Rabbits can make ideal pets under certain circumstances. They come in a variety of sizes, are quiet, don’t take up much space, and often have very friendly and gregarious personalities.
As animals go, rabbits are very clean and able to groom themselves, for the most part, and many take easily to litter-box training. They are most active at dawn and dusk and sleep during the night, much like their owners. Best of all they can be extremely affectionate and entertaining. What’s not to like?
If you are thinking about acquiring a rabbit as a pet, you do need to know a bit more about them and how to care for a rabbit once it comes home with you.
So let’s dive in and learn a bit more about these docile creatures and see what it takes…then you can decide if you still want to bring a rabbit home for a pet.
Rabbits have been around for about 4,000 years, originating in Europe. They only became domesticated about 1,600 years ago, when French monks began raising them as a food source. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the domesticated rabbit moved over into the “pet” category.
Over time, this furry and gentle animal became beloved, celebrated in children’s books and fairy tales. Today, there are over 6 million pet rabbits in the U.S. alone, and many have moved from outdoor hutches to the warmth of the indoors, having free run of the house. It’s these indoor varieties that we’ll look at today.
Types of Domesticated Rabbits
Before you learn how to care for a rabbit, it’s wise to look at the variety of breeds that are available. There are large and small, with short hair or long hair. Some do well outdoors; others are easily trained to use a litter box.
You’ll want to find the right kind of rabbit for your living situation, taking into consideration space, whether they prefer indoors or outdoors, dietary needs, any family allergies, grooming time, etc.
While the American Rabbit Breeders Association currently recognizes 48 unique rabbit breeds, here are the top domestic breeds that make good choices for pets:
Source: Amusing Planet
There are several different breeds of the Angora, but all have similar characteristics. Their primary feature is their long fuzzy hair, which is soft to the touch. They range in size from 5 to 10 pounds when fully grown. Typically they need a special diet, and because of that irresistible soft hair, they need to be groomed on a daily basis.
Source: Pet Ponder
This is considered a small breed (3.5 to 5.5 pounds) and is characterized by a blaze of white on the face, feet, and upper torso. Secondary colors include blue, black, brown, tortoise, or gray. Good-natured and laid back, they tend to do well with children.
Source: Rabbit Habbit
Characterized by their all-white coat with just a circle of color around the eyes (black or brown), these little fur balls get up to 3 pounds. They like attention—most of the time—and are happy to be cuddled.
A small breed that gets to about 4 pounds at maturity, this rabbit features a mane of fur around its face, similar to that of a lion (hence its name). They do require regular grooming and a bit more attention than most, and they make great lap bunnies.
A sturdy bunny with thick, dense fur and floppy lop ears, Mini Lops weigh in between 4.5 and 6.5 pounds when fully mature. While there are no special dietary or grooming needs and they are easily litter-trained, this breed is more prone to ear infections and dental issues. They come in several different colors and do well with children.
Source: Chris Wilding’s Mini Rex Rabbit
Velvety fur, which is short and dense, the Mini Rex comes in black, gray, brown, or white (solid or splotched). Small in size, they weigh between 3.5 and 4.5 pounds. They are incredibly friendly and one of the most popular rabbit breeds.
Source: Wide Open Pets
This medium-sized rabbit (9 to 12 pounds) is often used in laboratories and because of their temperament they make good pets. Fur is medium-short and is either white, red, or black.
Source: Pet MD
This small rabbit is a dwarf breed—weighing 2 to 3.5 pounds—so not only does it need less space, but it doesn’t require as much exercise as many of the others. They are friendly and generally calm, and take well to litter-box training.
Source: Pet MD
This rabbit has a more athletic build with long straight ears. Dense, short, velvety fur, they come in a variety of colors. Weight at maturity is between 7.5 and 10.5 pounds. They tend to be very friendly and playful.
Housing Your Rabbit
Rabbits require less room than many pets and work well in smaller spaces, as well as larger family homes. You’ll come across several options when learning how to care for a rabbit. It’s important to understand the needs of your rabbit to choose the right one.
You will want some dedicated space for your rabbit. That could mean a large cage, a puppy pen or a small room where they have free reign. Whichever situation you choose, make sure that there is enough room for them to hop around and move about.
Because rabbits are social animals, it’s preferable to locate their indoor housing in a part of the house that is active. In other words, don’t stick them in an unused bedroom with the door closed all day long. It’s best if the cage or pen can be located in an area frequented by family members during the hours you are home and where the temperature is regulated.
Rabbit Cage/Dog Crate
Larger metal dog crates are the best option here, as traditional rabbit cages are very small and don’t allow for much movement. With a large dog crate, there is room for water and hay feeder, and the floor can double as a litter box if need be.
