Thursday, March 8, 2007

Information all Rabbit Owners Need to Know

In the time my wife and I have had pet rabbits, we've dealt with a variety of issues with our furry companions.  From behavioral problems to life threatening states of GI stasis, we've been through a wide range of the things that can happen to rabbits.

None of it has deterred us from wanting to keep rabbits as pets.  We love these curious, investigative, playful and exuberant creatures, and wouldn't trade them for anything.

Below are things my wife and I wish we'd known about when we first started keeping rabbits as pets.  I'm offering this as a resource for new rabbit owners, and I hope it helps.


My wife and I volunteer for the House Rabbit Network (HRN).  They have a list of articles about rabbit care , including an excellent Bunny Basics guide that gives a brief and effective summary of bunny care.

HRN also has a Blog with a variety of resources.  It's a good place to ask bunny related questions, as most of the people on the Blog are HRN members with experience fostering rabbits.

A lot of people will link to articles on the House Rabbit Society web site.  HRS is a larger organization than HRN with more chapters nationwide.  Both are rabbit rescue groups geared towards providing accurate information to rabbit owners.  HRS also has more articles and information on their site, including articles on keeping rabbits with dogs, keeping rabbits with cats.  HRN has an article on Guinea Pigs as Rabbit Buddies

Rabbit Health in the 21st Century: A Guide for Bunny Parents is an excellent book on how to care for your pet rabbit, and includes a lot of information that isn't readily available on the web.

"How to live with an Urban Rabbit". This book is a good overall look at bunny care.  While a lot of the information it contains is available online, it's convenient to have it in one place.


All vets are not equal.  There are a lot of vets who are excellent with cats and dogs, but do not necessarily have all the specialized knowledge necessary to care for rabbits.  Rabbits are considered "Exotics" and you need a vet who has an exotics specialist on staff.  Check with your local rabbit or animal rescue group for vet recommendations.

While your regular vet doesn't need to have a 24 hour emergency care ward, you should find out where the closest one is, in case you need to get your bet to the vet at 3:00 am.  Your regular vet is likely to have a 24 hour vet that they work with, if one is available in the area.

Health Insurance for Pets.

My wife and I have gotten health insurance for our rabbits from VPI.

The basic idea is that you pay for the care up front. There's a form that the vet's office needs to fill out.  You or the vet then fax it to VPI. VPI then reimburses you directly. All the vet has to do is fill out some paperwork and give you the necessary invoice.

The first year my wife and I got it for our rabbits it paid for itself within six months. Rabbit care can be expensive. Be sure to read the fine print so you know what is and is not covered.

The Breeder is not necessarily the best resource

There are a lot of people breeding rabbits for one reason or another who are caring, informed and knowledgeable people.  Unfortunately there are also people who breed rabbits who don't really know much about them, aside from the basics of feeding and housing them enough to reproduce and keep enough alive to turn a profit. I ask that the reliable, well informed breeders please ignore the next few lines, as they aren't about you.

I know HRN members who've been warned by some breeders to never take their rabbit to a vet, "Because the vet will just experiment on it." Some breeders have also advised people to not give their rabbits hay or greens and just feed them pellet food.  Anyone who gives that kind of advice doesn't really know what they're talking about.

There is a lot of misinformation out there that, if followed, will damage the health and well being of your pet rabbit.  Be aware of the source of your advice.

Rabbit Diets:

Breeders will sometimes recommend feeding your rabbit an Alfalfa based pellet food.

Pellets should be a significant component of your rabbit's diet, but much of their food should come from hay and greens.  The HRN article How to Choose a Good Pellet will get you started.  The Calvin's Care Corner - Rabbit Treats article gives the following advice:

An adult rabbit's daily primary diet is basic.

  1. unlimited grass/timothy hay
  2. restricted high-fiber pellets [apx. 1/4 c. per 5 lbs. body weight
  3. Fresh veggies [apx. 2 c. per 5 lbs. body weight]
  4. unlimited fresh water, especially in hot weather
Anything else is secondary, and thus a treat

Rabbits are NOT omnivores.  Most of the "treats" you see in the pet store are very bad for your rabbit, particularly the yogurt based threats or anything that contains sugar.

Pineapple and Papaya possible life savers:

I highly recommend getting your rabbit(s) accustomed to dried Papaya and fresh pineapple.  Many people believe that enzymes found in pineapple and papaya help break down the fur that a rabbit ingests.  Lacking the ability to vomit, rabbits can't cough up fur balls the way cats can.  As a result, furn can build up and cause potentially fatal blockages, which results in Gastrointestinal or GI Stasis.  This is also why frequent brushing is necessary, particularly during the major shedding periods.

If you like fresh pineapple you're in luck, because rabbits are very happy to eat the fibrous cure that humans generally avoid.  Remember to only give your rabbit no more than a teaspoon or a tablespoon of pineapple during any given day. Too much fruit will cause diarrhea.

Calcium and your Rabbit:

Rabbits metabolize all the calcium they eat.  Because of this too much calcium can be very harmful to your pet.  This can include various forms of  Dental Disease and bladder sludge.  In extreme cases kidney stones are possible.  This condition, while treatable in humans, is often fatal for rabbits.  I also recommend you get Up Close and Personal with a Bunny’s Molars

Young, growing rabbits, or rabbits that are nursing, pregnant or are females being used for breeding need a higher calcium diet.  That's why high calcium foods such as Alfalfa hay an alfalfa based pellets are good for them.  Adult rabbits who are not nursing or being bred however, should be on lower calcium diets.  This includes Timothy hay and timothy based pellets used in place of Alfalfa.  High calcium greens such as broccoli and spinach should be fed sparingly if at all.

