Basic Rabbit Care

How to keep your pet healthy -- and what to do when he's not

 


 

The best way to maintain the health of your rabbit is to learn proper care techniques and to plan ahead in case a health emergency should arise.   It is also important to pay attention to your pet -- for his emotional well being but also because this is what will help you spot a change in behavior or appearance.  If you don't spend time with your bunny every day, it will be almost impossible to catch a problem before it becomes a full blown crisis. 

Below you will find some very basic rabbit care information.  Please note that the material presented here does not represent the whole of what you, as a rabbit owner, should know to properly care for your pet and ensure him a long, happy life.  However, it should be enough to keep your bunny alive and well until you can talk to your vet, surf our rabbit links, and purchase and read a good book on rabbit care (such as those listed below).

Do be sure to check out our information on rabbit illnesses, near the bottom of this page.  We also have several more pages on this site with useful rabbit care information so be sure to surf around.

Most importantly, if your rabbit is currently experiencing health problems, contact a veterinarian as soon as possible. 

But first, many of you have emailed us about how to pick up your bunnies properly.  Here is a helpful video that shows proper technique:


 


 

 

Food & Water:

Keep your rabbit supplied with clean, fresh water at all times.   Use a gravity water bottle which can be attached to the cage so that your little friend does not knock the water over while you are away a work or school.

A vitamin enriched salt lick should always be provided.

Do not try to feed your rabbit only on lettuce, or carrots, or even grass!  Rabbit's fed this way do not grow and develop properly.  All rabbit's need rabbit chow.  Commercially packaged rabbit chow, available at any pet or feed store and even your supermarket, contains a variety of nutrients that are essential for your rabbit's health, including protein.

Previously we advocated letting your rabbit have unlimited access to pellets (unless otherwise recommended by your veterinarian).  But recent research into rabbit health shows that the high protein content in rabbit pellets may be too much for some rabbits if fed in larger quantities.  And of course, the high concentration of calories can be problematic for rabbits who don't receive sufficient exercise!  So while we still recommend a bin feeder for pellets for those of you who chronically forget to feed your rabbit... for most folks the better course of action is to supply your rabbit with an unlimited quantity of timothy hay.

The hay will satisfy their need to nibble nibble throughout the day as well as provide them with valuable fiber and roughage for their digestive health.  You can purchase a hay rack or holder to mount in your cage so that the hay remains clean and dry.   This means less uneaten hay tossed out because of being urine soaked or etc. 

Remember that baby rabbits should still have unlimited access to rabbit chow pellets as their bodies are rapidly developing.  Nursing or pregnant females too should have unlimited access also. 

For all other rabbits, over one year old in age, feed about 1/4 cup of feed per day.  (Experts recommend 1/8 cup of pellets per 4 lbs of rabbit.  So adjust the amount accordingly for smaller or larger breeds.)

Supplement the rabbit chow with 1/2 cup of raw veggies each day. Leftovers from the kitchen such as broccoli stems, carrot tops and peelings, banana peels (or bananas too bruised to appeal to you or your children), apple cores, will all be a big hit. Don't give your rabbit too much sweets however.  And avoid giving too much "watery" fruits or vegetables-- it can give "the runs".  Similarly, avoid ice berg lettuce or cabbageSee the list at right for more ideas of healthful fresh veggies and greens.  Remember to always wash fruits, vegetables, and greens before feeding --even organic as this can have bacteria such as e coli.  And of course, never feed fruits and vegetables that are beginning to spoil; these too can have harmful bacteria.   Lastly some plants are deadly to your rabbit, so be sure to read the Poisonous Plants List for things you must never allow them access to.  Important reading if you have houseplants or your rabbit plays out in the yard.

A note about introducing fruits and veggies to baby bunnies:  evidence shows it is best to wait until your bunny is at least 8 to 12 weeks old before beginning to introduce fruits and veggies.   This is because it takes a while for the baby's good gut bacteria to develop to the level that will allow it to safely digest these foods.  When you do introduce, make sure to do so in very small amounts.  Also, some experts recommend introducing only one new item at a time, just as with human babies.

Finally, add some nice little wood blocks for your adult rabbit to chew on.  From the pet store is best, as those from the lumber store are often treated with arsenic to deter termites.  The wood they chew isn't nourishing, but they will provide a healthy outlet for your rabbit's need to chew. For extra fun try this:   Super Pet Bunny Shake 'n' Chew Toy for Rabbits

 

 

Gimme Shelter!

