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"Are rabbits the new
dogs?"

—Dr. Sammy

Because we share our homes and lives with rabbits, animals domesticated relatively recently (about 1500 years ago, as opposed to at least 15,000 years ago for dogs), we have the opportunity to live with and learn from beings who are much closer to their wild ancestors than are our other domesticated animals. This brings challenges as well as incredible benefits. For me, those benefits stem from the ways in which rabbits both retain so much of their wildness yet also accommodate themselves to our domesticated lives.

But we have to remember that while dogs were tamed to become partners to humans, rather than food, rabbits do not live to serve us or to please us. They are far more independent than dogs, which is one reason why we feel privileged when they choose to spend time with us, like watching TV or lounging on the bed. While there are some rabbits in my house I spend a great deal of time with, most have as much independence as possible. I want them to be free to be who they are, with as little external and human control as is practical. I believe that this comes down to four points: a realistic amount of freedom; an active social life; an interactive environment; and control over one’s life and environment.

A cage-free environment

Many of my rabbits once lived in small cages which did not allow for any natural movements or behaviors. With the exception of the disabled, the rabbits in my house now live cage-free. They have the room to run, play, climb, dig and modify their environment in ways that make sense to them. They have spaces to hide and private spots that they can call their own—at least until someone else claims it as their own. They spend their days chewing on cardboard, foraging for food, relaxing on their hammocks, and endless hours communing with each other—grooming, nuzzling, playing, “gossiping,” or just hanging out.

An interactive environment

Along with space, rabbits need toys to play with and structures to climb on, dig into and explore. This challenges the mind, exercises the body, and gives satisfaction. The inside of my house doesn’t offer a nature-like environment of grass or dirt. Floors are either tile or concrete; even the outdoor play space, our enclosed courtyard, is concrete. So they have cardboard, cloth and plastic tubes to run through; huge tubs of litter and hay to play in; and cardboard boxes of every shape and size to play with. They also have hammocks covered with synthetic sheepskin to lie on, and for the older rabbits who don’t do a lot of playing, this is their major hangout during the daytime.

Realistic Coexistence

The reality is, however, that it’s very difficult to achieve a kind of ideal coexistence with your rabbit(s) unless one is patient and tolerant. In my house, as in yours, equitable coexistence is an ongoing process. It involves a lot of compromise, on the rabbits’ side and our own. But in the end, the attempt at allowing rabbits to live as rabbits is the ultimate goal.

--
Adapted and excerpted from "Rabbit and Human Coexistence" by Margo DeMello
House Rabbit Journal
Volume 5, Number 8

 

Bunny Care Basics

Shopping for Your Rabbit

When shopping for your rabbit, it's important to consider where you will house the rabbit, first and foremost.

Ideally, you'll be able to live with your rabbit as a free-roaming house pet, much like a dog or a cat, since rabbits are very easy to litter train. If you do decide to have a free-roaming rabbit, you must be sure to bunny-proof your house to avoid the possibility of you and/or your bunny having a dangerous accident.

If you choose to keep your rabbit in a confined space, you can dedicate a room of your home as the "bunny room," or, you can place a large pen (cages do not provide adequate space for rabbits), such as an "x-pen" (generally sold for dogs) in an area of your house designated for the rabbit. Wherever you keep your rabbit, be sure there is plenty of natural light, fresh air, and space for the rabbit to move about and get exercise. See the Rabbit Habitat section below for more information on housing your bunny.

Now, let's shop! Dr. Sammy recommends some essentials to get started with your new bunny. After that, you can splurge on treats such as natural rabbit toys, or garden fresh veggies to enhance your bunny's life.


Shopping List:

Housing:
  • Roomy pen or bunny-proofed room(s)/home
  • Litterbox
  • Pellet bowl or feeder
  • Water bottle/crock
  • Pet carrier
  • Toys (a stuffed friend; willow sticks or pinecones for chewing)
Consumables:
  • Rabbit Pellets (Bunny Basics from Oxbow)
  • Fresh water
  • Timothy Hay or Orchard Grass (can be ordered from American Pet Diner)
  • Fresh salad greens and veggies
Grooming:
  • Brush or comb
  • Toenail clippers
Supplies:
  • Dust-free organic litter (CareFresh)
  • White vinegar or Nature’s Miracle (for urine accidents)
  • Hand vacuum

Rabbit Habitat or "Rabitat"

Before you bring home your rabbit from the shelter, you need to decide how you will share your home with your new pet. Many rabbit shelters and animal rights advocates strongly discourage the use of cages for long-term housing for house rabbits, as cages do not provide adequate space for rabbits to get enough exercise, or to live a fulfilling and stimulating life.

