Rabbits are wonderful pets and while their care is not particularly complex or specialist, it is important to ensure that they are recieving the correct care.
Settling in & Handling
Before bringing your new rabbit home, make sure that everything is prepared and ready, and its hutch is located in a quiet area. Put the rabbit straight into it's hutch with food and water, and leave it alone for several hours, give it some of its old bedding, as it has familiar smells which will calm the rabbit.
Let the rabbit settle in before all the family want to meet the new arrival. The best way to get to know your new rabbit is to let it come to you. Sit in a run or in the house, and allow the rabbit to hop around, have a tasty treat for the rabbit, and after a short while it will sit on your knee. If you purchase a rabbit from a responsible breeder it will already be well handled and is used to human company, but everything is strange to it and will take some time to get used to its new family.
Always handle your rabbit condifently, to lift it up place one hand under its belly and the other on its rump, scoop it towards you and hold it against your chest.
Housing - Outdoors
Rabbits require a sturdy hutch (for size guidances see the breeds page) when choosing a hutch, it is always best to go for a deeper hutch, than a narrow one.
Cover the floor of the hutch with wood shavings (dont use newspaper as rabbits cannot digest it), you can provide good quality hay or straw for bedding. Inside the hutch the rabbit needs, food and water (don't use a hay rack as they are dangerous) and a selection of toys. Change the bedding at least once a fortnight, and the 'toilet' corner every other day.
Rabbits are sociable (some breeds more than other, check the breeds page for more guidance) and can be housed in pairs, buck-doe pairings work best, if the male is neutered and then the doe introduced.
Housing - Indoors
Rabbit can also be housed indoors, larger and medium breeds can be allowed to free range (much like a dog or cat) and just provided with a safe home to hide away and sleep in. Smaller breeds will need an indoor rabbit cage (kind of like a large hamster cage). They will need to be litter trained and can be bedding on cat litter, shavings or carpet. See the house rabbit article for more details.
Summer / Winter Care
Care of rabbits does not differ too much through the year. In the heat of the summer months, ensure they always have a supply of fresh water. A cold wall tile placed in the hutch will help keep them cool, and ensure that their cage is away from direct sunlight.
In the winter, small rabbits need to be moved indoors (or into a shed or garage), outdoor rabbits will require extra bedding, and you can cover the hutch at night (use plastic sheets, or camping blankets) to prevent them getting too cold.
The staple food for your new rabbit should be hay and straw, buy good quality hay, give as much as the rabbit wants to eat, you cannot over feed hay.
Some breeds may be fed dry food 'ad lib' (i.e. fill the bowl and they will eat what they want) however small rabbits (and lops in particular) will need to have their food measured out to prevent them from over feeding. It is advisable to feed the dry mix on an evening, rabbits require routine to thrive, so try to feed your rabbit at around the same time each day.
Make sure your rabbit always has access to a supply of fresh, clean water.
My rabbits are fed a good quality hay (I use a local farm hay) on a morning along with fresh water. Hay is fed ad lib (as much as they want). On an evening I feed dry mix (Allen and Page Natural Breeder and Grower Pellets). A general rule of thumb is 1oz of dry mix to every 1lb of rabbit weight.
As treats I provide fresh food (such as broccoli, cabbage, apples, carrots etc), dried fruits (such as apricots, mango and bananas), occasional nuts, wheetabix and occasionally digestive biscuits. It is best to avoid pre made, shop bought treats as these are very rich and too sugary.
Barley rings (for horses) may also be given when a rabbit needs more weight (during growth periods 10 weeks until 4 months and again at 6 months until a year, or when the rabbit is moulting)
Short haired rabbits require little grooming, simply damp your hands and run it through the coat once a week. Brushing with a soft slicker brush will help keep them tidy when they are moulting. For more details on grooming see the grooming articles.
Exercise and Toys
Rabbits need regular exercise, access to a run is essential. Some rabbits are very active while others are more laid back and need to be encouraged to exercise.
Rabbits love cardboard tubes to throw around and chew, sticks are also great, plastic jingle balls (for cats) are great for them as well. You can provide cardboard boxes for them to jump in and out of, and old carpet tubes to play in.
