wild they have wide open spaces to hop, run, jump and dig about in. Your pet rabbit should have plenty of space to chase about as it keeps them fit, healthy and happy!
- Rabbits are very sociable and live in large groups in the wild. Pet rabbits can get very lonely if they are left in their hutch by themselves for long periods of time. They will need a companion or lots of your love and attention to keep them happy. Neutered rabbits often get on better. The best combination is to have a neutered male and a spayed female as two males will fight and two females can be aggressive towards one another.
- Wild rabbits live in warrens which are communal groups of underground burrows. They are always on the alert for predators such as foxes and dart down their rabbit holes for safety. Rabbits are naturally timid and startle easily. Your pet rabbit will need a safe and secure rabbit hutch to hide away from things that scare them like dogs or ferrets. Rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk and often nap during the day so your rabbit hutch needs to be in a quiet spot so your rabbit can sleep peacefully.
- A rabbit's burrow is warm, clean and dry. Rabbits line their burrows with grass, moss and fur when they have babies. Your pet rabbit's hutch needs to be draught free, cosy, waterproof and free of damp. Rabbits that live in wet, draughty and dirty conditions suffer and become ill.
- Rabbits are intelligent and can get bored easily so give your pet rabbit lots of exercise, toys and activities to keep them busy.
There are over 70 different breeds of rabbit recognised by the British Rabbit Council and they come in a variety of colours, sizes and lengths of coat. Rabbit breeds can basically be categorised into 4 different types: Fancy Breeds, Lop Breeds, Normal Fur Breeds and Rex. Within these types you'll find that rabbits can range in size from 1kg to over 10kg!
- Miniature and Dwarf rabbit breeds such as the Netherland Dwarf and Miniature Lop can weigh between 1 – 2.5kg.
- Medium sized rabbit breeds like the Angora and English can weigh between 2.5 – 3kg.
- Large rabbit breeds such as the New Zealand and French Lop can weigh between 4 – 5kg.
- Giant breeds of rabbit like the British Giant and the Flemish Giant can weigh at least 5kg. The world's largest rabbit is a Continental Giant named Darius who is only a year old and weighs 22.7kg! Darius measures 4ft 3 inches from nose to tail and is still growing.
Lifespan- In general, the smaller breeds are longer lived, with most dwarf and small rabbits living on average 8 - 12 years. Medium sized breeds generally live around 6 - 8 years and the large and giant breeds tend to have the shortest lifespan at around 5 - 6 years.
Personality- Different breeds of rabbit can also have different temperaments. Smaller breeds tend to be more alert, active and highly-strung than the larger breeds, which are generally more placid and even-tempered. As larger breeds are less active they are more prone to being overweight.
Grooming – Long haired and giant rabbit breeds will need extra grooming. Breeds such as the Angora and Cashmere Lop and have fine silky wool and their coats will need daily grooming and often require clipping. Giant rabbits sometimes have problems keeping themselves clean as they are not very agile and cannot reach their lower quarters to groom, especially as they get older.
Housing- Large and giant breeds of rabbit require a lot of space for both living and exercise. If your rabbit is very large you might need to invest in a purpose made hutch however most giant breeds are kept as indoor only rabbits and sleep happily in dog or cat beds.
Health– Large and giant rabbit breeds are prone to obesity and tend to suffer from joint and mobility problems. Certain breeds of rabbit, including the giant breeds, Netherland Dwarfs and Lop breeds, are prone to problems with their eyes and teeth. Long haired rabbits can suffer from fur balls which can cause life threatening blocks in the gut.
Handling your rabbit
Rabbits are naturally quiet, shy and timid so spend time letting your rabbit get to know you. Rabbits enjoy human company and once you have gained their trust they make loving and affectionate pets.
When you start handling your rabbit remember to get down to their level. Rabbits prefer to keep all four legs on the ground and will find it less threatening if you lie down or sit next to them. This is a good way of letting your rabbit get used to you.
- As rabbits are prey species they will be very frightened if you pick them up without supporting their back legs and may kick or scrabble with their claws to get free. Rabbits have fragile bones, especially in their backs, so when you pick your rabbit up make sure you support their tummy and bottom as well as their back legs. Be gentle with your movements so as not to startle or scare your rabbit.
- Rabbits are not normally aggressive unless they feel threatened or cornered. A scared rabbit may bite, scratch or kick out with their powerful hind legs. You can tell if your rabbit is frightened as they will thump their hind legs on the ground to warn others of danger and can make a loud scream.
One or two?
If you are able it is always best to have two rabbits rather than one. Rabbits need company and are happiest when they have a buddy. Some rabbits will tolerate guinea pigs as companions but this is not a good idea as rabbits can hurt guinea pigs if they kick out or jump on them. Rabbits and guinea pigs also have different dietary requirements and different means of communicating. If you do have a single rabbit make sure you spend lots of time with them and you'll end up with a friend.
Male or female?
