Bunny Business is endorsed by Animals Australia.
Copyright Wendy Parsons 2001 (website updated May 2016)
Please contact me if you have any bunny questions.
The following information has been gained from personal experience with my own rabbits, plus advice I have received from various veterinarians. I have written Bunny Business because although rabbits are easily obtainable, I have found nothing readily available for prospective owners which enables them to understand their rabbits, and so care for them properly to give the animals a reasonable quality of life by allowing their behavioural needs to be met.
If you bought a puppy or a kitten, would you keep it in a cage? The answer to this should of course be no and there is no reason for your rabbit to be kept in a cage either. Don't buy a rabbit and put him in a hutch somewhere at the bottom of the garden, where he will be forgotten most of the time, and perhaps taken out occasionally for a run. Allow your rabbit to become part of your family as any pet should be. If you are unable to do this, then you should not be buying one - a dog or a cat would probably suit you better. Even the best intentioned people neglect rabbits once the novelty of a new animal wears off, so please view buying a rabbit with the animal's welfare in mind. Like any other pet, a rabbit is for life; not to be handed on once he becomes an inconvenience. A rabbit is a 10 year commitment. He is not a "first" pet to see how it goes before you get a dog. Nor is he low-maintenance. Rabbits can be the most endearing little animals and become part of your family, but they can't do it if you don't give them the opportunity.
The best education you can give your child is to rescue a rabbit from a shelter. So instead of buying a baby bunny, contact your local shelter and save a rabbit already on death row. If you live in Australia there are shelters you can visit, including:
SA Rabbit Rescue
Ph (08) 8564 5122
0418 611 780
Rabbit Run-Away Orphanage
* Rescue and Rehoming
* Bunny Dates
* Information & Referral
Australian Animal Protection Society
(03) 9798 8415
Big Ears Animal Sanctuary Inc
|This is Max.|
|He taught me to understand rabbits.|
If you have decided that a rabbit is what you want, there are a few things you need to know. Firstly, don't apply what you know about cats and dogs to your new rabbit. Rabbits are "prey" animals, which is quite different from "predatory" cats and dogs. Almost everything that moves can be a predator to your rabbit, including you. This means that your rabbit will instinctively be timid and easily frightened, and discipline is out of the question - your rabbit will simply not understand, and only become frightened and withdraw. Even a territorial rabbit that bites will not understand discipline, but if you treat your rabbit properly, territorial biting should never become an issue at all. Think of your rabbit as being an animal that has been abused, and treat him accordingly. This is particularly relevant if your rabbit has come to you as an adult animal.
Your rabbit will also make a better pet if he is desexed - both male and female rabbits will be less territorial and more settled (desexing should stop territorial urinating - which people often confuse with litter training failure. See "Teaching your rabbit to use a litter tray."
A word of caution - when meeting a bunny for the first time (other than a baby.) Don’t put your hand in front of his nose as you would when meeting a dog. It may be a gesture of goodwill to a dog, but to a rabbit it’s a challenge to his territory. My Boo Boo would look upon every hand, including a stranger’s, as a potential food source and welcome contact, but my Mr Rabbit views every stranger as a threat. So, unless you know the particular personality of a rabbit, always expect territorial behaviour, which may mean a bite to your fingers if you put them under his nose. If the bunny’s character is not known, and if you have no treats to bribe him, stroke (not pat) him on the body and down the back.
A biting, aggressive rabbit is sadly quite common. If your bunny bites, he has a reason. You just have to find out what that reason is. Such behaviour can have several causes, but the most common by far is keeping an un-desexed rabbit in cage housing. Why is this such a problem? It’s all about territory.
Rabbits are prey animals and are so low in the food chain, they are only one step up from grass. They exist to provide food for predators, so Nature designed them to breed prolifically so they can (quite involuntarily!) provide that food. In order to do this, they must establish and maintain a territory so they have an area that is safe in which to breed lots of babies. They will enthusiastically, and sometimes savagely, defend that territory, in order to carry out what Nature designed them to do. A cage or hutch is a domesticated bunny’s territory and he, or she, will have an instinctive need to defend it against anyone who dares to trespass, including you. Your bunny’s need to breed and defend his territory is driven by hormones, so when you remove those hormones through desexing, the intense need to do what Nature intended is dramatically reduced, but not entirely gone. This means you may still get bitten occasionally, but not as often. So, how do you stop biting completely? Let him out of the cage!
A rabbit shut in a cage all day is a very unhappy rabbit. His quality of life is low, he has no freedom to socialise with you or other rabbits, he has no garden to explore, and no opportunity for fun. His existence is isolated and lonely. This means you will remain a stranger to him and as long as you remain a stranger, he will nip your fingers when you trespass. You cannot become his friend if he does not interact with you on a regular, daily basis.
Sometimes aggression may surface when you let bunny have a run, and then try to put him back into his cage. You don’t have to know a lot about rabbits to understand why. He believes his “time out” is not long enough, and of course he’s right. He doesn’t want to go back to prison and he is telling you in the most obvious way he can. It is clear to your bunny, if not to you, that he does not get enough quality time. Desexing will lessen his assertiveness, but you still need to improve his quality of life by giving him more freedom and getting to know him. Get rid of the cage and make him a house-rabbit.
Bribery is a good way to get to know your bunny. Find out what his favourite treats are and, until you are on better terms, make sure you always approach him with a treat. Give him unmistakable signs that a treat is coming – rattle the container they are kept in and tell him it is “treaty time” in an excited tone of voice. You should be able to give him the treat/s with one hand and stroke (not pat) him with the other. Bonding will soon begin.
Give your bunny a reason to jump in the air just for the shear pleasure of it. Give him a reason to like you and he will soon love you. A happy bunny will not want to bite anyone, but he may just give you a lick of gratitude. When he does, feel privileged. You will have won his heart.
Rabbits are timid, gentle, curious, and affectionate if given the opportunity. When your rabbit licks you, feel privileged. It is an open display of trust and affection. They adapt easily to living in your home and are suited to quiet households, and contrary to popular belief, are better pets for adults than children.
|Boo Boo and Possum sleeping in front of the fire.|
Most rabbit owners do not understand rabbit behaviour and consequently make the fundamental mistake of not getting their rabbit desexed.
