How to Care For Your Rabbit Through All Their Life Stages


rabbit life stages

Like everyone, rabbits go through many life stages as they grow older. Their behavior as a baby rabbit will be drastically different than their personality when they grow to be a senior rabbit. When you get a little baby bunny, you need to be prepared to care for your rabbit through all of their life stages.

It is important to remember that all rabbits will mature at their own rate. While we can give rough estimates for when a rabbit will enter the next stage of their life, your rabbit might not follow the plan exactly. Breed, genetics, living conditions, and even the rabbits individual personality all play a role in how they develop through all of their life stages.


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Baby rabbits: 0-2 months

Baby rabbits are born small and helpless, with no fur and their eyes and ears closed. At this stage they depend solely on the protection and nurture of their mother. The average litter size for a rabbit is 6 little babies (also called kittens), but there can be as many as 14 kittens in a litter.

Baby rabbits should not be separated from their mother or fully weaned until they are older than 8 weeks old. This helps to ensure the baby rabbit develops a proper immune system by digesting their mother’s milk and cecal droppings. There are many states in the U.S. that even ban the sale of rabbits under 2 months because of the danger it poses to the newborn rabbit.

Behavior

Over the first two weeks, these little babies will start to grow a little fuzz. They will cuddle with their litter mates for warmth and start to gain weight and strength. When they reach around 10 to 12 days old, the kittens will begin to open their eyes and ears to experience the world around them.

Once they open their eyes, the baby rabbits will start to explore on their own. They’ll crawl out of the nest and nose around to satisfy their curiosity. At first they’ll just wobble around, but the baby rabbits will quickly gain strength. 

Over the next few weeks they will start to turn into adorable baby fluffballs, and they’ll become more and more independent. As they gain strength the babies will become more playful and energetic.

In order to socialize the baby rabbits and prepare them for human interaction, it’s ideal to start handling them frequently at around 4 to 5 weeks old. This will teach the rabbits to be friendly with humans and will likely help them to be less afraid of being held in the future.

Diet

During the first 2 months of their lives, rabbits should still have access to their mother’s milk. Rabbit milk is very rich in fat and protein, which is essential to helping baby rabbits grow big and strong. The kittens also do not have a proper immune system yet, and depend on the antibodies they receive in the mother rabbit’s milk to protect them from disease and infection.

baby rabbits feeding
When they are babies, rabbits need to have access to their mother’s milk. They should not be fully weaned until they are 8 weeks old.

As the baby rabbits grow stronger and start exploring when they reach 3-4 weeks old, it’s okay to start introducing some solid foods to their diet. Some alfalfa hay and pellets are appropriate to give the babies as something to chew on.

As the babies reach 7-8 weeks old, the amount of dry pellets and hay can be increased so they have an unlimited supply. They should still have access to their mother during this time so they can drink milk and eat her cecal droppings to improve their immunity and digestion. The baby rabbits will also start to produce their own cecotropes as their digestive systems begin working properly.

Health concerns

Baby rabbits do not have a fully functioning immune system, and therefore are at a high risk for many health conditions. This is especially true for any orphaned rabbits that do not have access to their mother’s milk. There are steps that you can take to feed an orphaned baby rabbit with kitten formula, but most babies will struggle to survive without the antibodies in an adult rabbit’s milk. These kittens frequently suffer from pneumonia due to accidentally inhaling the kitten formula, or diarrhea from an imbalance in gut bacteria. Sadly, baby rabbits rarely survive without their mother, or a surrogate mother, to take care of them.

If your babies are being kept with a healthy mother rabbit, check them frequently to make sure they are being fed. Most female rabbits will instinctually take good care of their babies and be available for feeding, but some young mothers or mothers suffering from malnutrition may abandon their babies or not produce enough milk. To check the babies, look in on them early in the morning after feeding. They should be warm and have full, round bellies.

Teenage rabbits: 2-6 months

As your rabbit enters their teenage years, there will be a lot of changes to their behavior and diet. If you are purchasing a baby rabbit, this is the age that you will likely be bringing them home to settle in. There are many shelters that do not allow rabbits to be adopted until they have been spayed or neutered, so you may still have to wait a couple months before bringing your rabbit home.

