Guidelines for keeping pet rabbits

Owning a rabbit is a long term commitment financially and in terms of responsibility. The law requires that the needs of the rabbit must be met and all reasonable steps must be taken to ensure this.

A rabbit should have a suitable environment to provide:

  • protection against climate extremes
  • an appropriate diet and water
  • protection from pain and suffering
  • freedom of movement.

It is important to monitor changes of behaviour which may mean that your rabbit is distressed, ill or not coping with its environment (its needs are not being sufficiently met).

An adult (18 years or older) must be the primary carer of your rabbit. It should be recognised that rabbits are not suitable pets for children under 8 years of age. For children 8 years and older, an adult should be the primary carer of the rabbits.

It is the owner's responsibility to read these guidelines and ensure that all requirements are met.

Environment for your rabbit

A rabbit's environment refers to any area the rabbit has access to. It includes where the rabbit eats, sleeps, exercises and excretes.

The environment should be sufficient to allow the rabbit to do all of the following:

  • rest and sleep
  • eat and drink
  • exercise and explore
  • interact with companions
  • play
  • chew
  • scent mark
  • look out for danger and companions.

The environment should always provide rabbits with protection and shelter from:

  • predators such as cats, dogs, foxes, birds of prey
  • extremes of temperature both indoors and outdoors
  • rain, wind and sun.

Rabbits should have access to hiding places at all times. There should be enough hiding places in the enclosure to allow all animals to hide at any given time. A good hiding place should:

  • be a suitable size for the rabbit
  • have more than one entrance
  • be constructed from non-toxic materials
  • contain no sharp edges.

Suitable hiding places include:

  • wooden boxes
  • paper sacks
  • drain pipes
  • shelves.

Hiding places should provide suitable bedding such as:

  • hay
  • straw
  • untreated wood shavings
  • shredded paper.

Living areas and housing for your rabbit

Indoor living areas should be in a cool room out of direct sunlight. They need to be protected from draughts, loud noises and direct access to radiators. The area should consist of two compartments — a dark sheltered area for sleeping and another section for eating, drinking, excreting and exploring.

Living areas should be a secure area where your rabbits can be confined, unsupervised. The living area can be considered a sleeping area which is housed within a larger enclosure or a run for more space.

The living areas should be at least large enough for a rabbit to:

  • lie down and stretch out in all directions
  • stand upright (without erect ears touching the top), cages should be no less than 45cm high for rabbits over 12 weeks of age
  • move around, feed and drink
  • take at least 3 hops in either direction from one end to the other.

Space allowance recommendations

Space allowances depend on the size of the rabbit — larger rabbits require more space than smaller rabbits (refer to Table 1 for recommendations on floor space).

a. Single rabbit

Animal weight (Kg)

Min. floor area (cm2 per animal)

<2

2000

2-4

4000

4-6

5400

>6

6000

b. Group of rabbits

Animal weight (Kg)

Min. floor area (cm2 per animal)

<2

1300

2-4

2600

4-6

3300

>6

4000

Female and litter

9300 per female + litter

Adapted from the Code of Practice for the housing and care of laboratory mice, rats, guinea pigs and rabbits.

Flooring for indoor housing

  • Flooring should be constructed and maintained to minimise injury or distress to rabbits.
  • Material should be a solid non-absorbent board and cover no less than 0.1㎡  of the total floor space (or ⅓ of the total floor area in each cage).
  • Use a plastic base or something that is easy to clean and disinfect.
  • Wooden or absorbent surfaces are not recommended.
  • Clean and disinfect floor regularly.
  • Wire mesh floor  is not recommended.

Bedding materials

  • Bedding must be clean and dry.
  • Recommended bedding materials include newspaper or towels.
  • A hay tray with good quality hay should be provided and changed daily. This does require a nesting area or nest box.

Suitable nesting materials include:

  • hay
  • straw
  • untreated wood shavings
  • shredded paper.

Electrical switching should be of a non-sparking safety design or must be outside the animal holding area.

Outdoor housing for rabbits

Rabbits need protection from predators at all times.

When housed outside, they need a large hutch which is safe from predators (cats, dogs, foxes). This should be insect (mosquito) proof and protect rabbits from extreme weather.

Position the hutch so it is also protected from weather (on a verandah or deck). The hutch should be waterproof, sturdy, easy to clean and raised off the ground.

Do not use a metal hutch or shed  as overheating can occur. Rabbits are prone to heat stress. The hutch should be put in a shed during winter months in cold climates. The space allowance for housing rabbits outdoors is the same as for in door housing.