Male rabbits (bucks) can become territorial if they are not neutered and also scent mark. Males kept together will fight and even if they are neutered they may still be aggressive with one another. Female rabbits (does) kept together will also fight. The best match is to have a neutered male kept together with a spayed female. If you keep a male and female rabbit together that have not been neutered be warned - a female rabbit can become pregnant at 5 months old, produce approximately 30 young in a single breeding season and can become pregnant again within hours of giving birth!
Getting a New Rabbit?
We have a great guide to help you make bringing your rabbit home stress free and smooth with some handy tips for you to help settle your rabbit in to their new life happily. Our check list below will ensure that you have everything for your new rabbit's arrival.
- Rabbit Carrier
- Rabbit Hutch
- Hutch Huggers and Snugglers (for outdoor rabbits)
- Rabbit Run
- Litter tray (for indoor rabbits)
- Rabbit litter (for indoor rabbits)
- Rabbit hygiene products
- Grooming brushes
- Water bottle
- Feeding Bowl
Indoors or Outdoors?
Most rabbits are kept in outdoor rabbit hutches; however keeping in an indoor rabbit is becoming more and more popular. Keeping your rabbit indoors has also been known to extend their life span quite considerably. Rabbits can make good indoor pets and can be trained to use a litter tray - some rabbits can even learn to come when called! Rabbits that live indoors see humans as important companions and will follow you around. If you are planning to keep your rabbit indoors you will need to rabbit proof your home.
- Rabbits like to chew so keep all trailing electrical cables out of reach
- Breakable ornaments should be moved well out of the way
- Move all house plants up a level as some of them can be poisonous if eaten
- Place a guard round an open fire
Your rabbit will need their own space to retreat to if you are busy vacuum cleaning or doing housework. Indoor rabbits will treat their hutch as their own territory and will feel more secure if they have their own place to withdraw into. The hutch should be in a quiet, draught free spot and there are different types of bedding available that are suited to indoor life. You will need litter for the litter tray that has been specifically produced for rabbits as other litters may be toxic if nibbled.
Your rabbit will still need outdoor exercise and the freedom to run about, chew and dig in the garden. Make sure that your garden is secure and that your rabbit has a safe place to hide if they become scared – a cardboard box or activity tunnel would be ideal.
Rabbits don't enjoy being cooped up all day in very small hutches and quickly become depressed and unhappy if left alone. The bigger the rabbit hutch the better! The hutch should have must have two separate compartments - a light and spacious day area and a sleeping compartment that is enclosed and sheltered for your rabbit to sleep in. The hutch should be raised off the ground, be secure enough to protect against predators, water proof and well built. You should also have a waterproof cover for your hutch to protect your rabbit from driving wind, rain and snow – these are called Huggers and Snugglers and fit over your hutch.
Always use cleansing products that are safe for rabbits as disinfectants for the home can be toxic. Make sure you clean your rabbit's water bottle regularly as bacteria and green algae can build up in a short space of time.
Your rabbit will need lots of exercise! A large, secure run is great for letting your rabbit roam freely in safety. The run should have an area that is covered to provide shade on hot days. Rabbits love to dig and it helps keep their nails short. If you don't want your rabbit to dig in your lawn you can buy runs with a wire mesh base but be aware that wire mesh can hurt your rabbit's feet badly. The run should not be placed in an area of the garden where pesticides, weed killers or lawn treatments have been applied as your rabbit could become fatally ill from grazing on grass or plants treated with these chemicals.
Bedding, food bowls and water bottles
Rabbits need lots of clean and dry bedding and there are several varieties available from wood shavings and recycled paper to hay (which rabbits love to eat). Bedding should be cleaned when soiled and completely replaced at least once a week. Your rabbit will chew their bedding so it is important that you only use safe varieties that are not toxic. Rabbits like to curl up in a cosy nest so put extra bedding in their sleeping compartments – hay is ideal.
Heavy ceramic bowls are great for your rabbit's dry food as their high sides keep the food clean and they are solid enough not to get thrown around or knocked about.
Most rabbits prefer to drink from water bowls but these can be spilt over and contaminated by food or droppings. Water bottles are perfect for keeping your rabbit's drinking water clean and in regular supply. Water should be changed daily and there are water bottle covers that prevent the water from becoming frozen in winter.
Long haired rabbits need to be groomed daily but even if your rabbit is short haired they will benefit from gentle grooming to keep their coats clean. A small brush, finger brush or fine toothed comb is perfect for grooming. Rabbits shed (moult) and need regular grooming to help prevent hairballs and getting a blockage. Grooming also helps you bond with your rabbit and builds a good relationship between you.
Rabbits are inquisitive and love to play. Rabbits can get very bored when you are not around to play with them, so it is important that your rabbit has toys to keep them busy and full of life. There are plenty of toys available for rabbits ranging from chew toys that help keep their teeth in good condition, wooden toys, treat balls, kongs, boredom breakers, activity centres and tunnels.
Settling in your rabbit
Once you have arrived home with your new rabbit place them straight into their new home and leave them quietly to settle in. Travelling is very stressful and your rabbit will need some time to themselves to recover.
- Leave your rabbit in their new home for 12 – 24 hours to give them time to become accustomed to their new living space and accept it as their own home.
