How to keep your rabbit happy

All animals have needs which as an owner, you have a duty to meet under animal welfare law.* Rabbits are no exception. Here you’ll learn about the five welfare needs of rabbits and how they contribute towards a lifetime of happiness and health:

  1. Suitable companionship
  2. Suitable environment
  3. Correct diet
  4. Ability to express normal behaviour
  5. Health care

 

Rabbits need companionship

Rabbits are social animals, so before getting rabbits, you need to think whether you have the time, space and finances to keep at least two of them. Keeping a rabbit on their own makes them feel isolated, lonely, bored and unhappy.

They cannot be kept with guinea pigs or other species – this is not safe and can be very stressful for them as they communicate in different ways. Rabbits can seriously injure guinea pigs and carry bacteria that can be deadly to them.

The best rabbit pairing is a neutered male and a neutered female. Neutering prevents accidental pregnancies but also reduces the risk of some serious health problems such as cancer. Neutered rabbits are also less likely to fight, which is common between same sex pairings. Please contact a vet who is experienced in treating rabbits to discuss neutering, and always seek veterinary advice before introducing two unknown rabbits to each other.

 

They need somewhere suitable to live

A hutch is not enough. In the wild, rabbits spend their day jumping, running and digging, and live in large, complex rabbit warrens. It is important to try and provide a similar environment for our pet rabbits, giving them as much space as possible to run, jump, dig and forage.

As a minimum, all rabbits should be able to take three large hops in their hutch. Their ears should not touch the roof of their hutch when they stand up on their hind legs. You can also check out the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund’s space recommendations.

A hutch should always be attached to a run, as rabbits should always have safe, secure access to the outdoors. Always get the largest combination you can afford, the bigger the better!

Rabbits need room to sit or sleep together but also need enough space to get away from each other if they want to. The hutch should be sheltered from the weather, including being shaded from the sun and dry in rain or snow. Your rabbits’ home should be waterproof, free of draughts and raised off the ground.

A garage or shed might be an ideal place for your rabbits’ home as it provides shelter from the elements, but remember they will need access to the outdoors.

Use good quality, deep bedding such as hay.

Dirty bedding should be removed every day, as well as doing a daily ‘poo pick.’ Rabbits can produce up to 300 poos every day so it is important to keep their home nice and clean. A deep, thorough clean should be done at least once a week.

If you are keeping your rabbits indoors, there are some things you need to think carefully about. Your rabbits will still need the same amount of space, but you will need to consider how to provide areas where the rabbits can play, dig, jump and chew. It is very important you “rabbit proof” the house, for example keeping electrical cables well protected to avoid the risk of your rabbits chewing through live wires. Most rabbits do benefit from some time outdoors and access to natural light. Discuss this with your vet before allowing your indoor rabbits access to the garden.

They need a good diet and fresh water

Wild rabbits spend most of their time grazing and foraging. Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously throughout their lives and need to be worn down by grinding and chewing high fibre foods, such as grass and hay. Those foods are also vital for a healthy digestive tract. Domestic rabbits are no different; each rabbit requires their whole-body size in good quality hay or grass each day.

The bulk of your rabbits’ diet should be grass or good quality hay. This hay contains a lot of fibre to keep their digestive system healthy and dental problems at bay. Their guts have developed to digest these high levels of fibre and it might surprise you to learn that rabbits produce two kinds of faeces.  They produce hard round pellets, but also some softer ones too. The softer faeces are known as a ‘caecotroph’ which rabbits eat to help them extract some essential nutrients, although you’re unlikely to see them doing it. If you notice lots of caecotrophs present in their hutch, then contact your vet immediately.

Muesli style foods have been proven to cause a lot of problems in rabbits including:

  • Overgrown teeth
  • Gut disease
  • Obesity
  • Dietary imbalances due to selective feeding

This food should never be given to your rabbits. Instead, they should receive a small amount of rabbit nuggets each day, no more than an egg cup full. Be careful not to feed too many of these or your rabbit will be at risk of obesity. If your rabbit is currently on a muesli diet, it is important to gradually convert to nuggets over the space of a few weeks.

Fresh vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, carrot tops and small amounts of dandelion can be offered daily too. More information about suitable food for rabbits can be found here. If you are ever unsure about what to feed your rabbits, speak to your vet or vet nurse.

Make sure fresh, clean water is always available every day. Ensure you replace your rabbits’ water daily and clean their water bottle or bowl regularly. Be sure to check bottles for blockages or leaks, and make sure they do not freeze in the winter. It is advisable to have at least one bottle or bowl per rabbit to avoid disagreements.

They need to be able to behave normally

Rabbits need to be able to express their natural behaviour. If they are unable to behave normally, they can become anxious, bored and depressed. Some may even start acting very strangely to compensate.

Digging

Digging is an essential part of rabbit life. In the wild, they would be digging their own homes with an intricate design of tunnels. This is not something we would want in our garden!  However, rabbits need to be given the opportunity to dig on a smaller scale by giving them things to dig in safely. Providing a large container or cat litter tray filled with soil or turf can be a great way to do this in a domesticated environment. If your rabbits have access to the outdoors, make sure their run and your garden is rabbit proof, so they cannot dig out of the garden!