Exercising your rabbit

Rabbits need a minimum of 4 hours daily exercise each day. Exercise for rabbits consists of hopping, running, jumping on and off raised areas and doing 'binkies' (jumping into the air and twisting their head and body in opposite directions).

Rabbit runs should be as large as possible to encourage the rabbits to perform the full range of exercise behaviours. Runs should provide:

  • appropriate platforms
  • tunnels and hidey holes
  • outside access to grassy areas
  • sheltered areas
  • space for them to be alone.

Rabbits should be supervised at all times when exercising or exploring outdoors outside of the rabbit run. Outdoor exercise areas should be rabbit-proofed to prevent escape.

Temperature and ventilation for your rabbit

Pet rabbit with ears sticking out sidewaysRabbits need protection from extreme temperature and bad weather in all environments (including living areas and outdoor runs).

The recommended temperature range is 10 to 25°C. Outdoor hutches should be covered with a blanket or carpet on cold nights (taking care not to block ventilation). Indoor living areas should be in a cool, non-drafty room out of direct sunlight. Enclosed buildings should have ventilation.

Rabbit hygiene

It is the responsibility of the owner to ensure that the rabbit's environment is clean and hygienic. Only good quality, pet friendly disinfectants should be used for cleaning. Thoroughly rinse off and dry the hutch before the rabbit is returned.

The living area should be cleaned daily or  as often as needed so your rabbit has a clean healthy environment.

Cleaning should include:

  • removal and replacement of wet and dirty bedding
  • removal of uneaten fresh foods
  • cleaning of water and food containers.

Clean the toilet area daily. Use good quality hay in the toilet area. This can be provided in a litter tray to help with containment and cleaning. One hay tray per rabbit is recommended.

Run areas should be rotated or cleaned regularly.

Protecting your rabbit from hazards

Protection from predators and harassment by other animals should be provided. Maintain living areas and runs  so they are free of feral rabbits and rodents which can carry disease. They also cause stress to confined rabbits.

Insect proofing is recommended to further protect against contraction of disease (for example, myxomatosis). Take care when using herbicides, pesticides and cleaning products. Always read the packaging before use in the rabbits environment. Keep household cleaning materials, medicines and other products not intended for use on or to be consumed by rabbits out of reach.

Keep electrical cabling  out of reach or protect it with rabbit proof casing, to stop the rabbit chewing through them.

Do not give rabbits access to flower beds or other areas where there could be poisonous plants. Get vet advice immediately if you think your rabbit has had contact with anything that could harm it.

Transporting your rabbit

Rabbits should be restrained in a secure pet carrier or transport container when moving them by vehicle. The pet carrier or transport container should:

  • be of adequate size to allow the rabbits to turn around and lie down
  • have good ventilation
  • allow rabbits to be put in and taken out without causing injury.

During transport, protect rabbits from wind, rain and extreme temperatures. Do not place the carrier in direct sunlight, next to the car heater or in the boot of the car. The carrier should be secured inside the vehicle by strapping them in place with a seat belt or wedging them in the foot-well.

Rabbits should not be transported for more than 24 hours without provision of food and water. During long trips, offer food and water regularly to the rabbit inside the carrier once the vehicle has come to a complete stop.

Do not leave rabbits unattended in a car or other vehicle during extreme cold or during warm weather when they can suffer from heat stress. This is potentially life threatening and may be prosecutable under the  Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986.

If you are away

It is your responsibility as a rabbit owner to make sure your rabbit is cared for while you are away. You need to make sure your pet-sitter or carer has all necessary facilities to meet the rabbit's needs (including a suitable hutch or living area and run if they are caring for the rabbit at a different location to the rabbit's familiar home).

The carer should be 18 years old or older and provided with information to understand the rabbit's needs, including these guidelines and recommendations on keeping pet rabbits. In the absence of the owner, the appointed carer is legally responsible for the welfare of the rabbit.

Boarding facilities where the rabbit is monitored and cared for by an experienced rabbit caretaker are recommended.

Feeding for your rabbit

Rabbits should be fed a balanced healthy diet at least once daily. Food such as good quality fresh hay should always be available to the rabbit during both day and night. Uneaten food from the previous meal should be considered before giving more food. Mouldy or contaminated food should be removed immediately.

