some content reproduced with permission from ‘Bunny Business’ by Wendy Parsons
If you care for a rabbit, there are a few things you need to know. Firstly, don’t apply what you know about cats and dogs to your new rabbit. Rabbits are “prey” animals, which is quite different from “predatory” cats and dogs. Almost everything that moves can be a predator to your rabbit, including you. This means that your rabbit will instinctively be timid and easily frightened, and discipline is out of the question – your rabbit will simply not understand, and only become frightened and withdraw. Even a territorial rabbit that bites will not understand discipline, but if you treat your rabbit properly, territorial biting should never become an issue at all. Think of your rabbit as being an animal that has been abused, and treat him or her accordingly. This is particularly relevant if your rabbit has come to you as an adult animal.
An Important Word on Desexing
It is essential your companion bunny is desexed, both male and female rabbits will be less territorial and more settled (desexing should stop territorial urinating – which people often confuse with litter training failure).
Contrary to popular belief, a small hutch in the backyard is not the ideal home for a rabbit, for many reasons. Rabbits are social creatures and should live in desexed opposite-sex pairs and a bunny left on his or her own in a backyard hutch will not be a happy one. Additionally rabbits love to dig (especially females) and so, any housing for them must take this into consideration in order to keep them safe (and satisfied). See bunnybusiness.org for further information and diagrams relating to safely netting your bunny’s enclosure.
Your rabbit needs to be kept safe – dogs, cats, run-away pet ferrets, and foxes are only some of the predators Australian pet rabbits face. Australia has an array of poisonous spiders and deadly snakes, which can find their way into urban areas. Hawks too, will take a rabbit and these fly into the metropolitan area, especially in times of drought when their normal prey is hard to find.
Contrary to public perception (yet again!) rabbits are not hardy, and suffer from both heat and cold. When rabbits are in their natural environment, their homes are nests of dry grass in underground burrows, well away from weather extremes, so it is necessary that you provide equivalent protection from the weather in an unnatural domestic situation.
Your rabbits’ run should be predominantly under cover and protected from wind and rain/flooding in winter, and shaded from the heat in summer (a plastic bottle filled with water and frozen can be put in the run for your rabbit to lie against on hot days.) Ideally in winter they should be shut in at night, and covered.
House Rabbits and Litter Training
Rabbits are timid, gentle, curious, and affectionate if given the opportunity. When your rabbit licks you, feel privileged. It is an open display of trust and affection. They adapt easily to living in your home and are suited to quiet households, and contrary to popular belief, are better pets for adults than children. Did you know you can litter train a rabbit? However, you must understand that there is a difference between ‘territorial marking’ (which many often confuse with a failure in the litter training) and normal toileting behaviour. Desexing, as well as providing a number of health benefits along with the obvious lack of breeding, will reduce the territorial marking and, when combined with a patient and committed carer, will allow for successful litter training.
Like cats, rabbits can be easily trained to use a litter tray. They will almost certainly use a tray that has the smell of droppings or urine in it already. Choose a place away from their food and water bowls, preferably in a corner. If however, your rabbit chooses his own location, then you will probably have to put the litter tray there. An argument with your rabbit over location probably won’t achieve anything, except an agitated rabbit and soiled floor coverings (stain remover – 1 part white vinegar, 2 parts water.) I have found recycled paper litter to be the most effective because it is more absorbent. We suggest Breeders Choice and always recommend it because there are no additives or chemicals that can harm rabbits. Also, do not but clumping litter as this is dangerous when ingested – purchase carefully. For more tips and detail on litter training, see bunnybusiness.org
An important word on Myxomatosis
Myxomatosis is a disease caused by the myxoma virus. It was introduced into Australia in the 1950’s to control the population of introduced rabbits in the wild. Myxomatosis is spread by mosquitos, who are not affected the disease themselves but carry the virus after feeding on an infected rabbit. Myxomatosis is, in most cases, fatal and although a vaccine does exist, it is not available in Australia. Therefore, it is essential to protect your pet rabbit from mosquito bites and allowing them to live indoors or providing a mosquito proof enclosure (by way of mosquito netting) for outdoor rabbits offer the best form or prevention. Initial symptoms of myxomatosis are similar to those of conjunctivitis. The eyes, mouth and nose will all swell and become moist and the genitalia can also swell. As the condition progresses, the eyes will discharge a milky like fluid and the rabbit will become listless with drooping ears and will not want to eat. Fever will take over and in the final stages breathing will become difficult. This can all occur over a debilitating two week period, although some bunnies have succumbed in only 48 hours. Rabbits can also contract myxomatosis from another infected rabbit.
