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Rabbits make wonderful, intelligent, friendly and quiet house pets. The average life span for a bunny is 7 years with records being reported up to 15 years of age. Rabbits are not solitary animals, but are very cuddly and friendly and need interaction with humans, or other rabbits, to relieve boredom and depression. If you are planning to include a rabbit in your household, remember that he or she will need lots of daily TLC from you and your family. Consider their lifespan, gentle nature and care requirements when choosing one as a pet for you or your family.
A rabbit's diet is key to his or her long-term good health. The basic components of a balanced diet include pellets, hay and fresh foods. You may want to consult a veterinarian if your bunny has special dietary needs.
A good quality rabbit pellet should be offered daily. Closely monitoring the quantity is key:
Hay is an essential part of your rabbit's diet, and should be available at all times for constant grazing. The fibre in hay is extremely important in promoting normal digestion and in preventing gastro-intestinal stasis (GIS). Hay contains proteins and other nutrients essential your pet's good health.
We prefer the loose, long strands of hay as opposed to the pressed cubes. Research of hay products has shown that some hay is superior to others. Try to buy 1st or 2nd cut hay products (i.e. the first grown and cut crop of the season), as they are richer in nutrients and have a superior overall quality. The kinds of hay available on the market are:
Timothy or Grass Hay: should be offered daily in unlimited amounts. This hay is usually 30% fibre and 10% protein.
Oat hay: very similar in nutrient value to timothy hay. You can interchange oat and timothy hay to provide some variety in your rabbit's diet.
Alfalfa Hay: We no longer recommend the use of alfalfa hay, as it is be too high in calcium and carbohydrates, and may lead to serious health problems.
We like bunnies to get greens and lots of them. Start feeding your rabbit these foods at a young age so that he or she can become accustomed to digesting them. Even baby bunnies of 6-8 weeks old can be offered vegetables. Start with one vegetable at a time, adding something new once the first food has been successfully introduced (i.e., it does not cause diarrhea or any other digestive upset). Continue to add foods one at a time, and slowly, in order to be able to identify any your pet might not tolerate.
Fresh water should always be available, and changed daily. A dirty water container can breed bacteria that cause disease. Do not use medications or vitamins in the water, as your pet may not drink if the taste or colour is altered. If your rabbit eats a large salad daily, you may notice he drinks very little. Continue to offer fresh water regardless.
These are not necessary if your rabbit is on a healthy diet. In fact, the indiscriminate use of vitamins may lead to over dosage and serious disease.
Salt or Mineral Block
These are not necessary for a house pet on the described diet.
You may want to have one available for rabbits kept outdoors in warm climates and for breeding animals.
It may seem strange to list this as a part of the diet, but these "special droppings" are an essential part of your pet's nutrition. You may observe your pet licking the anal area and actually eating some of his droppings. They are softer and greener than the normal hard, round waste droppings and are called cecal pellets.
These stool come from the cecum, which is part of the intestines where fermentation of food takes place, and they are rich in vitamins and nutrients that are needed by your pet to maintain good health. Your rabbit will re-digest the material and extract all the necessary nutrients. This habit may appear distasteful to us, but it is normal and important for your pet.
Occasionally a rabbit will drop these cecal pellets along with the waste pellets instead of eating them. They will be soft, but formed and have an odour. This is not considered diarrhea, and if it only occurs occasionally, it is not considered a disease problem.
Facts and Fallacies about Treat Foods
Pet stores sell a selection of rabbit treats, which are described as "perfect for your pet rabbit". We do not recommend any of these treats as none confer an advantage over a diet of pellets, hay and fresh greens.
There are nutritional reasons for not choosing commercially available treat foods. Most importantly is your rabbit's long-term health. Many of these foods provide excess amounts of fats and starches.
Foods high in fat are only important for wintering animals. Your house rabbit has no such need; in fact, the National Research Council recommends that domestic rabbits receive no more than 1.5% of their calories from fat (in comparison, the average human diet contains 30-40% fat). Rabbit metabolism is geared for a low fat diet and the excess is not burned but is stored as body fat. Rabbits appear to be more sensitive to fat than are humans, and in addition to obesity, the excess fat can accumulate in your rabbit's liver and arteries (atherosclerosis). Veterinarians have reported that rabbits fed seed-rich diets have a much higher incidence of fatty liver disease (hepatic steatosis), which is often fatal.