DESEXING IS ESSENTIAL AND IS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN DO TO SUCCESSFULLY HOUSE-TRAIN YOUR BUNNY.
I sadly hear the same story repeatedly from people who have given away their rabbit because, they believed, he could not be house-trained. These people confused “territorial marking” with litter training failure. Territorial marking is when bunny leaves droppings all over the house and wees everywhere as well – this is his way of claiming ownership of his domain from other rabbits (irrespective of whether there are any other rabbits around.) Bunny MUST be desexed to stop this. It is essential to understand that “territorial marking” is a distinctly different behaviour from “needing to go to the toilet.” Desexing is absolutely necessary to prevent territorial marking and for a whole host of other reasons as well.
It will take 6-7 weeks for the hormones to leave the body after desexing so don't expect an immediate change in behaviour, but the intense need to mark territory will subside soon after the operation and then gradually fade over subsequent weeks. Female rabbits that are not desexed also have an increased risk of uterine cancer, so don’t put her life at risk by not desexing.
There are only advantages to desexing It brings about a significant change in personality, always for the better, and a major decrease in territorial behaviour – the change in a desexed rabbit if far greater than the change in a desexed cat or dog. Without the changes desexing brings, most rabbits have a minimal chance at best, of bonding with their owners and being incorporated into family life as a house-rabbit. Without bonding as a true companion animal, neglect is not far away.
|Don't let anyone tell you that you can't house-train a rabbit|
First decide to desex, then read on.
Like cats, rabbits can be easily trained to use a litter tray. They will almost certainly use a tray that has the smell of droppings or urine in it already. Choose a place away from their food and water bowls, preferably in a corner. If however, your rabbit chooses his own location, then you will probably have to put the litter tray there. An argument with your rabbit over location probably won't achieve anything, except an agitated rabbit and soiled floor coverings (stain remover - 1 part white vinegar, 2 parts water.) I have found recycled paper litter to be the most effective because it is more absorbent. I use Breeders Choice and always recommend it because there are no additives or chemicals that can harm rabbits.
Don't use "clumping" litter - although I have never had a rabbit that eats litter, it can happen and with disastrous results. Clumping litter swells in size and "clumps" once ingested, causing terrible complications/death. Buy carefully.
Does (female rabbits) are the homemakers of the bunny world and therefore the ones most likely to dig. If she chooses to dig the litter out of her tray, try placing a rectangular cake rack inside the tray, making sure it is at least level with, or mainly covered by the litter, so that it is not obvious to your rabbit. You don't want to make it obvious or it may put her off using the tray. The cake rack is just to make it more difficult to dig and should eventually put her off. When the need to dig from her litter tray subsides, the cake rack can be removed. A doe instinctively needs to create a home (burrow) for her offspring and when she comes into season, digging (even in her litter tray) will be foremost on her mind. Desexing will subdue her need to dig so frequently.
The sides of a litter tray can be quite daunting for a small rabbit to hop over and just plain overwhelming for a baby bunny. If the sides of the tray are as high as your bunny, it will be impossible for him to hop over easily, and at best, will discourage him from using the tray. Until he grows, remove the tray and replace with something more inviting. Cut a cardboard box to the shape of a litter tray and remove one side at the end, line with some newspaper to keep it dry, then fill with litter in the usual way (unlike cats, rabbits do not dig - well, not to do wee anyway - so the depth of litter can be quite shallow.) This will enable bunny to hop straight into the tray until he is big enough to negotiate something higher. You may also find this useful for a female rabbit recovering from a desexing operation (to limit her stretching,) and an older rabbit who is becoming stiff from arthritis. My perfectly trained old rabbit started doing wee next to her litter tray, but not in it, so I cut out one end which made entry much easier, and less painful and she resumed normal use of the tray.
There are litter trays available for very small rabbits at some pet shops in Australia, but other than that, they are all designed for cats, not rabbits, and this can cause a problem if you have a bunny who likes to back into the corner of his tray to wee. Rabbits spray 'out the back' which may cause over-spray onto the floor (unlike a cat that aims 'downwards.') I have a rabbit who backs-up so far into the corner of his tray that his cotton tail hangs over the edge, and for years I cleaned up over-spray, until I discovered high-back litter trays designed especially for bunnies. These trays are wonderful and can be bought from Bunny Bytes in the USA. Visit www.bunnybytes.com.
A medium size 3 kg rabbit will need a large tray (SP006, large square Hi-Bac) which sells for $9.89 US plus postage. They are well worth the added cost of the exchange rate. Unfortunately the largest tray will be too small for large rabbits like New Zealand Whites and Flemish Giants, but if the demand is there, perhaps Bunny Bytes will eventually make trays for these beautiful big bunnies as well. Some pet shops sell trays large enough for big bunnies, but because they are designed for cats, some modification is needed. You will need to cut a portion out of the front to make the entry lower. Rabbits don’t have long elegant legs like cats, so a lower point of entry will encourage use. Another option is to search for large rectangular plastic storage tubs at hardware stores, and just cut to litter tray shape with a high-back. Check the Bunny Bytes website for design.
It is Important to mention again : Don't confuse territorial urinating with litter training failure. A lot of people buy baby bunnies, so, when a young perfectly trained bunny starts weeing everywhere, and none of it in his litter tray, don't despair. This only means he has reached sexual maturity (4 months) and he is letting other rabbits know that he has come of age and is staking his territory. Desexing will stop this and the sooner the better.
When a female bunny is desexed she will need very gentle post-op care. When a male rabbit is desexed it is minor surgery (although he too needs to be kept quiet and warm for 24 hours,) but females undergo major surgery, so she will need to be isolated from other rabbits, confined, kept warm and comfortable in a playpen or carry cage for 24 hours, and then placed in a small area (or remain in the playpen) where movement is restricted and handling minimised for another 10 days.. A pet playpen is ideal for this because she can be kept inside, and still see her bunny companion or human family, but remain separate from them. Give her a cardboard box in which to retreat with lots of comfy bedding and a litter tray with a low entry point so she does not need to stretch herself to hop in. See instructions for making a cardboard litter tray. Every bunny home should have a pet playpen. They are good for introducing rabbits and for keeping rabbits confined after an illness or operation like desexing.
