How to care for rabbits

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Vayda's rabbit Carmel
Vayda's rabbit, Carmel, relaxes in the grass during her daily exercise time. (Sara Welch photo)

There’s never a dull moment with my daughter. Vayda has an endless list of hobbies, interests and fascinations and even more imagination to fuel her adventures. I’m just along for the ride.

The most frequently offered advice I give her is only commit to things you absolutely love. Time is finite and best spent pursuing passions rather than passing fancies. That’s not to say I discourage her from trying new things. But if she doesn’t make it past the trial period, we’re not going to invest any further.

Her latest mission has been to get rabbits. She attended a field trip at the end of the school year to an FFA petting zoo at the high school in her school district. She instantly fell in love with Flemish Giants after meeting and petting a couple at the petting zoo.

She came home with a million questions, wanting more information about rabbits, FFA and how to get involved before high school. I told her she should research the care requirements of rabbits and look into 4-H if this is something she’s truly interested in doing. She followed up with a two-page essay on taking care of rabbits and the benefits of having rabbits. And then she spent over a month building a hutch under her clubhouse with her grandpa and me. She also took over all the chores related to the care of her dogs and cat — if you want more pets you better be able to take care of the ones you already have.

It was no surprise that as soon as her hutch was finished she was ready to go get her bunnies.

Finding the right rabbits

Vayda with Carmel and Root Beer
Vayda sits with Carmel and Root Beer. (Sara Welch photo)

Before we finished her hutch, friends, family members and neighbors told us about litters that were ready to go. But we weren’t getting bunnies until the work had been done and we settled on the right breed for Vayda. The problem with waiting until the middle of June was finding a litter.

We chose Holland Lops because of their size, temperament and floppy ears. Vayda would also be able to show them if she decided to do 4-H or keep them as pets if she doesn’t.

I found an online directory of rabbit breeders and emailed over 16 breeders looking for a pair of does from the same litter. Ironically, the only breeder who could meet my request was five minutes down the road.

Speaking from experience, calling breeders in a directory might be quicker than emailing and contacting local farms to inquire about rabbit breeders in the area or litters they have available might be more efficient than relying on an outdated directory.

Before you settle on a breed, make sure you have identified your preferences for size and temperament, your goals for the rabbit and the amount of care it will require. Once you’ve narrowed down the breeds that fit your preferences, find out what is available in your area.

Housing

Good rabbit housing is characterized by adequate space, protection from weather and predators and being easy to clean. 

Space. Rabbits should be provided with 1 square foot of floor space for every pound they weigh. Holland lops weigh 2-4 pounds when they are full-grown, so each rabbit needs at least 4 square feet of space. Vayda’s hutch is 4×3 feet, providing about 12 square feet for the pair. Most breeds of rabbits require 18 inches of space from floor to ceiling. Dwarf breeds may only require 12-14 inches of space. When you build or purchase a hutch or cage, you should make sure it will provide enough space when your rabbit is full-grown.

Protection. Rabbits that are kept outdoors need protection from wind, rain and snow. Enclosing three walls of your cage or building separate enclosed and open areas in your hutch can provide protection from inclement weather. Do not enclose the entire cage as ventilation is needed. Rabbits are resilient in the cold but prefer temperatures between 50F and 69F. When it’s hotter outside, putting a frozen water bottle in their cages can help them cool off.

Rabbits also need protection from potential predators and other rodents. This is why rabbit hutches and cages are frequently built on stilts or hung above the ground. Being elevated keeps rabbits safe from dogs, cats, rodents, raccoons, opossums and other pests.

Easy to clean. Habitats that are easy to clean are essential because rabbits poop a lot and manure pile-ups can cause health problems. Rabbit housing should be equipped with a wire floor that allows poop to fall through. All parts of hutches and cages should be accessible to make weekly cleaning easier.

Feeding Rabbits

Rabbits need a healthy balanced diet that includes commercial rabbit pellets, water, hay and salt.

