The Omlet Guide to Keeping Rabbits
Read about these furry animals and their amusing antics. You can learn the basics of caring for your pet or study their anatomy. Do you know your dewlap from your scut?! Or did you know that unchecked a rabbit's teeth will grow 5 inches a year?
Rabbits make wonderful pets for people living all over the world. Not only can they be fun, affectionate animals, but they are capable of developing strong bonds with their human owners. Rabbits are inquisitive, interesting and - at times - mischievous creatures, characteristics that have made them extremely popular amongst pet owners in lots of different countries.
Rabbits come in a wide variety of different shapes and sizes - they make fantastic companions
This guide contains information about many different aspects of rabbit ownership, and is intended both to support you through the first steps of rabbit ownership, and to provide a dip-in resource for any questions you might have. The different sections offer information on a wide variety of topics, from choosing breeds, to performing health checks, right through to toys and treats. We hope you will find it useful, and that you enjoy caring for these fascinating animals.
The original European wild rabbits evolved about 4,000 years ago in Iberia. In fact the visiting Phoenician merchants referred to part of Iberia as 'I-shephan-im' which means land of the rabbits. This was translated as 'Hispania' or as we know it - Spain. The scientific name for rabbits is 'Oryctolagus cuniculus' which sounds much more complicated than it actually is because it means 'a hare-like digger of underground passages'.
Life was peaceful for the rabbits until the Romans arrived in Spain during the Second Punic war in the 2nd century B.C. Much to the rabbits dismay the Romans quickly cottoned on to the idea of farming them in a practise known as cuniculture. The increasing trade amongst countries by sea and land helped to introduce rabbits to every continent except for Antarctica. Humans were now getting good at growing crops and as more land was cultivated into fields full of food, humans inadvertently provided rabbits with ideal habitats to live in. Combined with their famously fast breeding rate this ensured that they established themselves quickly wherever they went.
The domestication of rabbits is believed to have begun when medieval monks began to keep rabbits in cages for food. Newly born rabbits, Laurices, were not considered to be meat and were therefore allowed to be eaten during Lent. Monks tend to be dedicated fellows and it wasn’t long before they were studiously selecting and breeding rabbits to create new fur colours.
The industrial revolution meant many people moving from the countryside into towns and they brought their rabbits with them. As a pair of rabbits can produce up to 90kgs of meat a year they were an important source of food. But in the 19th century things started to look up for the rabbits as the Victorians began dabbling in breeding them for shows and competitions. Since then we have more or less stopped eating rabbits in the UK although in many other countries they are still a regular part of the diet.
Domestic rabbits were commonly carried on sailing ships and sometimes released on islands as food for castaways. Rabbits were still imported as late as the 1860's to stimulate a domestic fur and meat trade. Establishment of wild populations was limited at first by lack of suitable habitat but increased pastoral farming assisted spread and growth in numbers. By the 1880's rabbits had become a serious threat to the fragile New Zealand economy.
The short answer is: together, and frequently. Rabbits are prey animals, and take a lot of comfort in the presence of other rabbits, so they will eat together, play together and sleep together. Even rabbits who are tucked up safely in their hutch would rather have a friend of the same species to snuggle up with, especially at night when predators are prowling. If you have a rabbit living on its own, it’s really crucial that you get another.
Rabbits have different sleep cycles than you or I. Whilst humans (if we are lucky) will sleep through the night, rabbits wake up periodically at night, and sleep for quite lengthy periods during the day. They are prey animals, and need to be constantly alert for danger, so in general they sleep much lighter and for shorter periods than we do.
Rabbits are crepuscular species, who frequently sleep during the day
Rabbits are generally crepuscular – this means that they are at their most active around dawn and dusk. If you’re trying to play with your rabbit during the day and keep finding it asleep, it may be easier to engage with them earlier on in the day, or during the evening.
Rabbits have some very cute sleeping positions. If they live in cold climates, rabbits often sleep curled up in a little furry ball. This limits how much of their bodies are exposed to the nippy air – usually their paws will be nestled close to their stomachs. If they live in hot areas, they are less likely to need these heat-conserving positions. If it’s a toasty night, they will generally sleep a little ways apart, and splay themselves out a little to maximise the airflow around them, and to stop one section of their bodies from heating up another.
