Care for Rabbits

Rabbit Care Tips

> Diet
> Environment
> Handling
> Health Problems
Rabbits are intelligent, friendly and quiet house pets.
Their average life span is 7 - 10 years with some reportedly living 15 years. The following information is designed to help you take the best care of your pet.

DIET
Pellets - Good quality rabbit pellets may be offered daily to adult rabbits, but only in limited quantities. Young bunnies (under 8 months of age) who are still growing need constant, unlimited access to pellets. Pellets are low in fiber, yet high in carbohydrate and calcium levels. The uncontrolled feeding of them can lead to obesity; heart, kidney, or liver disease; chronic soft stools; or bladder stones. It is best to buy small quantities of pellets high in fiber (18% or more) and keep them refrigerated to prevent spoilage. Over-feeding of pellets is the number-one cause of health problems in rabbits. The quantity of pellets fed daily is based on weight:

  • 2 - 4 lb. of body weight - 1/8 cup daily
  • 5 - 7 lb. of body weight - 1/4 cup daily
  • 8 - 10 lb. of body weight - 1/2 cup daily
  • 11 - 15 lb. of body weight - 3/4 cup daily

Hay (timothy or other grass hay) - Hay should be offered daily and in unlimited amounts. It is important that hay be available at all times for your pet. Rabbits tend to eat small amounts of food frequently throughout the day, and withholding hay for long periods of time can lead to intestinal upsets. Rabbits prefer the loose, long strands of hay, as opposed to pressed cubes or chopped hay. The fiber in hay is extremely important in promoting normal intestinal motility as well as providing other nutrients essential to good health. Hay should be stored in a cool, dry place with good air circulation and wet or damp hay discarded. The most efficient way to offer hay is to use a hay rack on the outside of the cage. Your pet can pull the hay into the cage through the bars as he needs it while the rest stays clean and dry.

Vegetables - Rabbits' digestive tracts function best when they have high levels of fiber to help maintain normal intestinal motility. Dark, leafy vegetables must be fed daily. They include: carrots and carrot tops, beet tops, dandelion greens and flowers (no pesticides, please), kale, collard greens, escarole, romaine lettuce (not iceberg or light-colored leaf lettuce), endive, Swiss chard, parsley, clover, cabbage, broccoli florets and leaves, green peppers, pea pods, Brussels sprouts, basil, peppermint leaves, raspberry leaves, radicchio, bok choy and spinach.

Rabbits require at least 3 different types of vegetables daily. Feeding just one type may lead to nutrient imbalances. If your pet is not used to getting fresh foods, you may start out gradually with the dark, leafy vegetables and add a new food item from the above list every 3 - 5 days.

The minimum amount of fresh vegetables that should be given daily is about 1 heaping cup per 5 pounds of weight. Because they are not as concentrated in nutrients per pound as dry hay, you should not depend on vegetables only to maintain your pet's weight. He must have pellets, hay, and vegetables every day, with the priority being the dark, leafy vegetables.

Fruits - These are treats and should not be the mainstay of your rabbit's diet. No more than 2 heaping tablespoons per 4 pounds of body weight should be given daily. Appropriate treat fruits include: strawberries, papayas, pineapples, apples, pears, melons, raspberries, blueberries, apple pears, mangos, cactus fruits, persimmons, peaches, and tomatoes. Dried fruits can be used as an alternative, giving half the amount recommended for fresh.

Bananas can be "addicting" and fattening and are not recommended except as very infrequent treats.

Warning: Do not give any of the following foods routinely because of their potential for causing dietary upset and obesity: salty or sugary snacks, nuts, chocolates, breakfast cereals, breads and other grains (including oatmeal and corn).

Water - Water should always be available. The container should be either a water bottle with a sipper tube or a bowl that is weighted or secured to the side of the cage so that it does not tip over. The water container should be cleaned and refilled daily.

Vitamins & Minerals - Vitamin supplements are not necessary if your rabbit is getting pellets, hay and fresh foods in his diet. Rabbits produce their own vitamins by way of the cecotropes (see the following).

Night droppings (Cecotropes) - These "special droppings" are an essential part of your pet's nutrition. Cecotropes are softer, greener and have a stronger odor than the normal hard, dry, round waste droppings. In the cecum, the part of the digestive system where fermentation of food takes place, the indigestible portions of the diet are broken down by bacteria to then produce fatty acids, amino acids (proteins), vitamins and minerals. Some of these nutrients are absorbed directly through the wall of the cecum, but most of the nutrients are excreted in the cecotropes. Your pet knows when these droppings are being produced and will take care of eating them himself. This is normal behavior for rabbits.

Salt or mineral blocks - These are not necessary for the pet getting a proper balanced diet.

