Caring for your Rabbit
Rabbits can make delightful pets, but before you decide to obtain one remember it will rely on you for its every need and will require daily care and attention 365 days of the year, regardless of any other plans you may have. Average life span – five to ten years but may live as long as 15 years.
Parents: Your children may well become bored with their pet after a few months. You will then become responsible for all its daily needs.
Choosing your Pet: Some breeds of rabbit are too large for children to handle. The smaller and dwarf varieties are more suitable. The long haired Angora rabbit requires a great deal of grooming on a daily basis.
Male or Female: Rabbits are social animals and in their natural state will be found in family groups.
One lone animal may not thrive. Two or three young female rabbits could be a good choice, or a female and a neutered male. Two male rabbits can also live happily together, provided they are from the same litter and are neutered.
Most ready-to-buy rabbit hutches are too small. In its natural habitat, the wild rabbit moves swiftly and may cover several miles in a day. To confine the domesticated pet rabbit to a small hutch with little opportunity for freedom is unnatural and may cause unnecessary suffering.
A good roomy hutch, say, 4ft/5ft in length x 2ft x 2ft with two connecting compartments is essential. One third of the hutch should be enclosed for cosy, draught-free sleeping quarters. The other two-thirds is for daytime and should have a strong wire-mesh front to admit light and air. Each compartment should have a separate door, well fitted with good hinges and catches, to facilitate easy cleaning.
The roof should be sloping and covered with roofing felt, tiles etc. for good weatherproofing and should overhang the hutch to keep its sides dry and to prevent rain from saturating the interior. The hutch should be on raised legs to give protection from predators and should be in a well ventilated, not draughty position, out of strong sunlight. Facing the morning sun is best.
A ramp or steps leading from the daytime compartment of the hutch to the ground of a strongly fenced enclosure will provide a more natural environment for your pets. Sink the perimeter fence 18″ below ground level or cover the floor area with mesh to prevent rabbits burrowing out. An alternative is a portable ark approximately 6ft x 3ft, this will enable your rabbits to have access to grass and an opportunity to run about. This ark should be moved to a different area of grass each day. Part of the ark should be covered to provide shelter from sudden showers or hot sun and water should be provided. To prevent your rabbit burrowing out, the base should be covered with wire mesh. At night, your rabbit should always be shut safely in its hutch.
As rabbits usually soil only one corner of their living area, some owners enjoy having them indoors for exercise. Keep their litter tray or newspaper in the same spot, but do not expect your rabbit to be house-trained unless you have it indoors on a regular basis. Also ensure when inside that doors and windows are left shut and that cats and dogs are not bothersome. (Generally your rabbit will let you know where he wants his dirt tray/newspaper left.)
Bedding: A warm, dry, comfortable bed is of the utmost importance to animals that have to spend a good deal of their time in a hutch. The sleeping compartment needs a layer of peat moss, cat litter or wood shavings about 5cm deep with a deep layer of straw or shredded paper to provide warmth, insulation and an opportunity for burrowing. Avoid woodchippings that might have a high content of volatile oils or preservatives as these can be poisonous. Avoid, too, artificial fibre bedding which can cause severe digestive problems or even death. The floor of the day compartment needs a layer of litter spread on top of newspapers that will absorb the urine. Rabbits urinate heavily and tend to use one special place for toilet purposes. Clean the damp corner and droppings each day.
Feeding: Rabbits need a diet consisting almost entirely of vegetable matter. Variety is essential and the food offered must be fresh. Special pellets are available from pet shops and form a good base for the diet which must include greenstuff – i.e. puha, dandelions, dock leaves, cabbage, cauliflower and lettuce. Vegetables such as carrots, swede, turnips, cooked potatos and cooked peelings; fresh fruit such as pears and apples.
- Good quality hay is important and should be kept in a rack to avoid soiling.
- Fresh water should be supplied daily via a drip feed bottle rather than an easily contaminated bowl.
- Use heavy containers for food to avoid spillage.
Avoid sudden changes of diet which can cause digestive problems.
Poisonous Plants: Do not feed rhubarb leaves, raw potatoes, potato tops, roots and seeds of dock or grasses from roadsides where there is any possibility they have been sprayed with herbicides or insecticides.
Handling: Rabbits need firm but gentle handling from an early age.They should never be picked up by their ears. Place one hand under the chest, the forelegs gripped between two fingers, with the hindquarters supported with the other hand, then cradle against your body. Never allow a rabbit to struggle violently as it may break its backbone. Remember rabbits have powerful hind legs with strong claws and can kick out and scratch if frightened.
Reproduction: The female rabbit, or doe as she is called, may be bred from when she is between six to nine months. Female rabbits are induced ovulators meaning that the presence of a male, or buck rabbit, is necessary to stimulate the urge to breed. They do not have a specific season but once puberty is reached they will mate whenever they are introduced to a buck rabbit and can produce two to three litters a year. Gestation is 30 – 32 days. The kittens as they are called usually number six to eight in any one litter. They are born naked with their eyes closed. Fur commences growth about four days later and their eyes open around the 7th – 10th day. They will leave the nest when they are 15 – 20 days of age and should be weaned at seven to eight weeks.
Rabbits are prolific breeders. Unless you are absolutely certain that you can find good homes for the offspring, it is unkind and irresponsible to breed from pet rabbits. If, after careful consideration, you decide to breed a litter, there are facts you should be aware of, talk with a breeder or borrow a book from your library.
Health: Rabbits pass two sorts of droppings. Hard fibrous pellets (usually excreted during the day) and soft faecal pellets (usually excreted during the night) which are eaten again. This is a normal part of the rabbits digestive process and is in no way indicative of ill health.
Parasites/Discharges: Daily handling will give you a chance to check for mites, sores, wounds, discharges from eyes, ears and nose. If anything unusual is evident contact your veterinarian.
Diarrhoea: If a rabbit has diarrhoea for more than 24 hours, consult a veterinarian as there are a number of serious diseases which can cause diarrhoea in rabbits.
Nails: If your rabbit does not have the opportunity of wearing his nails down, get professional advice on how to trim them correctly. Care must be taken not to cut into the blood and nerve supply.
Teeth: A rabbit’s front teeth (or incisors) continue to grow throughout its life. Overlong teeth must be cut back regularly by your veterinary surgeon or the rabbit will not be able to eat. Try to avoid the problem by ensuring your rabbit has sufficient hard food, as well as a ‘gnawing block” such as a piece of deciduous wood, permanently in its hutch (but don’t use chestnut, laurel, privet or yew).