Housing Options Include:

  1. Sharing your entire home, or a number of rooms in your (bunny-proofed) home with your rabbit;
  2. Providing a "rabbit room" filled with all the necessities for your bunny, and outfitted with areas for him or her to climb, explore, exercise and chew (as well as natural light and fresh air);
  3. Sectioning off a portion of a room with an "x-pen" which holds all of your rabbit's necessities, and gives adequate space for him or her to move about. If you use a pen, you will want to allow the rabbit time to explore and move about in a larger space for several hours a day.

Whatever you decide, be sure to fully research your options and outfit your "rabitat" for your rabbit's comfort. A well-cared-for bunny will likely be a better companion for you and your family! Special enclosures and climbing structures are made for rabbits, or you can make your own. You many find that simple things such as cardboard crates with the sides torn off make excellent dens.

Dr. Sammy enjoys his litter box situated beneath an IKEA side table picked up at a garage sale for $2, which doubles as a chewing station (protecting other furniture in the house). A non-toxic houseplant atop the table disguises the dust-buster used for daily tidying aorund Sammy's box and food area. Soft bath mats, towels and throw rugs are gentle on rabbits' delicate foot pads. Additionally, some rabbits enjoy scraping and burrowing in old towels.

If you do decide to have a free-roaming house rabbit, plan on some time to help your rabbit adjust to his new home. According to the House Rabbit Society:

"Your rabbit does not need a cage. However, an untrained rabbit probably should be kept in a home-base of some kind, like a pen, a cage, or some other protected housing, while you’re not home to supervise and at night when you sleep. Rabbits are crepuscular, which means that generally they sleep during the day and during the night but are ready to play at dawn and at twilight. Be sure to let them out during the evening when you are home, and if possible, in the morning while you get ready for work. However, once your rabbit is familiar with your home, once you know what your rabbit does, and once your house has been fully bunny proofed, there’s no reason that he or she can’t have run of your home even when you’re not there... The more room your rabbit has to run around in, the more delightful you will find her as a companion."


Eats, Treats & Poisons

Basic Diet for Rabbits

Q: What are the basics of a good house rabbit diet?

A: Large, unlimited amounts of fresh hay should be offered daily. Young bunnies should be introduced to hay as soon as they can eat on their own. Mixed grass hay or Timothy hay is preferred because it is lower in calories and calcium than alfalfa. A rabbit’s diet should include good quality pellets, unlimited fresh hay (timothy or other grass hays) and water, and daily servings of fresh vegetables. Anything beyond that is a “treat” and should be given in limited quantities.

Q: What makes a good pellet?

A: Pellets should be fresh, and should be relatively high in fiber (18% minimum fiber). Do not purchase more than 6 weeks worth of feed at a time, as it will become spoiled. Pellets should make up less of a rabbit’s diet as he or she grows older, and hay should be available 24 hours a day.

Q: What kinds of veggies should I feed my rabbit?

A: When shopping for vegetables , look for a selection of different veggies–look for both dark leafy veggies and root vegetables, and try to get different colors. Stay away from beans and rhubarb. Here’s a suggested veggie list.

Q: Is feeding hay important?

A: Hay is essential to a rabbit’s good health, providing roughage which reduces the danger of hairballs and other blockages. Apple tree twigs also provide good roughage. Find out where to buy hay here.

Q: Where can I find out more?

A: The House Rabbit Society website has some excellent articles covering all the details you need to know to properly feed your bunny.


What quantities of food should I feed mature adults?

