Are you thinking of adopting a rabbit but not quite sure how to take care of it? Rabbits can be housed in a modest living space, can be litter trained such as cats, do not require as much attention or training as a dog—and they are often available through shelters.
Rabbits need a housing structure with a private place to rest or sleep, an area for elimination, and a place for the food and water to stay clean. It should also be large enough for the pet to move around and get some exercise. Bedding such as non-cedar wood chips or straw provides a soft surface inside the structure. Some experts recommend a wire surface so that rabbit droppings can fall through to a collection pan mounted underneath. A litter pan that has a low side(s) filled with cat litter or wood chips may also work to train your rabbit to eliminate in only that part of his housing pen. The droppings should be cleaned daily from the rabbit enclosure.
Rabbits love a high dietary fiber. Timothy hay generally provides between 18 to 22% fiber and is often a better choice than alfalfa hay for pet rabbits. The hay should be the main food offered daily but can be supplemented with a small amount of alfalfa pellets. Rabbits also love a variety of vegetables in small quantities such as pieces of kale, several baby carrots, a slice of apple, a leaf of Romaine or Bibb lettuce, or a small piece of cabbage. Some rabbits may need a salt lick in the housing unit. They can drink from a water bowl but may prefer to drink from a hanging water bottle. Treats with sugar or carbohydrates are not good for rabbits because they can cause enterotoxemia, a condition where pathogenic bacteria overpopulate the intestine and cause toxins to poison the rabbit. To keep their teeth from overgrowing, rabbits need branches of aspen, willow or apple trees to chew on regularly.
Rabbits need to be brushed daily with a soft brush or combed gently to remove loose excess hair. If they ingest this loose hair when they self-groom they are more likely to develop hairballs leading to a digestive problem in which they are unable to eliminate. Papaya tablets that contain an enzyme to help digest hair clumps are available at pet stores and health food stores. It is a recommended supplement to be given on a daily basis. The high fiber Timothy hay also helps keep the digestive tract moving and prevents hairballs from causing intestinal blockage. Nails will need to be trimmed on a regular basis so that they do not break off painfully and bleed. If a wire floor is used in the housing pen, it is especially important to keep the nails cut short so that the rabbit can walk over the wire surface easily.
Rabbits enjoy gentle handling and benefit from attention. They need to be lifted gently and supported in order for them to feel secure when held. Since rabbits can break their spinal bones quite easily, they should be returned into the enclosure facing backwards to avoid a sudden leap from your arms. They are curious and like to explore their environment. Giving your pet rabbit some freedom to explore in your house provides exercise and mental stimulation, but watch for hazards such as electrical cords, open stairs, poisonous plants, non-edible things that could be ingested, or other pets that might injure him. Some owners like to purchase a rabbit halter and take their pet outside for little romps in the yard to get some fresh air.
We enjoy seeing our rabbit clients at Acton Animal Hospital and are always happy to answer any questions concerning their healthcare.
Karen Geissert, D.V.M., is the owner of Acton Animal Hospital and a member of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medicine Association and American Veterinary Medical Association.