Rabbits are the cutest! You already know this. And now you’re thinking it’s about time to bring one home. Or maybe you already brought a rabbit home and you’re realizing rabbits are a little more work than you bargained for.
Rabbits are often incorrectly thought of as easy beginner pets (like a hamster). In reality, bunnies have much more complicated needs. The amount of care that a rabbit needs is closer to the amount of care a dog needs (you just don’t need to take your rabbit out for a walk). Maybe a little more work than you first thought.
What does care of a pet rabbit entail?
- Feeding a healthy diet
- Buying an appropriate enclosure
- Rabbit-proofing your home
- Grooming your rabbit
- Socializing your rabbit and providing them with appropriate toys
- Learning how to properly pet and pick up your rabbit
- Learning the signs of a sick rabbit
- Finding a rabbit-savvy veterinarian
Don’t panic! I’m here to help. Rabbits are amazing companion pets, and I want you and your new rabbit to have the best life together. I’m going to help make sure you have all the resources you need to have a happy and healthy bunny.
The average lifespan of a rabbit is about 10 years. This estimate will vary a little bit, depending on the breed of the rabbit and the conditions they live in. But when you get a pet rabbit, you need to understand that this is a long term commitment.
A rabbit’s long life expectancy means that they can grow to be amazing companion pets, just like a cat or dog. But it also means we have to consider the possibility of moving with a rabbit, or caring for them in their old age. Before you make the decision to adopt or purchase a rabbit, take the time to really consider the amount of work it will take to care for them for their whole lives.
I absolutely believe rabbits are wonderful pets. They are worth all the trouble they give you and make amazing pets. But you need to be informed, and make the decision for yourself.
What to feed your rabbit
Let’s start with the basics. Having a healthy diet is absolutely necessary for your rabbit’s well being. Rabbits have a very sensitive digestive systems, and problems with their gut is one of the leading causes of illness and death. So what does a healthy rabbit diet look like?
A full 80% of your rabbit’s diet should be grass hay. Timothy hay is best because it is high in fiber and it is rough, making it good for rabbit teeth and digestion. You’ll want to get a big bag of hay and make sure you never let your rabbit run out. Hay keeps their digestive system moving properly and helps them absorb the nutrients their body needs.
Most pet stores, even those that don’t have much in stock for rabbit supplies, will have bags of timothy hay. This is a good and healthy hay to make up the base of your rabbits diet, but it’s also a good idea to add in other grass hays, such as orchard, meadow, or oat hay, to add some variety and encourage your rabbit to eat more hay.
Some brands will sell bags of hay that are already mixed (check out my recommendation if you’re not sure what to get), but you can also get the different types of hay separately and mix them together. You could even purchase large bales from local farmers if you want to get the freshest possible hay for your rabbit.
Note: Alfalfa is not a grass hay, and generally shouldn’t be a part of your adult rabbit’s diet unless you are instructed otherwise by a qualified veterinarian. The exception to this is baby bunnies who are less than six months old. In this case alfalfa has nutrients that are good for a growing bunny.
Fresh leafy green vegetables introduce variety and flavor into your rabbits diet, while also giving them the nutrients they need to stay healthy. You’ll want to give your rabbit one to five cups of fresh greens daily, depending on how big your rabbit is. You can give this to your rabbit all at once or choose to portion it out over the course of the day. I choose to give my rabbit her daily greens during dinner time, but might give her a little as a reward for good behavior at other points in the day.
How much leafy greens to feed your rabbit:
|Weight of the rabbit||Maximum amount of leafy greens|
|2 lbs||1 cup|
|3 lbs||1.5 cups|
|4 lbs||2 cups|
|5 lbs||2.5 cups|
|6 lbs||3 cups|
|7 lbs||3.5 cups|
|8 lbs||4 cups|
|9 lbs||4.5 cups|
|10 lbs||5 cups|
Most leafy greens you can find in a grocery store, or grow in your garden, are safe for your rabbit, but there are some varieties that you should give in smaller quantities, and a few that you should avoid giving your rabbit entirely.
