Back to bunny basics: keeping your rabbits healthy
Rabbits can be lots of fun but as many owners already know, keeping bunnies as pets isn’t always easy. Bunnies have complicated needs and despite their popularity, they can unintentionally become neglected pets. The good news is that there are lots of simple things you can do to help keep your rabbits healthy and happy.
A healthy rabbit’s diet should be as similar as possible to the types of food they would eat in the wild. Ideally, rabbits should be fed:
- At least their own body size in good quality hay each day (so if you put the daily amount of hay next to your rabbits, it should be at least as big as them)
- An adult-sized handful of suitable fresh greens, morning and evening
- Just a tablespoon of rabbit nuggets once daily (or twice daily if the rabbits weigh over 3.5kg)
Not eating enough can quickly affect your rabbits health and be potentially very serious. So any changes in appetite should be checked with your Vet as soon as they are noticed.
Rabbits are social animals and in the wild, live together in large groups. This offers them warmth, comfort and companionship as well as meaning that they can all watch for possible dangers and predators. All these things reduce their anxiety and stress and so help to keep them happy.
If rabbits are alone, they can feel socially isolated and become bored, frustrated, destructive and anxious. We recommend keeping rabbits in a bonded pair, ideally a neutered male and neutered female, or in a small group.
Rabbits should never be kept with other species of animal such as guinea pigs. Not only do they have vastly different needs, they also can’t communicate with each other or provide the social support that they need to stay healthy.
Rabbits are highly active and need lots of space to stretch, hop, reach up and run around, as well as a safe and secure space to eat and sleep. When picking a hutch or living area for your rabbits, it’s vital to make sure they have plenty of room. Sadly, we see a lot of tiny hutches for sale which are nowhere near big enough to keep a pair or group of bunnies happy and healthy.
You’ll also need to ensure they have lots of things to nibble and keep their interest like tubes, hay bales, cardboard boxes or hay racks.
If you choose an indoor set up, you’ll need to bunny-proof your home to keep them safe from any hazards such as wires or house plants.
If you have outside rabbits, they could be prey, so their living environment needs to be protected.
Picking up and handling your rabbits can be tricky, especially if they’re not used to being held. Being handled can be very frightening for a rabbit. They’re a prey species and being picked up in the wild would generally result in them becoming someone’s dinner!
Try to avoid picking up your rabbits where possible. Instead, come down to their level and let them choose how and when to spend time with you. Try sitting on the ground near them and giving them some tasty treats – your rabbits are naturally curious and will often want to investigate, sniff and even climb on you. This is much more fun for them than being picked up and held.
If you need to pick your rabbits up, for instance for to do a health check, it’s important to take it slowly. At first your rabbits may be very scared of being picked up, so take your time to gradually build and develop their confidence.
Never hold your rabbits on its back. This is terrifying for them. Likewise, you should never pick your bunny up by its scruff or ears as this can be incredibly painful and scary for them.
How should I exercise my rabbits?
In the wild, rabbits spend their days foraging and digging around fields as large as football field which means they spend a lot of time on the move. Just because our pet rabbits live in hutches, doesn’t mean they don’t need to be active. Your rabbits will need lots of exercise to keep them fit and healthy. Being able to run about, play and dig like they would in the wild will prevent them from getting bored and gaining a lot of weight which can cause all number of medical problems.
As a general rule, your rabbit should be spending as much time as possible during the day in a large, secure outdoor run. At a minimum, this should be three hours but the more the better.
Remember to make sure your rabbits’ outdoor run is safe from predators, safe from escape attempts and has shade on sunny days. Ideally, the run should be attached to their cage so they can go in and out as they choose, especially during the day.
There are loads of ways you can help your rabbits get their daily exercise, including:
Digging – Rabbits love to dig. In the wild, they live in burrows which they dig themselves, but our pet rabbits also have the same need to dig. If you’d rather your rabbits didn’t start digging up your lawn or you’d just like to give them something fun to do, you can give them a shallow planter filled with soil to dig around in.
Foraging – A big part of a rabbit’s day would usually be spent foraging for food. As we’re the ones who provide their food, you might think there’s not much for them to forage for. Actually, you can make forage trays for your rabbits to keep them occupied at home. Hide their food in amongst scrunched up newspaper or grass (you can pull grass from the ground yourself but don’t use lawn mower clippings as these can upset your rabbit’s stomach). You might also want to try scatter feeding instead of using a bowl – simply spread their normal food around a clean area of hutch or in a cardboard box filled with hay.
Exploring – Rabbits enjoy exploring. Whilst they’re in our gardens, they can’t really explore new places so make sure you give them lots of rabbit-safe toys they can have a look at. You can also cut holes in a cardboard box for them to run through and explore or get them a rabbit-safe tunnel.
Jumping. Along with running and digging, rabbits like to jump. Give them different levels in their run by putting in boxes or upturned containers for them to climb and jump on.
Gnawing. Rabbits love to gnaw on things and it helps them to keep their teeth a good length (as their teeth are always growing). Try giving them small branches (or buy them from a pet shop) to gnaw on – safe trees include apple, maple, birch and willow.
Some rabbits will enjoy different games. Some might like to chase a ball – you can start this game by rolling a ball gently in front of you (but not towards them) and let them come over and explore in their own time. Others might like to throw their toys in the air – try fetching for them and placing them back near your rabbit so they can continue playing. As your rabbits feel more confident, they’ll start to come up to you for a sniff, most rabbits are naturally inquisitive so don’t be surprised if one day they decide to jump onto your lap.
Rabbits have a wide range of different behaviours including running, jumping, sniffing, grooming, digging, chasing, biting, hiding and thumping. It’s not always easy to understand the signals your rabbits are giving you, but watch out for changes in behaviour as these can tell you a lot about how your rabbits are feeling.
If you are concerned about a change in behaviour, book an appointment for a bunny health check.
It’s a great idea to give your rabbits a regular health check. Once you get to know your rabbits, you’ll notice if they seem under the weather, are not as active as usual or even if their fur is not quite right – all of which can be an early sign of health problems. If you’re worried about your rabbits’ health, contact your Vet for advice and help.
Our Vets recommend taking these simple steps to help keep your rabbits healthy:
- Register your rabbits with a Vet
- Keep them up to date with their vaccinations each year and make sure they are neutered – this will help to prevent some really serious illnesses and allow them to live together in pairs and groups happily
- Keep a close eye on their teeth and nails. If they appear long, contact your Vet straight away
- Monitor their weight and body condition regularly
Dental problems in rabbits
Your rabbits’ diet is really important to their general health and specially to keep their teeth and gut healthy. Your rabbits’ teeth grow constantly and need to be worn down naturally by eating the right kinds of food. Without this, your rabbits could start suffering from dental problems which can be really painful and might lead to other health issues. Always consult your Vet if you have any concerns.
Neutering is essential in rabbits and allows them to live in pairs or groups without the risk of hormone-related fighting or unwanted pregnancy. Neutering also helps protect your rabbit against some health-related diseases such as uterine cancers.
Day-to-day care for rabbits:
- Check your rabbits every day for any signs of illness or injury including a dirty bottom
- Clean their shelter/ enclosure for any dirty or wet bedding and remove old water
- Replenish hay, replace water and offer healthy fresh foods
- Brush them regularly to keep their coats healthy – most rabbits will groom themselves but sometimes they need a brush to keep their coats healthy. Some long-haired breeds need grooming every day, especially when they are moulting
- Most importantly, enjoy spending time with your rabbits!