Rabbits: House rabbits

house rabbit

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What is a house rabbit?

House rabbits are rabbits that live indoors, and interact with their human families, rather than living outside with other rabbits or alone. They still have a hutch, but spend happy evenings exploring the human home.

Why keep your rabbit indoors?

There are lots of good reasons. Rabbits can be very entertaining, and can be good pets for people who come home from work, and may not want to go out in the cold with the dog, but would happily play with a rabbit in the comfort of their homes. Rabbits that live outside tend to have very boring lives, unless their owners make a lot of effort to ensure that their lives are interesting. One rabbit stuck in a hutch outside with nothing to watch but the wall opposite, has a pretty miserable life. Rabbits are social animals. They like to interact, preferably with other rabbits, but if you only want one rabbit, a human will do, so long as you treat your rabbit nicely. Rabbits also like to explore the world, and are likely to fall ill if they don't get enough exercise. It's difficult to give an outdoor rabbit enough space for its needs, unless you have a very secure garden, or enough room to build a very big enclosure, and there is often more room inside a house. Humans also tend to like to be in their 'burrows' rather than in the area outside the burrow (garden) when the weather is cold, so, by bringing rabbits into our 'burrows' we can enjoy their company all year round.

What are the downsides of keeping a house rabbit?

You do need to housetrain the rabbit, which isn't as difficult as you might think (see below). You also need to rabbit-proof your home so that the rabbit is not in danger, and doesn't destroy your possessions, and you need to make sure that the rabbit is safe from other pets, especially dogs. It's also worth giving your rabbit access to some grass grown in a tray, both as a distraction from your possessions, and to ensure that the rabbit eats properly.

Rabbits living mainly indoors are a bit like wild rabbits that are living in burrows, except that they interact with people, rather than other rabbits, and the burrows are bigger, and are lit, with light coming in at odd times. This 'artificial' environment may not be entirely good for the rabbit, despite being potentially better than being stuck in a cage outside. Rabbits do need to get out and nibble on grass, and their bio-rhythms could be grossly distorted if they are forced to cavort at odd hours of the night to entertain their owners. So, please respect your rabbit. Do remember to give it access to grass outside, as well as a living room floor, so that it can eat 'natural' food the way wild rabbits do, and so that it can see daylight, which is important for digestion and bone formation. Rabbits kept indoors will tend to feel the cold more, and their fur won't grow to be quite as thick as that of outdoor bunnies, if they are used to central heating, so it's safer to put them outside when the difference between the indoor and outdoor temperature is not very great. It's also kinder to the rabbit to put the hutch in a room where there is plenty of daylight, but not direct sunlight, which could overheat the cage, rather than in a dark room. Daylight gives the rabbit a sense of day and night, which is important for the rabbit's health. This is why it's also kinder to limit the time spent on forays in your living room using artificial light after it's dark outside. Let the bunny explore your living room in the day time, and for a couple of hours or so after dark, but always allow him or her access to a dark place to sleep, both during the day and at night, or he could get over-stressed. Try not to wake him up and make him come out to play under bright lights long after it's dark outside - it's kinder to keep the lights quite low for after-dark forays.

It's easier to train a young rabbit, of eight weeks old or a little older, to be a house rabbit than it is to train a bunny that has spent its life in a hutch. Young rabbits also adapt more easily to sights and sounds in your home that might frighten adult rabbits kept in a hutch, and it's easier to socialise a younger rabbit than an adult rabbit that isn't very used to being handled. However, there are adult house rabbits in rescue centres, which are already trained and used to people and living indoors. Young rabbits are also more likely than older rabbits to chew and nibble things they shouldn't, out of curiosity, and they tend to startle more easily than very tame adult rabbits. If you can find a nice rescue rabbit that has been handled a lot and is used to living indoors, this can save you a lot of work. You'll still need to rabbit-proof your home. So how do you do this, and what do habituation, socialisation and training involve?

Rabbit-proofing your home

Rabbit-proofing your home involves getting on all fours in your living room, or wherever your rabbit will be, and thinking like a rabbit. Your living room will be full of nice things to chew. As you are a rabbit, you won't know that electrical cords are dangerous, or that the rug was inherited from your human's ancestors, and is precious. They are just interesting things to chew. So you will then need to revert to being a human, and do something about all the things your rabbit may want to chew, either taking them out of the room, or making sure that the rabbit can't get to them. You will also need to supervise your rabbit at all times, especially if the rabbit is young. You can enclose a corner of the room if it's too complicated to rabbit-proof a whole room.

