Rabbits live between 5 and 10 years depending on the breed, which means they will be with you for a long time. Previously rabbits were often kept in a small hutch at the bottom of the garden, but attitudes are now starting to change with more and more rabbits becoming important animal companions, and often kept in our homes. Some are even becoming involved in rabbit agility for fun or for competition!
Rabbits are a social species but are quite fussy about who they like to socialise with. In the wild, they live in groups with safety in numbers benefiting them all.
When introducing rabbits it is best to avoid doing this in small spaces. Introducing rabbits in neutral territory can also help with bonding as rabbits are highly territorial. Having enough space will allow the rabbits to avoid each other rather than fight and may help improve success of the bonding process. It is best to let the rabbit chose its friends otherwise it is more likely that there will be continual fights. Grooming behaviour and sitting side by side and even ignoring each other are signs that things are going well.
Neutered pairs of a male and female often work the best and siblings also work well (neutered).
It is normal for rabbits to want to explore their environment and chew things. This is a risk especially for indoor rabbits who may chew on furniture, carpets, paper and power cords. For house rabbits, it is important to make sure that their area has been ‘rabbit proofed’ (placing power cords in protective plastic tubing). Rabbits naturally use a toilet area so it is very easy to get them used to using a litter tray.
For outside rabbits, it is important that human contact is maintained on a frequent basis in order to familiarise them to people. Hutches need to be large enough to allow your rabbit to stretch and jump, ideally with some interesting toys such as boxes to jump on and tunnels to run through. Tiny hutches with a small inside and outside area are not suitable for rabbits as they do not have enough space to show natural behaviour. At least a 3m x 3m run is the minimum recommended size with an indoor house they can retreat into to provide shade or escape from wind and damp. Be aware that rabbits will often dig burrows and escape from hutches.
Like with other animals rabbit behaviour will be influenced by breed, the individual history of each rabbit, their experiences, and human factors (they are emotional beings and can be affected by emotional influences around them).
Rabbits in the wild only spend 30% of their time above ground, preferring the safety of their complex warrens and burrows. Their main active time is at dawn and dusk when they will feed. Providing boxes and tunnels where they can hide away can help reduce stress and they will also at times seek high places in order to survey their environment. If their living space has all these provisions you will have a much happier bunny.
Many of their behaviours which we may find problematic may be normal such as digging, chewing and urine marking of their living areas. Fur pulling can also be part of normal nesting behaviour but can become excessive if there is either too much or too little stimulation.
Rabbits are the prey animal for many predator species – meaning they can be attacked from the air, from the ground and even from underground. This makes them very vigilant and reactive to their environment and also means that they will hide any illness or pain until they are very ill (sick rabbits are vulnerable to predators in their natural wild environment).
Their very survival depends on them being alert so anything new or different could be a danger and fear of the unknown is an advantage. The more sudden the presentation of the novelty the more intense the behaviour will be. Aggression in rabbits is often associated with fear.
Rabbits that are handled often and used to gentle human interaction can become very friendly – ideally spending 2-3 hours per day around people will help them feel comfortable around you and others. Likewise, rabbits that have experienced rough or incorrect handling (not being picked up in the correct way often by inexperienced children) can become aggressive and bite.
Providing stimulation within their environment will help to reduce frustration and create a more relaxed and happy bunny. They often like large cardboard tubes, tunnels to run through and feeding can be activity related rather than just putting the food into a bowl.
Behaviour problems can also be related to health problems (pain) so a veterinary check over is an important part of a working up when there is a behaviour issue.
Puberty in rabbits is between 4-5 months of age with giant breeds being later around 8-9 months. It is recommended to separate boys and girls at the age of 10 – 12 weeks.
Sexual mounting and spraying can occur in both females and males but will be reduced by neutering. Neutering of the females also eliminates the risk of cancer of the uterus which is a very common problem of entire rabbits.
Female bunnies are best neutered (spayed) at around 6 months of age and male bunnies at 4-5 months of age.
