Raising your first domestic rabbit? Here are some rules and guidelines to help you provide a welcoming home for your new pet.
By Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson
Looking to get a rabbit for a family pet? Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson have the information for raising rabbits from baby bunnies to mature, award-winning adults in How to Raise Rabbits (Voyageur Press, 2011). This excerpt, which explains basic information new rabbit owners should be aware of when adding a domestic rabbit to the family, is from Chapter 7, “Your Pet Rabbit.”
It’s time to take a moment to discuss another aspect of rabbit ownership—the joy of rabbits as pets.
Rabbit breeders raise rabbits because they enjoy doing so and enjoy the rewards and benefits of their hobby. Yet many people enjoy rabbits but don’t have the desire to raise them on any scale; they choose to have rabbits as pets only.
This is where there can be a bit of confusion. People who raise rabbits for showing or breeding purposes typically have three categories of rabbits for sale: show rabbits, brood rabbits, and pet rabbits. In the majority of cases, the pet rabbits are those that did not meet the ideal criteria for some reason that prevented them from being viewed as show specimens or brood stock. They may have a disqualifying attribute, be oversized, or be mismarked. In any case, pet rabbits typically have some characteristic that prevents them from being an ideal specimen. In many cases, people who purchase rabbits as pets are more concerned with the rabbit’s disposition than they are with the rabbit’s breed type. However, not everyone who wants to own a few pet rabbits wants to own rabbits that have blatant faults. Therefore, anyone shopping for pet rabbits should clearly differentiate whether they want pet-quality rabbits or show-quality rabbits to be enjoyed as pets.
Rabbits make excellent pets. They have many positive attributes that make them an ideal choice for many situations when other, more “traditional” pets are not an option. Rabbits are quiet and don’t require long walks or other forms of daily exercise, they don’t eat very much, and they certainly don’t bark at the mailman. However, a pet of any type is a definite commitment, and a rabbit is no exception. Because a domestic rabbit’s life expectancy is approximately 7 to 10 years, a pet owner is committing to a long-term period of ownership and dedication, but also a long-term period of enjoyment from the pet. Rabbits are an ideal project for children who are involved with 4-H. Children are able to get acquainted with the responsibilities of owning and raising a livestock breed while gaining the benefits of working with a small animal that is easily handled and cared for.
There are different schools of thought regarding the topic of whether bucks or does make better pets. Generally speaking, it’s acknowledged that a neutered male is probably the quietest and most docile choice for a pet. However, many people have had excellent success with pets of either gender, and that includes unaltered bucks. If I were choosing a pet, I would choose a doe, but that’s my personal preference. I like the fun dispositions of does, although there are certainly cases in which a doe can be unpredictable or moody. I have one doe that will attack the nozzle of her water bottle if the water doesn’t come out quickly enough to suit her. She is a sharp contrast to another of my does, who would never dream of being anything but sweet and kind. There are obviously personality extremes in either gender, and it really comes down to individual rabbits and their personalities, rather than a cut-and-dried case of one gender over another.
It is fascinating to observe the inherent personalities of animals, and rabbits are particularly entertaining with their mannerisms and antics. Personality is a facet of rabbit ownership that has the potential to be overlooked when rabbits are raised for commercial purposes, but pet owners have the opportunity to really get to know their rabbit(s) and observe the intricacies of each personality.
Just as with humans, there are shy rabbits and rabbits that are more outgoing and bold. I remember bringing home a pair of 10-week-old does who had been raised together and handled exactly the same amount. One doe was always happy to see you, always climbing the hutch door, quite fearless and bold. The other doe would hide her face in the corner of the hutch whenever you spoke to her; she was quite skittish and shy. There was no explanation for the vast differences in their behavior except for inherent disposition.
Generally speaking, the term “house rabbit” doesn’t necessarily refer to a rabbit whose hutch is kept indoors, but rather to a rabbit that is allowed to roam freely throughout a house as a pet. People enjoy this type of rabbit ownership because it allows them to truly get to know the natural actions and character of their pet rabbit, due to the ample observation time that comes from having a pet whose habitat is your living room.