At about 8 weeks these teenage rabbits should be separated from their mother. It is also a good idea to separate the males from the females, since some males will start to reach sexual maturity as early as ten weeks old. Most male rabbits reach sexual maturity around 4 months old, while female rabbits usually reach sexual maturity around 8 months old.

Behavior

At the start of this stage in your rabbit’s life, they will be an adorable and energetic little bunny. You can start to litter train them and get used to having a happy, silly bunny as part of your household. But as the little rabbit reaches sexual maturity, their behavior will start to change drastically.

As they reach sexual maturity, friendly, happy bunnies will often start to get territorial and frustrated. They will start to spray urine in all areas of the house to claim their territory. Sometimes their pee will even start to smell more during this phase. Male rabbits, in particular, will start to hump objects or other rabbits they share a space with.

Some rabbits, especially females, will start to display aggressive behaviors. They will lunge and bite at anyone who tries to enter their space, protecting their territory. As female rabbits enter sexual maturity, they might also exhibit nesting behaviors. Even if the female hasn’t been in contact with a male, she might be having a false pregnancy. She’ll collect nesting material and pull her fur to make a nest even when she is not pregnant. 

aggressive rabbit
When rabbits are aggressive, they will raise their tail and pull back their ears with a raised head. Rabbits will growl and lunge forward as well.

Rabbits will also begin to develop some behaviors that are not related to rising hormones. An increased desire to chew and dig into everything is likely to occur during a rabbits teenage years. They are also likely to become more hyperactive and curious, causing them to find new ways to get into trouble all the time. These behaviors likely won’t decrease until the rabbit has calmed down with age. It’s important to take the steps to rabbit proof your home, to prevent your rabbit from causing too much damage.

Diet

During this stage of their lives, the teenage rabbits will no longer need to drink their mother’s milk. Instead they should be transitioned to a healthy diet for a growing bunny.

Teenage rabbits should have access to unlimited alfalfa pellets and unlimited hay. The hay should be mostly alfalfa hay, but other grass-based hays can be introduced at around 3-4 months. Alfalfa is important because it has higher levels of calcium and protein for helping a bunny grow big and strong.

If you’re looking for a place to get fresh and enticing hay for your rabbit, I recommend an online store called Small Pet Select. I discovered this shop about a year ago and have been really impressed with the quality of their products. Check out their alfalfa hay to give your young rabbit, and take 15% off your first order by using the code BUNNYLADY at checkout.

As the rabbits reach 3 months old, you should also start to introduce fresh leafy greens into their diet. Introduce the greens slowly, one type at a time, to make sure your rabbit’s digestion can handle the new foods.

And, of course, your rabbit should have access to unlimited fresh water.

Health concerns

It is important to get your rabbit spayed or neutered as soon as they reach sexual maturity. Getting your rabbit fixed can correct behavioral concerns with rabbits, and it can also prevent the rabbit from developing a reproductive disease. Female rabbits, in particular, are extremely susceptible to developing uterine cancer. There is an 80% chance of female rabbits developing a reproductive cancer in their lifetime if they have not been spayed. Male rabbits also have a high chance of developing prostate cancer if they have not been neutered.

After the rabbit has been spayed or neutered their hormone level will slowly start to decrease over the next month. It will likely not result in an immediate improvement in behavior, but as their hormones settle down over the next month they will become a lovable bunny again.

Young rabbits: 6 – 18 months

Young rabbits are still growing. Most rabbits are not going to reach their full adult size until around 14-18 months old. Some smaller breeds will reach their full weight at 10-12 months old. During this time rabbits will be getting used to life and settling into their personality. You’ll never know what an adult rabbit’s personality will be like based on their behavior as a baby, but as young rabbits you’ll start to see glimmers of your rabbits true nature.

Behavior

If they have already been spayed or neutered, young rabbits will be happy and energetic bunnies. They will likely be trying to test the boundaries to see how far they can go, always trying to get into new areas that are blocked off.

Young rabbits are likely to be heavy diggers or chewers. They can be real troublemakers, so make sure you’ve done everything you can to keep dangerous objects, such as wires and poisonous houseplants, away from your rabbit. They’ll have a lot of energy during this time and it’s unlikely that they’ll settle down for long periods of time to be pet. They’re also likely to evade being held as much as possible.

