Bunny basics: Proper rabbit husbandry

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URBANA, Ill. — For those who are thinking of getting a pet rabbit, but are not sure how to care for it, Dr. Kenneth Welle, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana has some suggestions on proper rabbit care.

Good pick

Welle recommends adopting a healthy rabbit, one with clear eyes and no nasal discharge or swelling around the face, from a rabbit rescue organization.

If the rabbit will be kept in a cage, Welle recommends that it be at least four times the length of the rabbit by two times the length of the rabbit. The larger the cage, the more exercise the rabbit will get and the healthier and happier it will be.

Rabbits can also be kept loose in a room of the house, so long as the room is “rabbit proofed.” This means removing electrical cords or other items the rabbit can chew on or get into.

Cage preparation

A soft and absorbent substrate, such as a paper based non-aromatic product, is ideal for lining the bottom of the cage. Rabbits should also be provided with a litter box, since they can be trained to use one just as a cat does.

Since rabbits are a prey species, they like to feel enclosed and to have a sense of security within their habitat. Welle recommends giving rabbits a second box, in addition to their litter box, so they have somewhere to hide and feel safe.

Rabbits enjoy burrowing, digging, and foraging, so additions that encourage these natural behaviors are ideal. Adding a tubular structure to their cage or room for them to crawl through will engage them and help keep them active.

Diet

The bulk of the rabbit’s diet should consist of grass hay, including timothy hay, oat hay, or Bermuda grass, which should always be available to them, Welle said. Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously, and the grinding action of eating grass hay keeps their teeth at an appropriate length.

A couple of cups of fresh, leafy greens, such as romaine, lettuce, and kale, should also be provided every day.

Pelleted food, without seeds, can also be given, but should be done so on a restricted basis. Rabbits chew pellets in a way that does not grind down their teeth, so too much of this type of food can lead to dental problems.

Health

New owners should bring their rabbit to their veterinarian for an initial exam and information on proper husbandry as soon as possible, Welle said.

If there are no ongoing health issues, a rabbit should visit the veterinarian each year for an annual exam, just as is typically done for a cat or dog.

According to Welle, there are no commercially available vaccines that are appropriate for rabbits. While rabbits occasionally get fleas, owners should consult a veterinarian to treat this problem because some commercially available flea medications can kill rabbits.

Some common health problems in rabbits include dental disease, gastrointestinal stasis —when the food does not move through the digestive tract, bacterial infections of the upper respiratory tract, Encephalitozoon cuniculi — an intracellular parasite, and uterine cancer.

Lifespan

Rabbits typically live for 8 to 10 years, and their lifespan is improving. The decision to bring rabbits into a house with other animals largely depends on the other animal. Some dogs or a cats, for example, may hunt the rabbit.

Welle also noted that rabbits have a certain naturally occurring bacteria in their respiratory tract that may cause pneumonia in guinea pigs, and therefore rabbits and guinea pigs should not be housed together.

For more information about rabbit husbandry, contact a veterinarian familiar with rabbits.

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