Rabbits as Pets

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

Do rabbits make good pets?

Rabbits can make wonderful pets, but it is important to make informed choices about having one in your home. Rabbits have special characteristics and needs that must be understood, so they make great companions under the right circumstances.

Are rabbits intelligent?

Rabbits are very intelligent and can be trained to use a litter pan. They are fairly reliable with their urinary habits in the litter pan but be aware that they will often unconsciously leave a trail of hard, dry stool pellets as they hop along. Hay, soft recycled paper bedding, or shredded paper are ideal litter substrates instead of a clay product. Rabbits like to stay clean by grooming their feet and fur, and ingesting clay litter can create an intestinal blockage over time.

Rabbits need mental stimulation and social interaction, which can be with humans or other animals. They tend to get along well with both dogs and cats, but please remember that dogs and cats will often view rabbits as prey. Rabbits and potential predators should never be left together unsupervised. It is our obligation to keep rabbits safe from harm. Rabbits also tend to enjoy living with other rabbits. You may want to consider a pair that are both spayed and/or neutered. If you decide to have a pair of rabbits, introduce them slowly and carefully to prevent problems with aggression. Rabbits can be very aggressive with other rabbits they do not get along with and can inflict very serious wounds.

Why should I have my rabbit spayed or neutered?

Rabbits should be spayed (females) or neutered (males) for three important reasons:

1. They may otherwise contribute to the rabbit overpopulation problem. Males begin breeding at about three months of age, and females at about six months. A single female can produce up to 14 baby rabbits with each litter, and she could have a litter every month - up to 168 rabbits per year!

"A single female can produce up to 14 baby rabbits with each litter, and she could have a litter every month - up to 168 rabbits per year!"

2. Their behavior when sexually intact can be undesirable. There is nothing more embarrassing than having an amorous bunny attempt to breed with your dog's head while you are entertaining company for dinner!

3. Rabbits that are spayed/neutered tend to enjoy longer, healthier lives. Cancers of the ovaries, the uterus, and mammary glands are a common cause of death in intact adult female rabbits.

Do rabbits like to cuddle with their owners?

Rabbits require special handling. They are very cute and appear snuggly, but do not be deceived! They are true "ground-loving" animals and, unless they are trained to accept this mode of affection, may not enjoy being picked up and carried about. They generally prefer that you sit on the ground at their level or on your lap in a chair, giving them a chance to be close to you where they are most comfortable.

While rabbits are great pets for adults of all ages, they may not be the most suitable pet for households with children under the age of 12, as there should always be adult supervision when your rabbit is being handled. It only takes one mistake to create a disaster. For instance, if a rabbit is not picked up properly (with one hand under the chest and the other under the hindquarters), the rabbit can kick its powerful rear legs hard enough to break its back and become paralyzed.

"...there should always be adult supervision when your rabbit is being handled."

Pet rabbits should never be allowed to roam the house freely without moderate supervision. They have a strong attraction to electrical cords and can easily electrocute themselves. They also like to pull on and potentially swallow certain types of carpet fiber and bedding from the underside of chairs and sofas, which can create an intestinal blockage if not monitored closely enough.

How long do pet rabbits live?

Rabbit ownership is a long-term commitment! Rabbits can live for up to 12 years and there are validated reports of rabbits that have lived to the ripe old age of 15. To help your rabbit stay healthy for a long time, feed a nutritious rabbit-specific diet (see handout “Feeding Your Rabbit” for details). They also need exercise every day, as they are naturally very active animals. Additionally, a rabbit-savvy veterinarian can advise you about giving your rabbit the best care at home, and routine health exams will ensure any problems can be dealt with early on.

What should I do if I no longer want to keep my pet rabbit?

If you acquire a rabbit and for some reason, it does not work out, find an animal shelter or rescue organization to surrender your rabbit to. NEVER abandon this defenseless animal to the wild. Urban predators such as hawks, raccoons, and stray dogs/cats can and will target your rabbit for their next meal.

For more information about keeping rabbits, specific breeds of rabbits, or adopting a loving bun who is looking for a good home, please contact the House Rabbit Society (www.rabbit.org)

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