Seeds and grains are also rich in starches. While some of this starch is digested in the small intestine, much of it is not accessible until it reaches the cecum. There it becomes a potent energy form for the cecal bacteria; unlike cellulose fibre, which slows fermentation, starch in the cecum is fermented rapidly and can lead to bacterial overgrowth, bloat, and GI stasis.
Varieties of 'treat' foods you might encounter include:
Cage or Living Area
Some people confine their bunnies to a cage while they are not at home, others use gated off areas (or corrals) while still others designate entire rooms for their rabbits to roam in freely. The decision is a personal one, and depends on what living arrangements work best for all concerned. Our philosophy on cages is: the bigger the better. Whatever your choice, your rabbits living enclosure must address the following concerns:
Cleaning and substrate choices
The easier your rabbit's living space is to clean the better since we recommend daily cleaning of the cage substrate and all food bowls.
Cage bottoms should be made of non-porous plastic. Avoid wood, glass, wire or other chewable materials. We do not recommend any kind of mesh or wire flooring due to the serious risk of sore hocks and abrasions. Your rabbit needs a non-skid area that is soft for his hocks, where he can rest comfortably. Towels, blankets or pieces of carpet/throw rugs that can be easily washed work well. We recommend using the area in and around his or her hiding box as the "softer" surface area, as bunnies most often relax in these areas.
Corrals made of stainless steel can be placed over ceramic, linoleum, cement or hardwood floors. Protect your floors with brown, white or newspaper that can be removed daily along with his or her stool and leftover uneaten foods. If you do not cover your floor area, your floor may become stained from your rabbit's urine.
We do not recommend covering your rabbit's floor with bedding such as pine shavings or corncob. Cedar shavings especially, but also pine can cause liver disease in small animals. They also can irritate your rabbit's eyes and respiratory tract. In addition, this increases the risk that your bunny accidentally ingests bits of his or her bedding when eating fresh foods. Bedding materials such as recycled newsprint or pine shavings can be used in his or her litter box.
All dishes should be impermeable to water and easy to clean. Hard plastic, stainless steel or heavy ceramic bowls are ideal. Water can be provided via a water bottle or heavy bowl that is weighted or secured to the side of the cage so that it does not tip over. Beware of residue on the inside of water bottles- scrub them or run them through a dishwasher daily. Pellets and veggies can be offered in a bowl or plate. Hay can be spread on a clean area of the floor or offered in a wire basket that attaches to the side of the enclosure.
Rabbits can be nervous by nature, and may jump or panic if startled. They feel much more secure if provided with a place to hide. This can be easily accomplished by providing a cardboard box within the enclosure, with one side open, and all the other sides closed. Another solution is to provide your pet with a "hammock style" roof by threading a towel through half of his cage, so he can easily hide underneath it. This is an ideal spot to provide a softer floor surface.
Temperature, humidity and air circulation
Rabbits should be kept in the coolest and least humid area of the house. Studies have shown that bunnies kept in warm, humid environments with poor air circulation had a dramatic increase in the incidence of respiratory disease over those animals kept in cool, dry environments with good air circulation. Damp basements are one of the worst areas to keep your pet. For these reasons, we never recommend using an aquarium or other enclosure with only one side open for air circulation.
The optimum temperature range for a bunny is 60°-70°F (16- 21°C). When the temperature rises to the mid 70's (over 21°C), we start to see an increase in drooling and nasal discharge. If temperatures reach the upper 80's (26° C) and beyond, and especially if the humidity is high, the potential for fatal heat stroke is very real. On very hot days, if air conditioning is not available, it is helpful to use a fan for air circulation, and to leave a plastic milk jug or pop bottle filled with frozen water in the cage as a portable "air conditioner." Cool ceramic tiles can be placed in your rabbit's enclosure to lie on. Keep fresh, cool water available at all times, as this will also help to keep the body temperature down. Brushing your rabbit to remove excess hair can also help to keep him or her cool.
