We welcome Dr. Kendra Nicholas, one of our associates extraordinaire, to the CFVC Blog to discuss one of her areas of interest…
So, you just got a pet rabbit. You may have a few questions circling in your mind.
- “Now what?”
- “What do I feed it?”
- “How long do they live?”
- “What is normal behavior?”
Knowing the basic husbandry of pet rabbits is crucial to adequately care for them, and will reduce inadvertent mistakes.
The average lifespan of a pet rabbit averages around 9-10 years. A female rabbit is called a “doe” and a male rabbit is called a “buck.” The age at which rabbits reach sexual maturity varies according to the breed. Smaller breeds develop more rapidly and are mature at 4 to 5 months of age. Large breeds tend to reach maturity at 5 to 8 months of age. The reproductive life of a rabbit averages between 5 to 6 years for a buck and up to 3 years for a doe.
Rabbits produce two types of feces over the course of a day: hard feces and soft feces (also known as “night feces”). These two different types of feces differ tremendously in composition and appearance. Night feces are produced according to a circadian pattern of intestinal motility and are usually eaten directly from the anus. They are soft, arranged in clusters, have a mucous coating, and are usually mistaken for diarrhea. The practice of eating night feces, also called “cecotrophy,” provide the rabbit with valuable nutrients and is a normal behavior of healthy rabbits.
Rabbits require daily exercise to maintain good health. They can be given free reign of a house, but the environment should be rabbit proofed. Rabbits will chew and scratch objects in a home, including hazards like electrical cords and poisonous plants, and also climb onto objects if given opportunity. If a rabbit is given free range in a house, it must have a cage or box into which it can escape if frightened, such as overturned boxes/containers or pipes around the area.
A rabbit’s cage should be divided into at least two functional spaces: one for lying and sleeping, and the other for activities. Treat items such as carrots or other root vegetables or small pieces of fruit can be used as a source of environmental enrichment (i.e. suspending them from the cage roof to act as edible toys). Drinking bottles are easier to keep clean than water bowls, and they avoid wetting the dewlap, which can lead to skin infections. If you are putting a water bottle in the cage for the first time, you can put a small amount of sweet, sticky molasses or corn syrup to the surface of the water bottle to help them find it.
Rabbits are sociable, so housing them with other rabbits is encouraged. However, any new introductions should be monitored closely, as rabbits who do not get along can inflict serious wounds on each other and even fight until death.
Important features of any rabbit enclosure is adequate ventilation, and the substrate or flooring. The ideal flooring should stimulate the compliant texture of earth. Many commercial hutches come with wire mesh flooring; the rabbit must be protected from this type of flooring to avoid foot irritations and infections. Providing rabbits with thick layers of soft bedding such as straw or grass hay is more forgiving, but needs to be changed regularly, especially if they become soiled or wet.
Do not house rabbits with guinea pigs for potential transmission of Bordetella bronchoiseptica.
Fiber is the mainstay and most vital component to the rabbit’s diet. It is essential for maintenance of the gastrointestinal tract as well as promoting normal dental attrition. The diet should be providing an ad libitum source of indigestible fiber (e.g. grass and/or hay) and ensuring that other dietary components are limited, so that the primary fiber source is actually consumed. Hay is considered an essential part of the rabbit’s diet and should be available ad libitum. Grass hays are preferred and may be derived from timothy, fescues, orchard, or ryegrass. Legumes such as alfalfa or clover are very useful for growing rabbits, but can predispose adult rabbits to obesity and urinary stones.
Grass provides a balanced source of fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. We recommend that pet rabbits be given access to grass for at least several hours a day. Do not feed lawn clippings as they can ferment rapidly and cause digestive disturbances.
Feeding fresh vegetables can provide vital nutrients, but should be introduced to a rabbit’s diet slowly to allow the gastrointestinal tract to adjust and avoid tummy upset. Suitable vegetables include collard, mustard, and dandelion greens; carrot, beet, and broccoli tops, alfalfa sprouts and clover, parsley, cilantro, basil, lettuce, cauliflower, chicory, watercress, celery leaves, kale, and cabbage. As a rough guide, 2 cups of varied fresh vegetables is considered appropriate for a 5 lb. rabbit.
Fruit should be used sparingly, if at all, because of the high sugar content and potential for carbohydrate overload in the GI tract. A small amount (up to 1 tablespoon for a 5 lb. rabbit) as a treat several times a week is unlikely to be problematic.
Despite marketing claims, commercial concentrate rations and pelleted feeds are not essential components of the adult pet rabbit’s diet. If ad libitum hay, grass, and a variety of greens are available, the diet is essentially balanced and and contains sufficient energy for maintenance requirements.
If you have any questions regarding the care of your pet rabbit, do not hesitate to contact our office at 330-929-3223 for additional information.
Helpful information from Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents (Third Edition), by James Wyman Carpenter & Katherine E.Quesenberry – W.B. Saunders – 2012