Rabbit Breed Menu

Physical Characteristics - General Rabbit Information

Selective breeding of rabbits began in the Middle Ages, when they were first treated as domesticated farm animals. By the 1500s, several new breeds of different colors and sizes were being recorded.

In the 1800s, as animal fancy in general began to emerge, rabbit fanciers began to attend rabbit shows in Western Europe and the United States. Breeds were created and modified for the purpose of exhibition, a departure from the breeds that had been created for food, fur, or wool. The rabbit's emergence as a household pet began during the Victorian era. The domestic rabbit continues to be popular as a show animal and pet. Rabbit shows occur in many places and are sanctioned in Canada and the United States by the American Rabbit Breeders' Association (ARBA).

Rabbits have and continue to be used in laboratory work such as production of antibodies for life-saving vaccines and research of human male reproductive system toxicology. The Environmental Health Perspective, published by the National Institute of Health, states, "The rabbit is an extremely valuable model for studying the effects of chemicals or other stimuli on the male reproductive system." According to the Humane Society of the United States, rabbits are also used extensively in the study of bronchial asthma, stroke prevention treatments, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and cancer. Animal rights activists have opposed animal experimentation for non-medical purposes, such as the testing of cosmetic and cleaning products, which has resulted in decreased use of rabbits in these areas.

Rabbits As Pets
Rabbits have been kept as pets in Western nations since the 1800s. Like all pets, rabbits need a considerable amount of care and attention. Rabbits kept indoors with proper care can expect to live between 9 to 12 years. Rabbits are especially popular as pets during Easter, due to their association with the holiday. However, animal shelters that accept rabbits often complain that during the weeks and months following Easter, there is a rise of unwanted and neglected rabbits that were bought on impulse or as Easter "gifts", especially for children.
House rabbit organizations warn that a rabbit does not make a good pet for small children because they do not know how to stay quiet, calm, and gentle around the rabbit. As prey animals, rabbits are alert, timid creatures that startle easily. They have fragile bones, especially in their backs, that require support on the belly and bottom when picked up. A scared bunny may bite or scratch a child holding it in a precarious grip and be dropped, seriously injuring the animal, or kick hard enough to fracture or break their own backs. Children 10 years old and older tend to have the maturity and skill required to care for a rabbit.

Socialization With Other Rabbits
Rabbits are social animals. The process of introducing two rabbits in a common space is called bonding. Until two rabbits are bonded, they tend to fight with each other. Fighting is often the result of territoriality or sexual mounting, which is engaged in by rabbits of both genders upon other rabbits of either gender; this behavior stresses the rabbit being mounted and can make it aggressive toward its cage mate. Bonding rabbits require additional care to protect against unwanted pregnancy and the spread of disease or parasites.

Acquiring A Rabbit
There are many rescue groups, humane societies, and local city animal shelters and individuals that have rabbits available for adoption, typically for a small fee. Additionally, reputable breeders and some pet stores sell rabbits. Pet stores are often considered the least preferable place to acquire a new rabbit as the rabbit's history is unknown, and many come from pet farms with poor conditions. Some stores, however, do document the history of their stock, which can be used to verify their environmental conditions.

Training and Play
Rabbits can be taught to follow voice commands much like a dog or cat, but they can also be trained to recognize different patterns of the voice. Rabbits can be taught their names, although they recognize the pattern of the noises more than the words. Rabbits can be very playful and enjoy games and toys. Toys keep a rabbit from becoming bored or frustrated. Rabbits have a tendency to chew on items in their space, particularly wires, although some can be encouraged not to chew dangerous or valuable items by offering alternatives such as chew toys. Some pet rabbit owners prevent access to electrical wires by blocking them off or using cord covers, such as corrugated tubing available at hardware stores.

