All 60+ breeds of domestic rabbit are descended from the European wild rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus. The rabbits found in North America are Cottontails from the genus Sylvilagus and are only distantly related. Cottontails have never been domesticated and do not make good pets.
The average lifespan for a well cared for rabbit varies but is between 7-9 years.
Spaying & Neutering
Female rabbits have a very high risk of developing uterine cancer if left intact. They should be spayed around 4-6 months of age which can greatly decrease this risk. Male rabbits can be neutered as young as 3.5 months of age. Spaying and neutering both sexes can make them calmer, reduce aggressive and dominance behavior, and prevents overpopulation. When done by an experienced veterinarian these procedures are safe and rabbits live longer healthier lives.
Rabbits should be kept indoors in cages as large as possible. Solid bottomed cages are best, avoid any that have wire or mesh bottoms. Minimally your rabbit should be able to stand on his hind legs without touching the top of the cage and be able to take 3 hops in any direction. Substrate in the bottom of the cage can be any number of things but avoid cedar or pine chips. These have aromatic oils that can cause respiratory issues and liver disease. Whatever you choose it should be changed at least once weekly but can also “spot clean” during the week. Some good choices for substrate are Carefresh™, aspen shavings, and shredded paper.
Many people give rabbits their own room in a house or surround the cage with a play pen so they can come and go as they please but use the cage as a “home base”. If you do this make sure your home is bunny proof! Rabbits will chew on any wires, wooden objects, toys, etc. that you leave and they can get into even the tiniest spaces. They can also climb up onto furniture so take that into consideration.
Make sure the habitat has plenty of room for hay, food bowl, water, and a hide. You can purchase plastic hides or make one yourself. It is very important your rabbit have several hiding areas to choose from especially for house rabbits.
Rabbits can be litter box trained just like cats. Keeping them in a single room or small area with a litter box in one corner until they use it regularly is one way to train them. Sometimes putting a small amount of hay in the box will encourage them. You can also put some droppings into the box to show them where the proper area is. Every once in a while a rabbit will choose a different corner to go in, just move the litter box there as it is very hard to get them to change. Be patient and most rabbits will learn.
Rabbits produce a special kind of stool early in the morning called a cecotroph. These are soft, sticky, clusters of stool and look unlike the normal hard pellets they produce. Rabbits will pull these directly from their anus and consume them to help get vital nutrients and beneficial bacteria. You should not see these in the cage and if you do, you may mistake them for diarrhea. A rabbit that is not consuming its cecotrophs is ill and needs to be seen by a veterinarian. Overweight or arthritic bunnies that are unable to contort themselves and eat the cecotrophs will also be unable to consume them and this can cause health problems.
The main component of a healthy rabbit diet is hay and it should always be available. Timothy hay is great but there are several other varieties and these can be offered on different days or mixed. Avoid Alfalfa hay as it is too high in calories and calcium for adult rabbits. Greens are the other important aspect of diet and a rabbit should get about 2 cups of vegetables per 5 lbs (2.2 kg) of body weight every day. Pellets are not a necessary component and if offered at all should be no more than 1/4 c per 5 lbs (2.2 kg) of body weight a day.
It is important that your rabbit get several hours of exercise daily. Rabbits that stay in their cages all day can develop health and behavioral issues. If you have a play pen for them or a room make sure it has plenty of toys. On nice days you can put the play pen outside so your rabbit can graze on fresh grass and get some sun. Make sure that it is not any warmer than about 70 degrees F, any warmer and they can suffer from heat stroke. Also ensure your lawn has not been sprayed with any chemicals. Always supervise your rabbit’s play time and never leave them outside alone!
Water bottles should be emptied and cleaned every single day. Bacteria can grow in them and make your rabbit sick if they are not. Some rabbits prefer water bowls and will drink more water if offered this way.
Rabbit’s teeth are constantly growing and they need things to chew on to wear them down properly. You can purchase wooden toys for your local pet store but you can also make your own. Toilet paper tubes filled with hay make excellent chew toys but you can also offer empty cardboard boxes, oatmeal containers, cereal boxes, and the like. There are also woven grass huts and tubes you can purchase that can be hidden in as well as chewed on.