20 Crucial Things to Know Before Adopting a Pet Rabbit


20 surprising things to know before you get a rabbit

I love rabbits, but that doesn’t mean they’re the kind of pet that’s right for everyone. Rabbits can be little troublemakers and attention seekers that take over your life and destroy your furniture. If you’re not prepared for the amount of care rabbits need, you may find yourself resenting your new pet, rather than falling in love with a fluffy new friend.

Rabbits are not beginner pets. They can be almost as much work to take care of as a typical dog. Before adopting a bunny, it’s important to learn about their many traits that can cause unique problems for any unsuspecting new rabbit caretaker. 


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1. Rabbits need a lot of space

Rabbits are not the kind of pet that can be happy living in a small cage. They need an enclosure that gives them enough space to sprawl out and hop around whenever they want to. Unfortunately, most cages that are sold and marketed toward rabbits are much too small for them.

A rabbit’s enclosure should be at least three to four times their full length (when they are sprawled on the ground) and it should be tall enough to allow the rabbit to stand up on their hind legs without hitting their head. Instead of purchasing a cage for your rabbit, I recommend getting a pet exercise pen and using that as an enclosure. These are bigger than a typical rabbit cage or hutch and they are cheaper too! (check out the current price)

In addition to a large enclosure, rabbits need a lot of time and space to exercise in an even larger space. You’ll need to aim to give your rabbit at least three to four hours of exercise per day to help them stay healthy and release pent-up energy. The easiest way to give your rabbits the exercise they need is to allow them to hang out with you and roam the room while you get ready in the morning and relax in the evening, treating your rabbit as a companion pet like you would a cat or dog.

two rabbits in an ex-pet
I recommend using a pet exercise pen as your rabbit’s enclosure since it gives them more space.

2. Rabbits need a lot of attention

Rabbits are social animals and are prone to boredom and even depression if they are left alone too long. If you are keeping a single rabbit, you must provide them with a lot of attention and interaction in order to keep your rabbit happy and healthy.

This means you need to make time in your daily schedule to socialize with your rabbit. I like to spend time reading on the floor so that my rabbits can come up to me to be pet or interact. You could also let your rabbit hang out with you while you watch TV or go about your at-home schedule. Whatever you can do to include your rabbit in your daily life will be beneficial to them.

3. Rabbits shed a lot

Rabbits shed a lot and you will find rabbit fur everywhere. Their fur will find its way into your morning coffee and onto all of your clothes. It will even find its way up your nose. This means you might even have to deal with allergies. Just like cats and dogs, people can be allergic to pet rabbits, so it’s best to be prepared for that possibility.

Rabbits typically have four shedding seasons in a year. Two will be big, fur-filled seasons where your rabbit changes from a summer to winter coat and vice versa. There will also be two smaller shedding seasons in between that will be less noticeable. 

To make matters a little more difficult to deal with, most rabbits hate being groomed. There are certainly exceptions, but rabbits have sensitive skin which makes them dislike the feeling of a comb or brush. You’ll probably have to deal with a very squirmy rabbit while you help them shed their coat and get rid of the extra fur.

4. Rabbit hay is not easy to clean

Hay is the main food in a rabbit’s diet. It’s vital for keeping their digestion healthy and preventing illnesses such as GI Stasis. This comes with its own setbacks, however. Hay tends to get into everything, sticking to clothing and getting caught in carpeted flooring. If your rabbit is a messy eater (most rabbits are), then you’re going to find yourself spending a lot of time cleaning up hay.

The problem is that hay likes to clog up pipes and tubes that are uses to clean it up. It will get stuck in your vacuum, making you have to unclog the tubes frequently. I use a vacuum that has easily removable parts to make cleaning a little easier. You also want to avoid ever cleaning hay out in a bathtub or sink, because you will end up with a clog. 

5. Rabbits can suddenly get very sick

As prey animals, rabbits have evolved to hide their weaknesses. In the wild, this would have helped them to survive by preventing them from being picked off by a predator. As pets, however, this means that it’s difficult to know if a rabbit is sick until they are very sick. You need to learn the subtle signs of illness and pay close attention to your rabbit’s behavior so that you can catch the symptoms in time to help your rabbit.