Safe leafy greens for your rabbit:
- Carrot tops
- Leafy lettuces (red, green, romaine)
- Turnip greens
- Dandelion greens
- Bok choy
Safe for your rabbit, but give in smaller quantities:
- Beet greens
- Mustard greens
Greens to avoid giving your rabbit:
- Iceberg lettuce
- Onion greens
Pellets are not actually necessary for your rabbit’s diet, but they do have some nutritional value and can be a healthy snack for your rabbit. You want to be very strict about the amount of pellets they get in a day. Too many pellets can quickly make your rabbit obese, causing a string of health problems.
It’s okay if they run out of pellets during the day (or if they gobble them up right away). You still don’t want to refill their food bowl until tomorrow. You want to encourage your rabbit to eat more hay, and too many pellets will make them full before they even get to their main food.
How much pellets to feed your rabbit:
|Weight of rabbit||Amount of pellets daily|
|2 lbs||2 Tbsp|
|3 lbs||3 Tbsp|
|4 lbs||¼ cup|
|5 lbs||1 Tbsp + ¼ cup|
|6 lbs||2 Tbsp + ¼ cup|
|7 lbs||3 Tbsp + ¼ cup|
|8 lbs||½ cup|
|9 lbs||1 Tbsp + ½ cup|
|10 lbs||2 Tbsp + ½ cup|
Set up an indoor enclosure
Most pet stores will try to sell you a small cage for your rabbit, similar to what they would offer for a guinea pig. In the vast majority of cases, the cages sold as ‘rabbit’ cages are much too small. Unfortunately this is because there is still a lot of misinformation out there about rabbit care.
Rabbit’s won’t be happy or healthy if they just sit in a tiny cage all day. So before you go out and purchase a new enclosure for your rabbit, you need to take the rabbit’s size and the cage dimensions into consideration.
When getting an enclosure or hutch for your rabbit you want to make sure the cage is long enough for your rabbit to make three hops from one end to the other. Your rabbit should also be able to lay along the width with a little space to spare and stand all the way up on their hind legs without bumping their head on the top.
The enclosure size will vary a lot depending on your rabbit breed, but for an average sized rabbit (about 5 lbs), you should aim to have an area of at least 4ft by 2ft.
There are some hutches available that will be big enough, but I have found it easier to use a rabbit ex-pen with an area rug instead. This makes cleaning your rabbits area a lot easier too, because all you have to do is move the gates and vacuum.
You could also consider getting a large dog crate as a rabbit cage. These can be very easy to set up and clean and can offer plenty of space for your rabbit’s home base.
There are a few points you want to look out for, to make sure you avoid getting an enclosure not suitable for rabbits:
- A cage that is too small. The number one thing you want to avoid is getting a cage that is too small for your rabbit. This can lead to some serious health problems in the long run, not to mention a bored and unhappy rabbit.
- A cage with a wire bottom. Wire at the bottom of a cage can cut into a rabbits feet and cause sore hocks. If you have a wire cage that is appropriately sized, you can put a mat down along the bottom to keep them from standing on wire all day.
- A hutch made of painted or toxic wood. Rabbits have an instinct to chew on everything, so they will definitely be trying to chew on a wooden hutch. This is why you want to avoid any painted wood, and you want to make sure the hutch is not made of a wood that is toxic to rabbits (such as cedar, birch and yew).
Rabbits, especially when they are young, have a ton of energy. So you’ll need to make sure your rabbit gets a few hours of daily exercise time. You’ll want to give your bunny an area that’s at least 24sq feet for your rabbit to run around in for a few hours every day.
Usually people will just use the room they have their rabbits enclosure in as the exercise space, but you could also allow your rabbit access to the whole house. Or you could set up an extra exercise pen for your rabbit to use.
The best time of day to allow your rabbit out to exercise is in the morning or evening. Rabbits are crepuscular (not nocturnal), so they are most active during the hours around dawn and dusk. They’ll get the most out of exercise time if you let them out during the times when they are most active.
