Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate
American Board of Veterinary Practitioners
Chief of Staff, Safari Veterinary Care Centers
A metal cage with a wire flooring of 14 gauge wire (1″ x 1/2″ openings) is recommended. An area of solid floor provides an area for resting and helps to prevent sore hocks. The size of the cage should be at least 24″ x 24″ x 18″ for the small and medium sized breeds and 36″ x 36″ x 24″ for the large breeds. Hay is a good choice for bedding. It is inexpensive, easy to clean (just throw the soiled hay out), and if eaten, cannot cause intestinal problems. Newspaper or kitty litter can be used under the cage to absorb urine and collect feces. Cages should be well ventilated and urine and feces should not be allowed to accumulate. The accumulation of irritating ammonia fumes from urine can result in irritation to eyes, skin and respiratory tract. Rabbit proof your house by preventing access to areas that your pet can get wedged in or escape through and place electrical cords out of reach. Do not allow your rabbit free roam of the house unsupervised. Rabbits like to chew on wire, carpet, house plants, wood and linoleum. Some of these materials are toxic and ingestion of carpet can result in blockage of the intestinal tract. Rabbits can be litter box trained relatively easily. Initially you need to keep your rabbit in a small area, either in a cage or a blocked off section of a room and place a litter box in the corner (try to pick the corner your pet has already used). Make sure the sides of the box are low enough that your rabbit can get in and out easily. It is helpful to put some droppings in the box. Pelleted paper or other organic products make the best litter. These products are non toxic and are digestible if eaten and are easier to clean up than shavings or clay litter. Rabbits should be kept in the COOLEST and least humid area of the house. Rabbits kept in warm, humid environments with poor air circulation, are more likely to suffer from respiratory disease and heat stroke. The optimum temperature range for a rabbit is 60-70 degrees F. When the temperature gets into the mid 70s, one may see an increase in drooling, and nasal discharge. If temperatures reach the upper 80s and beyond, and especially if the humidity is high, the potential for a fatal heat stroke is very real. On very hot days, when air conditioning is not available, it is helpful to leave a plastic milk jug filled with frozen water in the cage for a portable “air conditioner.” Please keep fresh, cool water available, as this will also help to keep the body temperature down. If your pet should actually experience a heat stress reaction, try holding an ice cube on the ear or gently wetting your pet down with cool (not cold) water. If the heat stroke is severe, veterinary attention will be necessary (see Heat Stroke). If your rabbit is being kept outdoors in either warm or cold weather, make sure that part of the cage is sheltered from the wind, rain and sun. For the winter it is advisable to use straw bedding in the sheltered area for insulation.
A good quality rabbit pellet may be offered daily but in limited quantities. Pellets are low in long fiber and high in calcium. Over feeding of pellets or feeding only pellets can lead to many intestinal diseases, bladder stones and obesity. The following chart shows amounts of pellets to be fed to your rabbit on a daily basis. Provide free choice timothy or grass hay NOT ALFALFA at all times. Rabbits up to 8 months of age can have access to pellets free choice because they are still growing rapidly. However, after 8 months of age they should be receiving the following maintenance diet:
- 2-4 lb body weight – 1/8 cup daily
- 5-7 lb body weight – 1/4 cup daily
- 8-10 lb body weight- 1/2 cup daily
- 11-15 lb body weight- 3/4 cup daily
Keep hay available at all times. Rabbits tend to eat small amounts of food frequently throughout the day and withholding hay for long periods of time can lead to intestinal disorders. The fiber in the hay is extremely important in promoting normal digestion, normal intestinal motility and to help prevent diarrhea and obesity. Alfalfa hay should not be given to adult rabbits. It is high in calcium and in excess can result in bladder stones, often with serious complications. Your local feed stores often carry timothy hay or other types of grass hay. Also check with horse barns and riding/boarding facilities for horses. Many of these places will sell you a “flake” of hay off a bale at a very nominal cost. Hay should be stored in a cool, dry place with good air circulation (don’t close it tightly in a plastic bag). Discard wet or damp hay, or any hay that does not have a “fresh” smell. At certain times of the year and in certain locations, it may be difficult to obtain grass hay. At these times it is okay to use hays mixed with alfalfa or to use strictly alfalfa hay for a short period of time. The most important thing is to ALWAYS HAVE HAY AVAILABLE TO THE PET. Remember, we are restricting the pellets and the hay is a major source of fiber and nutrients. Hay also makes a better bedding and nesting material than wood chips. Cedar, pine and chips impregnated with chlorophyll are irritating to the eyes, nose, throat, lungs and skin of rabbits. These should not be used as bedding.
