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updated: 4/19/2011 1:06 PM

Think twice when giving rabbits as gifts

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  • Rabbits need regular exercise and socialization time and can live for up to 10 years.

    Rabbits need regular exercise and socialization time and can live for up to 10 years.
    File photo

By Carol L. MacCabe

It's spring! Now is the time of year, especially around Easter, when thoughts of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter come to mind. However, thoughts of a rabbit as an Easter present should be thought through carefully. A pet rabbit is much more than a novelty toy.

"A lot of people get rabbits for Easter and don't realize the work and expense involved," said Dr. Mary Grabowski of Westgate Veterinary Center in Bartlett. "A month later, they are returned."

According to Grabowski, rabbits require a lot of work, similar to having a dog for a pet.

"They need to be cleaned, fed, litter-box trained and let out daily," Grabowski said. "They are not a pet to get on a whim."

Unlike hamsters, which have a two- to four-year life span, rabbits have a 10- to 15-year life span, which is similar to a dog or cat.

While pet stores sell rabbits, you can find different varieties of rabbits at local rescues, such as No Splitting Hares Rabbit Rescue in Algonquin, Red Door Animal Rescue in Chicago or Chicago House Rabbit Society. Another good place to check is at your local animal shelter.

According to Grabowski, dwarf rabbits tend to be feisty and spirited. Lop-eared rabbits (with ears that flop to the ground) have a more laid-back personality, and domestic rabbits are the "mutts of the rabbit world."

"Pet stores tend to push young bunnies. If they are just weaned, it is hard to take them home and have them adjust," Grabowski cautioned. "Be careful -- they should be at least 3 months old before you buy them."

Be aware that dwarf rabbits may have more dental problems, since their heads are too small for their teeth. Lop-ears may have more ear problems, due to wax buildup.

A single rabbit will do fine by himself. But if you don't have a lot of time to let him out or interact, you might consider getting him a bunny buddy. If there is already a pair that has bonded, take them together. Otherwise, introduce them to each other slowly. If they bond, it's for life. If they don't bond, they can still enjoy each other's company from a distance.

Your rabbit's home

It is important to "bunny-proof" your home before you bring home your new pet.

Rabbits will eat electric wires, cords and cables that are on the floor or along walls. Some will also chew on wood furniture and baseboards. Green houseplants look like a salad to rabbits and if nibbled on, could be toxic.

"Also make sure any metal or small objects on the floor are picked up so they are not ingested," suggested Grabowski.

You will want your rabbit to live indoors. While an outdoor hutch may seem perfect, it really presents problems for your rabbit. Living outside, he is vulnerable to predators, like dogs, cats and coyotes. He can get parasites and fleas. And as the temperatures change, he can overheat or suffer from the cold.

Your rabbit's cage needs to be large enough so that he can lay down comfortably with plenty of space for his food, water, and litter box.

"A good rule of thumb is three to four times the size of the bunny," Grabowski said.

Solid bottom cages of plastic (or wood if you make your own) are preferable; they are also easier to clean and disinfect. Avoid cages with wire bottoms, as they will cause foot sores.

"Rabbits don't have foot pads like dogs or cats," explained Grabowski. "They only have fur on their feet over the bone."

Bedding goes on the bottom of the cage and in the litter box. Fragrance-free paper litters like Care Fresh (for small animals) or Yesterday's News (for cats) work well.

"Cat litter is a definite no," Grabowski said. "The dust creates upper respiratory problems. And if the litter is ingested (especially the clumping kind), it causes intestinal blockage."

If you prefer shavings, only one kind is suitable for rabbits: aspen shavings. Pine, cedar or walnut shavings cause liver or kidney problems if ingested. And the oils in them increase the risk of upper respiratory infections.

"I recommend changing the litter box daily or every other day and the whole cage weekly," said Grabowski.

To disinfect the cage, use a solution of half white vinegar and half water. Bleach works well, too, in a dilution of one part bleach to 20 parts water. This rids the cage of bacteria and mold. Make sure you rinse the cage and litter box thoroughly.

Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box. They tend to use one corner of their cage for the bathroom. Place the litter box there for easy training.

Time to eat!

Rabbits less than a year old should eat high protein alfalfa, in a mix of hay and pellets. They need the protein for proper growth and to avoid urinary problems when they are older. Rabbits older than one year can eat unlimited Timothy hay, orchard grass hay and small amounts of oat or meadow hay.

"A staple of every day is unlimited hay, with fresh deep, dark green leafy greens and a small amount of pellets," advised Grabowski.