This list is by no means exhaustive, as it would be impossible to list each and every plant that might prove harmful to a rabbit. Always keep plants out of the reach of your rabbits unless you are positively certain that they are not harmful for rabbits to ingest.
• Aloe Vera
• Elephant Ear
• Glory Lily
• Hemlock (Poison and Water varieties)
• Ivy (Boston and English varieties)
• Jerusalem Cherry
• Lily of the Valley
• Lords and Ladies
• Marsh Marigold
• Meadow Saffron
• Mexican Breadfruit
• Morning Glory
• Pencil Cactus
• Solomon’s Seal
• Sweet Pea
• Swiss Cheese Plant
• Umbrella Plant
• Yellow Jasmine
Because of the dangers that a rabbit may encounter when roaming loose in a house, it is quite common for rabbit owners to restrict their house rabbits to only a room or two. In this case, the room(s) should be thoroughly “rabbit proofed” to eliminate any sources of potential danger or harm that the rabbit might encounter. Rabbits are naturally prone to chewing and may decide to chew on something that could harm them, such as an electrical cord. On the other hand, they might also decide to chew on something that you might rather they did not, such as an expensive sofa or end table. For these reasons, you will want to carefully select the objects that are accessible to any rabbit that is allowed to roam freely in your home. This is for your own benefit, as well as theirs.
It is important to remove any houseplants when you are rabbit-proofing. At best, you wouldn’t want your rabbit to gorge itself on greens, and at worst, many houseplants are poisonous to rabbits. House rabbits must be trained to use the litter box, which is not a difficult task but is certainly something that you will want to take care of before your rabbit is allowed to roam around.
All pet owners like to make their pets happy, and one of the most common ways to do this is to provide an occasional treat for their pet. Rabbit owners are no exception, and many enjoy giving treats to their rabbits from time to time. But many rabbit owners worry about offering the wrong treat and are fearful of giving their pet bunny something that could be potentially harmful to its health.
The main thing to remember when choosing any type of treat is that moderation is the key. Any type of treat that is given in excessive amounts could have the potential to be harmful to your rabbit because an abrupt change in diet can upset your rabbit’s digestion. Therefore, always take care to offer treats only in small amounts so that you don’t accidentally harm your rabbit.
There are many treats that are safe to feed your rabbit in small amounts, but some of the more popular choices are as follows: Carrots, apples (not the seeds), bread, dandelions, oatmeal, raspberries, strawberries, and bananas.
It’s best to avoid any treats that are high in sugar content. Yogurt chips or drops are often sold as rabbit treats, but these are actually quite high in sugar and are not an ideal choice for rabbits.
Rabbits can (and do) coexist peacefully in a home situation with other pets. Rabbits and cats are often particularly well-suited as companions. A dog can also live in perfect harmony with a rabbit, although there is a bit more potential for a problematic situation unless you are perfectly sure of the dog’s disposition. Rabbits often enjoy the company of another rabbit, although there can be exceptions, particularly depending upon the gender of your rabbits. It is unlikely that two males will get along with one another unless they are neutered. Two females often live together quite nicely, but they can annoy one another and fighting can occur, so watch carefully to make sure that they are co-existing peacefully. A male and female rabbit usually get along very well, however if the pair are your pets rather than a breeding pair, one or both will need to be altered in order to prevent the inevitable litters that will occur.
The most important thing is to be sure that you carefully observe the situation when you introduce your pets to each other. Be prepared for unexpected behavior, and be prepared to promptly step in if either (or both) animals show any sign of anger or unpleasantness toward one another. The last thing you want is for your pets to injure one another in their quest for dominance, so don’t leave them alone unless you’re positively sure that they are getting along and have become friends.
This is an area that you probably won’t be exploring if you’re raising rabbits in any quantity. Litter training simply isn’t practical for large-scale rabbitries, but it is a very good idea for anyone with a couple of pet rabbits or for rabbits that are allowed to roam throughout the house.