Rabbits are herbivores. It is the owner's responsibility to ensure that the rabbit is fed an appropriate high fibre diet. The fibre helps to wear down their teeth and promotes healthy gut function. High fibre diets provide environmental enrichment. A high fibre diet for rabbits includes:

  • 90% good quality hay (oaten or grass hay) or dried or fresh grass plucked from the ground (avoid lawn clippings, clover and grass which is dirty that may have been treated with pesticides or be contaminated with faeces).
  • 10% green leafy plants (broccoli, cabbage, parsley, watercress, celery leaves and kale) and wild plants (chickweed, bramble, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry leaves and dandelion). Twigs from safe trees (apple, pear) that have not been treated with pesticides can be given to the rabbit to chew on.
  • Small quantities of specialised rabbit food (pellets or nuggets) should be limited to 1 tablespoon per rabbit per day. Over-consumption of these foods may result in obesity. Be careful when feeding muesli type mixtures as rabbits are selective feeders and tend to pick out the tastier ingredients leading to a dietary imbalance.
  • Fruit may be fed but only occasionally due to the high sugar content.

All green foods should be washed and dried prior to feeding. Many plants are poisonous to rabbits. Only plants of known identity which have been confirmed as non-toxic to rabbits should be fed.

Changes to diet must be introduced gradually over 2 to 4 weeks, particularly when weaning or introducing green plants.

Inappropriate diets can cause obesity, teeth and gut problems in rabbits. Rabbits should not be fed too many specialist rabbit treats. Avoid sugary treats as they are harmful to a rabbit's teeth. Changes in the rabbit's eating habits should be monitored closely as this can be a sign of illness. Rabbits may have other dietary needs when pregnant or recovering from an illness. Seek advice from your vet or qualified pet care specialist.

A rabbit has a specialised digestive system and produces a grape-like faeces called cecotrophes which it re-digests to receive even more nutrients.

Food containers should be large enough in size or number that all your rabbits can comfortably feed at the same time.

Weight

Rabbits that are over or under weight may have health problems as a result. Potential problems include:

  • painful joints and feet
  • decreased ability and willingness to exercise
  • heat stress
  • dietary deficiencies through the inability to re-ingest cecotrophes (soft pellet like faeces that it consumes directly from the anus)
  • fly strike
  • difficulty grooming.

A rabbit is at an ideal weight when the ribs can be easily felt. The ribs should feel rounded, not sharp, with a thin layer of padding of soft tissue. The lumbar vertebrae and pelvic bones should be easily felt but not prominent. Adjust your rabbit's feed so it does not become over or under weight.

Water for your rabbit

Rabbits should have clean fresh drinking water at all time. Metal tipped drinking bottles or drinking nipples should be positioned approximately 10cm from the floor (not too high for the rabbit to comfortably reach and not so low that it may be contaminated with urine, faeces or fur). They should not project more than 2.5cm into the hutch or cage of the rabbit. Automated drinkers are recommended with a backup system in place so the rabbits still have access to water if the automated system breaks down.

Feeding bottles or drinkers should be cleaned regularly and checked for leaks or air blocks. Water can also be provided in a water bowl, although this is not as hygienic as a bottle. Clean the water bowl regularly. A rabbit may refuse to drink if the water is given in a different way to usual, which can lead to dehydration.

It is important in cold weather to make sure the water has not frozen.

Rabbit behaviour

Two pet rabbits snuggling togetherRabbits are prey animals and are easily frightened. Fear is a survival mechanism, induced by a perceived threat, which enables the animal to avoid dangerous situations. However, if put in situations where they are constantly fearful the rabbit will become stressed which in turn affects both health and welfare.

Socialisation and early experiences

Early experiences can have a large influence on the behaviour of the rabbit. While some rabbits are naturally more confident than others, experience with people and rabbits (socialisation) is essential during the first weeks of life.

Rabbits that have not had experience with people may find it difficult to cope and adapt to their environment as an adult. This can lead to fear-related aggression towards people (including their owner) which makes it difficult to handle the rabbit and provide  care.

It is the breeder's responsibility to make sure the rabbit is well socialised at an early age and able to cope with most new situations and people confidently as an adult. Socialisation involves:

  • introducing the rabbit appropriately to different people
  • providing important experiences for behavioural development, experiencing objects and sounds in a safe environment.

The rabbit should not be forced to interact and should always have a safe hiding place available as an escape.

Rabbits instinctively fear other animals like dogs, cats and birds. Rabbits should be introduced to other pets gradually and always given the opportunity to avoid them. Never leave a rabbit alone with a cat or a dog, even if familiar with them.

When you bring a rabbit home, it should be gradually introduced  to its new environment and to being handled.

Stress in your rabbit

It is important that you recognise any changes in the rabbit's behaviour or signs of stress. Relaxed and content rabbits:

  • have a normal appetite
  • will sit or lay outstretched
  • be content to approach or interact with people and familiar objects and other animals.

