A House Rabbit Primer : Understanding and Caring for Your Companion Rabbit

A House Rabbit Primer : Understanding and Caring for Your Companion Rabbit
Lucile C. Moore
March 2005

A House Rabbit Primer: Understanding and Caring for Your Companion Rabbit is a complete, up-to-date handbook on all aspects of rabbit care for both new and experienced pet rabbit owners.

Just a few years ago, most pet rabbits were kept outdoors in hutches. That time is past. Today, pet rabbits are considered to be members of the family. They are spayed/neutered pets kept indoors and pampered with special toys and treats.

In A House Rabbit Primer, author Lucile C. Moore, Ph.D., provides pet rabbit owners with valuable information about the total care of their pet. Part one tells owners just what to expect from their new member of the family and gives detailed information on how to house, feed, and train a rabbit. Part two contains a comprehensive medical section. In addition to detailed information on many rabbit diseases, there are tips on creating a first-aid kit for rabbits as well as providing emergency care.

With more and more pet owners choosing to keep their rabbits indoors full time, this informative guide lays out practical information for making rabbits a healthy part of any family.

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Part I. House Rabbit Care and Behavior

Chapter 1. Why a Pet Rabbit?
Ten Frequently Asked Questions
A Brief History of Rabbits

Chapter 2. Choosing a Rabbit
What Breed is Best?
Other Considerations
Adopting Your Rabbit

Chapter 3. Before Bringing Bunny Home
Cages, Feed, and Supplies

Chapter 4. The First Days
Introducing Your Rabbit to His New Home
What to Expect as Your Rabbit Settles in

Chapter 5. Keeping You and Your Rabbit Happy
Training Your Rabbit
Creating a Rabbit-Friendly Environment
Necessities for Rabbits

Chapter 6. The Rabbit’s Digestive System
Following the Track of a Rabbit’s Food
Feeding Your Pet Rabbit

Chapter 7. Communicating with Your Rabbit
Ear Carriage and Body Posture
Communicating by Touch and with Noise
Other Communications
Bunny Etiquette

Chapter 8. Behavior Puzzles and Problems
Rabbit-People Issues
Rabbits and Other Pets

Chapter 9. Caring for Older and Special Needs Rabbits
Older Rabbits
Tips on Caring for Special Needs Rabbits
Emotional Considerations

Part II. Rabbit Health and Medicine

Chapter 10. Rabbits, Veterinarians, Medications, and Surgery
Finding a Rabbit-Savvy Veterinarian
Rabbits, Analgesia, Anesthesia, and Therapeutics
Caring for Rabbits Recovering from Surgery or Illness
A Rabbit Emergency Kit

Chapter 11. Symptoms of Disease
Symptoms and Definitions
Monthly Check-up
“Help, My Bunny…”
Emergency First Aid for Rabbits

Chapter 12. Specific Diseases and Conditions of Pet Rabbits
Mycotic (Fungal) Conditions
Bacterial Diseases
Viral Diseases
Gastrointestinal Conditions
Other Diseases and Conditions

A Final Thought

Appendix I. Resources for Rabbit Owners
Appendix II. Plants Potentially Harmful to Rabbits
Photo Contributors


Without question, house rabbit owners are members of a pet elite. They have the unusual ability to find companionship, amusement, and boundless joy in sharing their lives with an animal many others see as boring, timid, stupid, or unresponsive. They are self-confident enough to remain unfazed when discovered crawling on the floor, rubbing noses with their pets, jumping up and down, or even running in circles and shaking their heads in imitation of a rabbit gone “binky.” Friends and relatives shake their heads in disbelief, raise their eyebrows and wonder-silently or aloud-why anyone would want a pet rabbitwhen they could have a nice affectionate dog or warm lap cat.

Yet pet rabbit owners remain stubbornly loyal and are slowly but consistently winning others over to their passion. Although U.S. households with pet rabbits number considerably fewer than those with cats and dogs, their ranks are steadily increasing. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, rabbits overtook hamsters as the most popular small companion animals in the U.S. in 1996-1997, and have since continued to widen their lead.

