RABBIT OWNER'S GUIDE

NEW BUNNY CHECKLIST:

Things you need to have:   

bullet

Cage 30”x 30” recommended

bullet

Feed (rabbit pellets) and timothy hay

bullet

Feed bowl or self feeder

bullet

Water bottle

bullet

Hay rack (optional but necessary if you plan on feeding hay)

bullet

Resting pad or plastic mat (optional, but recommended)

bullet

Grooming tools: Soft bristle brush, slicker brush with wire bristles, comb, damp towelettes, pet nail clippers, styptic powder or Kwik Stop, cotton swabs, and a pair of sharp grooming scissors.  

bullet

Safe exercise area or playpen (optional)

 

There is a lot that goes into being a responsible owner of a new pet and especially a rabbit.  Pet ownership is not for everyone.  It is far better to decide if you are making the right decision now, before you bring your new pet home.

Feed & Water:

Verlannahill feeds DuMor Rabbit Pellets supplemented with generous portions of Timothy hay that in our area are both readily available from Tractor Supply.  DuMor Pellets come in 25 and 50 lb. bags.  For small rabbits, 2-6 lb, feed about 1 cup of pellets a day, for med. size rabbits, 7-10 lb, feed about 2 cups of feed daily, and for large rabbits feed about 4 cups of feed daily.  A supply of timothy hay should also be constantly available to your rabbit.  The rabbit’s cage should be fitted with a hay manger to keep the hay off the cage floor and to prevent fouling of the hay with urine and droppings.

                         

In my opinion a water bottle is a must; filled daily with fresh water.  A water dish is not sanitary and for that reason it is not recommended, unless you are prepared to wash and disinfect them daily.  Even with daily cleaning, a water dish is easily spilled, leaving your rabbit without water and because it is open to the air, it is easily contaminated with feces and hair.  A water crock by its shear weight makes it preferable to the water dish by eliminating the spillage problem, but crocks are still open to the air and are thus still prone to contamination.  Your best bet will always be the water bottle fitted with a sanitary nipple and attached to the side of the rabbit’s cage where it will provide clean fresh water on demand.  The only exception to the water bottle will be the case when your rabbit will be kept outside during the winter when low temperatures can freeze up the nipple and cut off the flow of water.  In this instance the water crock may be your only solution.  Care must be taken to periodically check that the crock does not freeze over.  Some pet stores sell crock warmers to solve this problem.

Many people like to give their rabbits treats, but a well-balanced dry rabbit mix supplemented with timothy hay will provide your rabbit with all the necessary nutritional requirements it will need.  Feeding your rabbit a diet of fruits and vegetables in large amounts can be detrimental.  Rabbits have quite delicate  digestive systems and too much can cause diarrhea,  limitation should be the rule of the day.

 

Housing & Environmental Concerns:

Modern wire cages are considered to be the preferred housing for rabbits.  They are easily cleaned, provide good ventilation, and are very sanitary.  Wooden cages provide none of these benefits plus they are more expensive to build and maintain.  Rabbit’s love to gnaw and will soon chew up a wooden cage.  Wood will also soon become soaked with urine that makes for a very unsanitary environment for your rabbit.  Wooden cages are often enclosed on all but the front side and thus fail to provide adequate ventilation.  Wire cages should have 1 x 2-inch wire fabric around and on top with 1 x ½ inch on the bottom.  Metal wire cages can be hung consecutively within an open wooden or metal frame which can have provisions made for a droppings pan plus protection from the cold, wind and rain while offering shade; all without cutting down on important ventilation.  Both Havahart and Bass Equipment make a wire stacking cage with legs and a droppings tray that can be purchased from tractor supply.  In my opinion, no cage by itself is secure enough to be used for keeping a rabbit outside.  If you are serious about raising rabbits then you should consider a barn or shed type enclosure that can be heated in the winter and kept cool in the summer while protecting your rabbits from roaming dogs and other wild animals that might see your bunny as a tasty meal.

