Rabbit Care Guide
Rabbits are an increasingly popular pet, and for good reason! Rabbits are complex, intelligent, and interactive pets, and are a good alternative to indoor cats. However, their dietary requirements, behavioural quirks, and unique health issues can be challenging and confusing for new rabbit owners. Furthermore, Australia lags behind in rabbit care due to the rabbit ban in Queensland, as well as the government ban on vaccination for Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHDV-2) and myxomatosis.
Despite these challenges, pet rabbits can live healthy, happy, and fulfilling lives in Australia, and bring their owners many years of joy (and chewed electrical cables) as long as they are cared for properly. Despite their reputation as good starter or children’s pets, rabbits require a lot of specialised care and attention, and can sometimes be more expensive than keeping a small dog or cat!
While rabbits are small and cute, they can also have enormous attitudes and be quite destructive! Although rabbits can be safely kept outdoors in many countries, rabbits should be kept solely as indoor pets in Australia, as we are unable to vaccinate against all of the rabbit viruses present here, and these viruses have a high fatality rate. Rabbits also require space to roam, run, and jump, and cages are not appropriate for long-term housing for rabbits. Many people have house rabbits that free-roam their rabbit-proofed house, or have pet playpens set up to section off areas of the house for their rabbits. Ensure that you are able to house your rabbit safely before committing.
Are Rabbits Cuddly?
Even though they look cuddly, many rabbits do not enjoy being picked up or cuddled, similar to many cats. Rabbits prefer to interact with humans on their own terms, and each rabbit can have very individualised preferences. Most rabbits like head rubs and ear scratches, but some rabbits will like to sit near their owners, and some rabbits may enjoy cuddles on the ground. As rabbits are prey animals, they may not demonstrate fear, pain, or discomfort readily, and they can be silent sufferers of undue stress and discomfort. Rabbits may also bite when they feel threatened, and due to their long, sharp incisors, rabbit bites can be serious.
Rabbits can also be destructive, which makes sense when we remember they evolved to tunnel into the ground. Therefore, chewing and digging are natural behaviours in rabbits, and they can’t be trained not to do them. Chew toys and digging boxes can be provided for them, but rabbits can still damage furniture, carpets, walls, and electrical appliances.
One Rabbit or Two?
Most rabbits will also prefer to have a friend, and so ensure that you are able to commit to two rabbits. Although a bonded pair will live together happily, they will still produce twice the amount of poop, eat twice as much hay and veggies, and create twice as many vet bills. Rabbits should not be kept with guinea pigs, as they carry a type of respiratory bacteria that doesn’t affect rabbits, but can cause severe disease in guinea pigs. Rabbits can also bully and injure guinea pigs. Although many rabbits live happily with cats and dogs, we also see many injuries due to misadventure or attack. If you have other pets, or are planning to get other pets, ensure that all interaction is supervised and do not allow cats or dogs free access to rabbits.
Are Rabbits Cheap?
Rabbits are not cheap or tidy pets. 80-90% of the rabbit diet should be hay, and hay gets everywhere! Hay also clogs many vacuum cleaners, which can make clean up more difficult. Rabbits also shed a lot, and go through periods of moulting 2-4 times a year where they shed their entire coat and grow a new one. Rabbits also need vet visits at least twice a year for their booster vaccinations. They are also notorious for hiding symptoms, which may mean emergency vet visits and hospital stays. Rabbits can also develop chronic, long-term illnesses which may require repeated vet visits and ongoing medication. Unfortunately, pet insurance is not as well developed for rabbits in Australia as it is for dogs and cats, but Petcover Australia do offer a plan for them.
There are many rabbit rescues in Australia that help find homes for abandoned rabbits, and adopting a rabbit from one of these rescues not only gives an animal a home, but also makes the process easier and cheaper for you. A proper rabbit rescue will only adopt out desexed, vaccinated rabbits, which means that you save on those costs at the beginning! They also provide you with a support network of vets and other rabbit owners from the beginning.
Rabbit rescues also adopt out bonded pairs of rabbits, which means that your rabbit can also come with a friend! If you have a single rabbit that’s looking for a friend, many rescues also do rabbit “speed dating” sessions.
