Rabbits as Pets

Surprisingly bright and sociable, bunnies make good pets

Girl holding rabbit
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Rabbits are very social as well as active and playful, forming a close bond with their owners. 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. 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 be raised as show animals.

Breed Overview

Common Name: Rabbit

Scientific Name: Oryctolagus cuniculus

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

Life Expectancy: The lifespan of rabbits vary with breed. They can live anywhere from 5 to 15 years.

Difficulty of Care: Intermediate. These animals require a lot of interaction, whether it involves daily interaction with owners or other rabbits.

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 rabbits by their sides or interacting with their rabbits. Rabbits also have the great advantage of responding well to litter-training. They also respond well to gentle training (try a clicker) 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 to be happy. 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. It's also important to know that, while rabbits like to be near their people, but they often would rather not be held.

Housing

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 three to four feet long. Because they have tender feet, rabbits do poorly in wire-bottomed cages; a better choice is a plastic dog crate. In 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 litter box lined with newspaper and filled with either pelleted sawdust litter or grass hay such as timothy or orchard grass
  • A shelf onto which your rabbit can hop
  • Ceramic food and water dishes

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

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

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 the item you're offering is rabbit-safe.

You can offer your rabbit commercial rabbit pellets as well, but offer a limited amount as they can interfere with digestion. Pellets with dried corn or nuts should be avoided.

Be sure your rabbit has plenty of freshwater at all times. One of the most significant threats to a rabbit's health is a block digestive system; water is the key to keeping things moving along.

Common Health Problems

Rabbits will likely require some veterinary care, which can be expensive as you'll probably need to find an exotic vet. Rabbits should be spayed or neutered (by a vet experienced with surgery on rabbits) and they may require vaccinations depending on where you live.

Rabbits are prone to certain physical problems; among them:

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

Some of these issues don't require a vet: you can keep your rabbit's toenails clipped and be sure it has 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.

Purchasing Your Rabbit

The association between rabbits and Easter means rabbits are often impulsively acquired as pets at Easter time. 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. Rabbits can be destructive if deprived of attention and appropriate toys and need to be spayed or neutered to cut down on behavioral problems and health risks. In addition, 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). Always research a potential pet thoroughly to make sure it will be a suitable companion for getting one and avoid the impulse to get a bunny for Easter.

Please consider adopting a rabbit from a shelter or rescue if you have one nearby. There are many perfectly good pet rabbits who need a second chance at finding a forever home. Don't worry about getting an older rabbit; you can get a good sense of their personality and they will bond with new owners just fine.

Similar Pets to the Rabbit

If you’re interested in pet rabbits, check out these different breeds:

Otherwise, check out more information about pet rabbits.