Contrary to public perception, rabbits do not make good pets for children, particularly young children, because they naturally want to hold and hug their rabbit, but this is instinctively threatening to the rabbit. This however, does not mean that children can't learn to live with rabbits (as opposed to rabbits learning to live with children) but it does mean the child must be taught that the animal is not a cuddly toy and must be treated differently from a cat or dog. Always remember that because your rabbit is a prey animal, he will not like being held. This does not mean you cannot love and pat your rabbit; on the contrary, most really enjoy affection because it helps them feel secure, but instead of picking your rabbit up, go down to your rabbit's level, on the ground or floor, and make a fuss of him there where he can enjoy the attention without feeling threatened. You need to understand that this is an instinctive feeling for the rabbit and has nothing to do with you personally. It's part of being a prey animal and having an instinctive need to survive - being held is like being "captured".
Children's hands are also not large enough to hold a rabbit in a way which allows the rabbit to feel safe. This will usually result in a wriggling rabbit, followed by a scratched child. This will not be the rabbit's fault.
On the occasions when you do pick your rabbit up, never ever pick him up by the ears (magicians have a lot to answer for!) Always use both hands, and always use one hand to hold the bulk of the animal's weight (the bottom) so that the backbone is supported (this is very important.) The other hand can be placed around the chest. I have found rabbits are always calmer when held with all four feet resting on my chest. Something solid under their feet gives them some security.
One of the drawbacks of having a house rabbit is that they need to chew and sometimes this can be your furniture. However you can minimise this and often it will not be a problem at all. Rabbits' teeth continue to grow throughout their life, so they have to chew; never ever growl at your rabbit for chewing, not even the furniture. It's like growling at your dog for wagging its tail. Just hold your temper and remove your rabbit from the piece of furniture he is chewing. If your rabbit has an interesting life as part of the family, has meadow hay available (lots of chewing) and if you always have chewable toys, or a piece of untreated, unpainted wood available that belongs just to your rabbit, chewing the legs of the sofa should not be a problem (not as often anyway.) A piece of firewood is ideal. A cardboard box or some newspaper is good chewable material too. Eucalyptus oil is a good deterrent to wipe onto furniture and is only a few dollars from a chemist. "Bitter" sprays like Grannicks Bitter Apple Spray are also available, but so far the feedback I have had is not promising.
The only real behaviour that rabbits have in common with cats and dogs is the “young animal” nuisance. Kittens and puppies can cause havoc in a household, digging holes and clawing furniture, but this subsides as they grow up. Bunny too will chew less as he gets older, but he does still need to chew so always have chewable toys and/or cardboard available for him.
Your rabbit's teeth must be checked regularly by your vet. Make a point of doing this at least annually when your rabbit has his calici virus vaccination. Remember, their teeth continue to grow throughout their life, which is why having lots of meadow hay and a piece of wood to chew is so important.
There aren’t many animals cuter than a baby rabbit, and so breeding pet rabbits has become a business. As long as they look cute they will sell, and so they are often bred for “cuteness” at the expense of their health. Litters are continually being churned out carrying the burden of health problems associated with genetic weaknesses, such as maloccluted teeth. Maloccluded teeth are not well aligned. i.e. they do not “meet,” so they do not wear down when chewing. Maloccluded teeth can grow to the extent where bunny is unable to eat and if this goes unnoticed, he will quite literally starve. If you have more than one rabbit, don't make the mistake of believing all is well, just because the food has been eaten. One greedy rabbit is quite capable of eating for two. Make a point of regularly observing that both rabbits are eating the food you give them. Older rabbits too, often develop teeth problems, even though they have had a lifetime without any.
Electric cords which are unable to be kept behind furniture, can also present an obvious danger for your rabbit if chewed, but protection is available from an electrical store, in the form of hard plastic sleeving (manufactured by Clipsal, and called mini trunking) which can be placed around the cord. This sleeving comes in approx 3-4 m lengths (around $25) and can be easily cut with a hacksaw. It is in two parts which snap shut, protecting the cord which lies in the centre. This is an excellent idea for anyone who owns a cord chewing dog, or who has young children with a liking for scissors.
Computer accessory shops also sell lengths of plastic tubing to cover cords. Perhaps not as effective as the very-hard-to-chew-through mini trunking, but may be all you need to keep bunny safe.
Your rabbit will need his own basket which should ideally be the plastic tub type (your rabbit will eat his way through a cane basket in no time!) Place the basket under something which will give your rabbit the feeling of protection - remember, your rabbit is a prey animal and needs to feel secure. A coffee table is ideal. Another good idea in addition to a basket, is to give your rabbit a cardboard box large enough for him to sit inside, or even put his basket inside. Cut out 2 entry points, on different, but adjoining sides. A prey animal feels more secure with a second emergency exit. I gave my rabbit a cardboard box, but he never went near it until I put in a second entry/exit point. Now it's his favourite place. A cardboard box is a bunny's best friend, so provide several in different locations around the house to give your bunny some favourite places and a sense of security.
|Bear also has a plush foam bed under the coffee table.||This is Bear's much loved and much chewed box|
|To the left are the remains of a sheet of cardboard||showing the entry/exit points.|
|stuck to the coffee table that he likes to chew.|
|It is most unusual for a rabbit to sleep in the open|
|because it makes them vulnerable to predators.|
|Boo Boo does this often because he lives in an environment|
|that makes him feel safe.|
There are very few true experts on rabbit behaviour - no wonder, every rabbit seems to be different - so when your rabbit does something which is out of the ordinary, it may take a while to understand, if ever. For example, one of my rabbits sleeps on the bed every night and if I acknowledge his presence by talking to him or patting him during the night, he will wee on the bed. He won't do this once the alarm goes off, and he won't do it once it is daylight. If I don't acknowledge him during the night he remains well behaved and only uses his litter tray. It is a form of territorial marking but I may never fully understand this odd behavioural need. It took a lot of washing before I worked out how to stop it.
|This is the culprit who wees on the bed if he gets|
|a pat during the night. Here he is doing|
|what he does best - sleeping on the bed.|
Just like cats and dogs, rabbits like toys :
When I light the fire, I bring out a small cane tub which contains about half a dozen pine cones. One of my rabbits enjoys tipping it over, scattering the pine cones, then chasing them around the room. It's a ritual we have most nights during winter, before he settles down to sleep in front of the fire.
