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Rabbit Care

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Caring For Rabbits

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CARE OF RABBITS:

INTRODUCTION:

The domestic rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, is a descendant of wild rabbits living in western Europe and northern Africa. In their natural environment, rabbits are gregarious and reproductively successful. They are completely herbivorous (eat only plants) and most actively forage in the twilight or nighttime hours. Rabbits use their claws to dig and burrow into the ground for shelter and protection. They rarely stand their ground when threatened but instead use their considerable speed and maneuverability to escape harm. Domestic rabbits or wild rabbits kept in captivity, however, can display an amazing degree of aggression when upset or threatened.

Domestic rabbits are bred and kept for commercial meat and fur, teaching and research, as indoor and outdoor pets, and for exhibition by rabbit fanciers. Rabbits make excellent pets. They are relatively easy to care for and can be litterbox-trained. Their fastidious nature, unaggressive behavior and quiet manner make them increasingly popular house pets.

Rabbits live an average of 5-10 years (potential life span, 15 years). Males reach breeding age at 4 months of age, and females at 4 of age. Pregnancy lasts 29-35 days (average of 31-32 days) and litters average 4-10 bunnies.

HOUSING CONSIDERATIONS:

Rabbits can be housed indoors or outdoors. Indoor rabbits should be confined to a suitable enclosure when their activity cannot be adequately supervised. A roomy wire cage with at least one-half of the floor's surface area covered with Plexiglass, boards, or straw is recommended. These floorings provide relief from constant and continual contact with the wire floor, helping to prevent hutch sores on the feet. A water bottle or ceramic crock, food dish and a litterbox (optional) should be provided for the rabbit inside the enclosure.

Under no circumstances should rabbits be allowed total freedom within the home. Rabbits love to chew and can be very destructive to household furnishings. Furthermore, they can be seriously injured by biting into telephone and electrical cords.

Like cats, rabbits can be easily trained to use a litterbox in the home. If the rabbit has already selected an area for elimination, the litterbox should be placed in this location. It helps to place some of the rabbit's fecal pellets in the litterbox to encourage its use.

Rabbits housed outdoors should be confined in roomy wire cages with Plexiglass covering about one-half of the floor's surface area. The wire mesh should be just large enough to allow fecal pellets to drop through. A water bottle or ceramic crock and a heavy food dish should be provided.

Adequate shade and a "hiding spot" should be provided as well. Rabbits are typically anxious, wary animals and are easily frightened. This is especially true of newly acquired pet rabbits and rabbits kept for reasons other than as pets. A concealed area into which these rabbits can retreat when they feel threatened is necessary to prevent injury that would result from excessive and futile efforts to escape from the cage. Hiding provides a safe alternative to useless and often injurious escape efforts.

Shade must be provided to prevent heat stress or heat stroke. All rabbits, even those housed indoors, are especially sensitive to high environmental temperatures. Adequate shelter must also be provided against wind, rain, snow and ice.

DIET:

Feeding pet rabbits is easy because nutritionally complete and balanced commercial pelleted diets and timothy hay are both readily available. Feeding 80% hay and 20% pellets as well as fresh water are all a pet rabbit requires.

Commercial pellets tend to promote obesity of inactive pet rabbits. This is because these diets are calorie-rich because they were originally formulated for consumption by rabbits for their meat and fur. These rabbits are pushed to grow rapidly and do not live nearly as long as our pet rabbits. Inactive adult pet rabbits should receive 1/4 cup of pellets per 5 pounds of body weight per day. Due to their high calcium levels, they will also promote bladder stones.

Alfalfa hay is not recommended as the sole source of hay, as this product will also promote bladder stones.

The pellets should be offered at all times unless overeating and obesity have become problems. Clean, fresh water also should be available at all times.

The pellets should be as fresh as possible when purchased and should be purchased in relatively small quantities. The pellets should be stored in the refrigerator to prevent premature spoilage. Pellets that will probably not be used within 2 months of purchase should be frozen immediately after purchase. Refusal to eat rancid pellets is a relatively common cause of inappetence among rabbits.

Fresh water should be offered daily, either in a bottle or in a heavy ceramic dish that cannot be easily overturned. Many hobbyists find the hanging drop-style bottles most satisfactory. The water container, regardless of the type used, should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected at least every 1-2 days.

Good-quality hay (grass, timothy, or clover) should be offered daily. Some researchers believe this practice reduces intestinal problems and the tendency to pull out and chew on hair.