What is it about these apparently timid and quiet animals that gained the affection, loyalty, and admiration of people as different as writer and naturalist Beatrix Potter and actor Steve McQueen? What they had discovered, and what many people today are discovering, is that behind the deceptively soft and timid appearance of the rabbit is an animal that is wonderfully affectionate, impeccably clean, entertainingly playful, and always beguiling. Still, it must be said that rabbits are not for everyone. In addition to the aforementioned qualities, they can also be extremely stubborn, destructive, demanding, and temperamental.

The failure to understand the less appealing aspects of rabbits’ personalities beforehand is leading to an increase of unwanted and abandoned rabbits even as others discover the joys of rabbit ownership. Rabbits look so cuddly and sweet one naturally expects them to act that way. When new owners find to their surprise that their rabbit doesn’t always want to sit in laps and cuddle, chews holes in expensive clothes, doesn’t get along with very young children, rips wallpaper off the wall, and bites when ignored, they are taken aback. Faced with this unexpected behavior, the new rabbit owners may feel aggrieved and disappointed and no longer want their pets. Some of these misunderstood rabbits end up alone and unhappy in backyard hutches, others are taken to shelters, and, tragically, some are turned loose to fend for themselves. These last have almost no chance to survive-when they freeze at the sight of danger their unnatural colors make them stand out, an easy target for predators, and they are without the social support of other wild rabbits and the protection of their warren.

But for the person willing, ready, and able to accept rabbits for what they are, they make wonderful pets. Rabbits can be ideal for apartment dwellers, as they are clean, quiet, and don’t need tons of space. They are also good pets for people who have to work every day, because they readily adapt to being in a cage during daytime work hours as long as they are let out to play mornings or evenings. Are you tempted? Following is a list of frequently asked questions for people who have never had a pet house rabbit but would like to know more.

Ten Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is a rabbit more like a cat or a dog?
Some rabbit owners become annoyed when asked this question, but I find it natural that a prospective owner would want to understand the rabbit in the context of the two most popular pets. The answer is, like both and like neither. Like cats, rabbits are insatiably curious and impeccably clean. Like dogs, rabbits are often (not always) demonstrably affectionate and endearingly clumsy. A major difference from both, however, is that while cats and dogs are both predators, rabbits are everyone’s favorite lunch. This basic difference in their position in the scheme of things in the wild affects their behavior in one’s home. Rabbits cannot be disciplined or otherwise treated the same way as cats or dogs.

2. Aren’t rabbits some kind or rodent?
No. Although once included in the mammalian order Rodentia, rabbits were reclassified in the mid 1900’s and put into the order Lagomorpha, which includes rabbits, hares, and pikas (a small rabbit-like mammal of the Americas). Amazingly, researchers using sophisticated protein sequence analyses have discovered that rabbits are actually much more closely related to primates than to rodents!

3. Are rabbits easy to take care of?
Another yes and no answer. Rabbits are usually most active during the morning and evening, so they do adapt to being kept in a cage during the day. However, rabbits are social animals, and must be given a great deal of attention to thrive. They need to be groomed occasionally, and care must be taken in feeding them, as they have easily upset digestive systems. And while they are naturally clean animals, in one’s home they depend upon the owner to remove soiled litter and keep their food and water fresh. Rabbits also have fragile skeletons, and require careful handling to avoid broken backs and other injuries.

4. Can you litter-train a rabbit?
Again, yes and no. Rabbits, particularly older ones, can be trained to urinate in a litter box and to leave most of their droppings in a litter box. However, rabbits will probably always leave a few territorial droppings here and there, and they tend to lose a few when they are very excited. These droppings are dry and odorless, and easily cleaned up with a hand-held vacuum.

5. I’ve heard rabbits chew on everything-is this true?
An emphatic yes! Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously all their lives and they have to chew things to keep their teeth worn down. Providing toys and chew sticks can help to reduce destructive chewing on books, furniture and other items (see Chapter 3), but rabbit owners should resign themselves to a certain amount of destruction of property. To those who are captivated by rabbits’ enchanting personalities the loss of a few pairs of shoes and maybe a couple of choice antiques seems a small price to pay for the pleasure of their company.