Socialization With Other Animals
abbits often get along well with declawed house cats, although care should be used when introducing these natural adversaries. Some books recommend keeping rabbits and guinea pigs together to meet their social needs. While there is varied success with this technique, some have recommended that rabbits should not be kept in the same cage with guinea pigs. A rabbit can easily harass or injure a guinea pig, leading to severe distress, injury, or even death for the guinea pig. Occasionally an unneutered male may attempt to mate with a guinea pig and injure it. Rabbits and guinea pigs also have differing nutritional requirements and therefore require separate foods. Despite formerly proposed social compatibility and their mutual status as small herbivores, rabbits and guinea pigs do in fact have very different social signals and activities. For instance, guinea pigs generally do not practice social grooming. Additionally, rabbits often harbour Bordatella bacteria, which is lethal to guinea pigs should they become infected.

Prior to the trend in keeping rabbits as house pets, most pet rabbits were kept outdoors in hutches. Today, a wide selection of indoor and outside housing choices are available designed just for rabbits.

Rabbits kept as pets indoors are often referred to as house rabbits; they live in homes with humans much as cats and dogs do. This helps human and pet form a close relationship. As with other pets, rabbits housed indoors are protected from outside predators, temperature extremes, and outdoor parasites. Accommodations can range from a large cage or pen to the free run of the home, depending upon the needs of the family and the personality and physical abilities of the rabbit(s).

When the proper protection from outdoor predators (such as dogs) is provided, rabbits can be safely housed outdoors in well situated runs, hutches, and rabbitries. A rabbitry is housing specifically made for raising rabbits mainly used by rabbit exhibitors (or fanciers) and other reputable breeders. A rabbitry may be a barn, shed, studio, or other safe enclosure. Many rabbitries have electricity, running water, rodent-safe storage for hay and food, a grooming area, and even dishwashers. Many reputable breeders have various temperature control mechanisms for their rabbitries such as electric air conditioning, heating, swamp coolers, or misting systems for cooling the air. Rabbitries range from the very simple to the very elaborate and may house anywhere from 3 to 300 rabbits depending on size and the goals and purposes of the breeder.

Outdoor Housing
Outdoor housing for rabbits is usually designed to provide protection from predators. It must provide protection from the elements in winter and keep them cool in summer heat.

Whether housed indoors or out, all rabbits should be handled properly and often and provided enrichment items such as shelves, ramps, balls, or other toys. To protect from predators rabbit hutches should be situated in a fenced yard, shed, barn, or other enclosed structure. Rabbits produce quantities of waste that can be measured in cubic yards per year. This waste is excellent for gardening and composting, and can be collected for these uses whether the rabbit is housed indoors or outdoors. An outdoor cage should be as large as possible, at least high enough for the rabbit to stand on its back legs without its head touching the ceiling. It should be large enough to enable the rabbit to take 4 or 5 hops along its length and/or width. Rabbits should be checked at least once each day for signs of parasites, such as ticks and botflies. The shelter may be heated in winter (although many rabbits can be kept outside with extra bedding even into temperatures below freezing) and should be shaded or otherwise appropriately cooled in summer. Rabbit keepers ensure that clean water is always available to the rabbit in hot weather to keep temperatures below 85 degrees. Large rabbits (such as the New Zealand breed) do fine in temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius/15 degrees Fahrenheit in a hutch with plenty of straw, if their needs for food and water are well met. Water bottles that become frozen in cold weather must be changed two or three times daily. Below -10 degrees Celsius/15 degrees Fahrenheit it is necessary to shelter all animals in a barn or basement or garage. Covering cages three quarters of the way with a blanket, several cages grouped together, can generate a great deal of heat. One rule of thumb is at least eight pounds of animal per cage. Even newborn rabbits do well in cold if they have sufficient nest and many siblings to snuggle with. They should stay with the mother for longer periods of time in the winter for warmth. Domesticated rabbits are most comfortable in temperatures between 10 to 21 degrees C (50 to 70 degrees F), and cannot endure temperatures above 32 degrees C (90 degrees F) without assistance such as fans, frozen water bottles, and deep shade.

