(by Val O'Neil @ Firedove Rabbitry)
If you are planning to buy a rabbit or have purchased one recently please read this information carefully!
First things first, what can you expect from your rabbit...
An important thing to know is that a rabbit is a prey animal. They do not act the same as predators like dogs or cats. They can be very sweet and playful. Some are confident and outgoing, but most are shy . Your rabbit will become more friendly and confident with lots of handling and petting. If you are gentle with your rabbit and spend lots of time with him/her you will have a great pet that will truly add joy to your life!
A rabbit can be purchased at an age around 8 weeks old and still make a great pet. With proper care and handling, rabbits will bond with their owners at any age and can learn to be friendly and to be held even when they are older! Don't decide against a rabbit just because it is a little older and not a tiny baby anymore.
There are things that rabbits do that people often don't expect of them. They respond differently than your average pet to some things as detailed in the following paragraphs.
Most rabbits are wary of being picked up and will kick when they are not feeling safe. Rabbits really prefer to have all four feet on a surface (i.e. the cage floor, your floor, your lap, or your couch). This is not to say that no rabbit likes to be picked up. With proper handling every day a rabbit can learn to be calm while being held. Make sure to ask the breeder you are buying from, or someone rabbit knowledgeable to show you how to pick up and hold your rabbit safely. Expect to get scratched sometimes and don't become frightened of your rabbit because of those scratches, remember your rabbit is scratching you because it is scared or uncomfortable, you can't abandon handling your bunny because of that! Wear long sleeves when you first start handling your rabbit to prevent some of the scratching.
One time when many of kicking episodes happen is when you are putting your rabbit back in their cage. Cover your rabbit's eyes when you are approaching the cage and try putting your rabbit into the cage backwards to prevent them from pushing off of you. Repeated handling can help break this bunny habit.
Rabbits as prey animals get scared by many things. Loud noises and quick movements can rattle your bunny. A scared bunny will either run or hunker down. A frightened rabbit is also more likely to bat you with its paws or even nip or bite. Try to give your bunny the benefit of the doubt if it "attacks" you. Some rabbits may have aggression issues often involving their "territory." If your rabbit lunges or bites when you reach into the cage, it might be defending its space. I'm not going to pretend that this is a good thing, only that it is normal for some rabbits to feel that way. If you have a "cage territorial" rabbit reach one hand in high and push your rabbit's head to the cage floor, then use your other hand to move things in the cage, like the food dish or hay. Don't be discouraged, most rabbits are not like that! Most are "happy go lucky" and very happy to welcome you into their cage area especially if you are feeding them or bringing them treats!
Another reason rabbits "nip" is if you hold them too long. It's usually more of a nibble but can pinch the skin. This is your rabbits way of saying it is time to put him/her down. Often it means they are too warm or need to go to the bathroom. Most rabbits will start by licking you or your clothing. As time goes on they will get more insistent, nibbling, pulling on your clothes, or even sometimes biting. Usually the biting can be avoided by putting your rabbit down when he/she first "asks."
Feeding your rabbit
Rabbits don't require a lot of fancy foods. A good pelleted feed, lots of water, and hay as needed.
Pelleted feed can be provided in a heavy dish or something that attaches to the cage. Do not put your rabbit's food in a lightweight dish that he/she can flip over. If you do your rabbit will just dump most of their food which wastes it and leaves your bunny hungry. Your rabbit needs to be fed once a day. Bunnies under 6 months old should be given a steady supply of pellets, as much as they will eat. Bunnies over 6 months should be limited, an adult Mini Lop requires about a half a cup of pellets each day.
For a Mini Lop try to find a 17% protein pelleted feed. A 16% feed is easier to find and will do if it's all you can get, but for a Mini Lop it doesn't keep them in the best condition. Holland Lops do fine on a 16% feed. Ask your breeder about any other breed you are considering purchasing from them.
Water is what makes the rabbit's digestive system work. It must be provided to them at all times. It can be provided in a bottle or a crock. If you are going to use a crock, it's best if you use a heavy one or one that attaches to the cage. In the winter crocks are best, try to find one that you can pop the ice out of easily without breaking the dish. Sometimes for outdoor rabbits in cold climates it may be hard to keep unfrozen water out for your rabbit but try to get out there several times a day to replace frozen or dumped crocks so your rabbit can keep healthy!
Hay is most often very important to a rabbit to keep hair from building up in their systems. I would not discourage any pet owner from feeding timothy or grass hay to their rabbit as often as possible.
Feeding your rabbit: Treats
Anything beyond pellets, water, and hay are treats. Many veggies and some fruits make good treats for your bunny. Keep in mind however that treats should be given in small portions. Some websites will try to tell you that a diet filled with veggies and very little pelleted feed is best for your bunny - in my experience, a lot of bunnies die from a veggie heavy diet.
