Beginner Rabbit Care Guide
As a pet owner, your main goal is obviously to keep your pet healthy and happy so that they continue to benefit your own life in the various ways that they do. To keep your rabbit protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease, there's a number of actions you can take. Before adopting or buying any rabbits, you should carefully consider how they have been cared for and bred as this can affect their quality of life. If you're adopting from a shelter, they’ll have lived a life before they come into your home and if they've had bad experiences with other humans, it might be a while before they come out of their shell around you.
Likewise if you’re buying from a pet store then most likely they will have been around other rabbits for all of their life, so losing their social life can be hard for them too. It's then important that your rabbits are neutered unless intended specifically for breeding. Day to day, your rabbits will need to be monitored to ensure that they are eating daily, and passing plenty of dry dropping. Also, check for signs of illness, injury or changes in behaviour to keep on top of your rabbit's health. At first it might seem like something you have to go out of your way to notice, but it’ll quickly become something you automatically do.
Let’s have a dig into what your rabbits' needs are. The first is neutering. Unless you specifically plan on breeding your rabbit, you should really get them neutered. This leads to many benefits including eliminating the high chance of your female rabbit developing womb cancer, and it calms down your male rabbit, making them less aggressive and likely to fight. If you do plan on breeding two rabbits, make sure their personalities are compatible before you put them both in a cage together - they should slowly be introduced together in small sessions in a neutral place, such as a temporary or pop-up playpen that is brand new to both rabbits.
For your rabbits hutch, the general rule of thumb is to get a space that’s the largest you can practically fit in your home. The recommended actual size is 12 square feet per rabbit - this could be 6 foot wide and 2 feet wide. One layer is preferable as it provides a larger space for your rabbit to hop, “at least 3 hops” is also a good measurement if you’re unsure on sizing, so while you could have a hutch that has two floors, 3 feet wide, we’d recommend having a larger space to move around in.
Rabbits also need a place to fully stretch their legs, do some hopping and if they’re happy, a lot of binkying. For a larger play area we recommend a larger playpen or outdoor area of 32 square feet. Fill it with a few toys, even some plastic play balls from a child’s ball pit and they’ll have the time of their lives!
All rabbits should be fed mainly a diet of grass and hay. Young rabbits should be fed alfalfa because of its higher protein and sugar content, whereas older rabbits should be fed timothy hay, grass and oat hays. Rabbit teeth continually grow, and the hay is essential in keeping on top of this tooth growth. Buying hay from a farmer tends to be much more economical than from a store, but you do need the space to have bulk amounts of hay around. The amount of hay a rabbit goes through per day should be around twice to three times the size of the rabbit.
A bowl of pellets should be given daily too, or more depending on the manufacturer's recommendations on the back of the bag. In terms of the treaty things, vegetables are usually the best thing to give, but not all.
Contrary to popular belief, carrots should only be given sparingly and if possible, just the tops of carrots including the leaves. Lettuce is fine when given sparingly, but not iceberg lettuce, and no cabbage. Kale is also a great treat once in a while, as are the leaves of broccoli (but not the stems or tops as this can make bunnies a bit gassy). Celery, dill and watercress are great options for rabbits too. Treats should be given sparingly - make sure their hay is the main source of their diet.
Regular exercise is very important for rabbits. They are designed to run very fast in short bursts and dodge and twist to escape predators; this is why you often see rabbits "binkying" i.e. leaping in the air and racing around. Exercise helps young rabbits develop a healthy bone structure and helps adult rabbits maintain a healthy physique.
Ideally, rabbits should be able to exercise whenever they want to but a minimum of 4 hours free run a day is recommended, ideally split into two exercise periods morning and evening of about 2 hours each. Rabbits are crepuscular, meaning they are naturally more active at dawn and dusk. Rabbits kept in indoor cages or outdoor hutches should be allowed access to a large exercise run or be given free run in the house or garden whilst being supervised.
Rabbits differ in their exercise needs according to age, breed and whether or not they are de-sexed. Younger rabbits tend to be a lot more active and are more likely to exhibit destructive behaviour such as chewing furniture or the bars of their cage if they are bored. Older rabbits usually sleep more but still need regular exercise. Larger breeds tend to be less active than small or dwarf breeds, while neutered or spayed rabbits slow down a little and put on weight more easily.
Playing games with your rabbit is a great way to prevent boredom, encourage exercise and get to know them a bit better. Mornings and evenings are the best times as this is when rabbits are most active.
One of the simplest games is to sit or lie on the ground and let your rabbit approach you. It will probably hop on and off you from every direction, investigate every bit of your clothing (watch out for nibbles!) and may even lick your face as a sign of affection. 15 minutes well spent...
You can build an obstacle course for your rabbit out of cardboard boxes, tunnels, newspapers and so on. Many rabbits love jumping so you could even create a set of jumps. Some rabbits like playing with footballs or basketballs, rolling them around the floor, digging at them or even running after them when you throw it.
If you have enough space, or a garden, you can play "chase" with your rabbit. This does not mean you are chasing the rabbit, although some rabbits do enjoy this and may initiate it themselves by flicking their ears and racing away from you playfully. The general idea is that the rabbit chases you. Run across the room or garden, calling your rabbit. A confident rabbit will soon get the idea and chase after you, perhaps adding in some jumps and twists as it runs.
Remember that rabbits tire quickly so if you rabbit flops down after a few minutes, give it a chance to rest and recover. Never force your rabbit to play with you - they will let you know when they've had enough!
Noticing when something is wrong
Rabbits are one of the animals that experience pain but wont outwardly show it, similarly to cats. That’s why it's important to keep a keen eye on them and get a feel for their baseline in personality, their activity levels and how much they like to eat. Particularly with food, if you notice your rabbit isn't eating, monitor them closely the next day and if they still don’t touch their food then get them to the vet immediately - rabbits have a very high metabolism and if they stop eating it only takes a few days before they’re in serious risky areas.
Changes in their normal behaviour could indicate pain so check them over for any signs of injury, be it cuts or soreness. When the weather's warm keep an eye out around their tail areas twice a day and check for urine stains or any stuck droppings, this can attract flies which leads to flystrike which is often fatal. Cut their nails once a month with specialised rabbit nail trimmers, never go as far as the black spots on their nails as this is where the nerves and blood start. Check their teeth once a week - if they’re growing in a strange direction or are too long then take them to a vet for treatment, don’t attempt to fix this yourself. Take them for annual checkups with the vet.
Keep your rabbit away from wild rabbits and the areas in which they’re found as they carry many diseases and are often the first to go when mixi rolls by (which you should get your rabbits vaccinated for). Groom your rabbit once a week to keep their coats clean and smooth to avoid matting, and if your rabbit is showing signs of stress in an environment, remove them from it and place them back in their hutch to calm down - stress can kill rabbits.
Other than these tips, learn as you go. You’ll get to know your rabbit and they’ll get to know you. Enjoy lots of playtime together to bond and if you’re not sure, there’s plenty of online guides. If something seems wrong get them to a vet ASAP, rabbits are fragile creatures in various ways.