Other food items (lettuce, spinach, alfalfa sprouts, carrot tops, beet greens, carrots, apples, etc) can be offered in small amounts daily. These food items should not be offered in larger amounts because they are water-rich and lack the nutrient density of the pelleted diets. Furthermore, many rabbits develop a preference for these items over pellets if they are offered in large quantity.

Rabbits can tolerate table food items offered daily if given in small amounts (no more than 20% by volume of the total diet). This is especially true of rabbits fed in this fashion from an early age.

Vitamin-mineral supplementation is not necessary if a pet rabbit is fed as outlined above. Some rabbit owners provide saltlicks for their pets, but experts do not regard this addition as a necessity.

Many rabbits love to gnaw and chew on their cage and on items within the cage. A well-boiled roundsteak bone (marrow removed) and/or small dog chew toys are often accepted as challenging gnawing substitutes.

Many veterinarians recommend adding pineapple or pina colada yogurt to the daily diet. Most rabbits willingly accept the yogurt, especially if they are introduced to it at a young age. Yogurt may help to promote and maintain the normal bacterial flora within the digestive tract. Uncooked pineapple (papaya too) contains an enzyme (papain) that seems to help in the resolution of hairball problems in rabbits

HANDLING AND RESTRAINT:

Improper handling may cause serious, life-threatening injuries. Fractures and dislocations of the back, most often resulting in paralysis of both rear legs, are the most common injuries. These injuries also occur when rabbits are suddenly frightened and attempt to escape from a small enclosure.

A rabbit's spine is relatively lightweight and fragile. When a rabbit becomes frightened, it violently struggles by powerfully kicking its back legs. The lightning-fast movements of the rear legs cause over-extension of the lumbosacral (lower back) region of the spine, which frequently results in fractures or dislocations. One should never try to overpower a struggling rabbit. If a rabbit violently resists physical restraint, it should be immediately released and approached later when it has calmed down.

A soft-spoken, relaxed approach with rabbits works well. Covering the eyes and lightly stroking a rabbit will usually result in a hypnotic-like trance that often renders them less prone to panic and injury.

Rabbits should never be picked up by their ears. If you are concerned about being scratched by the claws, place a towel over the rabbit's back and wrap it around the body to restrain all 4 feet before picking up the rabbit. An alternative method of picking up a rabbit involves sliding one hand under its breast bone and grasping both front legs between the fingers of this hand. The other hand is then gently worked under the rear quarters to fully support them as the rabbit is lifted upwards, in the same manner as cats are held and supported.


IMPORTANT PHYSIOLOGIC VALUES:

Normal Body Temperature: 101.5 - 103 F

Life Span: 5-10 years (rarely up to 15 years)

Breeding Age: Males, 4 months, females, 4 months

Pregnancy: 29-35 days

Litter Size: 4-10

Weaning Age: 4-6 weeks

Grooming Pet Rabbits

Regular Brushing is a Must

Rabbits are typically fastidiuously clean animals, and spend a good deal of time grooming themselves. While this means they usually do not need baths, regular brushing helps keep their coat in good condition and help prevents hairballs.

Brushing
If you have a short haired rabbit, it is a good idea to brush them at least once a week. When they are shedding (they usually shed about every 3 months), more frequent brushing is recommended. During the heavy part of a shed, daily brushing is ideal. Keep in mind that rabbit skin is quite fragile, so be gentle and use a brush designed for rabbits if possible (bristle brushes are preferable; metal toothed slicker may hurt their skin). A fine toothed comb can also be used. Following up with a rubber grooming tool such as a Zoom Groom  can help clean up loose hair too, or try running a damp (not wet) washcloth over the coat after brushing.

If you have an Angora rabbit, grooming must be a daily ritual.

 

Unless you are showing your long haired rabbit, it is easiest to keep the coat trimmed to a length of about 1 inch or else the coat will be very prone to matting and your rabbit prone to hairballs ("wool block"). You can trim it yourself or get a groomer to do it and just do touch-up trims at home. You must be very careful about trimming hair though since rabbit skin is quite thin and easy to cut accidentally. With these rabbits, daily brushing should become part of the daily routine from a young age (it is a good chance to bond with your bunny, too).

Always be careful about trimming the hair over a rabbit's hocks however, or sores may result.

Removing Matted Hair
If your rabbit does develop mats in its coat, never try to trim them out with scissors as it is very easy to accidentally cut into the skin doing this. Gradually work out the mat by gently separating and combing hair out of the mat a tiny bit at a time, being careful not to pull on the skin. It may take several grooming sessions to work out a mat. Alternatively, you can take your rabbit to a groomer to have the mats trimmed out with electric clippers.

