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So You want to Raise a Rabbit?

by Barbi Brown

Part One

Do you have an appropriate place to house a rabbit?

Owning a rabbit requires more planning than just buying a rabbit.

First you must decide if you have an appropriate place to keep it.   Indoors or outdoors there are precautions that must be taken.

OUTDOORS:

Rabbits do perfectly well outdoors providing they are protected from rain and direct wind (while still allowing air flow under the cage to avoid ammonia buildup) and most importantly, protected from the direct HEAT OF THE SUN.

More rabbits die from heat stroke than old age!

Offer shaded protection on the west and south sides at all times and a wind break on the north in the winter. The sun on the east side on mornings not exceeding 70 degrees is generally enjoyed by the bunny.

Yard bunnies can be a lot of fun and also a lot of heartbreak. They must have a safe place to run and many safe places to hide if threatened. Rabbits that are allowed to run in the yard are also likely to pick up parasites like pin worms, fleas, ticks etc.

FEMALES DIG! They don't just dig little scratches in search of tender little roots like the males! They feel compelled to dig great cavernous tunnels from here to forever.

If you aren't fussy about landscaping and have several hiding places around, a yard bunny can be a great delight!

PREDATORS

An owl or hawk or even a crow and carry off a bunny in a heartbeat. Light colored rabbits are the easiest target. Some cats find a rabbit natural prey although I have seen an adult rabbit kick one of my playful tom cats twenty feet in the air!

Dogs instinctively want to chase a rabbit which can kill the rabbit from the stress even if it escapes the jaws.

Normally, rabbits will stick pretty close to safe territory but more than one has dug it's way to freedom only to meet a dreadful fate on the street or as dinner for some "wanna be" wild animal.

I believe they are safest and healthiest when kept safely housed in a spacious cage.

BEFORE YOU SET UP A PERMANENT CAGE OUTSIDE:

Before bringing your bunny home or putting him outside, set up the cage or hutch in the most likely spot and then go look at the cage every couple of hours to see if the sun is shining directly into the cage at any part of the day. Remember the sun moves from east to west. (Don't laugh, most people don't think about it or even know whether their yard is on the east or west side of the house!) Just because it's shaded in the morning doesn't mean the bunny will be safe at 3 p.m.  Make sure the roof of the hutch is sloped to allow the hot air to escape. A flat roof can trap deadly heat.

INDOORS:

For indoor bunnies you will want a cage with a deep tray and urine guards on three sides of the cage to prevent over-spray. Some of the less expensive cages have shallow trays which, when filled with litter, don't leave enough space between the cage floor and the tray for the droppings to fall through.

Some cages are two story types or have a resting shelf mounted half way up the side which the bunnies enjoy but if they urinate from the shelf, you will find your walls and carpet soiled. An inexpensive shower curtain under the cage is a good idea and can be quite attractive while protecting floors and walls.

INDOORS OR OUT:

Select a sturdy cage made of heavy gauge wire. The floor should be 1/2" x 1" with the sides and top of 1" x 1" or 1" x 2" wire. Inexpensive cages made from lightweight wire will sag under the weight of even a small rabbit and can cause the development of sore hocks and can leave the bunny sitting in the tray instead of above it.

A large door that opens out from the front of the cage makes taking the bunny out and putting it back in much easier.

A feeder mounted to the door is easier to fill and clean than a bowl inside or a side mounted feeder.

A water bottle mounted on the outside of the cage will allow more floor space for the bunny to move around. Be sure to check the flow of the bottle regularly to be sure it is working properly. If hung crooked, it will not work properly.

The bigger the cage the better but especially for bunnies that will spend a lot of time in the cage allow plenty of room for exercise. Don't buy or build a cage that is too deep from front to back or you may have to crawl into the cage to get the bunny out! Twenty-four inches deep is easy for most children and thirty inches for most adults to reach comfortably and it may be as wide as you can get.

Generally speaking, the minimum cage size should be long enough for the rabbit at adult size to stretch out fully in any direction and high enough (usually 18") for him to comfortably sit on his haunches for face cleaning and general self grooming. Dwarf cages are frequently only 16" high which is sufficient.

Depending on your space available, you may choose a medium sized cage for indoors and a large play pen that can be moved to the yard or family room for the bunny to get some exercise.

If you plan to keep the bunny outside you will want a larger cage to accommodate a box so they can get in out of the weather if they choose.

Part Two

You have the place, now pick a rabbit.

First, you have to find one!

There are many places to buy a bunny depending on your budget, your plans for a bunny and availability. But in any event, shop around! Don't just buy the first one you see...be selective in the process and you won't regret it.

You can find rabbits many places. , Rescue Organizations (such as the House Rabbit Society that take in abandoned or sick rabbits. They have them spayed or neutered and ailments treated before placing them in homes they find suitable.) Auction, 4H & FFA Projects, Back Yard Hobbyists, Rabbit Shows and Fairs, Feed Stores, , or Breeders.  The access to most of these resources as well as , bulletin boards at feed and grocery stores. 

