Rabbits make amusing, quiet and rewarding pets and can be trained to use a toilet area, much like a cat. They seldom bite and do not need particularly elaborate accommodation. They can make excellent pets for children, but are quite fragile and all interactions with young children should be supervised by a responsible adult. When picked up, one should always support the rabbit’s back, as if they flail around unsupported they can easily injure their spines. Rabbits should never be picked up by the ears.
Tips and guidelines
- Bunnies have a few very specific requirements in order to keep them healthy. Wild rabbits eat hard grasses and, unlike us, have teeth that continue to grow throughout their lives. If their teeth did not grow continuously, they would wear down and the rabbit would starve.
If pet rabbits do not eat enough fibre, their teeth can grow too long and can develop sharp spurs which cut the mouth. Rabbits with tooth problems will often show interest in food but then either turn away or drop the food after a half-hearted attempt to chew it. Once tooth pathology has developed, dental filing under anaesthesia is necessary to correct the problem.
- The rabbit digestive tract is highly specialised to gain the maximum value out of the poorly digestible grasses that they eat in nature. They have a well-developed hind gut containing a population of beneficial bacteria. A lack of fibre can predispose them to bloat and to a dangerous condition known as gut stasis, where the intestines stop contracting in a normal manner.
The proper diet for hind gut fermenting rodents consists mainly of a good quality grass hay (Timothy, Eragrostis, long-stem feeding hay or Teff). Lucerne is not hay and should only be used as a treat as it is too high in calcium and can predispose the rabbit to bloat. It also does not contain sufficient fibre for tooth and intestinal health.
- Rabbit pellets in a limited amount are also an important part of the diet, but take care to buy those designed specifically for pet rabbits. The commonly available commercial rabbit pellets are designed to encourage rapid growth in meat and lab rabbits, and are unsuitable for the long-term health of our pets.
- Bunnies love fresh vegetables and these can safely make up 30% of their diet. There are numerous websites such as The House Rabbit Society that provide lists of suitable fresh foods to offer your companion. Avoid foods high in carbohydrates and sugars as these will imbalance the natural bacterial flora of the gut.
- Unlike with dogs and cats, rabbits in South Africa are not required to have any yearly inoculations. The dangerous virus Myxomatosis does not occur in our country.
- Rabbits are social animals and do very well when kept with a partner. Both single sex and male/female pairs can do well together, but they need to be carefully introduced to prevent initial fighting. We recommend sterilising your pet to prevent unwanted litters, to minimise aggressive behaviours and to prevent the very common development of uterine cancer in females.
- One does not need overly complicated or costly accommodation for pet rabbits. Many people keep them as house rabbits, loose in the home. If you choose to keep your bunnies like this, please rabbit-proof the room they live in by removing all electrical cords and valuable furniture as they will gnaw on anything and everything in their environment.
- Rabbits love being outdoors and will relish fresh grass to eat. They should always be kept safe from predators either in a well-built hutch or under direct supervision if allowed to roam free.
- Please check all your garden plants to make sure that none are toxic to rabbits before you allow your pet to explore the outdoors.
Enjoy your bunnies!