Pellets. Commercial feed pellets are the easiest way to provide a healthy diet for rabbits. Adults require a feed that provides 15-16% protein and young rabbits and active breeding does require 17-18% protein. Feed should also contain at least 16% fiber to prevent diarrhea and other digestive issues. Small breeds require 2-3 oz of feed per day. Medium breeds require 3-6 oz of feed per day. Large breeds require 4-9 oz of feed per day. Feeding should be twice a day with the bigger portion of feed being given in the evening. Young rabbits should be slowly transitioned from the pellets their breeder used to the brand of pellets you purchased to prevent digestive upset after bringing them home. We distribute our pellets in a hopper self-feeder but don’t fill it all the way full. These types of feeders keep pellets from being dumped and free of contaminants.

Water. Rabbits need a constant, clean supply of water from a water bottle. Water should be changed daily.

Salt. Rabbits do require salt in their diet and you may choose to hang a salt spool in your rabbit’s cage, but most commercial feeds contain enough salt to meet your rabbit’s dietary requirements.

Hay. Rabbits enjoy good-quality hay. It increases the amount of fiber in their diet and aids in digestion. Hay should always be hung on the side of the cage or from the top to prevent fecal contamination. We made a hay feeder by cutting holes in an old, clean sock, stuffing the hay inside and hanging it on the side of the cage. Vayda pushes the hay to the bottom daily and stuffs new hay in the top. Hay should be introduced the same way pellets are introduced — mix hay from your breeder with hay you will be purchasing to transition your rabbits.

Treats. Treats such as green leafy vegetables and herbs can be given daily. These include all leaf lettuces, dandelion greens, kale, collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, parsley, cilantro and basil. Don’t give rabbits cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts or spinach. They can also have small amounts of sweeter treats such as a 2-inch piece of carrot, a slice of apple, a slice of banana or a few hulled sunflower seeds once a week. Never feed bread or other high-carbohydrate foods to rabbits because they can develop intestinal problems from these types of foods.

Root Beer lounging
Root Beer lounges next to her homemade hay feeder. (Sara Welch photo)

More Rabbit Care

Handling your rabbits. Your rabbits should be handled daily, so they get used to you and become more gentle. When taking them out of their cage, grab the extra skin on their back and lift up. Then transition them into a football hold where their face is tucked between your arm and your side. As prey animals, rabbits can get skittish. This is especially true if approached or grabbed head-on because they can’t see directly in front of their faces. This is also why they should be put back in their cages rear first rather than face first.

It’s also important for rabbits to get exercise daily. Vayda takes her rabbits out a couple of times a day and sits with them in a small outdoor pen. We actually got the pen for our Chiweenies, but the rabbits enjoy being able to dig and hop around the grass in a protected area. Getting them out for exercise and handling them every day is a good way to keep track of general health and body condition.

Vayda with Carmel and Root Beer
Vayda holds Carmel, while Root Beer comes to the door of her hutch to investigate. The more rabbits are handled, the friendlier they will be. After only two weeks, both rabbits come to the door to greet Vayda when she opens it. (Sara Welch photo)

Adjusting feed. Rabbits can become too thin or too fat if the right amount of food isn’t being given. When you run your hand down your rabbit’s back you should be able to feel the round bumps of its backbone if it’s at a healthy weight. If the bumps feel pointed, you need to increase the amount you’re feeding your rabbit. If the bumps are nonexistent, you need to decrease the amount you’re feeding your rabbit. Food should be increased and decreased 1 oz of food per week until your rabbit reaches a healthy weight.

Cleaning. Water bottles should be rinsed and refilled daily. Feeders should be emptied and sanitized weekly. Bedding should be replaced and the cage or hutch should be completely cleaned weekly.

Grooming. Some long-haired varieties need daily grooming, but many breeds only require occasional brushing and toenail trimming once a month.

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