This is an easy and quick option that will keep your rabbit corralled but give them enough space to move around. By laying down an old piece of linoleum, sea grass mat, or chair mat, you can protect your floor. Then arrange their water, hay feeder, and litter box within the space.
When deciding how to care for a rabbit, many find that rabbit condos represent an ideal choice. These are two-story enclosures that have about the same footprint as a dog crate, but due to the vertical height, they allow for more movement and the inclusion of a litter box. The most common of these are the metal cage versions, but there are other options, and you can even build one by hand from wood or even repurpose existing furniture.
When learning how to care for a rabbit, their diet needs to be at the top of the list. After all, you can’t exactly feed them table scraps or cat food. Rabbits have very specific dietary needs.
The most important and largest part of your rabbit’s diet will be hay. This is a non-negotiable item, and it should be made available to them all day via a hay feeder. This high-fiber food is essential to keeping your rabbit’s digestive system from becoming compacted. It also serves double duty by helping to wear down their sharp teeth and preventing molar spurs, which can make eating difficult.
Young rabbits will need to start with alfalfa hay, typically for the first six to eight months. At that time you can switch over to oat or timothy hay. (Note: This can be problematic for people with certain allergies.) Both are available at feed stores, local farms, and most pet stores.
In addition to hay, an assortment of fresh vegetables and herbs are the second part of your rabbit’s daily diet. They will need about 2-4 cups/day per 5 pounds of weight. Serve half in the morning and a half in the evening.
Dark leafy greens like Romaine or red leaf lettuce, collard greens, chard, watercress, mustard greens and bok choy are all good choices. Also, basil, cilantro, dill, mint, and parsley work well, as does chopped celery, carrot tops, radish tops, broccoli leaves and dandelion leaves. It is best to use organic produce and wash everything thoroughly. Common pesticides are not a rabbit’s friend.
When learning about how to care for a rabbit, you’ll find many rabbit owner discussing their rabbit’s favorite treats. You can occasionally provide the following in small quantities: apple pieces, banana slices, pineapple pieces, strawberries, or raspberries.
The third component of your rabbit’s diet will be fiber pellets. These are high in fiber and help to complement the hay and fresh produce. The rule of thumb is ¼ cup per day per 5 pounds of weight and half should be served in the morning, with the second half in the evening.
The final essential ingredient for a healthy rabbit is water. Fresh water. All day long. This can be made available via a water bowl or a hanging water bottle on a cage or crate.
Happy Rabbit Top Tip: Make sure that the food and water bowls you use for your rabbit are heavy enough to stay upright. Lightweight bowls that are partially empty can be easily knocked over by your pet.
Exercise is another important aspect of how to care for a rabbit. Rabbits need exercise on a daily basis, much like dogs do. You can let them out of their enclosure into a larger area of the home, or outdoors in an enclosed space (fenced yard, dog run, large puppy pen).
You can also provide a few toys for your rabbit, both for fun and to chew on. Woven grass balls, wood and rope toys are both good options. You can cut an opening in a large cardboard box that they will enjoy spending time hopping in and out of, and it’s something they will like to chew on. (Saving those baseboards!)
One huge factor in how to care for a rabbit is in the area of waste. Indoor rabbits can be litter-box trained, much like a cat. Overall, taking the time to train them will probably make your life easier.
You will need:
- Litter box, medium size with no lid
- Pellet litter*
- Plastic floor mat
*Do not use wood shavings or cat litter for your rabbit as they can both be hazardous to your rabbit’s health.
Locate the litter box near your rabbit’s food and water bowls if possible. Place it on top of a plastic floor mat (for the occasional sloppy rabbit.)
Use a thin layer of pellets on the bottom of the litter box to absorb the urine. Because you will be disposing of the whole contents of the litter box when you clean, you do not want to overfill or waste the pellets.
On top of the pellets, you will place a layer of hay. Rabbits like to snack while taking care of business and having the hay within the box itself makes it more appealing for the rabbit, and more likely to use it.
Start by keeping your rabbit in a smaller enclosed space with the litter box. Place the box next to your hay feeder. That way they can either eat from the feeder or the litter box. And because they spend a significant amount of time munching, you can bet they will use the box at the same time.
Should they miss the box, clean up any poop pellets and place them in the box. With urine, use a small piece of paper towel, mop up and place the paper towel in the litter box as well. This will reinforce that the litter box is for a specific purpose.
You can also keep an eye on them when you are home. If you see them lift their tail to go, try to pick them up and place them in the box. If you miss the opportunity (you gotta be quick!), then pick them up and put them in after the fact, along with the droppings.
