rabbit care guide

The Basics...

Housing - Rabbits need a solid cage or hutch that provides enough room to stretch out, hop around, and periscope (stand up on their hind feet).  My English Lops are kept in minimum size housing of 30 x 30 x 24.  Most of my cages are 36 x 36 x 24 or bigger.  The cage should have wire that is not so open that it can get a leg or its head stuck in it, but not so small (on bottom wire cages) that poop can't fall through.  Rabbits living in wire bottom cages should have a solid platform to sit on for relief of its feet.  Cages with a solid floor will need to have a litterbox for the rabbit to use inside of the cage.  Wire bottom cages will either have a tray to collect waste under the floor, or outdoor cages can be left open for waste to fall to the ground.  All cages and hutches need adequate ventilation because urine ammonia levels are toxic to your bunny.  Outdoor cages will need to have a roof to keep bunny dry and a cover for use in windy/stormy/cold weather.

Feeding - The rabbit will need a food dish set low enough for it to access the feed, but high enough that it won't pee in it.  Rabbits should be fed pellets once daily and only fed the amount it will eat in one day.  Feeders that are left full of food will accumulate pellet dust and mold which are bad for your bunny.  Rabbits should have plenty of grass hay.  Alfalfa and clover hay is high in protein and should be fed only to juniors, up to age 6-8 months, and to pregnant and nursing does.  If you choose to feed fresh veggies or fruit to a rabbit under 6 months of age, be sure to introduce one food at a time and watch for GI distress.  Too much of a new food can cause severe diarrhea and can kill your rabbit.   Slowly introduce green leafy veggies of the dark variety.  Iceburg lettuce has no nutritional value for your rabbit and may very well make it ill.  Steer away from cabbage and broccoli as they can cause gas and stomach ailments in rabbits.  Fruits should be rarely given if at all and only for a treat in small quantity.  Carrots are high in sugar as well and should be limited.  Rabbits enjoy grains and seeds which should be limited except in cases where a rabbit needs to gain weight or is a pregnant or nursing doe.

Water - Rabbits have a very sensitive digestive system that requires them to drink frequently and whenever they eat.  Water can be provided in a water bottle or a crock.  If it is in a crock, make sure it is either secured to the cage, or heavy enough that the bunny cannot flip it over.  If your bunny has never used the type of waterer you are giving it, you made need to show it how to get a drink.  Water should be changed every day and crocks washed with soap every week to prevent bacterial growth.  Water bottles should be cleaned once a month.  If your rabbit's water is empty when you check it, make sure the bottle is functioning properly.  If your rabbit drinks it's entire water supply in less than a day, you need to get a bigger water bottle.  Your rabbit should never be without water. never.

Litterbox or not - Rabbits prefer to pee and poop in the same place.  This makes them very easy to litterbox train.  If your rabbit is housed outside in a wire bottom cage, you probably don't need to litterbox train her.  However, if she is indoors or has a solid floored hutch, you will want her to use a litterbox.  Make sure the box you buy is big enough that when your bunny is full grown she will still be able to sit comfortably in it.  Once your rabbit has chosen a corner to use most of the time, place some of the soiled litter or bedding from the corner into the litterbox with the clean litter.  Clean the cage so that there is no other soiled spots and place the litterbox in her favorite corner.  The bun should start using the litterbox right away.  She may continue to go in other spots for a short time.  If you consistently clean the cage, she will eventually use only the litterbox.  Occasionally your bunny may decide she likes a different corner better.  If she has stopped using the litterbox, move it into the new corner and hopefully she won't change her mind again.  If your bunny has freedom to roam the house, you may need to place several litterboxes in her favorite corners.  We have a fairly small house and my rabbits never minded hopping back to their litterbox accross the house to go potty.  Remember, rabbits will poop in their litterbox when they have to move alot of poop at once, but they also will drop occasional poops on the floor while hopping around.  When this happens, do not punish your rabbit.  The bunny cannot help it and is in no way trying to misbehave.  Simply pick up the stray poop balls and throw them in a housplant or in the trash.