Rabbits should never be kept alone, and when happily living with companion rabbits, you may see some of the following normal behaviour:

  • Grooming
  • Scent marking
  • Playing
  • Binkying (a twist and wiggle mid-jump, indicating a happy rabbit)

Hide-aways

Rabbits are prey animals and are highly sensitive to danger. They should have a variety of places to hide in their home environment. This helps them to feel safe if something makes them feel frightened or anxious.

Foraging and keeping busy

Rabbits in the wild forage to find their food. Scatter feeding your rabbits can help mimic this behaviour. Take a small amount of pellet food and spread it around their environment. You can also hang hay or vegetables from the top of their enclosure, so they have to stand up on their hind legs to reach it. Cardboard boxes and tubes can be used to hide food too.

Exercise

Provide the biggest space you can so your rabbits can run, jump and play. Ensure the space is safe, secure and any potential predators are not able to enter.

Abnormal behaviour

Rabbits are prey species and therefore very good at hiding when they are sick or unhappy. Signs are not always obvious, so they need to be monitored very carefully for any small changes. Repetitive circling, changes in appetite or a hunched posture can all be signs your rabbit may need veterinary attention. If your rabbit stops eating or producing faeces, please contact your vet immediately as this may be an emergency.

 

Protection from illness, injury and disease

If you suspect your rabbit is sick, call your vet for advice. A list of rabbit friendly clinics can be found here.

You can prevent many diseases and avoid suffering for your rabbits by being informed and prepared.

Vaccinations

Make sure your rabbits are vaccinated against Myxomatosis and two types of Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD1 and VHD2). All these diseases can be fatal, and there is no known cure, so vaccination is the only way to prevent them. Rabbits will need two separate vaccines, at least 2 weeks apart, and can receive their first vaccination from 5 weeks old. They will need to be given a booster at least annually.

Fly strike

Flies lay their eggs in warm, moist, dirty environments. If rabbit homes are not kept clean and free from a build-up of urine or faeces, this can lead to an accumulation of waste in the rabbit’s fur around their bottom. Rabbits are usually very clean, but pain, illness or obesity can mean they are unable to keep themselves clean.

The eggs hatch into maggots that lead to a very uncomfortable and painful condition in rabbits, commonly known as ‘flystrike.’ Flystrike is more common in Spring and Summer when the weather is warmer. If left untreated, this can very quickly kill your rabbit.

It is important, even in a healthy rabbit, that you check their bottoms daily. Ask your vet or vet nurse about how to spot these problems by carrying out a basic daily health check.

Medicines

Never use other animals’ medicines, including parasite treatments, without seeking veterinary advice. Rabbits are sensitive to the ingredients in some medicines, which can quickly lead to serious side effects, health complications and death.

Neutering

Neutering is often known as ‘castration’ for males and ‘spaying’ for females. Neutering has many health benefits including prevention of some serious diseases. It also stops any unwanted litters. Neutering can also reduce some forms of aggression if done when young. Speak to your vet or vet nurse about the procedure.

Handling

Rabbits can become ill very quickly and need checking every day for signs of problems. Make sure you know how to handle your rabbit properly. Their back legs should be supported at all times to avoid injuries to their spine.

Towels can be useful to help handle a rabbit.

NEVER pick a rabbit up by the ears. This is painful and can cause serious injuries.

NEVER place your rabbit on their back. This is commonly referred to as ‘trancing.’ Rabbits stay very still and go floppy when placed on their back. This is a fear response and petrifies your rabbit.

Ask your vet or vet nurse about proper rabbit handling techniques if you are unsure.

Teeth

Rabbits’ teeth continuously grow. If they are not grinding them down through a suitable diet, high in good quality hay and grass, teeth can get too long and cause pain and abscesses.

Teeth problems are also very common in flat faced (brachycephalic) rabbits, as their flat faces mean they are often born with teeth that do not align properly, and so cannot be ground down.

Signs of dental problems such as overgrown teeth include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight Loss
  • Wet chin
  • Lumps on the jaw line

You must check the front teeth at least once weekly, however back teeth can be difficult to see so should be checked by a vet or vet nurse. This is where most dental problems occur. It is advisable to have regular dental checks with your vet, and if you have any concerns, contact your vet immediately.

A pet rabbit with badly overgrown teeth

There are other, less obvious, signs of dental problems, such as a wet chin

Ask your vet

Ask your vet or vet nurse about how to spot these and other problems and how to check your rabbits’ bodies every day so that you notice straight away when something is wrong.

 

*This legislation refers to: Animal Welfare (England and Wales) Act 2006, the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, and the Welfare of Animals (Northern Ireland) Act 2011

Animal Welfare Foundation

Thank you to both the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund and the ‘Rabbit Housing and Runs’ Facebook group for providing some of the imagery used on this page.

We are a charity run by veterinary and animal welfare professionals. We use veterinary knowledge to improve the welfare of animals through science, education and debate.

The Animal Welfare Foundation is funded entirely by contributions. Learn more about how to support our work here.

How to keep your rabbit happy, June 2020 © Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF). AWF is a registered charity (287118).