By Adrienne Hergen, DVM
February is the ASPCA’s Adopt a Rescued Rabbit month. Rabbits can make great pets for people of all ages. They provide companionship, tend to be engaging, and can get along well with other pets in the household. Locally, there are always rabbits available for adoption at the Arlington and Alexandria Animal Welfare Leagues.
Let’s review some basics about rabbits so that you can be well prepared if you decide to welcome one into your family. Rabbits generally have a lifespan of 8-10 years so it is a serious commitment when you make the decision to adopt. Rabbits have teeth that grow continuously and it is therefore important that they always have things available to chew on. It is important for them to get daily exercise. If you let them out in the house make sure that they are supervised and that your house is rabbit-proofed because they do like to chew on wires and could be accidentally electrocuted. They can also damage baseboards and wooden structures. You can also purchase an exercise pen for them to play in to keep them safe and to avoid damage to your house.
They have very delicate skeletons that account for only 8% of their body weight. Therefore, rabbits should never be picked up by their ears. Support their front limbs with one hand and the back limbs with the other hand. Carry them like a football with their head tucked under your arm. Always place rabbits back into their cage rear end first. This discourages them from jumping from your arms and risking a broken spine or limbs.
Young, growing rabbits under 8 months of age should be fed alfalfa based pellets and hay because they are higher in protein and calcium which is necessary for skeletal development. Rabbits over 8 months of age should be fed timothy based pellets and hay. These are lower in protein and calcium and higher in fiber. They are intended to prevent obesity, bladder stones, and gastric stasis. The diet should primarily consist of free fed hay, a small portion of pellets, and small amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables. Never feed your rabbit iceberg lettuce as this can lead to diarrhea. Until your rabbit is fully grown (around 6 months of age), they can have all the pellets they want. After that, pellets should be limited to 1/8 to 1/4 cups per day per five pounds of body weight. Do not feed pellets that contain seeds, nuts, or colored tidbits. They should always have access to fresh water. This can be offered in a bowl or water bottle.
Rabbits can be litter trained. You want to avoid wood chips as the substrate though because these can release fumes into the air that can cause liver disease. Care should also be taken if using clumping litter because this can cause an intestinal obstruction if ingested. Rabbits shed and should be brushed daily because they can get hairballs which can also cause an intestinal obstruction. Rabbits consume soft fecal pellets overnight. These special night droppings contain high levels of vitamin B and K and twice the protein and half the fiber of hard feces.
We recommend that you get your rabbit spayed or neutered. This will help to deter undesirable behaviors and to prevent uterine cancer in does and, less commonly, testicular cancer in bucks.
Since rabbits are a prey species in the wild, they mask illness well in an attempt to not show weakness. Your rabbit should be eating and defecating constantly. If you notice that this is not the case you should seek veterinary care immediately. A life threatening illness could be developing. Rabbits can be prone to a number of medical conditions including dental disease, gastrointestinal illness, upper respiratory infections, and neurologic conditions. If you have any concerns about your bunny you should make an appointment with your veterinarian.
The purpose of this article was to provide you with some general information about rabbits and their care. Hopefully you will consider bringing a rescued rabbit into your household. I would love to meet your new furry addition when you do!