Rabbits require clean environments and all housing should be cleaned regularly to ensure that no build-up of feces or urine occurs. Rabbits are often raised in cages made entirely of wire which are self cleaning, allowing the urine and droppings to fall through the floor. These rabbits are often provided with sitting boards or mats made of plywood, large ceramic tiles, or smooth slotted mats made of flexible but hard pvc for rabbits to rest upon. Wire bottom floors allow rabbit droppings to be quickly and easily collected without disturbing the rabbit. Rabbit droppings are often left in beds with red worms to create compost, added to compost bins for enrichment of the compost, or applied directly to a garden as a "cool" fertilizer that will not burn plants. Wire cages are easier to clean and sanitize than wooden hutches which may not provide adequate protection from the elements and predators as housing rabbits in a rabbit barn or shed called a rabbitry.

Rabbit owners who house their pets in solid bottom cages must be diligent in cleaning the bedding in the cage because of urine scald which can irritate the rabbit's hocks (back feet).

The diet of a domestic rabbit varies depending on the purpose it is kept for. The most important component of a pet rabbit's diet is hay. Hay is the base of pelleted feeds. In addition to pelleted feeds, timothy hay, orchard grass hay, or an oat hay blend are a necessary and very important part of a rabbit's diet. These kinds of hay provide more fiber than other types of hays. Fresh water in clean bowls or water bottles must be available to rabbits at all times. When a rabbit's sensitive digestive system is stable after weaning, vegetables and some fruits may be introduced safely if they are introduced slowly and cautiously. Avoid seeds, nuts and corn. Overfeeding of treats such as apples, bananas, carrots and other sugary foods can lead to obesity or GI stasis, a condition that can be fatal if not treated.

Fly strike (a relatively rare condition in the United States) mostly affects rabbits kept in unsanitary conditions and is more likely to occur during summer months. Fly strike happens when flies (particularly the Botfly) lay their eggs in the damp or soiled fur of a rabbit. Within 12 hours, the eggs hatch into the larvae stage of the fly, known as maggots. It is often a secondary condition to an open wound, extreme feces accumulation on the fur of rabbits due to unsanitary living conditions, prolonged contact with water or other environmental favorable to fly larvae. The maggots, initially small and almost invisible to the naked eye, can burrow into the skin of the rabbit and feed on the animals tissue. Within 3-4 days, the larvae can be large as 15 mm long. In rare cases, if not treated, the rabbit can pass into shock and die. Rabbits most susceptible are rabbits living in unsanitary housing, older rabbits who do not move much, and those who are unable to clean their bottom areas carefully. Rabbits raised on solid floors are more susceptible than rabbits raised on wire floors. Rabbits exhibiting one or more episodes of soiling his/her bottom (diarrhea), need to be inspected often especially during the summer months. In 2002, the medicine Rearguard was approved in the United Kingdom for a 10-week per-application prevention of Fly strike. Fly strike deaths are quick and extremely painful to the rabbit, as hundreds of larvae literally eat it alive.

Rabbits caged outdoors in Australia are vulnerable in areas with high numbers of mosquitoes. In Europe, fleas are the carriers of myxomatosis. In some countries, annual vaccinations against myxomatosis are available.

West Nile Virus is another threat to rabbits, as they are related to horses. There are no vaccinations against this virus and it is fatal. Recourse against the disease includes limiting the number of mosquitoes that are around pet rabbits.

The formation of open sores on the rabbit's hocks, commonly called "sore hocks," is a problem that commonly afflicts mostly heavy-weight rabbits kept in cages with wire flooring or soiled solid flooring. The problem is most prevalent in rex-furred rabbits and heavy-weight rabbits (9+ pounds in weight). The condition results when, over the course of time, the protective bristle-like fur on the rabbit's hocks thins down. Standing urine or other unsanitary cage conditions can exacerbate the problem by irritating the sensitive skin. The exposed skin can result in tender areas or, in severe cases, open sores. The sores can become infected and abscessed if not properly cared for. The problem has a genetic component and animals exhibiting thin foot bristles should not be saved for breeding. Most rabbits can live safely on wire floors with the provision of a resting board or mat. Ultra heavy-weight breeds such as Flemish Giants or Checkered Giants are best raised on solid or partially solid flooring.

The House Rabbit Society recommends that rabbit cages with wire flooring be provided with a resting board in order to prevent this from occurring. Alternatively, regular inspection can help head off the development of sore hocks.

An over-diagnosed ailment amongst rabbits is respiratory infection. Pasteurella bacteria, known colloquially as "snuffles," is usually misdiagnosed and has been known to be a factor in the overuse of antibiotics among rabbits.

A runny nose, for instance, can have several causes, among those being high temperature or humidity, extreme stress, environmental pollution (like perfume or incense), or a sinus infection. Options for treating this is removing the pollutant, lowering or raising the temperature accordingly, and medical treatment for sinus infections.

"Runny eyes" can be caused by dental disease or a blockage of the tear duct. Environmental pollution, corneal disease, entropion, distichiasis, or inflammation of the eyes are also causes. This is easy to diagnose as well as treat.

Sneezing can be a sign of environmental pollution (such as too much dust) or food allergy.

While Pasteurella is a bacterium that lives in a rabbit's respiratory tract, it can flourish out of control in some cases. In the rare event that happens, antibiotic treatment is necessary.

Inner ear infections, certain protozoans, strokes, or other diseases or injuries affecting the brain or inner ear can lead to a condition known as wry neck or "head tilt." Although a heavy infestation of ear mites, an ear infection or injury can result in these symptoms, the most common cause of these symptoms is the protozoan parasite E. cuniculi. This condition can be fatal, due to a disorientation that causes the animal to stop eating and drinking. The drugs of choice for treatment and prevention of E. cuniculi infections are the benzimidazole anthelmintics, particularly fenbendazole. In the UK, Panacur Rabbit (containing fenbendazole) is marketed and recommended as a nine day course to help contain this condition and is a simple oral paste to medicate at home. It is sold over the counter. Users in the US or other countries will need to consult with their veterinarians about use and dosage of fenbendazole.

Dental disease has several causes, namely genetics, inappropriate diet, injury to the jaw, infection, or cancer.

Malocclusion: Rabbit teeth are open-rooted and continue to grow throughout their lives. In some rabbits, the teeth are not properly aligned, a condition called malocclusion. Because of the misaligned nature of the rabbit's teeth, there is no normal wear to control the length to which the teeth grow. There are three main causes of malocclusion, most commonly genetic predisposition, injury, or bacterial infection. In the case of congenital malocclusion, treatment usually involves veterinary visits in which the teeth are treated with a dental burr (a procedure called crown reduction or, more commonly, teeth clipping) or, in some cases, permanently removed.

Molar spurs: These are spurs that can dig into the rabbit's tongue and/or cheek causing pain. These can be filed down by an experienced veterinarian with a dental burr.

Signs of dental difficulty include difficulty eating, weight loss and small stools, anorexia, and visibly overgrown teeth. However, there are many other causes of ptyalism, including pain due to other causes. A visit to an experienced rabbit veterinarian is strongly recommended in the case of a wet chin, or excessive grooming of the mouth area.

Gastrointestinal stasis is a serious and potentially fatal condition that occurs in some rabbits in which gut motility is severely reduced and possibly completely stopped. When untreated or improperly treated, GI stasis can be fatal in as little as 24 hours.

GI stasis is the condition of food not moving through the gut as quickly as normal. The gut contents may dehydrate and compact into a hard, immobile mass (impacted gut), blocking the digestive tract of the rabbit. Food in an immobile gut may also ferment, causing significant gas buildup and resultant gas pain for the rabbit.

