New Zealand Rabbit

Catherine Gose, CVT
By Catherine Gose, CVT. Reviewed by Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP on Nov. 9, 2023
Red New Zealand rabbit

In This Article

General Care

Contrary to what the name suggests, New Zealand rabbits are not from New Zealand. This breed was developed in California in the early 1900s. While there is no consensus about where the name came from, it’s thought that these rabbits may have been bred from other bunnies imported from the New Zealand region.

The dominant color of New Zealand rabbits was originally red, but in 1917 a red doe produced a litter of white kits. White New Zealand rabbits quickly became the desired color.

New Zealand rabbits have a broad and muscular body, upright ears, and soft fur. The average weight of a New Zealand rabbit is 9–12 pounds, and they typically live an average of 5–8 years (or longer if spayed/neutered and housed indoors). The American Rabbit Breeders Association recognizes five New Zealand rabbit colors, including:

  • Red

  • Black

  • Blue

  • White

  • Broken

New Zealand rabbits are typically healthy, docile, and easier to handle than some smaller rabbit breeds.

Caring for a New Zealand Rabbit

As a larger breed, New Zealand rabbits need more space than other bunny breeds. Many commercial rabbit cages are too small to comfortably house a New Zealand rabbit, so many pet parents find themselves creating custom enclosures or hutches.

Your bunny’s house should be at least four times the rabbit’s stretched-out length, and multiple levels are appreciated to allow even more living space. The bigger the habitat, the better. Additionally, New Zealand rabbits need lots of time outside the cage for exercise and mental stimulation. Your New Zealand rabbit should be outside the hutch at least five hours a day to roam and play in a supervised and safe area.

New Zealand rabbits are comfortable living indoors or outdoors, provided outdoor enclosures are protected from the weather and secured against predators. Indoor rabbits typically live longer and stay healthier than bunnies kept outside because they are not exposed to environmental factors that can cause injury or disease.

New Zealand Rabbit Health Issues

These robust rabbits are overall hearty and healthy. But, like all rabbits, they are prone to a few health conditions.

Obesity

Because they were originally bred as a meat production animal, New Zealand rabbits grow quickly. As a result, they tend to gain weight easily. Monitoring their food intake is important to prevent obesity. Daily exercise is also key to keeping your New Zealand rabbit at a healthy body weight.

Gastrointestinal (GI) Stasis

A rabbit's digestive system contains beneficial bacteria that keep the digestive tract moving continuously. When there is an alteration in this normal bacterial population, the digestive tract can stop moving, a condition called GI stasis. GI stasis is a potentially life-threatening condition and requires immediate and often intensive veterinary treatment. Signs include a complete lack of appetite, lack of stool and cecotrope (night stool) production, and lethargy.

Parasites

Ear Mites: Ear mites are microscopic parasites that can infect a rabbit's ears, often causing copious ear discharge and crusting or flaking at the tips of the ears. This condition is very itchy, and the rabbit may cause injury to themselves as they scratch. Ear mites need to be identified by a veterinarian, who will examine a sample of the ear debris under a microscope. Once positively identified, the veterinarian can then prescribe medication to kill the mites and treat any resulting ear infection.

Cheyletiella: Also known as “walking dandruff,” Cheyletiella mites live on the rabbit’s skin. These mites can cause intense itching all over the rabbit's body, often resulting in infected sores or hair loss. Cheyletiella mites are identified microscopically and usually treated with a prescription topical anti-parasitic medication. Subsequent skin infections can be treated as well with oral antibiotics. Cheyletiella can spread rapidly from one rabbit to another and is transmissible to people.