Weather - Rabbits need protection from wind, rain, and extreme cold.  Any outdoor hutch needs to have some kind of cover for stormy weather.  If your hutch floor is wire, you may want to put wood or cardboard into the cage to help hold in the heat.  Also, giving plenty of hay for the bunny to lay on will help.  If your situation allows, heat lamps can be used, but always use caution to prevent fire.  Rabbits do not tolerate heat, particularly sudden heat and direct sunlight on their hutch.  A rabbit can die from temperatures as low as in the 80's.  Providing your rabbit with ways to cool itself is very important.  This can be ice bottles, a large water crock that it can sit in, misters, a cool tile to lay on, and definitely shade from direct sun.  Rabbits in their natural habitat will lay in the cool dirt in a dark shady place to stay cool.  If your rabbit has yard access, make sure there are shady places available to it throughout the day.  If temperatures are high and your rabbit is hot, bring it into the house.  Likewise, if there is a sudden drop in temperature much below freezing and you have no way of warming the hutch, bring it into the house or garage.  Your rabbit will thank you for it.

Play and Exercise- Rabbits love to play and frolic.  They enjoy toys to throw and chew.  There are many kinds of toys that can be left in their cage to keep them happy.  Rabbits that chew on household items or get into trouble are often just bored and need something they are allowed to play with and chew.  Rabbits will thrive when given the opportunity to run around a yard or in a pen.  They binky in the air with joy.  Large breeds especially, such as English Lops or Flemish Giants, should not be kept in a cage all day.  They require some room to stretch and exercise.  If there is no outdoors area for your rabbit to play, consider litterbox training your bunny so that she can come inside for playtime.  Bunnies that are kept indoors need time to run as well.  No rabbit should spend all of its time locked in a cage. 

Love - Rabbits are social animals who become very attached to their owners.  If you hold and pet your rabbit every day, your rabbit will enjoy getting attention and will return affection to you with snuggles and kisses.  You will find that your rabbit has many ways of communicating with you through body actions and eye movements.  A bunny that is held from the start will be easier to handle for nail trimming or ear cleaning.  They will trust you because you have built a trusting bond with them.  Remember, if you want a loving snuggly rabbit, then love and snuggle with your rabbit every day.

Common Bunny Questions and Issues...

How can I be sure that the rabbit I buy will have a sweet temperament?

People need to research as much as they can about where their rabbit comes from, HOWEVER, it is often difficult if not impossible when it comes to rabbits to get good information on temperament.  In my experience, you can tell a lot about a rabbit's personality by the time it is 6 wks old. 

To research a rabbit's genetic temperament risks, one must know the breeder, AND, the breeder must be willing to disclose specific issues with the buyer. Many people believe that behavior and temperament are more nurture than nature, and that if the rabbit is loved and held alot it will be sweet. Truly, this IS important in the development of your rabbit's temperament. But, be aware that hormonal factors that kick in as early as 12 weeks. This is not genetic in nature, for the most part. The puberty stage can be very difficult and requires a lot of patience. It may be very difficult to distinguish between hormones and true temperament issues.  One can't know a rabbit's true temperament until it is past this stage. Having a rabbit neutered or spayed can and does help with hormones, but even then rabbits may have issues for 6 months or more.

Then, there is the issue of what breed a rabbit it is. Some breeds are well known to have temperament issues. If the breed related temperament is not listed in the ARBA Standard of Perfection, one must pursue that information from people who raise and own the breed they are considering. This poses a problem because no one, neither breeder nor pet owner, is usually willing to speak badly about their own breed. The reason rabbit breeders raise a particular breed is because they love the rabbits. 

Then, there is the fact that sometimes a rabbit will just be mean. There isn't always a clear reason or a cure for it. I think it is sad when someone gets a bunny and loves it and it turns mean on them for no apparent reason, but it happens. I just hope they don't decide to hate rabbits, because most rabbits are sweet tempered.

How can I keep my outdoor rabbits cool in the Summer Heat?...