It also helps to give your rabbit safe things to chew, like small branches. You can take a cardboard box and cut a door in it, then put hay inside, so your rabbit has a safe place to hide, hay to nibble on, and the box to chew. Just say 'Pssst' very gently if you catch your rabbit starting to nibble something 'illegal', and then offer something else, a branch to chew, or a carrot. Your rabbit does need to chew something, to prevent overgrown teeth, so some 'legal' chewables are essential, and rabbits like to graze when they are out of their burrows, so if your rabbit grazes on your rug, hay is a much better substitute from the rabbit's point of view, as well as yours. Trays of home-sown grass are also appreciated, and please remember to let your bunny see the outside world as well as your burrow.

Getting rabbits used to living with people

Habituation is just getting used to things, and a rabbit that comes to live in your home has to get used to different smells and sounds, like food cooking, and the washing machine. The rabbit needs a little peace at first, because it's a lot to take in, and if you try handling the rabbit straight away, it could get too stressed out. Gradually the sights, sounds, and smells of your house will become normal for the rabbit, and socialisation with humans will be easier.

Socialisation means getting used to other animals and their ways, whether it's rabbits getting used to other rabbits, rabbits getting used to humans, or humans getting used to humans. Rabbits are prey animals. They are the dinner of many species, from wolves and foxes to birds of prey, while they themselves eat mainly vegetable matter. Humans are potential predators, after all, some people hunt and eat rabbits. So it's not surprising that rabbits tend to be frightened of us, unless we show them that we are friendly. This means showing the rabbit that you aren't going to chase it at every opportunity - chasing is what predators do when they see a rabbit.

Start out by talking to your rabbit, and offering titbits, until the rabbit comes to get the titbits of its own accord. Then try gently stroking the rabbit. Wait until the rabbit is used to being stroked before you try picking it up. You can put the hutch in an enclosure with the hutch door open, if you want the rabbit to come out, and put food in the hutch if you want the rabbit to go back indoors. When you do first pick the rabbit up, just do this for a few seconds, not very far off the ground, so that the rabbit works out that being picked up is not very frightening, and before it gets a chance to struggle. Give the rabbit plenty of support when you do lift it up, so it doesn't wriggle free and hurt itself. When you first let your rabbit out into the living room, keep still, watching it from the corner of your eye. The rabbit will at first freeze or run away every time you make the slightest moment, but will eventually get used to you and work out that you are not dangerous. It helps to put food between you and the rabbit, and keep still while the rabbit approaches and eats the food. Then you can put the food a bit closer, until the rabbit comes close to you of its own accord, and you can offer the rabbit some food. The rabbit will eventually come to see you in the hope of cuddles and titbits.

Getting rabbits used to other rabbits

Young rabbits should get on quite well if they have plenty of space, though it's worth just letting them get used to each others' smells before they are allowed to meet. You will need to supervise them at all times for the first fortnight or so, in case they fight. They are quite likely to fight if they are both entire males. Neutered males and females tend to get on well. Entire males and females are likely to try to mate quite quickly, even if they are very young, so wait until they are neutered before putting them together. It takes a while for hormone levels to go down in male rabbits, so recently neutered males may behave like entire males. Rabbits often get on better if they meet away from their usual territory, so if you get a new rabbit, you could use a spare room that your existing rabbit has never been in, for their first meeting.

You may want more than two rabbits, but think carefully before you expand your household. Three rabbits do need a fair bit of cleaning and hutch space, and there are more likely to be accidents, which will need cleaning up. Three rabbits let out together in a house are also likely to find each other much more interesting than you, and will be less easy to tame, and the more there are, the more likely it is that you will have little scuffles between your bunnies.

Getting rabbits used to other pets

Many other pets that people keep are predators, and this includes cats, dogs, ferrets, and many reptiles. The problems are not so much with your rabbit, as controlling your other pets. Not all pets are controllable. Some breeds of dogs, for example, have a very strong prey drive, and this includes Jack Russells, Lurchers, and Huskies. Introductions between dogs and rabbits should be carried out very carefully, with the two separated by a barrier, so that the dog can't catch the rabbit. The dog should be able to ignore the rabbit, and obey your commands, before you think of having them both in the same room with no barrier. If your dog ignores you and just wants to get at the rabbit, this is not a good sign! Even if your rabbit and dog seem to get on fine, never leave them unsupervised in the same room. Dogs also often respect the rabbit they live with, but will still kill other rabbits, so be careful if you take your dog round to a friend with another house rabbit, there is no guarantee that your dog will respect this 'strange' rabbit.

Cats are less of a problem, but even so, give the cat and the rabbit time to get used to each other before you allow them to be loose together, and don't let your rabbit out if your cat is eying it up as dinner.

Large carnivorous reptiles and rabbits should be kept apart, preferably in different houses.