In fearful situations, a rabbit will seek quiet and hidden locations. This is normal behaviour, but may be a cause for concern if it happens frequently.

Situations which may cause stress to rabbits include:

  • novelty (new environments, transport, strangers)
  • sudden or loud noises
  • inability to express natural behaviours (adequate exercise, lack of companionship or environmental enrichment, escape stressful events)
  • pain, discomfort or illness
  • boredom
  • insufficient space
  • no access to food or water
  • social stress through lack or loss of companionship or too many individuals in a confined space
  • insufficient temperature control or ventilation.

Signs of stress in rabbits include:

  • nervous behaviour (flattened ears, hunched posture, freezing, agitated and jumpy)
  • aggression towards people or other animals
  • aggression when handled
  • listless behaviour, lethargy and lack of interest in surroundings, food, etc.
  • escape behaviour and hiding (excessively)
  • rapid breathing or heavy breathing
  • over grooming or not grooming
  • changes in feeding or eliminative (toileting) behaviour
  • stereotypical behaviour (repetitive purposeless movements e.g. biting pen fittings, biting the water bottle, circling or head bobbing).

If any of these signs be detected, you should seek veterinary advice promptly.

You should take all reasonable steps to ensure your rabbit is protected from stress. You should provide your rabbit with:

  • secure hiding places
  • environmental enrichment (boxes to climb on, PVC pipe tunnels, piles of newspaper)
  • suitable materials to enable the rabbit to dig, and scent mark its territory (with chin secretions, urine and droppings).

Companionship and socialisation for your rabbit

As rabbits are social animals, it is recommended they be kept with an appropriate companion (a neutered rabbit of a similar size). Rabbits that are socially isolated can become frustrated and display stress behaviours.

When keeping rabbits together it is recommended to:

  • select neutered companions of similar size
  • provide hiding places if keeping rabbits of different sizes together,  in which the smaller rabbit can avoid the attention of the larger rabbit
  • ensure the size of the accommodation is big enough for the number of rabbits
  • carefully consider the gender of the rabbits, same sex companions may fight even if desexed
  • avoid mixing established groups of unfamiliar rabbits
  • introduce rabbit companions carefully in a safe neutral environment and supervise them to minimise fighting
  • carefully re-introduce the rabbits if they have been separated for a period of time
  • seek advice from a pet care specialist on how to introduce the rabbits in a way that minimises risks of fighting and other welfare concerns.

Even though rabbits will accept guinea pigs as companions, it is not recommended as a rabbit can inadvertently cause bodily harm to guinea pigs. Different dietary requirements also make the guinea pig a less ideal companion.

Handling your rabbit

Rabbits instinctively do not like being picked up, particularly if not socialised appropriately. They may associate it with an attack from a prey animal. It is important to handle rabbits gently from a young age to establish trust and a bond. If it is necessary to pick up the rabbit, always use both hands. Use one hand to support the rabbit's weight under its rump. Place the other hand  around the chest. Never pick up a rabbit by the ears or by a single limb. 'Scruffing' (holding by loose skin on back of the neck) an adult rabbit is not recommended.

Health of your rabbit

Rabbits are prone to a number of health problems, and are physiologically very fragile. They succumb quickly to illness and disease. Regular vet checks are essential for early detection of health problems and prevention of disease through vaccinations and administration of internal and external parasite control.

Important considerations for rabbit health and welfare include:

  • Only use medications that have been prescribed or recommended by a veterinarian. Medicines developed for humans or other animals can be harmful to rabbits and should not be used.
  • Vaccinations against the disease Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) are recommended and should be administered by a veterinarian.
  • Unfortunately the vaccination against Myxomatosis is not legally available in Australia.
  • Rabbits should not have contact with wild rabbits or areas where wild rabbits have been.
  • Rabbits should be provided with a healthy balanced diet.
  • Rabbits should be provided with an environment that minimizes the risk of injury and disease.
  • Rabbits should be checked daily, and prompt action should be taken if the rabbit is ill or any change in behaviour is noticed.

It is the owner's responsibility to be aware of signs that their rabbit is unwell. A vet should be consulted if the rabbit shows any  signs of illness or changes in behaviour. Signs of illness include:

  • changes in behaviour — hunched posture, inactive, lethargic
  • changes in eating or drinking habits (lack of appetite, excessive drinking)
  • injury (swollen limbs, lameness or abnormal gait, open wounds)
  • discharge from eyes, ears or nose
  • difficulty eliminating (defaecation and urination) going to the toilet or diarrhoea
  • difficulty breathing (panting)
  • grinding teeth
  • redness on skin (particularly around the belly, bottom or underside of feet)
  • signs of pain (flinching, not wanting to be touched).