One thing I know a lot about is HOT SUMMERS!  I live in the valley of Northern California and it gets up to 117' in the summer here.  Luckily we only get a couple days that high, but most of July - September are over 100'.  By far, the most important asset for keeping rabbits alive in the summer heat is SHADE.  And not just shade provided in the cage by it's roof.  A hot roof turns a cage into an oven.  Placing your hutches or cages under the shade of trees, shrubs, and buildings is essential.  If you have lived in your home for at least one year, you should be able to determine which area of your yard gets the most shade and stays coolest in the summer.  Typically, the East side of a building is going to stay cooler than the west where the afternoon sun can be a killer.  But if you have no shade there at all, it's probably not a good choice.  Trees provide excellent shade and actually cool the air around them when they use the sun's energy.  It's important to follow the sun through out the day to determine where the best place for your rabbits is located.  An area that gets shade all spring may get full sun in the summer when the sun is higher in the sky.

Other than having a roof and shade, there are many things you can do to help your rabbits stay cool.  Fans that keep air moving can cool air that would otherwise be stagnantly hot.  Manure produces a great amount of heat as it decomposes and fans can help move this heat out of your rabbitry.  Adding cool moisture to the air is also very useful.  I use misters run along the roofline of my hutches.  When the temperature is high, I turn them on and they keep my rabbits up to 20' cooler.  Since I don't have Rex or wooley rabbits, they do fine getting a little wet.  Any moisture that gets on them will cool them off even more.  (I've been told that if Rex or wooled rabbits get wet from misters all summer, that it will ruin their fur). 

Another way some rabbit owners cool their rabbits is by running misters or soaker hoses onto the roofs of their hutches or barns.  As I said earlier, a hot roof can make the cages like an oven and cooling off the roof with water can greatly reduce the temperature inside.  Painting the roof white is also said to reduce the sun's heat on the roof. 

To create a swamp cooling type of environment, you may lay burlap over the roof and sides of the hutches with water running over it.  When the breeze or fans blow through the wet burlap, it cools the inside of the hutches just like a swamp cooler.  This method will not work very well in humid areas, but where there is dry heat it is very effective.

There are several cooling options for your rabbits inside of their cages as well.  First and most popular is frozen water bottles.  Usually 2 liter soda bottles are filled most of the way with water, frozen, and placed into the cage when temperatures are high.  The rabbits will lay against these to stay cool.  My rabbits love to lick the cold condensation of the bottles as well.  Be sure not to use a bottle that is too small or it will melt and warm up in no time.  Some rabbit owners will place tile, preferably marble or granite, into the rabbit cage.  If you've ever laid on the tile floor in the summer, you know that it feels very cool.  This is why bunnies enjoy laying on tile as well.  The tile will warm up by the end of the day, but should cool off again at night.  Some people even put the tiles into the fridge or freezer at night to make them colder.  Ice and ice water are other options to place in your rabbit's cage.  A large block of ice can be lain against or licked, but will melt fairly quickly.  If you have any large crocks, you can place ice in the crock for your rabbits to lick, drink, dip their ears into, and even sit in.

Heat stress can come on quickly and it is better to have a plan and setup for keeping your rabbitry cool well before the summer heat is here.  If your rabbit is breathing hard and fast or panting, it may be headed for heat stroke and death.  It is always better to be safe than sorry.  A rabbit that is showing the signs of heat stress can be quickly cooled off simply by wetting it down with cool water.  Most rabbits will enjoy having cool water poured over their ears, neck and back.  However, A rabbit that is panting, frantic, or very lethargic should immediately be placed in a bucket or sink of cool water and kept inside in a cool environment to recover.  If you have supplies for administering subcutaneous fluids, now would be the time to do so.  Lactated Ringers is preferred, but Normal Saline or Dextrose 5% can also be given.  Once heat stroke has progressed to seizures, it is rare for a rabbit to survive even with cooling measures and subcutaneous fluids.  Remember, PREVENTION is the BEST MEDICINE.

