We all make mistakes when it comes to caring for our pet rabbits. Sometimes we don’t do enough research before we bring one home, and sometimes we fall victim to all the pet store marketing that leads us astray from the products that rabbits really need to stay happy and healthy.
If you have made these mistakes, don’t feel too bad. We’ve all been there (including me) and started off making any number of bad decisions based on false marketing and an inaccurate perception of rabbits as pets. Instead of feeling guilty about all the mistakes I have made in the past, I choose to learn from my mistakes and help people like you have the resources you need to make changes and take better care of your beloved pet rabbit.
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1. Giving rabbits the wrong diet
Rabbits have a very sensitive digestive system. You can’t just give them a big bowl of pellets, like you might for a cat or dog, and expect your rabbit to thrive. On the contrary, that is almost definitely a recipe for weight gain and obesity in rabbits.
Instead, rabbits require a balanced diet made up of mostly grass-based hay and leafy greens. They should have a constant, unlimited supply of hay to graze on throughout the day. And they should be given a few cups of fresh greens on a daily basis (avoid iceberg lettuce since it’s not very nutritious for rabbits). The pellets should only be a small portion of your rabbit’s daily diet. They only need about ¼ to ½ a cup per day.
2. Picking up the rabbit too often
Many people will bring home a pet rabbit believing that they are cuddly pets. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, most rabbits absolutely hate to be held.
This comes down to a rabbit’s natural instincts. They are prey animals with limited ways of defending themselves against any dangerous predators. A rabbit’s best defense is their ability to run away as fast as they can. But when they are being held, rabbit’s lose the ability to escape when they sense danger. They are completely trapped in your arms causing them to be scared and panicked.
If you pick up and hold your rabbit every time you interact with them, then they will start to associate you with that sense of fear. They’ll become afraid of you and run away any time you come near.
Instead of picking up your rabbit all the time, it’s best to interact with them on their level. Sit on the floor and allow your rabbit to approach you. This is how you and your rabbit can start to bond with each other and develop a companionship. They’ll feel much safer if you interact with them and pet them when they have all four feet on the ground.
3. Keeping rabbits outside
Traditionally rabbits were kept in hutches outside. However, the more we learn about rabbits and their behavior, the more we realize that this is not a good way to keep rabbits as pets. The outdoors is full of dangers for rabbits that can lead to stress, anxiety, and illness.
Predators are always lurking outside and rabbits have to deal with the scary smells and sounds causing chronic anxiety in many rabbits. In truly tragic cases, predators are even able to break into outdoor rabbit hutches to attack pet rabbits.
Rabbits also have to deal with many more disease spreading parasites when they live outdoors. Ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, flies, and other insects can more easily spread diseases and illnesses to rabbits who don’t have the protection of a home.
Outdoor rabbits also have to deal with extreme weather conditions. Hot temperatures, in particular, can be deadly to rabbits. In the wild, they would have their cool underground burrows to hide in during the hottest parts of the day. When they are stuck in a hutch outside, rabbits run the risk of developing heat stroke.
It is much better to keep your rabbit in an indoor enclosure and make them a part of the family. Rabbits are actually very social animals that can be treated like companion animals, similar to the way cats and dogs are treated as part of the family.
4. Not spending enough time with your rabbit
Rabbits are social animals. Unfortunately, many new caretakers make the mistake of thinking rabbits are cage animals that can be left alone for most of the day. In order to stay happy and avoid depression, rabbits require daily interaction and socialization.
This means that rabbits who are kept as single bunnies (without a bonded partner) need a lot of attention from their caretakers. It’s best if you can treat your rabbit like a companion pet and let them hang out with you whenever you are home.
Try letting your rabbit spend time with you while you’re watching TV or reading. Just try to give your rabbit as much time out of their enclosure as you can to spend interacting with each other. This makes your rabbit a much more integral part of the family and will ensure that they get the socialization and the exercise that they need on a daily basis.
5. Not bunny proofing the house
Rabbits can be little troublemakers. They like to chew on anything they can get their teeth on and dig into carpeted floors. If you let your rabbit roam the house unsupervised, they are sure to destroy something that will be difficult or expensive to replace.
To prevent this destructive behavior, you need to rabbit-proof your home. The first thing to do is cover any exposed wires with split loom wire tubing. Otherwise your rabbit will snip right through those wires with their strong incisor teeth.