Rabbits by nature are most happy when they can find places to hide and seclude themselves from observation.  A nesting box provides such a place and is a necessity if your rabbit is going to live outside in cold weather.  In the winter the nesting box provides double duty in that it becomes a warm shelter filled with nesting material, hay, straw, or wood shavings that make for a warm dry bed for your rabbit.  If you are going to breed your rabbit the nesting box becomes the nursery where the mother rabbit will give birth to her bunnies and where the bunnies will find warmth and protection during the first few days after they are born.  The nesting box can either be an enclosed attachment fitted to the outside of the cage or an open box that is placed inside the cage with your rabbit.  The attached nesting box should be closed off on all sides with a hinged top for cleaning purposes and to gain access to your bunny should she require help while giving birth.  An entrance hole should be cut in one side or end just large enough to give easy access from the cage into the nesting box for the adult rabbit while being positioned to prevent the babies from accidentally falling out.  Small diameter holes can be drill in the bottom of the nesting box to provide drainage and provide additional ventilation.  Nesting boxes require periodic cleaning and replenishment with fresh nesting material.  Close observation needs to be made for the problem rabbit that may soil the inside of the box with urine and droppings.  If this becomes a problem it may be necessary to remove the nesting box for awhile if weather conditions permit or to relent to cleaning the box daily or weekly as necessary.  For expectant mothers some breeders will only permit access to the nesting box 2 or 3 days before she is due to deliver and when she is less likely to develop the habit of messing in the box.  Where wet or cold weather is not a consideration, many breeders have elected to use the open top nesting box that can be placed inside the cage 2 or 3 days prior to the expected kindle date.  These boxes are easy to clean, inexpensive and space efficient.  With a little experimentation you will find the style of box that works best for the situation in your Rabbitry.  In either case you will need to supply nest-building materials for your expectant mother.  I have found it best to place the material loose in the cage and let the mother arranged it in the nesting box herself.  By doing so you are taking advantage of your rabbits instinctive nest building skills.  She will have her own idea anyway about how her nest should be built, but will appreciate having you supply ample building materials through out the process.  These materials can be straw, hay or even shredded paper.  I prefer a combination of timothy hay and shredded paper with a base of wood shavings that I will have previously laid into the bottom of the nesting box.  Once the mother has her nest built she will line it with soft fur that she will have pulled from the sides and front of her body.  Once the kits are born she will cover them with more fur.  A good mother will keep her babies warm but will uncover them should they get too warm.  If you have a good mother she will do all this with no need of intervention by you.

 Rabbits left to sit constantly on a wire floor can develop a condition called sore hocks.  Rabbits most susceptible to this condition are those having either thin fur on their feet or large rabbits that because of their weight put a lot of stress on their feet.  The Rex is an example of a breed having thin fur covering on their feet making them more prone than other breeds to sore hocks.  Flemish Giants, on the other hand, are an example of a large and heavy breed of rabbit that can suffer the pain of sore hocks if forced to spend long hours on wire.  The condition is preventable if the cage bottom is fitted with a plastic resting mat.  These mats are available with holes for the droppings to fall through making them self-cleaning and preferable to wooden mats that can become urine soaked even with daily cleaning.  An important misconception I want to correct; the term self-cleaning does not imply that maintenance is not needed.  The term simply means that the frequency of maintenance is less.

Rabbits love to get out of their cage to run, jump, and play.  If you have decided to keep your rabbit indoors as a house rabbit, he can fulfill this need as he entertains you with his amusing antics of sudden jumps and explosive runs.  If you have a fenced area or play pen your rabbit will love to go outside to play.  You can find small animal play pens at your local Petsmart, and most other pet stores.  You will need to supervise his play time to avoid any possibility of your rabbit escaping from the play area and getting lost or meeting up with a situation where it could be injured or worse.  Rabbits are aggressive diggers and excavate some very impressive burrows.  Rabbits that have access to fenced outdoor play areas have been known to dig their way to freedom if not well supervised.

