Caring for your pet rabbit

Caring for your pet rabbit
White rabbit
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Rabbits make great pets. In general rabbits require appropriate housing, exercise, socialisation and diet for good welfare. Some breeds of rabbits, particularly the longer haired rabbits, may require daily grooming. It is important that you understand all the requirements for caring for a rabbit before you purchase one.

Rabbits generally live for 5-8 years depending on their environment and breed, but they can live for as long as 12 years. If you decide to purchase a rabbit, ensure you are prepared to care for them that long.

Diet
Rabbits are herbivores and only eat plant material. Their natural diet consists generally of young leaves from plants/bushes, grasses, weeds, plant bulbs and sometimes the bark from bushes and trees.

Rabbits need to eat small amounts frequently. Approximately 30 feeds, of 2-8g of food, each day is normal. Pet rabbits must be fed a high fibre diet to help maintain their body and teeth health. Rabbits' teeth are constantly growing and need to be continually worn down by eating.

Their diet must consist of unlimited access to grass hay and/or grass. If you are keeping you rabbit inside most of the time or they do not have access to grass for several hours a day you can use grass hay as an alternative fibre source. Lawn clippings must not be fed as they ferment rapidly and cause digestive upset in your rabbit.

Fresh green vegetables such as cabbage, lettuce, broccoli and celery should be included in their daily diet - approximately 2 cups a day. BUT, fresh green vegetables must not be their only source of food, the fibre content is too low. Rabbits must be provided a high fibre diet.

Rabbits need a tablespoon of commercial rabbit nuggets/pellets once or twice daily. Do not feed rabbit muesli – this causes dental disease. Rabbits eating muesli also tend to leave the bits they don't like, and this leads to nutrient deficiencies.

High fat and high sugar foods such as carrots, other root vegetables, and fruit should only be fed in small amounts. You can use these types of foods as environmental enrichment.

Avoid feeding rabbits potatoes, onions, avocado, peas, corn, beans, bread, nuts, seeds, chocolate, rhubarb leaves and oxalis clover as these species are poisonous. There are also a number of plant species should avoid exposing your rabbits to.

Speak to your local vet, pet shop, or rabbit breeder about the most suitable diet for your pet. Always remember to introduce new diets slowly to avoid digestive upset.

Fresh, cool water must be provided at all times.

Housing
Rabbits require a hutch to live in that is safe from predators such as dogs and cats, has an area that protects them from the weather, and provides enough space for exercise. A suitable hutch design includes a dark, dry area for the rabbits to rest, which has a bedding of soft hay and is water proof. The other section of the hutch should be light and large enough to allow for a separate exercise and toileting area. The hutch must be well ventilated. It is best to have a hutch made out of wood as metal hutches tend to heat up more quickly.

Rabbits should not be placed in pens or hutches with wire floors, it is bad for their feet. It is ok for part of the pen to be made of wire as long as your rabbit has an area where they can stand on solid ground. Many two story hutches provide this option.

Your hutch needs to be at least 'three hops long' (approx. 4 times the length of your bunny when stretched out), and twice as wide as your bunny. Anything smaller and he will be too cramped. If you buy a juvenile bunny, remember he will grow!

It is important to clean the hutch at least every second day by removing soiled bedding and ensuring rabbits have a dry area to sleep. Rabbits that do not have access to clean bedding can suffer from respiratory infections, skin ailments and pest infestation such as fleas and mites. Rabbits are capable of being toilet trained. There is plenty of information on the internet about toilet training rabbits which may be worth looking at.

Rabbit should spend most of their time indoors or equal time indoors and outdoors. When you rabbit is indoors it should have at least some time each day to roam free. You may wish to set up a room or two rooms where your rabbit can roam free and interact with the family. Remember, however, rabbits like to chew on things, so if leaving your rabbit free to roam unsupervised, you may come home to some chewed skirting boards or chair legs.

If you wish to provide your rabbit with a larger living area than its hutch when you are not home, consider a pet pen or a children's play pen. You could attach it to the hutch to give your rabbit a larger space to exercise and play. Remember when in your house rabbits will have a tendency to chew wooden furniture and cables.

When outside, your pet rabbit should have the opportunity to dig and forage, and should be confined to an enclosed area, not allowed to roam free. A secure back yard where no other animals (particularly cats or wild rabbits) can enter is great, but a penned off section of grass would do just as well. Try to reduce the risk of mosquito bites to your rabbits as mosquitos can carry Myxomatosis from the wild rabbit population to your pet. Ensure that if you leave your rabbit outside for long periods of time they have access to their hutch or a weather proof area with bedding so they can rest.

You must never leave your rabbit anywhere without access to water.

Companionship
Rabbits are social species and prefer to live in groups. If you decide to own a rabbit, it is best to always have at least two. However, if you don't have the room or time or money to keep two rabbits you will need to become your rabbit's companion. This means that if you are away for long periods (more than 4 hours every day) you will need to provide your rabbit with enrichment activities and toys to keep them occupied and prevent them from becoming lonely or suffering from stress.

If you have two or more rabbits it is important to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Separate males and females into different pens or have your veterinarian desex them. Males will be less likely to fight each other if introduced at a young age. Females and males can be prone to fighting amongst each other so make sure you accustom new rabbits with each other in a supervised environment or through a mesh fence before they co-habit.

