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Providing a Home for a Rabbit

By Diane McClure, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, Veterinarian, Animal Resource Center Veterinary Services

Before you bring your rabbit home, you will need to prepare suitable housing, select a proper diet, and plan for your pet’s exercise needs.

Housing

A rabbit hutch placed in the back yard, basement, or garage is a common way of housing rabbits. The hutch should be easy to access for proper care of the rabbit, as diseases of neglect are common in rabbits that are abandoned in a hutch at the back of the yard. There should be adequate ventilation and protection from dogs or other predators.

Rabbits can become a more integrated part of the household when they are kept indoors. They can be trained to use a litter box and accustomed to being kept in a cage part of the time. However, rabbits tend to chew on things and may gnaw furniture, curtains, carpeting, or electrical wiring. Chewing on electrical wiring is dangerous for the rabbit and creates a fire hazard. Rabbits should be confined to safe quarters when unsupervised.

Because rabbits gnaw, caging must be constructed of materials that will hold up. Cages should be easy to clean and sanitize. All-wire cages with a minimum of 12-gauge wire are preferred; 16-gauge wire is recommended for cage flooring to support the weight of the rabbit. Cages can be suspended from the ceiling with wire or set on metal frames. The size of the hutch depends on the size of the rabbit. Giant breeds, greater than 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms), require a minimum of 30 by 36 inches (75 by 90 centimeters) with a height of 16 to 18 inches (40 to 45 centimeters). Medium to large breeds, 7 to 12 pounds (3.2 to 5.4 kilograms), require 24 by 30 inches (60 by 76 centimeters). Smaller breeds can be accommodated by 18 by 24 inches (45 by 60 centimeters). Remember: these are minimum requirements and when more than 1 rabbit is housed, the cage should be larger.

The cage should be equipped with a feed hopper and a watering system. Feed hoppers are best constructed of sheet metal with holes or a screen in the bottom for removal of small broken feed particles. Rabbits drink more than other animals of similar size and they should be offered fresh water at all times. Rabbits often chew on the watering valve and eventually destroy it unless it is made of stainless steel or has a stainless centerpiece. Water bottles with sipper tubes work well. Crocks and cans are sometimes used for food and water; however, these containers are easily contaminated and should be washed and disinfected daily. A cage with nothing in it is inadequate; the cage environment should be enriched to give the rabbit something to do. Optimally, rabbits should be given run time outside of the cage on a daily basis.

If the rabbit is going to be bred, a nest box should be included in the cage. Nest boxes should be constructed so that they can be easily placed in the cage and later removed for cleaning and disinfecting between litters. Disinfecting the nest box after cleaning and again just before placing it in the cage helps reduce incidence of disease. The box should be large enough to prevent crowding but small enough to keep the kits warm. A standard size nest box for medium-sized rabbits is 16 by 10 by 8 inches (40 by 25 by 20 centimeters). Wooden, metal, or plastic nest boxes with nesting material such as straw, hardwood shavings, or shredded sugarcane work well in either warm or cold weather. Shredded paper, hay, leaves, and other materials have been used with less success. Rough edges, such as splintering wood, should be avoided as they contribute to mastitis (bacterial infection of the mammary glands) when does hop in and out of the nest box.

Pens should have a nonslip floor and may be bedded with straw or shredded paper covered with straw or hay to increase absorbency. Shavings or sawdust are not the best as the scent is too powerful. Pen sides should be at least 4 feet (1.2 meters) high to prevent rabbits from jumping out.

When setting up group housing, compatibility is a major factor. Personalities should be evaluated for docility and aggressiveness. Rabbits that have grown up together are best, although adult males may be so aggressive toward each other that serious fights occur. Neutering may improve compatibility. A general guide is “same sex and same size.” Letting rabbits live in separate pens next to each other is a good idea prior to housing them together. Cages or pens should provide enough space for multiple rabbits. Floor space recommendations vary from 3.5 to 10 square feet (0.33 to 0.93 square meters) per rabbit to allow territory establishment. Others recommend 3.5 hop lengths per rabbit as a rule of thumb. Regardless, group-housed rabbits should be provided escape and hiding places and should be frequently monitored.