It's a big world out there so rabbits have developed some extraordinary features that have helped them survive and thrive in the wild. You can see these behaviour patterns and features too, if you spend a while watching your own rabbits.
- Tail / Scut
Rabbits are mammals, just like us humans - there are a few big differences, though!
With their big ears rabbits obviously have good hearing but even better than that they can move their ears independently allowing them to pinpoint danger from any direction.
Rabbits also have big eyes. A rabbit's eyes protrude from the side of its head which gives them near 360' vision - the one area they can't see is right in front of their own nose! To 'see' whether something is edible a rabbit will touch the object with their sensitive top lip.
Rabbits teeth are always growing to cope with all that gnawing. In fact, if they didn't wear them down by eating grass, they could grow up to 5 inches a year! This is why feeding your rabbit a lot of hay is the best way of keeping their teeth in good condition. The presence of their 'peg' teeth makes them, along with Hares, stand apart from other rodents in their own sub-order 'Lagomorph'.
Why does a rabbit's nose twitch? It's so that all of the highly sensitive receptors are exposed to the air. A sign that a rabbit is very relaxed is that its nose stops twitching as this is one of its many ways of detecting imminent danger.
Rabbits - the ultimate in grass nutrient extraction! Rabbits have a two stage digestive system. After the chewed food passes from the upper digestive tract where it's been mixed with stomach juices into the lower digestive system, the fibrous material is taken straight out and is turned into what we recognize as rabbit droppings - little fibrous balls. The rest of the mixture i.e. the liquid and the non-fibrous bits go on to the caecum - a big fermentation tank, where lots of bacteria work at releasing all the goodness from the plant matter. Most of this is then packed up into pellets called caecotrophs that the rabbit eats straight from its bottom! At the second time of eating many more nutrients are absorbed after the bacteria from the caecum has had time to act.
Rabbits have a relatively weak back and because of the strength in their back legs, they can cause themselves considerable damage. Make sure children are supervised when they handle their rabbit and can properly support its back and legs. Rabbits will struggle if they feel insecure. Don't forget that rabbits prefer interaction at ground level as this is their natural environment.
With extremely powerful back legs rabbits can perform big jumps and dig big holes. If they are in danger a sudden whack on the ground can make a surprisingly loud noise alerting another rabbits to the problem.
Also known as a 'scut' the rabbit's tail is more than decoration! In wild rabbits the underside is pale and is used as a danger signal and for communication when several rabbits are feeding over a big area.
All rabbits are herbivores, whether they live in the wild or are kept as pets. This means that they only eat material that comes from plants: things like grasses, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Since rabbits have evolved to be herbivorous, they do not eat anything that comes from animals, such as meat or eggs. If a rabbit were to eat anything animal-based it would get a very upset stomach – or worse!
Rabbits are herbivorous animals, so they shouldn’t be fed things such as meat, dairy or sweets
A wild rabbit’s diet chiefly consists of plants, mainly grass stems that the rabbits can find on and around their warrens. Depending on where in the world you live, you may see groups of wild rabbits happily munching away on lush grass around their home. There’s not much nutrition in grass, so wild rabbits need to eat a lot of it if they are to survive. They have evolved to consume high volumes of grass, so it’s very easy of them to eat an awful lot - watch a rabbit eating a handful of grass and see for yourself! Whilst wild rabbits may be able to get the calories they need from an enormous amount of grass, rabbits who are kept as pets won’t be able to eat this amount per day, and so their diets are supplemented with dry food, vegetables and hay in order to supply the calories, vitamins and minerals they need to survive. It certainly saves them a lot of chewing.
The diets of wild rabbits and pet rabbits are quite similar. Pet rabbits need a diet that mimics what they would eat if they were living freely, and were able to choose their own food as their wild cousins do. Rabbits’ digestive systems haven’t changed all that much since they were domesticated (a word which means ‘brought to live with humans’) several thousand years ago, but they are still physically adapted to the diets they had before. This is why owners should try to keep their pets’ diets quite similar to a wild one.