How do rabbits communicate?...

Rabbits communicate with their eyes and movements of their heads in a way similar to horses. I feel like the horse whisperer sometimes when I try to speak rabbit with my bunnies. tilting my head, look at the ground, look at the bun, lift my head not losing eye contact, making clicking sounds.... it's very much like trying to talk to a horse.  Rabbits communicate with there body also.  The thump the ground when they are angry or scared or trying to get their point across.  When I am petting Willow on the bed and I stop, she will scratch at the bed fast and then look at me as if to say, "don't stop, keep petting."  And if I don't, she thumps!  loud!  So I start again and then she settles down cuz she got her way.  Lexi, when she was done being held one day, grabbed my sweater with her teeth and moved my arm away from her and looked at me very seriously to tell me she was done and I should stop petting her now.  Willow would sometimes nip if I stop giving her attention or if I am petting her someplace that makes her nervous like under her chin.  I don't let her get away with it though.  I grab her face and turn her to look at me, gently of course, and I firmly tell her "no biting".  She gets the point and usually starts licking me to say sorry.  The more time you spend with your rabbit, really paying attention to them and trying different things to communicate, the better you will get.  Your bunny will feel very secure and trusting of you if it knows that you usually understand what it's needs and wants are.

How can I help my rabbit gain weight and get in condition...
 If the bun is sickly at all, then you need to address that issue first. If he has diarrhea or gooey poops, you need to have a fecal done to check for coccidia. You want to catch that fast because it can be deadly. Any stress the rabbit may have experienced can cause it to flourish in the GI tract too. You need to make sure your rabbit has been wormed.   If you cannot get hold of the breeder/seller, you should have your bun wormed just to be safe.  Hopefully, he's healthy though.  
The only way to increase weight and condition is by increasing healthy calories.  Any underweight rabbit should have unlimited pellets and hay. Alfalfa hay if he is under 6 months old because it has more protein.  I have had buns that were thin for no apparent reason before and the best way to help them gain is to add a conditioning mix to their food.  This is usually a mixture of seeds and grains.  These are much safer and better for your bunny than fruit.  I rarely give fruit to my buns due to the high sugar content. You can gradually add a conditioning mix over several days increasing the amount to 1:4 against the pellets.  Oh, and make sure he always has fresh water. Rabbits cannot eat without water.
   Here is my topper recipe for you, but you can find all kinds of more advanced mixture recipes online.   

All from bulk foods at the grocery store:

3 parts: Old Fashioned Oatmeal Oats

1 part: Hulled Barley

1 part: Plain Pumpkin Seeds

1 part: Hard Winter Wheat

1 part:  ShowBloom

 I give a small handful, about 2-3 tbsp, as a topper on their pellets.

I no longer use black oil sunflower seeds due to a couple of rabbits who had intestinal blockage which I believe is caused by eating the shells.  It happened once, I stopped using it, a year or so later I tried it again, and it happened to another rabbit, so no more BOSS for my rabbits.

I have tried Calf-Manna and Animax in the past, but am much more impressed with the quality and benefits of ShowBloom for rabbits.

In the hot Summer, the buns love frozen carrots or bananas, too!

How do I know how big of a cage to use.....

As for size, it is definitely the most important factor. It's easy to buy a 'big' cage when you bring home a baby bunny only to find that 2 months down the road he can hardly stretch out in it. Make sure you ask the breeder to show you the adult parents and give you an estimate on the adult size of the bunny. If the breeder is not available ie. pet store purchase, then make sure they know the breed of the bunnies they are selling. Most pet store employees don't know the difference between a Holland Lop and a French lop, but when they grow up the latter will be up to 15 lbs and huge, while the Holland is only up to 4 lbs and dwarf sized. You want the cage to be large enough that the rabbit can hop around in it, stretch out on the floor, and stand to periscope without hitting it's head on the ceiling.  Keep in mind the size of the litterbox and how much room that will take up as well.  Wire floored cages don't require use of a litterbox and leaves more space for your rabbit to move about.  Giant breeds such as French lop, English lop, Flemish Giants may do better in an enclosed pen than a cage. It is hard to find a cage at a pet store made to fit these large rabbits.  If you do house them in a cage, they will need to have resting mats or boards to prevent sore hocks.  They should also come out occasionally and have exercise time.  Allrabbits enjoy being out of their cage for love and attention and to run on the grass or in the house depending on where you keep your rabbits.  I have mostly made my own cages so they can be as big and luxurious as I want. Building a cage is not difficult and usually runs less money than purchasing one of comparable size from a store or online. There are many wonderful sites online that provide instructions and videos on how to build cages, hutches, and multilevel condos.

