Although rabbits can be inexpensive to buy or are often given away free, they are by no means cheap and easy pets. A rabbit can live for 12 years, needs to be desexed/neutered, and ideally given the companionship of another bunny (or more). They need yearly vaccinations and full checks from a rabbit-friendly vet. Medical care, when needed can cost as much as a cat or a small dog, and at this time, we cannot get pet insurance for rabbits in Australia.
Rabbits are “crepuscular” which means they are most active mornings and evenings. Most bunnies will have a quiet time between about 10am-4pm when they lie around snoozing and doing very little. This means they can be excellent pets for working adults as they are lively in the mornings when you get up, and always happy to see you when you come home at night!
Indoors rabbits will make themselves very much at home in a safe environment!
Knowledge about the right diet to feed your rabbit is vital to keep them well. Feeding the wrong foods can lead to all sorts of medical problems that can be expensive (and sometimes impossible) to “fix”. Rabbits don’t eat carrots! They have a very complex digestive system and need hay and leafy greens every day to keep them healthy. Most food mixes sold as rabbit food at pet shops are actually bad for rabbits.
The best bunny diet and the options of hay in Australia are discussed in other articles.
Rabbits are very clean creatures and can easily be litter trained. They are also smart and can be taught voice commands (my rabbits learn their names, and commands such as “off” and “go home” ). They can also learn to ask for treats, use harnesses to go for a walk and some rabbits are even trained in bunny “agility”!
They love to interact with people and play with toys, explore their environments, and they can be taught lots of things. Contrary to popular belief, rabbits are not good childrens’ pets – they are complicated creatures who need gentle handling and lots of interaction. Sadly most children see rabbits as fluffy toys, and mishandling of a rabbit can make them fearful or aggressive, which makes everyone, including the bunny, miserable.
If however, you feel you have space, time, and love for a bunny, they are the most delightful pets! They are much smarter than you think and can be very interactive and affectionate. If you have never had a rabbit as a pet, you may be in for a very nice surprise.
The maximum lifespan of a rabbit is about 12 years of age (although I have had a few patients reach 14!), although most well looked after rabbits will live 7-10 years. There is a great variation in life expectancy – small breed rabbits live longer than giant breed rabbits, indoor rabbits live longer than ones permanently outside, desexed rabbits live longer than their entire counterparts, as do vaccinated rabbits.
Bunnies make great indoor pets. They are affectionate, inquisitive and interactive – the more time and effort you put into your rabbit, the more you will get from them. Indoor rabbits are generally healthier than outdoor rabbits, they have better protection from predators (such as foxes) and diseases such as myxomatosis. Its easier to keep an eye on your bunnies health if they live inside with you, so you tend to spot problems earlier which makes them easier (and often cheaper) to treat. To keep a rabbit safe and happy indoors you have to make some preparations for their arrival. A rabbit will need a place to call home – a place of safety where they can retreat, eat and sleep. This can be a fenced off area of the house, or a cage. It should be somewhere neither too noisy or too quiet, too hectic or too peaceful, too bright or too dark.
You will need to rabbit-proof the area your bunny will have access to – this means seeing potential hazards through “bunny eyes”.
Potential hazards: electric wires – rabbits see wires as “tree roots” which, left unattended (ie eaten) will grow and crowd out their “warren”. So they see nibbling wires as a public service!
Rabbits can easily get electrocuted – make sure all wires are covered, boxed in or out of the way.
Heavy objects – even something quite light to us, such as a book on the edge of a sofa, can be life-threatening if they fall on your rabbit underneath
Accessible high areas – even though bunnies live on the ground, they love jumping up onto high things, especially if there is the chance of food (fruit bowl on table or plant on kitchen bench). Rabbits are great jumpers, but can get into trouble when they try to get down – broken legs and backs can occur.
Sharp objects – bunnies will pick up and throw around almost anything – beware of scissors, tools or cutlery lying around. Some rabbits like to dig up carpet corners – beware of the sharp carpet grippers underneath – they can cause nasty cuts.
Hot objects – a cup of tea on the bedside table, the meal on a tray on your lap – these can all be jumped upon by an inquisitive rabbit! Try and keep your rabbit out of the way when in these situations.
Stairs – rabbits are much better at going up stairs, than they are going down stairs. Barricades may be useful to stop this.
Humans – rabbits love to run under your feet, and its very easy to accidentally step on, or trip over a rabbit. You will learn the strange way of walking that all indoor rabbit owners have – checking your feet before each step so that there isn’t a bunny underneath your foot!
Shoes – this isn’t a hazard as much , but if like me, you love your shoes, don’t leave them where you rabbit can chew them! There is also a risk of a rabbit getting an obstruction if foreign material gets stuck in their intestines.
Rabbit litter training:
Rabbits are naturally very clean animals and are easy to litter train
It’s very easy to train a rabbit to go to the toilet using a litter tray or box. Most rabbits will choose a specific part of their living area to urinate.
Place a clean plastic litter tray or cardboard box lined with newspaper and filled with hay in the part of your rabbits living area where they urinate.
Positively reward bunnies when you see them urinate and defaecate in the box (a small treat – oxbow pellet, sultana or bit of apple / carrot).
If your rabbit goes to the toilet in more than one area, use several trays (with time this number can be reduced) Appropriate litter: you can use hay, straw, cat litter (use the recycled paper, not the clay based ones as rabbits often eat the litter and there is a risk of the clay causing an obstruction), peat or wood pulp as litter. Avoid litter materials made from pine wood or cedar chips as the solvents can be toxic to rabbits.
Rabbits can live outdoors, but you need to plan for this carefully. In Australia, predators and myxomatosis are the biggest killers of outdoor bunnies. Outdoor rabbits, especially those on their own, can easily be neglected and do not get the psychological enrichment they need to keep them happy. Clinical problems can be harder to spot – symptoms such as sneezing and weight loss can be easy to miss if you don’t have your bunny inside with you.
Rabbits are very active animals – they need to be able to run around, and can develop skeletal problems if they are left in a cage all day. Ideally you should have a cage with a large, predator proof exercise run attached to it, so that your bunny can come and go as they please.
Access to grass and exercise daily will help keep their teeth and bones healthy. If your rabbit lives outside in a hutch, it needs to be pretty large. It needs to be long enough for them to take at least 3 long hops, and to be able to stretch fully upright. It will also need a run attached to it, so that the rabbit can exercise when they want to. Outdoor rabbits still need to be desexed and vaccinated and given a daily check.
All rabbits should have a friend – another desexed bunny is ideal. Guinea pigs and other animals are not suitable as rabbit companions as bullying can occur and there is a risk of disease transmission between species.
Checklist for keeping rabbits outdoors:Large, predator proof hutch or shed with an exercise run attached
Cover to protect them from the heat / cold
Mosquito netting cover to protect from myxomatosis
A digging box
A hay rack
Tunnels to play in
Water – bowls or bottles (more than 1)
Hay to munch on