Rabbits – Owning
Contrary to popular belief, rabbits are lagomorphs, not rodents. There are many breeds and colors of rabbits, such as the English Angora, Chinchilla, Dutch, Flemish Giant, Himalayan, Netherlands Dwarf, Rex, Polish, Satin, and Mini Lop. If properly handled and socialized, they make a curious, sociable, pleasant, docile, quiet and gentle pet. Rabbits rarely bite, but they can scratch with their sharp claws and powerful hind legs if improperly handled. They don’t have to be walked and because they like to urinate and defecate in the same spot, usually 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 of age. 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 bunnies. Early spaying and neutering (5-6 months of age) is recommended to decrease both medical and behavioral problems.
“Males are called bucks, females are called does and offspring are known as kittens.”
Proper handling of rabbits is important. Rabbits have a lightweight skeleton compared to most other animals. Their powerful back legs allow them to kick with a surprisingly large amount of strength. If held improperly, a swift kick can easily cause a rabbit to dislocate or break its back, resulting in severe chronic disabilities or even euthanasia for the now paralyzed rabbit. When carrying your pet, always support its entire body and hind end. NEVER pick up your rabbit by its ears. 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 the rabbit to regulate its body temperature. The ears contain large veins, which are often used for drawing blood for diagnostic testing.
- Rabbits have a digestive tract that is adapted for digesting the large amount of fiber that is required in their diets.
- Rabbits are hindgut fermenters, meaning that they require microbes (special bacteria and flagellate organisms) to ferment the high-fiber foods they ingest before the nutrients can be absorbed in the lower intestines and used by the body.
- Rabbit pass large amounts of dry round fecal pellets daily. They also pass a special feces called “cecotropes” at night or in the early hours of the morning. These cecotropes contain nutrients produced by bacterial fermentation (specifically certain proteins and Vitamins B & K), and the rabbit eats the cecotropes to absorb these nutrients.
- Compared to other pets, the skeleton of a rabbit is very light in relation to the rest of its body. This means that their bones fracture (break) more easily; carrying a rabbit improperly or dropping it can predispose it to bone fractures.
- Rabbits have two pairs of upper incisor teeth (the second pair is hidden behind the first), which is why they are not rodents; they are correctly known as lagomorphs.
- Like rodents, rabbit’s teeth grow throughout the pet’s life and may need periodic trimming by your veterinarian if problems arise. Providing your rabbit with blocks of wood to chew often prevents overgrown incisors, 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 purchased at pet stores or through breeders. Ideally, select a young bunny. It should be curious and inquisitive. The rabbit should not be thin or emaciated. Check for the presence of wetness around the anus, which might indicate diarrhea. Also, check for the presence of parasites such as fleas and ear mites (ear mites cause the production of a crusty, thick, flaky accumulation in the ears, and often cause tenderness of the ears). The eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge that might indicate a respiratory infection. If possible, examine the rabbit’s mouth for broken or overgrown incisors (front teeth), discolored gums (they should be light pink), and any obvious sores. Inquire as to whether the rabbit has been spayed or neutered; most have not been at the time of purchase. Finally, inquire as to any guarantee of health the seller is offering.
The First Veterinary Visit
Your rabbit should be examined by a veterinarian within 48 hours of purchase (this examination is often required by the seller or any guarantee becomes void). Make sure the veterinarian has experience in treating rabbits. The 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. Rabbits require at least annual physical examinations and fecal tests to check for parasites.
Rabbits do not require vaccinations unless housed outdoors where consideration for rabies vaccination should be discussed with your veterinarian.
As a final note, rabbits generally make good family pets, but should never be left unsupervised with small children.