My rabbit grunts and boxes at me when I reach in its cage...

This is called cage defensive.  I have had a rabbit or two who was very cage defensive and would grunt and lunge and thump when I reached into her cage.  Rabbits go through an adolescent phase around 4 months and up where they can be very feisty.  One doe was spayed and after a month or two became much more mellow and less aggressive.  It is very important that your pet bunny is neutered or spayed to curb the high levels of hormones.  Rabbits especially females can be touchy about the way they like their cage arrangements.  Some will get mad if you are moving things around.  It will help if you take your bunny out of the cage before you remove the litterbox, toys or hay.  The more time you spend with your rabbit, the more used to you it will be.  If you reach in the cage and pet your bunny for awhile before doing anything else, it may be more willing to let you move things around.  Rabbits that continually show aggression may be suffering from anxiety.  Be sure to make your rabbit feel safe.  Your rabbit's cage should be a place of peace and security where she feels like she can relax.  Having a place to hide like a basket or box can help.  Covering the cage with a blanket may also be helpful. 

My child is interested in 4H...

4H is divided by county and then by club.  Children join a club and then can sign up for a rabbits as a project in addition to the regular group activities.  Rabbits may be done as a club project or be run as a county wide project with children from all the clubs invited to join.  You can find your county 4h website by searching for ‘---- county 4H’  and from there should be able to access a list of the various clubs in your county, you will find that they usually cover a certain area.  For instance, you may want to find the club closest to where you live since most of the meetings would be near you.  Or, if you don’t mind driving a little, you can call the club leaders and find out what kind of projects their particular club is doing so you can decide based on the group’s activities.  Along with the list of clubs, you should find a list of the county wide projects for the year and their leaders.  If there is a county wide rabbit project, you may find the leader's contact information there and give them a call to find out how to get involved.  The 4H calendar year starts in August.   

 I did 4H as a child and raised rabbits.  I loved it.  4H gave me a better understanding of animal care as well as a love of animals that has lasted a lifetime.  I also learned many different crafts and other projects while in 4H.  If you are thinking of showing your bunny in 4H, then you should make sure to buy a show quality rabbit with a pedigree.  However, youth shows do offer mixed breed competition as well.  A purebred rabbit has a better chance of placing and, if your rabbit wins three shows and has a pedigree, it can be certified as a Grand Champion by the ARBA. 

I'm not sure whether to keep my rabbit indoors or outside...

English Lops are some of the sweetest and smartest rabbits around.  They love to interact and be held and snuggle.  They are fun to watch and play with.

If you are planning on keeping your rabbit in the house, which is the best way in my opinion if it is your pet, you can find all kinds of information on the internet about different setups folks use and what kinds of problems they have had, etc.  Litterbox training is remarkably easy with the English lops, especially once they get to be about 4-5 months old.  If your rabbit is a pet and not meant to be shown or bred, you will want to spay or neuter it as early as the vet will do it.  This will help prevent the adolescent hormonal period that rabbits go through as well as spraying by males and uterine cancer in females.   Local rabbit breeders can give you advice on which vets in your area are good with rabbits.

