Rabbits can make wonderful companions; loyal, affectionate, playful and mischievous. Don’t be fooled by the sometimes docile and placid creatures you see sitting in a hutch, bringing this animal into your house can unlock the door to its often amazing character and let its personality shine.
Keeping rabbits in a house is not really new, its been known for many years that rabbits can be house trained, the only drawback is that like tom-cats unneutered rabbits will often spray urine.
However recent advancements in veterinary surgery practices neutering of rabbits is becoming more common place so keeping a rabbit indoors is now more practical not just in this country but all over the world, many people have always kept rabbits indoors but only in recent times have they come out and said so, realising they are not as “odd” as they once thought but part of an ever growing population.
Even so the idea of keeping a rabbit indoors still seems quite an eccentric thing to do, to some people, when really keeping a rabbit as a house pet is no different to keeping a cat or dog, they are affectionate, clean, easy to house train, don’t need to be taken for long walks and are relatively quiet. Yes they can, and often do, communicate vocally, as well as with the odd thump of the back feet!
Rabbits are easier and cheaper to keep than cats or dogs as well as being much better at fitting into a household with a busy schedule. Even so, being classed as a relatively low cost and low maintenance pet, they still require food, toys, vaccinations, pet insurance etc and vet bills will, as with any pet, still need to be paid.
And whether kept inside or outside your pet still needs affection and commitment, as they are always dependent on you for its well being. Any rabbit can be a house rabbit, young – old, big – small, male or female, and with well over 50 different breeds which come in all kinds of colours and sizes its only a matter of finding your ideal rabbit. Many outdoor rabbits will adapt to living indoors, but once they are used to being there it won’t want to go back to a life outside!
What to do first?
Its always best to have as much ready as possible for your new pet, and house rabbits are no exception. You will need either an indoor hutch, cage or pen, as well as a cat litter tray, suitable litter, bedding, hay, straw, food, treats and toys.
The litter you use must be non-toxic, dust free, absorbent and one that will not stick together when it becomes wet. We recommend CareFresh.As many rabbits will nibble at the litter any that contain toxins or swell to several times their original size could prove fatal when ingested, if the litter is not absorbent the urine can splash onto the rabbit and cause skin problems, and any dust in the litter can irritate the rabbits eyes and also cause respirator problems, the more usual bedding material like hay and straw are both suitable but should be checked for excessive dust. We use a paper based cat litter such as biocatolet and also carefresh by supreme
The rabbit has a complicated and unique digestive system which has evolved to make sure the rabbit can obtain the most from its natural food supplies.
The two most important factors of the rabbit diet are protein and fibre, as with any diet it must be balanced – too low an intake of fibre will cause very serious digestive problems and diarrhoea. Also any changes to the balance of protein and fibre within the diet will also cause health problems.
For the house rabbit that cannot forage for food as its wild cousins, the correct high-fibre diet is even more important. The easiest way to feed a well balanced diet is to use one of the many pre-prepared mixes that are available (always read the instructions that should accompany the food, and feed any supplements as recommended).
Alfalfa is one of the most recommended supplements, it came to the front in the health food revolution, this clover-like plant is naturally rich in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, but care must be taken not to over feed as this will cause harm to the rabbits digestive system.
Care must also be taken not to suddenly change the diet of the rabbit from one food brand to another, as this will undoubtedly cause an upset stomach or worse, always make any changes over a few days, by mixing a small amount of the new food with the food you normally feed.
Also it is important not to over or under feed the quantity of the food, a good adult sized handful of food or food mixture is enough for any average sized (6lb) rabbit per day and this should be adjusted to take into account the treats, if any, that have been fed through the day. Overfeeding can cause very serious problems from the added strain put on all the organs of the body and even heart attacks, to the rabbit not being able to clean itself properly.
All rabbits need to have fresh drinking water available, one of the best ways of providing this is in a bottle, this prevents the water from becoming soiled and undrinkable, but always make sure it is full and the spout is working correctly.
It is also worth taking the time to find which treat your rabbit likes best, as this will be very helpful when the house training starts.
To get the most from your relationship with your rabbit, it is necessary to understand a little about how rabbits think. Rabbits are territorial, they need there own space and are not very happy when it is invaded by anyone or anything, sometimes even the hand that brings food!
Rabbits are also creatures of habit so although they mark there territory with droppings they do it in the same places so litter training is often very easy to teach them.
The hutch, pen or cage, is where your rabbit can eat, sleep, defecate and go to when it needs some peace a quite, so this is his home and must be treated as such, always try and avoid disturbing him when he is there, even feeding and watering should be done when the rabbit is out, and never attempt to clean the hutch.
While he is about – especially at first – some rabbits, when completely settled in their soundings, may approach you while you are cleaning and some may even try and help! It is important that the rabbit only joins in when he wants to and not because you want him to. He’s the boss!
At first always coax the rabbit in and out of his home using a treat can help enormously, and never pick the rabbit up from the hutch or pick the rabbit up to put him back.