The first noticeable symptom of GI stasis may be that the rabbit suddenly stops eating. Treatment frequently includes subcutaneous fluid therapy (rehydration through injection of saline solution under the skin), drugs for treatment of the buildup of gas in the digestive tract, massage to promote gas expulsion and comfort, possible drugs to promote gut motility, and careful monitoring of all inputs and outputs. The rabbit's diet may also be changed as part of treatment.

Some rabbits are more prone to GI stasis than others. The causes of GI stasis are not completely understood, but common contributing factors are thought to include:

1. A lack of fiber in the diet. Many pet rabbits do not get sufficient fresh grass hay, but are instead mistakenly fed only commercial alfalfa pellets originally developed for rapidly increasing mass in rabbits bred for meat.

2. Insufficient moisture in the diet. Fresh, leafy greens are a critical part of a rabbit's diet in part because of their moisture content, which helps prevent the gut contents from becoming impacted.

3. Lack of exercise. Rabbits confined to a cage frequently do not get the opportunity (or motivation) to run, jump, and play, which is critical in maintaining gut motility.

In addition, GI stasis can be caused by the rabbit not eating for other reasons, such as stress, dental problems, or other unrelated health problems. GI stasis is sometimes misdiagnosed as cat-like "hair balls" by veterinarians not familiar with rabbit physiology. However, unlike cats, rabbits do not have the ability to vomit.

Veterinary Care
Rabbits visit the vet for routine check ups, vaccination and when ill or injured. Some veterinary surgeons have a special interest in rabbits and some have extra qualifications. In the UK the following post graduate qualifications demonstrate specialist training in rabbits: Certificate in Zoological Medicine, Diploma in Zoological Medicine and Recognised specialist in Rabbit Medicine and Surgery.

Routine Checkups
Routine check ups usually involve assessment of weight, skin, health and teeth by the owner or a veterinarian. This is essential because a rabbit's health and welfare can be compromised by being overweight or underweight or by having dental problems. Checking the teeth is particularly important part of the examination as back teeth can only be seen with a otoscope. Veterinarians can also give personalised advice on diet and exercise.

Vaccinations: Rabbits should be vaccinated against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease in the UK. These vaccinations are usually given annually, two weeks apart. If there is an outbreak of Myxomatosis locally this vaccine can be administered every six months for extra protection.

Some vets now recommend worming all rabbits against the parasite Encephalitozoon Cuniculi. Some studies have indicated that in the UK over 50% of rabbits may be infected with this parasite. Fenbendazole is used as a deworming agent in other species of animal and has shown to be effective in treating rabbits. In the UK it is now sold in paste form as a treatment for rabbits under the brand name Panacur. It is particularly recommended for rabbits kept in colonies and before mixing new rabbits with each other.

Ill or Injured
Rabbits should be taken to the vet if ill or injured beyond the ability of the owner to treat. It is important to seek urgent veterinary attention if a rabbit has any of the following symptoms: dramatic or sudden loss of appetite, severe depression, breathing problems, sudden onset of head tilt, signs of maggot infestation, not passing stools. Rabbits also need urgent veterinary attention if they are exposed to poisons, involved in an accidents, fall from a height or are exposed to smoke. Rabbits that are drooling, have unexplained weight loss, diarrhoea or fur loss should also be taken to the vets but it may be safe to wait until office hours.


Conformation Shows
County fairs are common venues through which rabbits are shown in the United States. Rabbit clubs also hold shows, though they usually permit only purebred rabbits to be entered, a pedigree is not required to enter a rabbit in an ARBA-sanctioned show but is required to register your rabbit with the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA). Both registration and a pedigree are required to receive a Grand Champion certificate that has been earned. Children's clubs such as 4-H also include rabbit shows, usually in conjunction with county fairs.

Show Jumping
Rabbit show jumping, a form of athletic competition between rabbits, began in the 1970s and has since become popular in Europe, particularly Sweden and the United Kingdom. Any rabbit regardless of breed may participate in this kind of competition, as it is based on athletic skill.

Horse Herd