Rabbit = Good Friend
Why pet rabbits are great, and how to take care of them
Anyone who knows me (or just looks at the icon of this blog) knows that I am a big fan of pet rabbits! Actually I’m a big fan of cats and dogs too, but rabbits are rarer, so I’m trying to spread the word about how good they are. (Followers of my old blog will recognize that this is an update of a post from there!)
Anyway, rabbits make great friends. Unfortunately, they’re not as popular of a pet as they ought to be, thanks to two big misconceptions. Let's start out by busting these myths.
Myth #1: Rabbits can't be litter trained.
In fact, most rabbits are really easy to litter-train, with one simple trick. Just put the litter box next to the hay feeder, and they will litter-train themselves!
Here's my setup:
There are a few exceptions, just like with cats, but in general this isn't something you have to worry about.
Myth #2: Rabbits aren't affectionate.
This really does depend on the rabbit. Some are extremely affectionate, and will hug and cuddle you. Some don't like humans that much.
Similar to cats, really. Quiet, clumsy, vegan cats.
Once people realize that rabbits can easily be litter trained and are often affectionate, they become much more favorable to the idea of rabbits as pets. But that still leaves the question of why you might want a rabbit, as opposed to a cat or a dog. Here are some of what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of having rabbits as pets, as compared to dogs or cats.
Advantage #1: They aren't loud.
Rabbits make almost no vocal noises, apart from very occasional extremely soft grunts. The only noises they make are A) chewing, and B) stomping (but only very occasionally). This means they're much quieter than a dog or cat.
Advantage #2: They aren't stinky.
Rabbits themselves are clean and nice-smelling. Rabbit poop is usually odorless, unlike cat or dog poop (occasionally I'll feed my rabbits some vegetable that will make their poop smell a little bit funky for a couple minutes but this is very rare). Also, rabbit food is not stinky like cat food or dog food, and their breath never smells bad. Rabbit pee does smell (similar to cat pee), but if you use the right litter, it will absorb all the smell. The only smell your house will acquire from keeping rabbits is the smell of hay, which is the main thing rabbits eat.
Advantage #3: Their fur is very soft.
Rabbit fur is softer than dog or cat fur, and often much softer. BUT...
Disadvantage #1: They chew things.
Cats scratch stuff, and rabbits chew stuff. The main thing that's at risk is your power cords, so having rabbits requires either A) confining the rabbits in a pen or rabbit room when they're not under supervision, or B) rabbit-proofing your cords. A few rabbits are really bad and will chew baseboards and carpets; these rabbits will have to be confined to a pen most of the time. Most can be taught not to do this, though. Rabbits will also tend to chew leather furniture.
Disadvantage #2: They only live 10-12 years.
This is a little bit shorter than a dog and considerably shorter than a cat. The very big rabbits live even shorter - maybe 7-8 years.
Disadvantage #3: They have fragile digestive systems.
Rabbits can quickly become constipated and die (we'll learn more about how to prevent/treat this later). This means you can't leave them alone for more than a day, unlike cats who can generally be left alone for a couple days.
Disadvantage #4: They are a little expensive.
Rabbits require frequent litter changes, a variety of food, and LOTS of hay. This makes them a bit expensive. I spend a total of about $200 per month on my 2 large rabbits, not counting the cost of boarding/sitters and veterinary care.
Go meet some rabbits!
If you want to see if rabbits are right for you, you can try volunteering at your local rabbit rescue. Just google "rabbit rescue", find one near you, and give them a call. You'll get a chance to take care of rabbits and play with them a bit, and see what they’re like! That's how I ended up with pet rabbits, when before I had only had cats, dogs, and small pets like hamsters and fish. Note: You should always get a pet rabbit at a rescue or a shelter if possible.
OK, so if after having read all of this you're considering a pet rabbit, here are my thoughts on how to take care of them. WARNING: Every rabbit keeper will, in general, have different ideas about how to take care of rabbits. In fact, vigorously disagreeing over the particulars of rabbit care seems to be a favorite pastime of rabbit keepers. So be warned, there are going to be some rabbit people who angrily swear that I'm all wrong about this point or that point. And this would be true no matter what I write. There is no universal consensus on the exact right way to take care of rabbits. I'll try to highlight what the more hotly contested points are.
That having been said, without further ado:
How to Take Care of Rabbits
1. Where to keep a rabbit
Do NOT keep your rabbit in a cage! Rabbits need more space than that. There are basically three choices for where to keep a rabbit: Free roaming, in a pen, or in a rabbit room.