Similar to litter-training a cat or housebreaking a dog, training your rabbit to use the litter box isn’t terribly difficult, but it does take time and patience. The end results are well worth the effort.
A simple way to begin the process of litter training is to observe your rabbit’s current habits. Let’s assume that you are keeping your rabbit in a wire hutch with a pan underneath. However, you would like to allow it to play in your living room, which you have carefully rabbit-proofed. Before allowing him free rein in your living room, take a careful look at the pan underneath your rabbit’s cage. In all likelihood, you will notice that the droppings will be confined to a particular corner, or possibly two corners, of the pan. This is how you will determine where to initially place your rabbit’s new litter box in its cage. If your rabbit is already used to using a particular location for defecating, then placing the litter box in this location is always wise. However, it’s possible that your rabbit may avoid the new litter box and may choose a different corner. In this case, you may want to try to help your rabbit to get used to its new litter box by placing a few of its loose droppings directly into the litter box. This will help to convince the rabbit that the litter box has a familiar scent and may encourage it to begin using it. If this tactic is not successful, then you may want to try moving the litter box to a different location and continue experimenting until you have successful results.
Once your rabbit has begun using the litter box regularly, then it’s possible for you to move the litter box to a new location and still have your rabbit understand that it is the location to use. In this manner, you may be able to move the litter box into your living room and have your rabbit use it. This works in your favor because the litter box already smells familiar to your rabbit and your living room does not. Therefore, the litter box is a much more appealing choice to most rabbits. Many people keep a couple of litter boxes available on different ends of a room to give the rabbit ample opportunity to utilize them rather than using the floor.
When handling your pet rabbit, you have two main priorities: safety for your rabbit and safety for yourself. Obviously with respect to your own safety, we’re referring to the potential of being scratched, which is a very valid possibility when handling rabbits. They can make a sudden move when you least expect it, and their super-sharp nails can easily come into contact with your skin. You want to minimize your risk of being scratched, which can be accomplished through careful handling. You also want to be very careful not to drop your rabbit, in order to protect him from possible injury. It’s very easy to get flustered when a rabbit begins jumping or struggling to get away from you, particularly if you’re being scratched in the process.
Many people lift their rabbits by the scruff of the neck, then carefully bring the rabbit toward their own body and support the rabbit in the crook of their arm against their chest. However, many rabbit breeders—particularly fancy rabbit enthusiasts—feel that you should never lift a rabbit by the scruff of its neck, as this can cause the flesh to loosen around the nape of the rabbit’s neck and damage the rabbit’s fur. Alternatively, you can lift a rabbit by leaning over it, carefully pulling it toward your body, and supporting it promptly with your arm around its body and underneath the rabbit.
In either case, the priority is to immediately support the rabbit so that it feels safe and secure. A rabbit that is fearful of being dropped is going to jump and flail about with its claws flying. It is not only an unpleasant and traumatic experience for the rabbit, it’s also somewhat unpleasant and traumatic for you, particularly if your arms are getting scratched to pieces in the process. Always carry your rabbits by supporting them underneath and around their body to give them the comforted feeling of being safe and protected.
Cover courtesy Voyageur Press: How to Raise Rabbits by Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson will help you find out all you need to know about raising rabbits, whether it’s your first domestic rabbit or you’re raising a herd of them.
(Top) Photo by Daniel Johnson: Climbing is a good form of exercise for domestic rabbits. Wooden platforms like this allow rabbits to get exercise they wouldn't be able to get in a wired cage.
(Middle) Photo by Daniel Johnson: A domestic rabbit can provide hours of enjoyment to small children. Rabbits kept inside are available for interaction that caged rabbits aren't.
(Bottom) Photo by Daniel Johnson: Be watchful of any other pets in your household and pay close attention to how they are interacting with your domestic rabbit.
Want to learn more about raising rabbits? Read Keeping Your Rabbit a Healthy Rabbit for health care tips.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Raise Rabbits: Everything You Need to Know, by Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson, and published by Voyageur Press, 2013.
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