When you first get your rabbit home gently coax him into his new home and shut the door, leave him for a few days to settle into his new surroundings and to become accustomed to being indoors, if you take a moment to think how many new sights, sounds, smells and sensations your rabbit is feeling for the first time I am sure you will appreciate how necessary this time is, also at this time it is best to avoid reaching in and out of the hutch to pick up and cuddle him again this undisturbed time will reinforce the feeling of safety the rabbit will feel when in its hutch.
During these first few days the litter tray should be at the back of the hutch and the food dish and water bottle at the front, this will make the daily feeding and watering of the rabbit easier and less intrusive to the rabbits territory.
Fill the litter tray and place it at the back of the hutch, place some hay nearby, rabbits tend to be opportunistic feeders and will often eat while defecating.
Watch carefully, from a distance, and if the rabbit is going in a different place to the litter tray simply move the tray until the rabbit gets used to going in it.
If you have never kept a rabbit before or never had the opportunity to live as closely with a rabbit as you are now doing, you may be surprised to see your rabbit eating its own droppings, don’t be alarmed, this behaviour is called caecotrophy and simply allows the rabbit to get important nutrients from the food that its digestive system has been unable to obtain while the food passed through it the first time!
After a few days or when your rabbit has been using its litter tray you can start letting him out to explore his new surroundings, this is best done for a short while before you feed him, by doing this he’ll have more of an incentive to go home when its time.
Rabbits have teeth that continually grow and will gnaw a lot to keep them short one of their most favoured household things to do this on are electric cables and wires, so these must be protected before the rabbit can be allowed to roam safely.
The best way to do this is by encasing them in plastic pipes which are available, quite cheaply, from hardware stores, at first it will also be necessary to move any plants out of the rabbits reach along with other books, magazines or shoes etc.
When the rabbit is let out for the first time make sure you have other things for your rabbit to play with, these can be simple cardboard tubes from the inside of paper rolls, empty cardboard boxes or sturdy cat toys or even a hard baby rattle, anything that your rabbit can chew safely.
As we have said before the rabbit should not be forced to do anything that it does not want or feel comfortable doing, so when preparing to let your rabbit out for the first time, just open the door and sit away from the hutch and don’t be surprised if therabbit doesn’t stray very far from the hutch or doesn’t come out at all, this is just proving that he feels secure while in his hutch
If, after a few times of trying this your rabbit still doesn’t come out gently coax him out with a treat, but never pick him up and put him in the middle of the room, the main thing to remember is not to be too pushy, if he will let you stroke him then reward him with a food treat and praise.
Rabbits are ground animals and many are afraid of heights so start by sitting on the floor with him and holding him there until he learns to trust you more.
After a while a rabbit can be taught to react to basic instructions the word “NO” will probably be the most used, and is best reinforced by a stamp of the foot at the same time as the word is spoken. Always use simple and consistent words as rabbits can not understand that several words can have the same meaning.
When you are ready for your rabbit to return home, never pick him up and put him in his hutch, but leave sufficient time to gently heard him or bribe him into going home, if necessary block off other routes so the only way open to him is the path home and always make sure the rabbits final step through the doorway is made voluntary and receiving a treat when he does so. The repetition of this event over a few weeks will soon increase the trust and bond between you.
Many house rabbit owners give their rabbit the complete run of the house and only confine the rabbit in its hutch when they are out or asleep, if this is suitable then access to the hutch must be available at all times so if the rabbit needs a nap, something to eat or just a quiet place to sit then he has somewhere to go.
Neutering is essential for rabbits that are kept indoors, it also makes them happier, healthier and much easier to live with and is also an indispensable aid in successful house training. The most affectionate of rabbits can become troublesome when puberty occurs, this more so in bucks who not only start to mark their territory with droppings but spray scent their boundaries, as well as making advances to all sorts of things including slippers, small pieces of furniture even feet and legs if left stationary for too long!
Does are also prone to mood swings and displays of aggression. The age that rabbits reach puberty varies from breed to breed, the smaller breeds will reach puberty at a younger age while the larger breeds are older when they start this phase of their development.
Females will also reach puberty a couple of months after a male of the same breed. Neutering will normally solve these behavioural problems, also research has shown that does can have major health benefits from being neutered, 80% of does that have not been neutered develop uterine cancer by the age of five.
The best age for having this operation performed is about 4 months for bucks and 6 months for does, and as always your vet will be able to advise you as to the requirements of individual breeds.
Rabbits should be vaccinated every year against Mxyomatosis and VHD (Viral Haemorrhagic Disease). Most rabbits will need there claws clipped regularly, you may be able to do this yourself but you will need to be shown how to do this by someone who is competent.
Regular visits to your vet’s are an important part of preventing illness and maintaining you rabbit in good health.
Rabbits are social animals but care must still be taken when introducing other rabbits or animals, if more than one rabbit is going to be kept together then both must be neutered, the best combination is male and female, but brothers or sisters will live together, providing they have never been separated.
Always introduce new animals on neutral ground and especially in the case of rabbits watch very carefully and be prepared for the odd scuffle in the first few days.
Remember rabbits, like humans, all have there own personalities and some pairs will never get on together.Most house rabbits will also get on quite happily with other family pets, a lot will depend on the size and temperament of the animals involved, but care must be taken not to leave new acquaintances together until you are absolutely sure it is safe to do so.