Food toys are not just great for cats and dogs. They are wonderful for rabbits too. Mr Rabbit loves his rubber ball (cat toy) that leaves a trail of cereal for him to chase - just ahead of Missie who is also in hot pursuit. The main danger with food toys is that bunny may get too fat. Nature intended that rabbits should exist on a very basic diet of dry grass, so don’t go giving him a food toy every day. Rabbits are such small animals, that it is really easy to give a greedy rabbit too much. Once or twice a week is enough for a food toy and just a level teaspoon of treats inside.
If you have a house rabbit, it is also nice for them to have time in the garden, but always remember that your neighbour's cat or dog can kill your rabbit. Even if a cat has a gentle disposition, it can still terrorise your rabbit just by its presence, so supervise your rabbit's time outside in the garden if it is impossible to protect your backyard against the intrusion of cats (which is usually the case.)
A recent invention is now on the market which will keep other people’s cats out of your garden, and keep bunny safe. Oscillot is specially designed “capping” which is installed on the top of a fence. It has paddles that spin when an animal tries to climb over it. Have a look at www.oscillot.com.au. – well worth the visit if you value your bunny. I have had Oscillot installed and I have not (knowingly) had a cat in my backyard since. It’s fabulous and I would not be without it.
|Oscillot capping is virtually impossible for cats to negotiate.|
The only thing to be mindful of is if you live in an area where there are possums. You may have a resident possum in your garden and not know about him. Possums travel through the trees but sometimes have to use fences, so if your fence becomes unusable to the possum, he may become trapped within your yard if he has no other means of leaving it.
Your back yard also needs to be "rabbit proof" to keep your rabbit from getting out (spring hinges on gates will help keep predators out and bunny in.) It only takes a few centimetres of soil to be dug out for your rabbit to escape. Here are three ways to stop this :
|burying 10cm wide metal or plastic garden edging
in a narrow trench immediately below the fence
(as a continuation of the fence).
|placing a line of bricks or pavers flush
with the ground along the fence line.
laying a strip of 45cm wire netting on the ground, attached
to the base of the fence and extending it out at least 30cm.
Bunnies can also eat a hole in a brush fence, so you may need to run 30cm of netting across the bottom if you have this type of fence.
I have a small, high-fenced, courtyard-style back yard to my home unit and my rabbits have access to it through a "pet door" (rabbits will happily learn to use a pet door.) The area is small enough for me to see that they are safe from inside the house. Even so, cats still remain a danger, so I am never far away when my rabbits are outside. If you have a larger back yard, with a little thought, it is possible to section off a portion and give your rabbit access to it through a pet door and/or "cat park" tunnel, if access is not directly available. These are designed for cats, but there is no reason why they can't be used for your rabbit. Proper "cat parks" on a larger scale can provide a range of options, designed specifically to suit your home and will keep your rabbit safe.
If you install a pet door, it needs to "look different" when it is locked, from when it is unlocked, or your rabbit may become confused and frightened. Once again, this is a prey animal reaction. When I lock my pet door, I place something in front so my rabbits know it is off-limits.
|Boo Boo stretching up to reach a Camellia leaf.|
|He likes pruning plants that he can reach.|
It is possible to have a rabbit and a garden, however there are a few restrictions. My garden consists of lots of hanging baskets, and plants which my rabbits either won't or can't eat - anything that grows without greenery at the bottom, ie climbing roses, palms, camellias, standard plants like roses, fuchsias, gardenias etc, are 'rabbit-safe' plants. If your rabbit starts ring-barking your standard roses, just wrap a single layer of wire netting around the lowest 30cm (this will barely be noticeable.) My garden is also full of flowers (Impatiens) at ground (or bunny) level - my rabbits won't eat them.
Be careful of poisonous plants e.g. azalea, daphne, ivy, elephant ears, oleander - check with your vet (or nursery) if unsure. Visit the links below for a list of poisonous plants.
Also be careful not to lay snail bait, or use poisonous sprays on areas where your rabbit has access. If you know that authorities are spraying for fruit fly in your vicinity, keep bunny indoors. It does not take much of a breeze for toxic sprays to blow your way. When the danger is over, water the foliage where bunny has access.
|Possum is surrounded by Impatiens||My Rabbits have never eaten Impatiens|
|but she never eats them.||but Boo Boo often sits on them.|
If at all possible, your female rabbit will be happier if she can have a small area where she can dig. It does not have to be large; just a small patch of dirt or a mound, out of view behind a shrub will keep her happy. It would however be wise to lay some wire netting a few centimetres underneath so she doesn't dig to China. My female (desexed) rabbit only digs occasionally in a small patch about half a square metre - once her behavioural need was satisfied by digging a small hole, she was happy and gave it away. Now and again she will go back and move the soil around a little. Never growl at your rabbit for digging.
Putting your rabbit's health in jeopardy should not be an option. Boo Boo nearly died from fur ingestion, so now his long fur is cut short every 3 weeks.
If you have bought a long haired rabbit, you have brought home a high maintenance animal and will probably end up paying more veterinary bills than you had planned. Rabbits will groom themselves, but unlike cats, they are unable to vomit their fur up. My advice if you have a long haired rabbit, is to cut it, and cut it regularly. Even if you groom your rabbit daily to remove knots, your rabbit may eventually get a bowel or a stomach full of fur and if untreated, can kill your rabbit. Some breeders claim pineapple can help the problem, however the Melbourne Rabbit Clinic says this is a myth, and only gives bunny unnecessary sugar.
If they are not wearing it, they can’t ingest it, so my long haired rabbit gets trimmed (with scissors) every 3 weeks. This is a job for an adult, not a child. I have found under the chin to be the most difficult area to trim:
a) because of the many 'folds' of skin
b) because this is the location of the jugular,You must remember that you are asking a prey animal to make itself vulnerable by exposing its neck, so bunny will probably object. It is really a job for two people - one to hold a wriggling bunny wrapped in a towel while the other lifts the chin and trims under it. Clippers are best for this. Or the easy way is to ask your vet to do it, at least until you get the idea. Which ever way you look at it, long haired rabbits are hard work.