Tips on Selection:

Please select the bunny you like, not one that is pushed on you. Consider the sellers advice about which is healthiest or gentlest but use your own instinct and make a selection that you really love.

The first and foremost consideration that applies to wherever you buy your rabbit is............CLEANLINESS!

How clean is the operation? A clean rabbitry is a good indication of the health of the animals.

Part Three

Now we have it, how do we care for it?

We have already discussed the need to keep it in a cool and clean environment and the next important factor is diet.

WHAT DO RABBITS EAT?

More important than what they will eat is what they should eat.

A good quality rabbit pellet made from alfalfa forage and wheat middlings is all they really need. Ask for a starter supply of food where you purchase your bunny and be sure to get the name and protein content used. Rabbit pellets are available in 16%, 17%, 18% and 20% protein. 16 and 17 percent are the most common with the higher protein reserved for fattening fryers and maintenance of does with large litters.

The key is to select one feed and STICK TO IT! All rabbit pellets are not created equal! Abrupt change of diet can cause diarrhea and death overnight!

If the feed your bunny was raised on is not available in your area, be sure to mix the starter feed with the new feed and switch over gradually, adding dry Quaker Oatmeal to minimize stomach upset.

Here's what Dave Loucks from Crystal Creek Rabbitry, who specializes in Blanc de Hotot rabbits has to say about Rabbit Nutrition". http://crystalcreekrabbitry.webs.com/arabbitsdiet.htm http://crystalcreekrabbitry.webs.com

HOW MUCH DO THEY EAT?

Once again there are variables based on weather, age of the bunny, amount of exercise and good common sense!

The basic rule is one ounce of pellets per pound of body weight. A 2 pound dwarf would get 2 oz or 1/4 cup per day. See "Don't Fill the Feeder" below..

Babies up to 3 months of age may have as much as they want to eat providing it doesn't upset their stomach. START SLOWLY! Environmental changes as subtle as the water can upset a young bunnies's digestive system so start with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of feed morning and night the first day and then gradually increase the amount a few tablespoons at a time until you find what he will clean up at a given feeding.

Youngsters that have just been taken away from their mother appreciate a little piece of bread with milk poured over it for a week or two to help them wean gradually. Any kind of bread and any kind of milk is okay. If you find your baby eating the bread and milk and not the pellets, don't worry. It's like giving a child milk and cookies and wondering why they don't want spinach! If the bunny is still ignoring the pellets after a week or two, slowly decrease the bread and milk and he will make the transition just fine.

Never feed more pellets, than they will consume in 8 hours. Once the feed is exposed to daylight and air, it begins to loose nutrients and absorb moisture which makes it less palatable.

DON'T FILL THE FEEDER!

The best indicator of your rabbit's health is his appetite. He won't eat if he doesn't feel well. If the feeder is kept full all the time, you won't know until it's too late that something is wrong.

Healthy rabbits appetites will increase slightly in cooler weather and decrease in warmer weather but are pretty consistent in dietary requirements.

From the age of three to four months, gradually begin to decrease the food to the adult portion using the following guideline:

An easy formula for an adult rabbit would be ONE OUNCE OF FOOD PER DAY PER POUND OF BODY WEIGHT.

For example a 2 pound Netherland dwarf would get 2 oz. or a 1/4 cup; a 4 pound Holland Lop would get 4 oz. or 1/2 cup; a 6 pound Mini Lop would get 6 oz. or 3/4 cup; a 12 pound French Lop would get 12 oz. or 1-1/2 cups.

Remember these are general guidelines for a caged rabbit. I would rather see a bunny a little too lean than too fat. Like people, they live longer if they don't get too fat. Similarly, each will metabolize what they eat differently.

The best guide is how your rabbits looks and feels. My basic guide to tell if one is too fat is to see if I can get a handful of loose skin over its' back. If not, its too fat! If I can feel every bone down its spine, it's too thin. Some breeds tend to be beefier than others. If you buy from a breeder, ask to feel what a good weight rabbit should feel like, then go from there.

There is no substitute for common sense! If you're feeding the scheduled amount and your rabbit feels too thin or too fat, adjust the quantity accordingly. If he still feels too fat or too thin, consult your vet to rule out parasites or a metabolic disorder.

WHAT ABOUT WATER?

A rabbit can live for quite a while without food but it cannot live without water. Lots of fresh water should always be available.

Changes in water can sometimes upset a young bunny's tummy. It isn't necessary to use bottled water but just be aware that changing from well water to chlorinated city water or vice versa can take a little getting used to. Limiting feed for the first few days and supplementing with a bland diet of oatmeal will help reduce the stress.

IS GRASS OKAY TO EAT?

Yes, if it hasn't been sprayed with pesticides or recently treated with weed killers or Ammonia Sulphate.

NEVER FEED GRASS CLIPPINGS ! They tend to get "hot" and ferment quickly.

WHAT ABOUT HAY?

Hay, preferably grass hay, should be fed daily or weekly (at the very least) as an additional source of roughage.