If you need some help and advice on feeding your rabbits, then have a look at the Rabbit Food section of this guide.
Rabbits are furry digging machines. Not only do they have very sturdy, sharp nails, but also extremely efficient front paws that allow them to scratch and scrabble at dirt for long periods of time – some breeds could make short work of lawns and flowerbeds given half a chance! Rabbits love digging, and it’s what they have evolved to do. Most wild rabbits need a warren in order to hide from predators such as foxes and wolves. Rabbit warrens often have many different chambers inside of them, and lots of different entrances and exits. Rabbits spend quite a lot of time digging and maintaining these structures.
Rabbits can make quite intricate, complex homes for them and their families
From time-to-time, if you watch them very carefully, you’ll see one of your rabbits in a full rabbit-digging stance. In order to shovel away as much earth as quickly as possible, rabbits will stand in front of their chosen spot, plant their legs wide apart, and scrape quickly at the earth before them. You’ll see a spray of soil shoot out behind them, and a hole will quickly appear.
There are a variety of ways rabbits communicate, whether it’s with you or with a member of their own species. This page goes into a good bit of detail about how these little animals talk to one another, as well as pointing out some sounds and pieces of body language that you as an owner should be on the look-out for.
Rabbits, like humans, make a number of different sounds to help them understand each other
Growling – some people are surprised to learn that, like cats and dogs, rabbits make a growling sound. In rabbits, it means much the same as it does in the larger animals, and that is – leave me alone!
Purring – this is a sign of a very content pet. Whatever you’re doing – keep doing it! Rabbits, like cats, purr when they feel very comfortable.
Squeaking – this can mean a number of different things. If two rabbits are close together and look reasonably calm, then the squeaking can indicate that the two share a close social bond. However, if your rabbit squeaks when you pick them up, or when they’re fighting with another rabbit, then the squeak means that something is wrong, and so you should try to rectify the situation as soon as possible.
– this is a low sound that is quite difficult to hear, but owners should be on the look-out for it. It indicates that your pet is not well, and that it is in some discomfort or pain.
In the wild, rabbits live in groups. This should be replicated as much as possible in captivity, and so no pet rabbit should be without a rabbit companion. A single rabbit will get extremely lonely, even if you are prepared to spend a lot of time with it. It is for this reason that a pair of rabbits is a very good option, as they are capable of keeping each other company.
How many rabbits you have is up to you - as long as none are lonely, and they all have enough space
The next question is: boys or girls? Well, one of each will generally make the best long-term companions. However, unless you want to breed them, you must get them neutered - an operation that your vet can perform. Remember - if you keep males and females together without having them neutered you must be prepared for a sudden increase in the number of rabbits you've got! Breeding is not an area that should be entered into lightly.
Two girls can be very competitive, and they may be a little more aggressive towards one another than a male-female pair would be. However, many owners report that neutering can reduce this aggression.
Two males can fight a little too, but can be a good combination, especially two brothers who have been reared together. If they do become aggressive towards one another after puberty (at about 3 months old) it may be necessary to have them neutered.
The best way to introduce a new rabbit is on neutral territory, as putting a new rabbit into an existing rabbit's home is almost always going to cause some pretty intense fighting! A good way of introducing two rabbits effectively is to take your rabbit with you when you go to choose a new rabbit at the pet shop, breeder, or rabbit rescue centre. If they get along well, then take them both home in the same travel box. This will help the bonding process as they will both be nervous in the car.
Lone rabbits need a companion – they’ll be very upset on their own
When you get them home, again place them on neutral territory. It's very important that you don't put them straight into the existing rabbit's home. Supervise them at all times while they are together and assess if they are getting along OK. If they have fallen in love at first sight you may be able to house them together that night, but make sure that there are plenty of places that they can get away from each other if they want to, and provide 2 food bowls etc.
More commonly it will take a few careful introductions, so make sure that you have a spare run for the new rabbit to live in the meantime. House the rabbits within sight and smell of each other and place some of their droppings in each other's run so that they get used to the other’s scent in their territory. Every day introduce them on neutral territory until you are confident that they will get along, and then you can finally house them together.
