Have you ever wondered how to care for rabbits? For most people, they seem a great pet. Calm, quiet, and they don’t need walking. How much hassle can it be?! Recent statistics from the RSPCA and ASPCA show that rabbits are becoming one of the most neglected species, with hundreds living in very poor conditions. And the worst part? Most of these owners think they are doing a good job. Here’s our handy guide to how to care for rabbits, and keep both of you healthy and happy!
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Choose Your Breed Carefully…
Choosing a rabbit is more than just picking the one with the cutest ears. Just like cats and dogs, rabbits come in a variety of breeds which can drastically differ in size, appearance and personality. First, pick the size of rabbit that you’d like. Giant rabbits are unusual and make great companions, but have a shorter lifespan on average. Other breeds can be known for their noisiness, activity levels or intelligence – it’s worth doing your research, so you can be sure you know exactly how to care for rabbits of that breed.
Pick Your Rabbit…
There is plenty of bad husbandry when it comes to rabbit keeping, so in order to ensure you get a healthy rabbit, you have to pick them carefully. Baby rabbits should be over seven weeks old before they are taken from their mothers, and completely weaned. Older rabbits are always available from rescue centers, and can be much easier for a new owner. However old your rabbit is, make sure that they look clean, have no discharge from the eyes or ears, have clean bottoms and their fur is in good condition. The rabbit may be cautious of you, but should be happy to be handled by their owner, and seem calm and content.
Get Your Housing Right…
Next, choose where your rabbit will live. House rabbits are growing in popularity, and most rabbits are very happy living like this. It provides plenty of room and company! If you plan to have a house rabbit, ensure that you do not have any accessible houseplants, and hide or protect cables. It’s also a good idea to move valuable items out of the way – rabbits like to skip and jump, and can easily knock things over while they learn their way around!
If your rabbit will be living outside, their cage needs to be big enough that they can stand on their back legs, stretch out and hop around. You also need to provide a dark, private area that the rabbit can retreat to. For two small rabbits, a hutch of 150cm x 60cm is the minimum, rising to 185cm x 90cm for two larger rabbits. The more space you can provide, the healthier and happier your rabbit will be. Using sheds or wendy houses as hutches is becoming more and more common, and provides plenty of room.
Finally, place the hutch or shed in a shaded area. It needs to be protected from direct sunlight, rain, frost and strong winds. Make sure it has strong closing bolts, and cannot be opened by foxes or other predators – it’s not uncommon for rabbits to die of shock after a predator has ripped through thin wire.
Rabbits are sociable creatures – in the wild they live in huge groups. A rabbit kept on its own is likely to need a large amount of human contact to prevent loneliness, and it’s often recommended that rabbits are kept in groups of two or more. Always neuter all the rabbits in a group – not only will this prevent unwanted pregnancies (2 rabbits can very, very quickly become 20!) but it will prevent fighting too. Never keep your rabbit with a guinea pig. In the past it was believed that these species could live happily alongside each other, due to their communication techniques being similar. This has now been disproved, and a shocking amount of guinea pigs are gruesomely killed by rabbits each year, even if they’ve lived together happily until then.
Rabbits will thrive on clean straw, which is available from most pet stores, and tends to be quite cheap. Check the bedding every day, and remove soiled bedding as soon as possible. When the weather is warm, it’s worth checking more frequently – maggots will lay eggs in warm, soiled straw, and the larvae will burrow into your rabbit’s body. This is known as fly strike, and is potentially fatal. Rabbits are very clean and will usually begin to train themselves to use one corner, making cleaning them out quick and easy.
Feeding Your Rabbit…
Your rabbit’s main food should be a mixture of grass and hay, either bought from a shop or grazed from your lawn. You should also offer fresh vegetables in the daytime, such as carrots, spinach, watercress, broccoli, celery and apples. Avoid providing too much lettuce, which can cause diarrhea and is not nutritionally beneficial. Complete foods can be very high in sugar and low in minerals, so a natural diet is preferable, or spend time finding a high-fibre pellet diet for your rabbit and add regular fresh vegetables.
Fresh water should always be available, either from a bowl or a drinking bottle. Check the bottle regularly to ensure it’s working and clean!
A healthy rabbit should be alert, lively and vibrant. If your rabbit’s behavior changes, it could be a sign of illness. Other common symptoms include scaly patches in the ears, swellings, diarrhea, and discharge from the eyes. Dental problems are also common in rabbits, and are usually only noticed when a rabbit stops eating completely, which can make treatment harder. Keep a regular eye on your rabbit’s teeth. Your rabbit should be vaccinated against myxomatosis and viral hemorrhagic disease on a yearly basis. These are both fatal conditions that can easily pass from wild animals.
Keeping Rabbits Happy…
The last step in learning how to care for rabbits is entertainment and exercise. Rabbits do need mental stimulation, and the easiest way to provide this is by providing chewable items such as apple wood and willow. Most rabbits will also love running through and hiding in tubes, and pet shops are full of tube and house toys that can be chewed, run around on and loved. Hanging root vegetables on a string for your rabbit to chew and providing a cardboard box filled with straw or shredded paper for your rabbit to hop into are also great ideas. Most rabbits will also enjoy being brushed, which provides stimulation, gives you chance to ensure your rabbit is healthy, and builds the bond between you and your rabbit.
Remember that every rabbit will be different – while these are general tips on how to care for rabbits, and should be used as best practice, your own rabbit will teach you what foods he loves, and what game is his favorite. And once you’ve got your husbandry perfected, don’t forget to share a photo of your lovely bunnies with us on Twitter or Facebook – I’ve got four, and I’d love to see yours! What’s your best bunny care tip?
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