Get your bunny fixed!

When my wife and I bought Beanbag into our home, we decided to get her four year old female rabbit Fuzzface fixed.  This was done largely because the hormone reduction would make it easier to bond the bunnies, and because we had a vague awareness that it would be better for her to be fixed.

The vets found a tumor on her uterus when they spayed her.  Fortunately, it was caught very early.  In the vet's words, "We don't have any survival statistics, because we almost never find them this soon."  That was the first, but not the last time Beanbag saved Fuzzface's life.

We later learned that "Up to 85% of female rabbits develop uterine cancer by the age of four if they have not been spayed." (HRN, Why Spay Your Rabbit?)

Neutered Male rabbits are less aggressive, less territorial and express fewer territorial behaviors, such as spraying.

Rabbit Litter:

Picking the right litter for your rabbit can be a surprisingly convoluted process.

Most clay based litter made for cats will clump around a rabbits fur.  It may be ingested when the rabbit grooms which can lead to a fatal blockage.  It should ONLY be used if you have a slat bottom cage that doesn't allow your rabbit direct access to the litter.

Litter made from Pine, Cedar or other aromatic wood shavings are bad for most small animals, rabbits among them.  The pine and cedar oils can cause significant respiratory irritation.  There is some evidence to indicate more serious ailment can result.

There's a cat litter on the market named sWheat scoop.  It's made, as the name implies, from wheat.  The problem with this litter is that wheat expands in the stomach, and can cause fatal blockages in rabbits.  I know of two cases where a rabbit exposed to wheat based litter needed gastric surgery due to a blockage.  This is major surgery, and aside form being expensive can lead to numerous health consequences down the road, assuming the rabbit even survives.

Corn can have a similar impact upon a rabbit's digestive system.  Because of this I recommend against corn and corn husk based litters.

Paper based litters are often a good choice, provided your rabbit doesn't eat much if any of their litter.

Fortunately, the two best options for rabbit litter are also the least expensive.

Critter Country Litter 'N Bedding is a compressed straw bedding.  It shouldn't matter if your rabbit eats it, as it's essentially straw anyway.  While it won't provide much in the way of nutrition, it at least won't do any damage.  It's generally cheaper per pound than most the other litters in your average pet store.

Most of the HRN volunteers, myself included, have become fond of using the wood pellets made for wood burning stoves.  These biodegrade as easily as straw and paper based pellets, which makes them a good choice for people who compost their rabbit litter. (The Magic Bunny Poo - A Composting Tale)  It's also costs significantly less than commercial  pet litters.

Most places that carry these pellets consider them a "seasonal" item, so stock up during the Fall and Winter so you have enough for the Spring and Summer.  Your local Agway or other farm supply store will probably have them year round, or be more than happy to order them for you.

Some wood burning stove pellets contain accelerants to make them burn faster.  Avoid these like the plague, as the chemicals they contain will be very harmful to your rabbit.

Litter should be changed every two to four days if you use a litter pan, depending on usage.  You don't need much litter in the bottom of the pan, perhaps enough to cover 90% of the pan's bottom.  Rabbits don't need to bury their pellets the way cats do.  You're basically looking to absorb the urine and prevent their feet from being scalded by uric acid.  Putting a little hay in the litter box will also be helpful.

If you're using a slat bottom cage that doesn't let the rabbit come in direct contact with their litter, then the change frequency can be weekly, assuming you use enough liter to absorb all the urine produced in that time, and you don't have any mold or fungal problems from the litter.

Bunny bonding, Love is in the air - sorta

Introducing two new rabbits, and trying to get them to live happily together or "Bond" them can be a problematic process.  A "Quick" bond is two weeks.  Three Months is not unusual.  Don't get discouraged.  Remember, YOU are the primate with higher brain function and opposable thumbs.  Most rabbits can be bonded, given enough patience and effort on your part.

These references should help:

Love Match: A Guide to Bonding Your Rabbits

HRN Blog: Bonding

You may be advised to take the rabbits on a drive in the car.  The general idea is to stress the rabbits so that they turn to each other for comfort and forget their territorial and dominance disputes.  Using a car for this purpose is falling out of vogue for two reasons.  First, it's dangerous as the rabbits are harder to mange in a moving vehicle.  second, it requires two people, one to drive and the toehr to hndle the rabbits. Finally, there are easier ways to do the same thing at home.

If you have a cloths washer, you can put the rabbits in a basket on top of the washer during the spin cycle.  Keep a towel handy to throw over the rabbits if they start to panic, and keep a tight grip on the basket.

An even easier trick is to put them in a cold dryer.  No, you won't be turning it on.  You'll just out them in the dryer, and if they start to make a fuss, turn rotate the drum by hand.  This will be enough to keep the rabbits on an uneven footing and will allow you significant control over the situation.  As a bonus, the steel drum of the average dryer will be easy to clean in the event of territorial wetting or pelleting.

Side loading washers are generally too damp for this purpose, and rabbit claws can catch, bend or break in the drainage holes that line a washer's drum.

Simply putting the rabbits in a clean, dry bathtub will also provide a slippery footing and neutral territory.

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