If cutting a long haired female rabbit, be very careful when trimming behind the front legs (a spot that often knots.) Your girl bunny will probably have teats just behind the front legs, so be very careful when cutting. And, mind the tail! Always hold the actual bone of the tail when cutting this area so you know exactly where it is! Hold the actual tail bone even when using clippers.
|MEADOW HAY||MEADOW HAY||MEADOW HAY !!|
When Max and Precious Muffin hopped into my life, we did not even have computers at work, so there was no internet to research rabbit behaviour, their care or their diet, no bunny groups that I knew of to go to, and rabbit savvy vets were almost non-existent, so there was no help there. It was illegal to breed rabbits in my State so rabbit care was what you made it. Max and Precious Muffin were fed what ever they liked most – lucerne pellets (the only kind available,) apples, pears, sweet corn, and chocolate coated sultanas every day. Neither was ever given meadow or oaten hay, although they did get greens. They flourished. Even with such a bad diet, Precious Muffin lived a perfect life without a single health issue until she died at 10 and a half years. Neither bunny had any life-threatening digestive problems like gut stasis which is so common in today’s rabbits. Max was overweight and had a grubby bottom, but there was no one to tell me this was probably from the lucerne pellets and/or fruit. Despite the need for many bottom washes, Max was happy and lived to be at least 11. My darling boy died suddenly, possibly from a heart attack caused by all the chocolate and tallow in the lucerne pellets clogging his arteries.
This was all a long time ago and today’s rabbits are a very different story. Rabbits are now a “business” and are bred for a quick sale so their health and genetic weaknesses don’t matter as long as they look cute and money can be made. Feed them a diet like I fed Max and Precious Muffin, who lived before genetic weaknesses were so common, and there will almost certainly be life-threatening digestive illnesses. Rabbits have a naturally fragile digestive system at best and I am convinced that this and thoughtless breeding has compounded the ability for today’s rabbits to deal with bad diet as effectively as Max and Precious Muffin.
Meadow hay is the single most important food your bunny should have - (75-80% of his diet) - NOT lucerne hay or lucerne-based pellets which are commonly sold in pet shops; in Australia (note, meadow hay is seasonal, so if hard to find, then oaten hay will do just fine). And, if he is chewing meadow hay, he won’t have to chew your furniture to keep his teeth in check!
Lucerne pellets were designed to fatten battery-rabbits which are slaughtered at 3 months for meat, so don't feed lucerne pellets as a regular part of bunny’s diet unless you want to fatten him for the dinner table. Lucerne can cause a range of other problems too. The smallest of quantities should be OK, e.g. no more than 1 level teaspoon a day as a treat only. Think of pellets as being "chocolate for rabbits" and give accordingly, if at all.
Now, back to what bunny should be eating. Never underestimate the value of meadow hay if you want bunny to be healthy. Meadow (or oaten) hay is crucial. Give him meadow hay every day and as much as he will eat. For many years I have been feeding my rabbits based on the advice of my vet, on a diet consisting primarily of meadow hay, some greens like parsley or carrot tops, and supplemented by a moderate amount of vegetables, and fruit treats, and all have lived to be old bunnies. Today’s rabbits often cannot tolerate fruit or vegetables at all, so if your bunny is getting plenty of hay but still has a grubby bottom, or gut problems – first see your vet - then phase out any fruit, and anything lucerne-based has to go too. Do this gradually though, and only phase out one food at a time. As specialist bunny vet Dr Peter Fisher recommends, there should be no sudden stopping of a particular food. If it persists see your vet again.
Dr Fisher specialises in the care of small exotic mammals and practises at the Pet Care Veterinary Hospital in Virginia USA. He says that rabbits should be given plenty of meadow hay but no fruit at all. Dr Fisher’s website on rabbit diet is very good and I recommend every bunny owner reads it. He explains why bunny's digestive system is so fragile, and why meadow hay and consistency of diet are so important. He also explains why lucerne (also called alfalfa) is so bad for the adult rabbit. What ever you decide, remember that meadow hay should be the basis of a good bunny diet, and any lucerne-based product should not be.
I know of one rabbit that cannot eat the very thing that rabbits are supposed to eat naturally. Maddie cannot eat green grass, or anything else that is green. Oaten hay is all that her very fragile digestive system can tolerate. This may very well be caused by genetic weaknesses due to bad breeding.
Meadow hay is seasonal, and some fodder stores don't stock it at all, and in times of drought it is very difficult to get and the quality can be very poor.
Bunnies don't like hay that is too dry, so look for a bale that has a strong green tinge through it. A fodder store that supplies racing stables will always have good quality hay. BEWARE of mouldy hay which can kill your bunny and watch for grass seeds especially if your rabbit has long hair. If you are unable to buy meadow hay, oaten hay is fine too.
A bale of hay is obviously the cheapest way to give bunny the correct diet, but for those of us who live in an urban area and cannot find room for something that big, Torwood Farm has a very good product that is just the right size. It’s called the “mini oaten bale” and is available from pet shops in SA. If your pet shop does not stock it, ask them to get it in. Torwood Farm hopes to expand into other States so check their website for stockists www.torwoodfarm.com.au or ring (08) 8823 2978. I recommend it. My bunnies love it and it’s good for them.
Oxbow is a company based in the USA which now supplies bunny food and other bunny products to Australia. They have a wonderful range of hays available in user-friendly packs - Timothy, Orchard Grass and Botanical hays. Check their website for outlets.
If you like the convenience of pellets, there is now an alternative available in Australia that does not have the health-hazard of lucerne. Made by Oxbow, “Bunny Basics” are pellets imported from America with a meadow hay base which contain no lucerne. This is a great alternative to lucerne pellets, but even so, it is not wise to substitute a diet of regular meadow hay with pellets of any kind just because they are convenient. Bunny Basics does make a lucerne-based pellet for young bunnies and both packs look the same, so make sure you leave the shop with the right pack. In South Australia Bunny Basics is available from:
It is best to ring all outlets first to ensure they have what you want and check Oxbow's website for new stockists.