Free range rabbits
Instead of having a rabbit closed up in an enclosure all day, many people choose to have what we call ‘free range’ rabbits. They let their bunnies stay out in the house all day long. This is great for rabbits if it’s something you can do, but it’s not always possible. Rabbits have a tendency to be a little mischievous and chew on things they shouldn’t, so you want to make sure you bunny-proof any areas of the house your rabbit is allowed to roam around in.
Rabbits have thick fur coats and tend to do better in temperatures that are slightly cooler than what humans usually prefer. Because of this, it’s usually best to house rabbits on lower floors of the house, or even in the basement if possible. This will keep your rabbit’s living space in the coolest part of the house.
Even in the summer, you want to try to keep the indoor temperature below 75ºF, especially if the humidity is high in the region where you live. Rabbits can get easily get heat stroke in temperatures above 80ºF and long haired rabbits, such as lionheads, are at a higher risk.
In the winter, you may want to consider keeping your thermostat a little lower and wearing a sweater inside. Rabbits tend to thrive in temperatures that stay in the 50-70ºF range, so there is no need to keep their room extra toasty.
How to litter train your rabbit
Rabbits are actually very clean animals. They will naturally want to keep themselves and their environment clean. Rabbits can even be trained to use a litter box, just like cats! It just takes a little bit of extra work to help your rabbit understand that the litter box is where they should use the bathroom.
When you bring your rabbit home, you want to have the supplies ready to get started on litter training right away. What you will need:
- A few litter boxes
- A pooper scooper
- Paper based litter
- Pet-safe cleaning spray
- A pile of old newspaper
To litter train your rabbit (I have a thorough step-by-step guide if you need help litter training your rabbit):
- Start small. Keep your rabbit in their enclosure for a couple of days with a litter box set up in the corner. Clean the enclosure frequently, but keep a little urine and poop in the litter box so your rabbit can learn that’s where they belong.
- Increase the space. Place a couple of litter boxes throughout the room and give your rabbit some time out of the enclosure to exercise.
- Pay close attention to your rabbit. As your rabbit explores, watch them and try to catch them as they defecate so you can herd them to a nearby litter box.
- Clean up any accidents. You’ll want to clean up any accidents right away so that your rabbit won’t come back to use the same spot again. If they do continue to use the same spot as their bathroom, move one of the litter boxes to the rabbit’s chosen place.
- Remove the extra litter boxes. As your rabbit gets better at using the litter box, start to remove them one by one until your rabbit always goes back to their enclosure to use the bathroom.
How to bunny proof your home
Rabbit’s instincts to chew and dig are easily the most frustrating part of bunny ownership. We want to give our rabbits a chance to live the good life and zoom around the living room. But the little troublemakers just keep getting into things they shouldn’t. They chew on wires and dig into the carpet.
If we want to keep our rabbit safe from the dangerous things they can get into, and keep our homes safe from our rabbit’s destructive behaviors, we need to do some work to rabbit proof our homes.
Rabbits love to chew through wires. This is unfortunate for our various electronic devices, but it’s also very dangerous for our rabbits. If a rabbit bites into a wire while it’s plugged in, the poor bun could end up getting shocked or electrocuted.
As much as possible, you will need to move your wires out of our rabbit’s reach. This could mean keeping wires behind a fenced in area, or lifting wires off the ground so your rabbit doesn’t find them. When it’s impossible to physically move the wires away, you can cover wires with thick plastic tubing.
This works in two ways. One, rabbits are less likely to go after thick wires, and two, even if your rabbit tries to chew on the wire, he won’t be able to get at the dangerous electrical part. Just make sure to check the wire covers occasionally to make sure your rabbit hasn’t started to chew through them.
Cover rugs and baseboards
Rabbits will often have an instinct to dig into the corners of rugs and chew on baseboards. This is because in nature rabbits are burrowers. They dig and use their teeth to make tunnels to live in. At home, however, this can be a very destructive behavior.