Rabbits require a high fibre and low nutrient dense diet which helps to naturally wear their teeth whilst providing a balanced intake of vitamins and minerals. Their teeth are growing continuously (about 1cm per month) and need to wear correctly in order to avoid irreversible dental problems later on in life. Fibre also regulates their digestion, so poor diet (too rich, not enough fibre) can also result in obesity, gut problems and fly strike.
Rabbits can be extremely fussy so starting out on the right track and sticking to appropriate food from the beginning is very important.
- 80-90% of the diet should be made up from good quality hay, and fresh grass (not lawn clippings). A 2kg rabbit can eat about a cat litters tray worth of hay daily!
Rabbits can be fussy about poor quality hay. If it is green, smells nice and is not dusty this is a good start. Put the hay in their favourite nesting places in hay racks and it can also be packed into toys for activity feeding (stuffed through toilet rolls or into willow balls or hanging baskets).
- Vegetables can make up 10-20% of the diet. This can include any of the following:
- Bok Choy, carrot tops (the green leaves), celery, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower leaves.
- Wild greens such as dandelion, chicory, milk thistle and puha.
- Herbs such as coriander, mint, parsley and oregano.
- Good quality dry food can be given in small amounts only making up only 5% of the diet along with treats such as fruits and some types of vegetables.
Dry pellets are not an essential part of the diet and should be given in a limited amount of no more than 25gm per kg or rabbit.
Avoid rabbit ‘meusli’ mixes which contain ingredients that rabbits would never naturally forage on in the wild (rolled oats, sweet corn, dried peas and sunflower seeds). These mixes encourage selective feeding leading to an imbalanced diet, and are too high in starches which encourage weight gain and poor calcium intake (another cause of dental disease in rabbits).
- Fruits and vegetables that can be given in small amounts:
- Apples, bananas, grapes, strawberries, watermelon and tomatoes
- Red, orange and green capsicum.
Special care needs to be taken with indoor house rabbits – making sure that plenty of grass and meadow herbs are given daily to mimic what a wild rabbit would be eating. Also access to natural sunlight is important so that vitamin D levels are maintained.
Rabbits are also special in that they have a behaviour called caecotrophy (night time poo). This special poo is full of vitamins and amino acids, which is eaten by the rabbit to increase the nutrition they get from their diet. Some rabbits do not eat these night poo’s resulting in accumulation of caecotrophs around their bottom. These poos are soft and sticky and can create a smelly pancake around the bottom leading to life-threatening fly strike.
Failing to eat caecotrophs can be a sign of a health problem such as arthritis or obesity and makes the rabbit at risk of life-threatening fly strike – please make an appointment with the vet if this is happening on a frequent basis and check you rabbits bottom is clean daily especially during the summer months. Rabbits are more likely to their eat caecotrophs is their diet is high in fibre (hay and grass).
Rabbit Calicivirus is present in the mouth, nose, eyes, saliva, urine and faeces of infected rabbits. Affected rabbits may show no symptoms until sudden death within 12-36 hours of infection. However, affected rabbits may show other signs such as lack of appetite, apathy and depression, nervous signs such as convulsions or paralysis and breathing difficulty. Transmission occurs when a rabbit comes into contact with infected animals or contaminated objects (food, clothing, bedding and insects such as flies can transfer the virus). You can help reduce exposure by housing rabbits away from contact with wild rabbits and avoiding cutting grass where there is a risk of contamination from wild rabbits. Insect control is also important. Rabbits housed inside will have more protection. Washing hands after handling other rabbits, and quarantining new rabbits for 7 day is also suggested.
In May 2018 a new strain of rabbit calicivirus (RHDV2) was confirmed in New Zealand by MPI. The old vaccine did not provide protection against this strain, and as a result a new vaccine was imported in to the country called Filavac VHD K C + K. This vaccine will protect rabbits against all three strains of RHDV currently present in NZ but it had not been available in NZ until very recently. The first vaccination should be given after 10 weeks of age, then repeated annually. Sometimes a small skin nodule can form at the injection site which will disappear without the need for treatment over a 5 -6 week period.
Information supplied by Dr Wendy Dixon BVSc