The most important part of training for many owners is housetraining, and it is not as difficult as you might think. Wild rabbits like to have one part of their territory as a toilet, and it's this 'instinct' that is so helpful when you want to housetrain a pet rabbit. However, you have to convince the rabbit to use the toilet where you choose, rather than where the rabbit might choose, left to its own devices.

The first thing to do when you get a new rabbit is to leave it alone! The bunny has to get used to new sights and sounds, so just leave your new pet in a hutch with food, water and bedding for a day or so. Put a litter tray in the corners of the hutch furthest away from the sleeping quarters, and your rabbit should start to use one of them as a toilet. You can use non-clumping cat litter in the litter trays. Then let your bunny out into a small enclosure, about three times as big as the hutch, and put litter trays in the corners of the enclosures furthest away from the hutch. Put some weed-on material from the hutch litter trays in the new litter trays in the enclosure, so your bunny gets the idea. You can make a movable enclosure with a wooden frame and netting, or improvise one, but do remember than rabbits can jump over fences, especially when they are frightened.

You need to clean the litter tray every day, so it doesn't get too full. Rabbits may go somewhere else if their litter trays look full! The tray shouldn't be cleaned every time it's used, however, because it's meant to smell a bit like a toilet, to remind the rabbit what it is.

Rabbits tend to eat and poo at the same time, so you can leave your rabbit a little carrot for when it is on the tray, to encourage it to stay and poo there. Rabbits that are still a bit wary of you might be frightened off the tray if you go up and offer a carrot, so spend a while making friends with your rabbit in the hutch, offering food through the wire, before you try this. Rabbits have two types of faeces (poo) and will tidy up their softer faeces themselves by eating it! Then it comes out again as harder pellets.

You can give your rabbit more freedom outside the enclosure once it has got used to using the litter tray in the enclosure, but always make sure there is a litter tray in easy reach. There will be accidents during the first stages of house-training, and you need to be careful how you clean these up. Some people use bleach and vinegar, but they are not recommended. Bleach can damage your furnishings, and it can actually encourage the rabbit to use the same area again, because it can smell a bit like urine to a rabbit. You can buy special deodorising cleaning products from pet stores, sold for cats and dogs as well as for rabbits, or even use a biological washing powder, well-dissolved in warm water, if it won't damage what the rabbit has urinated on. Then use clean, cold water for rinsing. It's safer to restrict access to carpets until your rabbit is house-trained, so that you can easily clean up any accidents, and don't let your rabbit on your bed or the sofa at first, because it's not easy to clean rabbit wee from these areas.

You may find your rabbit about to have a wee on the carpet, or having one. Try saying 'Psst', to distract the rabbit, and get it to its litter tray. If you shout at the rabbit, this will probably confirm its suspicions that you are a nasty predator, to be avoided. Just make a very gentle sound - rabbits have good hearing, so there is no need to shout!

The best way to stop rabbits choosing their own toilet areas is to keep them away from anywhere they have urinated where you don't want them to, and only let them go back there a couple of weeks or so after they have been using their trays where you want them to. You will find that the rabbit tends to use the same spot again, if you don't do this. You may not mind too much if a rabbit chooses a particular spot as a toilet, however, and could just put a litter tray there. This way, you and the rabbit are working together. Rabbits do need several litter trays in a large room, or they will tend to create a new toilet area rather than going a long way to find one.

Neutering house rabbits

Outside bunnies tend not to be neutered, but many people neuter house rabbits, and this is worth talking about with your vet. One reason for neutering rabbits (male or female) is that it's easier to housetrain them. Entire rabbits often mark their territory with both urine and faeces, while neutered rabbits are much less likely to do this. Neutered male rabbits also tend to be friendlier, both with other rabbits and with humans, and easier to handle. Neutered female rabbits are less likely to suffer from cancer. Neutering is usually carried out when the rabbit is between four and six months' old. You will need to find a vet who is used to doing this, so ring round to find the most rabbit-friendly vet in your area, if you don't already have a vet.

Rabbit training in general

Rabbits enjoy human company, once they have got used to you, and they like food, so there are tricks you can teach rabbits by rewarding them every time they do what you want them to. The first thing you may want to teach the rabbit is how to come to you when you call. Try this when the rabbit is used to you, and sit on the floor. Hold a carrot, keep still, and gently say 'come'. Your rabbit is likely to think you mean 'food' - that doesn't matter, so long as the rabbit comes to you. If you reward the rabbit, then it becomes worth the rabbit's while to come when called. You can play with your rabbit and see how many other things you can teach with food lures. Some rabbits like being stroked a lot, and that is a good reward too, if you have no food on you.