There are excellent rabbit rescues in every state except Queensland:
New South Wales
Many states have Rabbit Breeder Associations or Clubs if you wish to purchase a rabbit from a breeder. It is essential prior to adopting rabbits from a breeder that you enquire about their set up (population management, enclosures and diet for example) and what vaccinations, health checks, and parasite preventatives their bunnies will be adopted out with. Don't forget to get to know your breeder and the breed of rabbit you may be interested in purchasing. Many clubs hold shows that are occasionally open to the public.
Where possible, avoid purchasing from online community pages and websites. Smaller rabbitries not associated with a club also exist. As mentioned above enquiring and visiting their set up (if possible), and understanding what health measures they undertake is essential. Starting off on the right foot when adopting your future bunny and doing your due diligence will save you alot of heartache and funds down the track.
Make sure that everything is ready to go for your new family member to settle in and relax from the minute they arrive in their new home!
- Fresh oaten or grass hay
- Leafy greens such as bok choy, parsley, celery leaves, and silverbeet
- Two litter boxes
- Rabbit-safe litter
- Rabbit pellets
- A tablespoon measuring scoop
- Water bowls or fountains
- Food bowls
- Food puzzle toys
- Tunnels and hides
- Foot-friendly mats and liners
- Dustpan and brush
- An appointment with a rabbit-friendly vet
- A slicker brush and a comb
- Rabbit-sized nail clippers
- A rabbit-safe carrier
- Rabbit-friendly treats like sultanas or dried cranberries
Even if you are planning on having your rabbit free-range in your house, you should also have an enclosure that acts as a home base for your rabbit, as well as so you have the option to keep them enclosed and safe when it may not be suitable for them to be free ranging. This will also help with clean up and allow you to protect your flooring in areas where your rabbit spends a lot of time.
Hutches are available in a range of sizes and materials. Although wooden hutches are quite popular, they are often not a suitable size for your rabbit to roam in. Consider adding a play pen to extend the area in which your rabbit can exercise. You may need to use a pet safe water based wood sealant to make your hutch more sturdy. Wooden hutches are often harder to clean and prone to wear and tear. Plastic hutches are easier to clean and dissassemble.
Rubber matting is a great way of protecting flooring, while also ensuring that your rabbit spends most of their time on a soft, cushioned surface. To reduce the risk of your rabbit chewing the rubber, all rubber matting should be covered by fabric mats, heavy towels, or pet beds. The combination of rubber matting and soft fabric mimics natural soil and grass by allowing your rabbit’s foot to sink into the surface, improving their grip and reducing the risk of issues like hock sores. As a bonus, it is easy to vacuum over this setup, and the fabrics can usually be tossed into the washing machine when soiled.
To surround the enclosure, wire puppy pen panels are great as they allow you to fit your rabbit’s safe space in awkward areas of the house, and many puppy pen sets have doors that allow you to easily give your rabbit access to free roam.
Ensure that your enclosure isn’t too cluttered, and there should be space for a litter box and hay, food and water bowls or fountains, a bed, and a couple of hides. In addition to that, there should be enough open space for your rabbit to do binkies and zoomies. You and your rabbit will definitely make changes to the enclosure as time goes on to what suits everyone best!
At least 80% of your rabbit’s diet should be hay, and a variety of hay ensures that your rabbit gets a balanced diet and is exposed to different types of hay to reduce the chances of them becoming picky. As hay is a natural product and subject to the whims of weather, soil, and water, hay will vary from region to region, or even depending on the weather when it was cut. However, premium hays will have stricter quality controls and will be more similar from batch to batch. It is vitally important for your rabbit to develop good hay habits, as a diet low in hay can predispose to several serious illnesses, such as gut stasis, dental disease, and poor stool quality. Hay should be available 24/7, and provide hay in all the places your rabbit spends the most time.
Pellets are much more standardised, but be sure not to fall into the muesli mix trap! Muesli and other grain mixes are junk food for rabbits, the equivalent of pick and mix candy! Just like candy, rabbits will preferentially eat their favourites of the lot, and leave the boring, nutritionally balanced pellets while eating the fatty seeds or sugary grains in the mix. These mixes are also high in calories, which reduces hay consumption. Rabbits should only be fed a plain, high quality pellet, and no more than a tablespoon a day unless otherwise directed by your veterinarian. Overweight rabbits may need a break from pellets, and rabbits with chronic illnesses may need more, but caution must be taken to ensure that increasing other foods doesn’t reduce hay consumption.