Provide your rabbit with a home that is clean, safe, & large enough to allow healthy movement.  As a rule of thumb, a rabbit's cage should be 4 times as large as the rabbit itself.  Anything smaller is cruel and inappropriate.

 In addition, your rabbit should ideally be allowed out for exercise for at least 2 hours a day, in a safe place (i.e. safe from escape, predators, heatstroke, etc.).  Rabbit's kept in outdoor hutches are as much in need of this as those kept in indoor cages.  Keeping your rabbit caged up 24/7 is like someone locking you in the bathroom (without reading material) and never letting you out.  Good bye joy in life.

Protect your rabbit from extreme temperatures.  Remember a wild rabbit lives in a cozy burrow in the ground that shelters it from cold wind, shades it from hot sun, and keeps it snug and warm during snow and rain. Whatever shelter you provide should do the same

Be sure that your rabbit's shade does not completely disappear during the day.  An hour or two without shade, on a hot day, could quickly lead to death.

Also realize that a rabbit does not like a home that is damp.  You might want to consider relocating your rabbit (or its hutch) if the hutch seems wet and drippy inside. 

Your rabbit will also not appreciate a cold windy location.  Dwarf rabbits are especially susceptible to catching a chill this way.

Do be sure that your rabbit's cage or hutch offers something more to sit on than cage wire!  One trick is to insert a piece of  untreated wood (no paint or stain) to cover part of the floor.   You must be sure however that this wood has not been treated with arsenic or other pesticide.

Another great idea is to insert one of the woven grass mats pictured at right.  This provides a comfy resting spot up off the cage wire, as well as an appropriate item for chewing.

 

Click for more details, or to order.

To see our full selection of rabbit hutches, cages, and supplies

click here.
 

 

 

 

Nest Boxes -- Not Just For Mama:

Mother rabbits are not the only ones who enjoy a cozy nest.  In fact, if your rabbit lives outside, a nest box will be an essential part of his or her shelter.   For an outside rabbit, think of a nest box as enclosed on all sides, with a small entry hole just large enough for your rabbit to enter.  The nest box should be large enough for your rabbit to move around comfortably and even to stretch out.

For an indoor rabbit, a box that is open on top will do fine.  A nest box may be purchased commercially or made at home, but be sure that wooden nest boxes are made from untreated wood (that is with not insecticide such as arsenic).  We have many times used a new plastic litter box, deep sided, as a nest box.  But if your rabbit starts chewing on it, remove and replace it with a wooden one.

Keep your nest box lined with cozy hay or straw.  This insulating filler helps your bunny conserve his body heat.   If your rabbit is using the nest box for a litter of babies, you may also want to line the bottom of the nest box with CareFresh, to absorb moisture from the kit's urine.

 

Some Cautions About Bedding & Litter:

Although, in years past, we had always used pine shavings for our rabbits, we are now very concerned about studies that suggest that "soft wood" shavings may give off natural chemical compounds that are harmful to caged animals, including rabbits. It has been found that small caged animals such as mice, hamsters, rabbits, and etc. will live much longer lives (2 to 3 times as long) if they are not housed with soft wood shavings as litter. 


Carefresh Pet Bedding
click item for details
or to purchase

No doubt this effect is intensified when the animal's cage is not extremely well ventilated or with cages that have the animal in direct contact with the soft wood shavings (such as most habitrails and "guinea pig" cages). However, until more information is uncovered on this topic, small pet owners will want to exercise caution about using soft wood shavings -- despite the fact that they are commonly sold in pet stores.

 Cedar shavings have been shown to be especially high in toxins, high enough that we strongly recommend that no one should ever use cedar for pet bedding, litter, or nesting box material.

As for pine, there is still some debate over whether it is toxic "enough", but the numbers suggest that it would be better to avoid pine as well. As an alternative, one may use dried grass products such as timothy hay or alfalfa for bedding and a product such as Carefresh (essentially a paper pulp product) for litter.

To learn more about Carefresh,  click here to visit their website

 

 

Scooping The Poop: 

Keep your rabbit's home clean!  Rabbit's are clean animals by nature.  They do not enjoy wallowing in their own feces!  If you do not clean the cage daily, then do so at least every three days -- no longer.  Not only are the strong odors and vapors from the build up unpleasant to your rabbit's sensitive nose and eyes, but they can actually cause illness. 

In addition, poop built up in a dirty cage can ending up smearing on your bunny's bottom.  Not only is this messy and gross, but in extreme cases it can close off the area where the poop and urine comes out.  This can lead to pain and infection for your rabbit, and ultimately death.