Rewards tend to work well when you are training rabbits, but they aren't always enough. Sometimes you may need to move, or distract the rabbit, or just prevent the rabbit from doing 'forbidden' things. For example, rabbits can be taught not to jump on sofas and beds, if you just pick them up and put them down on the ground every time they try it. You can also say 'Psst', to warn or distract the rabbit, when it looks like it is about to get on the sofa, or do something else you'd rather it didn't do. You will still have to make sure the rabbit can't get to forbidden areas when you aren't around, by keeping it in an enclosure or the hutch.

Rabbits tend to take more notice of their humans if they are only rabbits, and less notice if they have another rabbit for company. However, house rabbits are very entertaining companions whether you have one or two of them, and it's up to you whether you want a close relationship with one rabbit, or to watch two or more bunnies exploring your room.

Article by Gillian Harvey

Rabbits: Care and behaviour

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Pet rabbits are descended from European wild rabbits, though, since the start of the 19th century, breeders have selected domestic rabbits for size, colour, and ear carriage. Continental Giant rabbits can weigh 5.5 kg, while Netherlands Dwarf rabbits only weight some 1.2 kg. Fully lopped rabbits can't prick their ears. Along with variations in size, shape and colour, rabbits can vary a lot in terms of temperament, from quite calm to very skittish. 

How long do rabbits live? They can live for quite a long time, though how long depends a lot on the breed. Some rabbits have been 'designed' to put on weight and get big fast, so that (gulp) they can be eaten. These types of rabbits tend not to live as long as smaller breeds, if they're allowed to live to their natural lifespan, and may only live to be about four-years-old. Other breeds can be quite long-lived, especially some of the smaller breeds, and rabbits from these smaller breeds may even reach 12-years-old. Rabbits bred for extreme size or shape are more likely to have health problems. Giant rabbits can develop skeletal problems if they grow too fast, while lop-eared rabbits can suffer from ear infections. The longest-lived rabbits tend to look more like their wild cousins.

Are rabbits good pets? They're ideal pets for many people, because they don't take up a lot of space, or need daily walks. They can become friendly with humans, if you treat them properly, and house rabbits can be very entertaining. Not everyone is suited to being a rabbit owner, though. Some dogs really don't get on well with rabbits, and this especially applies to dog breeds with strong prey drive, like Jack Russells, so if you have a dog and want a rabbit, think twice about this. Rabbits are natural prey for dogs, and you need a very well behaved dog, preferably one brought up with rabbits from puppyhood, as a companion for a rabbit. You will still need to supervise interactions between your dog and your rabbit, even if your dog is very well behaved. Rabbits also need some attention every day. They need regular handling if you want them to be tame, and they're healthier if they can come out of their hutches for exercise, as well as for grooming and feeding. So, rabbits aren't pets that you can stick in a hutch and forget, you'll need a safe environment for your rabbit, and to be able to spend time every day caring for your pet.

Rabbit behaviour

Rabbits are classed as Lagomorphs, a group which includes hares. Both rabbits and hares practise pseudo-rumination, which means swallowing their own droppings. They have two types of droppings, one type being soft and covered in mucus. It's these soft droppings that rabbits eat, taking them from the anus. The hard, dry droppings that you see on the cage floor are what's left after the first type has been digested. Grass and hay aren't easy to digest, so recycling the first droppings means that rabbits can extract the maximum nutrition from each mouthful of grass. Rabbits like to have nice clean, cages, but when they eat their droppings, they are just doing what rabbits do.

Hares are solitary, as are American 'cottontail' rabbits, which are in fact a type of hare. European wild rabbits are gregarious. They live in large warrens with interlinking tunnels, and as many as 20 rabbits can live in the same group. They're quite adaptable, and tend to form smaller groups when they live near towns, which modern wild rabbits often do, since they have suffered from habitat loss in the countryside. Pet rabbits also prefer to live with another rabbit or two, especially if they spend a lot of time shut in their cages with no human attention. Rabbits living together in the wild tend to be related to one another, and pet rabbits tend to get on better with their relations, or at least rabbits they've known since they were youngsters.

Rabbits are prey animals, and, though they're bolder than many small and furries, pet rabbits do like to have bolt holes to hide in when danger threatens. This is especially important if you put your rabbits outside - they feel vulnerable and stressed unless they have somewhere to hide. They can also be stressed by noise, especially high pitched sounds, so it's kinder to put their hutches somewhere relatively quiet. 

Wild rabbits are quite versatile, and rabbits living near towns tend to be active for longer than rural rabbits. Even so, rabbits are by nature crepuscular, that is they tend to be more active at dawn and dusk, so these are the best times to interact with your rabbit. 