If your bunny is kept outdoors, make sure that part of the cage is appropriately sheltered for either hot or cold. For the winter it is advisable to use straw bedding in the sheltered area for insulation and make sure that the water bowl is changed daily as your pet can dehydrate rapidly if the water is frozen even for one day. On hot days, the same enclosure will be too stifling for your bunny, where he will need a cool, shady and breezy place to stay. Modify the enclosure accordingly.
In summer, make sure that the grass has not been sprayed with pesticides or fertilizers. Under no circumstances should rabbits be left outside after dark in unprotected enclosures. Predators are often raccoons, skunks, dogs and occasionally cats. If you have an outside enclosure that you feel is very secure, a rabbit can still die of fright while a predator taunts the rabbit from outside.
In order to remain healthy, all rabbits, like us, need to stretch and move. Daily exercise of 3-4 hours is recommended to ensure favourable digestion, good muscle development, prevention of obesity and boredom, and just overall good health. You can provide exercise for your bunny simply by letting him or her out of their cage for a while every morning and evening, under your supervision. If you are not able to supervise your rabbit, seriously consider a bunny-proofed room for him or her to live in.
Rabbits can be litter box trained relatively easily. By nature, rabbits choose one or a few places (usually corners) to deposit their urine and most of their pills. Urine training involves little more than putting a litter box where the rabbit chooses to go. Pill training requires only that you give them a place they know will not be invaded by others. Here are some additional suggestions:
Older rabbits are easier to train than younger rabbits, especially babies. A rabbit's attention span and knack for learning increase as he grows up. If you have a baby, stick with it! And if you are deciding whether to adopt an older rabbit, or litter train your older rabbit, go for it!
When rabbits reach the age of 4-6 months, their hormones become active and they usually begin marking their territory. By spaying or neutering your rabbit, he will be more likely to use his litter box.
Types of litter
The House Rabbit Society recommends organic litters, made from alfalfa, oat, citrus or paper (Care Fresh, CitraFresh, Cat Works, Cat Country, Critter Country, Yesterday's news). Stay away from litters made from pine or cedar shavings or chips, as these products are thought to cause liver damage in rabbits.
Cleaning and Disposal
Clean litter boxes often, to encourage your rabbit to use them. Accidents outside of the cage can be cleaned up with white vinegar or club soda.
All rabbits will drop pills around their cages to mark it as their own. Place the box in the corner of the cage that he uses mostly as his toilet. With a litter box in the cage, when the rabbit is confined to his cage, cage time is learning time. It is very important for your rabbit to identify the cage as his property so that when he leaves the cage for the bigger world of your house, he will distinguish the family's area from his own and avoid marking it. To encourage this, make the rabbit the king of his cage. Try not to force him in or out of it: coax him. Do not do things to his cage that he doesn't like, or to him that he doesn't like while he's in his cage.
The running space
Even if your goal is to let your rabbit have full run of the house, start small. Start with a cage and a small running space, and when your rabbit is sufficiently well trained in that space, gradually give her more space. But do so gradually! If you overwhelm her with too much freedom before she's ready, she will forget where her litter box is and will lose her good habits.
Start with a litter box in the cage, and one or more boxes in the rabbit's running space. If she urinates in a corner of the cage not containing the box, move the box to that corner until she gets it right. Don't be concerned if your bunny curls up in her litter box - this is natural. Once she's using the box in the cage, open her door and allow her into her running space. Watch her go in and out on her own. Provide litter boxes within view. If she heads to a corner where there's no box, or lifts up her tail in the characteristic fashion, cry "no" in a single, sharp burst of sound. Gently herd her back to her cage and her litter box, or into one of the boxes in the room. Be careful, however. You don't want to make the cage -or the litter box- seem like punishment. After she first uses the box, praise her and give her favourite treat.
Once she uses the box in her room a couple of times, you're well on your way, as her habits will be on their way to forming. As she gets better trained in her first room, you can increase her space. Don't hurry this process. And if the area becomes very big, or includes a second floor, be sure to include more litter boxes, so as not to confuse her. As she becomes more confident and uses fewer boxes, you can start to remove some of her early, "training" boxes. Rabbits are very habitual and once a routine is established, they usually prefer to stick with it.
