Rabbit Care Manual
So you've adopted a rabbit . . . congratulations!
This packet is designed to help you with the care of your new friend. Refer to it for information on your rabbit's diet, health and happiness.
Here is some basic information on keeping your bunny happy and healthy:
- Give your rabbit unlimited amounts of fresh, clean grass hay.
- Let him out of his pen when you're home. Both you and your bunny will be happier if he is allowed to interact with you and become part of the family.
- Feed him bunny food, not people food, and keep the treats to a minimum.
- Brush him often, especially when he's shedding. He'll ingest any hair he licks off himself, and if the hay he eats doesn't force it through, he can die from a hairball.
- Only allow bunny out in a safe, enclosed area and NEVER leave him alone outside.
- Stimulate your rabbit's mind for a happy and healthy pet!
Have today be the first day of a lifetime of learning about rabbits. You are his guardian.
- Bringing Bunny Home
- Living Arrangements
- Housing & Supplies
- Vegetables and Fruits
- Vegetables to Avoid
- Toxic Foods
- Other Items to Avoid
- Holding Your Bunny
- Common Rabbit Health Problems
- Rabbit First Aid Kit
- Choosing a Veterinarian
- Thinking about a Second Rabbit?
- Recommend Reading
When you bring your rabbit home, give him some time and space to adjust to his new environment. Avoid letting your rabbit loose into a large room when you bring him home, since he will most likely run and hide. Begin by giving him a space he can consider his own, whether a cage or a pen, where he can eat, drink, play and rest, and gradually introduce him to larger spaces.
Whereas their feline and canine friends are natural predators, rabbits are prey animals. This fact shapes your rabbit's mentality and is the key to understanding what drives his behavior and what makes him comfortable. Rabbits may not enjoy being chased, picked up, or held (which is why rabbits and young children should always be supervised). To bond with your rabbit, it is best to interact with him on his level, on the ground.
Rabbits are a sometimes comical mix of curious and cautious. They are explorers and will investigate every possible corner of a new environment, one careful step at a time. Do not underestimate your rabbit's ability to get where he wants to go (so be careful where you stash those tasty treats!) Rabbits love their human companions, but also value a certain amount of time quietly tucked away from us.
Until your bunny gets used to his environment and you know what to expect from him, keep him in his pen when you are not home. When you are home, let your bunny out of his pen to interact with you and get used to his environment. Supervise him during this time. Bunnies love to chew, so you'll need to “bunny proof” any rooms to which he'll have access. This means that all cords need to be hidden, moved, and/or protected from inquiring teeth (this is a real danger, as it not only spells ruined electronics and appliances, it can cause fires or electrocute your rabbit). Rabbits can hop up three or more feet, so expensive or fragile items need to be moved out of reach, as do all house plants. Keep the floor clear of rubber bands, tacks, clips, or anything else that might hurt your rabbit if he eats it; remote control buttons have been known to disappear in seconds, so those need to be out of reach, too. Shoe laces, homework, books, you name it. We suggest moving Grandma's antique rocking chair to a different room, too. Table and chair legs can be very tasty!
Keep in mind that a happy rabbit is much less likely to be destructive; whereas a bored bunny will dig and chew on things just to pass the time, so it behooves you to keep him entertained.
Below is an overview of the bunny supplies you'll need:
- Cage and/or X-Pen: This is where your rabbit will spend his time when you are away or unable to supervise him. The floor should have a solid base because wire floors can damage your rabbit's feet. At a minimum, a cage should be tall enough for your rabbit to stand up tall, as well as wide enough for him to hop a couple of times. Top openings are good if you need to lift out your bunny, and side openings can be left open for the rabbit to hop in and out when loose. A 3” lip at the base will help keep hay and pellets from falling out of the cage. We love exercise pens, because you can make them larger or smaller, shape them to fit unusual areas, and collapse them for easy storage. Invest in a pen 30″-36″ high and it will create a 16 square foot living space for your bunny. A linoleum remnant from the hardware store makes a great floor covering, and an old sheet, clothes pinned to the top makes an easy roof.
- Water Bottle or Crock:We recommend crocks because though water bottles take up less floor space than crocks, they're more difficult to keep clean. On the other hand, some rabbits like to toss their toys into their bowls or tip over their crocks, in which case you might prefer a water bottle.
- Food Crock: Heavy enough so your bunny can't throw it!
- Hay Basket: Optional. Some people like to place a hay basket near the litter box.
- Plastic Litter Box: The littler box is more than just a place for your rabbit to go — it can also be where he eats his hay, which will encourage his litter box training. Get the largest size that will fit in the cage or pen, and make sure it's big enough for your rabbit to get his whole body in. You want your rabbit to enjoy hanging out there, so it should be big enough for him to lie down inside it.
- Litter: Newspaper, Cat Country, Yesterday's News or CareFresh are great. Bunnies nibble on everything, including their litter, so it must be digestible and fragrance free. You will need something made from paper products, wheat grass, or other edible components. Clumping litters and clay litters will kill a rabbit! Experts disagree about which wood litters are ok for rabbits, so we recommend staying away from all types of wood litters, too.
- Pet Carrier: A cardboard box will work in a pinch, though you'll want something sturdier eventually. We suggest that you purchase a top opening carrier for ease of use, and invest in a plastic carrier, as rabbits tend to chew through fabric-type materials.
Your rabbit's diet is very influential on his well-being. Below is an overview of what to feed him/her, in order of quantity:
- Unlimited Grass Hay: Select Orchard grass or Timothy hay. Hay is integral to a rabbit's digestive and dental health and makes up the bulk of his diet. Make fresh hay available to your rabbit at all times. The hay sold in pet supply stores tends to be poor quality, and is very expensive. Rabbits enjoy long strands of fresh, fragrant hay. We sell HUGE bags of fresh hay at a fraction of the cost of pet stores. You want to give your rabbit all the hay he can eat, so buying from us or finding a feed store or horse barn that will sell you flakes of fresh hay at a good price is important to your rabbit's health. Do not get alfalfa hay unless you have babies or an older rabbit who can't keep his weight up. Alfalfa hay has too many calories and too much calcium to be anything but a treat for most rabbits. Oat hay is also a treat — the seeds are high calorie.
- Fresh Vegetables:A salad of at least 3 dark leafy greens twice a day. Minimum of 2 cups of fresh veggies per 5 lbs. of body weight per day. See the attached list of vegetables to feed and those to avoid. Introduce new vegetables to your rabbit in small quantities and one at a time, as rabbits have different preferences and sensitivities to various vegetables. If you notice softening of the droppings or diarrhea (an emergency in rabbits) following a certain vegetable, withdraw it from the diet.
- Timothy Pellets for Adult Rabbits: Alfalfa pellets are for babies and aged bunnies who can't keep their weight up. Just look at the first ingredient on the packaging to see whether it's timothy or alfalfa. Do not get the food advertised for rabbits with the extra nuts, seeds, yogurt, dried fruit, and such — it is high calorie junk food. You won't need a big bag, either, unless you've got babies, because adults get only an 1/8 cup or so, a couple of times a day. Your vet may even recommend feeding less than that.
- Fresh Water: Rabbits can dehydrate quickly, so make sure they always have clean water available. Clean the bowl daily, as mold can kill a bunny.
(Those listed in bold print are high in vitamin A. Serve at least one every day.)
- Alfalfa sprouts
- Anise Hyssop
- Apple twigs, leaves, and fruit, but not the seeds!
