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Pet Lovers

04/03/2023

Rabbits as Pets

Most people start a conversation with a stranger by asking, “Where are you from?”, or “What do you do for…

Most people start a conversation with a stranger by asking, “Where are you from?”, or “What do you do for a living?” I usually start with, “Do you have a dog or cat?” That’s a real icebreaker. Pet parents are just as excited to share stories and pictures of their furry friends as they do with their children.

I was chatting with a new neighbor the other day, and of course, asked him if he had a dog or cat. He surprised me by saying, “No, we actually have a pet rabbit.” The next 15 minutes were spent telling me how his rabbit behaves much like the dogs and cats he has had in the past. I had no idea.

It should have come as no surprise to me. My husband has been telling me for years that he had a pet rabbit as a child and how affectionate it was. The only experience I have ever had with a rabbit was trying to hold one while its back legs scratched up my arms!

We have a few rabbits that stay with us on a regular basis at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts. Our Pack picks them up and cuddles them, but I have never had the opportunity. I now look forward to the next time Nibbie or Peanut Butter comes to visit!

Rabbits make excellent pets, but there is a lot more to caring for one than maybe a hamster or a gerbil. In fact, on a scale of one to five in terms of maintenance, I would rate a rabbit at a five. Yes, they require a lot of time and care, but they can bring so much joy to your home.

Bringing Your Pet Rabbit Home

Before picking up your new furry friend, plan a trip to the pet supply store to pick up some essentials. You will need a rabbit house, called a “hutch.” There are many varieties but expect to spend a minimum of around $150, and as much as $500, depending on its size and features. You will need a litter box and litter, a pellet bowl and water bowl, a few chew toys, and some fresh vegetables. You will also need some fencing or a pet “playpen.” And don’t forget a carrier to travel with your rabbit.

Even though your rabbit may one day be allowed to run freely through your house, it will appreciate its own hutch and fenced area. It should be located in a quiet part of the house, not near the washing machine or anything that makes a lot of noise. Make sure there are no wires, plants, or anything that could be a danger to your pet rabbit in its area. The enclosure should have a resting area, an eating area, a potty area (a litter box), and a play area so that it can do all the bunny things it likes to do while you’re away, like hop around, play, and dig.

Setting Up Your Pet Rabbit’s Space

Have your rabbit’s hutch and living area ready for it when you bring it home. Let it spend the first couple of days in its “area” to give it time to acclimate to its new environment. A rabbit will normally be very nervous about all the new surroundings. Allowing it time to adjust is important, at least a day or two. Just leave the rabbit in its quiet enclosure, pat it on the head every so often, and speak softly to it. You will know when it is ready to venture out of its comfort zone.

Taking the time to bond with your rabbit is the first thing you should do after they have acclimated to the home environment. Rabbits are easily frightened and afraid of anything new. It may be hesitant or even afraid of you at first. They need to learn to trust you so that they feel safe. It will take a very deliberate effort on your part to build that trust. Be patient and don’t rush. Let it come to you. It can be very affectionate and cuddly, but it may take some time.

Socializing Your Pet Rabbit

Just like dogs, rabbits are very social creatures. They prefer to socialize with other rabbits, but if one is not available, you will have to be its best friend, so you’ll need to spend a lot of time with it. The Healthy Journal says that you should spend one to five hours a day with your rabbit. That’s a big commitment. Rabbits require attention and socialization for good mental health. If not adequately socialized, they may become depressed, aggressive, or destructive.

If you are not able to commit to spending that much time with your pet rabbit, consider adopting two, rather than just one. Some people recommend that you adopt two rabbits from the get-go. Two rabbits can keep each other company when you are struggling with a busy schedule. But because rabbits do require so much time and effort, beginners should start with only one. Human interaction is important for building a good relationship with your pets. If you are away from home a lot, it would be better to get a pet that does not require so much attention.

There is a social hierarchy in rabbit colonies, similar to that of dogs. Even if you only have two rabbits, one may eventually take the upper hand, and it can be very aggressive toward lower-ranking rabbits. The need for social dominance does not always happen with pet rabbits. If you have two rabbits, just keep an eye on them and be alert to any displays of dominance. If possible, pair rabbits while they are kits (baby rabbits) and be sure that they are spayed or neutered; unaltered rabbits are more likely to try to fight.

Training Your Pet Rabbit

Owners of rabbits say they are intelligent and understand more than you would imagine. All it takes is a little time and patience. Most pet bunnies are easily trained to go to the litter box.

The Bunny Lady has taught her rabbits to give kisses, come when called, and do high fives! All Creatures Health Care says you can even teach your rabbit to fetch and run agility courses – wow!

Again, like dogs, rabbits are very food motivated. Training with treat rewards is the best method of getting a rabbit’s focus and attention. Bunnies have a sweet tooth, so small, pure dehydrated fruit is a great motivator. Feed sparingly, though, so they don’t gain too much weight. They also like herbs, like parsley and basil.

Training your pet rabbit is accomplished much like it is with a dog. The good behavior must be rewarded within two to three seconds of it occurring. In addition to treats, they also like their head and ears stroked. We should never scold or raise our voices when training a rabbit. They are easily frightened but respond well to gentleness and kindness.

Feeding Your Pet Rabbit

Despite stereotypes, bunnies eat more than just carrots! Because rabbits have a sensitive and complex digestive system, their dietary needs are very specific. Store-bought “rabbit pellets” or kibble alone are not sufficient. They need a precise balance of hay, fresh vegetables, herbs, and occasional fruit. The introduction of new foods should be done gradually to allow time for the rabbit’s system to adapt. Digestive illnesses are common in rabbits and can be fatal if they’re not dealt with quickly.

