Link to downloadable leaflet
Rabbits can be kept outdoors or indoors. An outside hutch should be split into two compartments: one should have a strong double layer galvanized wire mesh to let in air and light, and the other should have a solid door to give the rabbit protection from the weather and a retreat at night. The hutch should be raised off the ground to protect the rabbit from rising damp and other animals. The hutch should have strong latches to prevent foxes from entering. The roof should slope backwards and be covered with overhanging roofing felt to protect it from rain. It should be large enough to allow the rabbit to rise up on its hind limbs, to stretch out and perform at least three hops. Mosquito or fly mesh should be placed across areas exposed to the outside, to prevent insects from entering the hutch. The hutch should be positioned to protect your rabbit from extremes of weather: it should never face directly into the mid-day sun or prevailing wind. In the summer it must be placed in a shaded area, and in the winter should ideally be placed in a shed or outhouse.
Rabbits can be kept indoors, but your house will need to be rabbit-proofed to prevent your bunny from chewing through wires etc. More information can be found on the House Rabbit Society’s website at www.rabbit.org, or the Rabbit Welfare Association’s website at www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk .
The hutch should be lined with newspaper to prevent abrasions on your rabbit’s hocks. Any bedding material should be dust-free: shredded paper and plenty of hay provide a warm and comfortable environment. Straw can sometimes have sharp ends, which can cause injury, and also provides little nutritional value if your rabbit decides to eat it! Soft white wood shavings can be used, but avoid pine shavings as these can cause liver damage if ingested, and avoid sawdust as this can cause eye irritation and respiratory problems.
Your rabbit’s hutch must be cleaned regularly: the toilet area should be cleaned daily, especially in the summer, and the rest of the hutch at least twice weekly.
Your rabbit will need plenty of exercise: it should NOT be left in a hutch all day! A covered garden run is ideal: it should be moved frequently to provide fresh grass but make sure there are no chemicals (eg: weed killer) on the grass. Exercise on a concreted area can help to keep your rabbit’s claws trim, but too much time on abrasive surfaces such as this can cause injury to the skin covering the hocks. Make sure that the run is kept well away from poisonous plants such as chrysanthemums, clematis, cowslips, geraniums, hemlock, laburnum, laurel, ivy, poppies and yuccas. Do not leave your rabbit unattended outdoors; they are very vulnerable to predators, and it is not unheard of now that foxes will attack in broad daylight.
In the wild, rabbits live on a high fibre diet consisting mainly of poor quality grasses. Their teeth grow continuously and they have a complex digestive system to cope with this tough diet. They digest their food twice and have two different types of faecal pellets: the first are the soft, sticky caecotrophs which are usually produced at night and eaten straight from the anus, these should not be seen by you, the owner, if you do see them, it will usually mean that there is a problem with your rabbit. The second type of faecal pellets are the ones which you will be used to cleaning from your rabbit’s hutch: they should be well-formed, round and hard; if you notice a decline in the production of these pellets, there may be a problem with your rabbit and you should seek veterinary advice. Most of the health problems seen in rabbits are a direct result of a poor diet.
Hay and grass should be the main part of any rabbit’s diet. They are hindgut fermenters, so thrive on a high-fibre diet. The hay should be good quality meadow hay, or Western Timothy hay: it is often better to purchase a bale of hay from stables or a horse feed merchant rather than the often overpriced, poor quality hay sold in pre-packaged bags. As far as grass is concerned, ad-lib grazing from the lawn is ideal: this is obviously not always possible, so hand-picking the grass and feeding it in the hutch is a suitable alternative: NEVER feed your rabbit lawn-mower cuttings.
Your rabbit should also be given some concentrated food: this should be limited to one tablespoon per kg of bodyweight per rabbit per day. There are many concentrated foods available, the best are uniform nuggets, which prevent your rabbit from picking and choosing certain bits out from the diet (each of these different coloured bits can contain different minerals and vitamins which means that your rabbit could have quite an unbalanced diet if it decides not to eat all of them). Oxbow Bunny Basics and Burgess Supa Rabbit Excel are probably the best two concentrated foods currently available for rabbits. Rabbits also need a good selection of fresh food: leaf green vegetables are the best e.g. kale, spinach, cabbage, parsley. Occasional treats of apple, pear or carrot can be given 2-3 times weekly. Avoid apple seeds, potatoes, lettuce, rhubarb and tomato leaves, and bread and cereals. Most treats sold in the pet shops are unsuitable for rabbits as they are very high in simple sugars and additives: just because they like them, doesn’t mean that these treats are good for your rabbit. Fresh water should be available at all times and the food bowl and water bottle should be cleaned daily.
