Caring for your rabbit
If you're looking to get a rabbit, there are lots of colours and breeds to choose from. A rabbit of mixed breeding can offer just as much fun and companionship too.
Are rabbits good pets?
Domesticated rabbits can live between eight to 12 years so getting one is a big commitment. Rabbits make great pets, but like other small pets, they need lots of care and attention.
You'll need to make sure you have plenty of time to spend with them every day. Rabbits with long fur also take much more looking after as their fur can become matted quickly and they need grooming every day.
Although children can enjoy caring for pet rabbits, they should always be supervised when interacting with them. Rabbits are sensitive animals that do not enjoy being picked up. Make sure you have carried out lots of research to make sure that rabbits are the right pets for you if you have a young family.
It's important that they can display their natural behaviour, so they must be kept in housing which allows them to hop, stretch and play. Think carefully about whether you have the time, space, money, facilities and knowledge to care for rabbits for their entire lifetime.
Do rabbits need company?
Rabbits are naturally sociable and need companionship from at least one other rabbit. Without it they can become sad, lonely and even depressed.
Rabbits and guinea pigs do not make good hutch buddies. Both pets use different methods of communication, so they cannot understand each other. They also need different diets. And, unfortunately, rabbits can bully and seriously injure guinea pigs if they live together.
Here are a few ways you can keep rabbits together:
- The best option is to keep a neutered male and neutered female
- Two brothers or two sisters from the same litter will also get on well, but it is important that they are both neutered to prevent fighting
- A group of neutered rabbits that get along
You should avoid separating your rabbits or they may fight when you put them back together.
Read more about bonding and companionship for rabbits.
What if my rabbits fight?
Once rabbits are bonded they rarely fight. But they can fall out with each other from time to time and it can be difficult to know why. A change in environment, stress or separation can all be causes.
If you're worried about your rabbits not getting on you should speak to your vet. A health issue might be the cause. Once you have rules out a health problem, you can start the process of reintroducing your rabbits.
In some cases, it might be unavoidable to have a single rabbit, eg if one of a pair passes away. If this happens you can read our advice on introducing rabbits if you decide to get another companion rabbit.
Neutering your rabbits will reduce the chance potential fighting and unwanted litters.
Are rabbits nocturnal?
Rabbits are crepuscular, which means they're mostly active at dusk and dawn and some times during the night. They sleep and rest in between.
Do rabbits hibernate?
No. If your rabbit looks like it is hibernating, speak to your vet as soon as possible as they're likely to be very ill.
If you have keep your rabbits outside, we have more advice on what to do as the weather gets colder to make sure they're warm enough.
Are rabbits rodents?
No. Although rabbits were once considered rodents, rabbits and hares are part of the leporidae family.
Where to get rabbits
Rescue centres like ours will have rabbits that need good homes. We rehome rabbits in pairs, but we also have single rabbits looking for company – it's never too late to introduce your rabbit to another friend.
Breeders and pet shops
Some pet shops display rabbits and guinea pigs in the same cage or hutch when they're for sale. Despite this, they should not be bought as a pair.
If you're planning on contacting a breeder or buying from a pet shop, here are some things to bear in mind:
- If you’re looking for babies, they should be at least eight weeks old before they're removed from their mother and sold. Avoid buying from anyone selling rabbits younger than this.
- They should be health checked by a vet and accurately sexed before taking them home
- If you buy from a pet shop, make sure the animals have been kept in same sex groups and that the staff can show you the difference between males and females
- It's also really important that they are living in clean, spacious accommodation
- Breeders or pet shop staff should give as much time as you need in order to make the right decision
What type of rabbit should I buy?
There are lots of breeds and colours of rabbits to choose from. But, you should be aware that rabbits with flatter faces such as Netherland dwarf, lionhead or lop eared rabbits may be more likely to suffer with health conditions.
Problems with flat-faced rabbits
Like flat-faced (brachycephalic) dogs, rabbits who have been bred with flat faces can develop health problems including:
- overgrown teeth or overcrowded teeth which can lead to chronic pain and sores in their mouths
- eye problems
Some rabbits with 'lop ears', such as mini lops also have flat-faces.
Problems with lop eared rabbits
Rabbits who have 'lop ears' which fall down by their sides rather than being upright can be prone to:
- ear infections
- loss of hearing and deafness
Many of these rabbits will need loving homes, but it's important that you understand that they may be more prone to health issues – and higher vet bills!
Caring for your rabbits
What do I need to buy for my rabbits?
