Bunny Basics: Raising Your Rabbit
Rabbits are curious, attentive little animals with an irresistible charm all their own. They’re hard to beat when it comes to the ideal small pet.
By Dave Summers, Ph.D, Nutritionist
Rabbits have an advanced social structure and relate to people as well other domestic animals. They are gentle by nature and readily attach themselves to their families. In the proper environment they are very clean and easy to keep. If room is a problem; dwarf rabbits do not require a lot of space and are suitable for living in small apartments. Rabbits are quiet, too - another plus for small homes.
Choosing a Rabbit
With all the breeds to choose from, which is the right rabbit for you? There is a lot of variation between breeds in size (from two to 20lbs), color and coat. For example, angora rabbits are bred for their long soft fur. Rex rabbits have short, velvety fur. Lops are known for their large floppy ears. Fortunately, almost all rabbits have the same gentle nature.
Rabbits usually live six to 10 years. Look for a healthy bunny from a shelter or pet store. Some Pet Valu stores sell rabbits and other small animals from breeders.
Select a rabbit that looks well fed and hops about animatedly. The fur should be clean and shiny, the eyes bright and the nose dry. Check the insides if the forelegs. If they are matted, it is a sign the rabbit has recently had a cold. Rabbits with colds tend to wipe their noses with the inside of their front paws and legs. The front teeth should come together evenly. Check the hindquarters to see if the fur is dry, clean and not matted. If it is stained or has feces on it, this could be a sign of a diarrhea problem. A healthy bunny has dry, hard droppings. The ears should have no crusty brown scales that would indicate ear mite infection.
Bringing Your Rabbit Home
Your rabbit will require a cage or "hutch" when he arrives home. Having their own space is important to rabbits. In the wild they have underground burrows to hide -- at your house they have their hutch. A good hutch will have a partition where the rabbit can sleep and a larger living area. Their food and water should be kept in the living area. Both food and water should be well secured so nothing will spill. Keep your rabbit’s hutch clean, dry and not too hot. Rabbits can tolerate cold a lot better than heat, so stay away from direct sunlight and fireplaces.
Your rabbit will enjoy a layer of bedding on the hutch floor, whether it’s a solid bottom or a wire floor with a collection tray below. Wood shavings or clean straw are good forms of bedding. Don’t use hay or grass as your rabbit may eat the dirty bedding. Bedding should be cleaned two or three times a week. Wire floors should be cleaned at least once a week with a wire brush and periodically disinfected.
Rabbits need lots of water compared to dogs or cats; they will drink almost 2oz of water per pound of body weight per day. They may drink even more on hot days so make sure the water container holds enough with some left over every day and change it every day. Water bottles have an advantage over dishes because the water is always fresh and doesn't get dirty, but as long as they are clean and full, either will work.
Handling Your Rabbit
Baby rabbits should be picked up with both hands. Slip one hand under the chest and use the other to support the hindquarters. When the rabbit gets older pick it up by the loose the skin over the neck and a hand under the hindquarters if needed. Never pick a rabbit up by the ears. Do not handle a baby rabbit too often when he first comes home, even though the temptation is there. He needs time alone to adjust to his new home. Young bunnys are delicate; small children need to understand the bunny is not a stuffed toy before they handle it gently with adult supervision.
Handling your new Rabbit:
Day 1: Put your rabbit in their hutch and watch it, do not disturb it.
Day 2: Talk to your rabbit, so it gets used to your voice.
Day 3-5: Offer your rabbit food from your hand. Pet it and try picking it up a few times.
Day 6 -14: Pet and brush your rabbit. Introduce it to any other pets in the house hold. Keep picking it up.
After 2 weeks: Take your rabbit out to play every day. Try to get to know your rabbit well. If you handle it gently and talk to it as often as you can, it will quickly learn to trust you. Watch your pet carefully. You will soon begin to understand the fascinating sounds and other movements it makes to tell you things.
Understanding Your Rabbit
A rabbit learns a lot by sniffing. When introduced to something new they will often sniff it. Scent is also used to tell other rabbits and animals apart. They will recognize a strange dog by its smell not by sight. Rabbits have a scent gland under their chin. He will rub or "chin" anything that he considers his own: his hutch, favorite spot in the house and even you! When a rabbit hears a strange sound it will stand on its hind legs to look and listen to focus in on what is happening. When angry or aggressive a rabbit will scratch the ground with his front paws. If threatened he will lay his ears back along their head and exhibit a tense body and will make soft grunts or squeal if he’s afraid. He will warn other rabbits of danger by thumping his back legs.
