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Owning a Rabbit

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

Contrary to popular belief, rabbits are lagomorphs, not rodents. There are many breeds of rabbits, of varied sizes and coat colors, such as the English Angora, Chinchilla, Dutch, Flemish Giant, Himalayan, Netherland Dwarf, Rex, Polish, Satin, and Mini Lop. If properly handled and socialized, they make curious, sociable, pleasant, docile, quiet, and gentle pets.

Rabbits rarely bite, but they can scratch with their sharp claws and powerful hind legs if improperly handled. They do not have to be walked, and because they commonly urinate and defecate in the same spot, they learn to use a litter box quite easily. Their average life span is 5-8 years old (small breeds can reach 10-14 years old), and they reach breeding age at 6 months.

Males are called bucks, females are called does, and offspring are known as kittens. Rabbits are known for their breeding abilities; pregnancy lasts about 30 days, and the average size litter is 4-10. Early spaying (at 5-6 months of age) is recommended to decrease the chances of fatal uterine cancer in females; neutering is recommended at the same age in males to decrease the likelihood that they will spray to mark territory.

"Proper handling of rabbits is important."

Proper handling of rabbits is important. Rabbits have a lightweight skeleton compared to most other animals and have powerful back legs allow them to kick with surprising strength. If held improperly, a rabbit can kick hard and dislocate or break its back, resulting in severe chronic disabilities that may necessitate euthanasia, if the rabbit is paralyzed. When carrying your pet, always support its entire body and hind end. NEVER pick up your rabbit by its ears, and always hold it close to your body. Have your veterinarian show you the proper way to restrain and carry your rabbit.

Interesting rabbit facts

  • Rabbits have large ears, which give them an excellent sense of hearing. The ears also serve as a way for rabbits to regulate their body temperature. The large surface area of the ears, containing veins near the skin surface, provides a great way for bunnies to release heat as the blood flows through these blood vessels and is released through the skin.
  • Rabbits’ digestive tract is adapted for digesting the large amount of fiber that is required in their diets.
  • They are hindgut fermenters, meaning that they have a specific population of microbes (bacteria and yeast) to ferment the high-fiber hay and other vegetation they ingest before the nutrients can be absorbed in the lower intestines and used by the body.
  • Rabbit pass large numbers of dry, round fecal pellets daily. They also pass a special type of feces called cecotropes at night or in the early hours of the morning. Cecotropes are softer, stickier, and darker than normal fecal pellets, and they contain nutrients produced by bacterial fermentation (specifically certain proteins and vitamins B and K). Rabbits eat cecotropes to absorb these nutrients.
  • Compared to other pets, rabbits have a very light skeleton in relation to its body mass. This predisposes their bones to fracturing more easily; carrying a rabbit improperly or dropping it can lead to bone fractures.
  • Rabbits are lagomorphs that, by definition, have two pairs of upper incisor teeth (the second pair is hidden behind the first) and one pair of lower incisors the hidden pair of upper incisors are very small and are called peg teeth. Rodents have only one pair of upper and one pair of lower incisors.
  • Rabbit's teeth (front incisors and back molars) grow throughout the pet's life and may need periodic trimming by your veterinarian if problems arise. Providing your rabbit with unlimited amounts of hay and blocks of wood to chew helps prevent overgrown teeth, a common condition in pet rabbits.
  • Rabbits rarely make noise but occasionally will make a growl or warning grunt. Rarely, if frightened or hurt and rabbit will make high pitched scream. Rabbits will thump their back feet as a warning signal.

 

Selecting your pet rabbit

Rabbits are often adopted at shelters or purchased at pet stores or through breeders. Healthy rabbits are curious and inquisitive and should not be thin. Their stools should be formed, dry, round pellets and not soft or stuck to their hind ends. Their skin and haircoat should be free of parasites, such as fleas and ear mites (which cause the production of a crusty, thick, flaky accumulation in the ears and often tenderness of the ears).

"Healthy rabbits are curious and inquisitive and should not be thin."

The eyes and nose should be clear of any discharge that might indicate a respiratory infection. The rabbit's incisors (front teeth) should not be broken or overgrown, the gums should not be discolored (they should be light pink) or have any obvious sores. Inquire as to whether the rabbit has been spayed or neutered. Finally, inquire as to any guarantee of health the shelter or seller is offering.

The first veterinary visit

Your rabbit should be examined by a veterinarian within 48 hours of adoption or purchase (this examination is often required by the shelter or seller, or any guarantee becomes void). Make sure the veterinarian has experience treating rabbits. Your veterinarian will examine the rabbit, record its weight, and discuss housing, proper diet, and appropriate toys for the rabbit. At this time, a fecal sample should also be examined for parasites.

"Your rabbit should be examined by a veterinarian within 48 hours of adoption or purchase."

Rabbits require at least annual physical examinations and fecal tests to check for parasites. Unlike dogs and cats, rabbits generally do not require vaccinations. In rare instances, where rabbits live in areas endemic to the serious, often life-threatening conditions viral hemorrhagic disease or myxomatosis virus infection, some veterinarians will recommend vaccinating a prevent these illnesses. Consult your veterinarian to see if this applies to your geographic location.

Who should have a pet rabbit?

Rabbits generally make good family pets for families with elementary school age or older children. Since rabbits can break their backs easily if they are mishandled or when they are startled and kick, they are not a good choice for families with younger children. Rabbits should never be left unsupervised with small children.

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