Wherever you keep your rabbit, you'll need a hay feeder and a litterbox next to it. For litter, I use a layer of Purina cat litter on the bottom to absorb pee, and a top layer of Carefresh Natural soft litter so the rabbits' feet are comfy. Also, rabbits like to hide in caves, so make sure that you have some place for them to hide -- a cardboard box, under a bed, etc.
Here are the three basic rabbit arrangements that I think are OK:
A) Free roaming: A free roaming rabbit just runs around your house like a cat. My rabbits are free roaming. I have a pen area with hay in it, but I never close it off -- it's just so the rabbits have some area they feel like is "their" territory. But they can go anywhere they want, just like a cat. If you do this, you must rabbit-proof your house (we'll talk more about this later). You can also put up a fence around the hay/litter area but leave it open to give the rabbit a sense of their own "territory".
Mine also love to go under my bed!
B) Pen: You can keep your rabbit in an "exercise pen":
But despite the name, this sort of pen doesn't give rabbits enough room to exercise. You have to let the rabbit(s) out for 2 or more hours per day to get proper exercise. If you have stuff that's vulnerable to chewing, such as exposed power cords, you'll need to supervise the rabbit during this time.
C) Rabbit room: If you have a spare bedroom, you can give it to your rabbit(s). You can put up a fence at the entrance so the rabbits don't have to be shut behind a closed door all the time.
Rabbits like to chew electrical cords. This is dangerous for the rabbit and for your house. One way to protect your cords is to put them behind a fenced-off area:
Another way is to put cord covers on your cords. Thick plastic ones are the best.
I find that it's very useful to fence off areas of my house when I don't want the rabbits to go there. The easiest way to do this is to buy a few exercise pens, disassemble them into their component panels, and use those to make fences. You can screw some screw eyes into your walls, and attach the fence panels to those (and to each other) with c-clips. Ta-da, instant fences wherever you need them!
Finally, it's possible to train rabbits not to chew most things. NEVER hit or punish a rabbit. They don’t understand punishment. But when you see a rabbit chewing something bad, snap your fingers, say "no", and hand the rabbit a good chew instead, like a piece of cardboard. Do that a few times, and most rabbits will learn what's chewable and what isn't.
But if your rabbit just can't be trained and chews lots of inappropriate things, you'll need to keep them in a pen when you're not around to watch them. Fortunately, most rabbits are responsible enough to be free-roaming.
3. Food and water
A rabbit's main food is hay. Rabbits should get unlimited hay; basically they should be able to graze whenever they want.
Hay goes in a hay feeder:
Keep the hay feeder filled. You can fill it once a day or more if you like. NOTE: There are some pieces of hay a rabbit just won't eat for some reason, so every week or so, dump out the hay feeder and put in all new hay.
Remember to put the litterbox next to the hay feeder! Rabbits like to poop while they eat.
My favorite hay brand is Small Pet Select. You can order it on Amazon.
Most pet stores sell Oxbow and Kaytee hay, but I don't like these as much. Rabbits tend to like long, grassy hay pieces more than short, chopped-up pieces. There are also some other brands online, like Alfalfa King, that are not bad. You can also potentially buy hay from a local farm supply company.
There are multiple types of hay. Timothy is the most popular, but some rabbits prefer orchard grass. There are also "dessert hays", like alfalfa and oat hay, but these should be given only in small amounts, as a treat.
The second food rabbits eat is pellets. They can technically survive without these, and too much will make a rabbit fat, but they contain helpful nutrients and such.
Don't give rabbits too much of this -- maybe just two tablespoons a day. If you run out of hay in an emergency, rabbits can survive on pellets for a couple days, but it's not good for them.
The third thing rabbits eat is greens. I give my rabbits about two handfuls a day, each. My rabbits like parsley, arugula, lettuce, kale, dandelion greens, and spinach. Some also like cilantro. If you find some leafy vegetable that you think would be good for your rabbit, check a list online to make sure it's safe. Remember to introduce any new food slowly, in small amounts, to make sure it's safe.
The final thing rabbits eat is dessert. This mainly consists of carrots and/or fruit. Don't give them too much or they'll get fat! I give my rabbits each either half a baby carrot per day, or a few little slices of apple. You can also find various processed treats online.