Neutering is not just a means of population control: it is important for ensuring long-term health, especially in females, and both sexes make better pets after neutering. It also means that rabbits can be easily kept together without fighting or breeding.
Females: a female rabbit (doe) can come into season more than ten times a year and she can have kittens almost constantly throughout her life. Neutering a doe will obviously mean that you don’t have to find homes for a lot of baby rabbits! More importantly, female rabbits are prone to getting adenocarcinomas of the uterus: this is a very nasty tumour affecting the uterus (womb) which occurs in up to 80% of un-neutered females below the age of five: it is a painful condition which often ends in death. Un-neutered female rabbits also become very territorial when they reach sexual maturity (around 4-6 months of age): they can become aggressive towards other rabbits and humans. Female rabbits can be neutered (spayed) from six months of age, depending on their size: this can be discussed with your veterinary surgeon.
Males: un-castrated male rabbits (bucks) can be very aggressive with other rabbits and humans, and will also spray urine like male cats. Bucks reach sexual maturity at around 3-4 months of age and can be castrated from this time, depending on their size: this can be discussed with your veterinary surgeon.
There is no upper age limit for neutering your rabbit, although the risks of anaesthesia can be increased in very young or older rabbits. General anaesthesia always carries a risk, although with advances in veterinary medicine and modern anaesthetic agents, the risk of general anaesthetics in small furries has been greatly reduced. If you have any concerns, please discuss these with your vet, do not be embarrassed to ask, your vet is there to give you informed advice and hopefully put your mind at rest.
There are two vaccinations available for use in rabbits: one against the virus which causes myxomatosis, and the other against viral haemorrhagic disease.
Myxomatosis: this vaccination is made with the Shope fibroma virus, a closely related virus to the Myxoma virus which causes this deadly disease. It can be given from six weeks of age and immunity lasts between 6-12 months. The level of immunity achieved relies heavily on the rabbit’s individual immune system, so vaccinating your rabbit against this disease does not mean that it will definitely not get it: you should still regularly check your rabbit for fleas and take measures to protect it from mosquito bites, as the disease is transmitted by biting insects. However, vaccinating your rabbit will offer it some immunity and could mean the difference between life and death if it were to contract the disease. Traditionally, the disease occurs between spring and autumn, so an ideal time to vaccinate would be March/April.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD): this virus is highly infectious and deadly: it can be carried on people’s clothing and can survive in the environment for a long time. It causes severe internal bleeding and death. Vaccination can be given from three months of age and immunity lasts for one year.
Please note that there should be an interval of at least 15 days between the administration of these vaccinations.
Signs to check for your bunny’s health
- A regular output of large round, fairly hard faecal pellets indicates a healthy digestive system. A decrease in faecal output may be one of the first signs of disease.
- Consistent eating of all parts of its diet: if your bunny starts to selectively eat or leave parts of its diet, this may indicate a problem with its teeth.
- A glossy, healthy coat. If your bunny starts to get matted or soiled, this may indicate underlying dental disease or obesity.
- Check for fleas or other skin problems, not forgetting the feet.
- Check for soiling around the genitalia and anus: especially check that your rabbit has not got any caecotrophs (the soft, sticky faeces) stuck around its anus.
- Check your bunny’s front teeth (incisors) to see that they are wearing down evenly.
- Make sure your bunny is not getting overweight.
REMEMBER: A RABBIT MUST CONTINUALLY EAT AND DEFAECATE TO MAINTAIN A HEALTHY DIGESTIVE SYSTEM. RABBITS ARE PREY ANIMALS IN THE WILD, SO SHOWING SIGNS OF DISEASE MEANS SHOWING WEAKNESS AND WOULD PUT THEM AT RISK OF BEING CAUGHT. THEREFORE IF YOU NOTICE ANY DIFFERENCE IN YOUR RABBIT’S BEHAVIOUR OR ANY SIGNS OF DISEASE, TAKE YOUR BUNNY STRAIGHT TO THE VET.
Some rabbit facts
- Life expectancy: 5-13 years
- Gestation period: 28-32 days
- Litter size: 4-12
- Weaning age: 4-6 weeks
- Sexual maturity: variable, but can be from 12 weeks
- Body temperature: 38.4-39.6ºC
- Respiratory rate: 30-80 breaths per minute
- Heart rate: 130-300 beats per minute
- There are over 65 breeds of rabbits and they range in weight from 1 to 10kg.
Remember: rabbits are for life, not just for Easter!