The Unley Vet has a wide range of Oxbow products including pellets, Timothy, Orchard Grass and Botanical hays in large and smaller packs, Harvest Stacks, Hay Cakes and Simple Rewards treats They also stock a range of "support" biscuits e.g. urinary tract support, joint support.
The Hills Vet stocks pellets, Timothy hay in large and smaller packs, and Simple Rewards treats. They will get support biscuits in for your bunny if you ask. The Hills Vet also stocks the UK-based Rabbit Welfare Association's handbook "Hop to it" for $2. This is a fabulous little book and well worth having.
The Hills Veterinary Centre at Blackwood, and Unley and Fulham Gardens vets also stock another product from Oxbow called "Critical Care for Herbivores" for really sick bunnies which can be given orally by a syringe. This is only distributed by vets, so make your vet aware of this product if he is not already.
Little angel Chloe, waiting patiently for a sultana
To win their hearts, I give my rabbits treats every day, eg :
Precious Muffin could smell chocolate at 20 paces
Your rabbit may not show any interest in sultanas at first, but if you put a couple amongst his food each day, they will eventually be eaten and it won't be long before he comes hopping when you rattle the sultana jar.
My rabbits get a small ‘cocktail’ of dried fruit and chopped almond (about 1 teaspoon in total) added to their dessertspoon of Oxbow pellets, every night before their dinner. They know it's coming and get so excited that they run around in circles. They also get a small treat of rolled oats before breakfast and get just as excited. Rabbits like routine and the anticipation of a treat at particular times each day will make your rabbit's life more enjoyable. Remember, rabbits are small animals so all treats should be small too. One sultana is a rabbit-sized treat, a quarter of an almond is a rabbit-sized treat, a level teaspoon of rolled oats is a rabbit-sized treat.
Chocolate should not be given to rabbits but some rabbits just don't understand. Precious Muffin (now gone to bunny heaven after 10 and a half years) would even try and get chocolate out of your mouth if she could smell you eating it. On one occasion she jumped onto the table when I had guests, and began scoffing the after-dinner chocolates.
Greens I give my rabbits include carrot tops, endive, chicory, celery leaves, Cos lettuce, bok choy, herbs like basil, coriander and parsley, thistles sometimes, occasionally beetroot leaves and spinach. I also grow oat grass - just a cup of oats from a fodder store sprinkled in the garden will grow easily, and you can even let it dry off and cut as fresh oaten hay.
My average sized rabbit (3 kg) has :
In the morning
Make sure you wash all fruit and vegetables, and don't give your rabbit second-grade quality.
Fresh, clean water should always be available. I don’t like water bottles. They block too easily and if they block, it may go unnoticed, and bunny will dehydrate and could die. Water bottles are not really suitable for a house-bunny anyway, and research shows rabbits prefer drinking from a bowl.
I was told by a vet that he had a rabbit brought into his surgery that had been fed only lettuce - she was dying of malnutrition. Her well intentioned owners did not know any better. Consequently, even though Dr Fisher suggests a couple of different types in his diet recommendations, I am not a fan of lettuce, but when carrots tops are not available I will give my bunnies endive.
Some vegetables can cause bloat in bunnies, so moderation in all things except meadow or oaten hay. Vegetables in the turnip family have caused poisoning in other animals and rhubarb leaves are also poisonous.
Thistles are popular with all rabbits, but because they are considered weeds, only collect these from your own garden unless you are absolutely certain they have not been sprayed with poison.
I have only covered the basics of diet in this website, and that is:
There is a lot more to know and I recommend everyone owned by a rabbit visits:
My experience has shown that you may have to do a bit of searching to find a veterinarian who is really familiar with rabbits and their problems. Given the thousands of rabbits living in any city you care to name, one could naturally assume that all veterinarians would know all about rabbits, but through no fault of their own, I have found this not to be the case. I think it stems from the way many owners treat their rabbits - they simply don't take them to the vet. Many are left in tiny hutches at the bottom of the garden without any interaction with their owners, so when they become sick, no one notices. Consequently a great "cat and dog" vet may not necessarily have much experience with rabbits. I have been to some vets who felt their expertise in rabbits was lacking, but were professional enough to refer me to another surgery, so don't hesitate to get a second opinion if you feel dissatisfied with the care your rabbit is receiving. If your vet gives an excuse for not desexing – "too invasive" "there is no need to desex rabbits" – what he really means is "I don't know how to" so change your vet because he won't know anything else about rabbits either!!
If you live in South Australia I recommend my vet :
Dr Jane Kendall, Hills Veterinary Centre, 199 Main Road, Blackwood, S.A.
(08) 8278 4147
Dr Shangz Xie, Adelaide Veterinary Specialist and Referral Centre,
102 Magill Road,
(08) 8132 0533
I cannot speak highly enough of both Dr Kendall and Dr Shangz.
If you live in the northern suburbs, the Para Hills Vet Clinic is very experienced and does all bunnies from SA Rabbit Rescue. Lots of desexing experience!
Dr Tess Holme or Dr Cathy Skinner,
Para Hills Vet Clinic,
523 Bridge Road,
Para Hills, S.A.
(08) 8258 4838
Although I do not have any personal experience with the Gawler Animal Hospital, they do have a vet who has an interest in rabbits.
Dr Alana Potgieter,
Gawler Animal Hospital
18 Fourth Street,
Gawler South, S.A.
(08) 8522 3500
If these are not convenient for you or you live in another State, please email me and I will find one for you.
It is a total fallacy that rabbits are hardy. This has been perpetuated based on nothing more than the fact that they breed prolifically. Rabbits are physiologically very fragile and succumb quickly to illness and disease, so if your rabbit is off his food take him to a vet. Don't wait to "see what happens", or it could be too late.
Rabbits don't need bathing, unless you are involved in showing and then it isn't for the rabbit's benefit anyway. If bunny gets a dirty patch, just sponge the spot with warm water and a nice shampoo if needed. If your bunny gets a dirty bottom on a regular basis, you are probably still giving him lucerne-based pellets or too much fruit, and not giving him enough meadow hay. Adjust his diet and see your vet if it persists.