Diet can affect your rabbit's behaviour. Wild rabbits eat a lot of grass, whereas pet rabbits are given concentrated food. Rabbits that don't have access to hay become less active, spending less time foraging, and they can become obese, partly because of their food intake, and because they're less active, so rabbits need access to hay all the time. Chew items are also essential. Rabbits have to chew to wear  their teeth down, and will chew anything available, so you need to protect electric cables and other dangerous temptations, and provide legitimate chew objects.

Choosing a rabbit

It's generally best to buy a rabbit at between 9-12 weeks old, because they're easier to tame at this age. There are also many adult rabbits needing new homes, and they can be very tame, especially if they've been looked after properly. You might have a neighbour who wants to give away a rabbit, and there are lots of adult rabbits in rescue centres. You can ask the neighbour or the rescue centre staff to show you how the rabbit is used to being handled, and this will help you handle the rabbit for the first time, and work out how tame it is.

Rabbits are social animals, which means that they like the company of other rabbits. Two rabbits are better than one, if they are to live outside, because a rabbit living outside alone is likely to get bored and lonely. Rabbits are more likely to get on well if they meet when they're young, so related rabbits, like littermates, or mother and daughter, tend to get on best. A neutered male and a neutered female rabbit should get on. Two entire rabbits of the opposite sex are likely to breed like rabbits! Two related female rabbits (does) should get on well together. Two related male rabbits (bucks) may tolerate each other if neutered. Unrelated entire males don't usually get on, and are likely to fight.

If you're introducing unrelated rabbits to each other, it helps to let the rabbits smell each other first before they're allowed to be together, by keeping their cages near each other for a few days, and swapping their bedding around. Once they seem to be able to relax near one another, you can let them meet outside their cages. They're more likely to get on if they meet in a neutral area, which neither rabbit considers its territory. Give rabbits plenty of space when they first meet, with hidey-holes to make them feel safer. Supervise their first encounters so that you can separate them if they don't get on, and only leave them alone together once it's clear they are relaxed and happy with one another. 

Rabbits can be happy living with no other rabbits, so long as they have human company. What they don't like is being completely alone. A human will do as a friend, if there are no other rabbits around, but this means spending more time with your rabbit so he or she isn't lonely.

There are many different breeds to choose from, or you can buy a cross-breed. You may want to choose one of the smaller breeds if you have young children, who'd find the larger breeds too heavy to handle easily. Smaller breeds tend to live longer, though they do, however, tend to be a bit more excitable, whereas the larger breeds are usually more relaxed with children. Rabbits from snub-nosed breeds are more likely to suffer from dental problems. Angora and other long haired rabbits need a lot of grooming, so you'll need time to do this several times a week, if you get a long haired rabbit.

Some breeds are more likely to have health problems than others, so if you buy a pedigree rabbit, ask the breeder how long the rabbit's ancestors lived. It's a good idea to give your rabbit a health check at the vets if you take on a rabbit from a neighbour. A rescue centre is likely to have checked rabbits for health problems, but it's worth asking if they have been checked, and what sorts of health problems you might expect.


A well constructed, roomy hutch is essential. Not all rabbit cages sold in pet shops are big enough for rabbits, especially giant breeds, or rabbits that don't get out of their hutches much. Even small rabbits need a cage that's at least 150cm by 60cm wide, and 80cm high, while larger rabbits will need more space. Rabbits like to sit up and check their surroundings with their ears erect to hear better, so you need quite a lot of height for a large rabbit. Even small rabbits prefer high cages, because then they can climb onto something and check their surroundings. Rabbits also like to stretch out, so they need a fair bit of floor space, with a separate sleeping area. Remember that if you have two rabbits in the hutch, you need space for two rabbits to stretch out!

A good hutch should have two connecting compartments, one with a solid door for sleeping and one with a wire mesh door. The best hutches are high enough for the rabbit to climb on to the sleeping box and look at the world, or be able to climb onto another raised area, and use it as a look-out post.

The floor of the hutch can be covered with old newspapers and straw, and the sleeping area should also be furnished with straw or hay to provide a cosy nest. Sawdust or wood shavings aren't good bedding materials because they can contribute to respiratory problems. Hay is softer than straw for the rabbit to sleep on, but of course it will be readily eaten too, so will need replenishing often. Your rabbit needs more hay and straw for bedding in the cold winter months than in the summer. Rabbits should always have access to hay for eating, because it provides essential roughage as well as nutrients. You can make or buy a special hayrack to prevent hay for the rabbit's food from becoming soiled.

Most rabbits will choose a particular corner of their hutch to deposit their urine and droppings, and this area should be cleaned daily. The remainder need only be cleaned once a week, as complete cleaning of the hutch is seen as a major disturbance by the rabbit. The waste material can be safety composted.