Some rabbits love to kick their litter out of the box. You can get a covered litter box (with a hood) to help solve this problem. You can also try experimenting with different litters. A second problem is that rabbits often back up so far in the litter box that the urine goes over the edge. Again, a covered litter box can solve this problem. Another solution would be to get a dishpan or other type of tub with much higher sides. Still another solution would be to get a "urine guard" to place around the back of the cage, to keep the litter from spraying outside of the cage.
If your rabbit continually urinates in a spot where there is no litter box, put his box where he will use it. It is much easier to oblige him than to try to work against a determined bunny!
Rabbit proofing one's home involves three things:
Preventing rabbits from chewing on electrical cords is of utmost importance, since rabbits can be badly burned or electrocuted. The consequences of biting into an electric wire are too severe to risk relying on training alone. Instead, you must take action to keep the cords safely out of reach. Try:
Most houseplants are toxic. Putting them on high furniture may not keep a rabbit away. Hang them from the ceiling if you have an active bunny, but watch for falling leaves! If you are unsure which plants may be toxic, the House Rabbit Handbook (Drollery Press) has a complete list of poisonous plants (indoors and outdoors), as do two back issues of House Rabbit Journal. http://www.allearssac.org/pdf/poison.pdf
If a rabbit insists on chewing baseboards or edges of chairs, a board can be put over the places of temptation, making them inaccessible while also providing an acceptable chewing surface. This method should be combined with training your rabbit not to chew on these items.
Upholstered furniture and beds that are several inches off the ground are wonderful places for rabbits to hide underneath. However, some bunnies will burrow up into the soft underside and make a nest. A flat cardboard box or frame of 2 x 4s, smaller than the area of the future base, will keep the rabbit out, and won't be seen from human level.
Rabbits chew to exercise their minds, not just their teeth. Provide lots of entertaining alternatives for your bun to chew on by reviewing the section on toys below.
Without challenging activities to occupy your rabbit when you're not home, your rabbit, especially a solitary rabbit, will get bored. This could lead to depression and/or excessive destruction. The creative use of toys can extend your rabbit's life by keeping him interested in his surroundings, by giving him the freedom to interact with those surroundings, and by allowing him to constantly learn and grow.
Your rabbit needs safe activities to keep her body in shape as well as her mind. She needs things to climb on, crawl under, hop on and around, dig into and chew on. Without outlets for these physical needs, your rabbit may become fat or depressed, or may begin jumping, chewing, or crawling on your furniture.
Bunny proofing Toys are not just for your rabbit, they also keep your house safe. By providing your rabbit with a selection of toys chosen to meet her age, sex, reproductive status and temperament, you have fulfilled most of the requirements of bunny-proofing your home. Some good toys to start with:
Heat stroke is a serious condition caused by overheating. Be aware for the signs of heatstroke that include lethargy, panting or salivating, listlessness and ultimately convulsions. Should your bunny exhibit any of these symptoms call your vet immediately.
You can try to cool your bunny by misting or holding an ice cube to her ear, moving her to a cooler part of your home, or gently wetting your pet with cool (not cold) water while awaiting veterinary attention. In warm weather it is prudent to offer cooling solutions at all times for your rabbit.
Symptoms of overgrown teeth include drooling, inability to eat, lethargy, decreased stool production, excessive drinking, and eventually death from starvation.
The cause? Rabbit's teeth grow constantly throughout their life and if they are not lined up properly, they will not wear down evenly, leaving small but long and pointy portions that will rub against the gum or tongue, causing mouth infections, ulcerations and the inability to pick up and eat food. Overgrown incisors (the front teeth) or molars (the back teeth) are usually caused by congenital defect. Other causes can be injury or trauma to the roots of these teeth.
These dental overgrowths must be cut periodically (anywhere from every 3-12 weeks). This procedure must happen before or as soon as the symptoms occur. If you cannot immediately reach a veterinarian, feed you rabbit soft and cut up food directly in his mouth.
A permanent cure to overgrown incisors is the removal of the incisors entirely under general anaesthesia. Rabbits are able to eat normally afterwards. Molars cannot be easily removed surgically.