The first rule in feeding treats is that no rabbit under the age of 12 weeks should be given any treats, no treats for babies! When your rabbit is old enough to start tasting treats you need to give them a small amount of a single kind of treat. Rabbits can be subject to allergies so it's important to introduce treats one at a time. If your rabbit gets diarrhea or acts different after eating a treat, do not give them any more treats for at least a week and treat them for their symptoms. If your rabbit is very sick take him/her to a vet immediately! If your rabbit has no bad reactions, each day you can try one new treat. Always start with small amounts. Never give your bunny more than 4 oz of fruit per day, and try to keep your veggie treats down to a handful or less.
Housing your rabbit
Every rabbit needs its own cage! This means that if you want to keep two rabbits you need to have two cages. Rabbits are not social with each other except for during mating. Sometimes spayed/neutered bunnies can be bonded but it is best to make sure that each has its own place to retreat to when it is not feeling up for company.
The best indoor cages are all wire, with a wire floor and a slide out tray underneath. A cage like this is easy to clean and maintain. A Mini Lop can live comfortably in a cage the minimum size of 24"x24"x16" but I really recommend for a pet that you get the largest cage you can afford and your house can accommodate! If you do not want to have your rabbit sleeping on wire all of the time (though most rabbits don't have a problem from this) you can purchase a resting mat from most cage companies or put in a piece of drywall. If you use drywall be sure to replace it if it gets soiled!
For outdoor bunnies you need a cage with a roof over the entire cage! Your rabbit also needs a way to get out of the wind such as an attached wooden box or 3 sides of the hutch enclosed by wood. If you are using a hutch with 3 wooden sides, make sure the wire side faces away from wherever most wind at your home comes from. Make sure your hutch is plenty big for the breed of rabbit you plan to put in it!
Housing your rabbit: Indoors or Outdoors? and Bunny Proofing
I strongly recommend that every pet rabbit be kept indoors! Especially if the rabbit is going to be a child's pet. It is easy to forget to spend time with your bunny when it is outside, especially in the cold months. Many children will quickly lose interest in an outdoor bunny. Another thing you gain by keeping your bunny indoors is that you really get to see its personality. Bunnies are very unique pets and can really enrich your home!
Most bunnies can be taught to use a litter box. Nearly all bunnies will learn to at least pee in a litter box. Getting your bunny to poop only in the box is much more challenging. Luckily bunny poop is hard and easy to sweep or pick up. Spayed/neutered rabbits will be best about always using the litter box.
Make sure if your bunny is to be indoors and roaming around, that you have "bunny proofed" your house. Bunnies like to chew and dig and can't usually be broken of these habits. All cords in your bunnies play area should be covered or elevated above rabbit reach. Any expensive or sentimental items that can be chewed should be removed or put out of reach. Bunnies love to destroy books so only put books that you don't mind losing within your rabbits play area.
Spaying or Neutering
While I tend to recommend that pet owners spay or neuter their rabbits it is something you should discuss with your vet and weigh the pros and cons. If you want to bond two rabbits it is necessary to have them "fixed" so keep that in mind. Getting your rabbit "fixed" is costly but usually worth it in the end! Unneutered bucks will often times spray urine around their cage and anywhere they are allowed to play. However, when getting your rabbit "fixed" you need to make sure to go with a vet that is very good and experienced with rabbits. Because rabbits are very sensitive sometimes spaying/neutering can be a risk to their life. Any time a rabbit needs to undergo surgery it is at risk, just like people. You really do need to put a lot of thought into the issue.
Heat and Cold
Rabbits are not affected by the cold very much as long as they have been given the chance to grow a good coat. An indoor rabbit should never be moved to an outdoor hutch during the cold months. If you must move an indoor rabbit to outside, do it in the late spring or early summer so your rabbit has the whole summer and fall to adjust to the changing weather and grow a thick warm coat for the winter.
Heat however is a big problem for rabbits! That same thick coat that keeps them so warm in the winter can cause real problems for a rabbit in the summer heat. Make sure that in the summer your rabbit has lots of fresh cold water to drink. Also make sure your rabbit is out of the sun and in the coolest place you can provide. A good way to give your bunny relief from the heat is by freezing some plastic soda bottles 3/4 full of water. Give your bunny a frozen bottle during the hot part of the day and replace it with fresh frozen bottles when needed. Your bunny may lick the bottle or lay against or on top of it. This is great "bunny air conditioning." If your rabbit appears distressed in the heat, nose running, panting, or listless, take quick action to cool your bunny down by spraying it with cool water. If your rabbit is not responding to that take it to a vet immediately!
Just like any other animal, rabbits like to play with toys. It helps alleviate boredom and stimulates their minds and bodies. Good toys can be as simple as the tube from a roll of toilet paper, or a tuna can with one end removed (make sure there are no sharp edges). You can also provide your rabbit with hard plastic cat toys, make sure that if they have a bell, it's not something the rabbit can chew and open up - rabbits can choke on the bells. Toys made for large birds and hard plastic baby toys also work well. You can also find toys made specifically for rabbits.
Rabbits also enjoy something they can chew on. Apple branches that have not been sprayed with pesticides are great for rabbits. You can buy small chew blocks, but in my experience, most bunnies do not chew them. They tend to prefer something that doesn't move around as easily.
If you have more questions on the care of your rabbit or what to expect from a rabbit please feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.