  • Unlimited timothy, grass hay, other hays including orchard grass, oat, brome, Bermuda, etc.
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup pellets per 6 lbs. body weight (depending on metabolism and/or proportionate to veggies)
  • Minimum 2 cups chopped vegetables per 6 lbs. body weight
  • fruit daily ration no more than 2 oz. (2 TBL) per 6 lbs. body weight (optional)

Poisons

The following is a list of plants which are generally considered poisonous to rabbits. You can also visit the ASPCA’s Toxic Plant List and Wisconsin House Rabbit Society’s poisonous plant list for additional information. Seek emergency medical help right away, if your rabbit ingests a poisonous substance.

  • Agave (leaves)
  • Amaryllis (bulbs)
  • Apple (seeds)
  • Azalea
  • Bird of Paradise (seeds)
  • Bloodroot
  • Buttercup (leaves)
  • Black Locust (seeds)
  • Boxwood (leaves/twigs)
  • Buckeye (seeds)
  • Buckthorn (berries)
  • Caladium
  • Calla (rhizome)
  • Castor Bean (seed)
  • Christmas Rose
  • Cone Flower
  • Crown of Thorns
  • Daffodil
  • Daphne
  • Delphinium
  • Dumbcane (Dieffenbachia)
  • Eggplant (plant)
  • Elderberry (unripe berries)
  • Elephant Ear
  • Flowering Tobacco
  • Foxglove
  • Holly (berries)
  • Horsechestnut (nuts)
  • Hyacinth
  • Iris
  • Ivy, Boston & English (berries)
  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit
  • Jerusalem Cherry
  • Jimson Weed
  • Jonquil
  • Lantana
  • Larkspur
  • Lily-of-the-Valley
  • Lupine
  • Mayapple
  • Mistletoe (berries)
  • Morning Glory (seeds)
  • Mustard (root)
  • Narcissus
  • Nicotiana
  • Nightshade
  • Oleander
  • Philodendron
  • Poison Hemlock
  • Poison Ivy
  • Potato (green)
  • Privet (berries)
  • Ranunculus
  • Rhododendron
  • Rhubarb (leaf blade)
  • Rosary Pea (seed)
  • Snow-on-the-Mountain
  • Sweet Pea (seeds)
  • Sweet Potato
  • Skunk Cabbage
  • Tansy
  • Tomato (leaves)
  • Tulip
  • Virginia Creeper (berries)
  • Water Hemlock
  • Wisteria (seeds/pods)
  • Yew (berries)

Bunny Behavior

Bunny-proofing Your Home

Bunny-proofing your home is part of living with a house rabbit. It is natural for rabbits to chew on furniture, rugs, drapes, and, most deadly of all, electrical cords. Cords must be concealed so that the rabbit cannot reach them! Exposed cords can be encased in vinyl tubing, found at hardware stores or online. By splitting the tubing lengthwise with a utility knife the cord can be pushed inside it. Some cord protector comes already pre-split.

Give your rabbit enough attention, safe chewables, and toys, so that she is distracted from chewing furniture and rugs. A cardboard box stuffed with hay makes an inexpensive playbox. Young rabbits (under a year) are more inclined to mischief and require more confinement and/or bunny-proofing than mature rabbits.

Non-toxic toys made from untreated sisal, wood, and natural dyes are great options for chewing, fully endorsed by Dr. Sammy. Phone books, cardboard (paper towel tubes) and paper bags filled with hay also make great impromptu toys that can help keep your rabbit from chewing on furniture or rugs. Books and handbags should be kept out of reach of curious rabbits, advises Dr. Sammy.


Housetraining

Rabbits may have free run of the home. However, it’s best for most–and necessary for some–to start with a space they can call their own. This can be an exercise pen, a large dog crate, a bunny proofed room, or a very large cage or condo. To make this confined time learning time, make sure that there’s a litterbox in the corner of the space that your rabbit chooses for a “bathroom.” As soon as he uses the box consistently, you can give him some freedom. Place one or more large litterboxes in corners of the running area outside the rabbit’s home base. Use only positive reinforcement (treats and praise)–never punishment.

Understanding Your Rabbit

Personality

Rabbits are individuals, just like people, cats and dogs. They can be shy, nervous, outgoing, playful, bright, ornery, inquisitive and opinionated. Most do not like to be picked up and held. Most will not sit in your lap. They like you to interact with them on the ground at their level.