Timothy and other grass hays are good roughage without too many calories and may be feed free choice. Be sure they haven't been sprayed. Some sprays that aren't toxic to large livestock can be tough on bunnies. Timothy is readily available at most Pet Stores .

Alfalfa is good treat for all ages but is too rich in calcium and protein to be fed every day. The pellets are Alfalfa based and adding fresh Alfalfa can cause an overload.

Oat Hay is tough on tender baby tummies unless you pick off the oat kernels. It is fine for adults and they like it for a variety.

Pea or Bean Hay is a favorite of rabbits but is not always easy to find and has a tendency to have mold which can be toxic. Again, this is very rich and should only be used as a treat.

WHAT ABOUT VEGETABLES?

NO LETTUCE OR CELERY EVER, EVER, EVER !!!!

A wild rabbit or back yard bunny can get into the vegetable patch and eat lettuce or celery and when it gets an upset stomach it can go off and find a Dandelion green or mint leaf to make it well. A domestic rabbit in a cage can't tell you it doesn't feel well until it develops diarrhea and then IT CAN BE TOO LATE.

The key to feeding ANYTHING is MODERATION! Start out slowly offering very small pieces and only introduce ONE new treat on any given day. Bunnies under the age of 3 months should not have ANY FRUITS OR VEGETABLES.

A baby carrot or small apple slice are the safest to start with (in small pieces) at the age of 3 months.

NO OTHER FRUITS OR VEGETABLES UNTIL SIX MONTHS IF AGE should be fed in order to allow the digestive system time to develop fully. Then, as with a human baby, introduce new foods (except lettuce and celery) slowly in very small amounts.

Apples, pears, fresh pineapple, fresh papaya, kiwi, citrus of all kinds and watermelon seem to be favorite snacks. Strawberries seem to be on the "least favorite" list. The crunchier the better for the sake of their teeth.

Greens such as fresh spinach, kale, chard, parsley are welcome treats as well but be very careful not to overdo it for fear of the onset of diarrhea. Kale is okay in small quantities on occasion. Be cautious of foods that give you gas! It does the same thing to your bunny! OUCH!

Just remember, all things in moderation!

At the first sign of a soft or runny bowel movement, take the fruit or vegetable away and feed plain straw, dry oatmeal or dry bread.

DO THEY NEED SALT?

Sometimes. It's a good idea to have it available to them. Most feeds contain adequate amounts of salt and many rabbits will ignore the salt lick but I assume they're the best judge of whether they need it or not so it's there if they want some. A salt lick can rust the cage so put it in a little bowl or in the feeder to protect the cage. Feeders are less expensive to replace than the cage!

DO THEY NEED VITAMINS?

A good quality rabbit food should have all they need and if they get fruits and vegetables from time to time it shouldn't be necessary.

I have used chewable children's vitamins on my show rabbits or for a pregnant doe who looked to be a little out of condition.

DO THEY NEED SHEETROCK?

Sheetrock is an easy source of extra calcium and has some absorbent qualities for sore feet. But if you plan to ever have your rabbit in the house I don't recommend giving him sheetrock to eat because that makes the walls of your house fair game!

Beware of green sheetrock for use in bathrooms since it is treated and should not be used!.

If you feel compelled to add calcium to your rabbits diet, try chewable Tums or oyster shell chips added to the feed once a month or so. Basically, the feed has all a non-nursing rabbit should need.

TOO MUCH CALCIUM can cause stones to develop in the urinary tract requiring surgical intervention. When in doubt, don't do anything unless you consult a good rabbit vet first.

Select a breed appropriate for your family and the space available.

Many people want a small rabbit because of limited space.  Keep in mind that the rabbits are natural prey animals and as such, the smaller Dwarfed breeds are more easily threatened and may be more nervous and excitable.  The medium to large breeds tend to be more docile.  I suggest looking at several different types of rabbits before making a final decision. If you are planning on a yard bunny it would be wise to consider the large or giant breeds.

Which ever breed you settle on be selective about which one you choose from the litter.

Stand back and watch them for a little while. See which are the most active. Is there one that sits off by himself? Stay clear of that one, he may be sick or just plain shy. Many people are fond of the runt of the litter. Again, this may or may not be the best choice.

Ask if you can open the cage (some does, or their breeders, can be real cranky about strangers around their babies) and see which one comes up to greet you. Look for bright eyes and healthy coat. The fur doesn't have to be shiny, just thick and resilient. If the fur is very dull and thin, the bunny may be sharing nourishment with a parasite, or simply got "hind teat" in a large litter!

Ask to see the teeth or check them yourself. They should close like people teeth, top over bottom.

Rub your hands all over the body and feel for any scabs. They may be from litter mates fighting and could abscess or the may be caused by fur mites.

Nicks in the ear may not be as serious if not weeping. Ears heal quickly and get groomed better than wounds buried in long fur on the body.

If you are looking for a show bunny be sure to tell the breeder so they can check for any disqualifications such as mismatched toenail color making certain all toes and nails are present. Rabbits have 4 toes on each foot plus a dew claw on each front foot. Look also for stray white hairs on solid colored rabbits, paying close attention to areas under front legs.