Dr. Julia Whittington sees exotic pets—birds, lizards, snakes, and small mammals such as bunnies—at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. If you have been considering acquiring a pet rabbit, consider these tips from Dr. Whittington regarding housing, nutrition, and maintenance before you bring a floppy-eared pet home.
Housing: A rabbit doesn't need fancy cages, but it does need lots of exercise to keep from getting too fat and to promote good health. If the bunny will get a lot of play time outside of the hutch, smaller living quarters will be okay. If most of its day will be spent in its cage, the rabbit will need more cage room—enough for four good bunny hops.
While multi-level hutches may seem fun, your rabbit really only needs a single level, although many rabbits enjoy tunnels, ramps, and toys. Design your rabbit's cage to suit its personality, but keep an eye on providing a safe enclosure free of areas where the bunny could get trapped or injured.
If you pick a hutch with a wire mesh floor, be sure to provide a solid surface in the hutch for your rabbit to rest on. A small tray with bedding works well. Rabbits have fur on the bottom of their paws, but because they don't have paw pads like dogs and cats, they can develop pressure sores if they are always on wire mesh.
X-pens are another good housing option for rabbits. Exercise pens designed for dogs usually have eight panels and can be set up in various shapes. Make sure your pen is tall enough to keep your bunny from jumping out. With this sort of housing, linoleum makes a good flooring choice. Don't choose flooring that the rabbit might chew on. Paper-based bedding is recommended, but wood shavings can be used also. Avoid cedar bedding; the strong fragrance and oils can be an irritant to your pet.
Incidentally, rabbits love to gnaw on—and eat—things, so provide appropriate toys and chew blocks made from materials that are not harmful. Make sure your rabbits cannot access electrical wires and cords when they are out of the hutch for play time.
Also, rabbits do not tolerate heat well; average home temperatures are fine, but avoid large temperature swings.
Feeding: In recommending what to feed your bunny, Dr. Whittington points out how rabbit teeth work: rabbits have interdigitating, constantly growing teeth. Because rabbits' teeth are designed for a side-to-side, grinding motion, grass-based hays are the best feeding choice. Rabbits must do a lot of chewing to keep their teeth at the proper length. Hay should be fed free choice; many different varieties are available, such as timothy hay, orchard grass, and oat hay. Avoid alfalfa hay, which is high in protein, unless your rabbit is very young, pregnant, or nursing babies.
Pelleted rabbit food formulations are ubiquitous and nutritionally complete, since they are simply ground-up hay compacted into pellet form. However, pellets force a rabbit to chew with an up-and-down motion. Pellets also make it easier to eat too much, which can lead to dental problems and obesity.
If you wish to supplement the hay with some pellets, Dr. Whittington suggests at most two to four tablespoons per kilogram body weight per day. For enrichment, you can feed your rabbit greens, such as kale, carrot tops, lettuce, or romaine.
Avoid "treat foods" such as fruit and seeds. Those pretty rabbit foods with all the seeds and dried fruits may look nice to us, but they provide too many carbohydrates for your bunny. Rabbits do not tolerate high-carb diets well, and these diets also lead to obesity. Keep in mind that a rabbit can live a long and healthy life with grass hays alone, so enrich with moderation.
Rabbits have higher water needs than most other small pet animals. The sipper bottles work well, and you should also provide a water bowl, one that is too heavy to be knocked over.
Environmental and Health Recommendations: Bring your new pet rabbit to a veterinarian for an examination. It is very important to spay female rabbits to prevent not only litters, but also life-threatening uterine diseases that are common among bunnies. Neutering male rabbits is less critical, but it will prevent breeding and stop them from urine marking.
No vaccinations are required for rabbits, but a yearly check-up is recommended, especially to stay on top of dental work before a problem arises. You should also seek veterinary care quickly if you notice any change in your pet's stool or eating habits.
There are several issues to consider when bringing a new rabbit into a home that already has pets. A dog or cat that wants to chase or hunt the rabbit will not be a good companion. In fact, rabbits really should not be kept with cats as they can be unpredictable and can be a source of a bacterium, called Pasteurella, that can cause infections in rabbits. Rabbits, on the other hand, can carrier a bacterium that causes pneumonia in guinea pigs, so housing these two species together is not recommended.
If you already have bunnies and are bringing home a new bunny, introduce them slowly. In some cases, they may not get along and the match may just not work out. As with any new pet, keep an eye out and make sure the new and established pets play nice!
For more information about pet rabbits, please contact your local veterinarian.
An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Veterinary Extension/Office of Public Engagement
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine