Living With a House Rabbit
By Wendy Parsons on
Rabbits are timid, gentle, curious, and affectionate if given the opportunity. When your rabbit licks you, feel privileged. It is an open display of trust and affection. They adapt easily to living in your home and are suited to quiet households, and contrary to popular belief, are better pets for adults than children.
Teaching your rabbit to use a litter tray
Like cats, rabbits can be easily trained to use a litter tray. They will almost certainly use a tray that has the smell of droppings or urine in it already. Choose a place away from their food and water bowls, preferably in a corner.
If however, your rabbit chooses his own location, then you will probably have to put the litter tray there. An argument with your rabbit over location probably won't achieve anything, except an agitated rabbit and soiled floor coverings (stain remover - 1 part white vinegar, 2 parts water.)
Recycled paper litter is very effective because it is more absorbent. Don't use 'clumping' litter -it swells in size and 'clumps' once ingested, causing terrible complications/death. Does (female rabbits) are the homemakers of the bunny world and therefore the ones most likely to dig. If she chooses to dig the litter out of her tray, try placing a rectangular cake rack inside the tray on top of the litter, making sure it is at least level with, or mainly covered by the litter, so that it is not obvious to your rabbit. You don't want to make it obvious or it may put her off using the tray. The cake rack is just to make it more difficult to dig and should eventually put her off.
When the need to dig from her litter tray subsides, the cake rack can be removed. A doe instinctively needs to create a home (burrow) for her offspring and when she comes into season, digging (even in her litter tray) will be foremost on her mind. Desexing will subdue her need to dig so frequently.
The sides of a litter tray can be quite daunting for a small rabbit to hop over and just plain overwhelming for a baby bunny. If the sides of the tray are as high as your bunny, it will be impossible for him to hop over easily, and at best, will discourage him from using the tray. Until he grows, remove the tray and replace with something more inviting.
Cut one end out of a litter tray or cut a cardboard box to the shape of a litter tray and remove one side at the end, line with a piece of plastic to keep it dry, then fill with litter in the usual way (unlike cats, rabbits do not dig - well, not to do wee anyway - so the depth of litter can be quite shallow.) This will enable bunny to hop straight into the tray until he is big enough to negotiate something higher. You may also find this useful for an older rabbit who is becoming stiff from arthritis.
Important: Don't confuse territorial urinating with litter training failure. For example, a young bunny may be litter trained, then one day starts weeing everywhere, and none of it in his litter tray. Don't despair, this only means he has reached sexual maturity (4 months) and he is letting other rabbits know that he has come of age and is staking his territory. Desexing will stop this and the sooner the better.
Handling your rabbit
Contrary to public perception, rabbits do not make good pets for children, particularly young children, because they naturally want to hold and hug their rabbit, but this is instinctively threatening to the rabbit.
This however, does not mean that children can't learn to live with rabbits (as opposed to rabbits learning to live with children) but it does mean the child must be taught that the animal is not a cuddly toy and must be treated differently from a cat or dog. Always remember that because your rabbit is a prey animal, he will not like being held. This does not mean you cannot love and pat your rabbit; on the contrary, most really enjoy affection because it helps them feel secure, but instead of picking your rabbit up, go down to your rabbit's level, on the ground or floor, and make a fuss of him there where he can enjoy the attention without feeling threatened.
On the occasions when you do pick your rabbit up, never ever pick him up by the ears (magicians have a lot to answer for!). Always use both hands, and always use one hand to hold the bulk of the animal's weight (the bottom) so that the backbone is supported (this is very important.) The other hand can be placed around the chest. I have found rabbits are always calmer when held with all four feet resting on my chest. Something solid under their feet gives them some security.
Rabbits need to chew
One of the drawbacks of having a house rabbit is that they need to chew and sometimes this can be your furniture. However you can minimise this and often it will not be a problem at all.
Rabbits' teeth continue to grow throughout their life, so they have to chew; never ever growl at your rabbit for chewing, not even the furniture. It's like growling at your dog for wagging its tail. Just hold your temper and remove your rabbit from the precious piece of furniture he is chewing.
If your rabbit has an interesting life as part of the family and if you always have chewable toys, or a piece of untreated, unpainted wood available that belongs just to your rabbit, chewing the legs of the sofa should not be a problem (not as often anyway.) A piece of firewood is ideal. A cardboard box is good chewable material too.
Electric cords which are unable to be kept behind furniture, can also present an obvious danger for your rabbit if chewed, but protection is available from an electrical store, in the form of hard plastic sleeving (manufactured by Clipsal, and called mini trunking) which can be placed around the cord. This sleeving comes in approx 3-4 m lengths (around $25) and can be easily cut with a hacksaw. It is in two parts which snap shut, protecting the cord which lies in the centre. This is an excellent idea for anyone who owns a cord-chewing dog, or who has young children with a liking for scissors.