I get my vet to clip my rabbit's nails because I live alone and I find it best to have another person to hold a wriggly bunny still. It's really easy to misjudge where to cut, and if you cut through the nerve it will hurt. My vet has a good method for nail clipping - she presses the clippers on the nail, but without enough pressure to cut. The rabbit will react if the nerve is being pressured, so if this happens, she just moves the clippers a little way down the nail and tries again. She has never cut through a nerve this way.
Most products on the market that actually work, are designed for cats and dogs and some like Frontline, are fatal to rabbits so be careful of any product you use - "less is best," so minimise the amount used, especially if the rabbit is small, beware of ingestion through grooming/scratching then licking feet (as rabbits tend to do.) Follow directions diligently, and check with your veterinarian AND the manufacturer before using anything. I use Advantage or Revolution for kittens.
Because Frontline is fatal to rabbits, it is best not to use it on your dog if your dog and rabbit are friends. Friends will lick each other and you don’t want your rabbit licking a dog that has been treated with Frontline.
This is needed annually. It would be wise to have your veterinarian give your rabbit a complete check-up when you take him in for vaccination. Also get toenails clipped, and don't forget to check those continually growing teeth!
The calici virus has now evolved into several strains, so make sure you check with your rabbit-savvy vet, so your bunny is vaccinated according to the most recently available information.
Two of the new strains are RHVD2 and RHVD1-K5. There are currently no vaccines available in Australia for RHVD2 and RHVD1-K5.
You can find out more about these strains and add your voice to help protect Australian domestic rabbits by signing the petitions to the Australian Government via the links below:
Don't. The RSPCA and Animal Welfare League have enough to do with unwanted and uncared for animals. Even the best intentioned people neglect rabbits, so don't add to the chain of misery.
If you want another rabbit, visit a shelter and save a bunny who will otherwise be destroyed. Walking down the rows of unwanted animals just waiting to die will be the best education you can give your child.
If you have accidentally let your rabbit have a litter, NEVER EVER give the babies away unless you personally know the people taking them. Give-away rabbits can have a tragic end. If someone arrives on your doorstep and just happens to have the same number of grandchildren as you have bunnies, don’t believe him! Charging a price may put these people off.
If you want your rabbit to have a litter “just so the children can see,” you need to step out of the 1950s. Better still, step into a shelter and volunteer your time at the place where so many unwanted animals die.
Suggestions below relate to conditions in Australia, therefore predator and environmental protection may be different in other countries, so additional protection may be needed to that suggested in Bunny Business.
If you have decided that you want a rabbit, but you will not allow him to live inside the house, you have an even greater obligation to give your rabbit a good quality of life. This means as large an area as possible for a proper run, and you should let your rabbit out regularly for a wander in the garden. Imprisoning a rabbit in isolation, when his only crime has been to appear so cute and adorable that your child had to have him, is no way to educate your child on how to care for an animal, so make an effort to house your rabbit properly.
Rabbits are social animals and it's cruel to keep them in isolation, so if you are not prepared to include your rabbit as a member of the family, you should get him a companion; preferably another rabbit. A male and a female, both of which have been desexed, are the best companions. Two males will probably fight, as will two females, even if they are desexed. Litter mates can sometimes bond without fighting, but is not guaranteed. When socialising same-sex rabbits, it is essential that one or both have subservient personalities. Peace will never prevail if both are dominant animals.
When you introduce rabbits, do it on neutral ground if possible, i.e., don't take one rabbit into another's territory. Neutral ground is not always easy to find however, and given the time it can take for some rabbits to become friendly (hours, days, weeks or months), it is often not practical either. What ever you do, always have the benefit of a playpen as a means of separation.
Pet playpens can work well when introducing rabbits, and should be in every
rabbit household. Put the new bunny inside the playpen, and leave the resident bunny outside in his territory. This
will enable them to see, smell and even touch each other without fighting.
When they start lying or resting next to each other with only the playpen
wire between them, you can think about closer contact. No one can tell you
how long this will take. It will depend entirely on the personality of each
rabbit. Perhaps hours, perhaps many days, weeks or months.
If the first attempt does not
succeed, try again later.
When Bear first met Missie, he was a monster. He had only been desexed 4 weeks so he had lots of hormones left. His idea of foreplay was to bite her, which of course frightened her. He lived in the playpen for 2 months before they bonded. Now they like to watch the world go by together.
Do you think it's going to rain?
Some people recommend introducing bunnies in an empty bath tub - the sides are slippery so getting a good solid footing is not easy which makes fighting more difficult to sustain. And because you can remain very close, it gives you the opportunity to intervene if things get too rough. The UK-based Rabbit Welfare Assoc however, does not recommend bathtubs. I prefer a playpen and what ever time that takes.
Socialising rabbits can be very difficult and experience and patience are usually needed. The UK Rabbit Welfare Association has a very good website on everything, including bonding bunnies Also check out Miriam' Bunnies at www.mybunnies.com and go to "bonding bunnies" for more ideas.
A word of caution: don't let anyone except your veterinarian determine what sex your rabbits are, and remember that rabbits can breed from an early age (4 mths). It's safer to think of your rabbits as being older than you have been told! It is definitely not a fallacy that rabbits breed prolifically! More than one litter of rabbits has been produced by two rabbits supposedly of the same sex, so on your way home with your new rabbits, go via your veterinary surgery just to be safe!
As already mentioned, rabbits, particularly the females, will dig, so make sure the surface of the run is rabbit proof. Wire netting underneath several centimetres of soil should be enough and perhaps incorporate measures illustrated in Methods 1, 2 or 3 above. Don't use traditional wire netting (chicken wire) to enclose the run - it's much too pliable and can be torn apart by a dog or fox (foxes are present in many suburbs of mainland Australia.) Given enough time, your rabbit may also chew through standard chicken wire.
Dogs, cats, run-away pet ferrets, and foxes are only some of the predators Australian pet rabbits face. Australia has an array of poisonous spiders and deadly snakes, which can find their way into urban areas. Hawks too, will take a rabbit and these fly into the metropolitan area, especially in times of drought when their normal prey is hard to find.
