Physical Characteristics - General Rabbit
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
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
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
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
Housing 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).
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.
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).
Diet 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.
Health 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
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.
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
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
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
Worming 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
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
BEFORE TAKING ANY ACTION ON YOUR OWN, ALWAYS CONSULT A
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.