Even if this never happens, sitting in dirty build-up can certainly create sores on your rabbit's feet.

Realize too that flies are attracted to the built up feces in the cage bottom or litter box, and will not only pester your pet, but actually lay their eggs in his feces.  If these feces are stuck on to your rabbit, the situation can lead to maggots infesting the fur and flesh of your little friend.

And of course, keeping your bunnies home clean means that you will enjoy visiting your bunny so much more if he or she is not crouching in a big cloud of stink.

 

 

The Value Of A Litter Box:

A great way to keep things tidy is to provide your rabbit with a litter box.  (Read about litter, above.)  With a litter box, you simply reach in the cage, grab the litter box, carry it to your outside garbage or compost heap and shake out the contents.  Add fresh litter, and voila -- you're done!

Naturally, if you let your rabbit roam free in the house, you will want to train him or her to the litter box. 

Although we have never litter box trained a rabbit ourselves (it does not do to leave litter boxes laying about when you have babies and toddlers exploring your home), we have read many accounts that say you will be most successful if you first spay or neuter your rabbit The reason is that rabbits will otherwise "spray" urine about the house to mark their territory.

To litter box train, start by providing a box in your rabbit's cage. As your rabbit becomes used to using it, provide litter boxes outside the cage as well ("seed" this with poop from the dirty litter box, just to let your rabbit know what the box is for).  To make it more likely that your rabbit will use the box, confine her to one small room.  This way the litter box will be easy to find.  Later you can expand her territory a little at a time.

Praise your rabbit and give her a treat when you see her using the litter box.  Be as consistent as possible so that she comes to associate using the litter box with positive feedback.

You can also put some fresh grass or hay in the litter box, to help attract her to it.  (This is like leaving a newspaper in the bathroom for Dad.)

If your rabbit keeps making mistakes on the floor, try either:

Putting her in a smaller space where she can't help but notice the litter box.

Adding additional litter boxes so that she, again, can't help but notice the litter box.

 

Hi-Corner Litter Pan 
click item for details
 or ordering

 

 

 

 

Brushing & Combing:

Whether or not grooming your rabbit is a big deal will depend, in part on the breed of rabbit you select.  Our rabbits are English Spot with an admixture of English Lop and Netherland Dwarf.  Therefore, they have short haired coats that are easy to care for.  However I once owned an angora rabbit -- what a lot of work!  The brushing and combing was quite a hobby! 

Just like some people rarely brush their dog or cat, you can probably get away with almost never brushing your short-haired rabbit.  But doing so can be a fun way to socialize together and to create an affectionate bond.  It's also a great way to check up on fleas, ticks, ringworm or other problems that could develop.

Another aspect of combing is whipping out the flea comb.  Check your rabbit from time to time to see if he or she has picked up any little hitchhikers.  Do not use flea powder, flea spray, baths, or Advantage to deal with fleas.  Instead, have your vet (or someone who has been instructed by their vet) show you the proper way to use a flea comb.  See tips at right.

Do not use a plastic flea comb if you really want to get all the fleas off your pet.  Nor do you want one of those big long-handled numbers.  To comb a small animal like a rabbit effectively we recommend a product like the following:

 

Finishing Touch Mini Flea Comb

Order Now!

2 1/2" with compact handle. Features 28 non-rust chrome-plated, tightly-spaced teeth per inch that easily remove fleas from your pet's coat. Comfort grip palm handle made of long-lasting and high-impact plastic.  (Click item image for more details or to purchase.)

 

 

Nail Clipping:

Many of my rabbits seem to keep their nails down through digging.  But most caged rabbits, and many house rabbits will need to have their nails trimmed.  This can be an awful job!  The rabbit squirms, the hair gets caught in the nails clippers, the bunny shrieks or grunts as the fur gets pulled, you get panicky and cut too much nail and the blood begins to flow!

To cut this job down to size, try this technique:

Invest in a high quality pair of nail clippers.  You should be able to find them with the dog grooming supplies.

Dampen the fur of each paw before attempting to trim the nails, this will make it easier to keep the little hairs out of the way and allow you to put all your attention on cutting to the right length.

Have another person hold the rabbit while you operate the clippers.

Do not over trim the nail or it will bleed -- a lot! Look at the nail and
notice where the inside of the nail appears to darken. This is where the
blood vessel starts.  Be sure your trim does not come too close to this area.