Your house will need to be rabbit-proofed in whichever rooms it will go in.  This means electrical cords need covered/blocked for they will chew them.  Not all of my rabbits are chewers, but eventually it will happen and it can either be as simple as a ruined computer mouse or as tragic as an electrocuted rabbit or even house fire.  Cords look like plants and roots to your rabbit and so they chew them.  In my house, I close all the bedroom doors when a bunny is loose in the house so they can’t get into the unproofed rooms.  People often use baby gates to block the rabbit in its safe area.  Some choose to give their rabbit its own room and just put a gate across that doorway.  Most people keep a cage for their rabbit to stay in at night, while they are gone, and until the rabbit is trustworthy to roam free.  If you have a yard that the rabbit can’t get out of, it will be a favorite place for your rabbit to run and play and eat anything that is green.  House rabbits don’t need to go outside, but most love to be outdoors in nice weather. 

If you keep your English lop in a hutch or cage, inside or out, it will need to be at least 30 x 30 inches or similar so that it will have plenty of room to move around and stretch out and stand and periscope if it wants.  English lops are large rabbits and like most rabbits will thrive if given room to run and explore.  This can be access to an entire yard that is safe for bunnies, or to an enclosed pen on the patio or lawn.  An outdoor hutch/cage will need to be in a protected area out of the direct sun and will need some kind of cover to protect the bunny from wind and rain.  The best way to keep your bunny healthy and safe from the weather is to keep it inside.  If your rabbit is kept outdoors, you will need to find ways to protect it from severe heat and cold if your climate has those extremes.  There are many ways to keep a rabbit, but one must figure out what works best for your family.  Please read more specific information under rabbit housing.

My two baby bunnies have started fighting...

Littermates can stay together until 12wks, but at 12 wks they will fight and they will continue to fight until you separate them.  You should give bucks their own cage at 11 wks to prevent any damages.  Does can generally stay with mom longer, but even two young does may start mounting each other as their hormones surge and could start fighting.  A single doe and a mom could possibly stay together for longer.  If you are planning to keep them all as pets, you should get them all spay/neutered by 12 weeks of age.  Once their hormones recede, about a month or two, they should be able to live together again.  This is possible because they are littermates.  Two baby bunnies raised together are also easily bonded once they have been fixed. 

How are Broken and Solid colors determined when breeding?...

When breeding a solid colored rabbit to a solid colored rabbit, you will only get solid colored kits.  If you breed a solid with a broken (color and white) colored rabbit, each bunny has a 50% chance of being solid or broken.  You could still end up with all solid, or all broken, but generally you will have a mix.  Breeding only broken colored rabbits should be left to someone who is experienced.  In general, you shouldn't do it.  The reason is because each rabbit has a 50% chance of being a "charlie" or having only 10% or less color.  Charlies are disqualified for show.  Like I said before, you could have a whole litter of broken colored rabbits, or you could end up with a whole litter of Charlies.  Experienced breeders may choose to breed to broken colored rabbits that are specially chosen because their broken pattern is a very heavy blanketed pattern meaning they are 90% color.  The chance of getting a Charlie would be decreased and instead they hope to have a litter of beautifully broken patterned kits.  Breeding broken to broken will never produce a solid just as breeding solid to solid will never produce a broken.

How many kits do English Lops usually have in a litter?...

English lops litter size is quite variable.  I was genuinely surprised when I palpated Lexi a few days before her due date and felt 7 distinct babies!  To my excitement she delivered 10!!! This was her first litter and I really expected 5 or 6.  But, that was my err in judgment since English lops can have 1 baby or even 14!  The fact that Lexi had 10 is evidence that the timing of her breeding was perfect for her.  Another rabbit I know, was bred a couple days later by the same sire and delivered only 2.  It just depends on your rabbit.  From reading I've done, it seems that does who produce large litters generally do so each time they are bred making them a vital asset to a productive rabbitry.  Does who do not conceive after three attempts are usually culled from the herd as unbreedable.  Always consider the circumstances of your timing before getting rid of your does.  If it has been hot, the buck may have been sterile at the time of breeding.  If it has been very cold and your doe has struggled to keep her weight during the winter, her body may not be ready to carry a litter and so does not conceive.  The best time to breed is spring and early fall.