Bunny Dental Problems:

Nature has equipped Rabbits with teeth that grow continuously throughout their life span.  This is a convenient provision for an animal that spends much of its life wearing away its teeth by tooth grinding which is the natural way they keep their teeth at the proper length.  And by the natural grinding of their teeth that takes place when chewing or gnawing on food pellets, roots and twigs and the other things that any respectable rabbit likes to chew on.  Unlike your teeth that are made of bone covered with a hard coating of enamel, your bunny’s teeth are made from a material called collagen, the same material that makes up your fingernails.  Just like your fingernails grow throughout your life so does your bunny’s teeth.  Unfortunately, this characteristic of continuous tooth growth can lead to some serious problems for a domestic bunny.  One such problem is a dental disease called malocclusion.  Sometimes called buck or wolf teeth, malocclusion is the failure of the upper and lower teeth to meet properly at the bite line.  When this happens, proper tooth wear does not take place causing a painful condition where the teeth can grow so long that they can eventually penetrate through the mouth or lips of the rabbit.  There are 3 causes of Malocclusion.  A congenital cause is one in which the rabbit was just born with the problem.  In this case the problem was most likely inherited from either the mother or the father.  Some breeds see a greater occurrence of the defect than others mainly due to altered characteristics to the natural bone structure of the face and skull.  This is common in the short-faced breeds such as dwarfs and lops.  Trauma, when a rabbit has received an injury to the face or head can lead to misalignment of the teeth and a disruption to the normal growth of the teeth.  Aggressive biting and pulling of the wires of its cage can cause this.  Falling or otherwise receiving a hard blow to the head or face can cause injury to the face or skull of the rabbit.  Infection such as a bacterial infection to the root of the tooth can result in changes in the direction of tooth growth.

Though there is no cure of Malocclusion the problem has been treated with success.  There is a tool designed for clipping a rabbit’s teeth to their normal length.  When clipping becomes necessary it is advisable to consult a veterinarian or experienced breeder to demonstrate the proper way to accomplish the task.  Some veterinarians have had success with surgery where the incisors, front teeth, are surgically removed.  After recovery rabbits have reportedly been able to live a normal healthy life.  Because Malocclusion is often an inherited abnormality, unless rabbits showing the condition can have the cause defiantly traced to an injury, the rabbit should never be bred.

Cleaning & Sanitation:

Not enough can be said about the importance of keeping a clean and sanitary rabbitry.  Most diseases and infections are the result of rabbits being forced to live in unhygienic conditions.  Every part of your rabbit’s cage should be washed and sanitized on a monthly basis and more often if necessary.  A Clorox wash will kill just about any bacteria or fungus growth.  After removing the water bottles, feeders, resting pads and toys from the cage, begin a thorough cleaning of the wire cages and the frames.  I usually use 1 cup of Clorox to 2 gallons of hot water.  Grease Lightning is a good all purpose cleaner for removing general dirt and grim.  It can be sprayed on full strength or diluted 1 cup to 2 gallons of hot water.  I usually add a detergent like Grease Lightening to the Clorox water.  After scrubbing down the cages and frames, I use a high-pressure water spray to rinse off all traces of the cleaning solutions and allow the cages to air-dry in the sun.  Next, wash the bottles and feeders.  I first wash off any accumulated surface soil before putting them through a Clorox wash, inside and out.  Use a bottlebrush to dislodge any algae from the inside of the bottles.  Be sure to thoroughly rinse the bottles after disinfecting.  Bottle nipples should get the same attention.  If water bowls are used, they should be washed daily and Cloroxed weekly.  Water bottles need only to be rinsed out every two or three weeks and their nipples cleaned at the same time.  Droppings pans should be emptied and cleaned at least once a week and more often if necessary.  I make a point of thoroughly washing and sanitizing the pans the same time that the cages are sanitized and washed down.  The pans are a serious source of bacterial growth and are also the major source of odor in the rabbitry.  Rabbits have a nasty habit of spraying their urine several feet beyond their cages resulting in an accumulation of urine stains on anything within their range.  Thus, cleaning of the rabbitry also becomes a frequent chore.  Urine guards installed in the cages can help to eliminate some of the problem but not entirely.  Urine screens attached to the top of the cage frames and hung in front of the cages will practically end the spraying problem.  If hung properly on the outside of the cage frame they will not seriously affect ventilation.  I place the screen only on the side or end of those frames facing into areas of the rabbitry I need to protect.  Plastic painter drop cloths of the right length and width work nicely and are inexpensive, making frequent replacement practical.  I replace the urine screens in my rabbitry each time I wash and sanitize the frames and cages.