Your rabbits will need a gnawing block in the form of a bark covered log, or fruit tree prunings, otherwise they'll gnaw their own hutch. They're likely to have problems with overgrown teeth if they can't gnaw enough.

Outdoor hutches have to be very sturdy, to withstand bad weather and predators, like foxes or dogs. Rabbits can be housed outside all year round but the position of the hutch is important. It should be kept out of the way of strong, cold winds, and draughts in general, but also protected from the midday sun. You may need to move an outdoor hutch into a shed or garage when it gets very cold, and will need to make sure that the hutch doesn't get the full heat of the sun in summer, because the hutch can heat up very quickly, and this can be dangerous for the rabbit. Building a little open porch to shelter a hutch or hutches is one way of protecting outdoor rabbits from extremes of heat and cold.

Rabbits do benefit from being allowed outside to eat the grass, when the weather is pleasant. Some hutches can incorporate a small run with a mesh base giving access to grass, and this is fine for the smaller breeds, but if you have the space, a rabbit hutch can be placed within a bigger enclosure to provide safe but stimulating surroundings. The enclosure can be furnished with clay pipes as mock burrows, tree stumps as lookout posts and flat areas for sunbathing. The details of how you design the enclosure are up to you, but remember that it has to be very secure and sturdily built if you are leaving the rabbits unsupervised, because of the risk that a dog or other predator could come into your garden. Foxes are a big threat at night, so rabbits should be put to bed at dusk. Rabbits also burrow, so the enclosure either needs a mesh base, for a movable enclosure, or fencing that goes underground, for a fixed enclosure. Do check fixed enclosures regularly for attempts to burrow out. Enclosures have to be quite big, or the ground will get bald, and muddy in wet weather. Wild rabbits can feed in an area of some two acres, and you won't be able to give yours this much space, but they will be happier the more space they have. The bigger the enclosure, they more mock burrows they will need, so they can hide fast and feel safe.

Some people let their rabbits loose in their gardens, but you have to be very sure that the garden is secure, and there are no gaps in fences or walls to let rabbits out, or dogs in. Again, rabbits do burrow under fences, so any garden fencing should go below ground, and stone or brick walls are preferable to wood, which is less secure. You also need to make sure that the rabbit won't be able to eat anything in the garden that it shouldn't, such as poisonous plants, or your favourite bedding plants! It's best to supervise a rabbit let out in the garden, and put the rabbit to bed long before dusk.

Food and drink

Rabbits are herbivores, and like all herbivores need to spend a lot of time feeding. They need a diet consisting of vegetable matter from which they will derive the proteins, vitamins, minerals and fats they require. Grasses, leaves, foliage and roots form the natural diet of wild rabbits.

There's much debate about the correct feeding of rabbits. There are many commercial mixed complete rabbit foods available, incorporating ingredients such as flaked maize, oats, corn, rabbit pellets, with the possible addition of alfalfa, flaked peas and dried carrot. Wholemeal bread, either toasted or baked hard in the oven, would be an alternative and is usually readily eaten by rabbits. Pelleted complete diets are also available. However grass, or hay, (which of course is dried grass), are basic necessities for rabbits. The commercial rabbit food mixes were developed for laboratory rabbits or rabbits grown for their meat, that are only likely to live to a year old. Pet rabbits can live to be over 10 years old. There's evidence that wild rabbits, whose diet is of course grasses, leaves, foliage and roots, have stronger skeletons than most pet rabbits, though bone density is also related to exercise. This change in diet as rabbits became domesticated, has led to other health problems such as obesity, eye discharges and abnormalities in tooth development.

Rabbits in a grassed enclosure will be able to nibble on the grass at will, but if you don't have any grass, you can sow some grass see in compost in a shallow pot, and give it to your rabbits when it has grown big enough for them to eat. Successive sowings can be made throughout the year. Wild rabbits tend to come out to eat in the early evening and at dusk, but domestic rabbits that feel safe will come out to eat earlier in the day, and sunshine is beneficial for them, helping them to form strong bones.

Pet rabbits can be fed many wild plants collected from the countryside, although it is important to check that none of the plants are poisonous to rabbits. It is also important not to collect wild plants from areas that may be polluted by animals, traffic, or pesticides. Many suitable plants can be found in your back garden, such as dandelion, dead nettles, groundsel, chickweed and plaintains. These plants can also be collected and preserved for later use in the winter. They can be tied in bundles and dried by the wind in a shady area. The fruits and foliage of many trees and shrubs can also be fed, either fresh or dried.

Fresh, clean water should always be available, provided either in a heavy earthenware dish or in a drinking bottle with a drip-fed mechanism, which is attached to the mesh door of the hutch. Drinking bottles are generally more hygienic, because water in bowls can get dirty easily, and even earthenware bowls can be tipped over by the heavier breeds.