- Beet Greens
- Bell Pepper, Sweet Green
- Bell Pepper, Sweet Red
- Blackberry fruit, stems, leaves
- Blueberry fruit
- Bok Choy
- Carrot roots and tops
- Cucumber peels
- Dandelion greens and flowers
- Daylily flowers
- English daisy
- Grapes (fruit, leaves, and vines)
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Lemon balm
- Lemon grass
- Lettuce, green leaf
- Lettuce, red leaf
- Lettuce, romaine
- Mustard greens
- Orange (no peel)
- Peas, snow
- Radish tops
- Squash fruit and flowers
- Sweet woodruff
- Swiss chard
- Tarragon, french
- Turnip tops
- Wheat Grass
- Beet root
- Brussels sprouts
- Green beans
- Radish root
- Turnip root
- Iceberg lettuce
- Bamboo shoots
- Beans, dried
- Beans, raw: lima, kidney, soy
- Bracken Fern
- Coffee beans and plant
- Corn kernels
- Peas, dried
- Potatoes, including peels
- Sweet peas
- Sweet Potatoes
- Tea leaves
- Whole seeds
- Most house plants (toxic)
- Refined sugars
- Yogurt drops
- Honey/Seed sticks
- ANYTHING MOLDY!!!
- Alfalfa hay is too rich for adult rabbits and should only be offered to rabbits who are growing or need to maintain their weight (e.g., old or pregnant rabbits). When you buy pellets, check the ingredient list to make sure the pellets are timothy and not alfalfa.
- Any food that is high in sugar, such as fruit or roots (that includes carrots!), should be served as a treat only: one serving per day, no larger than your thumb.
- Avoid all seeds, nuts, beans, corn, onions, potato and processed sugars.
- Flowers from the local nursery probably have pesticides on them. Don't serve them unless you know they are organic.
- Most rabbits can handle vegetables that are high in calcium or oxalates, as long as the vegetables are served in moderation and the bunny doesn't have kidney or urinary tract problems. If you have a healthy rabbit, do not hesitate to serve him wonderful vegetables such as kale, just because they are high in calcium, but be sure to provide a variety of leafy greens to avoid build-up of any one substance.
- Any food that causes soft droppings should be removed from the diet immediately. Diarrhea should be treated as an emergency.
- Keep the water bowl clean and change the water daily. Your bunny's immune system is lousy, so you need to protect him from mold that will grow in a dirty water dish.
The safest cleaning solution you can use is vinegar diluted 1:3 with water (1 part vinegar to 3 parts water). Vinegar is effective at neutralizing the odors from your rabbit's litter box and cutting through the mineral deposits. Put the vinegar mixture in a spray bottle for ease of use in cleaning the cage, the litter box, or the floor, and you can soak the litter box in the vinegar solution to get rid of stains. Be aware that many other kinds of cleanser or disinfectant will be toxic for your rabbit. However, you can soak plastic items in bleach if they need to be disinfected, as long as you let them air out well before returning the items to your bunny.
Change the litter box once every day or every other day. The cleaner you keep the box and rabbit area, the more likely it will be that your bunny will use their box. You can place a thin layer (1/2 inch) of Cat Country on the bottom of the litter pan, and a generous handful of hay to one side. You can replenish the hay later in the day. The next day, place another layer of hay both morning and night. Every 2nd day, dump the pan and spray with a solution of 1:3 vinegar/water . Wipe this out with a paper towel and start with new litter and hay. Since hay is much cheaper than your bunny's litter this is a cost-effective way to fill his litter box. Your bunny can eat and poop in the same place. In fact, since rabbits go as they eat, putting hay in his litter box will train him to use it.
- White vinegar (diluted with water 3:1)
- Spray bottle
- Paper towels
Bunnies are very clean animals, and it's really easy to litter box train them. When you first introduce your rabbit to his new pen, he'll choose a corner to “go” in. Put the litter box there, and for the first few days, make a concerted effort to clean up any stray poops or puddles, using your vinegar solution to get rid of any odors. Most spayed or neutered rabbits will need only a few days to learn how to use their boxes appropriately.
That being said, rabbits are territorial, and they will mark their areas with poops at first. Just sweep ‘em up. He should stop marking in a day or two.
Once your rabbit has the hang of things in his pen, you can give him more space to roam, but don't overwhelm him with the whole house all at once. Start with part of the family room, perhaps adding an extra litter box or two to help him get started. If you see him raise his tail to pee, scoop him up quickly and put him in his box, and if he makes a mistake, clean it up quickly and thoroughly, but never berate your pet — that won't help anything. Once he's got this area down pat, you can extend his free space even further, removing any extra litter boxes as you see fit.
