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.