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The Complete Guide to Rabbits

By Cheryl Lock


From Peter Rabbit to The Velveteen Rabbit and oh-so-many more, an animal doesn’t become the subject of as many literary tales as the rabbit has without becoming oh-so-beloved in the process.


While it is true that rabbits make great pets, it’s also true that they take a lot of time, energy and commitment. Your bunny won’t be happy to just sit around in a cage all day, so if you’re interested in potentially taking one home, it’s worth putting in a little bit of research ahead of time to ensure that you and your entire family are properly prepared.


If you’re ready to take home a little rabbit to call your own, this guide will help you get started on the right foot.


Popular Pet Rabbit Breeds


Believe it or not, your Flopsy, Mopsy or Cottontail will be one of a variety of different breeds, most of which can also have “dwarf” or “mini” breed variations. Generally, smaller breeds of rabbit tend to be more skittish, while larger breeds are more docile. Within each breed, however, a rabbit’s demeanor can vary greatly and is often based on how each individual rabbit is handled and raised. Before deciding which type to bring home, consider the following characteristics of some common pet rabbit breeds:


  • The Lionhead: as its name suggests, you’ll know the Lionhead rabbit because of its wooly mane and long coat around its face. The Lionhead is a medium- to small-sized breed and is one the newer breeds recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association, said Kyle Donnelly, DVM, Exotics & Avian Medicine at the Animal Medical Center of New York City. Lionhead rabbits tend to be even tempered, although their longer coat must be brushed frequently to prevent fur mats from developing and to prevent the rabbit from ingesting too much hair while grooming, which lead to gastrointestinal stasis, Donnelly said, a common medical emergency in rabbits.
  • The Holland Lop: a medium- to large-sized rabbit (that also has a mini variation), the Holland Lop is originally from the Netherlands. The Holland Lop’s down-facing ears predispose them to ear infections, Donnelly said, so regular vet visits and monitoring for excessive scratching or a head tilt is important.
  • The Dutch Rabbit: a medium-sized rabbit, the Dutch rabbit is characteristically black and white, but different color variations have been bred over time. The Dutch rabbit’s particularly docile personality makes them a great choice for families with kids.
  • The Angora: originating from Turkey, the Angora was originally bred for its soft wool used in clothing. These days, the Angora’s soft coat is great for cuddling, although it is high maintenance and requires regular brushing and grooming to prevent mats and excessive hair ingestion, potentially leading to gastrointestinal stasis.
  • The English Spot: one of the oldest breeds of rabbit, the English Spot was first bred in England in the 1800s. Its glossy white fur with black spots gives it a distinctive look and, according to Donnelly, the breed can be curious and high-energy, depending on the individual rabbit.
  • The Flemish Giant: originally from Belgium, this rabbit has a calm personality and is the largest of all rabbit breeds. Unfortunately, they are predisposed to developing orthopedic and foot problems, so care must be taken to provide deep paper bedding and plenty of exercise out of the cage so that foot ulcers don’t develop, Donnelly said.


The Basics of Bunny Care


The first thing any potential rabbit owner should keep in mind is that some people can be highly allergic to rabbits, developing runny eyes, nose, or even anaphylactic reactions, so it’s worth getting your whole family checked out before purchasing one. Families with a history of pet allergies should consult their physicians about testing for allergies specifically to rabbits. Since some people are more allergic to some types of rabbits than others, as long as your physician says it’s okay, it may be prudent to expose all potentially allergic family members to the specific rabbit being considered before taking it home.


If you are getting a female rabbit, you will want to spay her at about six months of age, as over 70 percent of unspayed rabbits will likely develop uterine cancer after three years. “Female rabbits should be spayed to prevent uterine cancer and to decrease aggression,” Donnelly said. “Male rabbits can be neutered to prevent breeding or territory marking/spraying. Spay or neuter is especially important if you want to keep more than one rabbit in the same space.”


When determining whether or not to get one rabbit or two, you’ll want to keep in mind that both male and female rabbits can be aggressive towards each other, and you should speak with your veterinarian before deciding to bring home a second rabbit, Donnelly said.


With the proper care and attention to your rabbit’s diet and environment, most pet rabbits can live anywhere from eight to twelve years in captivity, can be litter-trained and are quite personable and social, Donnelly said. In fact, many people allow their rabbits to roam freely in their house when they are home, she said. “Of course, it’s important to supervise this activity, as chewing on baseboards and paint chips can lead to health issues ranging from gastrointestinal upset to lead poisoning.”


Other things to consider include:


  • Diet: your rabbit’s diet should consist primarily of grass-based hays and a small amount (about two tablespoons per day) of rabbit pellets. “Fresh greens are an important supplement to a rabbit’s diet and should include leafy greens such as romaine, green leaf and red leaf lettuces,” Donnelly said. Limit the darker greens like kale, collards or spinach, as these contain too much calcium and oxylates and may contribute to bladder stone formation. Also, avoid feeding excessive amounts of fruits and other sugar-containing foods, as those may contribute to dental disease and gastrointestinal disorders, Donnelly added.
  • Cage: whether it’s a home-built bunny condo, a large crate or a specialized rabbit cage, the size of your rabbit’s habitat should be determined by its size. Bigger is better (it should be least six-times the length of your stretched-out bunny), as you’ll want to make sure that your furry friend has room to run around, play and hide. Make sure your rabbit’s cage has solid or slatted plastic floors, and avoid wire-bottomed ones that cause ulcers to form on the bottom of their feet. Your rabbit will also require a water bottle or heavy bowl (rabbits are known for over-turning lighter bowls), a plastic litter box and a play house where he can hide out when he’s feeling particularly tired or shy.
  • Toys: most rabbits enjoy spending time with their people, so supervised playtime with your rabbit outside of its cage is recommended as often as possible. Rabbits love playing with almost any kind of toy, but should be given ones that are safe to hide in or chew on (like empty paper towel and toilet paper rolls). Rabbits can also play with hard, plastic cat toys that can’t easily be ingested and that can be rolled or tossed at them, or other toys that can be hung from their cage for reaching or swatting.
  • Handling: remember that rabbits can be skittish (especially if they are small), so you’ll need to handle your rabbit with care. Some rabbits don’t like to be held at all and would much prefer their freedom to roam around on their own, although a gentle pat or scratch from time-to-time is usually welcome. If you do pick up your bunny, be sure to hold it close to your body and support its hind end well, as rabbits like to kick and can easily break their backs if their back ends are not supported.


  • Grooming:  your rabbit shouldn’t need baths like other animals (in fact, baths should actually be avoided for the stress they may cause) as they are naturally very clean. They will need their nails trimmed at least every six weeks, however, and their coats should be brushed at least once a week (or more if he has long fur or is shedding a lot). Before attempting to trim your rabbit’s nails on your own, consult with your vet first for the proper technique, since nail trimming requires restraining your bunny and using special nail clippers, which could lead to bleeding if your rabbit’s nails are cut too close to the quick.


Image: Kelliekraft via Shutterstock 


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