- suitable housing
- suitable bedding
- food, including feeding hay
- earthenware or stainless steel bowls for food
- a water bottle or a bowl
- litter tray and suitable litter
- an exercise run
- a rabbit brush for grooming
- toys to keep them entertained
- somewhere to dig
- carry case for trips to the vet
As well as the above, your rabbits need a constant supply of fresh water. You may also want to consider getting pet insurance.
Rabbit cages and hutches
Most rabbits are happy living either indoors or outside, but they need lots of space.
Sadly, although some people keep their rabbits in a cage or hutch, this is not big enough and will seriously affect a rabbit's health and wellbeing.
Instead, you'll need to look at having a hutch and run that are attached and large enough, or look at alternative options like a shed, a large children's playhouse connected to a large run or aviary. If you aren't able to provide the space a rabbit needs, you should look for an alternative pet.
How much space do rabbits need?
You rabbits will need permanent access to an area that's no less than three metres long, by two metres deep, by one metre high.
More detail on what you need to know about rabbit housing.
Rabbits and fireworks
Rabbits are easily stressed by the bangs, whizzes and other loud noises made by fireworks. Here are some things you can do when fireworks are more common, such as bonfire night or New Year's Eve:
- Temporarily move them indoors
- Give your rabbit more bedding so they can burrow down and reduce any noises they hear
- Provide them with an extra place to hide, eg a cardboard box full of hay, with holes cut in
- Cover some of their sleeping area or hutch with a thick blanket to help block out the noise
Letting indoor rabbits outside
Indoor rabbits can be given the opportunity to spend the day outside, as long as they have enough space, enrichment and warm shelter. However, there are a few things to consider:
- Rabbits are very hardy, but they do not tolerate changes in temperature well
- The move from a very warm house to the cold outdoors is not good for them. If indoor rabbits go outside regularly in the winter, they should be kept in a cooler room in the house or conservatory where the contrast will not be so great.
- On very cold days, indoor rabbits are best kept inside. As a guide, a healthy indoor rabbit used to going outside regularly will be able to tolerate temperatures well that go down to five degree Celsius.
The outdoor area should be secure and safe, just like if your rabbits stayed outside all year. It should also be sheltered from the wind and changes in weather as your rabbit will not be used to these temperatures. You should check on them regularly to make sure they're OK.
Young rabbits that do not have enough space to run about are more likely to break bones. A lack of space and exercise will lead to their bodies not developing properly.
Keeping your rabbit entertained
Rabbits need plenty of stimulation to stay physically and mentally healthy. They enjoy exploring, digging and running through tubes or pipes, perching on secure platforms – some may even push around little plastic cat balls. You could also try hiding small amounts of food around their housing to help keep your rabbits alert and active, but remember to remove any that doesn't get found.
You can also try cutting an entrance and exit hole in an old cardboard box so your rabbit can hop in and out of it. Fill the box with hay so they can feel more comfortable.
It's also important to encourage your rabbits to practice their natural behaviour by providing safe things for them to nibble on such as:
- apple wood
- edible wooden chews from a good pet supplier
This will also keep their teeth nice and healthy.
Using pegs to hold veggies for them to reach up and eat will help keep them busy.
Read more on keeping your rabbit entertained.
What do rabbits eat?
Feeding hay (different from bedding hay) or dried grass from pet shops should be the basis of your rabbit’s diet. You can also buy complete rabbit food at pet shops or online.
They'll also need a handful of fresh greens and a small amount of complete rabbit pellets.
You'll also need to provide fresh water and change it daily. Make sure, if using a water bottle, that it is working properly.
Freshly cut grass by a lawn mower or strimmer should not be fed to rabbits. Instead pick the grass or cut it with scissors, and feed it to your rabbit straight away.
Dust-free hay should still make up 85 per cent of your rabbit’s diet. This is usually around their body size in hay daily, but make sure they always have hay available to them.
Fruit and vegetables
Rabbits also need a few fresh vegetables to give them the vitamins they need. These should be washed thoroughly before you give them to your rabbits. Good foods to include in your pet's diet are:
- fresh herbs
- dandelion leaves
Avoid sugary fruits and vegetables such as carrots and apples as they're not nutritionally necessary and high in sugar.
Muesli style food encourages selective feeding – this means they can pick our the bits they like and may miss out on important nutrients. It's also been linked to digestive and dental problems.
How to feed my rabbits
Hay can be offered in a variety of ways to encourage your rabbit to eat plenty, plus it's great enrichment for them:
- Hay racks will keep the hay fresh, but don't be surprised if your rabbits pull it all out and eat it from the floor instead! Most rabbits seem to prefer eating from ground level.
- Fill one side of the litter tray with fresh hay – rabbits like to eat and toilet at the same time, so this is great way to encourage them to toilet in their litter tray. Make sure you replenish the hay regularly as some will get soiled in the process.