Rabbits continually loose some of their hair that will become stuck to the cage floor and walls.  When they molt, the condition is exaggerated and will need special attention to see that it is quickly removed.  I have found that using a flame spreading propane torch works miracles for cleaning away stubborn stuck on hair from the bottom and sides of a wire cage while also sanitizing the cage.  As always, a good thing can be taken too far.   Care needs to be exercised to see that too much heat is not used that can burn the metallic coating off the cage wire leaving the cage vulnerable to rusting.   

Grooming Your Rabbit

Your rabbit will need grooming on a regular basis to prevent matting of his hair.  Rabbits shed every 3 months.  With every alternate shedding being especially heavy.  Rabbits are fastidious groomers and keep themselves very clean & neat.  They lick themselves like a cat does and like a cat they get hairballs when they ingest too much hair.  Unlike cats however, rabbits cannot vomit.  If hairballs are allowed to form they can become large masses of tangled hair & food.  If left untreated they will eventually block food from leaving the stomach and kill the rabbit.  Prevention is simple and is accomplished by frequent grooming and feeding a diet of high quality pellets and fresh timothy hey for additional roughage.  Rabbits enjoy being groomed and this time should be a pleasant experience for both of you.  Grooming once a week is usually enough for short hair rabbits or more often for longhair breeds.  Particular care is needed when molting is taking place. In the beginning, you will only need two brushes.  One should be a brush with soft bristles and a second a slicker brush or comb with wire bristles.  Start the grooming with a bowl of room temperature water.  Dip your hands in the water and rub them together so they are just damp but not wet.  Stroke the fur back and forth a few times followed by light bushing with the soft brush to remove loose hair.  Followed up with the wire brush or comb to loosen and carefully separate any areas of matting.  Matting should not be a problem if you keep your rabbit groomed regularly.  Rabbits by nature are very clean animals and grooming is a natural event for them.  It is not necessary to bathe your rabbit in water.  In fact, doing so is not a healthy practice.  If your rabbit's coat is soiled, it is best to use a moistened towelette, one especially designed for pet fur. 

Don’t Forget the Toenails!

A very important part of the grooming process is trimming your rabbit’s toenails.  They should be checked every time you brush its coat and if long, they should be trimmed.  Long nails can be caught in the cage wire and torn off and are generally uncomfortable for the rabbit.  Long nails can inadvertently inflict a painful scratch to the handler.  Perhaps a strong motivator for keeping your bunny’s nails cut short.  It is not always easy to clip your bunny’s nails, especially if you are working alone.  If your rabbit trusts you, the process will go much smoother.  It works best to have your rabbit sit comfortably on a grooming board where you can hold him securely against your body.  Most injuries that occur during nail trimming are the result of the rabbit making a sudden jump while the clipper is closed on the nail.  Hold one of the paws on the side furthest away from you.  You need to be very careful to avoid cutting into the quick where the blood vessels are located. The quick or vein runs part way up the nail and will appear pink in color if your bunny has white nails.  Make sure you can see this vein before cutting.  By holding a flashlight behind the nail it is possible to see more clearly where the quick stops and the dead part of the nail begins.  Leave approximately 1/8 inch of nail above the quick and the point where you trim the nail off to prevent the possibility of cutting into the quick.  If cut too closely, there will be profuse bleeding and your rabbit will feel pain.  Hold each nail securely as your trim it, all the while being prepared to let go immediately if your rabbit jumps.  If you should accidentally cut into the quick, dip a cotton swab in styptic powder or apply a drop of Kiwk Stop ointment to stop the blood flow.  Go on to the next paw, then turn your rabbit around and trim the nails on his other two paws.  Be sure to give a treat after you are finished, this will help your bunny understand that you were not punishing him or trying to hurt him. 