The best kind of toys are homemade, try filling a paper bag or a brown envelope with small toys and treats, then seal it up, rabbits love spending hours ripping it open and getting to the contents.
A simple 5 point health check can be carried out on your rabbit each week, while just playing or cuddling, this helps to spot any problems as soon as they arise. Although the biggest indication of illness is usually a slight change in personality. Rabbits are generally healthy and hardy, but being vigilant can help you spot and stop any problems before they become dangerous.
1 NOSE - check that it is clean and free from discharge and breathing is easy and not raspy.
2 TEETH - check that they are straight and meet correctly (the top teeth should slightly overlap the bottom teeth)
3 EYES AND EARS - check that they are clean and free from discharge, eyes should be bright and alert and ears should be free from wax and flakes.
4 CLAWS - check they are short and neat, from the age of about 6 months your rabbit will need its nails trimming about every other month.
5 BUM - check that it is clean and free from any signs of diarrhoea ... do not panic if you see 'sticky' poos in your rabbit's cage, rabbits produce these soft dropping (usually) at night and normally re-digest them.
If a rabbit appears ill it is important to keep it eating and drinking, if your rabbit is off its food you can syringe feed it water and liquid feed every few hours to keep it alive untill you can seek medical attention. For minor aliments the best treatment is usually to provide extra hay, stop feeding greens and put pro-biotics in the water supply, your vet can provide this.
There are two nasty diseases that affect rabbits that you should be aware of, but the contraction of both diseases is rare.
MYXOMATOSIS is a dangerous rabbit disease, it is caught by biting insects such as mosquitoes. Symptoms include discharge from the eyes and swelling of the head, ears and genital area.
VIRAL HAEMORRHAGIC DISEASE (VHD) is a man made disease that affects both domestic and wild rabbits, it is spread through direct contact with an infected rabbit or through secondary contact, air borne, visiting someone who has an infected rabbit, insects, clothing, shoes, dogs, second hand hutches and hay etc, it is very contagious. Symptoms include lethargy, collapse, partial paralysis, breathing difficulties and bleeding from nose and bottom. In some cases there are no visible symptoms.
Treatment of both diseses is difficult and there is no known cure, annual vaccinations are available to protect your rabbits from these diseases (although some vaccinations can have severe side affects DO NOT USE cylap brand of vhd vaccine) and by putting insect netting over your hutches and keep them clean (to avoid attracting insects) and keeping your animals away from standing water, can help prevent the spread of disease. If your rabbits contract either of these diseases, you should not put yourself in contact with other rabbits, (visiting shows, breeders, friends etc) for at least 3 months for myxi and 4 months fo vhd, and report the infection to the british rabbit council.
I vaccinate my rabbits annually with the lapinject brand of VHD vaccine and also vaccinate baby rabbits before they leave for their new homes.
Older male rabbits (over 18 months) can often get runny eyes, this is nothing serious and is caused by a build up of hormones when a mature buck is not being used for breeding. Giving a rabbit probiotic in their water can help, or providing a soft toy for them to take out 'their tensions' on will alleviate the problem. Neutering can prevent this, if you find it unsightly.
Some rabbits can become difficult when they reach their 'teenage' phase (usually between 5 and 10 months depending on breed).
Bucks can become hormonal and try mating with toys, arms and legs and can occasionally spray (project hot urine) which is very unpleasant and messy. They can occasionally become nippy.
Does can become nippy and reclusive during the teenage phase, many will soon outgrow this and carry on being loving companions, however in some cases a doe may start to dig, in frustration of not been mated and can continue to be aggressive.
Some breeds have very bad teenage phases while others remain placid throughout, this is something to bear in mind when choosing your breed.
In both instances spaying or neutering can help (although not in 100% of cases). The operation is not without risks, although rabbit medicine has greatly improved over recent years.
Rabbits should also be treated every six months with oral ivomec this prevents mites and many types of worms.
Rabbits kept in any large numbers should also be treated every six months for coxi, medicine to add to the water can be purchased on the internet for pigeons.