Cleaning frequency depends of the type of cage and number of rabbits. Rabbits typically choose a preferred elimination site, such as a corner of the cage or hutch. Poor sanitation leads to disease and deaths; therefore, cleaning and sanitizing must be regular. Nest boxes must be disinfected between uses. Cages, feeders, and watering equipment should be sanitized periodically with an effective and inexpensive sanitizing solution such as household chlorine bleach diluted to 1 ounce to 1 quart of water (30 milliliters to 1 liter of water) or other less corrosive disinfectants. Complete cleaning should be performed before housing new rabbits. Loose hair should be removed regularly to decrease the likelihood of hairballs. One of the most effective methods to remove hair from cages is washing. Pens or wire-floored cages should be brushed or hosed every 2 weeks. An acid wash may be required to descale rabbit urine from solid floor pans. Frequent manure removal is essential. Excess manure leads to unacceptable levels of ammonia in the air, which can cause respiratory disease.

Litter Box Training

Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box. Rabbits naturally prefer to use the same area (usually in a specific corner) when passing waste. Note where your rabbit likes to go and place an appropriately sized sturdy litter box in that spot. The rabbit should able to get in and out of it easily. Depending on available room within the cage, a medium-sized box works well for small breeds, while a large-sized box works best for rabbits that weigh 5 to 10 pounds. Larger breeds may require an extra-large box. Placing a few rabbit droppings in the box when it is first introduced into the cage will help the rabbit associate the smell with the new area to be used.

Many types of litter are available. Be sure the litter you use is safe for your rabbit. Your rabbit will spend a lot of time in the litter box and will often eat the litter. Litters made from alfalfa, oat, citrus, or paper are good choices for rabbits. You may also use a handful of hay as litter. The hay should be changed daily. Adding a few layers of newspaper under the hay is useful to absorb urine. Litters that are unsafe for rabbits include cedar or pine shavings, clumping litter, and clay litters.

It is important to clean the litter box often, not only to reduce the odor, but also for the health of your rabbit. The litter box should be completely emptied and disinfected at least once a week.

Diet

Rabbits are herbivores (plant eaters) with specialized feeding and digestive patterns. They are selective eaters and choose nutrient-rich leaves and new plant shoots over mature plant material that is higher in fiber. They have a high metabolic rate and only by selecting the most nutritious plant parts can they meet their requirements. A rabbit’s droppings are small, hard pellets. However, they also expel “soft droppings” and eat them as they are expelling them. These soft droppings provide microbial protein, vitamins, and other nutrients essential in rabbit nutrition.

Rabbits digest fiber poorly. A generous amount of fiber in the diet (at least 15% crude fiber) is needed to allow for proper digestion and reduce the chances of intestinal disease. Fiber may also absorb poisons produced by bacteria and get rid of them through the hard animal droppings. Diets low in fiber increase the chances of intestinal problems, such as enterotoxemia, which can cause severe diarrhea and even death. However, diets too high in fiber (greater than 20% crude fiber) may result in an increased chance of constipation and a type of diarrhea called mucoid enteritis. A proper balance between fiber and other dietary components is critical for the health of your pet.

A dietary supply of vitamins A, D, and E is necessary. Bacteria in the gut produce a combination of B vitamins and vitamin K in adequate quantities; thus, dietary supplements of these vitamins are usually unnecessary. Diets containing alfalfa meal generally provide sufficient vitamin A. Lack of vitamin A in the diet may cause abortion, litters that are absorbed back into the body thereby ending the pregnancy, and water on the brain of unborn fetuses. Vitamin E deficiency has been associated with infertility, muscular dystrophy (a gradual wasting and weakening of muscles), and fetal and newborn deaths. Disease and stress may increase daily vitamin requirements. High-quality commercially available pelleted diets for rabbits should contain the proper nutrients and should be stored in airtight containers under cool, dry conditions to make sure that vitamins are not destroyed.

