Although rabbits are adorable, pint-sized and fluffy, caring for bunnies as pets takes a lot of work.
“Rabbits undoubtedly make wonderful pets, but they do require as much or more care than cats or dogs,” says Dr. Susan Horton, DVM, president of Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital.
Dr. Horton explains that rabbits have complex needs when it comes to their environment, nutrition and general care. She says that anyone who is interested in introducing a rabbit to their household should do plenty of research first.
Unfortunately, giving a rabbit on Easter tends to be fairly common, and most of these rabbits end up homeless or worse, says Dr. Horton.
Here are some things you need to consider before adopting bunnies as pets.
Rabbits Don’t Like to Be Held
Rabbits are terrestrial animals, which means they are most comfortable on the ground, says Dr. Horton. “Being lifted out of their comfort zone is very stressful,” she adds, and “being lifted in an insecure manner can trigger panic in your rabbit. They have fragile legs and backs that break easily without the right holding technique.”
In fact, the best-case scenario is for rabbits to be held only by trained individuals who can prevent them from hurting themselves if and when they try to return to the ground.
If you’d like to hold your rabbit at home, try sitting on the ground to build trust with your rabbit on his own level. Always support the hind end when holding and discuss with a veterinarian the correct way to hold and handle the rabbit prior to adopting.
Rabbits Require Lots of Space
Healthy rabbits that are properly cared for can live 10-12 years, and while most are traditionally small in size, a rabbit actually requires a lot of space.
“You’ll often hear rabbits called ‘pocket pets,’ which implies that they can be kept in a small cage and are not difficult to maintain,” says Dana Krempels, PhD, president of H.A.R.E., Inc. (Houserabbit Adoption, Rescue, and Education, Inc.). “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
“Rabbits do not just live in cages but require a large pen or room,” explains Dr. Horton. “This area will, at times, be filled with hay and destruction as the rabbit goes about its normal daily routine of digging, chewing, playing and eating.”
You May Need to Litter Train Your Rabbit
As far as litter boxes go, rabbits can be trained to use one in the same way a cat would, but you should keep in mind that these animals are very fastidious. That means you’ll need to keep their litter box area as clean as possible to keep them happily using it.
Rabbits Have a Chewing Habit
Also because of their excessive chewing habit, special care should be given to rabbit-proofing their living quarters, as well. “Electric cords, for example, are particularly dangerous and need to be guarded against their teeth,” says Dr. Horton.
Rabbits Have Strict Dietary Needs
Caring for bunnies as pets means paying particular attention to their diet. Feeding the wrong type of hays in the wrong amounts at the wrong ages can cause major digestion issues and can even be fatal for rabbits. It can lead to GI stasis, which is a common and concerning issue in rabbits.
“Rabbits are strict vegetarians,” says Dr. Horton. “Their main diet is grass hay, specifically timothy or orchard. As young rabbits, alfalfa is also part of their diet. Rabbit pellets can be fed while growing or nursing but otherwise are allowed as treats or for training.”
She adds that salad greens also play a big part in a balanced diet for rabbits. Dr. Horton says, “An adult rabbit may take 4-6 cups of healthy salad daily.”
Diarrhea can also occur with overindulgence in fruit. In fact, “Improper gastrointestinal tract function or health is common in rabbits fed improperly,” Dr. Horton adds. “This can lead to serious consequences, or even death, if not attended to immediately.”
Stick to a strict herbivore diet of unlimited timothy or orchard hay, small amounts of high-quality pellets and a daily ration of mixed greens, including dark green lettuces, kale, parsley, cilantro, mint, dill, basil and fennel, for optimal health, suggests Dr. Krempels.
Rabbits Sleep During the Day
Rabbits are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) with periods of activity all throughout the night. They prefer taking long naps during the day, so you shouldn’t expect your rabbit to be too much company during your waking hours.
When they are awake, though, rabbits are very smart and interactive. “You should expect to have a good three to four hours of interaction with them daily,” says Dr. Horton.
Your Rabbit May Want a Companion
Rabbits also tend to do best in male/female pairs, Dr. Horton adds, but not all rabbits bond well. “Working with a rabbit shelter that’s well-versed in pair-bonding can help find your rabbit the perfect companion.”
Rabbits Have Unique Grooming Needs
Rabbits—especially long-haired ones—need to be brushed, since their fur can easily become matted. But, you should never give your rabbit a bath. “This can be so stressful to the rabbit that it may suffer cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Horton.
It is important to clean your rabbit’s ears, however, especially if he’s lop-eared. “To clean a rabbit’s ears, use a cleaning solution prescribed by your veterinarian that is safe for rabbits,” says Dr. Horton.
This solution should always be room temperature or a little warmer. Instill enough fluid into the ear to fill the canal, and then gently massage the ear to loosen debris.
“Allow your rabbit to shake the liquid out of the ear,” Dr. Horton says. “Swab what remains with a cotton ball.” Cotton swabs should never be used, as these can cause damage to the ear canal or eardrum if used incorrectly.
For more intense cleaning needs, see your veterinarian.
Rabbits Can Get Stressed Easily
Stress is actually a big issue with rabbits, and all new things should be introduced slowly. “If something is too alarming or stressful, it should be removed,” says Dr. Horton.
To understand if an item is stressful to your rabbit, introduce it in a mindful way. “If the item is no problem, the rabbit will respond with curiosity and interest,” says Dr. Horton. If the item causes your rabbit stress, he may thump his foot or hide.
Rabbits Require Veterinary Care, Just Like a Dog or Cat
While rabbits do require at least yearly veterinary care, most veterinarians don’t see rabbits. You’ll need to find an exotic or small animal veterinarian to treat your pet rabbit.
“Veterinarians who examine rabbits go through special training and mentorship in order to properly care for this species,” says Dr. Horton. “Not every veterinarian is trained for rabbits, so research to find an appropriate veterinarian should occur beforehand.”
It’s also extremely important to get your rabbit spayed or neutered, just as you would a dog. “Female rabbits have a very high incidence of uterine cancer if not spayed,” says Dr. Krempels.
With so much to keep in mind when it comes to caring for bunnies as pets, it’s never a good idea to get one as a surprise gift.
“The truth is that no pet should be given as a gift to someone who isn’t prepared,” says Dr. Horton. “Respecting the animal you have chosen to live with is part of pet ownership.”
You need to be prepared for the responsibility of the care and well-being of that pet for their entire life.
By: Cheryl Lock
Featured Image: iStock.com/FatCamera