Why Raise Rabbits? If you are thinking about starting an animal project, you ought to consider rabbits. They provide years of enjoyment for the relatively few dollars put into them. There are many advantages to raising rabbits, such as their small size, their ability to thrive indoors or outdoors, their quiet habits, and the fact that do not require periodical veterinary care. Domestic rabbits can even become a food source for your family. Plus, the rabbit world offers many opportunities for enjoyment, friendship, and competition.
Bringing Your New Rabbit Home: It’s stressful for your rabbit to move to a new home. Stress makes a rabbit more vulnerable to disease, so be gentle on your bunny when it first arrives. Do not over-handle it, and let it get adjusted to the new environment for a day or two. Gradually mix in greater amounts of your pellets with the feed sent home with the rabbit, so that the change in feeds will not upset its digestive system. For the same reason, do not give your bunny many treats at first. If you are going to bring an outdoor rabbit inside, or vice versa, let the rabbit get acclimated to the new temperature over time.
Feed: A commercial rabbit pellet is the best choice for your rabbit. Check the labels on the back of the feed bag to find the protein and fiber content. Rabbits for pets or show need between 15-17% protein and at least 17% fiber. Feeds bought in small amounts at pet stores may or may not contain the nutrients your rabbit requires. You will find a much better value and probably a better formula if you buy a name brand of show rabbit feed. Ask the breeder from whom you bought your rabbit what brand they feed. Store all feed in pest-proof, waterproof containers. Stored feed begins to lose its nutritional value after a month or so. A rabbit needs about 1 ounce of feed per pound of body weight each day (4 oz. = ¼ cup) Growing rabbits may need more. Do not over-feed your rabbit, as a fat rabbit is not healthy. To tell if your rabbit is too fat or thin, run a hand down its backbone. You should be able to feel the individual bumps of the vertebrae. If the bumps are sharp or pointed, the rabbit may be too thin. If you cannot feel the vertebrae, the rabbit is probably overweight. You should not be able to pinch rolls of your rabbit’s skin.
Treats for your rabbit should be occasional and in small amounts. Do not feed your bunny lettuce or cabbage! Good treats include apple slices, carrots, dandelions, oatmeal, sunflower seeds, parsley, banana, whole grain cereal without many sweeteners or artificial ingredients, shredded wheat, pineapple, raisins in small quantities. Rabbits love a piece of dry wheat bread. If your bunny is not used to the treat you offer he or she may not take it. Free-choice timothy hay is another important part of a rabbit’s diet.
Rabbits must always have a supply of clean, fresh water. Change a bunny’s water daily.
Equipment: The rule of thumb for choosing your rabbit’s cage size is that rabbits should have at least 1 square foot of floor space per pound of body weight. Rabbits do best with their own cages, but sometimes two does or neutered rabbits can live in the same cage, provided there is ample room. The cage floor should be of wire, so the droppings can fall through. Chicken wire is not suitable for rabbit cages, as dogs and raccoons can tear right through it. If your rabbit is in a barn or a house, you can place a drop pan beneath the cage to collect the droppings. The drop pan should be filled with an absorbent material such as pine shavings. Do not use cedar shavings because cedar can cause respiratory problems. Crocks or J-feeders can be used for feed. A crock or a water bottle supplies water. Make sure the bunny knows how to drink from the bottle!
Health: Check your rabbit often to make sure it is healthy. It should be eating well, have bright eyes, well-furred foot pads, and have no discharge from the nose or eyes. Also make sure that the top teeth overlap the bottom ones. Misaligned teeth (malocclusion) must be trimmed.
A rabbit with a clean cage and a low-stress environment will usually be a healthy bunny. Rabbits do not need immunizations. In fact, most rabbits don’t see a vet once their whole life! However, sometimes vet care is necessary and you should establish a relationship with a veterinarian who is familiar with rabbits. Here are some common health problems, some of which you can treat yourself:
> Sore hocks: Very large rabbits or rabbits that stamp their feet often may develop sore hocks. Sore hocks occur when the fur is worn away and the footpads break and bleed. Daily apply an antibiotic cream and give the rabbit a place in its cage to rest off of the wire. There are special mats available for this that allow the droppings to fall through. Prevention is the best medicine.
> Ear Canker: Ear mites cause ear canker. A rabbit that has ear mites will shake its head when the base of the ear is squeezed. It will also develop a dark, crusty material in the ear. Treat ear mites by putting several drops of cooking, olive, or mineral oil in the ear for three days. Wait ten days and repeat as needed. A miticide lotion for dogs or cats is also very effective.
> Abscesses: Lance and drain the abscess. Clean the area with antiseptic and apply antibiotic ointment until the area is healed. Sometimes abscesses occur as a result of sore hocks.
> Snuffles: Snuffles is caused by Pasturella sp., or some other bacteria. A rabbit that is stressed can easily get snuffles. Snuffles are not completely curable, but antibiotics from the vet can put it into a remissive state. Signs of snuffles include sneezing, white discharge from the nose, and matted front paws (from wiping a runny nose). It does not usually interfere with the appetite. A sneeze with clear discharge is not usually snuffles. Most breeders will cull animals that show signs of this illness.
>Wry Neck: Also known as head tilt, signs of this condition include bunnies hold their head sideways, stumbling, and rolling. It is usually caused either by an inner ear infection or by the protozoan parasite E.Cuniculi in the brain. Have a veterinarian try to determine the cause of your bunny’s wry neck so he or she can treat it appropriately. Ear infections can be cleared up with baytril; E. cuniculi with a wormer such as ivermectin. Barbi Brown has good information on Wry Neck on her website: http://www.barbibrownsbunnies.com/ecuniculi.htm
Sanitation: If your rabbit’s cage has a drop pan it should be cleaned out weekly. If your rabbit is in a hutch outside and the droppings fall to the ground, you must shovel out the manure to prevent attracting flies. Rabbit manure is high in potassium and nitrogen and makes excellent garden fertilizer!
Your rabbit’s cage, especially the floor, should be entirely cleaned and sanitized as often as possible. Scrape off any built up manure, and clean the cage thoroughly with solution of five parts water to one part household bleach.
Grooming: Rabbits’ toenails grow continually, and must be trimmed about six times a year. There are five toenails on each front foot and four on the back feet. Long toenails will result in scratches and possibly broken toes. Looking closely at the toenail, you should be able to see the blood vessel extending a short ways from the base of the nail. Give this vessel a little margin and clip the nail. Long haired (wooled) breeds such as the Angoras must be groomed frequently. A young wooled rabbit will need to be brushed more often than a senior. Most normal furred breeds require little grooming, except a bit of brushing to remove dead hairs during a molt or before a show. You can remove stains from your rabbit’s coat by brushing white alcohol on the stain to loosen it, and then sprinkling cornstarch on the area to absorb it.
Showing: Showing is a fun and competitive aspect of our hobby. Join a local 4-H or ARBA club to learn about rabbit shows. In order to show, you must have purebred rabbits. Rabbit shows are judged based on the conformity of the rabbits to the recognized Standard of Perfection. For youth (under 19) there are other competitive opportunities such as showmanship, breed ID, and royalty contests.
Breeding: You should probably not breed your rabbits unless you have a decided purpose for doing so, and are prepared to find homes for all the babies. A rabbit breeder must be emotionally prepared to deal with babies that don’t survive. Do your research before you decide to breed.