The other major areas that you need to think about are your baseboards and your carpet. Not all rabbits will go for these areas, but many, many do.
To keep your rabbit from chewing on your baseboards, you will have to cover them. Lining up fencing along the perimeter of the room will usually be enough to keep your rabbit from chewing. For the carpets, you’ll want to cover areas where your rabbit tends to dig. Those plastic mats that are used with desk chairs are usually the most durable option.
6. Giving rabbits unhealthy pellet mixes
The eye-catching marketing of many rabbit food mixes tries to make you believe that they are a good choice for your rabbit, when the reality is that these colorful pellet mixes are very unhealthy. They contain sugary pieces, as well as corn, peas, seeds and other foods that rabbits shouldn’t be eating. These can all contribute to an unhealthy rabbit digestive system, eventually causing weight gain and illnesses, such as GI stasis.
Instead you want to give your rabbit just those plain, boring, brown pellets. My recommended brand that you will find in most pet stores (and the one I give my rabbits) is Oxbow’s Garden Select rabbit food. Oxbow is a well known and respected brand in the rabbit care industry. Their products take rabbit health into consideration and have a healthy balance of nutrients, vitamins, and fiber.
7. Not getting the rabbit spayed or neutered
Pet rabbits need to be spayed or neutered once they reach maturity. It’s one of the added expenses of adopting a young rabbit, but it’s crucial to your rabbit’s health and for keeping peace in the household.
Rabbits who haven’t been spayed or neutered have a high risk of developing a reproductive cancer. Female rabbits, in particular, are in danger. They have an 80% chance of developing uterine cancer by the time they are 6 years old if they have not been spayed. Sadly very few rabbits are able to recover from this type of cancer.
Spaying and neutering also helps with many rabbit behavioral issues that arise once they reach maturity. Many rabbits will become increasingly territorial and aggressive. If they haven’t been neutered, they’ll be more likely to spray urine around the house and attack other people who invade their space.
8. Giving the rabbit a bath
Occasionally I see another one of those ‘giving a bunny a bath’ videos going around and immediately panic a little inside. Rabbit’s should not be bathed. If they live in a sanitary environment, rabbits do an excellent job at keeping themselves clean, and baths can potentially cause a number of health issues.
First, there is the possibility of causing your rabbit to go into shock, which is a dangerous condition in rabbits where their body starts to shut down. Second, rabbit fur has the tendency to retain moisture, so they take a long time to dry off. During this time, rabbits can develop hypothermia since their coat is no longer doing it’s job of keeping the rabbit warm. Third, rabbits actually have very delicate skin. When it gets wet there is a higher chance that their skin will develop cuts that can quickly turn into larger more dangerous tears in the skin.
If your rabbit ever does get dirty, there are ways to clean them up without resorting to a bath. You can spot clean, give them a dry bath, or on rare occasions give them a butt bath. To learn more about these techniques, check out my article on baths for rabbits.
9. Giving rabbits too many carrots (and other treats)
Sugary foods, such as fruits and vegetables, should only be given to rabbits as occasional treats. This means that despite what the media portrays, carrots should not be a staple food in any rabbit’s diet. They can still eat carrots and will enjoy them very much, but they should only be given in small chunks at a time.
The rule of thumb for giving treats to rabbits is up to 1 teaspoon per pound of body weight daily. If you have a medium sized 6 pound rabbit, that’s 6 teaspoons (2 Tablespoons) per day. I like to chop my rabbit’s treats up into bite-sized pieces so that I can give them little bits throughout the day.
Don’t be fooled by pet store marketing. Most of those colorful bags of mixed treats are incredibly bad for rabbits. Instead, I recommend fresh or dried fruits and vegetables as the best treats for rabbits. You could also give them hay-based treats that have a little bit of sweet flavoring. Oxbow has a line of treats called Simple Rewards that are actually pretty healthy for rabbits. My rabbit’s favorite is the bell pepper flavor!
10. Keeping rabbits in a cage
This is another way that new rabbit caretakers fall victim to pet store marketing. Companies will try to sell you small cages to use for your rabbit, ignoring the amount of space rabbits need to stay happy and healthy in the long run.
Rabbits need an enclosure that is at least 3-4 times the full length of the rabbit. Unless you have a very small breed of rabbit, you are unlikely to find a cage that can fit this requirement. Instead of getting one of these small cages, I recommend getting a pet exercise pen and using it as your rabbit’s enclosure.