Protecting your rugs is definitely the easier problem to solve. If it’s possible for your living situation, you can try to circumvent this issue altogether by keeping your rabbit in a room that has wooden flooring, and using area rugs that you won’t mind being dug into or chewed on. If that’s not possible, you still have options! You can solve this by putting down a plastic mat (like the ones you would use under a desk chair) in the corners or areas your rabbit has a tendency to dig into.
It’s a little more difficult to deal with baseboard chewers. Not all rabbits will go for the baseboards, but make sure to watch your rabbit’s behavior to make sure they’re not doing too much damage.
The best ways to deal with this behavior is by limiting your bun’s access to the baseboard. Position furniture to block the baseboards, or keep a fence around the perimeter of the room. You can also resort to covering the visible baseboards with wood or cardboard.
One trick that I’ve been using recently is to cover the baseboards with a strip of masking tape. This has stopped my Ellie from chewing on the baseboards, but a rabbit could easily chew through the tape if they want to. If your rabbit continues to go after the tape, you’ll want to remove it and try a different method. You don’t want your rabbit to ingest the masking tape.
You’ll also want to give your rabbit some wooden chew toys, so they have a productive way to use their chewing energy. Chewing on things is actually very important for keeping your rabbits teeth from growing too long, so you always want to make sure there are wooden chew toys available.
Keep dangerous objects out of reach
Rabbits are a lot like children. They are curious about everything, especially the things they really shouldn’t be getting into. So you’ll need to take some precautions to make sure you keep your rabbit away from anything you don’t want them to have access to.
This means you want to place houseplants (especially houseplants that are toxic for rabbits), on high shelves or window sills that your rabbit can’t reach. You will also want to make sure you don’t leave any human food unattended while your rabbit is roaming around. People food is definitely not for rabbits.
If you want to keep your rabbit out of areas of the house that aren’t bunny-proofed, you could install baby gates. You’ll probably want to install metal gates because rabbits might try to chew through any wooden gates over time.
Enrichment toys for your rabbit
Rabbits need toys to keep their mind and teeth healthy. They are actually very intelligent animals and they need toys to keep their mind active. Rabbits need toys they can throw around, pull on, and dig into. And they like to use puzzle toys, so they can use their natural foraging instincts to figure out how to get at the treats.
Having appropriate toys is also good for your rabbits dental health. Rabbit teeth are open rooted and continue to grow forever. They need lots of hay and chew toys to help keep their teeth from growing out of control and causing health problems. If they’re not given anything to chew on, a rabbit’s teeth could end up growing so much that they can no longer eat.
I have a list of awesome chew toys and puzzle toys that rabbits love, but you can also make your own DIY toys out of cardboard boxes and cardboard tubes. You can hide treats inside of the tubes, or turn them into hanging toys for your rabbit to play with. Or you can use cardboard boxes to make tunnels and digging play areas for your rabbit.
Grooming your rabbit
Rabbits shed a lot and you’ll have to brush them to get rid of excess fur. While rabbits shed a little bit all the time, they’ll have two big molting seasons where they shed their winter and summer coats. During this time, there will be clouds of fur, and you’ll need to brush your rabbit often to keep their fur from getting matted. It also keeps them from ingesting too much fur, preventing blockages in your rabbits gut.
You will also need to clip your rabbit’s nails. This is a task that is much easier with two people, but it’s possible to do even if you’re a single rabbit parent. I’ve been clipping my rabbit’s nails myself for the last eight years. It takes a lot of patience sometimes, since rabbits usually don’t like it when you touch their feet, but I know you can do it. If your rabbit is just too difficult to handle, though, you can bring them into your rabbit’s vet to get their nails clipped.
When clipping your rabbit’s nails you want to look out for the vein, called the quick, that runs up the base of each nail. This is easy to see in rabbits with lighter nails, but it’s more difficult to find in rabbits with thicker or darker nails. In these cases, use the clippers at a spot you think is past the quick. Put some pressure on the nail, but don’t clip all the way through. If the rabbit flinches away, this means you should clip at a spot closer to the tip of the nail.
If you do accidentally clip into the quick, it’s okay. It’s a little painful for the rabbit, and there will probably be a lot of blood, but this is not a serious injury. Your rabbit will recover in no time and wonder why you are making such a fuss.