Encephalazoon cuniculi (E. cuniculi): This is an intracellular parasite that can be very dangerous for a rabbit. It causes severe neurological issues and kidney damage. Signs of an E. cuniculi infection can include:

  • Lethargy

  • Lack of appetite and stool production

  • Head tilt

  • Seeming off balance or wobbly

  • Tremors or seizures

  • Partial paralysis

Treatment often involves hospitalization with fluid therapy injections, supplemental feedings, anti-inflammatory medications, and prescription dewormers. Rabbits can recover with early medical intervention; however, a rabbit showing advanced signs of the disease may not respond well to treatment and can have lasting neurological effects.           

Dental Problems

All rabbits tend to develop dental problems, and the New Zealand rabbit is no exception. Dental issues occur in part because a rabbit's teeth grow continuously throughout their lives at a rate of 3–4 inches per year. When rabbits do not get enough hay and chew toys to gnaw on, their teeth can overgrow, causing malocclusion, or misalignment of the upper and lower teeth.

Malocclusion can lead to sharp points on the teeth that may cause wounds in the mouth, such as lacerations to the tongue and ulcers on the inside of the cheeks. These wounds often become infected and form an abscess (pocket of infection) that can damage the tooth, tooth roots, and jawbone.

Dental malocclusion can cause your New Zealand rabbit to stop eating, drool, and paw at the mouth. In some cases, there may be visible swelling on the rabbit's face.

A veterinarian can treat dental malocclusion by sedating the rabbit and trimming or filing down the overgrown teeth. Dental X-rays can be taken and may show damage to the tooth roots or jawbone, in which case the offending teeth will need to be surgically extracted and the surrounding tissue debrided to remove all traces of infection.

To ensure your rabbit does not develop dental malocclusion, always provide plenty of hay and chew toys to help keep the teeth ground down. Avoid chew toys with artificial flavors or colors and for more natural options instead.

Sore Hocks

As one of the larger and heavier rabbit breeds, New Zealand bunnies can develop pododermatitis. The term generally refers to abrasions or wounds on the bottom of the feet and legs.

These are pressure sores that can develop in cages with wire floors or in unsanitary conditions. To prevent sores from developing, ensure your rabbit's cage is cleaned regularly, and choose an enclosure with an area that is smooth instead of all wire bottom. 

What To Feed a New Zealand Rabbit

Rabbits love to eat, and in the wild they forage continuously for food and ingest large amounts of fiber. A pet rabbit's diet should mimic a wild rabbit’s diet as much as possible in terms of fiber ingestion. To do this, provide an unlimited supply of fresh hay daily and a smaller amount of a variety of leafy and non-leafy vegetables to keep your rabbit happy and healthy.

Hay: High-fiber hay should make up at least 80% of a pet rabbit’s daily food intake. Rabbits need an unlimited supply, so offer a pile of fresh hay several times a day. Adult rabbits do well with Timothy hay, whereas younger rabbits or breeding does may require alfalfa hay, which is higher in calcium, fat, and protein.

Leafy Green Vegetables: Rabbits appreciate variety in their diet, so rotate the dark leafy greens you offer. Some greens such as kale, spinach, and parsley are higher in fat and calcium and should be fed sparingly to New Zealand rabbits to avoid obesity and bladder stone development.

Ensure that all vegetables are rinsed well and free of any pesticides or chemicals. On average, a pet rabbit should eat about 1 cup of dark leafy greens per 2–3 pounds of body weight daily. Some acceptable options to rotate into daily feeding are:

  • Romaine

  • Radish tops

  • Dandelion greens

  • Arugula

  • Endive

  • Radicchio

  • Carrot tops

  • Boston Bibb lettuce

  • Escarole

  • Bok choy

  • Fennel

  • Herbs: mint, cilantro, basil

Non-leafy Vegetables: Fresh vegetables like Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, and zucchini can be offered daily, but favorites like carrots and broccoli should only be offered one to two times a week. This is because carrots are high in carbohydrates and can lead to digestive upset, including gastrointestinal (GI) stasis and diarrhea. Broccoli is rich in calcium, which can sometimes contribute to the formation of bladder stones in rabbits. Most rabbits do well with 1 tablespoon of vegetables per 2 pounds of body weight daily.