Pet exercise pens give your rabbit a lot more space to hop around and sprawl out, even when you can’t directly supervise them. I also find that they are much easier to clean than a typical cage is, because all you have to do is move the gates aside and vacuum. Even better, these exercise pens are actually cheaper than getting a cage that is marketed towards rabbits. (check out the current price)
11. Using a water bottle instead of a bowl
Water bottles are not very easy for rabbits to drink from. They end up bottlenecking the amount of water that rabbits can get, making it more difficult for pet rabbits to stay hydrated. Instead, it is best to give pet rabbits a bowl to drink from. This is a more natural way for rabbits to drink and it encourages better hydration.
The problem, as many rabbit caretakers know, is that rabbits will often flip over their food and water bowls during the day. To prevent your rabbit from flipping over their water bowl, try getting heavy ceramic bowls that your rabbit won’t be able to lift.
12. Getting a small litter box
Litter boxes that are marketed towards rabbits are usually too small and awkwardly shaped to make rabbits want to use them. These are the litter boxes that are shaped to fit into the corner of a rabbit cage. They are actually better suited for other, smaller types of pets, such as rats.
Rabbits, however, need something bigger. They need to be able to completely sit within the litter box and turn around without a problem. This will encourage better litter box behavior and allow your rabbit to be more comfortable while they go.
The best place to look for these is the cat litter box section. Here you’ll be able to find large litter boxes that your rabbit will actually use. It’s better to avoid the covered cat litter boxes though, since that can end up confusing your rabbit.
While we’re on the topic of litter boxes, it’s also important to pay attention to the type of litter you are using. Most cat litters are clay-based which are not good for rabbits. They can end up causing respiratory irritation or clumping in a rabbits stomach (they sometimes eat the litter).
Instead you’ll want to get a paper-based litter for your rabbit. I use Yesterday’s News litter and find that it does a pretty good job at keeping my rabbit’s litter box from smelling, so I definitely recommend this brand.
13. Not keeping an eye on their health
Rabbits are prey animals and they have evolved to hide their weaknesses. This can prevent them from looking like easy targets to stalking predators. Unfortunately for us, this means that it’s really difficult to tell when a rabbit is sick.
Our rabbits are not going to let us know when they’re not feeling will, so we have to keep a close eye on their behavior so we can get them help when they get sick. This means keeping a daily watch on your rabbit’s appetite, and on how much they are pooping. If your rabbit is ever not eating or pooping for more than 10-12 hours you should treat it as an emergency situation and get your rabbit to the vet.
It also means keeping an eye on your rabbit’s normal energy levels. This way you’ll be able to understand when they’re behaving a little off so you can get them checked out. Learn more about what signs to look out for so you can tell when your rabbit is sick and get them help when they need it.
14. Not giving rabbits enough time to exercise
Rabbit bodies are built to run. To stay healthy and engaged in their environment they need time and space to race around and get some exercise. This means having multiple hours a day outside of their enclosure to explore a bigger exercise area (or a room in the house).
The longer amount of time you can give your rabbit to exercise, the better. Rabbits are sprinters and not long distance runners. This means that they will hop around and exercise for around 10-15 minutes at a time, and then rest for half an hour. If you only let your rabbit out for an hour a day, they will probably only be getting exercise for about half of that time or less.
It’s also important to think about the time of day you let your rabbit out for exercise. Rabbits are typically more active in the morning and the evening, so they’ll be more likely to get a lot of fun exercise in during these times of day.
15. Taking the rabbit to the wrong kind of vet
Rabbit anatomy is very different from a cat or a dog. They need to be taken to a specialized vet who knows about rabbit health, illnesses, and the types of medications and treatments that work for rabbits. This means that you need to bring your rabbit to a rabbit-savvy veterinarian. Usually they will be called either a Small Animal vet or an Exotic Animal vet.
To find one of these specialized veterinarians, the first place I look is on the House Rabbit Society’s vet listing page. They have listings of veterinarians across the US and some international locations (RWAF has a vet listing for the UK also). If you can’t find a veterinarian near you, you can search for an exotic animal vet in google, or try contacting another veterinary clinic near you and asking for their recommendations.
- “Medical Bibliography.” House Rabbit Society, https://rabbit.org/care/bibliography.html.
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