Fresh foods may be given daily in small amounts. Addition of fresh foods should be gradual and in small amounts. Rabbits tend to develop diarrhea when their diet is suddenly changed. When adding new items, only add one at a time with a new item added every five to seven days. If the addition of any item leads to diarrhea or unformed stools, then remove it from the diet. Young rabbits should also be introduced to new foods gradually. However, once your pet is eating these foods, try to give at least three types daily. The following are all foods that you can try with your rabbit. The total amount of fresh food that can be given daily (once your pet has been gradually introduced to it as described above) is about 1 heaping cup per 5 pounds of body weight: Carrot tops, beet tops, dandelion greens and flowers (pesticide free), kale, collard greens, escarole, romaine lettuce, parsley, clover, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, green peppers, pea pods (the flat edible kind), brussels sprouts, basil, peppermint leaves, raspberry leaves, radishes, bok choy and spinach. Try to feed at least 3 different types of greens daily. Feeding just one type of green food only (especially broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts and spinach) may lead to nutrient imbalances. Treat foods can be given in small amounts (give about 1 level tablespoon per 5 lb of body weight) : strawberries, papaya, pineapple, apple, pear, melon, raspberries, peach, pear, Quaker oats, or dried whole grain bread. Limit treats to one choice daily. Water should always be available and changed daily. Most rabbits will drink from a bowl or water bottle. In general, rabbits drink more for their size than cats and dogs.
Night feces are “special droppings” which are an essential part of your rabbit’s nutrition. These droppings or cecal pellets are softer, greener and have a stronger odor than the normal hard, dry, round feces. These droppings come from the cecum, the part of the digestive system where fermentation of food takes place, and are rich in vitamins and nutrients. During certain times of the day, usually in the evening, you may observe your pet licking the anal area and actually eating some of the droppings in the process. This is a normal and necessary process. Occasionally, a rabbit will drop these cecal pellets along with the waste pellets instead of eating them. They will be soft, brighter green, come in clumps and are misshapen, but formed and they have an odor. This is not considered diarrhea, and if it only occurs occasionally, it is not considered a disease problem.
: When picking up your rabbit you must always remember to support the hind quarters to prevent serious spinal injuries. The skeleton of the rabbit is lighter and more fragile than that of a dog or cat. The back (spine) can easily snap if the hind legs are allowed to dangle and the rabbit struggles or kicks. These injuries often result in permanent paralysis and frequently result in euthanasia of the pet. Never pick up a rabbit by his sensitive ears, it’s very painful. It is better to grasp the loose skin over the shoulders and then place your other hand under the back legs to lift your rabbit from the floor. Work near the floor when first learning to handle your rabbit so that if they jump out of your arms they don’t have far to go. Another good way to pick up your rabbit is to slide one hand into the area between the rabbit’s front legs and placing the other hand on the rear of the rabbit. You can then scoop the rabbit up close to your body. Keeping the rabbit close to you will eliminate much of the insecurity that rabbits feel when picked up and they are less likely to kick. It may also be useful to cradle the rabbit on his back in your arms or on your lap. Work on the floor and put the rabbit on his back with his head just over the edge of your knees so that it hangs down a little. Restrain the body firmly between your thighs. Talk softly and stroke his chest and abdomen gently. Most rabbits will learn to relax in this position.