- When you let your rabbit out of the hutch sit or lie quietly on the floor nearby. Staying at their level is less intimidating than standing over them! Your rabbit is a curious creature and will come over to check you out. Try to avoid touching them at first, just let your rabbit get used to your smell and presence.
- Once your rabbit is familiar with your presence you can offer them your hand to sniff. As your rabbit gains confidence you can begin to stroke them. You can encourage this by stroking your rabbit when they are eating and by offering food in your hand. Rabbits seem to like being stroked on the top of their heads or the sides of their faces. You may hear a purring noise if your rabbit is happy which they make by grinding their teeth. Don't worry of your rabbit nudges you or rubs their head on you – this is a sign that they want attention and are marking you as their property!
- Rabbits dislike being picked up and prefer to have all four feet on the ground. Their bones are very fragile so support your rabbit's tummy and bottom when you pick them up.
Feeding your Rabbit
Your rabbit will need a balanced diet to keep them happy and we have a useful guide to help you choose the healthiest and best foods available for your rabbit.
How much do I feed my rabbit?
Rabbits are grazers and will eat small amounts of food throughout their waking hours. Rabbits are normally fed inside their hutches so that their food is kept dry and is readily available. You can feed your rabbit in their run if the weather is fine and you may find your rabbit will take food from your hand.
- Rabbits need a constant supply of good quality hay or grass – in fact they need to eat a pile of hay at least the size of their own body every day!
- Feed your rabbit a handful of different greens daily.
- A handful of root vegetables can be fed twice a day.
- Rabbit nuggets and pellets should be fed daily – follow the guidelines on the packet as to recommended serving amounts. If you have a large or giant rabbit (over 3.5kg) you should feed nuggets twice a day.
- See our Rabbits As Pets advice to learn more about different sizes and breeds of rabbits
- Muesli type foods can cause dental problems as rabbits will pick out the bits they like and leave the rest. These bits left are usually the ones that contain fibre and your rabbit needs these to help wear down their teeth. You might find it is easier to feed nuggets instead to make sure your rabbit gets enough fibre in their diet and keeps their teeth trim.
- Fruit should be given in small amounts as treats.
Grass and Hay
A rabbit's diet should consist of 80 – 90% grass or hay. Your rabbit needs to eat hay and grass to keep their teeth from becoming oversized and for their digestive system to work properly.
- In the wild a rabbit will eat grass for 6 – 8 hours a day and Timothy Hay mixed with dandelions and marigolds is a good staple for your pet rabbit. There are also a wide selection of hays and grasses available mixed with chamomile and herbs.
- To ensure that fresh hay is always available we recommend the use of hay racks, as well as using hay in litter trays and as bedding.
- Don't feed your rabbit lawnmower clippings as these can upset your rabbit's digestive system and make them ill. Be careful when giving your rabbit fresh handfuls of meadow grass as this could contain buttercups which are poisonous.
Always provide fresh clean drinking water for your rabbit and check the water supply each day. Make sure water does not freeze if your rabbit lives outdoors in winter.
Young rabbits can get stomach upsets and diarrhea from eating too many fresh greens so introduce them gradually as a treat. Greens should never be fed in large quantities and have been washed before you feed them to your rabbits.
- Green leafy plants recommended include: dandelions, broccoli leaves and stems, turnip and beetroot tops, brussels sprouts, watercress, cabbage, celery, parsley, mint, chard, endive, radicchio, docks, chickweed and chicory.
- Lettuce can be fed but only use romaine or dark leaf and not iceberg.
Root vegetables can be fed daily such as carrot (use sparingly as carrots are high in sugar), turnip and radish.
- Potatoes, runner beans and peas should be avoided.
Fruit should be fed occasionally as a treat but always in small quantities as it is high in sugar.
- Recommended fruits include: apples, grapes (sparingly), pears, plums and strawberries.
Nuggets and Pellets
Nuggets and pellets are complementary foods that can provide your rabbit with vitamins, minerals and fibre. They also help to keep your rabbit's teeth trim.
Be careful not to over feed your rabbit on nuggets and pellets as they should not replace the hay that your rabbit needs.
There are specialist rabbit nuggets available that have been designed for particular breeds of rabbit to aid problems such as joint stiffness, digestive health, lack of energy and obesity.
Some treats are high in sugar and should be given occasionally but there are a wide variety of treats that are based on bark, sticks, leaves and wood that your rabbit can enjoy on a regular basis.
Never feed your rabbit chocolate as it is toxic to most animals.
Plants which are harmful to your rabbit if eaten include:
- amaryllis, anemone, azalea, bindweed, bracken, deadly nightshade, poppies, oak leaves, most evergreens, ragwort, rhubarb leaves, buttercups, daffodils, bluebells, foxgloves, mistletoe, dahlias, lupins, chrysanthemums, delphinium, lily of the valley, tulips, iris, lobelia, juniper, hyacinth, privet, yew, laburnum, ivy, rhododendron, wisteria, clematis, holly.
If you suspect your rabbit has eaten any poisonous plants consult your vet immediately – and if you can collect a sample of the plant that they have eaten to help with the diagnosis.