Socializing your rabbit
Rabbits are very social animals and they get lonely if they are left alone all day. Like with humans, loneliness in rabbits leads to a shorter lifespan. If you want your rabbit to live the best life possible, you need to spend time with them. Sit with your rabbit every day to form a bond with them and let them know how much you love them.
How to pet your rabbit
Rabbits prefer to be stroked on the top of their heads and behind their ears. Many rabbits also like it when you pet them on the cheeks and when you pet them in long strokes down their back. Contrary to popular belief, rabbits don’t usually mind so much when you touch their ears too.
Try giving your rabbit some nice head and back massages. Usually rabbits will love this so much that they sink into the ground and start purring by grinding their teeth.
Most rabbits do not like it when you pet their feet, especially their hind feet. Their tail and butt are usually off limits too. Rabbits often don’t like it when people touch them on their stomach or underneath their abdomen either, but this is an area that you may want to slowly desensitize on your rabbit so they won’t make as much of a fuss when you need to pick them up.
How to pick up your rabbit
Most rabbits don’t like to be picked up. Since rabbits are prey animals, their main defense against predators in their ability to run away. They’ll often get scared when they get picked up because they feel trapped. If anything bad were to suddenly happen, they wouldn’t be able to run away, so rabbits prefer it when they have their feet on the ground.
For this reason, when interacting with your rabbit on a daily basis, it’s best not to pick them up very often. If you pick up your rabbit everytime you play with them, they’ll start to associate you with the fear of being held and they will run away from you.
But there are times when you have to pick your rabbit up. Whether it be when you clip their nails, or to keep them out of a dangerous place. So it is best to occasionally practice picking your rabbit up, so you know you can handle them properly.
To pick your rabbit up, place one hand on their bottom and one on their chest behind their front feet. Gently lift them up and hold them in your arms or against your chest. Always make sure their backside is supported. Rabbits have relatively weak spines. If held incorrectly they can kick and hurt their back.
Basic Rabbit body language
Rabbit body language is unique. They use their ears, tail, nose, and body position to tell us exactly what they mean. All we have to do is learn the behavioral signs and pay attention.
Some basic rabbit behaviors you might notice as you socialize with your rabbit:
- Binky: A jump and twist in the air, usually accompanied with some zooming around the room. This means that your rabbit is very happy.
- Cautious/Curious: They will slowly approach an object of interest on tiptoe with their ears forward and tail down. They might stretch out as far as they can with their back feet, staying in the same place so they’ll be ready to make a dash for it if they get scared.
- Chinning: The rabbit will rub their chin against an object to claim it as their own. Rabbits have scent glands under their chins, so this spreads their scent around and lets any other rabbits know that this is your rabbit’s territory.
- Flop: Flopping is when rabbits throw themselves onto their side and sleep. It can be startling if you’re not used to it, because it kind of looks like the rabbit is dead, but it actually means your rabbit feels very safe.
- Loaf: Loafing is when your rabbit fluffs up into a ball and looks like a loaf of bread. This is generally a comfortable position for rabbits and they’ll often sleep in this position, especially in the colder months.
- Periscope: This is when your rabbit stands on her hind legs, it means she is curious and is trying to get a better vantage point. This is another one of those adorable rabbit behaviors that is just too irresistible. And your rabbit knows it! This is how she begs for treats.
- Purring: if you listen very closely when you pet your rabbit, you might hear her softly grinding her teeth together. And if you put your hand on top of her head, you’ll be able to feel a slight vibration. This is what rabbits do when they are happy and content. It means the same thing as a cat’s purring.
- Territorial/Aggressive: Rabbits are usually very gentle creatures, especially if they have been spayed or neutered. If a rabbit is displaying aggressive behavior, they will pull their ears back and growl at you to warn you. But it’s very rare for a rabbit to attack anyone out of the blue.
- Thump: when your rabbit thumps their strong hind legs against the ground. It might even be loud enough to wake you up at night. This means that your rabbit senses danger or is very upset with something you did.