Finally, rabbits need lots of water. I like to use water bowls instead of water bottles; I don't think rabbits can get enough water out of bottles. Flat-bottomed glass or ceramic bowls are good. Change the water every day or two.
4. Toys and chews
Rabbits' favorite thing to do is chew. You have to get them lots of stuff to chew, and leave it where they can get to it. Carboard is the best chew. My rabbits love shoeboxes and thick packing boxes the most.
In addition, there are plenty of toys and chews you can buy online. Experiment with different things, see what your bunny likes! Some like harder chews and some like softer ones.
The next thing rabbits like to do is to explore. You can buy or build them little tunnels, castles, playhouses, caves, etc. It's fun! You can then assemble them into obstacle courses or mazes to keep bunnies entertained.
The final thing rabbits like to do is dig. You can get them a dig box -- a cardboard box or cat litter box will do. You can fill that with crushed newspaper or crumpled phone book pages or hay. And you can even hide little treats for them to find! Rabbits sometimes also like to dig in a pile of blankets or towels.
5. Petting, cuddling, and playing with your rabbit
Rabbits generally love to be petted. Some rabbits like being picked up, but others don't. If your rabbit doesn't like to be picked up, sit next to them and pet them on the ground.
The best place to pet a rabbit is on the ears. Many rabbits also like being petted on their noses and backs. But don't try to pet their feet; it will freak them out!
Rabbit games are not very complex. Generally they just like to run in circles around each other, or explore little caves and tunnels. You can also play "keep away" with a chew or a treat. Some rabbits will enjoy climbing all over you. Others will play with a cat toy, and a few will even play fetch! You just have to spend time with your rabbit and try various things til you find out what they like.
One important thing is to spend time on the floor with your rabbit. Floor time is very important. Rabbits spend their entire lives very low to the ground, so if you only stand up around them, they’ll only get to know your feet and legs!
6. Things that kill or hurt a rabbit: predators, health problems, and heat
Rabbits are naturally afraid of predators, and with good reason. Hawks, foxes, weasels, dogs, raccoons, and other animals can kill rabbits. So never let your bunnies outside except under strict supervision (in fact, some people say not to let rabbits outside at all).
Rabbits can also get a number of health problems. The most common one is gastrointestinal stasis. Unlike many animals, rabbits can't puke, so when they eat something bad, it can stick in their stomach or intestines and make it impossible for them to eat or poop. This can kill rabbits very quickly, possibly in 24 hours, so watch out! If your rabbit isn't eating or pooping, you need to take them to a vet. A vet can also give you laxatives and painkillers to keep at home, in case the vet isn't open in time. GI stasis can come on so quickly that you shouldn't leave your rabbit home alone for more than 1 day at a time. Always get a rabbit sitter to come check on a rabbit twice a day when you're gone, or board the rabbit at a rescue!
Another common health problem is sore hocks (back feet). If you don't clean the litter often enough, rabbits can get sore feet from standing in their own pee, so clean it often! If you see red bumps on the bottom of rabbits' hind feet, take them to the vet and get some ointment.
Finally, rabbits don't tolerate heat well. If temperatures get over 85°F (29°C) for more than an hour or so, they can get heatstroke. Make sure the rabbits have a shady place, and put down some ceramic tiles or a couple of little granite slabs for them to lie on to cool themselves. Air conditioning is definitely recommended if your house gets hot often.
7. Rabbits and other pets
Generally rabbits get along with cats, though they will need some time to get used to each other. Cats love to lick, and rabbits loved to be licked, so it's often a perfect partnership.
Dogs are trickier, since some dogs' hunting instincts can take over when they see a rabbit run, and they can chase and even kill a rabbit. Be very careful introducing rabbits and dogs, and use an online guide.
And remember: The best friend for a rabbit is another rabbit! Your local rabbit rescue can help your rabbit find the perfect mate. It may take a long time to bond them (mine took a month!), or they may fall in love right away. The people at the rescue can help you learn how to bond rabbits.
8. Essential rabbit resources
2) House Rabbit Society: Another great page with lots of info.
3) Rabbit rescues: There are rabbit rescues everywhere in the U.S. They're always willing to help teach you how to take care of rabbits, find you the perfect rabbit friend, or board your rabbits when you go out of town. Just Google to find the nearest one. My favorite Bay Area rescue is SaveABunny, in Marin County.
Well, that isn't everything there is to know about having rabbits, but it's enough to get you started! Good luck finding your perfect rabbit friend...