Rabbits are very intelligent and need bunny toys and other mental stimulation. Remember that rabbits are "prey" animals, unlike cats or dogs and need to feel safe and secure. Let them approach you. Gradually their trust in you will grow, if you allow it to, and you will begin to mutually understand one another.

Company

Most rabbits enjoy social interaction with people and many enjoy the companionship of another spayed or neutered rabbit. Let your rabbit pick his /her own friend.

Introduce rabbits slowly in neutral territory, with each rabbit having his/her own housing during this time or consult an expert. Rabbits can fight viciously. Many rabbits can get along well with cats and well-behaved dogs. Therefore, slow, supervised introductions are a must.

Rabbits do not generally make good pets for young children, or classroom pets. Rabbits prefer a quiet, stable environment and can be easily injured by over-exuberant children. If you have young children and are considering getting a rabbit, it is essential that an adult take responsibility as the primary caretaker of the rabbit, and be willing to guide and supervise rabbit/child interactions.


Rabbit Health

Bunny Health Essentials

There is so much to learn and understand about rabbit health, and Dr. Sammy advocates finding a local vet well-versed in rabbit health in order to keep your bunny in tip-top shape. Below are some bullet points that cover the most essential information you should know about bunny health.

Keep in mind that rabbits are at the bottom of the food chain, in the wild. As prey animals, they will instinctively try to hide health issues, because in the wild, showing signs of sickness or injury mark them as easier targets for predators. So if your rabbit is showing signs of illness or injury, the condition may already be quite acute, and it is best to contact your vet immediately.


First Aid

Rabbits are delicate (though also very resilient) creatures and their health can change condition quite quickly. It's important to stay in tune with your bunny and note any changes that may occur. While Dr. Sammy looks terrific with a stethescope, he is in fact not an actual veterinarian, nor is the author/editor of this website.

It's very important to have a good veterinarian you can call in case of emergency or concern. If you do not have a vet, but are concerned about a health issue with your rabbit, please go to the nearest pet emergency center in a crisis of any sort. Gastrointestinal and respiratory issues in rabbits can worsen dramatically overnight.

Meanwhile, there are some excellent first aid resources online which you can use for reference, or while you make contact with a vet.

Resources and Credits

This site would not have been possible without the wonderful work of the volunteers and staff at The House Rabbit Society National Headquarters in Richmond, California, and the director of Save A Bunny rabbit shelter in Mill Valley, California. Huge thanks to both Anne Martin (at HRS), and Marcy Schaaf (at Save A Bunny), their colleagues, and all the fantastic rabbits in their shelters. Both HRS and Save A Bunny do amazing work, rescuing, rehabilitating and housing rabbits, and educating the public about all things rabbit!

If you have been informed, inspired, moved, or enchanted by Dr. Sammy's Guide to Rabbit Care, take a moment to consider the joys that an adopted bunny could bring to your life. Save A Bunny and House Rabbit Society, as well as shelters nationwide (and worldwide) have so many incredible rabbits available for adoption (as well as for fostering, if you want to "test-drive" life with a rabbit!)

Additionally, House Rabbit Society (and many other shelters) recruit "Bunny Buddies" to come spend quality time with the shelter rabbits while they are in the shelter, giving them valuable human love and contact and time away from the cage or pen that the shelter provides.


The information on this site was compiled by Elaine Gruenke for a graphic design project for a studio course at Savannah College of Art and Design, and for use in any way that may be valuable beyond that. All text was either adapted from Save A Bunny's materials, HRS materials, or written by Elaine based on research, and personal experience as a rabbit owner. Please visit the websites of Save A Bunny and HRS for additional information and rabbit care and adoption resources

All photography and artwork on the site was created by Elaine Gruenke, or Gawain Weaver. Photographed rabbits include Sammy(!) and rescue rabbits at HRS and Save A Bunny.

Finally, a BIG shoutout to Sammy, a.k.a., Dr. Sammy, a blue mini rex of six years. Sammy has been the inspiration for this project from the start, and is one of Elaine's closest friends in the world, species notwithstanding.