Now is a good time to trim off and even up the extra hair from the front of the toes just ahead of the toenails.  Leave enough hair to just cover the front of the nails.  Check the pads on each foot for any sigh of cracking or soreness.  This is also the time to check the hocks on the hind feet for any sign of sores or areas where the hair is warn off or is thin.  If sores are found they should be immediately treated.  Any sign of sore hocks demonstrates a need to place a resting pad in the bunny’s cage so that he can get his feet off the cage wire and prevent the problem from worsening. By making the grooming session a special event for both you and your rabbit, it will become an experience for establishing a mutual bond of trust and affection on which to build years of enjoyment with your pet.

Bunny Misbehavior:

Any article about rabbits needs to address the subject of behavior and what goes into raising a well-adjusted bunny that will be a quality pet and well adjusted to domestic life.  As quite as bunnies are and as calm as they may appear, there will be those times when certain rabbits misbehave badly by human standards.  Remember that what you may consider bad behavior may quite probably be very normal for a wild rabbit.  Animals have no concept of right and wrong, only survival and non-survival.  But when an animal’s behavior seriously violates acceptable standards of domestication, it becomes a dangerous problem requiring intervention.

Rabbits need to be handled frequently from the time they are just a few weeks old.  Though your pet may be labeled a domesticated rabbit, it will revert to the behavior more closely resembling that of a wild rabbit unless behavior modification is started early and continued throughout its adult lifetime.  As a kit (baby rabbit), your bunny must learn to associate your hands with something good, comforting and safe.  Frequent and careful handling will help modify your bunny’s natural instincts to escape.  Remember that a rabbit’s natural response is to flee and ask questions later.  Being picked up is an especially frightening experience that will prompt a rabbit to kick, squirm and use its claws and teeth to attack and escape from what it considers threatening.  It is your task to modify this natural behavior by enforcing and rewarding calm and relaxed behavior when handling or when even just being in the presence of your rabbit.  Resist all attempts on your part to discipline your rabbit.  Rough handling will be totally unproductive and will only encourage the very behavior you are attempting to modify.  Remember that you are working against millions of years of evolution during which your rabbit’s ancestors evolved the fight and flight survival instincts.  These instincts are hard wired into your rabbits stimulus-response system.  Modifying these natural responses will require time, patience and a very calm approach on your part.  Striking or hitting the rabbit or doing anything that might frighten your rabbit will only reinforce it natural survival instinct to escape.  Always remember that trust does not come naturally to a rabbit.

 The rabbit breeder works under a much different set of priorities than does the pet owner.  There are many more animals involved and a minimum amount of time that can be expended on any one animal.  For the show breeder, the goal is to raise animals displaying excellent type, markings and temperament with a minimum of expense in both money and time.  Animals that fail to meet or exceed these goals are culled from the rabbitry.  Those unfit as pet quality rabbits are usually disposed of for their high quality meat and fur.  To some this may seem cruel, but it is simply the economics of animal husbandry.  The responsible breeder can not afford the luxury of perpetuating animals that do not reflect the best qualities of the breed.  To do anything less would be self-serving and destructive. The goal of the responsible breeder is always to produce the highest quality rabbit possible that will meet or exceed the standard of perfection for the breed he raises.  Some of his rabbits will be kept as show rabbits, some kept or sold for breeding purposes, Other will be sold as pets.  It is the responsibility of the new pet owner to take the positive characteristics the breeder has bred into his rabbits and expend the time and effort necessary to exploit those characteristics to their maximum.  Doing so will result in a happy well-adjusted rabbit having the temperament to adjust well into its new environment as a family pet.  Rabbits are growing fast in their popularity as family pets.  Most breeders will encourage pet owners to neuter our spay their pets as a means of enhancing the characteristics of good temperament while making house breaking easier with less chance of spraying or marking.

Concluding Remarks:

I am very particular about who I allow to handle my rabbits in the rabbitry.  When a potential buyer or maybe just an interested visitor comes into my Rabbitry I have no way of knowing what other animals they may have recently come in contact with and what if any health problems those other animals may have had.  We teach are children when they go shopping with us that in the store the rule is to “look but don’t touch.”  That same rule should be even more strongly enforced when it comes to your rabbits.  Some strains of diseases can live on a person's hands for several hours and be transmitted later to your animals by contact.  You will not know anything has happened until you notice one of your rabbits showing symptoms and by then it may too late to prevent the spread of a serious and potentially deadly disease.