Does My Rabbit Need Baths?
No. Rabbits do not need baths and generally find them very stressful. If absolutely necessary it is better to just do a "spot cleaning" of the area that is dirty rather than subjecting a rabbit to the stress of bathing. If it is absolutely necessary to bathe your rabbit, keep in mind that it takes rabbit fur a long time to dry and it is a good idea to use a blow dryer (on a warm, never hot, setting) to speed the process. Rabbits are prone to overheating, so be cautious. It is best to avoid baths if possible.

Nail Trims
Regular nail trims should also be part of the grooming routine. Check the nails once a week when grooming and trim them whenever they get a bit long. I find it is better to do frequent trims even if you are only trimming a sliver off than wait until the nail is quite long and trying to judge how much to remove. Detailed steps to nail trims can be found in "How to Trim Your Rabbit's Nails" and an illustration and more tips can be found in "Nail Trims."

Litter Training

Rabbits usually take well to litter training, although some flexibility may be required by the owner. Rabbits naturally pick one or more toilet areas, and owners can take advantage of this in litter training.

The Litter

First a suitable litter is needed. You rabbit will probably like to lay in the litter box and may even nibble on the litter, so something absorbent and safe is necessary. Rabbit urine also has a strong odor, so something that absorbs odor is ideal. Do not use clay or clumping litters, or cedar or pine wood shavings. Organic or paper-based pellets and litters are a good choice (brands include Critter Country, Eco-Straw Pellets, Gentle Touch, Cell-Sorb Plus and Yesterday's News - see Top Alternatives to Cedar and Pine Shavings for more options) Some owners simply use rabbit pellets as litter.

The Box

For litter pans, cat litter boxes work pretty well, although smaller pans such as cake pans may work for smaller rabbits. If your rabbit tends to back right up to the edge and deposit outside the box, some creativity may be required. A covered cat box is a good option, or a dishpan that has higher sides can work as well (an lower entry can be cut into one side). The larger size of corner litter boxes might work well for smaller rabbits too, as these usually have fairly high backs.

If our rabbit tends to tip the pan or kick the litter out, try a heavier litter.

Steps to Litter Training
To start, confinement and supervision is the key. If a rabbit is allowed to urinate and defecate wherever it likes from the beginning, it will be much harder to train. At first, keep your rabbit primairly in his (or her cage), which should be fairly small at first, with a litter pan. Place a litter box in the cage, and note where you rabbit eliminates. He (she) may start using the box, or may be pick another corner of the cage as a toilet. If this is the case, then move the litter box to the area your rabbit seems to prefer. Flexibility on litter box placement may be necessary both in and out of the cage.

Once your rabbit is using the litter pan in the cage, allow the rabbit out of the cage in a limited area. Provide a litter box within this area, and perhaps make it enticing by placing a a treat or favorite toy in the box. Watch your rabbit for signs he is about to urinate or defecate (they usually back up and lift their tail slightly), and try to herd him to the box immediately (if your rabbit is very calm about being picked up it should be okay to place him right in the box). If your rabbit uses the box, give the rabbit a treat (food, toy, petting, or praise) right away. If you notice your rabbit tends to head to one area to do its business, consider putting the box here.

Accidents will happen, and punishment has no place in training a rabbit. Your rabbit will absolutely not be able to make a connection with physical punishment and elimitnating outside the litter box. If you catch your rabbit in the act calmly and gently take him or her to the litter box immediately. But, if your don't physically catch your rabbit urinating or defecating, it is too late for your rabbit to make the connection. Just clean up and watch your rabbit a little more closely next time (clean the spot diluted vinegar, or a commercial pet stain/odor remover). The key is to get your rabbit to the box before he goes, so a trip to the litter box every 10 minutes during playtime can be helpful.

Over time, your rabbit will probably develop a preference for using the box, and amount of freedom you give your rabbit can be increased. You may need to provide more boxes as you allow your rabbit acces to more space (rabbits may not go far in search of a box so have them handy). Again, if your rabbit repeatedly chooses one place in he room to eliminate, consider putting or moving a litter box there. Try to work with what your rabbit naturally wants to do, but if the location they "choose" is inconvenient, you can try putting a litter box there for a while and then gradually move it to a better spot. Sometimes, placing a bowl of food where you don't want them to go works too.

The process sounds daunting, but usually goes pretty smoothly as long as the owner works with the rabbit's natural tendencies and provides undivided attention to the rabbit during it's free time in the beginning. Establishing a routine with your rabbit will also help. Sometimes a previously trained rabbit will get a little careless, and this usually means backtracking and restricting freedom until your rabbit is trained again.

You can learn a lot about rabbit care by buying a ARBA Rabbit Care Book or contacting a breeder.

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