Bunnies love to play, and a good assortment of toys will not only keep him happy and entertained, but they'll deter him from troublesome nibbling where nibbling isn't wanted. Just about anything can become a toy: any sort of paper product, like TP rolls stuffed with hay; a news paper page twisted into a funny shape; a paper bag; a cardboard box with holes cut in it. Try a pill bottle with a rock inside; the peanut butter jar lid, any hard plastic child's or cat's toy (if your fingernail can make a dent in the plastic it is too soft and your rabbit may chew and ingest it). Use your imagination!
There are also some great rabbit supply websites. Check them out! They've created lots of fun and inventive things to entertain your rabbit.
In general, rabbits don't like to be held. When they get picked up, their instinct tells them that they are about to be eaten, and they get understandably frightened. Therefore, we recommend that you interact with your bunny on his level (on the floor!). Find a low chair or sit on the floor while you watch TV, read the paper, or do your homework.
For the occasions when you do pick him up, follow these 8 guidelines to lift and hold your rabbit:
- Bring your hand down from above to avoid startling him.
- Put the palm of one hand over his tail, resting your forearm along his side. Put your other hand under his forelegs and scoop him into your chest, letting him rest his feet against your body.
- Support his butt with one hand and support the top of his shoulders with the other.
- Maintain the C-shape in your rabbit's spine when holding him. If he straightens out his spine and kicks with his powerful hind legs, he can break his back.
- If your rabbit struggles or if you're afraid you're going to drop him, get as close to the ground as you can and let him jump off. It is better to catch him again than to risk a potentially life-long injury.
- To set him down, get him as close to the ground as you can and set him down butt first. If he goes head first, he's likely to try to jump out of your hands.
- If you have a bunny who grunts or lunges when you approach, move slowly and let him know you are coming by speaking gently to him. Let him come to you first, then reach for his head from above.
- NEVERpick upyour rabbit by the ears or by the scruff.
Rabbits are self-cleaning animals and do not require baths. However, your rabbit could use a little help when it comes to his coat and his nails. Follow the guidelines below.
- Brushing: Comb your bunny at least once a week. If he's got long fur or if he's shedding, you should comb him daily.
- Nail trimming: Trim his nails every six to eight weeks. Have this done at your vet's office if you are not comfortable restraining your rabbit.
- Spot cleaning: If your rabbit has a dirty butt, spot clean by dripping water on the area and letting it soak until you can lift off the feces. See your vet to determine the cause.
- Skin and ear checks: Periodically check his ears and fur for mites and fleas by checking for unusual flakiness or crustiness. If you find some, ask your vet how to treat the condition. Please note: Frontline (a brand of flea medication) should NEVER be used and is fatal for rabbits. Be very careful, and do not assume that your vet's office already knows this (even if your vet is rabbit-savvy, technicians and office staff are not always as knowledgeable).
- Comb or brush: The Hairbuster is a great comb for rabbits. You can find it online at www.hairbuster.com or at the House Rabbit Society store. Keep in mind that rabbits with longer hair, such as lionheads and angoras, need combs with long teeth.
- Nail Clippers: If you are unable to keep your rabbit still or are not confident in your ability to avoid the quick (a portion of the nail that will bleed if cut), have your rabbit's nails trimmed at your vet's office.
- Styptic Powder: If you accidentally cut the quick while trimming the nails, applying styptic powder will stop the bleeding quickly.
Rabbits are fragile pets, and signs of illness or injury are sometimes subtle. As prey animals, rabbits have evolved to try and hide illness to avoid looking weak to a predator. You need to be a bit of a detective when it comes to your rabbit's health and respond to signs of illness right away, as he can deteriorate quickly.
