Rabbits are great! But they’re not for everyone.
On the other hand, what other animal is so soft and cuddly? There is nothing quite like stroking the soft ears of a gentle rabbit. There are many types of rabbits available for pets, from small to large and shorter to longer haired, and even shorter to longer eared rabbits! Most domestic rabbits can trace their lineage back to European roots – this has implications for feeding, housing, and husbandry.
Rabbits can withstand fairly extreme weather variations but do best in cooler temperatures. They can be left outside in the winter only when exposed to gradual weather changes throughout autumn and with appropriate insulation. This allows them to develop thick warm coats. Rabbits that live indoors however, cannot tolerate the dramatic temperature changes that may happen if they suddenly find themselves outdoors. Many people keep rabbits in the house and when that is the case, have them housed in plastic or metal hutches. Flooring may be newspapers or paper towels or wood chips, but don’t use aromatic wood chips such as cedar or even pine, for they can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems. Rabbits do need more exercise than is afforded by small hutches but should not be left unattended in the house, where electric cords and other hazards are present.
Two of the more common and more easily preventable health problems seen in rabbits are dental disease and gastric stasis syndrome. Although there are other factors involved, both problems can largely be prevented by feeding good quality timothy grass hay as the main diet source. This hay promotes chewing which helps wear teeth down (rabbits’ teeth grow continually – this can lead to big problems if they overgrow). It also provides a high fiber nutritional intake (necessary for proper function of stomach and intestines). Although commercial rabbit pellets may be fed as a small part of the diet they should be used more as treats. High fiber pellets are better. Feeding rabbits poor quality pellets and not enough hay can lead to dental and intestinal problems. It often results in fat rabbits that suffer from obesity related health problems too. Of course fresh water should always be available, and feeding small amounts of a variety of fresh greens every day helps to provide balanced nutrition.
Rabbits are prey animals by nature and can be very nervous. They can also be quite aggressive, especially if not neutered or spayed. They need careful handling because their back legs are so strong that if frightened and not supported well, kicking of the back legs can result in a broken back and paralysis. Because of their nature, and despite the fact that rabbits can be delightful, I do not recommend rabbits as starter pets or for young children. Rabbits do well as solitary individuals and often live to about seven years of age (the oldest one we cared for at Park Veterinary Centre in Sherwood Park lived until over 11 1/2 years of age!)
As always, health exams prior to purchase of a rabbit are recommended, and washing hands after handling rabbits is a good idea. Rabbits themselves are very hygienic and unless they run into health problems usually do not need bathing or grooming. Ideally, keep rabbits in a quiet part of the house, to reduce their stress. It goes the other way too – caring for rabbits and watching and stroking them can help reduce our own stress levels!
At Park Veterinary Centre we love rabbits and see a good many – phone if you have any questions, as your friendly small mammal Sherwood Park vets are happy to help!