Contrary to public perception (yet again!) rabbits are not hardy, and suffer from both heat and cold. When rabbits are in their natural environment, their homes are nests of dry grass in underground burrows, well away from weather extremes, so it is necessary that you provide equivalent protection from the weather in an unnatural domestic situation.
Your rabbits' run should be predominantly under cover and protected from wind and rain/flooding in winter, and shaded from the heat in summer (a plastic bottle filled with water and frozen can be put in the run for your rabbit to lie against on hot days.) Ideally in winter they should be shut in at night, and covered. Ready-made covers for hutches are now also available from pet shops.
(In a natural warren situation, rabbits take turns keeping watch for danger, so, being the only 2 rabbits in their warren, they will be torn between wanting to stay together, but also having an instinctive need for one of them to keep watch, so they will both remain outside at night even if they are cold.)
They can be shut in at night within their run in a smaller, warmer area which has a thick straw bed, and is either enclosed or can be covered (eg with a tarpaulin or ready made cover). Hutches can be bought from pet shops to serve this purpose, although these are often too small, so buy wisely. Elevating the hutch off the ground to ensure it remains dry is essential; if there are no legs or wheels. A brick at each corner is sufficient, and inserting a pet door into the hutch will give your rabbit access to it during the day.
Metal hutches are hot in summer and cold in winter, so have the potential to cause your rabbit to suffer quite seriously. I strongly advise against getting any kind of metal hutch.
Read on if you intend keeping your rabbit only in a traditional hutch.
Traditional hutches that can be bought from pet shops, are designed by people who don't know anything about rabbits. Most consist of a small wire cage, with an enclosed section that we call a "bedroom" at one end, where we expect bunny to sleep. Your bunny however, will not think of this as a bedroom - he will think of it as a toilet and sleep instead in the much colder, and more exposed, wire area.
To understand why, you must understand the rabbit's basic instinct - he is a prey animal. His instinct tells him that he can be attacked and killed by almost any predator at any time, so he must always be alert and able to see clearly around him, and he can't do this from the "bedroom." And to make things even worse, the "bedroom" is tiny and only has one point of entry which means when he is in there, he will be trapped if a predator reaches that entry (see Feeling Secure.) Bunny will retreat to the "bedroom" if he feels a threat is imminent, i.e. if he sees a predator or feels threatened in some other way, but at this point he must because he has no other choice - danger is on his very doorstep and he has nowhere else to go!
So, if you expect your rabbit to escape from the cold by sleeping in the bedroom; it won't work. Your rabbit will not spend much time in an area that is badly designed and cannot accommodate his basic needs. If you intend keeping your rabbit in a traditional hutch, you will be denying him a proper quality of life. If this is all you can offer a rabbit, then you should not be getting one. Cages encourage territorial aggression and are essentially cruel, so please think twice before deciding to keep your rabbit in one.
This is the type of hutch commonly used to house rabbits. It is badly designed and cannot accommodate your rabbit's behavioural needs. If this is all you can offer a rabbit, you should not be getting one.
Fortunately rabbit hutches have improved over recent years and are now available in sizes as large as a reasonable sized bird aviary, and are large enough for you to walk into. They have multi-level housing and ramps, room for a litter tray, toys and cardboard boxes. They are more expensive than the average rabbit prison, but again, I can only repeat, you should not be getting a rabbit if you will not look after him properly. If kept in this kind of housing your rabbits will still need to free-range every day.
Myxomatosis (carried by mosquitoes/fleas) will kill your rabbit. Immunization is not publicly available in Australia so your run will need to be mosquito proof. Natural therapy protection (Nosode drops) is also available, so check with a vet who practises natural therapies. Nosode drops are available from :
Dr Douglas Wilson
The Holistic Vet online
or text details to 0417 525 131
Dr Wilson practises in Lismore, New South Wales, but will post the drops anywhere. I am not aware how effective this is, but I do give my own rabbits Nosode drops. Rosemary, Sage, Pelargonium, Pyrethrum Daisy and Feverfew are believed to repel mosquitoes and can be planted around or close to the run. Again, I do not know how effective this is.
The run and hutch should always be cleaned regularly. A litter tray placed in the toilet area will make daily cleaning easy. Rabbit urine gives off ammonia so in a small hutch, your rabbits will suffer if you do not clean his litter tray on a daily basis.
Don't let your rabbits become the next victims to die from dehydration because of a blocked water bottle. Use a heavy "dog style" ceramic dish so that it is less likely to be knocked over and enables you to see that water is available. If your rabbits are shut inside a cage at night, you can use bird bowls for water that can be attached to the wire. These take up minimal room and again, you can see that water is available.
Possum leaving her tunnel. She is possessive of her tunnel and chases the wild birds away if they get too nosey.
Your rabbits' run should not be bare and barren. Incorporate some interest by adding a mound of soil - if you have a doe she will appreciate being able to dig in this - some boxes to climb on, and of course cardboard boxes with 2 entry points. Lay a length of PVC drainage pipe (wide enough for your rabbits to enter without getting stuck) so that it is flush with the ground and allows your rabbits to enter from either end (1m for one rabbit or 1.5m for two rabbits.)
I buried a small length of PVC pipe in the garden and even though my little doe does not spend much time in it, it is still very important to her - she guards it jealously and chases away any wild birds that get too close.
Lay the pipe so that it does not allow water to pond. Your rabbits should enjoy lying in this and it may also reduce your doe's need to dig. Also, if the unthinkable happens and a predator enters the run, this will give your rabbits some form of protection.
Give your rabbits toys and change these around, eg some pine cones for a few days, then replace with a pile of newspapers they can shred. It is imperative that you spend time with your rabbits if they are to be kept in an outside run, or they will withdraw from your presence. If you don't do this, there is no point in even having pet rabbits. Visit regularly with the sultana jar and your rabbits will look forward to seeing you.
Tens of thousands of rabbits are tortured each year by companies which manufacture cosmetics and household cleaning products. Check out Choose Cruelty Free so you know which ones are "bunny friendly."
Money collected by some charities also goes towards torturing rabbits used in research. Check out Humane Charities Australia so you know which ones are "bunny friendly."