Pet-care practices research results for rabbits owners

Environment

What rabbits need:

  • A spacious and comfortable hutch. While pet rabbits can live happily indoors with the family, the reality is that most live outside in a hutch or cage.
  • Cramped hutches restrict movement and can lead to spinal and behavioural problems. The hutch should be big enough for rabbits to lie down and stretch out in all directions. It should be high enough that they can stand up on their back legs, without their ears touching the roof and long enough to allow for at least three hops from one end to the other.
  • The hutch must have a sleeping area with a solid floor and sides to offer shelter, as well as somewhere to hide. The hutch flooring (including sleep area) should be lined with soft, absorbent bedding such as straw, grass hay or unscented wood shavings. Do not have suspended wire or unlined hard flooring as these can lead to foot problems and sore hocks.
  • Hutches must be well ventilated to avoid rabbits overheating (which can cause death). Wire mesh/fly screen wire sides provide good light and ventilation, as well as mosquito and fly protection.
  • Hutches should be thoroughly cleaned every week, and bedding changed daily.
  • Regular access to a large exercise area. Ideally this should be attached to the hutch so they can access it whenever they want to. Rabbits need the space to be able to run, not just hop. They should have at least four hours of free roaming outside the hutch daily.
  • Protection from weather and predators. The hutch and run should be secure from predators, provide shelter from extremes of weather, and have an area where rabbits can hide.
  • Rabbits are very prone to heat stress (when temperatures are above 28°C). On hot days, keep rabbits inside the house (for instance, the laundry) or move them to a cool, shaded and well-ventilated area. Provide two-litre frozen water bottles for them to rest against (as rabbits can't sweat). Make sure they have clean, fresh drinking water at all times.

The reality:

  • Many rabbits live in hutches that are too small for them to move comfortably.
  • 15% of owners clean the floor of their rabbit's cage less than once a week.
  • Only 36% of rabbits that live in a cage or hutch are allowed out for exercise daily. 7% are never let out of their cage or hutch at all.
  • 18% of rabbits don't have access to a cool, shaded area when the weather is hot. Rabbits are extremely sensitive to heat — they can't sweat.
  • Rabbits are often confined in cages with poor ventilation, leading to distress (and even death) during hot weather.
  • 29% of rabbits do not have the ability to 'hide' completely from predators or other threats.

Diet

What rabbits need:

  • Rabbits need to eat their own body weight in grass hay each day. Eating hay helps wear down rabbits' teeth, and their digestive system must have grass and/or hay in order to function properly. They should have constant access to clean, good quality hay that isn't part of their bedding. Don't feed lucerne as the sole source of hay as it is too high in calcium. Don't feed grass clippings as these go mouldy quickly.
  • Rabbits need a handful of fresh greens morning and night. Vary the greens offered. Good choices include spinach, bok choy, cauliflower leaves, cabbage and brussel sprout leaves. Carrots and fruit should only be fed occasionally and in small quantities as treats, because they are high in sugar and can cause obesity.
  • Rabbits need a tablespoon of commercial rabbit nuggets/pellets once or twice daily. Do not feed rabbit muesli as this causes dental disease. Rabbits eating muesli also tend to leave the bits they don't like, and this leads to nutrient deficiencies.

The reality:

  • 39% of rabbits aren't given hay to eat.
  • 44% of rabbits are fed cut grass.
  • 30% of rabbits aren't given fresh greens to eat.
  • 30% of rabbits are fed rabbit muesli.

Behaviour

What rabbits need:

  • Rabbits need to dig, run and play every day, to prevent boredom. Rabbits are smarter than people think — they can even be trained to understand basic commands and to use a litter tray (search online for tips).
  • Rabbits need to chew to wear down their teeth, so they need access to lots of safe chewable materials. They also need suitable toys and other objects to play with and hide in. Change toys regularly so rabbits don't become bored.