Fresh leafy greens should make up about 10% of your rabbit’s diet, and a good rule of thumb is a serving of greens twice a day about the size of your rabbit’s head. Rabbits should eat a variety of 4-6 different leafy greens regularly to ensure that their intake is nutritionally balanced and doesn’t contain excessive amounts of any single nutrient. Vegetables suitable for rabbits include Chinese vegetables (bok choy, choy sum, mustard greens, kai lan, and water spinach), silverbeet, chicory, herbs (parsley, mint, basil, oregano), celery, carrot tops/leaves, rocket, mesclun salad mix, kale, and spinach. Vegetables unsuitable for rabbits include alliums (onions, garlic, leeks, chives), brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower), chilli peppers, squashes, and corn.
Treats should make up only a small portion of your rabbit’s diet, with a piece of fruit or vegetable about 1 cm long given 2-3 times a week. Carrots are the most misunderstood treat food, as due to popular culture, many people think they are a staple, but they fall under the treat category due to the high sugar and carbohydrate content. Other fresh treat foods include fruit (apple, pear, mango, banana), berries (strawberry, blackberry, blueberry, raspberry), and edible flowers (rose, nasturtium, marigold, dandelion, lavender). Dried fruit can be used as a treat, and sultanas or dried cranberries are convenient treats that are appropriately sized.
Any new food should be introduced slowly to your rabbit to reduce the risk of stomach upset. A piece the size of a 50 cent coin should be given first for 2-3 days, then gradually increased to the recommended serving size.
Rabbits can be surprisingly strong, so all bowls should be heavy and sturdy. Greens and pellets can be fed in a bowl or plate, scattered around their living area as a foraging activity, or fed using food puzzle toys. Water bowls need to be un-throwable and un-tippable, as rabbits need free access to water, particularly during warmer days. Large ceramic bowls work well, or water dispensers/fountains. Water bowls should be refreshed and cleaned with soap and water twice a day. Rabbits generally drink 20-50 ml per kilogram of body weight per day.
Water bottles are another option, but do present some maintenance issues. Ensure that the water does not leak everywhere prior to use. You may need to put a bowl beneath it to so that your rabbit still has a source of water and to minimise mess if it does leak. Occasionally water may not drip from the nozzle when touched. Make sure to check that the dripper is still working on a regular basis. Water bottles need to remain upright in order for the water to dispense; vigorous drinking or a poor fit against the enclosure can sometimes stop water from dripping out. Water bottles are also harder to clean, and will need a thorough soak and scrub at least once a week to ensure no biofilm builds up in the nozzle or cap.
Food puzzle toys are an excellent method of environmental enrichment and exercise, as most rabbits are very food motivated. Food puzzle toys can be as simple as some leafy greens or pellets in a toilet roll tube or cardboard egg carton with hay stuffed around it, or a specially designed pet puzzle. Stay away from puzzles or feeders that may catch legs or heads to prevent injury. Having a few types of puzzles in rotation allows you to switch to another one once your rabbit solves (or destroys) it too quickly.
Spending the time to properly bunny-proof your house will save you lots of chewed electrical cables and potentially an emergency vet visit! Rabbits are chewers and tunnellers, and there’s no way to stop them from performing those behaviours. Providing chew toys and tunnels can help, but many rabbits seem to seek out electrical cables and other household items to destroy. Ensure that electrical cables and gas pipes are out of reach, or use protective coverings or cable organisers that can be found at Bunnings. Cables and pipes can also be run behind furniture, then any access to under or behind furniture blocked with wire barriers, small cushions, or folded up fabric/towels. Check these regularly as rabbits can still chew away barriers and cable protectors.
Although rabbits like to hide behind and underneath furniture, it may be best to block access to these hidey-holes as it can make them difficult to find in the event of an emergency, and they can also use the cover to chew walls, flooring, and furniture. They can also be injured if furniture is accidentally moved while they are next to or underneath them. Although most rabbits are quite sensible and are good at getting themselves out of tight spaces, they may also get stuck.