Sore hocks is a condition where the fur becomes rubbed off the bottom of the long portion of your rabbit's feet, exposing the skin. This unprotected skin eventually becomes red and sore and can ulcerate and make scabbed wounds. Treatment involves bandaging the affected areas, sometimes coupled with antibiotic therapy. Long-term treatment and prevention involve a review of your rabbit's environment to ensure appropriate floor covering along with attention paid to activity level and weight.
Gastro-intestinal (GI) stasis and "hairballs"
Fibre in a rabbit's diet is responsible for proper gastro-intestinal motility (contractions of the stomach and intestine which move food down the system). Any factor that contributes to decreasing the proportion of fibre in the stomach or intestines will cause gastro-intestinal stasis (GIS). Excessive ingestion of fur is one of these factors.
Rabbit digestion is relatively slow and ingested material can remain in the stomach for up to 3 days. When your bunny licks himself, he swallows fur (in especially large amounts during spring and fall sheds). Rabbit fur is very fine and will accumulate in the stomach. This is normal but, sometimes, when the fur is not mixed with sufficient fibre and fluid, it can form a pasty clump in the stomach. Rabbits do not have the ability to vomit, and so cannot bring up their stomach contents. If enough of this pasty clump accumulates, the stomach motility will slow down. The bunny feels his stomach is full and he will stop eating; this further slows digestion, which will eventually slowly stop. Initially the stools may appear clumped or they may be linked together with strands of fur. Eventually the stool becomes smaller and smaller until they are not produced altogether.
Your pet MAY still appear active, alert and lively for up to the first week of this condition, even if he is not eating. Don't be deceived: he has a serious condition and you should seek medical attention immediately. If tended to early, your pet can be treated medically and the condition resolved with a combination of force feedings, fluids and supportive medications. If the condition is allowed to progress, long hospital stays and occasionally surgery will be necessary to alleviate the problem.
This condition can be fatal to a bunny so seek help early on. The best prevention of gastro-intestinal stasis is a diet high in fibre, 3-4 hours of daily exercise and daily brushing (especially during shedding periods) with a wire "slicker" type brush.
Other factors that can contribute to gastro-intestinal slowing include dental malocclusion (thus reduced food consumption), heat stroke, anti-biotic treatment, and surgery, pain and dietary changes.
The great majority of bunnies harbour a bacterium in their sinuses called Pasteurella multocida. This bacterium doesn't cause a problem in most rabbits with a healthy immune system. However, under certain stress situations, (poor diet, high environmental temperatures, overcrowding) this bacterium can reproduce rapidly and cause a potentially serious disease.
Pasteurella may cause infections of the upper respiratory tract, uterus, kidney, bladder, middle ear or lungs. Please have your pet examined if you observe any discharge around the eyes, nose or anal area, or if there is a loss of appetite, depression, diarrhea, head tilt, loss of balance, or laboured breathing. Aggressive and carefully monitored anti-biotic therapy is required to treat this condition so do not wait to contact your veterinarian.
Antibiotics can be fatal for rabbits. Never attempt to use antibiotics without veterinary supervision. Your pet's gastrointestinal tract is an extremely delicate organ, dependent on large populations of healthy bacteria to digest food. If antibiotics are given indiscriminately, death may result from lack of growth of normal bacteria in the gut and overgrowth of deadly bacteria.
Ringworm (Trichophyton mentagrophytes) is a fungal infection that results in hair loss and dry itchy skin, often seen in round patches on your pet rabbit. Confirmation of the fungus is made via culturing the fur and skin where the lesions are present. Treatment with oral anti-fungal medications along with a thorough cleaning of the environment is necessary. Ringworm can be contagious between rabbits and immune suppressed individuals; as such it is prudent to contact your veterinarian immediately when you observe hair loss on your rabbit.
Your rabbit may have internal parasites but not show any signs of infection. The most common parasite found in young bunnies is coccidia, which can cause diarrhea. Coupled with high stress conditions or other disease, this parasite can debilitate your rabbit, mainly through dehydration. We recommend a routine parasitology when you first have your rabbit examined to exclude all species of internal parasites, as detection and treatment is easily administered.