Although the basic components of your pet’s diet (such as protein, fiber, fat, and energy) do not change, the amounts needed vary based on the life stage of the rabbit (such as growth, pregnancy, nursing, or maintenance), breed, condition, and lifestyle of the rabbit. Ratios should meet the nutrient requirements of the National Research Council (see Table: Nutrient Requirements of Rabbits).

Nutrient Requirements of Rabbits

Protein (%) Total

Protein (%) Digestible

Fat (%)

Fiber (%)

Maintenance

12

9

1.5 to 2

14 to 20

Growth

16

12

2 to 4

14 to 16

Pregnancy

15

11

2 to 3

14 to 16

Lactation (7 to 8 kits)

17

13

2.5 to 3.5

12 to 14

Pelleted rabbit feeds provide good nutrition at reasonable cost. Fresh, clean water should always be available. Rabbits fed hay (alfalfa or clover) and grain (corn, oats, or barley) should be provided with a trace mineral salt block. Prolonged intake of typical commercial diets containing alfalfa meal may lead to kidney damage and calcium carbonate deposits in the urinary tract. Lowering the calcium level to 0.4 to 0.5% of the diet for non-nursing rabbits helps reduce these problems. This can be done by feeding pelleted diets that have a timothy hay base. Adult pet rabbits not intended for breeding should be fed a high-fiber pelleted diet, restricted to ¼ cup per 5 pounds of body weight (60 milliliters per 2.3 kilograms body weight) per day to prevent obesity and maintain a healthy digestive system. Having hay available at all times is necessary to avoid hair balls and to maintain a healthy digestive tract.

Plants and Foods that are Harmful to Rabbits

Restricted for Dietary Reasons

Toxic

Alfalfa hay

Aloe

Fruits

Azalea

Turnip greens

Calla lily

Broccoli leaves

Lily of the valley

Mustard greens

Philodendron

Kale

Apple seeds

Collard greens

Raw beans

Spinach

Cabbage

Cauliflower

Corn

Rhubarb

Potato or peels

Chocolate

Raw beans

Rabbits are very efficient at converting poorly digestible materials into protein. Therefore, it is easy to overfeed or underfeed does and growing, adolescent rabbits. The amount to feed depends on the age of the adolescent rabbit or on the stage of pregnancy or lactation of the does. A general rule in feeding adolescents is to feed all that can be consumed in 20 hours, with the feed hopper empty about 4 hours per day. Does are usually allowed access to food at all times once they give birth to a litter. The general practice is to bring the doe from restricted to full feed slowly during the first week of nursing her young. Some plants are toxic to rabbits and should be avoided (see Table: Plants and Foods that are Harmful to Rabbits).

Exercise

Exercise is necessary for the health of your rabbit. A roomy cage that allows space to move around helps maintain both physical and emotional health. Allowing your rabbit some time each day to roam freely outside of its cage (under constant supervision) and providing it with a variety of toys and items on which to gnaw not only provides some exercise, but also helps to keep your pet from becoming bored.

Temperament

Rabbits are quiet, friendly, playful pets if treated correctly. They are social, but not all rabbits enjoy being handled. Before housing rabbits together, they should be carefully assessed for compatibility. Rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk.

When holding a rabbit, always support its hind end to prevent injury.

In general, small rabbits do not really like to be handled and tend to struggle if picked up. Usually, medium to larger rabbits are calmer and easier to handle. When picking up or holding a rabbit, its hind end and legs should always be supported to prevent injury to the back. Proper handling and restraint of your rabbit is important. Rabbits have powerful hind limbs, which can kick out and lead to broken backs if they are not held securely. Rabbits should never be held by the ears. They should be picked up by grasping the loose skin over the shoulders with one hand while placing the other hand under the rump to support the weight. Toenails on the rear limbs may severely scratch unprotected arms when holding a rabbit.

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