People unfamiliar with rabbits will probably know nothing about the proper way to pick up or hold a rabbit; this goes particularly true for children.  A mistake here can mean a dropped or other wise seriously injured bunny let alone the possibility of a scratched and unhappy customer.  Prevention should always be the rule and never the exception.  If you are new to rabbits, please allow me, the breeder, to help you handle a rabbit for the first time when you visit our Rabbitry. Please do not be offended if you are asked not to touch the rabbits or put your hand into the cages.  If you have not experienced an angry or frightened rabbit you might be very surprised at how aggressive and even vicious they can be.  Rabbits can deliver painful bites and scratches if sufficiently provoked.

 The Real Facts of Buying a Rabbit:

 After reading what it takes to be a responsible owner of a rabbit, you need to question yourself, “Am I prepared to accept the long term responsibility of raising and caring for this rabbit?”  Is this really what I thought I was getting myself into?  Is it reasonable to assume that I can accept this responsibility for what may be the next 5 to 8 years?”  Buying any animal is not something that should ever be an impulsive decision.  The worst thing I see is people buying a little bunny for a child at Easter time.  I can almost guarantee that once the novelty of the bunny has worn off, it will be homeless before Thanksgiving.  Pet stores are the worst offenders.  I walked into a pet store in my home town with a couple adult mix-breed rabbits I had understood they would take for resale only to be told that the store owner wanted only 6 week old bunnies.  The interest of this storeowner was not in selling to responsible people who would provide long-term good homes for the animals they purchased.  Her interest was only in selling what was cute; an animal that would appeal to the impulsive buyer or to the child of an impulsive parent.  And you cannot really blame the owner; she is simply operating within the free enterprise system of supply and demand, cute or sexy sells.  The fault lies in the irresponsible trafficking of live animals.  Pet stores are too often the first step along the road to animal abuse.  I have heard it recommended that an unwanted bunny be taken to the animal shelter.  Unfortunately, unwanted bunnies arriving at the city animal shelter have a life expectancy of 12 hours or less before being put down. There will be little if any real effort made to find these abandoned bunnies a new home.  It is sad, but that is reality.  Rabbit breeders must work under the realities that the animals they cull from their show and breeding stock may face a very dismal future when placed into the pet market unless very careful attention is given to sell only to responsible buyers.  When I sell pet quality rabbits, I make a real effort to avoid selling any bunny to parents with small children in tow.  In my experience such sales are only big trouble for the bunny.  Instead I look for 4H kids wanting to raise a rabbit for a project.  Or families with older children that demonstrate by their behavior and the questions they ask me that they are truly interested in buying a pet.  This is particularly true if their parents take an active interest in the purchase and are investing in a quality cage with the accessories needed to properly care for their new pet.  As a breeder I guarantee the health of the rabbits I sell.  I also request that a buyer of one of my rabbits return the rabbit to me before they abandon the animal or turn it loose along some roadway to die a terrifying and painful death at the snapping fangs of a pack of blood thirsty dogs.

The last, best advice I can give to new pet owners and potential breeders is to read every thing you can get your hands on about rabbits and to educate yourself about the nature of the breed you own, its health needs and temperament.  For the potential breeder I suggest that you familiarize yourself with basic rabbit genetics, the standards of the breed you want to raise, the potential market for your rabbits, and finally the records you will need to maintain on your rabbits and on your hobby business.  I do stress the word hobby.  Few people can say that they have ever made money raising rabbits.  It will generally cost more to breed and raise a rabbit than you will recover from its sale.  If after reading the facts of bunny ownership or raising rabbits, and you still believe this is the pet or hobby for you, then I welcome you into what I feel is a highly interesting and enjoyable hobby.  For the new pet owner, I wish you luck and many happy and fun hours spent with your new bunny.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email us.

Written by John W. Jones
Copyright © 2005  [Verlannahill Rabbitry]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/26/07.

*Website created by Connie Jones Larson