Somehow rabbits got the reputation of a “starter” pet, requiring little in the way of attention or monitoring. However, this is not the case. This misguided idea is also why many domestic rabbits beginning as a child’s first pet end up finding their way to shelters annually.
It is helpful to speak with an experienced veterinarian to learn more about what a domestic rabbit needs to thrive in an indoor environment. From special diets to engagement, there are many recommendations to keep a rabbit happy and healthy.
A domestic rabbit is not a low-maintenance animal. In fact, they require specialized diets to ensure their health and avoid preventable illnesses. When it comes to food, a mixture of hay, pellets, and vegetables is a solid choice. Fresh grass hays actually aid in preventing dental disease as the chewing action will encourage appropriate wear on teeth. Timothy grass hay is a recommended hay for rabbits and should be constantly available to them.
Offer vegetables like romaine lettuce, beet greens, broccoli, collard greens, and carrots for more nutrients. Rabbits benefit from a variety of vegetables and should be fed three vegetables at a meal. Rabbit pellets should only be considered an additional supplement and it is best to pick pellets without corn, nuts, or seeds.
Rabbits have a sensitive digestive system and should not eat tomatoes, corn, beans, peas, candy, and many human foods. Avoid treats high in starches and simple sugars which can throw off the balance in their microbiome. Get the full list of foods to avoid from an experienced veterinarian. A domestic rabbit can live into its teens and its dietary needs can change as they mature.
One of the most important things is to provide a rabbit with a steady supply of fresh and clean water. This will help prevent dehydration and potential intestinal issues. As rabbits often like to tip over lighter bowls, it is best to invest in a heavier metal bowl or ceramic crock. If sipper bottles are bought to deliver water, check on them regularly as a rabbit can chew on the ends and inadvertently jam them.
Since rabbits are curious animals and will chew on cleaners, wires, or woodwork, it is important to rabbit-proof their space. When it comes to their play area, buy flexible plastic tubing to protect wires and cords. Houseplants should be moved or covered with sheets. New owners should plan a relatively large, rabbit-proofed area for play. Carpeting this space will offer a pet rabbit additional traction for its jumps and runs.
While some pet owners limit their rabbit’s area to play, others like to give them the ability to roam the entire home freely. A pet owner still needs to attend to any potentially dangerous objects a rabbit will encounter as they explore, from uncovered outlets, poisonous common plants, to chemicals like cleaning supplies and insecticides.
If a rabbit has the run of the home, it is helpful to add litter boxes in other rooms, with litter like paper, citrus, or wood pulp. Domestic rabbits are not like their wild counterparts, and have a harder time dealing with extreme temperatures, and can get stressed from sensing outdoor animals. It is safer to keep them indoors.
When it comes to the size of a cage, it should be at least five times the size of a rabbit. It should be possible to fully stretch out or to stand on hind legs in a cage. If the cage has a wire floor, add a layer of cardboard or other soft material to protect the rabbit's pads. A rabbit’s litter box and crate need to be attended to regularly. The crate should be cleaned out once or twice weekly, while the litter box should be changed daily.
Pet rabbits are known to be curious and social, although individual rabbit behaviors can vary. Their inquisitive nature can sometimes be an issue, as they tend to chew on items within their reach. This is another reason to supervise their playtime. Adding untreated wood blocks or toys made of willow wood allows them to engage in this natural tendency without damaging furniture or hurting themselves.
In addition, many rabbits do not like to be picked up and handled. A rabbit needs to get accustomed to this activity. They need to be fully supported when lifted to avoid a potential back injury. This can be done by using one hand to lift and secure their front half under the rib cage while the other hand simultaneously holds their back end with their legs tucked. Their small bodies are also to be brought close to the body like a football.
No matter the breed of rabbit, they need to play and socialize. A rabbit generally needs to exercise and socialize for 4-5 hours daily. In order to engage a rabbit, consider toys like cardboard boxes, paper bags, cat toys, and small balls. This can provide them with additional stimulation and the ability to engage in rabbit behaviors like crawling, scratching, and chewing.
Pet rabbits can get bored and depressed without adequate stimulation and engagement. This can lead to weight gain in an affected pet. Therefore, it is important to allow a rabbit enough playtime daily to move about and explore toys in a prepared space.
Rabbits will tend to get most active at dawn and dusk, often sleeping during both the day and the night. As social animals, they often prefer being part of a pair, and having a partner may alleviate loneliness and stress in a solo pet.
Grooming shouldn’t be an issue with a healthy rabbit. They tend to self-groom and, aside from that, require clipping of their nails every few months. If they are shedding, they will need to be brushed. Some breeds, like Angora rabbits, need to be groomed regularly to avoid hairballs.
Veterinary Care for Your Domestic Rabbit
While there aren’t suggested vaccines for rabbits, a rabbit should get an annual checkup and should be either spayed or neutered upon reaching maturity. This can help prevent undesired breeding and avoid aggressive behaviors. Since some breeds have unique needs, it is best to understand more about specialized needs from a veterinarian experienced in rabbit care.