One of the most important things you can do for your rabbit is to establish yourself with a rabbit-experienced veterinarian as soon after you adopt. Rabbits require a veterinarian who is experienced in their care, as most veterinarians who specialize in cats and dogs are not knowledgeable enough to properly diagnose and treat rabbits. Thankfully, Northern California has a number of good rabbit vets, and a few are listed in this packet.
You should also locate an emergency veterinary center close to your home that can see your rabbit after hours, on weekends, and without appointment for emergencies. Ask the emergency center if they have a rabbit-savvy member on staff and keep their phone number and address on hand.
While at home, you can look at the following for signs of illness or discomfort in your rabbit:
- Loss of appetite - Rabbits eat throughout the day. It is important that they never go without eating for longer than 12 hours, as this can lead to GI stasis, a potentially fatal condition. If you suspect that your rabbit is not eating, offer him his favorite treat (most rabbits love bananas).If he'll eat a treat but is still not interested in his usual food, check to make sure that he has water and is not dehydrated. If your rabbit has been without water for some time and may be dehydrated, talk with your vet on how to rehydrate him. Avoid suddenly rehydrating him. If your rabbit will not eat anything for several hours, you should contact or visit his vet.
- Sneezing, weepy eyes or nose – Rabbits do not get colds. Occasional sneezing is normal, but persistent sneezing, runny nose or weepy eyes could be signs of a respiratory, eye or tear duct infection. See your vet.
- Fever or hypothermia – Your rabbit's temperature should range between 101°F and 103°F (38.3°C and 39.4°C) and can be measured rectally by a soft-tip thermometer (ask your vet to show you how). Temperatures above 104°F (40.5°C) and below 100°F (38.1°C) should be treated as an emergency. Use a warm or cold compress (or alternatively a bag of hot water or frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel) in the case of hypothermia or fever respectively as soon as you detect abnormal temperature.
- Lethargy - Rabbits like to lounge around, but if you find your rabbit is less active than usual, does not respond to stimuli, or is limp, this is a serious issue. Handle him as gently as possible and take him to the vet or emergency center right away.
- Change in droppings – Your rabbit's poops are a tell-tale sign of many of his health issues. Droppings should be about the size of peas, round, and relatively dry. If your bunny's poops start changing in size, decrease in number or frequency, or become soft, this could be the indication of a health problem. Soft or wet droppings may be caused by a new leafy green. Introduce vegetables to your rabbit one by one so that you can observe how your rabbit tolerates each of them. Remove or reduce a vegetable in the diet that causes soft droppings. If you notice persistent changes in your rabbit's droppings, consult with your veterinarian. Your rabbit should never go longer than 12 hours without pooping. Please note that soft pellets are different from diarrhea, which should be treated as an emergency right away.
- Normal intestinal sounds – If you listen very closely (or with a stethoscope), your rabbit's tummy makes soft gurgling sounds as a sign that it is active. A silent tummy could be a sign of GI Stasis (see below for more info). A tummy with rockets going off is bloat. Get emergency care ASAP.
In general, sudden changes in behavior could be signs of ill health. Stay vigilant, take advantage of available resources to learn more about your rabbit, and if you feel something may be wrong, make a list of your observations and consult with your vet as soon as possible.
- GI Stasis - One of the most common and dangerous hazards for your rabbit. GI Stasis, or ileus, is a condition in which the intestines stop contracting. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including lack of food in the digestive tract, dental problems leading to eating problems, lack of fiber in the diet, intestinal blockage, pain, dehydration, and stress. GI stasis can be detected by the following signs: Fewer, smaller fecal pellets, refusal to eat even favorite treats, either lack of intestinal sounds or louder sounds, and signs of pain, such as hiding, hunching, and loudly gritting teeth. GI stasis should always be treated as a veterinary emergency.
- Bloat - Can be caused by gasses building up in the intestines from certain foods or overgrowth of bacteria. Gas in the GI tract can be very painful for rabbits. Note that foods that may cause gassiness in humans (e.g. cabbage) will do so in rabbits as well. Avoid these items. Infant gas drops (simethicone) can be used to relieve gas in rabbits. Consult with your vet on use.
