Rabbits are really popular pets in the UK, second only to cats and dogs, and they can make great companions. However, despite peoples best efforts their needs are often misunderstood and rather than being treated as the intelligent, social animal they are, many are condemned to a life of loneliness and boredom in a cage at the bottom of the garden. It is not difficult to look after rabbits in a way that will keep them both healthy and happy, so what do they really need?
The most important thing you can do to keep a rabbit healthy is feed them a balanced diet. The most common problems that vets see in rabbits are over-grown teeth, tummy upsets and obesity related disease, all of which are directly related to them being fed incorrectly. The vast majority of a rabbit’s diet, at least 80%, should be good quality hay. As a rough guide, every day a rabbit should eat a pile of hay as big as it is. Rabbit’s teeth grow continually and without hay to grind them down, they can develop painful spikes, which rip into the tissues of the mouth, and nasty abscesses in the roots. Hay is also required for good digestion (rabbits can easily die from upset tummies) and helps prevent them getting fat. In addition to hay rabbits should have a small amount of fresh vegetables every day, half a handful is enough and a small amount of pelleted rabbit food, no more than a tablespoon twice a day. This is often where people go wrong, leaving the rabbit with an over-flowing bowl of rabbit food, which, because it is high in calories and very tasty, it is all they eat, giving them a very unbalanced diet.
Rabbits are extremely social creatures, in the wild they live in large family groups, and they should never be kept on their own. The best thing to do is to buy sibling rabbits when they are young. You can introduce rabbits when they are adults but it has to be done with care as many will fight at first. However, it is important to persevere and get the right advice as rabbits are miserable when alone. They are also very intelligent, so make sure they have a variety of toys in their cages and runs to keep them entertained. These don’t have to be expensive, there are plenty of commercially available rabbit toys or just a couple of logs they can play on and nibble are fine.
All rabbits should be neutered, even if they are kept with others of the same sex, and this can be done from the age of 4 months for boys and 6 months for girls. Neutered rabbits make much calmer pets and are far easier to handle. They are also much less likely to fight with each other; 2 entire males kept together, even if they are siblings, can become very aggressive once their hormones kick in. Neutering also has huge health benefits, particularly for the females, of whom 80% will get uterine cancer if they are not spayed.
For most people the whole point of owning a rabbit is because they are cute and cuddly creatures but anyone who has tried to pick up a startled or poorly handled rabbit will know that they can do a lot of damage with their strong nails and back legs! So, it is important that they are played with and handled everyday so they are used to human interaction. Rabbits are prey animals in the wild and their only defence mechanism when frightened is to struggle and try to run away. This is why they don’t always make great pets for children, who can be, unintentionally, quite rough or unpredictable in their handling and it is a big reason why rabbits bought as pets for children end up forgotten and neglected at the bottom of the garden; because no child will play with a pet which has hurt it. However, with regular, careful handling from an early age rabbits can become great companions and members of the family.
Rabbits can make great pets but they need just as much care and attention as other animals and shouldn’t be seen as an ‘easy’ option. Although they are often bought for children they are not always the most suitable pet for young people and they should always be kept with at least one other rabbit. However, they can be real characters once you get to know them and really give back what you put in, provided, of course, you give them what they really need!For details on examining a rabbit, neutering and vaccinations, take a look at our Pet Care Advice pages. If you are worried about any symptoms your rabbit may be showing, talk to your vet or use our Rabbit Symptom Checker to help decide what to do.