by Nancy LaRoche
Guest Blogger and Rabbit Specialist
Domestic rabbits make wonderful pet companions—for the right people. Domestic rabbits are descended from the European wild rabbit, yet their physical, emotional, and intellectual needs are quite different from those of the wild cottontails found throughout North America. There many breeds of rabbits that are suitable as pets, so check with your area rabbit specialist, society, or veterinarian to determine what bunny breed would best suit you and your situation.
Here are some general guides to add to your research:
Rabbit Sleeping and activity schedules
Rabbits are “crepuscular,” meaning that their most active times in nature are dawn and dusk. They readily modify these times to the early mornings and evenings when most families are home and active. They sleep from roughly mid-morning through the afternoon, so they don’t miss getting attention from family members who are working or going to school.
Rabbit Litter training
Domestic rabbits typically use a single place for their urine, so a litter box placed in that spot results in a litter-trained rabbit. Use only paper litter though, because rabbits do nibble and clay litter can result in intestinal blockages and death. Rabbit droppings are dry and odorless and are used to mark their own territory, so if they have a crate or pen where they live, they use their droppings to claim it. If allowed out of the crate or pen, they know that territory doesn’t belong to them, so they don’t mark it with their droppings, although occasionally, a dropping may be accidentally left as they run around. These are quite easily picked up and disposed of.
Rabbits are Social and intelligent
Once rabbits feel safe with their people, they can be wonderfully social, jumping into their laps, playing games with them, sometimes even inventing their own games. Much of what we think of as intelligence in dogs is their desire to please us. Rabbits don’t have such a desire, but if they want to solve a problem, they are delightfully able to do so. A simple treat can be used to train them to do almost anything of which they are physically capable (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3k3f4B0I0MA ).
NOTE: Rabbits learning to run obstacle courses can deepen the bond between them and their people. However, competition should NEVER be part of such activities. When competition is introduced, animals are pushed to perform beyond what is safe and enjoyable for them.
A baby Dutch rabbit
Rabbits are Quiet Company
Rabbits don’t bark, growl, or howl. Rabbits don’t hiss or squawk. Their quiet company makes them excellent apartment companions. They can be cuddly and sweet tempered. Once your rabbits feel comfortable with your territory and you, they may even come to the door to greet you when you come home!
However, rabbits should never be turned loose unsupervised in a yard. They are quiet, so it is difficult to know where they are. They are also easy prey for hawks, owls, and even magpies. Coyotes, foxes, raccoons, and skunks are natural predators and you must protect your rabbits with completely enclosed and covered outdoor exercise areas.
Why Rabbits Should Never be in an Outdoor Hutch or be Singles
Keeping a rabbit in an outdoor hutch is similar to keeping a human in a cage eight feet long and four feet wide, with predators all around and in all kinds of weather. Such an environment for a social, intelligent creature is sheer torture.
Elevate your hutch if you must have one (inside or outside) so when you approach you are on equal level. Coming towards a caged rabbit from above will make you appear as an overhead predator and set off unnecessary panic in your little friends. Rabbits are naturally afraid of wide, open spaces, so do not set the hutch in the middle of the yard, but near a protected patio, fence, and under shade. Learn about, and be aware and careful of, all temperatures. Rabbits do not tolerate extremes (especially heat) well.
In nature, domestic rabbits bond deeply with a partner. Rabbits are happier, healthier, and live longer when they have a mate or live with a group of other rabbits. A single rabbit in a home is miserably lonely when no one is around. However, rabbits can be quite picky about who they will accept as a companion, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that any two rabbits can be successfully introduced to each other. Follow the advice of your rabbit professionals on who gets along with whom when you pick your pets out.
Find an “exotics specialist” veterinarian and teach all family members how rabbits’ physical/medical needs differ from other pets. Handling rabbits can be tricky too, so find an experienced hand to teach you how to pick up, carry, calm, groom, and cuddle your cute furry friend.
A Lop-earred Rabbit
Why Rabbits Aren’t for Everyone
Rabbits are Prey Animals
Prey animals don’t typically run up to a human and ask for attention. Rather, they hide or are cautious until the human has convinced them that they intend the rabbit no harm. This requires patience. New rabbit pets should never be turned loose in unconfined areas, especially outside. Let them get to know you and your home slowly, then expand their social areas to include new rooms. Rabbit-proof your home so it is safe for the inquisitive rabbit nose and nibbling behaviors.
Rabbits are inappropriate for young children whose sudden movements and loud play frightens them. Likewise, even for adults, if the environment has sudden loud noises or movements, rabbits will be on edge. Introduce your pet rabbit to other household pets in quiet, supervised interactions. If your dog or cat has high “prey drive” (hunting, chasing behaviors), keep your rabbits isolated from them.
Never leave rabbits unsupervised with children or other pets.
For children old enough to be quiet and gentle, larger rabbits are the best for them. Breeders will often recommend Netherland Dwarf rabbits because they are small, but they are also more nervous than the larger breeds, and take more time and effort to develop trust. Thoroughly research rabbit breeds and characteristics so you and your family can be better emotionally and physically ready to provide a forever home to your rescue rabbit.
Rabbits Chew and Dig
Rabbits naturally chew and dig and can, therefore, be quite destructive. Two things are required to prevent damage to one’s home and belongings—providing opportunities for them to chew and dig, and protecting anything in the home that greatly tempts the rabbit.
For example, if rabbits want to chew on baseboards, they can be given a “baseboard” of their own by attaching a 3-inch wide pine slat to the bottom of their crate or pen. Pine is ideal, because it is hard enough to require effort (unlike balsa for example), and soft enough to allow rabbits to make headway (unlike maple or oak or other hardwoods). A bar of plain soap can be rubbed over any baseboard in the home that still presents a temptation to the rabbits. If general, provide something as much like an item you don’t want the rabbits to destroy as possible, and make the item you want to protect unpalatable or block it.
An old cotton towel can provide hours of “digging” pleasure for rabbits. Some will burrow under it. Some will wad it up and smooth it out, imitating the behavior of digging a burrow and spreading the dirt flat to prevent predators from spotting it.
A SMALL Litter!
Rabbits Breed Like Rabbits
It is essential that rabbits be spayed or neutered as early as possible.
- Rabbits begin breeding as early as 3-1/2 months of age, sometimes even younger;
- The gestation period is about 30 days;
- When a litter of babies is born to a female, she will mate with a male almost immediately; and
- Healthy adult females can have litters as large as 12 or more bunnies.
- This is nature’s way of providing plenty of rabbits for wild predators to eat, and still have enough rabbits escape to maintain the species, but it is a huge problem for people who don’t understand how many rabbits a single pair and their progeny can create.
Behavior at Puberty
Baby bunnies may initially be unafraid of humans, but when puberty hits (at around 3-1/2 months or earlier), this may change.
- Males sometimes seem to become aggressive when they reach puberty. They will mount anything that moves and they hang onto it with their teeth. If it is another rabbit, they hang on to the fur of the rabbit, but if it is a human arm, their teeth hang onto skin!
- Females sometimes become grouchy. I think of this as “bunny PMS” (although rabbits do not have menstrual cycles, nor do they “come into heat”).
- At puberty, males and females both are likely to suddenly become aware that humans could pose dangers, and may need to be treated with patience until they develop trust, even though as babies, they had trust.
In conclusion, rabbits can be quiet, affectionate, entertaining house companions. As with all other pets, research and learn what each species needs and how you can become the best caretaker you can be.