Behaviour
Rabbits are social animals who require companionship. They are playful and inquisitive and require the stimulation of other rabbits or humans and their environment. They are active animals that need to exercise and play regularly. Ensuring your rabbit is adequately stimulated is an important aspect of caring for your rabbit. This can be achieved through environmental enrichment.

Rabbits are most active during the early morning, late afternoon and evening. This is the best time for you to interact with your rabbit.

Scent is an important means of communication for rabbits.

Rabbits are a prey species, this means that they are the animals that other animals catch and eat! Therefore, rabbits have a natural inclination to hide from things that scare them. Your rabbit's environment must cater for this. You need to provide them with places in their enclosure to hide.

It is natural for rabbits to chew on things (it keeps their teeth in good health), nest (create nests using their own fur, hay and other materials they find lying around), thump their back feet, and play with objects.

If you notice a rapid change in your rabbits behaviour such as hiding, aggression when you try to touch or pick them up, excessive cage or object chewing, over grooming, changes in feeding or toileting, playing with water bottles or over drinking, or repeated circling of enclosure you should contact your veterinarian. You rabbit may be in pain or suffering from stress.

Health problems
Rabbits are vulnerable to a number of health problems, in particular diseases such as Myxomatosis and Calicivirus. These diseases are generally fatal for pet rabbits. They have been introduced into Australia to control the wild rabbit population. Unfortunately pet rabbits are just as susceptible to them. There is, however, a vaccine for Calicivirus. You can have your rabbit vaccinated against this disease every 6 months by your veterinarian.

Rabbits can develop dental problems. It is important that they are constantly chewing on something; either grass, hay or a gnawing block as their teeth grow at a rate of 2-3mm per week. Overgrown teeth can lead to weight loss, severe pain and discomfort. If you think your rabbit's teeth are getting too long, talk to your veterinarian about some suitable options for reducing their length and/or maintaining an appropriate length.

Rabbits are susceptible to mite infestations. Symptoms include hair loss and itchiness. A thorough clean out and disinfection of the hutch is required in this situation. The rabbit should be treated by a veterinarian.

Any health issues that develop require advice from your local veterinarian.

Desexing
Many animal welfare shelters are inundated with unwanted pet rabbits, which have been bred by accident. If you do not plan to breed with your rabbit, discuss desexing with your veterinarian. In male rabbits this is a relatively simple procedure. In female rabbits it is a more major operation. Desexing can help reduce nesting behaviour and improve toilet training.

Alternatively, you can separate males and females into different pens.
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Heat stress
Grey rabbitRabbits can suffer from heat stress. Once the temperature rises above 28ºC it is necessary to regularly monitor your rabbits. It is important not to place the hutch in direct sunlight during the warmer months. Keep it in the shade even on warm to cool days. It does not take long for heat to build up in small areas. On hot days it may be necessary to provide a frozen drink bottle or ice brick in the nesting area of the hutch to reduce the temperature.

If you hutch is located inside your house and the temperature is likely to get rise above 30ºC you may need to place the hutch in an area where it can obtain a breeze. Opening a window may enable a breeze to help cool your rabbit.

A rabbit suffering from heat stroke may show signs of weakness, incoordination, convulsions and coma. If you suspect your rabbit is suffering from heat stress, you must contact your veterinarian immediately. While you are waiting you can begin the process of reducing his/her temperature by placing them in tepid water or wrapping them in cool wet towels. Never place your heat stressed rabbit in cold or iced water.

Handling
Rabbits make great pets for children. However, they are fragile and young children should not handle them as they can accidentally cause injury when picking them up, by squeezing too tightly, or dropping them. Children should always be supervised when interacting with and, in the case of older children, handling rabbits.

Rabbits must be handled appropriately so they do not scratch or bite and so they can develop a positive relationship with humans. It is important to handle rabbits regularly, especially when they are young. The best way to handle a rabbit is when seated to avoid the rabbit falling. Rabbits should be picked up with two hands and held close to the chest or on your lap so they can rest their feet and feel secure.

Exercise
Rabbits require daily exercise. If your rabbit is living in a hutch of minimum size make sure it has an exercise area that is safe and that the rabbit has access to it for at least four hours each day. Toys, obstacles and food treats can form environmental enrichment that encourages your rabbit to exercise when you are not home.

Legislation
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 protects the welfare of all animals, including rabbits.

Rabbits and other pets
Rabbits can make a wonderful addition to your family. However, if you have other pets it is important you consider the impact of your rabbit on them and them on your rabbit. Dogs and cats can have a natural instinct to hunt and/or kill rabbits. If you are introducing rabbits to a home with existing dogs and cats, it is important that your rabbit(s) is safe from your other pets at all times.

Remember barking dogs can also cause your rabbit stress. If you dog has a tendency to bark at your rabbit, ensure the hutch/run is in a place inaccessible to your dog when you are not there to supervise.

If your rabbits gets along well with your other pets, that is fantastic. Your rabbit will have another companion when you are unable to be with it. But ensure you always keep your rabbit safe.

Remember
Rabbits make great pets but purchasing a rabbit should be a long term decision as they live for up to twelve years.

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