Your rabbit will need his own basket which should ideally be the plastic tub type (your rabbit will eat his way through a cane basket in no time!). Place the basket under something which will give your rabbit the feeling of protection - remember, your rabbit is a prey animal and needs to feel secure. A coffee table is ideal.
Another good idea in addition to a basket, is to give your rabbit a cardboard box large enough for him to sit inside. Cut out 2 entry points, on different, but adjoining sides. A prey animal feels more secure with a second emergency exit. I gave my rabbit a cardboard box, but he never went near it until I put in a second entry/exit point. Now it's his favourite place. A cardboard box is a bunny's best friend, so provide several in different locations around the house to give your bunny some favourite places and a sense of security.
- Some rabbits are afraid to hop on polished floors because as prey animals, the slippery surface makes them feel insecure, because they are unable to get good traction, and therefore a quick escape.
- I've found most rabbits don't bother hopping onto furniture, but prefer being at ground level and often under things - it feels safer for them.
- Make sure the toilet seat is down. Rabbits will jump, and if bunny jumps into the toilet bowl head-first, he will be unable to get a footing on the slippery sides, so will not be able to pull his head from the water, and will drown.
Just like cats and dogs, rabbits like toys:
- a pine cone or two
- plastic containers which are small enough for them to pick up with their teeth (margarine tubs or babies' bath toys)
- a small untreated cane bowl to chew
- an old phone book to chew
- a pile of newspapers to shred
- small cardboard boxes to toss around
- cardboard rolls from paper towels
- a towel to scrunch up
Protection from predators
If you have a house rabbit, it is also nice for them to have time in the garden, but always remember that your neighbour's cat or dog can kill your rabbit. Even if a cat has a gentle disposition, it can still terrorise your rabbit just by its presence, so supervise your rabbit's time outside in the garden if it is impossible to protect your backyard against the intrusion of cats (which is usually the case.)
Your back yard also needs to be 'rabbit proof' to keep your rabbit from getting out (spring hinges on gates will help keep predators out and bunny in.)
It only takes a few centimetres of soil to be dug out for your rabbit to escape. Here are three ways to stop this:
- burying 10cm wide metal or plastic garden edging in a narrow trench immediately below the fence (as a continuation of the fence)
- placing a line of bricks or pavers flush with the ground along the fence line
- laying a strip of 45cm wire netting on the ground, attached to the base of the fence and extending it out at least 30cm.
Bunnies can also eat a hole in a brush fence, so you may need to run 30 cm of netting across the bottom if you have this type of fence.
I have a small, high-fenced, courtyard-style back yard to my home unit and my rabbits have access to it through a 'pet door' (rabbits will happily learn to use a pet door.) The area is small enough for me to see that they are safe from inside the house. Even so, cats still remain a danger, so I am never far away when my rabbits are outside.
If you have a larger back yard, with a little thought, it is possible to section off a portion and give your rabbit access to it through a pet door and/or 'cat park' tunnel, if access is not directly available. These are designed for cats, but there is no reason why they can't be used for your rabbit. Proper 'cat parks' on a larger scale can provide a range of options, designed specifically to suit your home and will keep your rabbit safe.
If you install a pet door, it needs to 'look different' when it is locked, from when it is unlocked, or your rabbit may become confused and frightened. Once again, this is a prey animal reaction. When I lock my pet door, I place something in front so my rabbits know it is off-limits.
You can have a rabbit and a garden
It is possible to have a rabbit and a garden, however there are a few restrictions. My garden consists of lots of hanging baskets, and plants which my rabbits either won't or can't eat - anything that grows without greenery at the bottom, i.e. climbing roses, palms, camellias, standard plants like roses, fuchsias, gardenias etc, are 'rabbit-safe' plants. If your rabbit starts ring-barking your standard roses, just wrap a single layer of wire netting around the lowest 30cm (this will barely be noticeable.) My garden is also full of flowers (Impatiens) at ground (or bunny) level - my rabbits won't eat them.
Be careful of poisonous plants e.g. azalea, daphne, ivy, elephant ears, oleander - check with your vet (or nursery) if unsure. Also be careful not to lay snail bait, or use poisonous sprays on areas where your rabbit has access.
If at all possible, your female rabbit will be happier if she can have a small area where she can dig. It does not have to be large; just a small patch of dirt or a mound, out of view behind a shrub will keep her happy. It would however be wise to lay some wire netting a few centimetres underneath so she doesn't dig to China. My female (desexed) rabbit only digs occasionally in a small patch about half a square metre - once her behavioural need was satisfied by digging a small hole, she was happy and gave it away. Now and again she will go back and move the soil around a little. Never growl at your rabbit for digging.