Rabbit: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Girl holding rabbit
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Rabbits are very active and playful animals that are also very social; they will form a close bond with other rabbits and even with people. As long as you know what to expect from a pet rabbit, they have the potential to be wonderful pets. The ideal owner for a pet rabbit is an individual or family with the time and space to dedicate to an active pet that enjoys cuddling and playing and requires a bit of maintenance. Whether it involves daily interaction with owners or other rabbits, these animals require a lot of interaction. Rabbits come in many different breeds—lionhead, mini lop, mini rex, rex, lop, Dutch, English spot, and hotot, to name a few—and some can even be raised as show animals.

Species Overview

Common Name: Rabbit

Scientific Name: Oryctolagus cuniculus

Adult Size: 2 to 20 pounds, depending on the breed

Life Expectancy: 5 to 15 years

Rabbit Behavior and Temperament

Rabbits are social, and with gentle handling, are generally quite tame, playful, and entertaining to watch. Rabbits often form very close bonds with their owners; many rabbit owners spend evenings watching TV with their rabbit by their sides or interacting with their pet. Rabbits also have the great advantage of responding well to litter-training. They also do well with clicker training and can be trained to do special behaviors and tricks.

All of these qualities mean that rabbits do require a great deal of interaction with their owners and/or other rabbits. Daily playtime and exercise outside of their cage is a necessity. They do need to chew, so lots of safe chew toys should be provided, and any spaces where the rabbit is allowed to run must be carefully rabbit-proofed.

While they are generally quiet pets, rabbits are not a good match for active young children who may not be careful enough when picking them up or playing around them. While rabbits like to be near their people, it's also important to know that they often would rather not be held.

Rabbits are not ideal pets for children, partly because rabbits usually do not like to be picked up (though they do like being stroked and are quite social). Rabbits will usually be destructive if deprived of attention and appropriate toys. They also need to be spayed or neutered to cut down on behavioral problems and health risks.

Housing the Rabbit

Rabbits are prey animals, which means that housing your rabbit outdoors is generally not a good idea; keep your rabbit indoors. When not being directly supervised, your rabbit should be kept in a crate or cage at least 3 to 4 feet long. Because they have tender feet, rabbits do poorly in wire-bottomed cages; a better choice is a plastic dog crate. Inside the crate, provide your rabbit with:

  • Plenty of toys such as cardboard boxes and plastic chewy toys; rabbits need to chew to keep their fast-growing teeth in check.
  • A shelf onto which your rabbit can hop to maintain leg strength
  • Ceramic food and water dishes
  • A litter box lined with newspaper and filled with either pelleted sawdust litter or grass hay such as timothy or orchard grass

Rabbit urine can have a strong odor so expect to change the litter box frequently; spaying and neutering can help reduce the odor. In addition, rabbit urine is high in calcium, so when it dries, it can leave a chalky residue that can be hard to clean; vinegar is usually effective for removal.

Many pet rabbits are allowed to roam around the house when their owners are around. If you do choose to allow this freedom, be very careful to rabbit-proof your home. Rabbits love to chew, and dangerous electrical wires and extension cords are at just at the right height for rabbits to find and munch on.

If you'd rather not give your rabbit the run of the house, you can provide it with an exercise pen. Pens designed for puppies are ideal: they provide plenty of exercise space without giving your bunny the option of exploring potentially dangerous spaces. If the pen is large and tall enough, it can also substitute for a crate.

Food and Water

Rabbits do best on a diet that is based on grass hay such as timothy, oat hay, or orchard grass; avoid alfalfa hay. In addition, rabbits need green leafy vegetables; good choices include lettuces (except iceberg), herbs, watercress, carrot tops, cucumbers, and sprouts. Provide a more limited supply of other vegetables and fruits; check to be sure all items you offer are rabbit-safe.

You can offer your rabbit commercial rabbit pellets as well, but offer only a limited amount as they can interfere with digestion. Pellets that include dried corn or nut ingredients should be avoided. One of the most significant threats to a rabbit's health is a block digestive system and water is the key to keeping things moving along. Be sure your rabbit has plenty of cool and clean, non-chlorinated water at all times.

Common Health Problems

Rabbits will likely require some veterinary care, which can be expensive. You may need to locate an exotic vet. Rabbits should be spayed or neutered by a vet experienced with surgery on rabbits. They may require vaccinations depending on where you live.

Rabbits are prone to certain medical problems such as:

  • Abdominal stasis (inability to digest or pass waste)
  • Bacterial infections
  • Ear mites and fleas
  • Overgrown teeth
  • Overgrown toenails

Some of these issues don't always require a vet; for instance, you can keep your rabbit's toenails clipped and offer plenty of chewy food and toys to avoid overgrown teeth. In some cases, it's possible to treat mites and fleas yourself, but it's often a good idea to check in with a vet as well.

Purchasing Your Rabbit

The association between rabbits and Easter means rabbits are often impulsively acquired as pets around the Easter holiday. Unfortunately, many of these bunnies end up neglected or given up for adoption since those cute little bunnies grow up into rabbits that need as much attention and care as a dog. Avoid the impulse to get a bunny for Easter.

The best option is to adopt a rabbit from a nearby shelter or rescue. There are many wonderful pet rabbits who need a second chance at finding a forever home. Don't worry about the age of an older rabbit; you can quickly get a good sense of an older rabbit's personality, and they will often bond with new owners even quicker than a younger rabbit.

Similar Pets to the Rabbit

If you’re interested in pet rabbits, check out these other exotic pets:

Otherwise, check out other exotic animals that can be your pet.

Article Sources
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  1. Complete Rabbit CareChicago Exotics Animal Hospital, 2020

  2. Management Of RabbitsVeterinary Manual