Caring for Your Pet Rabbit

Longtime rabbit raiser Karen Patry provides basic information on grooming, housing and meeting the other needs of your pet rabbit.

Woman with a pet rabbit

Pet rabbits need attention and will be most open to your affection in the late afternoon and evening, when you're likely to be coming home from work or finishing homework.

Photo by Fotolia/rm211171

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The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver (Storey Publishing, 2014), by Karen Patry, addresses questions and concerns about housing, feeding and breeding rabbits at every stage in their lives. From choosing productive meat and fiber breeds to preparing a proper nest box and coaxing a fussy bunny to eat, you’ll find proven answers and humane solutions to your rabbit-raising quandaries. In the following excerpt from Chapter 2, “The Rabbit as a Pet,” Patry conveys useful information for beginning pet rabbit owners.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver.

Rabbit Care 101

Q. What is involved in caring for a pet rabbit?

A. A rabbit’s physical needs include shelter, food, water, chew toys that entertain and help keep their teeth chiseled, and protection from fear and predators. A sturdy wire cage or hutch will do the trick, whether you house your pet rabbit indoors or outdoors. Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box and allowed to roam indoors, but they can be destructive and must be supervised. House rabbits will find a hiding spot in which they feel secure. That spot may be in their cage or may instead be among the dust bunnies deep under your bed!

If your pet rabbit has the run of part or all of the house and/or spends time romping in the yard or garden, you’ll need to be attentive to the intentions of family dogs or cats until you are certain that they think “Friend!” and not “Dinner!” at the sight of a pet rabbit. Sometimes members of different species get along great and can be trusted to play together nicely. With others, you can never be confident — make sure you know which situation you have.

Rabbits, especially a single pet, do need attention every day, but their need for companionship is not extravagant. Rabbits are most active at dawn and at dusk, when their main activities, at least in the wild, are foraging and chewing. Otherwise, they rest and sleep most of the day and some of the night as well, a pattern of behavior referred to as crepuscular. So a rabbit will be most open to your attention in the late afternoon and evening, a time frame that typically coincides with families coming home from work or finishing up homework and chores. With regular petting and playtime, a rabbit is likely to consider you an important part of its world.

Q. What are the basic grooming needs for rabbits?

A. Rabbits are fastidious groomers and keep their fur clean on their own. Normal and Rex-furred rabbits, with fur only 1/2 inch to 1-1/2 inches in length, need very little grooming, if any, although during seasonal molts, which happen several times per year, grooming will remove loose fur and speed the molting process. Grooming also reduces the danger of a fur blockage from the rabbit ingesting its own fur as it grooms itself. Rabbits have tender skin that tears easily, so grooming needs to be done gently.

Angora-coated rabbits, however, have long wool that must be groomed or trimmed regularly, and they do not fare well without maintenance. The frequency of the grooming schedule depends in some degree on the breed. Many English Angoras need to be groomed at least weekly, while German Angoras don’t shed at all and may need only minimal grooming between shearings. Like sheep, they must be sheared when the wool grows long enough to harvest for spinning or felting. Other wooled breeds shed approximately every three months.

A blower is an invaluable grooming tool. Once the rabbit is acclimated to the noise, the powerful blast of air painlessly does much of the grooming for you, minimizing loss of wool, especially over the top and sides (the prime wool areas). The wool should part clear to the skin. A small amount of raking and combing, particularly on the underside, will still be necessary.

Along with a blower, a combination of steel combs, rakes, and scissors is used to straighten the wool and untangle any beginning mats. To cut out a tightly tangled mat, probe it with your fingers to find the base, and then insert the scissors carefully between the skin and the mat. Before cutting, pivot the scissor blades upward, so that the cutting surfaces are not near the skin. If it is easier, slip a “greyhound” type metal comb under the mat, and cut across the top of the comb.

All wooled rabbits — Angoras and smaller wooled breeds — need periodic attention paid to the vent region and the base of the ears. Clip away the fur around the vent and tail area every 4 to 6 weeks. At the same time, examine the ear carriage and jaw area of the rabbit’s head for mats, and cut them away with scissors.

In addition to daily visual inspections and handling, all rabbits need some routine maintenance every 4 to 8 weeks. This includes clipping their toenails; ensuring that no health issues are developing; and checking fur for cleanliness, mats, or debris, especially the underside of the tail and the fur around the lower haunches, which are in contact with the cage or the ground.

Q. How do I know if my rabbit is staying healthy?

A. There are several things you should check regularly that will let you know that your rabbit is in good health:

BODY CONDITION. Run your hand over the animal’s back. It should feel well-fleshed, not bony or obese.

FEET. The soles should be well-furred or solidly callused, with no open sores. Check the toenails to be sure they are trimmed properly and aren’t growing too long.