Diet

Since rabbits are still growing during this stage in life, they will need more pellets than their adult counterparts to maintain a healthy diet. But they should also be slowly transitioned from the amount of food they were given on a teenage diet.

The young rabbit should be transitioned to unlimited timothy and grassed based hay. The alfalfa hay should be slowly phased out of the diet. The same should be done for the rabbit’s dry pellets. Slowly transition your rabbit to a timothy based formula rather than alfalfa based. During this stage you should provide your rabbit with ¼ cup of pellets for every 3lbs of body weight. Once they reach their full weight, the pellets should be decreased to adult levels.

The amount of fresh leafy vegetables in a young rabbit’s diet should also be increased. Continue to introduce new greens slowly to make sure the rabbit’s digestive system can handle the new vegetables.

Health concerns

If your rabbits hasn’t been spayed or neutered yet, it is important to do so as soon as possible. Female rabbits have the potential to start developing reproductive cancer as early as 2 years old. So get your rabbit spayed early to reduce the chances of illness.

If rabbits have genetic problems with the alignment of their teeth, those symptoms will likely start to show during this stage in a rabbits like. A misaligned rabbit jaw will cause their teeth to become overgrown. If you notice your rabbit is having trouble eating (dropping food from their mouth) or has visibly overgrown incisor teeth, it is a good idea to bring your rabbit to a vet to get their teeth trimmed and discuss your options. You may have to bring your rabbit in for frequent teeth trims, or you vet might be able to remove the incisor teeth.

Otherwise, health concerns during this phase are similar to what you should look out for in a typical adult rabbit:

  • Not eating
  • Not pooping
  • Obesity
  • Lack of energy
  • Changes in litter box habits

Adult rabbits: 18 months – 7 years

As your rabbit reaches their adult years, they will calm down a little and settle into their own personality. You and your rabbit will start to know each other better and trust each other more. It’s the time when your rabbit settles down to be a part of the family.

Behavior

Adult rabbits will likely spend more time with you and enjoy being pet for longer periods of time. They will still be very active during this stage and require lots of exercise time and toys to play with. Rabbits in the stage of life will still likely have serious chewing and digging habits, but they might not be quite as persistent as they were before.

Diet

A healthy adult rabbit diet should consist of unlimited grass-based hay, a minimum of 1-2 cups of fresh leafy greens, about ¼ to ½ cups of pellets or less, with only a very small amount of treats.

Graph: What to feed your rabbit? 80% hay, 15% leafy greens, 4% pellets, 1% treats

Rabbits have a very sensitive digestive system, so it’s important that you don’t give your rabbits too many sugary treats. Instead, providing them with a fiber heavy, hay-based diet will keep their teeth and gut healthy. As much as you can, encourage your rabbit to eat more hay. Try providing a few different types of hay (such as orchard or oat hay), so your rabbit will have more variety.

Again, I recommend getting your hay from my favorite online store, Small Pet Select. Their 2nd cutting timothy is is always fresh and my rabbit absolutely loves it! They also have fresh and yummy orchard hay and oat hay available to give your rabbit some variety. (Don’t forget to take 15% off your order by using the code BUNNYLADY at checkout)

Health concerns

As you get to know your rabbits personality better, you will also be able to spot changes in their behavior. Any drastic change in a rabbit’s behavior or personality could be an indication of a health problem.

Most rabbits are very healthy and will only require an annual check up every year with your rabbit-savvy veterinarian. But there are always health concerns to look out for in case your rabbit gets sick:

  • Digestive health. Make sure your rabbit is eating and pooping. If they haven’t produced any fecal pellets in more than 12 hours this should be treated as an emergency.
  • Cold symptoms. Cold symptoms in rabbits, such as a runny nose and constant sneezing, can be fatal and should be treated as soon as possible. 
  • Heat stroke or hypothermia. I rabbit can easily suffer from extreme weather conditions, so look out for symptoms of heat stroke or hypothermia in your rabbit.
  • Parasites. Ear mites, mosquitoes, ticks, and flies can all cause devastating diseases in rabbits. Check your rabbit’s ears and underneath their bottom to make sure your rabbit doesn’t get infected, and keep them indoors where bug infestations are less common.