Greens that are acceptable for rabbits are romaine lettuce, cilantro, parsley, kale, endive, dandelion leaves and carrot tops. Avoid cabbage and bok choy. They increase gas production in the rabbit's belly, which is undesirable.

Depending on the size of your rabbit, about 5 cups of greens daily (two generous handfuls) is good. For a baby, 2-3 cups daily is advisable.

For rabbits under a year old, feed pellets of alfalfa mixes. As your bunny is growing, he may have unlimited amounts. Older rabbits should have 2 to 3 tablespoons of only Timothy pellets. This is enough, as the Timothy pellets are highly concentrated.

"I can't stress enough that the pellets should be only Timothy," Grabowski said. "Many stores sell pellets with seeds and dry fruit and vegetables in them, which are very disruptive to their digestion."

While rabbits can obtain all their nutrition and live just fine on hay and greens, an occasional treat is good. You can buy special rabbit treats at the pet store or give them a small piece of fresh fruit (apple) or vegetable (carrot, celery) that has been thoroughly rinsed to eliminate any pesticides.

Your rabbit should have fresh water every day. Some rabbits will drink out of a bowl, which will need to be cleaned daily. Others prefer a water dropper bottle, which attaches to the side of the cage; this needs to be cleaned every other day. Make sure you rabbit has fresh water available to him all the time.


While cozy, a cage doesn't provide enough room for even a minimal workout. To stay healthy, your rabbit will need plenty of playtime outside of his cage.

Indoors, a bunny-proof room will be fine. Be sure to put his litter box out for him to use; rabbits are smart and can be trained to use the litter box when it's outside their cage. Always be there to supervise his play. A wood chew block and a paper grocery bag will entertain him safely. You can hide treats for him to find as he explores.

"If you're home and want to let them out, that's great," said Grabowski. "Keep them in the cage while you're at work."

Outside, a portable pen will allow your rabbit to explore different areas of the yard while you supervise. This outdoor pen should have a top to prevent predators from attacking. A metal-mesh bottom (14- or -16 gauge wire) allows grass to be nibbled while preventing your bunny from digging under the pen and escaping. Make sure that there is a shaded area so he won't overheat. And avoid letting your rabbit be in grass that has been fertilized, which is very toxic.

"If you take your bunny outside, we recommend monthly flea preventive from your vet," Grabowski said, "and also medication for skin parasites."

Spay or neuter?

Rabbits can reproduce as young as 4 to 6 months. If unaltered, both females and males can become aggressive or bite. They may exhibit reproductive traits, such as urinating to mark their territory.

"Most importantly, statistics show that 85 percent of females will develop uterine cancer if left unspayed. It's genetic," said Grabowski.

Spaying or neutering will help keep your rabbit healthier and happier.

What's up, doc?

Rabbits are delicate and many of their illnesses may come from, or be aggravated by, stress, diet, dental problems and arthritis. Be sure that the vet you choose is one with experience in treating exotic pets like rabbits. For instance, Grabowski had two years of externship at an exotic animal hospital before coming to Westgate Veterinary Center.

Many rabbits may develop upper respiratory infections. The symptoms are white eye or nose discharge, sneezing or lethargy.

"The most common thing we see is digestion problems," Grabowski said.

Gastrointestinal stasis occurs when motility in the stomach and intestines slow down, causing a decrease in fecal production. Within 8 to 12 hours, there is a buildup of enough gas to kill the rabbit.

"Rabbits cannot vomit," Grabowski explained. "When food sits in the stomach, flora in the stomach produces gas. When it stays in the stomach or intestine, it causes pain and the bunny won't eat or poop. It is imperative if your bunny hasn't eaten or if you see the fecal amount isn't the same that you contact your vet immediately."

Dental disease can be genetic or related to diet. A rabbit's teeth (six incisors and 22 molars) grow constantly. Normal chewing of hay and greens wears them down. Having a special chew block also helps. But if this chewing is disrupted, molars develop points on them, which inhibit the natural grinding motion. The molars will need to be filed down by your vet so your bunny can eat properly.

Nails need to be trimmed regularly. Your vet can do this and will show you how, if you want to do it at home.

A yearly wellness checkup is recommended. Routine blood work checks for kidney or liver problems. Your vet will check for foot sores, clean your rabbit's ears, check for discharge from the eyes and nose, and checking the belly (feel for gas and listen for gut sounds). No shots are necessary for rabbits.

The tail-end

"If you want to get a rabbit, they are great pets. They have individual personalities and are loyal and loving," Grabowski said.

When Peter Cottontail comes hopping down the bunny trail to your house, will he be a chocolate rabbit, a stuffed toy or a real bunny?