Hay should be 80% to 90% of a rabbit’s diet. Timothy hay is preferred due to its high fiber and low protein content. Timothy hay is not like the hay we see growing in nearly every rural field in the United States. It requires a colder temperature, so it is only grown in upper northeastern and some midwestern states. Canada is the largest contributor. The good news is that you can buy bags of Timothy hay in pet stores.

Fresh water for a rabbit is very important. The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund says water is vital. Water is necessary for proper digestion, of course, but it also plays a critical role in many other functions in a rabbit’s body. Water bowls are recommended over cage bottles. “Lapping” water, like a dog, is the more natural way that bunnies drink. We should check their water bowl often to make sure the water is not full of debris and hasn’t spilled.

Exercising Requirements

Ideally, your indoor rabbit will need a few hours outside of its cage in the morning and again in the afternoon. If your rabbit has the entire house to roam, it will get all the exercise it needs. During this time, be sure to give it plenty of attention and play.

Enrichment is important during playtime. They like lots of hiding places and love running through tunnels. Rabbits like toys, too. Chewy has a great selection of rabbit toys. Just know that whatever you give them to play with will end up in their mouths, so rather than sharing your dog or cat toys, stick with rabbit toys, as those will be safer for them to chew.

A rabbit’s favorite activities are digging and foraging. Have you seen pictures of our canine guests using a snuffle mat? Rabbits love those, too! You can also fill a box with wadded-up newspaper and watch how much fun they have as they burrow through it. Be sure to hide some treats throughout. Some people put a sandbox filled with child-safe sand in their rabbit’s play area so it can dig to its heart’s content.

Exercising Outdoors

Do rabbits need outdoor time? It’s good for them, but not really necessary. They are prey animals, so they may be afraid to venture outside of their home. On the other hand, some rabbits love outdoor time, whether it’s in a safe hutch or on a leash with their owner. Always stay with them when they are outdoors to guard them against predators, like foxes, raccoons, hawks, and even dogs and cats.

Your pet rabbit can be trained to walk on a leash! It needs to be in a harness, not a neck collar. Remember that the rabbit is the one walking, exploring, and munching. You are just following. Don’t expect to walk down the street with your pet rabbit as if it were a dog. Speaking of munching, rabbits love to eat grass while out on a walk. Make sure the grass is pesticide-free before allowing them to nibble.

Chewing

Chewing is very important to a rabbit. Those big front teeth will continue growing throughout their lives. Because of that, rabbits need to keep chewing to keep their teeth from getting too long. They like doing it, too. If rabbits do not have enough to chew on, they may begin chewing on your furniture or carpet.

The hay you provide for food is great for chewing. Throw a few old cotton towels in their area, and they will chew on those as well. Clean, untreated wood is great for them to chew on, but not all wood species are safe. Do your research and check with your veterinarian. To be sure, you can purchase sweet bamboo sticks and other rabbit chews at the pet supply store.

Visiting Your Veterinarian

Your pet rabbit needs yearly wellness visits to its veterinarian, just like a dog or cat. Vaccinations are required, and spaying/neutering is highly recommended. Rabbits are susceptible to heartworm and can attract fleas and mites, all of which can be treated by your veterinarian. Fortunately, rabbits do not need professional teeth cleanings, but your veterinarian will check them to make sure there are no problems.

Bathing and Brushing

Rabbits are experts at keeping themselves clean. If they live in a clean environment and are brushed regularly, baths are not necessary. In fact, the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund  says not only is bathing totally unnecessary, but it is potentially very harmful to rabbits, because it strips them of their natural oils. A bath would also be very stressful for a rabbit.

Rabbits tend to ingest quite a bit of hair because they are constantly licking and grooming themselves. It is up to us to keep excess hair to a minimum to prevent gastrointestinal blockages. A long-haired rabbit should be brushed daily, while short-haired rabbits need to be brushed two to three times a week. You will want to brush them more often during shedding cycles. Brushing also helps prevent the matting and clumping of hair which can irritate your rabbit’s sensitive skin.

Grooming Needs

You will need to clean your pet rabbit’s ears at least once a month or more. Lop-eared rabbits will need more attention as they are prone to ear infections. The longer ears tend to get damp underneath, attracting debris and a build-up of wax. To clean a rabbit’s ears, dip a cotton ball or soft cloth in lukewarm water, squeeze out the excess water, and wipe the insides of the ears to loosen any dirt or debris that has gathered there. Dry the ears well to help prevent infection. If a more thorough cleaning is needed, your veterinarian may prescribe an ear cleaner to flush out the ears.

Check the rest of your bunny for anything that shouldn’t be there; fur or debris around its eyes, droppings or urine stains on its bottom, etc. If needed, wipe with a damp cloth and dry well.

In the wild, rabbits hopping on hard surfaces and digging through rocks wears down their nails. A domestic rabbit will not have that advantage, and its nails can snag and tear easily. That’s why you’ll also need to trim your rabbit’s nails on a regular basis. Ask for your veterinarian’s advice and instruction before trying to trim your rabbit’s nails for the first time. Oh, just so you don’t freak out, a rabbit has five toes on their front feet but only four on their back feet!

Choosing to Get a Pet Rabbit

Still thinking about getting a pet rabbit for your child this Easter? While they can be wonderful pets, as you now know, owning a rabbit is a huge commitment. Most rabbits can live anywhere from seven to 10 years. With proper food and exercise, some rabbits have been known to live as long as 12 years. Many children are enthralled with their new rabbit at first, but can quickly lose interest. Then, it will be up to you to provide care for your rabbit. Please consider the purchase or adoption of a pet rabbit very carefully.

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