Common signs of sickness in rabbits include:

  • A change in eating habits
  • A change in litter box habits
  • Sitting in a hunched position
  • A change in energy levels
  • Drooling
  • Very hot or very cold ears
  • Lack of balance or head tilt
  • Matted fur around eyes and nose
  • Mouth breathing
  • Abscesses or bumps
  • Excessive ear scratching
  • Matted or balding fur
  • Unexplained aggressive behavior

For more information about these symptoms and what to do when your rabbit is sick, visit my article ‘How to know if Your Rabbit is Sick’

Rabbits don’t make many noises, but they will thump their hind legs if they are angry or scared.

6. Rabbits thump very loudly

For the most part, rabbits are very quiet pets. They don’t bark loudly like dogs, or meow at you to get your attention. They don’t even make loud squeaking sounds that most small furry pets make. That’s why it can come as a surprise when you hear a rabbit thump all of a sudden. It will sound like a large textbook suddenly hit the ground flat on its side.

Rabbits thump either because they are scared or because they are angry. It stems from their instincts to warn their family group (their warren of rabbits) of incoming danger. It’s also used to angrily warn off any unfamiliar rabbits to let them know they are not welcome.

For most house rabbits, thumping is not common. However, once they start thumping they will often continue for several minutes at a time, making a racket with their hind legs. This can be really frustrating if your rabbit decides to start thumping in the middle of the night or annoys any neighboring apartments with their loud thumps.

7. Rabbits are bigger than you think

When most people think of a rabbit, they imagine a small, almost pocket sized animal. They might expect an adult rabbit to reach a maximum of 2 pounds. The reality is, there are only a few breeds of rabbit who remain that small. 

An average sized rabbit grows to be around five to six pounds, but there are many breeds that reach sizes of 10+ pounds. That’s larger than many house cats. Even small dwarf breeds of rabbits are bigger than people expect, typically reaching three or four pounds as adults. So make sure you take the full-grown size of your rabbit into consideration when setting up their enclosure and living space.

8. Rabbit poop tells you a lot about their health

Rabbits poop a lot. On average a rabbit will poop about 200 times in a day! This is because a rabbit’s health depends on the constant movement of their digestion. As a result, your rabbit’s litter box leavings can give you a number of hints about the health of your rabbit.

A healthy rabbit fecal pellet will look almost exactly like a cocoa puff. It will be a small brown ball with very little scent, and it will not be squishy. When your rabbit’s poop deviates from the norm, you can have an early sign that something is wrong with their health. For animals who hide their weaknesses, this can be a vital early sign of illness in rabbits.

For example, if you find your rabbit is suddenly giving you poops that are half their typical size, you’ll know that something is stressing your rabbit or causing them pain. If you see a lot of fur stringing along the fecal pellets, you know it’s time to brush your rabbit. There is a lot more you can glean from the contents of your rabbit’s litter box, check out my article to learn more.

Graph: What to feed your rabbit? 80% hay, 15% leafy greens, 4% pellets, 1% treats
A healthy rabbit diet is made up of mainly grass based hay with some leafy greens and a small amount of pellets. Treats should only be given in very small amount.

9. Rabbits have a specialized diet

Rabbits have a unique and sensitive digestive system. The need to eat a high amount of fiber to keep their digestion moving, with a low amount of sugary and starchy foods. Without the correct balance, your rabbit could easily end up sick from an improper diet.

The main part of your rabbit’s diet should be a grass based hay (such as timothy hay). You’ll want to make sure your rabbit has an unlimited supply available because they’ll need to munch on this consistently throughout the day and night.

The second most important part of a rabbit’s diet is fresh leafy greens. You should give your rabbit 1-2 cups of fresh greens every day to give them a variety of nutrients and keep them healthy with a wholesome diet.

Pellets, the dry food, should actually only be given in moderation. While you might be able to get away with giving a cat or dog a bowlful of dry food to last the day, rabbits only need about ¼ cup. They’ll likely finish their pellets very quickly, but don’t worry about their empty bowl. It will encourage your rabbit to eat more of the hay, which is more essential to their health.