Remember - if you keep males and females together without having them neutered you must be prepared for a sudden increase in the number of rabbits you've got! Breeding is not an area that should be entered into lightly.
Rabbits are wonderful little animals, and can make excellent pets. Their appeal and charm makes them popular amongst older children and adults alike, and the many thousands of pet rabbits out there really enrich the lives of their owners. If you’re thinking of welcoming some rabbits into your home, read on for some advice and guidance.
Don’t forget – rabbits need to be kept in pairs or groups
If you have a nice big garden, and a space in it which your rabbits can have a nice run, then you’re off to a good start. If you’ve got a place that you can exclude other pets from, that’s also great for rabbits. If you have all of these things, as well as a bit of time and money to spend on their upkeep, then you would make a great rabbit owner.
You’ll be happy to hear that there are hundreds of different kinds of rabbit for you to choose from. Rabbits were domesticated (brought into human care) several thousand years ago, and since that time rabbit breeders have produced a great variety of different rabbit forms and colours. Even though all follow the same basic shape (four legs, two furry ears, wide-set eyes and a cute little tail), there are vast differences in size and appearance between some of the breeds.
There are dozens of different rabbit breeds to choose from
If the rabbits are to be kept by someone who has never handled or cared for these animals before, then we recommend you choose a small or mid-sized breed that is known to be quite docile. Some good options include the Dutch rabbits, or Netherland Dwarf rabbits. If you are buying two rabbits on behalf of children, it’s good to be aware that you will need to be the one ultimately responsible for their upkeep and care, as children under the age of about eleven or twelve shouldn’t be given the main responsibility. Caring for rabbits is a family effort, and younger members may struggle to maintain interest throughout the rabbits’ lives.
Whilst they have relatively long fur, some owners report that Angora rabbits shed the least. This could be because this type of rabbit has been bred (controversially) for its hair, and the more it sheds the less there is for its keepers to remove from it when they come to collect it.
Unfortunately, there are no hypoallergenic rabbits – but some are apparently easier on allergy sufferers than others
Although this breed may shed a little less than some others, they need more regular brushing, as their hair is extremely long and prone to matting. If you are looking for the best breed for an allergy sufferer, many owners have had success with Rex rabbits instead.
If you, or a member of your household suffers from rabbit allergies, then there are precautions you can take to minimise the impact on the sufferer. Unfortunately, no rabbit is hypoallergenic, but there are certain rabbit-keeping practises that will keep exposure to allergens at a minimum. Contrary to what most people believe, it is not a rabbit’s hair that causes the problem: rather, it is the things that cling to the rabbit’s hair that stir up the reaction; specific proteins from your rabbits that cause an immune response in humans.
Rabbits are herd animals, and need companions of the same species in order to be happy. Rabbits are constantly on the look-out for predators, and they will feel very vulnerable on their own, even if they’re kept in a very safe run. They will feel much more content if they have at least one of their own kind alongside them, to snuggle up to in the winter and to talk to when they’re bored.
Rabbit need companions in order to be happy
Rabbits also need a rabbit companion to converse with. Try as we might, we as owners can’t fulfil all of a rabbit’s social needs, and we often can’t understand the intricacies of rabbit communication. Animals need members of their own kind to talk to throughout their lives.
Happily, there is little difference in the upkeep effort between one and two rabbits. You’ll want to clear them out almost as frequently with one rabbit as with two, and you’ll need to make the same amount of feeding trips (twice a day). So in all, if you’re getting rabbits, two is the generally considered to be the best option.
Rabbits and guinea pigs both make great pets, so it’s a tough choice between the two. There are a few key differences between these two animals, but both are herbivores, need companions of the same species, and a good safe hutch to live in.
Both species need daily care and attention. If you are purchasing the pet for a child, be aware that you will probably have to take care of the rabbits yourself, unless they are old enough to take on a lot of the responsibility. Both of these animals will rely on you and your household to provide everything they need, but they can be wonderful additions to the family if you give them the time and care that they deserve.