- Leave a few fresh piles of hay in your rabbits exercise area
- Stuff small cardboard boxes with holes or empty toilet rolls with hay – your rabbits will enjoy pulling out the hay to munch on
Rabbits are rarely 'tidy' eaters, so be prepared to sweep up uneaten hay daily!
Bowls and water bottles
Rabbits need very few pellets, so instead of feeding from a bowl you could scatter feed them. This provides great enrichment. If you do want to feed the pellets or greens from a bowl, then earthenware bowls are better as they're hard to tip over.
Clean, fresh water from a gravity bottle or heavy bowl must always be available and changed every day.
How much should I feed my rabbit?
Always check the feeding amounts on the bag as rabbits can become overweight if they are fed too much.
More on what to feed your rabbit.
How to keep rabbits healthy
A healthy rabbit will be alert and lively. You should check your rabbit every day and look out for any changes in appearance or behaviour.
Common symptoms or signs of poor health in rabbits include:
- scaly patches inside the ears
- discharge from the eyes or nose
- faeces (poo) around their bottom
- weight loss
- being still for long periods or not being as active as usual
Keep on reading or find out more on keeping your rabbit healthy.
If you notice any of these signs, or have any worries about your rabbit's health, contact your vet.
Checking your rabbit's teeth and claws
Problems with a rabbit's back and front teeth are common. This is because they always grow. Your rabbit will continually wear them down by eating hay and chewing. If they grow too long they can cause pain and prevent them from eating.
A good supply of feeding hay will help their teeth wear down, but problems can arise anyway so it's always best to take your rabbit for regular check-ups at the vet.
Signs your rabbit might have teeth problems:
- Staining round the mouth
- Soiled around the bottom
You should also check your rabbit's bottom twice a day when it's warm to make sure that there's nothing that will encourage flies to lay their eggs there. This will prevent fly strike.
All rabbits should be vaccinated regularly against potentially fatal diseases, myxomatosis and rabbit or viral haemorrhagic disease (RHD or VHD). Check with your vet who will decide how often this needs to be done (usually every year).
Parasites that affect rabbits
Some parasites may affect rabbits. The most worrying is E. cuniculi, a microscopic organism that infects the nervous system.
The infection is passed in the urine and picked up when rabbits eat contaminated feed, such as grass. Many of the rabbits that are infected do not have any serious symptoms, but some get eye problems or become unsteady on their feet.
Testing and treatment should be discussed with your vet. There are also medications that can help prevent infection.
Rabbits with short coats should be groomed weekly and even more regularly when they are moulting. This will also strengthen your bond with your pet. Long-haired rabbits will need daily grooming as their coats can quickly become matted and uncomfortable.
If you feed your rabbits some tasty food while you're doing this, they'll learn to enjoy it!
Most rabbits will also need regular nail trimming (ask your vet to show you how to do this).
Will my rabbit need a bath?
Rabbits keep themselves very clean and should not need a bath.
Rabbits are social animals and should be kept in pairs or groups. The best combination is a male and a female, so neutering is essential or they will have babies. We recommend you neuter both your female and male rabbits.
Neutering your rabbit will not only prevent breeding, but they'll also be happier and healthier. Both female and male rabbits are easier to handle and house train following neutering. It can also prevent:
- infections of the womb in female rabbits
- injuries from protecting their territory
- spraying (scent-marking with urine)
- problem behaviours
When is the best time for neutering?
Your vet will advise you on the best age to do this.
- Males are usually neutered when their testicles have descended – at around three to four months
- Females can be neutered from sexual maturity, usually around six months of age, depending on their size and breed
Read more on rabbit neutering and other surgeries.
After neutering, sexually mature couples should be kept apart for six weeks, as males retain some of their fertility.
Handling your rabbits
Rabbits are individuals – some will enjoy being stroked while others prefer to be left alone. As they are prey animals, rabbits always prefer to interact with you on ground level, where they will feel happier and safer. If you sit quietly, most will happily come over and see you – especially for the occasional treat!
Rabbits that are regularly and correctly handled from an early age can learn to tolerate the experience. It's also good to get them used to being handled so you and your vet can health check them without causing them distress. But remember that most will never feel comfortable being picked up as it's not natural for them to be lifted up with their paws off the ground.
How to pick up your rabbits
- When picking them up, always use both hands
- Slide one hand underneath the body and between the front legs
- With your other arm around the hindquarters, support their body weight
- Place the rabbit against your body with their head towards your arm
- Always put a rabbit down gently, hind legs first, on a non-slip surface
Never pick a rabbit up by their ears or by the scruff of their neck as this will be very scary and painful for them.