Check out our handy article Keeping Your Rabbit Indoors to find out more
The majority of cat litter boxes will be suitable for rabbits, but self-cleaning litter boxes are unlikely to work well with rabbits. Having a few litter boxes allows for easy cleaning as a fresh box can be put in while the dirty box is cleaned.
Unlike litter boxes, some cat litters like crystal and clay are not suitable for rabbits as they can be toxic if chewed or eaten. Luckily, there are lots of natural options such as paper, hemp, wood, bamboo, and even tofu! Basic newspaper, shredded paper, or just hay or straw can be used as well, but these options are not as absorbent and do not have the odour control that litters do.
Litter boxes should be changed 3-4 times a week, and wet litter can be spot-cleaned and refreshed daily. Another great benefit of biodegradable, natural litters is that they can be composted along with waste hay!
Read More in our Rabbit Toliet Training Guide
Another great thing about adopting from a rescue is that they will be able to recommend a few vets in the area that are rabbit-friendly. Not all vet clinics stock equipment for rabbits and rabbit vaccinations, but as more rabbits need veterinary care, more and more vet clinics are starting to get equipped to see rabbits!
When calling to book your appointment, ask the clinic if they see rabbits and double check they stock rabbit vaccinations, as some clinics don’t stock them at all, or some may get a batch in to do a rabbit vaccination day a few times a year. If your local vet isn’t equipped to see rabbits, they will be able to refer you to another clinic that will.
Although some pet stores, breeders, and boarding facilities will offer low cost vaccinations, your rabbit should never receive a vaccination without a proper physical exam by a veterinarian, and vaccinations should always be administered by a licensed veterinarian. As rabbit vaccinations need to be stored properly and administered in the right dose, vaccinations not administered by a vet may not be adequately effective.
Although rabbits can have lots of attitude, we still need to remember that they are prey animals and are more likely to be stressed in a new environment than dogs or cats. Stress can also have adverse effects on physical health, as it can be a cause of inappetence, or trigger any underlying disease processes. So, it is important for your rabbit to have a calm and stress-free move in.
You should transport your rabbit in an appropriate carrier, and bring a towel to cover it in case your rabbit appears stressed. Hay and a small amount of vegetables can be placed in the carrier, but your rabbit is unlikely to eat during a car journey. Water bowls and drinker bottles will spill or drip in transit, so place an absorbent puppy pad under the water source to soak up spilled water. A soft bed, towel, or blanket should be used to line the bottom of the carrier.
Once you arrive, place the open carrier in your rabbit’s enclosure where they can see beds, hides, food, and their litter box, and sit near the area with a few treats. Allow your rabbit to come out of the carrier in their own time, and reward them with a treat when they come up to give you a sniff. Ensure that the house is quiet and calm. Your rabbit is likely to slowly sniff and investigate their furniture and surroundings, and they may start rubbing their chin on items. This is a good sign as they have a scent gland underneath their chin, and they are getting comfortable enough to start scent marking their territory. As they explore, they may get spooked and run into a hide or the carrier, but should settle and come out again.
Ensure that they have access to plenty of food and water, and they will gradually get more comfortable with the house’s routine over the next few days.
As most rabbits do not enjoy being picked up, leave that for later in the process. In the first few weeks, it is important for your rabbit to associate you with positive things - treats! Offer them a range of treats to find out their absolute favourite, and only give it to them when interacting with you. Even though rabbits don’t like being picked up, most rabbits love a good head and cheek rub, and this is a great way to interact with your rabbit until they are comfortable with you.
Rabbits respond very well to positive contact and interaction, and your new rabbit will soon be hounding you for more treats and head rubs! Once they start doing that, they are comfortable enough for you to start picking them up and getting them used to things like nail trims and brushing. Another good sign of comfort is your rabbit flopping when you’re around, sleeping deeply, or doing binkies.
When you start picking up your rabbit, they should always be picked up for only what they tolerate, and they should receive a treat immediately after. As they gradually tolerate more and more, you can then start introducing nail clipping and brushing.
A great training method that uses positive reinforcement is clicker training, and rabbits are excellent at figuring it out!