Elderly rabbits: 7 – 10+ years

Rabbits have an average life expectancy of around 10-12 years. In general they are considered elderly when they reach 6-8 years old, but rabbits will start showing signs of slowing down at many different ages. Some bigger rabbits that have shorter lifespans will become elderly rabbits when they are only 4 years old, and others won’t start slowing down until they are 9 or 10. Every rabbit is an individual and you’ll need to pay attention to the specific needs of your own rabbit.

Behavior

As a rabbit ages they will start to lose energy and sleep more often. Their fur will start to thin, and they may even develop a salt and pepper coat. Senior rabbits will also start to lose muscle mass, making it more difficult for them to zoom around or climb up on the furniture.

Many rabbits start to lose weight as they lose muscle mass and will need help to maintain a healthy weight. Others start sitting around all the time, causing them to gain weight and become obese.

elderly rabbit in a box
Having a litter box with a lower entry way can help elderly rabbits with arthritis or weak muscles.

You may need to make some environmental changes for your rabbit by making it easier for them to hop into their litter box and provide them with extra bedding or soft mats for their aging feet.

Diet

If your rabbit is still a healthy weight and in moderately active, you will not need to make changes to their diet unless directed to by a vet. But as your rabbit gets older, you might need to adjust their diet to compensate for a gain or loss of weight. It’s best to consult your vet before making specific changes, but these are some adjustments you can expect to make to your rabbit’s diet:

  • Pellets: if your elderly rabbits is losing weight they may need more pellets in their diet to keep the pounds on. If they have gained weight and are nearing obesity, your vet might direct you to decrease or eliminate the pellets in your rabbit’s diet.
  • Hay: the main part of your rabbit’s diet should still be grass-based hay. It’s also a good idea to include other types of hay (such as oat hay or orchard hay) to encourage your rabbit to eat more, especially if they are losing weight. 
  • Veggies: If your rabbit is not eating as much hay as they used to, you may need to adjust the balance of hay and fresh leafy greens. The water content of the veggies may be a little excessive and cause the rabbit to have slightly runny cecotropes. 
  • Water: Add a choice of water bottle or water bowl for the rabbit. Your rabbit might have a clear preference, but sometimes one will be more comfortable than the other. It’s best to give your rabbit the choice.

Health concerns

There is an increased chance of your rabbit developing many illnesses as they get older. So make sure to keep track of your rabbits health and energy levels. A slow decrease in energy as your rabbit gets older in normal, but a sudden lack of energy is a sign of illness, and you should visit your rabbit’s vet.

Other health concerns you should be ready for when you have an elderly rabbit:

  • Cataracts
  • Arthritis
  • Limb paralysis
  • Sore hocks

You may also want to visit your rabbit savvy veterinarian more frequently when you have a senior rabbit. While I usually recommend visiting the vet once a year for a healthy adult rabbit, elderly rabbits should visit once every 6 months to be sure there are noy developing any serious health problems.

Sources:

  1. “Baby Rabbits (Domestic).” WabbitWiki, February 9, 2019, http://wabbitwiki.com/wiki/Baby_rabbits_(domestic).
  2. “Do rabbits really get womb cancer?” Goddard Veterinary Group, www.goddardvetgroup.co.uk/do-rabbits-really-get-womb-cancer.
  3. Harriman, Marinell. “Age Related Behavior.” House Rabbit Society, https://rabbit.org/journal/3-3/age-related-behavior.html.
  4. Koi, Sandi. “Domestic Baby Bunnies and Their Mom.” House Rabbit Society, https://rabbit.org/care/babies.html.
  5. Krempels, Dana Ph.D. “Why Spay or Neuter My Rabbit? Some Scary Numbers…” University of Miami, http://www.bio.miami.edu/hare/scary.html.
  6. “Ordinances Protecting Rabbits.” House Rabbit Society, June 11, 2013, https://rabbit.org/ordinances-protecting-rabbits.
  7. “Rabbit Food.” House Rabbit Society, https://rabbit.org/faq-diet.

Amy Pratt

Amy Pratt is a lifelong rabbit owner who has been specializing with rabbits at the Humane Rescue Alliance. She helps to socialize the rabbits and educate volunteers on the care and behavior of these small mammals.

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