- Enterotoxemia - An overgrowth of bacteria in your rabbit's intestines, which is most frequently caused by a diet of starches and sugars, but also by inappropriate antibiotic use or other diseases. The symptoms are diarrhea and looking sick and lethargic.
- Mites - Crusty ears, nose or skin and loss of fur can be an indication of parasitic mites like mange mites, fur mites, ear mites or fleas. Your vet will be able to prescribe safe medications to help your rabbit with these problems.
- Dental Problems - Your rabbit's teeth should always be a part of his check-up, as dental problems can lead to many other issues and can easily go undiagnosed. Dental problems are sometimes hereditary in rabbits, especially in certain breeds, but can also be caused by a poor diet (remember the silica hairs on long-fiber grass hay constantly file down your rabbit's teeth, preventing overgrowth). An unwillingness or inability to eat is sometimes caused by dental problems.
- Fatty Liver Disease - Dangerous accumulation of fat in the liver, caused by obesity and too many calories.
You should always consult with your vet on how to treat your rabbit, but the following things are useful to have on hand so that you do not have to purchase them in the event of a problem.
- Styptic powder – to stop bleeding
- Baby food – to administer when your rabbit is not eating (pure pumpkin, apple, banana - no sugar or additives)
- Pedialyte – for dehydration
- Syringes – for administering soft food and fluids
- Infant gas drops (simethicone) – for gas and bloat
- Thermometer – Soft-tip non-mercury
- Sterile gauze pads – for dressing wounds
- Neosporin – for disinfecting
- Critical Care – a specially formulated food for sick rabbits, available for purchase from licensed veterinarian
Once upon a time, it was dangerous to spay or neuter your rabbit. However, this is no longer the case! In fact, fixed rabbits have longer, healthier life-spans than their intact counterparts. There are several reasons why even solitary rabbits should get fixed. One of these reasons is health. Unspayed females, for example, have a very high chance of developing reproductive organ cancers within a few years of life. Another reason is behavior. Sexual maturity, which is reached at 3 to 8 months, can lead to many unwanted behaviors, such as loss of litter box habits, urine spraying and marking, mounting, aggression, and excessive chewing. Neutered bunnies are much less likely to exhibit these behaviors and are calmer, happier, cleaner, and healthier. If you love your rabbit, get him fixed right away! And don't even think about babies; they really do breed like rabbits, and finding suitable homes for all those babies is very difficult work and is a strain on rescues and shelters.
Not all veterinarians are knowledgeable about rabbit care, so you should make an effort to find the right doctor for your bunny now, before he gets sick. We recommend several in the Bay Area:
Chabot Veterinary Clinic**** (Dr. Carolynn Harvey)
20877 Foothill Blvd
Dr. Harvey works Wed-Fri, 9am-6pm, and Sat 9am-2pm
Muller Veterinary Hospital (Dr. Ruth Adams)
2735 N. Main St
Mon-Fri 8am-6pm, Sat 8 am-1pm
Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center (Dr. Shann Ikezawa)
2000 Bishop Drive
Mon-Fri 7am-midnight, Sat & Sun, 8am-8pm
In an emergency, we recommend:
Tri-Valley Animal Emergency Center
7111 Amador Plaza Road, Dublin
All vets on duty are rabbit savvy
Mon-Fri 6pm-8am, Friday-Monday, open 24 hours
Rabbits are highly social creatures who love the company of others and who bond for life. Your bunny will probably be much happier with a companion, and we encourage anyone considering a second rabbit to do so! However, strange rabbits will usually fight and can hurt each other badly, so introductions must be done in neutral territory and by an experienced rabbit person. Speak to the person in charge of rabbits at your local shelter or call us to arrange some dates for your little one.
Marinell Harriman. House Rabbit Handbook [PURCHASE]
Lucille C. Moore. A House Rabbit Primer [PURCHASE]
Isbell Pavia. Rabbits for Dummies [PURCHASE]
Books purchased via the links above will generate a donation for East Bay Rabbit Rescue