The complete beginner's guide to rabbit care

WED 10 MAY 2017

Have you decided to adopt a new big-eared furry friend? If so, here is a little guide to begin this new adventure as smoothly as possible - both for you and your bunny!

The rabbit is not a very common household pet in Australia, compared to in Europe or the United States. This is in part due to the rabbit ban that is currently in place in Queensland. However, they are becoming more and more popular - and as you will soon discover, they are a great alternative to a dog or a cat! You'll soon find out that it is possible to gain your rabbit's trust, educate them, play games with them, and even teach them basic rules around the house.

Always remember that rabbits are a long-term commitment. They can live between 8 to 10 years, and sometimes up to 15 years! But trust me: once you've discovered their cute and funny personalities, you won't be able to live without one!

1. Finding your furry friend

The first thing you will have to think about is: where do I find my bunny?

One option you might want to consider is adopting your new ball of fur from a rescue centre. A lot of rabbits are waiting for a forever home, so take some time to visit a shelter and you might fall in love! Many cat and dog shelters, such as the RSPCA, will also take in pocket pets such as rabbits, and will sometimes rehome them as already desexed (which saves you having to do it!).

The next option is buying your rabbit from a breeder. This is a good option for people who prefer a young or baby rabbit (known as a kitten). You can make sure the rabbits live in good conditions and are well taken care of by visiting the farm - this is important as you don't want to support bad breeders. Most breeders will spend time with the babies to socialise them and get them used to human contact, which will help facilitate the acclimation of the bunny to your home.

It is best to avoid buying a rabbit at a pet shop. They are sometimes separated from their mother at too young an age and displayed in the window display because "the younger they are, the cuter they are" - and more likely to sell. This is not ideal for baby rabbits as it causes them stress, which will make them more vulnerable to some diseases that they are not yet strong enough to fight.

Before bringing your bunny home, make sure the little one is in good health by checking its ears and eyes (they must be clean), its nose (clean and dry) and its teeth (the top ones slightly overlap the bottom ones). It is often a good idea to have a vet check over your rabbit for peace of mind.

2. Some supplies before you bring your bunny home...

Although small, your rabbit still needs a few things to be able to adapt and live a happy life in their new household.

Before bringing the little one home, here is a list of a few essentials to make your new rabbit feel comfortable and keep it fed and healthy:

  • A cage or hutch that can allow your rabbit to get out by itself when the door is open (avoid a rooftop opening - see below for more information on housing)
  • A corner toilet or litter tray to start toilet training your bunny (yes, rabbits can be toilet trained! And don't worry, it's easy as they already do it instinctively, you just need to show them where!)
  • Bedding or litter to put in the corner toilet
  • If it is not included with the cage you bought, you will also need to provide your furry friend a little hideaway to nap and hide in. Remember that in the wild, rabbits sleep in a burrow. Although domesticated, even pet bunnies need a little home to feel safe - they enjoy "having a roof over their head"
  • Feeding accessories such as a water bottle, a ceramic bowl and a hay manger are also essential. You might also want to add a vegetable basket to keep the veggies clean and off the ground.
  • A small pet carrier can be useful too, if you need to transport your bunny somewhere like the vet.

3. Diet

A rabbit's diet should be made up of 80% grass or grass hay, 10% vegetables, and 10% pellets. You can occasionally replace a small part of the pellet portion with some healthy treats or fruit.

Grass or Hay is a very important part of their diet, as it supports their digestive system and while also helping them keep their teeth trimmed.

Not all vegetables are suitable for your bunny. You can safely feed them basil, carrot, broccoli, celery, mint, parsley, dandelion, cabbage (occasionally) and spinach (in small quantities). You cannot give them potatoes (whether it is the leaves of the plant or the potato itself) and you should also avoid tomato leaves as these can be toxic.

Fruit is rich in sugar, so it should be given only occasionally and in small quantities. Feel free to give your rabbit some strawberry, apple, pear, apricot, peach, raspberry, rockmelon or banana, but if your bunny is overweight, you should remove fruits from its diet. You will quickly notice that your rabbit will tend to love sweet food but you should resist their begging eyes, as this type of food is not part of a balanced diet and can cause weight problems.

4. Housing

No matter what type of housing you are going to choose, always remember that a rabbit should not spend its life in a cage. Being caged can make rabbits apathetic or aggressive because of boredom, lack of exercise and frustration.