The best way to ensure that your rabbit is healthy is to provide proper care. This means you need to keep the hutch clean, feed the rabbit properly, giving plenty of hay, store food in a cool, dry place, not allowing stale food to accumulate in the hutch, let your rabbit have enough exercise or space to run around in, give the rabbit some company, and keep stress levels low by careful handling. Rabbits can develop mental health problems, as well as physical problems, if their needs aren't met.  Bored rabbits living alone in a hutch, and fed on pellets may develop strange habits like pulling fur, or circling. Rabbits like to forage, and to explore, with a bolt-hole nearby, and they like company.

It's worth while taking the trouble to find a vet who is experienced in treating rabbits - not all vets have much rabbit expertise. A vet who really likes rabbits, and who knows a lot about their special veterinary needs, will save you a lot of worry if your rabbit falls ill. Rabbits are prone to particular illnesses, especially digestive problems, and not all veterinary preparations are suitable for rabbits.

Signs that your rabbit is not well include eating or drinking less, losing weight, runny faeces, wee soaking into the back legs, snuffles, skin trouble, a tilted head, or just looking depressed and down in the dumps.

You'll need to get help from a vet very fast if your rabbit stops eating. One reason for rabbits not eating is blockage in their intestines, from furballs, or other obstructions. Only a vet can deal with this safely, and it has to be done fast. Preventing furballs is one reason why long-haired rabbits need to be groomed frequently, and even short-haired rabbits benefit from being brushed. Some rabbit owners also use laxatives when their rabbits moult, but check with your vet on they type of laxative and the best dosage for your pet.

Another common reason for rabbits not eating is dental trouble. They do need something to chew, or their teeth grow too long, and this can mean that they can't eat properly. Rabbits with dental trouble may dribble, or have swollen faces. Your vet can do a dental check, and deal with the rabbit's teeth, if they get too long. Trimming a rabbit's teeth can involve risks, such as fracturing the tooth, so it's best to ensure that your rabbit can chew enough to keep the teeth to a reasonable length. Dentists may sometimes use equipment similar to that used on humans, in order to file teeth down in a way that is safer than clipping. Some dental problems are inherited, which is why it's worth checking the health of rabbits' ancestors, if you're spending a lot on a pedigree rabbit.

Your vet can also show you how to trim your rabbit's claws, which sometimes get overgrown. The best way to keep them short is to give the rabbit lots of exercise space with a hard surface to wear down the claws.

Rabbits can suffer from diarrhoea after a change of diet, so it's worth introducing new foods gradually, especially fresh vegetables. Stale food or too rapid changes in diet can kill a rabbit, so see a vet as son as possible if your rabbit isn't eating much or has diarrhoea and also seems depressed or moping. Looking depressed may mean that the rabbit is in pain from intestinal problems.

Sometimes rabbits get overweight, and this isn't good for them either. This is especially likely if they're fed a lot of concentrated pellets, so you can try adjusting an overweight rabbit's diet gradually to more natural foods, and giving your rabbit more hay and grass and less processed food.

Snuffles can be caused by infectious bacteria, and can be treated by a vet. Rabbits are more likely to suffer from respiratory infections if their cages are in a draught, and prevention is better than cure.

Rabbits are vulnerable to myxomatosis in the UK, so you need to protect them from infection. Myxomatosis can sweep through wild rabbit warrens, and then spread to pets. Ask your vet about vaccinations, essential if you live in a rural area.  Infections can very easily be passed on if you have wild rabbits coming into your garden and let your pet rabbits out where the wild rabbits have been. Viral haemorrhagic disease is another big risk. It affects rabbits in much of Europe, especially southern Europe. It's less common in the UK, but is, however, spreading, and has become common in southern England. It's usually fatal and incurable. Vaccination gives some protection, though vaccinations themselves can involve risk.

It's also worth seeing a vet if your rabbit has any sort of injury, or lump. Rabbits that have been attacked by dogs or other predators need to be checked by a vet even if the rabbits don't look hurt, since they may suffer from internal injuries, or there may be wounds that you can't see, which become infected. Try to give the rabbit a quiet, dark place to recover in during the journey to and from the vet, and make sure the rabbit is left in peace after an attack, until it perks up again.

Fleas can be a problem, especially if you have a cat, or live somewhere where there are wild rabbits. Your vet can advise you on safe preparations for rabbits.

A regular vet check is advisable for older rabbits, even if they display no symptoms of illness. Rabbits are prey animals, and this means that it may not be easy to spot symptoms until the rabbit is seriously ill. Prey animals tend to hide discomfort, so that they are less vulnerable to predators. Rabbits will eventually grow old and die of something, but many breeds and crossbreeds can live for a very long time if you choose your rabbits well and they receive proper care.