Your rabbit needs to be fully supported when picked up, and the best way to do this is to have a hand under their chest, and your other hand under their bottom. While you and your rabbit are still getting used to each other, it is best to pick up your rabbit while seated on the ground so that if anything happens, there isn’t a long fall or furniture in the way. Your vet can also demonstrate different ways of holding your rabbit at your visits.
Rabbits require just as much routine care as dogs and cats! Pet rabbits now have a lifespan of up to 10-12 years, outliving some of our larger dog breeds, and so, they need proper, timely care to ensure they can live their best bunny lives. Prey animals like rabbits also tend to hide their illnesses, and so require more monitoring and diagnostics to pick up underlying issues. Thankfully, veterinary medicine is able to provide these options now, with comprehensive blood and urine testing and computed tomography (CT) scanning now routine procedures done in rabbits!
Rabbits should get a health check at least once every 6 months to coincide with their calicivirus vaccinations, and a rabbit that has not been vaccinated before requires a vaccination ASAP, and a booster in 4 weeks before going to a 6 monthly schedule. Baby rabbits should be vaccinated at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age, but as many baby rabbits stay with their mothers past 8 weeks of age, usually baby vaccines are done at 12 and 16 weeks of age.
At a health check, your rabbit should be fully examined by the vet, including teeth, ears, eyes, chest, and abdomen. The vet will also ask you about how your rabbit is doing at home, as well as what the regular diet is, when we were last vaccinated, and any previous health problems your rabbit may have. They will also discuss any questions or concerns you have.
Rabbits should be transported in a suitable enclosed carrier for safety and to reduce stress. Hay and veggies can be provided in the carrier, but many rabbits will not eat in transit.
There is only one rabbit vaccine available in Australia which covers RHDV-1 and RHDV-1 K5. It does not provide protection against RHDV-2 and myxomatosis. This vaccine is administered subcutaneously (under the skin) between the shoulder blades. Just like all vaccines, some rabbits may experience adverse effects such as redness, fur loss, and/or scabbing at the injection site, mild forelimb lameness, and mild lethargy lasting 12-24 hours. If you are concerned your rabbit has developed an adverse effect, contact your veterinarian. Your rabbit should still continue to eat and toilet normally. If your rabbit has previously had a vaccination reaction, they are more likely to have one again, so inform your veterinarian prior to each vaccination.
Both male and female rabbits should be desexed before a year of age to reduce the risk of reproductive cancers, unwanted behaviour and aggression, and accidental pregnancy. While many people are aware that rabbits can start to breed uncontrollably if an entire male and female are kept together, many new rabbit owners may not realise that rabbits of the same gender kept together will often fight when not desexed.
Desexing is important for several reasons:
- Female rabbits have a high risk of developing uterine cancer, and this risk increases astronomically after 2 years of age.
- Male rabbits can also develop testicular cancer, or develop other reproductive disorders throughout their lifetime.
- Baby rabbits may be incorrectly sexed, leading to accidental pregnancies.
- Same sex groups will not bond, and can fight seriously. Injuries may be permanent or require emergency vet care.
- Both male and female rabbits can develop inappropriate reproductive behaviours if not desexed, such as humping, urine spraying, cage-guarding, biting, and lunging. While these behaviours will be eliminated if the rabbit is desexed before 8 months of age, rabbits that are desexed later may continue to perform these behaviours.
- Entire rabbits may attract feral rabbits, increasing the risk of fatal viral infectious diseases like myxomatosis or rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV)
Many owners are discouraged from desexing by outdated or incorrect information regarding the safety of rabbit anaesthetics or the lifespan of a rabbit. The risk of desexing a rabbit at a reputable exotic pet hospital is comparable to the risk of desexing a dog or cat. All rabbits should be fully examined by an exotics vet prior to any surgery to reduce potential risk, and this is also a great opportunity to discuss any concerns about desexing with the vet. Desexed rabbits that are well cared for can live for over 10 years!
Indoor rabbits normally don’t need regular parasite prevention like dogs and cats, but if you are concerned that your rabbit may benefit from it, discuss this with your vet. Rabbits that may require regular parasite prevention include outdoor rabbits, rabbits that live with dogs or cats, rabbits that regularly come into contact with other rabbits, or chronically immunosuppressed rabbits.