Bunnies need to run, jump and have fun! They need at least 30 hours a week outside of their cage and can be educated to behave in the house, much like a cat or dog.

The cage: For a rabbit, the minimum length of a cage should be one meter (if the cage is smaller, it is suitable for a guinea pig but not a bunny). Wire cages are more suitable than plexiglass cages as the cage needs to be well-ventilated. Moreover, if you plan to let your rabbit roam free around the house, wire cages often have a front opening, which makes it easier for your bunny to go in and out to eat and use the corner toilet.

The location: Another important thing to think about is the location of the cage in your house. Rabbits love company and thus, if you put their cage in an isolated room, they will not feel comfortable. The ideal spot for their cage would be in a room where you spend time, like the living room. However, try not to put it in an excessively high-traffic area (such as next to a door or a corridor), as rabbits still need some peace to nap and might be sensitive to draught and noise.

Rabbits tend to be more active at dawn and dusk but they can also be a bit noisy at night, so it is better to avoid putting them in a bedroom (so that you can also have some peace and quiet!).

The setup: As for the setup of the cage itself, it should be divided in three areas to facilitate your bunny's education: a sleeping area with a little hut or mat, a feeding area with a water bottle, feeding bowl and hay manger, and a toilet area with a corner toilet or litter tray. You can put the toys in between the night area and the feeding area.

5. Grooming

Rabbits moult twice a year, generally during a season change, although it can vary depending on the individuals. During these periods, it is important to brush their fur regularly, as it stops your bunny ingesting too much fur during self-grooming. Unlike cats, rabbits can't regurgitate balls of fur, so if ingested in large quantities, their loose fur could give them digestive problems.

You can use a slicker brush or a soft brush when grooming. If your bunny is long-haired you also might want to deshed it using a deshedding comb.

You will find that rabbits tend to keep themselves very clean - however you might need to bathe your bunny if they are muddy or if they have been sick. As a full bath might be stressful for them, it is recommended not bathing their whole bodies; but rather focus on bathing only their bottom and paws if needed. It's best to use a gentle shampoo when bathing a rabbit.

As for their nails, you will need to keep these trimmed and neat. The frequency of which you will need to cut them depends of your bunny's lifestyle. If they spend most of its time in their cage and indoors (on tiles, wood floor or carpets), you will need to trim them every few months. However, if your rabbit spends a lot of time outdoors and wears their nails out a lot, you might only have to cut them once a year, if at all.

6. Parasite prevention and health

Just like cats and dogs, bunnies can get parasites sometimes, too. While they rarely get worms or intestinal parasites, they can be prone to mites and lice. There are solutions to prevent this, such as using an insect and mite repellent, to keep your furry friend free of nasty bugs. You can spray this in the cage, on its bed and directly on your rabbit's coat.

Revolution is also registered for use in rabbits. This is a spot-on parasite treatment that can be placed on the skin at the back of the neck.

Always check with your vet before using any parasite prevention treatment.

7. Keep them stress free

Rabbits are often thought to be ideal pets for children - however, just like guinea pigs, rabbits are not suitable for children under eight years old. Bunnies are fragile and nervous. Well-meaning children can often be hasty, unpredictable and noisy, which causes a lot of stress to a rabbit.

If you have children under eight years old, an average size or a giant rabbit can be more suitable than a dwarf rabbit - they are too heavy to be carried by a child and are also calmer in nature.

In all cases, it's important to explain to your children that they should never try to carry their bunny. Not only does this risk the rabbit being dropped, but the child could also be bitten or scratched by a fearful rabbit.

8. The first few days with your new pet bunny:

During the first few days, let your rabbit observe its environment and get used to new noises and smells. Don't try to touch it - instead, talk to it gently so it can get used to your voice and to its name. Your bunny needs this observation time to make an opinion of its new human friends, and of course you want this opinion to be positive!

If your bunny hides during the first few days or seems frightened by you, don't worry: this is normal and your bunny's shyness will pass eventually. Your bunny just needs some time! Once you have gained their trust, your relationship with them will blossom and your rabbit will quickly show you their sweet and cheeky personality. You'll soon forget the frustration of the first moments and be able to enjoy a happy life with your new best friend!

Posted by Nolwenn Le Tinnier

Nolwenn is Pet Circle's small pet category manager. She loves all things 'bunny' and is a proud rabbit owner and lover herself!

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