6. Can rabbits get along with cats and dogs?
Most rabbits can learn to get along with other family pets, although some rabbits are uneasy around ferrets. Cats in particular may form strong bonds with rabbits. However, a rabbit should never be left unsupervised with any cat, dog, or other predatory pet, no matter how long and how well they have gotten along with the rabbit. Too many rabbits end up seriously injured or dead when left unsupervised for even a short while with the family cat or dog. Cats and dogs also carry certain organisms which can be dangerous to rabbits, and some precautions must be taken with sanitation.

7. Are rabbits good pets for children?
For very young children, no. Rabbits are often frightened by the excited shouting and sudden movements of young children. Rabbits may suffer broken backs if held and handled by a child too young to understand how to do so properly. Rabbits can, however, make excellent pets for children 8 years of age and older.

8. Do rabbits bite?
Yes. Even good-natured rabbits sometimes communicate with small nips. Rabbits will also scratch and bite if they are held against their will, or frightened. A few rabbits (usually as a result of the owners trying to discipline the rabbit like they would a cat or dog) become aggressive and attack viciously.

9. How long do rabbits live?
It depends on the size of the rabbit. Very small rabbits tend to have shorter lives of 5 to 6 years. Average-sized rabbits (about 6-12 pounds) may live 8 to 12 years or more. Very large rabbits (over 14 pounds) may have shorter lives, about 6 to 10 years. These life spans presuppose good health and proper care of the rabbit, of course.

10. What is the difference between hares and rabbits?
Rabbits and hares are in the same mammalian family, but different genera, and do not interbreed. Hares differ from rabbits in that they have larger heads, a larger volume of blood, longer ears and legs. They both have split lips, but the rabbit has a membrane near the top of the split that covers the gums. Rabbit young are born naked with eyes closed; hare young furred with eyes open. In general, hares are more adaptable and live on top of the ground; many rabbits burrow and have more restricted ranges. You can’t always tell which is which by common names-jackrabbits and snowshoe rabbits are in fact hares, and Belgian Hares are rabbits.

©2005 Lucile C. Moore

Author Information

Lucile C. Moore, PhD

is the author of A House Rabbit Primer and numerous articles on the history, folklore, and care of rabbits. In the course of her combined professional and personal lives she has cared for over 750 domestic rabbits of various breeds, and currently shares her home with fourteen house rabbits. She lives on ten acres outside Kanab, Utah, among a host of jackrabbits and cottontails.


“This comprehensive manual covers everything readers need to know about keeping rabbits as pets in a well-organized and informative fashion. Moore holds a Ph.D. in biology with a specialty in animal behavior and has worked as a county rabbit superintendent. She also keeps eight rabbits as pets, which makes her qualified to write on the topic. Taking a practical approach, Moore acknowledges both the pleasures and the pitfalls of keeping rabbits as pets. After a brief history of the animal, she discusses the variety of breeds and their characteristics, supplies and cages, nutrition, behavior and communication, and health. Moore’s focus is strictly on pet rabbits kept in the home—she does not address large agricultural or breeding operations. Helpful appendixes include listings of rabbit health resources, shelters, and rabbit supply businesses. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in keeping pet rabbits and is recommended for public libraries.”
—Library Journal

“A House Rabbit Primer,” by Lucile C. Moore (Santa Monica Press; $15) is as complete a handbook as I’ve seen on these pets. Moore has a doctoral degree in biology with a specialty in animal behavior, and her experience shows, along with an obvious love for rabbits (she has eight of them as house pets). The book provides excellent advice on setting up a house rabbit, litter box training, proper feeding and health concerns. If you’ve never had a rabbit indoors before, Moore explains how rabbits think and why they act as they do.

Lucile Moore’s book is a great addition to the bookshelf of any rabbit family, with all the information new caretakers need as well as information about behavior and communication that may be helpful for all.