Rabbits are prey animals, so their instinct is to freeze, or run away from anything they consider a threat. They like to have somewhere to hide, and you will find that a rabbit indoors will become tamer faster if you allow it to follow its natural instincts, and run away from you at first. Having a safe hidey hole where the rabbit thinks you can't find it makes the rabbit feel more confident, and it can work out in its own time that you are really a friendly creature, and not likely to hurt it.

Rabbits may struggle if they are picked up and frightened. They can also bite you. If your rabbit does this, be patient and stay calm rather than making a loud noise or otherwise frightening the rabbit more. A rabbit picked up by a fox or other predator may just be able to escape if it struggles, so rabbits are doing what comes naturally if they struggle. They can also hurt themselves badly if they struggle a lot. You do need to give a rabbit a lot of support if you pick one up, holding the hindquarters, and being very careful you don't drop it. It's safest to handle rabbits as little as possible until they have got used to you. If you do need to handle a rabbit before it has got to know you, only lift for short distances, giving the rabbit plenty of support. Don't grab rabbits by their ears when you try to catch them, or you can hurt them! 

New rabbits need to learn that you aren't a predator likely to catch and kill them. It's best to ignore rabbits and let them come to you, then offer them a titbit, rather than following them round with titbits. You can leave a titbit near you at first, if the rabbit is too wary to come right up to you, then gradually put the titbit closer to you, until the rabbit will accept food from your hand. You can also try offering your rabbit titbits through the hutch wire. Rabbits feel safe in their hutches, because they can run and hide in their sleeping quarters if they want to. After your rabbit has got used to accepting titbits, you can try gently stroking it, and when it is happy about being stroked, try lifting it up, just for a few seconds at first, and only a few inches off the ground. Put the rabbit down again if struggles. Getting young rabbits used to people and other rabbits is called 'socialisation', and you need to socialise your rabbit with contact and interaction every day, if you want a tame rabbit. 

Young rabbits tend to be very wary and fast moving, but they soon settle down if you handle them properly. House rabbits especially often love being stroked, and will come up to their owners for a cuddle and a titbit.


Rabbits can produce enormous numbers of offspring if allowed to breed freely, and there are too many bunnies in need of a good home. It's only worth breeding pet rabbits if you have very special rabbits as parents. Very special should mean that they're very healthy, and come from long-lived parents, with no inherited health problems, and that they have very nice natures. You also need to make sure that you have good homes lined up for your rabbits. Pet stores don't always want to take them, and rescue centres will not thank you for bringing in yet another unwanted bunny. You'll need a lot of space and spare hutches for separating the doe and buck, and the youngsters by sex, so they don't breed with one another.

 If you do breed your rabbits, choose healthy parents at least six-months old, feed the doe well, and give her peace and quiet, both before, and especially after the birth. This means removing the buck, as well as making sure that humans, especially children, respect her need for privacy.

The gestation period (time from mating to pregnancy) is around 30 days, There are from three to twelve babies in a litter, with an average of about seven. Leave your weekly clean of the cage for a couple of weeks, so the doe and her litter have some peace, and just clean the toilet area, as quickly and quietly as possible. The young are born blind and bald, and the doe may eat them if she is disturbed. They grow fast though, and can be taken away from their mother at between six and seven weeks' old. You do need to separate the sexes at this age, or very shortly afterwards, because otherwise the youngsters can breed, and it is not good for them to breed too young. You can start to handle them very carefully from when they are about a month old. Just let them sniff you and get to know you gradually at first. Pick them up with extreme care, and only lift them a little distance in the cage, so they can get used to being picked up safely. The babies should all be in their new homes by the time they are three months' old, so that their new owners can make friends with them.

Further reading:

Buseth, Marit Emilie and Richard Saunders (2014) Rabbit Behaviour, Health and Care. CABI Publishing.

Mäkitaipale, J., F. M. Harcourt-Brown, O. Laitinen-Vapaavuori (2015) Health survey of 167 pet rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in Finland. Veterinary Record, Vol. 177, Nº. 16, p 418

Mills, Daniel (ed) (2010) The encyclopedia of applied animal behaviour and welfare. CABI Publishing

Prebble, J.L., Langford, F.M., Shaw, D.J.Meredith, A.L. (2015) The effect of four different feeding regimes on rabbit behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 169, 86-92.

Ziege M, Bierbach D, Bischoff S, Brandt A-L, Brix M, Greshake B, Merker S, Wenninger S, Wronski T & Plath M (2016) Importance of latrine communication in European rabbits shifts along a rural-to-urban gradient. BMC Ecology 16: 29.