Children and rabbits
If you have kids who really want a turn to play with the bunny, then it’s important to show them how to respect your rabbit. Supervise your child as you teach them how to gently pet them. If the rabbit runs away, take it as a chance to teach your child to be patient and not to chase after the bunny.
Your rabbit might need a little time to trust you
Rabbits are incredibly friendly and playful creatures, but they also get scared very easily. Rabbits are prey animals, and their best defense in any situation is running away. So don’t be surprised if your new rabbit runs away and hides from you at first. If you give your rabbit the time and space they need to warm up to you, you’ll have a spunky little fluffer whizzing around you in no time.
Here are a few quick tips to help your rabbit trust you sooner:
- Sit on the floor quietly near your rabbit and let him approach you. You’ll have to be patient with this. Sooner or later, your rabbit will get curious and come up to you.
- Don’t pick up your rabbit unless you have to (e.g. put him into a carrier, cut his nails, etc.). Most rabbits don’t like to be held, so they’ll be more likely to run away if they think you will pick them up every time you come near.
- Give your rabbit some treats (in moderation). You don’t want to give him too many treats, since that’s bad for his digestion, but it’s okay to bribe your rabbit a little bit. Raisins tend to be a big hit with most of the rabbits I work with.
How to tell if your rabbit is sick
Rabbits are prey animals so they have a tendency to hide their weaknesses. It’s often difficult to tell if a rabbit is sick unless they are very sick, so you don’t want to wait for those more obvious signs.
The symptoms you should be aware of so you can get your rabbit to the vet as soon as possible:
- Lack of appetite, especially if they’re not interesting in their favorite treats
- Lack of energy
- Small or deformed poops
- Not pooping (this is an emergency situation)
- Sitting in a hunched position
- A change in previously good litter box habits
- A bloated looking belly
You need to find a rabbit veterinarian
Rabbit biology is very different from a cat or dog, so you need to find a veterinarian that specializes in rabbits. Usually the terms you want to look for are ‘small animal veterinarian’ or ‘exotic animal veterinarian.’ But you should always double check to make sure this vet has experience with rabbits. The House Rabbit Society has a useful list of rabbit vets across the US and even some international rabbit veterinarians.
As with any pet, it’s a good idea to bring your rabbit in for a basic check-up when your bunny first comes home with you. After that, you only have to bring your rabbit in once a year for their annual exam, unless your rabbit gets sick. If you notice your rabbit not eating or pooping for more than 12 hours, that’s a sign that you need to get to a vet right away.
Spay or neuter your rabbit
If your rabbit has not been spayed or neutered, you’ll want to make sure you get that taken care of as soon as you can. If your rabbit is young, you’ll have to wait for sexual maturity, which is about six months for female rabbits and 4 months for male rabbits. An unaltered rabbit will develop a number of health and behavioral problems. It’s much better for your rabbit’s happiness and health in the long run if you get them fixed as soon as possible.
Adopt a rabbit
If you haven’t already brought a rabbit home, then you still have the choice to adopt a rabbit instead of buying one from a pet store or breeder. Many shelters do have rabbits, and in my experience the rabbits have a much longer stay in the shelter system than cats and dogs.
I work with abandoned shelter bunnies, and I know these little fluff balls are just waiting for a safe home where they can be happy bunnies forever. Many of them have even already been altered and litter trained, so it will be a little less work for you. So give a bun a second chance and rescue a rabbit today!
- Brown, Susan DVM. “Small Animal Nutrition.” House Rabbit Society. Jun. 10, 2012. rabbit.org/small-animal-nutrition.
- “Housing.” House Rabbit Society, rabbit.org/faq-housing
- “Litter Training.” House Rabbit Society. rabbit.org/faq-litter-training-2.
- “Rabbit Proofing.” House Rabbit Society, Mar. 1, 2013, rabbit.org/faq-rabbit-proofing.
- Xu, Elizabeth. “How Long Will My Rabbit Live?” PetMD. www.petmd.com/rabbit/care/how-long-will-my-rabbit-live.