ENVIRONMENT
Cages

- A metal cage made of 14-gauge wire (1" x 1/2" square openings) is appropriate. The cage size for one rabbit should be at least 24" long x 24" wide x 18" high for the small- and medium-sized breeds and 36" long x 36" wide x 24" high for the large breeds.

A solid floor is necessary to prevent sore hocks and to provide an area for resting. Use a piece of carpeting or wood for the solid floor area. Synthetic fleece cloth, sold in fabric stores, works nicely for floor covering, because it is washable, and, if the pet chews on it, there are no long strands of fabric that can get caught in the digestive tract. Newspaper can be used under the cage but should not be used as bedding.

Do not use aquariums or solid-walled cages as they do not allow air circulation, and inadequate circulation has been directly correlated with increases in respiratory diseases in rabbits.

Bedding - Pelleted paper or other organic products make the best bedding. These products are nontoxic and digestible if eaten, easier to remove than shavings or clay litter, compostable, and better odor controllers. Some examples are Cellu-Dri® and Yesterday's News® (paper products), Mountain Cat Kitty Litter® and Harvest Litter® (pelleted wheat grass products), and Gentle Touch® (pelleted aspen shavings).

Temperature - Rabbits should be kept in the coolest and least humid area of the house. A dehumidifier to control dampness and a fan to improve air circulation are helpful in providing your pet the proper environment, but never point the fan directly at the rabbit's cage.

The optimum temperature range for a bunny is 60 - 70 degrees. When the temperature reaches mid 70s, you may see an increase in drooling and nasal discharge. Temperatures in the upper 80s and beyond may bring about a fatal heat stroke. If it is a very hot day and air conditioning is not available, it is helpful to leave a plastic milk jug filled with frozen water in the cage as a portable "air conditioner."

Litter boxes - Rabbits can be litter box trained easily. Initially you need to keep your pet in a small area, either in a cage or a blocked-off section of a room, and place a litter box in the corner, preferably a corner that your pet has already used. The sides of the litter box must be low enough to allow your pet easy access. It is helpful to put some of his droppings into the clean litter box. (Putting hay into one side of the box can encourage defecation in the box because rabbits usually pass stool while they are eating.) Reward your rabbit with a treat food whenever he has used the box successfully. Never punish your pet while he is in the litter box. He could develop an aversion to it.

HANDLING
The main thing to remember when picking up your pet is to always support the hind quarters to prevent serious spinal injuries. A rabbit's backbone is fragile and can easily fracture if the hind legs are allowed to dangle and the animal gives a strong kick. Never pick up a rabbit by the ears. It is very painful to him. It is easier to scoop him up under the chest and then place your other hand under his back legs. When first learning to handle a rabbit it is best to work near the floor so that if he jumps out of your arms he will not have far to go.

It may be useful to put your bunny on his back when trimming his nails. Most rabbits will learn to relax in this position. Sitting on the floor and putting the rabbit on his back with his head just over the edge of your knees so that it hangs down a little is good positioning. His body needs to be held firmly between your thighs, with your one hand over his chest to prevent him from turning over. Soft talk and gentle stroking will help him relax.

HEALTH & MEDICAL PROBLEMS
Females - A leading cause of death in female rabbits is uterus cancer. This cancer is preventable by having your pet spayed between 6 months and 2 years of age. Spaying also helps prevent the occurrence of breast cancer.

Males - Neutering males after 5 months of age will generally relieve problems associated with sexual maturity, including aggressiveness, biting and spraying of urine outside of the litter box.

Overgrown Teeth - Overgrown teeth can cause mouth infections, ulcerations of the lips or tongue, an inability to pick up and eat food, and loss of appetite. If this problem exists with your pet, his veterinarian can easily trim the teeth safely and painlessly.

Loss of Appetite - A diet low in fiber and high in calories is the most common reason a rabbit loses his appetite. This combination can lead to obesity, fatty liver disease, sluggish movement of the intestinal tract, and accumulation of fur and food in the stomach. Other less common, but very serious, conditions that can lead to appetite loss include: uterine infections, abscesses, respiratory infections, gastrointestinal infections, middle ear infections, bladder or kidney infections or eating toxic materials.

Loss of appetite is something that should be investigated by your pet's veterinarian within 48 hours, even if the pet is otherwise acting normally.

Pasteurellosis - This is a bacteria in the sinuses, caused by a poor diet, high temperatures, poor air circulation, over-crowding, stress, etc. It may cause infections of the upper respiratory tract, uterus, skin, kidney, bladder, tear ducts, middle ears or lungs. Your pet needs to be examined by a veterinarian if you observe any discharge around the eyes, nose or anal area, or if he shows signs of depression, labored breathing, diarrhea, head tilt, loss of balance or loss of appetite.

Diarrhea - Diarrhea is not common in rabbits and can be a very serious condition. Your pet should be seen by his veterinarian immediately if he develops diarrhea.

(Some information within taken with permission from "Care of Rabbits," Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital, Illinois.)



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