Routine health checks should be conducted to detect signs of ill health. The rabbit should be examined daily to:

  • detect changes in behaviour (eating and drinking)
  • check the feet for bald patches and sores
  • check the fur for parasites, dandruff, bald patches, sores, scaly patches and wounds.
  • check the eyes and nose for abnormal discharges
  • check the ears for excessive wax deposits
  • check for abnormal faeces (diarrhoea).

Routine weekly checks should be conducted to:

  • check the nails for excessive length or damage
  • check the teeth for appropriate length/shape
  • check the mouth for drooling or staining on their chest
  • check weight — loss of weight may indicate dental or other health problems, obesity can also cause health problems.

Rabbits should be checked twice daily during warm weather for faeces underneath and around their rear end to prevent fly strike. Fly strike occurs when fly larvae or maggots infest the tissue. Flies lay their eggs in the rabbit's dirty fur and the hatched maggots burrow under the fur coat and into the skin. This condition may cause shock, severe illness and death if left untreated. Vet advice should be sought immediately if maggots are detected on the rabbit.

Grooming your rabbit

Many rabbits constantly moult (shed fur) and should be groomed regularly. Short haired rabbits should be groomed weekly to prevent ingestion of hair. Long haired rabbits should be groomed daily to prevent matting. If necessary, a long haired rabbit may also be clipped by a veterinarian or pet care specialist.

Rabbit nails continuously grow and are worn down naturally by exercise and digging. A rabbit's nails should be checked regularly and trimmed to an appropriate length. Take care not to damage the sensitive tissue surround the nails. How often the nails need to be trimmed depends on the environment in which the rabbit is kept.

Dental care for rabbits

A rabbit's teeth grow continuously throughout its life and are typically worn down by a diet high in roughage (hay and grasses). Access to hard, chewable items may also help to wear down the teeth and prevent overgrowing incisors.

A rabbit's teeth should be checked regularly. Dental problems caused by overgrown or misaligned teeth can affect the rabbit's ability to eat and can also be painful. Poor appetite and drooling are often signs of dental problems, and veterinary advice should be sought promptly. Overgrown or misaligned teeth should be corrected by a veterinarian.

Breeding and reproduction of rabbits

When breeding rabbits, it is the responsibility of the owner to ensure that the welfare needs of both the parents and the offspring are met. Suitable homes should be secured for all the offspring arising from a pregnancy, planned or otherwise. A vet should be consulted regularly — before, during and after the pregnancy.

Female rabbits reach sexual maturity at 4 months of age. They can produce 4 to 12 kittens per litter and have up to 6 litters per year. If you aren't going to breed your rabbits, they should be desexed by a veterinarian. Female rabbits can be desexed from 4 months of age and male rabbits may be desexed from as early as 3 months.

Desexing rabbits has positive health and welfare benefits aside from simply preventing them from breeding. The benefits of desexing include:

  • reduced problematic behaviour such as aggression, nesting, spraying and mounting behaviour
  • prevention of womb infections or cancer
  • allowing companionship without unwanted pregnancies

Identification of rabbits

Permanent identification (microchip) is recommended as a precaution should the rabbit escape. The microchip should be implanted by a qualified person and registered with your local council and pound.

Euthanasia of rabbits

Rabbits must be euthanased humanely by a vet or a person  trained in humane euthanasia. The recommended method is a lethal injection administered by a vet, however when performed by a trained and competent person, cervical dislocation is also an acceptable method.

Rabbits should not be poisoned, drowned or gassed.

Acknowledgements and resources

These guidelines were developed by the Victorian Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, and have been approved by the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security.

A number of documents were used as resource materials, particularly:

  • Bureau of Animal Welfare & Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. (1999). 'Code of practice for the intensive husbandry of rabbits (VIC).' ISSN 1329-8062
  • Code of Practice for the Welfare of Rabbits- Following the code, Llywodraeth Cynulliad Cymru Welsh Assembly Government. ISBN 9780750453561. September 2009. http://wales.gov.uk/docs/drah/publications/091109rabbitcodeen.pdf
  • Department of Primary Industries (2004) Code of practice for the housing and care of laboratory Mice, Rats, Guinea Pigs and Rabbits, Victoria, IBSN 1741462886. December 2004
  • Department of Primary Industries (2011) Caring for your pet rabbit.
    Parsons, W. (2001) Bunny Business. http://www.bunnybusiness.org/
Page last updated: 13 Jul 2020