Pellets: Pellets are an important supplemental part of a rabbit's diet. High-quality fortified pellets  provide minerals and nutrients that a pet rabbit needs to stay healthy. Feed pellets daily, at about ¼ cup of pellets per 4–5 pounds of your rabbit’s body weight.

Fruit: Fruit should be offered sparingly, as it is high in natural sugars. Too much fruit in a rabbit's diet can lead to obesity, GI stasis, and diarrhea, so offer no more than 1–2 tablespoons of fruit per 5 pounds of body weight once or twice a week.

Treats: New Zealand rabbits always like treats, but small animal treats often contain fat and sugar, as well as artificial flavors and dyes. Look for high fiber, low fat, more natural treat options, instead. While the occasional treat is OK, too many can lead to health issues like GI upset and obesity.

Water: Rabbits need fresh water every day. Some rabbits prefer to drink from a bowl, while others prefer a water bottle. It is best to offer both sources initially until your rabbit's preference is known.

New Zealand Rabbit Temperament and Behavior

New Zealand rabbits are known to be friendly and social, and their outgoing personalities make them overall easier to handle than the smaller, more skittish rabbit breeds. This breed is generally a good choice for families with children because they are laid-back and tolerant. However, loud noises or sudden movements may stress any bunny, so it is always best to supervise children with pet rabbits.

Because of their high social needs, New Zealand rabbits thrive best with lots of attention from their families or sometimes with the company of another rabbit. When a rabbit's social needs are not met, they may act out by struggling, biting, or scratching. Regular handling is important throughout any rabbit's life to keep them well socialized.

New Zealand rabbits are intelligent and can learn to play games, come when their name is called, and be trained to use a litter box. You can provide additional mental stimulation and exercise by using a treat ball to allow your rabbit to use their foraging instincts, or you can make homemade enrichment items like a cardboard box (no tape or glue) or an empty paper towel roll filled with hay and treats.

New Zealand Rabbit Grooming Guide

As a shorter-haired rabbit breed, New Zealand bunnies have low-maintenance grooming needs. Brushing them weekly is usually sufficient; however, more frequent brushing may be necessary when they experience their major sheds in the spring and fall.

Additionally, toenail trims are needed generally every four to six weeks, and it’s advisable to have your rabbit's veterinarian demonstrate how to safely perform this task.

Considerations for Pet Parents

One of the most important factors to consider before bringing a New Zealand rabbit home is the space you have available. Not only do they need a larger enclosure than smaller rabbits, but also they also need daily access to a large, rabbit-proofed play area where they can be supervised while getting exercise and releasing excess energy. Because of their size, they generally eat more and soil larger quantities of litter faster, leading to higher general costs for food and litter.

New Zealand bunnies are very social and do best with lots of attention and interaction with their family members. Many New Zealand rabbit parents find it beneficial to get a companion rabbit, as well. Be sure to introduce new bunnies to each other slowly and under supervision, as not all rabbits get along initially, and some bunnies never accept other rabbits.

New Zealand Rabbit FAQs

Is a New Zealand rabbit a good pet?

New Zealand rabbits are easygoing and docile, which generally makes them great family pets.

Are New Zealand rabbits hard to take care of?

They have minimal grooming needs, but the cost of food, litter, and toys can be higher because they are larger. New Zealand rabbits also need plenty of space and lots of attention to thrive and be happy.

Are New Zealand rabbits cuddly?

Yes! In fact, New Zealand rabbits generally tolerate being held better than smaller rabbit breeds and love to snuggle and cuddle with their family members.

Are New Zealand rabbits easy to train?

New Zealand rabbits are generally easy to train with a proper rewards system and plenty of practice.

Featured Image: aquatarkus/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images


Catherine Gose, CVT

WRITTEN BY

Catherine Gose, CVT

Veterinarian Technician


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