When learning how to care for a rabbit, the key is patience. If the rabbit is young, it will take awhile to get the hang of things. Older rabbits that have not been trained with a litter box will need to break old habits. You may also find that you have a rabbit that likes to go in one specific spot in the pen or in the house. If this is the case, save yourself some trouble and relocate the litter box to that area.
Should you not choose to litter-box train your rabbit, you will need to provide areas for their daily needs. If you are using a dog crate or rabbit condo, use newspaper, shredded paper, newspaper pellets, or other degradable substance on the floor of the enclosure. This will need to be changed regularly.
If you are using a puppy pen, make sure that there is waterproof or interchangeable flooring throughout the whole enclosure. This could be a plastic chair mat or another hard plastic surface. Having at least part of the enclosure floor stocked with newspaper shreddings/pellets or similar degradable product is also advisable, as this will soak up any urine. Again, this will need to be changed and cleaned regularly.
While rabbits groom themselves, much like cats do, you do need to know how to take care of a rabbit’s grooming needs.
Shorthaired rabbits do not need daily brushing, but it’s wise to do so once a week. This eliminates any excess hair that the rabbit might ingest while grooming. During peak shedding times, increase this to 2-3 times per week.
For longhaired rabbits, like Angora and Lionhead, you will need to pluck and brush on a daily basis. A good time to do this is while in the lap during petting or cuddle time. You can pluck out any tufts of hair that are ready to come out, alternating between plucking and petting. Finish off with a rubber glove or brush, which are gentle and effective in removing excess hair.
Because you have an indoor rabbit, there is no way for their nails to get filed down. This means that regular nail clipping is in order. This will not only keep the nails from growing and curling back into the paw; it will save on damage to furniture and your clothes (when you’re cuddling your critter). Pet safety nail clippers are available at your local pet store or on Amazon.
When you’re still learning how to care for a rabbit, it’s easy to neglect less obvious body parts. You will also need to pay attention to your rabbit’s feet. This is a sensitive area, primarily covered with fur with small calluses at the heel end of the foot. Enclosures with wire floors are especially difficult for rabbits, so make sure that at least part of your cage/pen has some sort of soft flooring, like a rug, rubber mat, fleece blanket or other soft and washable surface.
It will be a rare occasion that you will need to bathe your rabbit. Because they are fastidious, there is usually no need. However, should they have any bowel issues and you need to clean their rear end, you can place them in a warm shallow tub of water to clean the area. Just make it quick, so as not to traumatize them. Rabbits are not fond of water.
Rabbit-Proofing Your Home
It’s becoming more common to allow pet rabbits to have more freedom inside the house, much like a house cat or dog. That being said, you do have to “rabbit-proof” any room they have access to or be extremely vigilant.
Learning how to care for a rabbit that roams the house comes with its new challenges. Those teeth can chew through a cord in the blink of an eye and cause untold damage, as well as the death of your pet.
In short, rabbits like to chew, and they are indiscriminate. That means they will go for anything on bookshelves, entertainment centers, low coffee tables, or hanging off of side tables. They’ll munch on baseboards, chair legs, and other furniture in their path. It’s the nature of the beast.
Electrical cords should be covered in plastic sleeves or flex tubing or kept off the ground (3 to 4 feet or more). Plants that drape need to be moved up high, or risk losing their leaves.
Baseboards are a favorite of many a rabbit. There’s not a whole lot you can do to protect these. You can, of course, remove them or cover them with another piece of wood.
You can also use a puppy pen to keep your rabbit in a particular portion of a room when they are out of their cage/crate or use baby gates to keep them within one specific room.
Overall, your best bet is to watch and see what the rabbit goes for and then address the issue with behavior modification and some sort of protection system (except for the electrical cords, which are a must-do item.)
Just like for any pet—dog, cat or rabbit—regular veterinary visits are necessary to ensure your pet’s health. Rabbits, in particular, try to hide any illness or defect, a holdover from their ancestors living in the wild. You will need to be vigilant and monitor their water and food intake, as well as their output, for any signs of illness.
One of the most important aspects of learning how to care for a rabbit is knowing who to call when trouble arises. When you do choose a veterinarian, make sure they are well versed in caring for rabbits. Schedule annual visits where they can check their teeth, nails, ears, eyes, etc.
It can also be helpful to spay or neuter your animal. While the animal may be an only pet, without a mate, doing so can improve behavior, their overall health, and even their litter box use.
Rabbits do make good house pets, and many breeds are good with children. So, now that you know how to care for a rabbit, the next logical step is to choose what kind you want. Happy hunting!