Sugary treats (including carrots, apples, and other sweet fruits and vegetables) should only be given in moderation. Make sure to cut up any treats into small pieces and only offer a couple to your rabbit every day.

Check out my in depth article to learn more about the complex rabbit diet.

10. Rabbits can get uterine cancer

If you have a female rabbit, it is extremely important to get your rabbit spayed. Rabbits are built for multiplying their numbers very quickly, so the reproductive system of the female rabbit is always working hard to make that happen. This puts a significant strain on their body and leads to an incredibly high chance that the rabbit will develop uterine cancer. 

By the time rabbits reach 6 years of age, they have an 80% chance of contracting uterine cancer, and most rabbits do not recover once the disease takes hold. The good news is, this disease is completely preventable if you get your rabbit spayed.

Getting your rabbit spayed or your male rabbit neutered will also help to prevent many common behavioral problems. This can prevent aggressive behaviors in rabbits and make them less likely to spray urine around the home.

rabbit digging into the carpet
Bored rabbits are more likely to have destructive behaviors, such as digging and destroying the carpets.

11. Rabbit are destructive pets

Despite their small size, rabbits are more destructive than anyone expects. These little furballs have the instinct to dig and chew on everything. That means they have the potential to destroy furniture, carpets, baseboards, and anything else that is within their reach. You’ll need to spend time rabbit proofing your home to make sure your rabbit can’t destroy anything.

The most dangerous item that rabbits will go for is electrical wiring. To a rabbit’s mind, these mimic roots and twigs that need to be trimmed and eaten. However, if a rabbit bites into a live wire, they could easily be electrocuted, so you’ll need to keep any wiring completely out of your rabbit’s reach. You can also use split loom wire tubing to cover the cords and prevent your rabbit from chewing on them.

12. Rabbits are slow to trust people

Rabbits are incredibly friendly and lovable pets. However, it can take them a long time to get to that point. As prey animals, rabbits tend to be wary of strangers. They’re not going to open up to anyone right away. With time, treats, and patience your rabbit will slowly start to open up to you and become a best friend.

You can help your rabbit trust you more easily by avoiding behaviors that scare rabbits. Avoid loud noises and fast movements since these can easily startle your rabbit. You’ll also want to help your rabbit feel safe in their home habitat by keeping other pets away and giving them places to hide.

Don't pick up your rabbit
Most rabbits don’t like to be held, so you shouldn’t pick them up all the time.

13. Rabbits are not cuddly pets

Despite their cute and fluffy nature, most rabbits do not like to be cuddled. In fact being held is a very scary experience for rabbits. In this position rabbits feel trapped, they have no way of escaping if something scary happens. Most of the time, if you try to pick up a rabbit they will kick and struggle, scratching or even biting you in the process. Holding your rabbit too often can also lead them to be wary and distrustful of you, since they’ll associate you with the scary feeling of being held.

Rabbit anatomy is also pretty fragile. If they are held in the wrong way, the rabbit could end up throwing their back, paralyzing their back legs. For this reason, it’s important to NOT give rabbits to children as pets and supervise any interaction between rabbits and kids.

14. Don’t trust pet store marketing

There are so many products with colorful packaging and clever marketing that are sold for rabbits. They will all have a happy rabbit right on the package with cute taglines to make you think this is a product that is good or healthy for your new pet rabbit. Don’t trust any of it!

Most of these products your rabbit does not even need. Rabbits don’t need bedding or salt licks, and most of those treat mixes are incredibly unhealthy for rabbits (stick to fresh or dried fruits and vegetables). For dry food pellets, you want to get a brand with only those boring brown pellets and no added colorful or fruity pieces (I recommend Oxbow as a healthy brand).

15. Rabbits are safer indoors

Even though traditionally rabbits were kept in hutches outside, this practice is slowly becoming outdated just like most people don’t keep dogs outside anymore. Rabbits are much safer as house pets. They don’t have to deal with the fear of potential predators, such as foxes, hawks, and even raccoons. 

Indoor rabbits also don’t have to deal with extreme changes in temperature. Hot days can be especially dangerous for rabbits. They can get heat stroke at temperatures greater than 80ºF because their fur coat was not made for hot weather.