Most products on the market that actually work, are designed for cats and dogs and some like Frontline, are fatal to rabbits so be careful of any product you use – “less is best,” so minimise the amount used, especially if the rabbit is small, beware of ingestion through grooming/scratching then licking feet (as rabbits tend to do.) Follow directions diligently, and check with your veterinarian AND the manufacturer before using anything. We suggest Advantage or Revolution for kittens.
Because Frontline is fatal to rabbits, it is best not to use it on your dog if your dog and rabbit are friends. Friends will lick each other and you don’t want your rabbit licking a dog that has been treated with Frontline.
Calici Virus Vaccination
This is needed annually. It would be wise to have your veterinarian give your rabbit a complete check-up when you take him in for vaccination. Also get toenails clipped, and don’t forget to check those continually growing teeth!
The need to chew
One of the drawbacks of having a house rabbit is that they need to chew and sometimes this can be your furniture. However you can minimise this and often it will not be a problem at all. Rabbits’ teeth continue to grow throughout their life, so they have to chew; never ever growl at your rabbit for chewing, not even the furniture. It’s like growling at your dog for wagging its tail. Just hold your temper and remove your rabbit from the piece of furniture he is chewing. If your rabbit has an interesting life as part of the family, has meadow hay available (lots of chewing) and if you always have chewable toys, or a piece of untreated, unpainted wood available that belongs just to your rabbit, chewing the legs of the sofa should not be a problem (not as often anyway.) A piece of firewood is ideal. A cardboard box or some newspaper is good chewable material too. Eucalyptus oil is a good deterrent to wipe onto furniture and is only a few dollars from a chemist
Remember, their teeth continue to grow throughout their life, which is why having lots of meadow hay and a piece of wood to chew is so important.
Meadow hay is the single most important food your bunny should have – (75-90% of his diet) – NOT lucerne hay or lucerne-based pellets, which are commonly sold in, pet shops in Australia (note, meadow hay is seasonal, so if hard to find, then oaten hay will do just fine). Hay also keeps your bunny’s gut moving and the long fibres help keep the muscles strong. Rabbits have a very complex digestive system and if it is not constantly kept busy problems such as blockages can result. And more good news chewing hay grinds the furry ones ever growing teeth. Did you know rabbit teeth can grow 12cm a year!! And, if your bun is chewing meadow hay, he won’t have to chew your furniture to keep his teeth in check!
In addition to meadow hay, your bunny’s diet should consist of greens, some vegetables (10 -20%) fruit treats (not all rabbits can tolerate fruit) and good quality pellets such as Oxbow or Vetafarm Rabbit Origins Pellets are recommended (5%).
Contrary to popular belief, lettuce and carrots are not the best diet for bunnies. Sadly many people have fallen for the romantic notion of dear Bugs Bunny chowing down on a piece of lettuce (iceberg lettuce is an actual no no for rabbits due to its high water content and lack of nutritional value) or carrots (which should only be fed in moderation due to their high sugar content). Vegetables in the turnip family should be avoided and rhubarb leaves are also poisonous. Also, if feeding thistles or grasses, please ensure they are from your own garden where you know they have not been sprayed with any poisons.
An example of a healthy daily intake for a 3kg would look something like this:
In the morning
- a dessertspoon of Oxbow or Vetafarm Rabbit Origins Pellets with half a teaspoon of rolled oats on top
- a handful of greens
- a carrot stick or a single broccoli floweret
- a thin slice of banana (if your rabbit can tolerate fruit)
- a large handful of meadow (or oaten) hay
- a dessertspoon of Oxbow or Vetafarm Rabbit Origins Pellets plus a treat of 3 sultanas, 3 sultana-size pieces of dried apricot and quarter of an almond on top
- a handful of greens
- quarter of an apple (poisonous seeds removed), or quarter of a pear
- a large handful of meadow (or oaten) hay
- quarter of an almond before bed
Make sure you wash all fruit and vegetables, and don’t give your rabbit second-grade quality.
For more information about diet, see bunnybusiness.org
Breeding your rabbit
Don’t! Countless animal rescue groups have enough to do with unwanted and uncared for animals and sadly an ever-growing number of rabbits are daily added to the mix. Rabbits require a lifetime of care not a death sentence.
If you wish to share your world with one (or two) of these incredible creatures please visit a shelter and save a bunny, your kindness will be repaid many fold. Walking down the rows of unwanted animals is a sombre reminder that animals rely on we humans for everything, including their life.
More photos below of our rabbit enclosure:
“The Bunny Bonanza Project was supported by the Victorian Government.”