Examples of simple rabbit toys:

  • Cardboard boxes — for crawling in and out, hopping up on and chewing. Fill a box with shredded newspaper or dried leaves for digging.
  • Paper towel or toilet paper tubes — leave some paper towel for shredding
  • Paper bags — to shred, shove around.
  • Untreated straw or wicker baskets — for chewing (can be filled with hay or straw for digging).
  • Pine cones — washed and dried for at least four months.
  • Phone books — without the shiny cover, for ripping and shredding.
  • Wooden parrot toys.
  • Cat toys — can be rolled or tossed (ensure there are no small, removable or chewable pieces).
  • Metal lids — from jars. They are great for flipping around and making noise.
  • Baby toys — hard plastic that teeth cannot break or eat through, such as keys, stacking cups or stacking blocks that can be knocked over, fish links, and rattles.
  • Slinkies, metal trucks, plastic trucks and toys.
  • Wood branches and twigs — pesticide free and aged at least three months (note that cherry, peach, apricot, plum and redwood are all poisonous).
  • Balls they can nudge, paw and fling — wire cat balls, plastic balls, big (light) balls for kids.
  • Large diameter cardboard tubes that they can crawl through, over and under.

Rabbits should be handled regularly, particularly when young, so they aren't scared of people. They should also be socialised from a young age to prevent undesirable behaviours.

Never lift a rabbit by its ears. This is cruel and can damage the muscles and membranes in the ears. Approach the rabbit from the front. Gently hold the scruff of the neck with one hand but take the weight in your other arm which should be around the rabbit's hindquarters. Lift the rabbit towards you and rest it against your body with its head toward your shoulder. Hold it firmly but gently against your chest, gently stroking and speaking to it in soothing tones.

Supervise your rabbit around children. Children can be unintentionally rough when handling rabbits and can cause significant injury.

The reality:

  • Only 47% of rabbits are exercised daily.
  • 19% of rabbits are never given the opportunity for exercise.
  • 26% of rabbits never receive opportunities to forage.
  • 25% of rabbits never have an opportunity to dig.
  • 34% of rabbits don't have access to toys or other objects they can manipulate.
  • 85% of rabbits have never received any training.
  • Many rabbit owners report that their rabbit often or sometimes excessively exhibits undesirable behaviours, including fear of loud noises (33%), aggression (45%), separation anxiety (19%), destructive behaviours (37%), inappropriately urinating or defecating indoors (27%), and anxious behaviours (21%).
  • Only 58% of owners properly supervise their rabbits when around children.

Companionship

What rabbits need:

  • Rabbits are highly social animals. If they do not live indoors with the family, they will need the company of other rabbits. Lack of company is one of the worst welfare problems for rabbits in Victoria. Single rabbits can suffer chronic loneliness and boredom. The best combination is a desexed male and a desexed female.
  • Make sure you learn how to safely introduce a new rabbit, to prevent fighting.
  • It's not recommended that you house rabbits together with guinea pigs, as rabbits can bully them. Rabbits may also carry infections that can affect guinea pigs.
  • Rabbits need to be properly cared for when owners are on holiday. This means being left with a suitable carer or taken to a boarding facility.

The reality:

  • Only 18% of rabbits live with the company of another rabbit.
  • When away overnight, 14%of owners just leave food and water out for their rabbit, while 6% do not make any special arrangements.

Health

What rabbits need:

  • Rabbits need to be vaccinated to prevent a range of diseases, including calicivirus.
  • Unfortunately there is no vaccination for the virus myxomatosis. All owners can do is avoid contact with mosquitoes (which carry the virus) and infected rabbits. This means covering hutches in insect-proof netting or rabbits should be kept inside away from mosquitoes, especially during dusk and at night when mosquitoes are most active.
  • Dental care — check rabbits daily for signs of dental disease. Signs can include reduced appetite, dribbling, weight loss, runny eyes or a dirty bottom.
  • Preventative veterinary care — take your rabbit to the vet annually for a checkup. You also need to check your rabbit for internal and external parasites, such as fleas and ear mites (get advice from your vet regarding treatment options). Check rabbits daily (around the backside) for maggots during the warm summer months. Maggots can lead to potentially fatal flystrike.
  • Desex your rabbit to prevent unwanted breeding. Animal welfare shelters are full of rabbits that can't find homes. Desexing also prevents some forms of cancer and reduces aggression.
  • Grooming — long-haired breeds require daily brushing to remove excess dead hair, and prevent hairballs developing. Nail trimming is also required. Ask your vet to show you how to do this safely, without risking cutting the 'quick'.

The reality:

  • 37% of owners do not vaccinate their rabbits.
  • 36% of owners do not do anything to maintain their rabbit's dental health.
  • 35% of owners do not take their rabbit to the vet for a checkup.
  • 26% of owners don't check their rabbit for external parasites, and 37% don't check it for internal parasites.
  • 53% of rabbits are not desexed.
  • 18% of owners never groom their rabbit.
Page last updated: 05 Jul 2021