By Dr Olivia Down

Rabbits are a great pet that is fairly low maintenance.  Rabbits are particularly popular for families with children.  There are severalbreeds, the Lop Eared rabbit, which comes with floppy ears and in a variety of colours and is very popular.  The Dwarf and Mini Lop are a widely purchased breed as they are very tolerant of handling by children.  Depending on the breed, most rabbits live between 6-10 years.

Housing
Rabbits can be kept indoors or out.  The most important thing with keeping a rabbit indoors is ensuring that they do not have access to any electrical cords, as they are notorious for chewing through them, leading to electrocution. Indoor rabbits can be kitty litter trained which is great for cleanliness, but avoid clay kitty litter material as they can cause intestinal problems if they decide to nibble on it.

Outdoor rabbits ideally need to be housed in a secure hutch, even if they roam in an exercise pen during the day.  The most popular hutch is a moveable hutch that has an enclosed area for shade and sleep, and a separate area that the rabbit can access grass to eat.

These hutches should be long enough to allow them to have 3 full length bounces and high enough to allow them to stand on the hind-paws.  It is best to have a hutch that has mosquito-proof mesh as this helps prevent myxomatosis and calicivirus infections.  The best bedding is either hay, saw dust (not from treated woods) or paper material.  This needs to be very regularly changed.

Rabbits are very susceptible to extreme weather changes, with hot and cold weather. Very hot weather can be fatal to rabbits. It is important to provide an alternative housing setup in very hot weather, ie outdoor rabbits may need to be brought indoors during the heat.

Feeding
Rabbits are hindgut fermenting herbivores and selective feeders who like to eat the luscious parts of vegetation. The natural diet of rabbits is a large volume of high fibre foods that helps naturally wear teeth. Eating fruits etc is not a large part of a natural rabbit’s diet.

Therefore, a rabbits’ diet should consist mostly (80-90%) of good quality grass hay. The quality of the hay is very important and they should be allowed to eat as much of it as they want, so it needs to be freely available.

The hay should smell fresh, look green, have no prickles, dust or be too dry. The average ‘bedding hay’ is not good enough quality for their needs and so the rabbit is unlikely to eat much of this type of hay.

Many commercial rabbit pellets and mixes are available in the supermarket & pet stores. The mixes are like junk food for rabbits and they will select the tasty bits and leave the rest. Diets high in pellets and mixes result in obesity and other health problems for rabbits. A good quality pellet should be about 18% protein and be limited to a tablespoon daily.

Most vegetables, fruits and salads are safe. Do not feed iceburg lettuce, onion, potato, cabbage, corn, tomato plants, apple cores, dairy products, meat, sweets, or any processed foods.  The best vegetables to feed are carrots, broccoli (mostly leaves and stems), snow peas, parsley and celery. Cauliflower and spinach are good but not in excessive amounts.

Vaccinations
Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD) was released in Australia to control wild rabbit populations but it can equally affect your pet. The virus is in the saliva, urine and other secretions and is spread by contact with affected rabbits and on grass, bedding or anything else an infected rabbit may have contacted. The virus is also transmitted by biting insects as vectors.

An infected rabbit will become lethargic and die within 12 - 18 hours. There is no treatment, therefore all pet rabbits should be vaccinated against RCD.

2 vaccinations are required initially, 4 weeks apart, followed by 6 monthly boosters. 

  • To prevent exposure to RCD and other diseases such as Myxomatosis the following precautions should be undertaken:
  • Avoid direct/indirect contact with wild rabbits including sources or supplies of green feed that could be contaminated
  • House in a insect proof hutch, and reduce mosquito numbers in the environement
  • Keep any new rabbits away from other rabbits for a least 7 days.

There is no vaccine available in Australia for myxomatosis.

Desexing rabbits
Desexing both male and female rabbits has many benefits.  It prevents unwanted litters, but it also prevents aggressive & territorial behaviour. Desexing also prevents serious reproductive disease, especially uterine cancer in female rabbits, which can have an incidence of up to 80% in entire female rabbits. Male rabbits have a better, friendlier temperament when desexed, and pairs of rabbits will get along much better with each other if they are desexed.

We recommend desexing male rabbits from 4 months of age, and females from 6 months of age.