Intestinal parasites are uncommon in rabbits, and the most common form of intestinal parasites is coccidiosis in young rabbits under 6 months of age. Your vet will be able to test your rabbit for this by looking for eggs in a faecal sample. All young rabbits should be screened for coccidiosis at least once. This test will also pick up intestinal worms.
Be careful of over the counter products, as some products may not be effective, and some are actually toxic, such as fipronil (Frontline). The only drug that is registered for use in rabbits is selamectin (Revolution). If you are unsure about any particular product, check with a vet prior to using it.
It can be surprising how much fur a single rabbit can produce! Rabbits will constantly shed smaller amounts of fur all the time, and they will also go through a moulting period 2-5 times a year where they grow a brand new coat. During their moulting periods, rabbits may look scruffy, and fur may come out in huge clumps or tufts. This is normal, and you will be able to see shorter new fur growing out from the roots. Some rabbits will also develop a moult line, a visible line in the fur where old fur is loosening in preparation for shedding.
As rabbits are very clean animals and spend a lot of time grooming, regular brushing during moulting periods is important to reduce the amount of hair a rabbit swallows. Unlike cats that can vomit out hairballs, rabbits are anatomically unable to vomit, which means that any swallowed hair must pass through the gastrointestinal tract, potentially stressing it and causing illness, or even an obstruction! A sign of excessive fur ingestion can be faecal balls strung together by fur.
A combination of a comb and a slicker brush will work well for removing loose fur. A moulting rabbit should be brushed for at least 5 minutes a day, and rabbits that are not moulting will benefit from a brush 1-2 times a week. Grooming gloves can also be useful, especially for rabbits that don’t like being brushed. Be careful when grooming, and be aware that rabbits have thin skin that can be easily injured. As a result, we don’t recommend using scissors or clippers, or cutting your rabbit’s fur yourself. If you own a long haired bunny, daily grooms are a must, as they are particularly prone to matting. If your bunny is quite matted speak to your rabbit vet who may be able to assist in grooming severe matts, or refer you to an experienced rabbit groomer who can. Do not attempt to clip your rabbit yourself if you do not have any experience, as you can easily wound them.
Rabbits need their nails trimmed every 3-6 months, and more active rabbits will wear down their nails more than lazier rabbits. It can be difficult to trim nails at home, so ask your vet to demonstrate at an appointment. Nail scissors designed for cats are a good size, and just like any animal, ensure that you do not cut the quick of the nail, which will cause discomfort and bleeding, as well as making your rabbit very wary of nail trims in the future!
Unlike dogs, rabbits do not need routine baths. A good grooming routine at home will ensure they are clean all year around. On occasion they may develop a dirty bottom due to urine or faecal build up. It is essential that the underlying cause of this is identified and treated accordingly by your veterinarian. Occasionally a bunny butt bath is needed to help clean this area. DO NOT completely immerse your rabbit in water. A spot wash at most is all that should be attempted. This should be done with care, and using rabbit safe products or simply warm water. Ensure you dry your bunny thoroughly and monitor them after for signs of discomfort or stress. Your veterinarian may recommend that this area be clipped to help keep it clean. Wet wipes and paper towels can also be used to dry and clean this area.
A sick rabbit is a stressful event for all involved, and as prey animals, they tend to hide signs of illness until they are unable to do so. This isn’t helpful for rabbit owners, as the earlier they visit the vet, the better! However, there are some symptoms that can give away an unwell rabbit. If you are unsure, a vet visit is always the best decision, and sooner rather than later.
Symptoms that require an emergency visit ASAP
- Inappetance or refusal to eat favourite treats
- Limping or dragging limbs
- Weakness and lethargy
- Sudden vocalising
- Increased breathing effort or nostril flaring
- Open wounds
- Abdominal swelling
Symptoms that require a vet visit within the week
- Weight loss
- Drooling or wetness around the face
- Eye discharge
- Change of appetite or not eating usual foods, but still eating others
- On and off limping
- Lumps or scabs
- Fur loss
- Increased drinking and urination
- Inappropriate urination outside the litterbox
- Abnormally shaped faeces
- Redness or swelling
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