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Rabbits are the third most popular pet in the UK and their popularity is growing. When cared for appropriately they are rewarding, fun and companionable pets.
They are not the easy option however, so a great deal of thought must go into the decision of owning a pet rabbit.
Things to think about when purchasing a rabbit:
- can you afford the up-keep (feeding, bedding, regular vaccinations, neutering)?
- can you afford veterinary bills should your rabbit require medical attention?
- could you or members of your family be allergic to the rabbit or its bedding and food?
- do you have enough space?
- do you have enough time?
- who will look after the rabbit while you are away?
- are your personal circumstances likely to change in the next few years?
If you are considering purchasing a rabbit it is important to realise that a rabbit needs to be taken on as a family or adult pet. An adult should take overall responsibility for the care of any animal, and rabbits are no exception to this rule. Owning a rabbit can be a great way for children to learn the joys of pet ownership as well as developing an understanding of the responsibilities which it also brings. However, rabbits do not naturally enjoy cuddles and human handling, and it takes a lot of care and time to train a rabbit to accept this. Boisterous children can be alarming for a scared bunny, and it requires the supervision of an involved adult to ensure that this socialisation takes place without the rabbit becoming stressed. All family members should be aware that it is best to let the rabbit come to you rather than forcing him or her into close contact straight away. In this way your rabbit can build up confidence and hopefully come to enjoy human contact. Neutering also plays a very important role in improving the bond with your pet, although it is not a substitute for patience and calm handling. (See Neutering in rabbits information sheet).
Rabbits, if well cared for, should live for six to eight years, perhaps longer. As a result, any children involved in their care may find new interests or even fly the nest, leaving the adults in the family entirely responsible for the rabbit’s care and well-being. This fact should be borne in mind before deciding to go ahead and start keeping rabbits as pets. Recently there has been a change in the law regarding the welfare of pet rabbits which makes neglect as significant an offence as cruelty - rabbits need plenty of care and attention, and this is a requirement which goes on throughout their entire lives, even after their initially doting child carer has gone travelling around the world on a gap year!
Indoors versus outdoors
You need to decide whether your rabbit will live mainly inside or outside. Neutered rabbits are quite easy to litter-train, so living indoors can be an option. Certainly rabbits which live indoors are likely to receive more regular human contact and thus tend to be more companionable and interactive pets. It is important that your home is ‘rabbit proofed’ if your rabbit comes in at all. (See Rabbit-proofing your home information sheet) If your rabbit lives indoors however, it is very important that it still regularly gets plenty of exercise. You should have an outdoor run to allow lots of exercise in the daylight.
Whether indoors or outdoors, your rabbit will need a hutch or personal area. (See link to Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund at the end of this information sheet).
More than one rabbit?
Rabbits are naturally social animals and therefore they are generally happier when kept in pairs or small social groups. Neutering is very important to reduce aggressiveness between same sex individuals and also to prevent a ‘population explosion’. (See Neutering in rabbits information sheet). If you have a single rabbit or if you have lost one of a pair, it is possible to introduce a companion. Rabbit rescue societies such as Jane's Rabbit Rescue in Warwick provide a bonding service. They help to select a rescue bunny (which has been vaccinated and neutered) and introduce it to your rabbit in a neutral environment until they have become bonded. It is recommended that rabbits and Guinea pigs are not kept together, because unfortunately rabbits can be terrible bullies. When purchasing more than one rabbit we strongly recommend examination by a veterinary surgeon early on. It can be difficult to sex baby rabbits and it is easy for mistakes to be made in pet shops and by casual breeders. Unfortunately this leads to unexpected litters, often from related rabbits! Sexing of rabbits can be performed at the time of first vaccination. (See Vaccination in rabbits information sheet).
Many health issues for rabbits arise from feeding an inappropriate or imbalanced diet. This is a complex subject, so please read the Nutrition advice for rabbits information sheet.
There are two diseases against which we can vaccinate rabbits. These are myxomatosis and VDH. Both diseases are fatal and so vaccination for all rabbits is strongly recommended. (See Vaccination in rabbits information sheet) Vaccinations also give us the opportunity to fully examine your rabbit on a regular basis. We can then discuss any management issues you may have and also pick up early on any health issues.
Disease in rabbits
It is worth noting that rabbits are ‘prey animals’. This means that in the wild they will not want to give outward signs of illness as this would single them out as an easy meal for a fox! They have a fantastic ability to hide illness until it may be too late to treat them. You should always be aware of the amount and type of food your rabbit is eating, how much it is drinking and the quantity and nature of the urine and faeces.
Regular handling will allow you to know your rabbit well and hopefully also allow you to pick up on subtle signs of ill health. Watch out for sticky eyes, nasal discharges, drooling, crusty ears, weight loss, coat changes (See Parasites in rabbits information sheet), change in shape of tummy and dirty or wet bottom. (See Fly-strike in rabbits information sheet).
Should you need to take your rabbit to the vet you need to consider the cost of this. Attitudes to veterinary care for rabbits are changing and more owners are keen for thorough investigations and treatments, should problems arise. For this reason you may wish to consider getting your rabbit insured for accidents and medical problems. (See Pet health insurance information sheet).
Basic hygiene should be observed when handling your rabbit and cleaning out its living quarters. There are very few health risks from owning rabbits but people with compromised immune systems should take additional care. (See Zoonoses in rabbits information sheet on human health risks with rabbits).
For further care advice, rabbit rescue and general bunny information a useful website is www.houserabbit.co.uk – this is the website of the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund.
Should your rabbit be unwell or should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us.