Guinea pigs and rabbits have different needs as pets
The first key difference is that of size – rabbits will need a slightly larger run than guinea pigs. We stock hutches that are the perfect sizes for both of these pets on our website. Not only do these structures have a safe, warm compartment for your pets to snuggle up in at night, but attached to these modern hutches is a safe, well-sized run for your animals to gambol about in.
The second key difference is that of food - both species need to be fed fresh and dry food in order to be happy and healthy. These mixes cost similar amounts in shops, but depending on the size of your rabbits they may need a little more food than your guinea pigs would.
Another variation between the two options is who can handle them. Guinea pigs are a little more fragile than rabbits, and so are more suitable for older children. Younger children (under constant adult supervision) can handle a lot of different rabbit breeds, although the Dutch variety is most placid and most popular option.
Finally, in terms of longevity, rabbits tend to live for a little bit longer than guinea pigs. Whilst a guinea pig can expect to live for around five to seven years, rabbits can go on for a little longer, usually anywhere between eight and twelve years.
Owning a dog or cat can make keeping a pair of rabbits a little harder, as you will need to find an area in your house and garden that you can exclude your other, larger animals from. Rabbits are prey animals, and in the wild dogs and cats would be their predators – how would you feel about a lion living in your house? Even if you were safe in your cage you’d be a little anxious most of the time. Think carefully about whether you can maintain the separation between the two species of animal. You will need to keep your larger animals away from your rabbits’ cage, as large animals staring through the bars can really upset your smaller pets.
One of the most important things is to remember is to never let your rabbits out of their cage when your cat or your dog can access them. Even if you can supervise, it’s pretty dangerous. You can’t blame your cat or your dog from acting on instinct and reaching out to stop your rabbit from running, or blame them for playing a little too roughly, even just for a moment. Both of these things could really have some bad consequences for your rabbit, so it’s best to keep them apart.
A rabbit that is well looked-after can expect to live for anywhere between eight and twelve years, although some do go on for significantly longer. According to Guinness World Records, the world’s oldest rabbit was eighteen when they passed away!
Some breeders report that dwarf varieties of rabbit tend to live for a little longer than their larger counterparts – this may be something that you would like to factor in when deciding which breed (or breeds) of rabbit to choose.
Rabbits generally live for between eight and twelve years
If your rabbit develops a health problem, then their lives can unfortunately be significantly shorter than average. However, as well as taking good general care of your rabbit, there is one thing that you could do to maximise your pets’ lifespans: neutering them. In female rabbits, this prevents them from dying from birth-related problems, and by getting her spayed it reduces the risk of her developing cancers of the reproductive system - these are illnesses which can occur at any age. By neutering males, it can significantly reduce aggressive and mating behaviours that can be very stressful for all concerned.
Rabbits are a crepuscular species – this means that, unlike us, they are most active around dawn and dusk. Rabbits tend to sleep and nap frequently throughout the day and night, so these aren’t ideal times to interact with them. If you’re visiting your rabbits in the day and keep finding them asleep, it may be better to try going to them early in the morning, or in the evening.
Rabbits are crepuscular, meaning they are hopping around at their liveliest early in the morning and during the evening
There are several potential reasons why rabbits are crepuscular. Rabbits are preyed upon by a lot of different predators, so they are constantly on the look-out for both nocturnal and daytime creatures. Dawn and dusk are the safest times to leave their home and graze, because the light conditions aren’t ideal for either threat. It’s a little too dark for daytime predators, and a little too bright for night-time predators.
Wild rabbits are very difficult to tame, and many will kick and bite if you try to handle them. The rabbits that we keep as pets have not been living wild for several thousand years, and there are strong behavioural differences between wild rabbits and those that we keep in our homes. It’s much easier, kinder and safer to keep domesticated rabbits, ones that you can adopt or buy from a pet shop or breeder. These animals will be a lot more docile, a lot more friendly, and are less likely to have many of the diseases and illnesses that wild rabbits have.
It's best to stick to domesticated rabbit pets
Catching wild rabbits and keeping them can be dangerous, especially since they could transmit the potentially fatal disease known as rabies on to humans who approach them. Not only this, but wild rabbits will not be used to being in hutches and handled by humans. It’s much better to stick to rabbits that have been born and bred in captivity.