TEETH. The teeth should be meeting and wearing correctly.

EARS. The inside should be smooth and clean as far down as you can possibly see, with no brown scabs (signifying ear mites).

SKIN. Look especially at the triangle behind the ears and the skin on the sides and haunches for evidence of fleas or fur mites — chewed fur, defurred areas, scratch marks, or actual fleas (including mites or eggs).

VENT. You don’t want to see any sores, scabs, redness, or inflammation.

SCENT GLANDS. There are two major scent glands, often referred to as anal glands, in deep creases on either side of the vent area in both males and females. These glands secrete small amounts of a musky-smelling waxy substance that sometimes builds up in the creases. Some rabbits keep this area clean without help. With others, you may notice an unpleasantly pungent odor. If you flip the animal over and stretch open the creases, you’ll see brownish waxy debris, which you can wipe away with a cotton swab dipped in mineral oil.

Q. My rabbit’s droppings are in a chain, like a necklace. Is this a problem?

A. This is the result of self-grooming during a molt. During their daily grooming sessions, rabbits often ingest a lot of fur, and that’s what you see tying the fecal pellets together. If the intestinal tract slows down, the danger of impaction from a wad of fur gumming up the guts increases. As long as your rabbit is eating well and eliminating regularly, it should be fine. If the fur is being eliminated, even if it strings the pellets together, it is a good sign that the intestines are working well.

The first sign of a problem is a decreasing appetite. So until the molt is complete, which may take 4 to 5 weeks, your rabbit needs plenty of hay every day and ample water.

Another key sign of intestinal trouble is the size of the fecal pellets. If you notice that the pellets are becoming tiny (about the size of BBs), increase the fiber in your rabbit’s diet; offer dried, unsweetened papaya bits (available in pet stores); and increase your rabbit’s exercise level to head off a catastrophe.

Q. Do rabbits need shots like dogs and cats?

A. It depends upon where you live. In the United States, there are no vaccinations required or recommended for rabbits. In the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, shots for myxomatosis and rabbit hemorrhagic disease (calicivirus) are recommended but are not mandatory.

Q. Do rabbits prefer cold or warm temperatures?

A. Rabbits do fine within a wide temperature range from below zero to 88 degrees Fahrenheit (–18 degrees Celsius to 31 degrees Celsius), but they prefer cold, hands down. While some rabbits do become acclimated to their environments and can survive temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) for a few days at least, the vast majority of domestic rabbits do best in cooler temperatures.

Q. Is a rabbit a good class pet for a sixth-grade class?

A. A rabbit can be injured if it is picked up awkwardly or if it struggles and is dropped, but eleven-year-olds should be mature enough to handle a rabbit without harming it. In fact, even first-graders can learn good animal skills with a classroom rabbit. The youngsters will get off to a great start with lessons on careful handling, and then refine their skills with initial close supervision as they learn how to be careful with other living creatures. Learning how to care for rabbits and show empathy toward them are excellent life lessons for all elementary school students.

Q. How can I make a bed for my pet rabbit?

A. Many dogs and cats love their special beds and you yourself may need a pillow and a soft mattress, but rabbits don’t necessarily need a special place to sleep. If you use one of the following suggestions, your rabbit will eventually chew it to shreds. That’s okay — these items are easily replaced and your rabbit will have fun in the meantime.

A coconut mat or other chewable-fiber mat made for rabbits works well. A small doormat made of natural fibers will also be fine if it has no rubber or other kind of backing and is not impregnated with toxic chemicals.

A low-sided cardboard box filled with a bit of pine shavings is cheap and easy. The box might last anywhere from a day to a week, and then you can discard the pieces and start fresh. Or your rabbit might use it as a litter box, in which case you should try one of the other ideas.

A large oatmeal carton with the ends cut out makes a great cave, as long as the rabbit won’t become stuck.

How about a soft pile of clean rags? Not recommended. Loose threads and pieces with holes can become wrapped around parts of the rabbit’s anatomy, acting as a tourniquet. Rabbits can lose (and have lost) toes, tails, even tongues.

Even after you go to all the trouble to make a lovely bed, you might find your pet is still sleeping right on the wire cage floor or on the cold tiles in your bathroom. The bed you made might be soft, but it also might be too warm for the rabbit. Rabbits prefer cool sleeping quarters and often choose to sleep on their cage wire, even if you provide a cozy bed. This is probably because they’re already wearing a fur coat and their native underground sleeping chambers are very cool.


Excerpted from The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver (c) by Karen Patry, Illustrations by (c) Elara Tanguy, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver: Your Questions Answered About Housing, Feeding, Behavior, Health Care, Breeding, and Kindling.