 

 

 

Bathing:

   Our rabbits do not enjoy bathing.  Also, if you ever have bathed a rabbit, you will appreciate how difficult it really is to get them dry again.  But if you must bathe your rabbit, I strongly recommend the following approach:

Lay a thick bath towel, folded double, in your bath tub.  Do not plug the tub!  The whole idea is to let the water down the drain, away from your rabbit. As you can well imagine, it is very frightening to a bunny to find herself surrounded  by water, especially water that is rising higher and higher!  If you simply let all the  water drain away, your rabbit will merely feel annoyed, not terrified.

If you have a shower massager or some other shower-on-a-hose arrangement,  turn on the water -- on low, and moderately warm and begin gently wetting down your rabbit.  If you don't' have one of these, use a pitcher of water ( you may need a helper, to refill it for you).  In either case, take care not to let the water run down your rabbit's face or into her ears, mouth, or nose.

Wash your rabbit with no tears shampoo -- adding just a little at a time.  Rinse thoroughly with warm water. (Please note that if only one part of your bunny needs bathing, such as her bottom, then only bathe that area.) Do not let soap run into her eyes.

Wrap your rabbit in a dry towel and remove her from the tub. 
Towel dry her as much as possible.

You can try using a hair dryer, but stop if she acts very frightened.  (Your rabbit will only tolerate this at all if she feels very comfortable with you.  Otherwise she will be terrified.)  Respect her cues.  Cowering with bulging eyes, trying to hide behind the toilet or etc, all signal "STOP!"

Let your rabbit stay in the bathroom with a dish of food and some water until she is dry.  Be sure her litter box is also present.  Keep the bathroom warm.   If need be, place a small space heater up high where she cannot reach it or nibble on the cord. 

From time to time, fluff her fur with the towel and towel dry her some more.

If your rabbit lives outside, do not return her outside until you are sure she is 100% dry and at normal body  temperature.

Remember to speak softly and kindly to your rabbit throughout this  process. 

Finish the whole procedure off by giving her a special treat that she enjoys.

 

Detecting & Dealing With Illness or Injury:

 

Pre-select a veterinarian near you who has experience caring for rabbits  (many vets are strictly cat & dog veterinarians).  The time to find a qualified rabbit vet is now, not when you are upset and racing against time to save your pet's life.

It's also useful to find out where the closest emergency pet hospital is too -- or to ask your vet about his policy toward after hours emergencies.

Purchase a book with information on rabbit illnesses to keep on hand, so that you have a good understanding of the symptoms that accompany the various ailments.

In general however, pay attention to diarrhea, high fever, lack of appetite, lethargy, discharge from the eyes or nose, difficulty urinating, swelling, bleeding (from skin or in urine or poop), limping,  paralysis, spasms or seizures.  

Also, if your bunny is just acting strange and looks unhappy, you should investigate further.  Check her droppings, gently feel her body noting any bumps, swelling, or a tendency to pull away as if in pain.  If you would like to check her temperature, insert the thermometer rectally (not in the mouth, as in the cartoon above)!

If you have any doubts at all, you should contact your vet and discuss your concerns over the phone.  He or she may suggest that you bring your rabbit in for an examination.

 

For more information:
 

Rabbit Care - Basic First Aid at Home

We strongly recommend you read this article now, so you will know just what to do in an emergency.  Includes instructions on what to do in case of bleeding, near drowning experiences, choking, and even insect bites.
 

Veterinary Partner

A useful library of health related information.

 

 


 

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 The Rabbit Handbook
By Karen Gendron and
Michele Earle-Bridges

144 pages

 

 

 

 

 

 

   
 

 

Safe Veggie Treats:

Alfalfa Sprouts
Basil
Bok Choy
Broccoli,
leaves/stems only
Brussels sprouts
Carrots,
with tops
Celery
Cilantro
Culantro
Clover
Collard Greens
Dandelions,
flowers and greens
Endive
Escarole
Green Bell Peppers
Kale
Mint
Mustard Greens
Parsley
Radicchio
Radish Sprouts
Radish Greens
Romaine
Spinach
Sugar Pea Pods,
flat stir fry type
Watercress
Wheat grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flea Comb Tips:

Note that you must comb at an angle to the skin if you are to have any success dredging up fleas.  Have a cup of water nearby that has a drop of dish detergent in it.  You will scrape the fleas off the comb, with your finger, into the water cup after each pass with the comb.  The soap breaks the surface tension and allows the fleas to drown.  Do not allow the water to get sudsy or the fleas will climb about on the suds and hop out.  When you are done, dump the water down the toilet -- not the sink.  Sterilize the cup.  Use a cup that will not tip easily if bumped.  I like to use a heavy mug.