For proper growth and health, rabbits require a balanced diet. The best and easiest way to feed your rabbit is to buy a good quality, complete and balanced rabbit food. Rabbits need lots of fiber in their diet. Good-quality rabbit foods will include a good fiber source, such as alfalfa. Not only does alfalfa have good quality fiber, but rabbits also like the taste. Other fiber sources for rabbits include soybean hulls, wheat shorts or bran, beet pulp, dried grass and oats. Rabbits also need protein, vitamins and minerals in their food. The protein level of most rabbit foods is between 16% and 18%. Too high a protein level will lead to more ammonia being given off by the droppings. Not only does this cause more odor, but high ammonia levels can damage the rabbits' respiratory tract.
How much to feed is dependent on the size, activity level and age of the individual rabbit. The amount can vary so use feeding guides as guides only. An average 6-8 pound rabbit will eat about 100 grams of food per day. Smaller dwarf rabbits will eat about 50 grams of food per day. You do not want your rabbit to get fat. Try running your hand over the rabbit’s back. If he is bony, feed him more. If he doesn’t finish his food, you’re probably overfeeding and should feed him less. Rabbits store most of their fat around the belly. They easily become "pot-bellied" if overfed. Look and feel the stomach of your rabbit. It should not be fat or hang down. Always make sure your rabbit has plenty of water. Rabbits will not eat if they cannot drink.
Rabbits should be fed at the same time every day. If feeding once daily, evening is the best time to feed. Feed morning and evening if feeding twice a day. Occasional treats of dried bread, carrots, cauliflower, celery, peas, turnip, apples, pears, or dandelions are fine. Avoid sweets or high-starch treats as they cause diarrhea and obesity.
Rabbit Plague:Rabbits were imported to Australia for hunting. It wasn’t a thoroughly ‘thought-through’ plan and they quickly because overpopulated!
Cecotropes:Rabbits sometimes eat their poo –but they have to! They have two kinds of feces. One type is called a “cecotrope”and it consists of food that is not fully digested. Similar to a cow chewing their cud, a rabbit will eat their cecotropes in order to re-digest their food, maximizing their nutrients.
More than 50 Breeds: There are more than 50 breeds of rabbits, ranging in size from a 7 kg Flemish Giant to a 1 kg Netherland Dwarf.
Not a Rodent:Rabbits are lagomorphs, making them one of few small animal pets that aren’t rodents.
Fur Care:In the spring, your rabbit’s fur will naturally fall out. This is called molting. Your rabbit is very good at grooming herself. You can help by grooming once a week with a stiff bristle brush or a fine toothed metal comb, especially for long haired breeds. Brush with the direction of the fur to keep the fur in peak condition.
Occasionally you may want to bathe your rabbit. Use a mild shampoo to prevent dry skin and fur. Rinse thoroughly and dry with a towel. Rabbits clean themselves daily. They use their tongues but also their paws where the tongue can not reach.
Hair Balls: Rabbits do not have the ability to regurgitate. For this reason, it’s important that rabbits get enough fiber (through fresh hay and properly formulated pellets) to keep hair moving through the digestive tract. If a rabbit develops a hairball, it can block the digestive tract –another reason why regular brushing is important.
Exercise & Play: Your rabbit likes to be kept busy. You should try to play with and exercise your rabbit every day. Many rabbits love toys too! Try the Super Pet Crinkle Tunnel or Bunny Shake and Chew to amuse your bunny!
Teeth and Nails: Your rabbit’s front teeth grow continuously and have to be worn down by gnawing. Your Pet Valu store offers several products for this purpose, including wooden chew toys. In the wild, rabbits use their front legs for digging and this keeps their nails short. Front nails grow faster than back nails. You will need to clip your pet rabbit’s nails to keep them trimmed, but don’t cut the quick. It’s the blood vessel in the nail, and it bleeds and hurts if you cut it!
Training: Rabbits can be trained much like other pets. Try using a spray bottle to deter bad behavior. To toilet train your bunny, watch her closely as she moves about the house. At the first sign of restlessness, vigorous pawing of the ground or backing up into a corner, pick her up and place her in their toilet area. Later on the rabbit must be able to crawl into their toilet area on her own. Not every rabbit can be house broken, but thorough training and patience helps.
Spaying & Neutering:Rabbits can breed…well, like rabbits! Spaying and neutering is recommended. Spaying is especially important for female rabbits because female rabbits have an 80% chance of getting uterine cancer in their lifetime. Spaying reduces this cancer risk to almost nothing.
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