Things every rabbit owner should know
If you've new to bunny ownership, then there are certain things you need to know in order to make sure your rabbit has a happy and healthy life with you. If you haven't already, then first take a read of Things you should know before you get a rabbit as this has some basic information. The following list contains the most important things you need to know about keeping your rabbit.
NEVER pick up your rabbit by its ears
I put this at the top as I'm horrified by the number of people who still think this is acceptable. It is not. It is extremely painful for the rabbit (How would it feel if someone lifted you off the floor by your ears!). It will also damage the rabbit's ears usually beyond repair.
Some people (even vets) still recommend carrying a rabbit by its scruff. Personally I do not agree with this, especially with larger rabbits. The correct way to carry a rabbit is with one hand under it's chest, and one supporting its rear end. Hold it firmly so that the rabbit feels secure, but not so tight that you are hurting it. If it does not feel safe then a rabbit will struggle and squirm with vigor in an attempt to escape.
Rabbits need hay
I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Beyond anything else, a rabbit needs unlimited access to hay.
In the wild, a rabbit will be eating grass pretty much all the time. As a consequence of this a rabbit's teeth are growing constantly to keep up with the constant grinding (up to 5 inches a year!). If you feed your rabbit purely dried pellets and vegetables, there is nothing to wear down the teeth and they will eventually grow too big for the rabbit to eat properly. At best this will require a trip to the vets to have them ground down. If left unchecked, it can lead to painful growth into the opposite gum, and in extreme cases even death!
A rabbit's stomach is designed to digest grasses, and as such needs a large amount of fibre to keep healthy. Lack of hay to supply this fibre can easily lead to GI stasis and an untimely death!
- Mental health
I recently read an interesting scientific report comparing the behaviour of rabbits who had access to hay, and those who didn't. Rabbits without hay access showed many signs of mental inbalance, including excessive grooming and rapid activity switching
From the above points it should be obvious that hay is extremely important for your rabbit!
Do not use pine, cedar or cat litter for rabbits
Using pine, cedar or other litter that "smells" is very bad for your rabbits. It can cause liver problems and has also been linked with cancer. We simply use a layer of newspaper with hay on the top in our litter trays. This is simple, cheap and easy to clean out. The rabbits enjoy munching on the hay while they are sat there too. In the past we have also used a layer of newspaper with shredded paper on top. The shredded paper works the same way as the hay in keeping the rabbits feet and bum out of contact with existing mess in the tray.
Beware of fly strike
Fly strike is a horrible problem for rabbits in the summer months. This is when flies become attracted to the rabbits due to dampness or smell, especially around their rear ends. The fly will lay eggs on the rabbit's fur which eventually hatch out into maggots, and start eating the rabbit alive! The rabbit then usually dies of shock. If this sounds horrible it's because it is! Please do everything you can to prevent this happening to your rabbit.
- Keep your rabbits clean
Rabbits are usually very good at keeping themselves clean, but if they do not have much room to move about in a dirty hutch then flies will become attracted to the smell. Make sure you clean the hutch out regularly. If your rabbit has a dirty behind due to diet or health problems, then make sure you clean it regularly, or preferably alter it's diet to prevent runny poos (Less vegetables and more hay).
- Give your rabbits space
The more room a rabbit has to run around in, the more room he has to get away from his toilet area, and the less likely flies will congregate around him. A rabbit in a cramped hutch has no way of getting away from flies.
- Use fly paper or equivilent
If your buns are kept in a shed like ours, or in their own room then old fashioned fly paper is great at controlling them. There are more pleasant looking products now available such as cardboard flowers that stick on the windows, but in our experience these do not work nearly as well, and I worry about the chemicals given off by them due to the dire warnings against touching them on the packet! You can also get small electric fly zappers now, but I have not tried these personally.
- Use "Rearguard"
Rearguard is a special foam that you can get from your vets. You apply it to your rabbit's back end and it prevents any eggs that do get layed from developing into maggots, and lasts for 10 weeks.
Do not feed your rabbit too many vegetables
Rabbits have very delicate digestive systems which work completely differently from our own. They need a lot of fibre in order to keep healthy, and many vegetables are too rich for their system. You can see which vegetables are recommended by taking a look at the Carrot Cafe site. The most important thing with your rabbits diet is to change it slowly. Introduce different vegetables slowly and in small quantities and if any symptoms occour such as runny or squishy poos then remove them from the diet.
Rabbits are very good at hiding illness
Rabbits are extremely good at looking perfectly healthy one day, then falling down dead the next! The theory is that in the wild, looking sick is a bad idea as it means you will be the one picked on by any predators lurking around. However, as long as you get to know your rabbit properly, you can usually tell when something isn't quite right. Usually they will not be quite so nosy or interested, or may stay lying down when usually they come running. Other good indications are the number and size of their droppings, and the amount of food or water they are consuming. If your rabbit is obviously unwell and is sat hunched up in the corner looking miserable and grinding his teeth, then get to a vet straight away! A rabbit displaying these obvious symptoms is a very poorly rabbit indeed!
Rabbits do not cope well with heat
Rabbits are designed to live outside in all weathers, so they have a very nicely insulating coat to keep them warm. In the summer months they can always escape down into their cool burrow. Unfortunately, pet rabbits don't have that luxury, and can get very hot in the summer. You can help them keep cool in several ways:
- Give them shade
This may sound obvious but shade is vital if they are kept outside. Try and position their hutch so that it is in the shade, rather than relying on the hutch itself to provide shade.
- Give them a fan
Although rabbits don't perspire to keep cool (they regulate heat through their ears), a fan is still useful to convect heat away from their bodies as they lose it. Most buns love lying in front of a fan.
- Give them a frozen bottle
This is a really good way to help your bun. Get an old 2litre pop bottle and fill it full of water and freeze it. You can then leave it for your bun to lie against.
Rabbits do not like being picked up
A popular belief is that having a rabbit is having a cute furry thing you can cuddle whenever you like. In truth rabbits rarely like being picked up. They are designed to live on the ground, and feel vunerable and helpless when taken away from that ground. In many ways being picked up is similar to being caught by a preditor in the wild. They will struggle greatly if they feel there is a chance of escape, possibly injuring their back, or ending up falling from several feet.
Try and get to know your rabbit at its own level by spending time lying or sitting on the floor. If you do not try and grab it every time it comes near, it will eventually learn to trust you and become very affectionate, sometimes "grooming" you by licking your clothes and skin. If you do have to pick up your rabbit up by necessity to transport it, or administer treatment, make sure that you hold it firmly so that it feels secure.