Is a rabbit right for me?

Rabbits are now the third most popular pet animal in the UK. TV programmes like Pet Rescue and Animal Hospital and organisations like the British House Rabbit Association are educating people about responsible rabbit ownership. This is resulting in a change in attitude from the rabbit as pet confined to a hutch at the bottom of the garden to one which is as much a part of the family as a dog or cat.

Some possible answers to this question are:

  • Rabbits are cute and cuddly.
  • Rabbits don’t need much looking after.
  • Rabbits make ideal pets for children.
  • A rabbit will keep our guinea-pig company.
  • Rabbits don’t take up much space.
  • Rabbits are cheap to keep.

If any these answers match the reasons why you want a rabbit then, unfortunately, a rabbit may not be the best pet for you. It may surprise you, but owning a rabbit will demand as much commitment from you as owning a cat or dog.

Rabbits are very cute, particularly when they are babies. However, many ‘cute’ baby rabbits are bought from pet shops on impulse and their new owners have not considered the reality of owning a rabbit. For example, the average lifespan of a pet rabbit is 7-9 years which represents a big, long-term commitment.

Also, rabbits are not usually cuddly in the way that soft toys are! As ground-dwelling animals, they often feel insecure when picked up, and so do not enjoy being held and cuddled. If the rabbit is not securely held it will struggle and may be dropped. Unfortunately this commonly results in injuries such as fractures to the limbs or spine which can be fatal.

Rabbits do adore being stroked and will allow you to stroke them for hours – providing that they have all four paws on the ground! Owning a rabbit means that you have to learn to interact with your pet in a way that makes it happy. Happy rabbits will respond by licking their owner’s hands. Some rabbits learn to come when their name is called, and can be taught tricks such as begging for treats.

When you own any pet, its needs and requirements must come before your own. It is a common misconception that rabbits don’t need much looking after. Rabbits require at least 3 hours of your time every day:

  • They need to be checked at least twice a day for feed and water.
  • They need access to a run or enclosed garden for exercise for at least 2 hours every day (except in bad weather).
  • They need at least 1 hour of interaction (stroking, play etc.) with you to build up their confidence with humans.

No animal should be thought of as a ‘toy’ for children. Rabbits are particularly not suitable pets for children because they do not enjoy being picked up and if they are not being held properly (as is often the case when a large rabbit is picked up by a small child) they often scratch or bite. Remember that rabbits can live for 7-9 years and unfortunately children can lose interest or grow out of wanting to look after them.

Guinea-pigs, mice and rats are much more suitable pets for children as they are easier to hold. Rats and mice can also be taught tricks.

Rabbits and guinea-pigs do not mix! They are very different animals and have different behaviour and requirements:

  • They need very different diets – guinea-pigs need a diet that is very high in Vitamin C and they will develop severe medical problems if fed only a commercial rabbit mix.
  • They have different health problems – rabbits carry a type of bacteria which does not affect them, but which can cause severe respiratory infection (like bronchitis) in guinea-pigs.
  • They behave differently – rabbits can ‘bully’ guinea-pigs!

A rabbit should not be kept on its own as they are social animals and need other rabbits for company. Rabbits live in groups in the wild and it is extremely unnatural for them to live a solitary existence. The best combination for rabbits is a male-female pair, but this will require both rabbits to be neutered as soon as possible to prevent unwanted litters. Same-sex pairs are possible but only if the rabbits were littermates or were introduced at a very early age. If the pair do not bond, both animals may need to be neutered.

A rabbit hutch can never be too large. Rabbits need a large hutch – with both a living area and a sleeping area. A combined floor space of 150 x 60 x 60 cm has been suggested for a hutch for two small rabbits. Avoid placing the hutch in a site which is in direct sunlight during the summer or where it will be exposed to draughts.

Rabbits also need to be able to exercise for at least 2 hours per day. This can be either in a large, secure run or ‘ark’ placed over grass, or if your garden is securely enclosed, they could be allowed to run free in it.

Before you can bring your rabbit home, you need to invest in a hutch, a run, a food bowl, a water bottle, sawdust and straw for bedding, and food such as rabbit mix, greens and hay. You may also wish to have your rabbit neutered in the first few months.

On-going costs of keeping your rabbit are feed and veterinary care. Rabbits require at least two vaccinations a year, they are also prone to developing chronic health problems, such as snuffles or dental disease, which can require months of treatment. Pet insurance is available for rabbits to protect against large vet bills and this should be considered.