Outdoor rabbits also run the risk of coming into contact with parasites and other easily transmittable diseases. This means they are at a much higher risk of developing fly strike, or even coming into contact with highly contagious viruses like RHDV (learn more about RHDV at the House Rabbit Society).

Rabbits will spend a good portion of the day grooming themselves to stay clean.

16. Rabbits keep themselves clean

No need to bathe a pet rabbit. Like cats, rabbits are very efficient self cleaners. They aren’t smelly pets and don’t need baths to stay clean. In fact, bathing a rabbit can be very harmful to their health. 

Rabbit fur is very thick and once wet it will soak in the water and take a long time to dry off. This puts your rabbit at an increased risk of developing hypothermia after a bath. This is even possible in the summer if your rabbit is kept in a room with air conditioning or a fan blowing onto the rabbit.

The other main reason you want to avoid bathing a rabbit is because they have very sensitive skin and water makes their skin even more delicate. This means if your rabbit gets a cut or scratch during bathing, it could easily tear the skin to create a more serious wound. If your rabbit ever gets dirty, it’s a better option to spot clean them with a damp rag.

17. Dental problems are common in rabbits

After digestive problems, dental issues are the most common health concern for rabbits. Rabbit teeth grow continuously (like fingernails). By chewing on hay and wooden toys, rabbits are usually able to keep their teeth from overgrowing. However, if their teeth are out of alignment, they aren’t able to grind down properly and can often end up growing too long.

Many rabbits need to be brought into the vet for regular tooth trimming to keep their teeth from overgrowing and making it difficult for the rabbit to eat, or causing an infection. In severe cases, a rabbit’s front incisors can be removed completely to prevent their overgrown teeth from becoming a problem.

18. Rabbits are intelligent animals

Rabbits are actually pretty smart. They can be taught to use a litter box like a cat, and they can be trained to do tricks just like a pet dog. You can train a rabbit to come when you call their name, or even give you high fives and jump over hurdles.

Rabbits can also benefit from mental enrichment activities, to keep their minds sharp and curious. Try hiding treats around the room and wait for your rabbit to find them. I like to give my rabbits treats in a food dispenser ball (their favorite toy!), so they can use their brain to figure out how to get the treat out.

19. Expect your rabbit to live longer than you think

Believe it or not, rabbits have a life expectancy of around 8-12 years. That’s much longer than people expect since many other small furry animals only live for 2-4 years. This means rabbits are a bigger commitment upfront than you might have been led to believe. 

You have to consider what kind of life changes you will go through in the next 10 years before you get a rabbit. This will help you make sure you can bring your rabbit along for the ride and give them a happy home and family for their entire lifetime.

A binky is a jump for joy that rabbits do when they are super happy.

20. Rabbit body language is unique

Rabbit body language is not always easy to read, especially if you are used to the behavior of cats and dogs. When they’re happy, rabbits take a running jump and twist in the air. When they’re scared, rabbits will thump their back legs to let you know. They will swivel their ears and wiggle their nose when they’re curious about something, and when they’re tired rabbits will often sleep with their eyes open.

There are way too many rabbit behaviors to explain here, but you can find out more about rabbit body language in my illustrated guide.

Bonus: Rabbits are great companion pets

While many people think of rabbits as cage pets, they are actually excellent companion pets (like a cat or a dog). They are highly social and are the most loving animals I have ever lived with. Give them a chance to be a companion and integral part of your family, and you will never regret it.

Sources

  1. Brown, Susan DVM. “Small Animal Nutrition.” House Rabbit Society. Jun. 10, 2012. rabbit.org/small-animal-nutrition.
  2. Harvey, Carolyn, DVM. “Oral Health in Rabbits.” House Rabbit Society, rabbit.org/journal/3-9/oral-health.html.
  3. “Medical Bibliography.” House Rabbit Society, https://rabbit.org/care/bibliography.html.
  4. Praag, Esther van Ph.D. “Normal and Abnormal Fecal and Cecal Feces of Rabbits.” Medirabbit.com, www.medirabbit.com/EN/GI_diseases/drop/Drp_en.htm.

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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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