January 19, 2023 — Rabbits are the third most popular companion pet in the United States, with roughly 1% of American households keeping a pet rabbit (or two). But just like cats and dogs, these adorable, twitchy-nose creatures need special care, attention and training.
Seven Things to Know Before Adopting a Rabbit
- Specific Nutritional Needs
About 80% of a rabbit’s diet needs to be high quality grass hay. That’s what rabbits eat in the wild and that’s what they need to keep their digestive tract healthy. In addition, eating hay requires repetitive chewing that helps keep teeth healthy. Supplement your rabbit’s diet with green leafy vegetables and small amounts of commercial rabbit food pellets. Sugary fruits and roots should be given only as treats. And, of course, fresh drinking water daily is a must for any animal.
- Rabbits Eat Poop!
Dogs seem to eat poop for the fun of it. But rabbits eat their poop because they need to - it’s part of their digestive process. Rabbits eat the first round of soft, pellety poop to extract valuable nutrients, such as protein and fiber, that their digestive systems didn’t process fully the first time around. The second round of poop is dry, crumbly and odorless, and that’s what rabbit pet parents usually find when cleaning up.
- Fastidious Bathroom Habits
In the wild, rabbits tend to poop and pee only in certain locations to avoid being detected by predators. Pet rabbits have retained this habit and can be trained to toilet in a litter box, just like pet cats. However, do not use clumping or clay cat litter for your pet rabbit; make sure the litter box is filled with bunny-safe litter and some hay.
- Need Room to Roam
Don’t keep your rabbit in a small cage. Rabbits are built to run and jump and need playtime just like other pets. If kept confined, rabbits will become obese, develop serious health problems, and can become destructive and aggressive. Build a roomy indoor enclosure and safe play area. Some people let their rabbits roam the house like cats and dogs.
- Toys, Toys, Toys
Rabbits love to chew and if you don’t want them chewing on the furniture or electric wires, provide them with lots of stimulating chew toys made of hay, pinecones, or bunny-safe twigs and branches. Another fun toy is a plain cardboard box with a cut-in door with hidden treats and digging material, like packing paper or hay. Rabbits like to dig and forage.
- Prey Species Behavior
Rabbits behave differently from predator cats and dogs. They will need hiding and burrowing spots to feel comfortable. Loud noises and other animals of the four- and two-legged variety may scare them. However, given time, many rabbits are affectionate and cuddly, and enjoy the company of other species.
- Bunny-Proof Your House
Just like you would do for a puppy, kitten or small child, remove obstacles that may harm your rabbit. This includes exposed electrical cords that may seem like chew toys, and toxic plants that may seem like treats. Limit access to carpeted surfaces and the undersides of sofas and beds that may seem like good digging spots. Don’t forget to keep your favorite shoes, purses and backpacks away from curious bunny noses and sharp bunny teeth!
When to Take Your Rabbit to the Veterinarian
As with any pet, regular veterinary checkups will help keep your rabbit healthy and hopping, and may help identify health problems that can be resolved early before they become health emergencies. Rabbits can get sick very quickly, and it’s always best to be proactive when it comes to your rabbit’s health.
- Digestive Issues
If your rabbit has stopped eating or has diarrhea, call your veterinarian immediately. Intestinal issues and disease are a major cause of death, especially in young rabbits. If your rabbit stops pooping all together, they may have a condition called gastrointestinal stasis, which can be a health emergency.
- Skin Disorders
If your rabbit is losing hair and developing bald spots, they may have parasites irritating their skin. Contact your veterinarian for medication to resolve the issue. Regular grooming of your rabbit may alert you to other potential skin disorders.
- Kidney Stones
If you notice blood in your rabbit’s urine, it might mean they’ve developed a kidney or bladder stone. Your veterinarian may recommend diet changes or, in more severe cases, surgical removal of the stones.
- Ear and Eye Infections
Redness and discharge in the eyes may indicate an eye infection. Head tilting may indicate an ear infection. Both require prompt veterinary care.
- Dental Disease
Teeth problems are common in pet rabbits and often linked to improper diet. Rabbit teeth can grow up to three to five inches per year. Chewing on rough grass and hay as well as chew toys can help keep this growth in check.
Snuffles (pasteurellosis) is a common and contagious upper respiratory disease in rabbits. Rabbits with this condition will sneeze (thus the name snuffles), have discharge from eyes and nose, become lethargic and stop eating.
- Emerging Disease Alert
Rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD) is caused by a highly contagious virus with mortality rates up to 100%. The veterinary community highly recommends that domestic rabbits, even if they live indoors, be vaccinated against RHD virus as no treatment exists. This virus survives well in the environment and may be carried into the home via contaminated clothing or shoes, exposing pet rabbits to deadly infection. The vaccine is not available at all veterinary clinics. Check for availability in your area.
How We Are Helping
Morris Animal Foundation has funded rabbit health studies for nearly two decades. Many of our funded studies focus on heart disease, a particular health concern in older rabbits. Other studies have looked at behavioral issues including destructive chewing, and infectious diseases like staph infections.
Learn more about how we are helping to improve the health and well-being of rabbits and other exotic pets that share our homes.