General Information

—Caring for Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus)—

Rabbits are gregarious, generally mild-tempered, active, and curious. Rabbits are easily frightened and will often flee when threatened, although a rabbit may aggressively defend its territory (e.g., a cage) against handlers and other intruders. The long incisors can deliver a painful bite. When a rabbit is not securely held, it may kick with its strong rear limbs and inflict painful scratches with the toenails.

The rabbit’s entire skeleton represents only 8% of its total body weight, compared to 13% for the cat. This makes the rabbit prone to bone fractures and spine injuries, and so care must be taken to prevent the animal from being dropped or being improperly picked up. Rabbits may even break their own spine when allowed to kick forcefully with their rear limbs, such as when they are not well restrained.

Injuries (to people and rabbits) are frequent due to the lack of knowledge and skill to properly handle, transport, and restrain a rabbit. Training to work effectively and humanely with these animals is essential for the safety of people and rabbits. Although rabbits do make excellent pets, they may not be a good classroom animal in the lower elementary grades.

—Biological Information—

Life span: 5–8 years
Body weight: adult, 2–6 kg (4.5–13 lbs); newborn, 30–80 g (1–3 oz)
Sexual maturity: Females: 4–6 months
Estrous cycle: No regular cycle; females usually receptive to breeding at 4–6 day intervals
Gestation: 29–35 days
Litter size: 4–10 kits
Weaning age: 4–6 weeks
Adult daily food intake: About 150 g (5 oz)

—Home Sweet Home—

Rabbits should be housed in roomy wire cages with at least some solid floor area (e.g., covered with a Plexiglas™ sheet or washable towels) to provide relief from the constant contact with the wire floor. Rabbits should never be allowed unsupervised freedom in a room because they love to chew and can injure themselves by biting electrical cords and other materials found in the classroom or the home.

Rabbits are adept at escaping from unsecured cages. If housed outside on the ground, the cage should have a secure flooring (e.g., wire mesh), else rabbits may quickly dig and tunnel out from the enclosure. Cages must be cleaned often, at least once every 2 weeks. Rabbit urine contains large amounts of minerals; dried urine forms deposits that can be removed with an acid solution before washing the
cage. Vinegar is a good acid to use for removing these urine deposits. Rabbits shed a lot and the hair should be removed often from the cage and the room where the animal is kept. Male rabbits may direct a stream of urine out of the cage through the wire mesh, which should be taken into consideration when determining the location of the cage.

 Rabbit urine appears milky and varies from white to yellowish white to clear red. Red-colored urine may be mistaken for blood and can create an incorrect impression that the animal has bled a lot inside its cage. Additionally, rabbits produce a special type of stool called “night feces” which is very soft and covered with a thick mucus. The animal eats this stool to recycle proteins, water, and B vitamins. Because this stool is consumed overnight, this behavior is seldom seen by caretakers but if observed should not cause concern. Rabbits are sensitive to high environmental temperatures; the optimal room temperature for rabbits is 61–72ºF.

Rabbits typically become bored in a simple caged environment lacking the opportunity for exercise, play, exploration, and interaction. Rabbits enjoy gnawing, so small dog chew bones  may be given. Other safe toys designed for rabbits are available from laboratory animal suppliers. To allow rabbits some options in how they use their cage space, cages can incorporate nest boxes for hiding, raised areas for climbing, and sufficient space to stretch out in recumbence and to hop about. Claws will require clipping periodically to prevent them from being torn when caught in fabric or wire mesh. Claw clipping should be done by a veterinarian or a person who has been trained in this procedure.

—Chow Time—

Rabbit pellets made from alfalfa are available at pet supply and feed stores. Check the expiration date to make sure the food is fresh. Use a heavy crockery bowl that can't be tipped over and is easy to clean. A daily portion of hay is a must, too, in order to keep your rabbit's digestive tract healthy. Be sure to place it in a hayrack so it doesn't become contaminated with feces and urine. A salt lick is also recommended to prevent mineral deficiencies. Again, hang it from the side of the cage to prevent contamination. Keep fresh water available in a suspended "licker" water bottle at all times.

You can supplement your rabbit's food with fresh foods like carrots, potatoes (no skins), any fresh fruit, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, sprouts, rolled oats and dried whole wheat bread. Introduce new foods slowly and in small amounts to reduce the risk of diarrhea.

—Health Matters—

Rabbits can develop health problems that can be quite expensive to treat. Make sure you are ready to face these expenses before you choose a rabbit.

A well-cared-for rabbit can live 12 to 15 years. They're sexually mature at ten to twelve weeks and females can become pregnant at any time because they have no heat cycle.

Spaying and neutering your rabbit, not only helps reduce pet overpopulation, but also improves litter box habits, minimizes excessive chewing and decreases territorial aggression.

Rabbits have sensitive respiratory and digestive systems. Because they can't vomit and are susceptible to total blockage, it's essential that they receive a proper diet and are groomed regularly to prevent hairballs. Hay, exercise and hairball medicine like Laxatone and Petromalt are good preventatives.

Rabbits can suffer from heat stroke. Signs of heat stroke include panting, salivation, ear reddening, weakness, refusal to move, and convulsions. If heat stroke is suspected, the rabbit should be sprayed or gently bathed with cool (not cold) water. Consult a veterinarian immediately.

Because your rabbit's teeth grow continuously, it's essential that you provide it with hard things to gnaw on to prevent its teeth from growing too long. Hard wood, untreated wicker and hard bread crusts are some suggested items. It's also possible for your rabbit's nails to overgrow, causing discomfort and increasing your risk of being scratched. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to trim your rabbit's nails.

Rabbits frequently develop hair balls in the stomach; hair enters the stomach when the rabbit grooms its fur, and the fur remains in the stomach because it does not pass in the feces and the rabbit is unable to vomit. Hair balls problems can be suspected when the rabbit loses its appetite and becomes thin and listless. Surgery may be necessary to remove the hair ball, although oral administration of enzymes may help dissolve the hairball and resolve the problem. A veterinarian should be consulted.

Rabbits, especially adults, may develop sore feet (including skin ulcers) on the rear paws when housed on wire floors. This condition should be treated by a veterinarian.

—Handling with Care—

Always let your rabbit know you're there by placing your fist on the ground and allowing it to sniff the back of your hand. To pick your rabbit up, gently slide your hand underneath its body behind its front legs, and with your other hand support its back end, scooping it up in one motion. Quickly bring it close to your body for added support. Rabbits will kick and squirm if they feel insecure, and can break their backs if handled incorrectly. Rabbits aren't very agile, so you'll need to hold your rabbit firmly to prevent it from falling or jumping out of your arms.

If you have children, be sure to supervise them whenever they handle your rabbit. Never allow them to pick the rabbit up by its ears or let its body hang. A rabbit's natural instinct is to be close to the ground, so its best to have the children sit on the floor until your rabbit becomes more comfortable being handled.

—Behavior Bits—

Rabbits are social creatures, and shouldn't be left alone for long periods of time. They're curious and playful and enjoy having toys to entertain themselves. Some inexpensive suggestions are cardboard tubes from toilet paper rolls, wire cat balls, plastic baby keys and Mason jar rings. If you'd like to get a friend for your rabbit, the best pairs are two females that were raised together or a female and a neutered male. Males generally don't get along unless they're neutered. You may also want to consider a guinea pig as a companion for your rabbit.




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