Most people who've had rabbits as kids remember them as being like a fish tank--the rabbit was looked at, but never touched or let out to play. People who've had house rabbits know the real truth about rabbits--they are spunky, mischievous, loving animals who can be just as good a companion as a dog or cat. They can also be just as much work. Not a lot of people know that about rabbits, which is why they, like any living thing, make really terrible gifts without the proper research and preparation.
So, what it is a house rabbit? A house rabbit lives in the main house (i.e. the living quarters) and spends limited or no time in a cage. Having a house rabbit is much like having a teething puppy that never grows up. Lots of chewing, decreasingly frequent litter accidents, and constant cuteness. As with any pet, there are some basics to keeping everyone happy and healthy.
Food is a strong motivator for rabbits. While many people feed just pellets to outdoor hutch rabbits, indoor rabbits don't require the fat layer that a pellet-only diet tends to develop. Many vets recommend limited timothy pellets (vs alfalfa) or even none at all. Because rabbits are hindgut fermenters (lots of good bacteria), they require a lot of fiber. Again, alfalfa is good for baby rabbits, nursing moms, and outdoor bunnies, but too fatty and caloric for the layabout house rabbit, so grass hays (orchard, timothy, and oat are commercially available) should be fed freely. The greens of veggies are generally good. A new rabbit should be introduced to new food slowly as too many too quickly could result in stomach discomfort and diarrhea. A list of good vegetables for rabbits can be found here: http://www.rabbit.org/care/veggies.html ).
Many people are also surprised to learn that rabbits can be litter trained. Domestic rabbits are primarily the descendants of European rabbits, who are burrowers. To keep a burrow neat and clean, a place must be designated the bathroom. If the rabbit chooses a bathroom location that is inconvenient, simply place a box there and slowly move it, day by day, until it is in the desired location. It also helps to entice the rabbit by placing some hay in the box. Box substrate is important. Never use cedar shavings. While it smells nice for us, it has been shown to cause liver damage and respiratory illness in small animals. Generally accepted substrates include aspen shavings, newspaper (both plain and pellet form), and home-heating pellets.
Rabbits that are meant strictly as pets (rather than breeders for show or fiber) should be spayed or neutered for a number of reasons. Male rabbits, like male cats, can get territorial and spray. Female rabbits tend toward false pregnancies, which can cause fur pulling and aggression, as well as considerable stress. Many find that it is much easier to litter train an altered rabbit. Finally, due to the way that rabbits ovulate and the hormone spikes it can cause, there is a very high incidence of reproductive cancers in unaltered female rabbits over time. Another advantage to shelter rabbits is that they are now routinely already altered. A healthy, happy rabbit will usually live 7-10 years--and a few will live even longer!
The last thing that surprises people who don't know rabbits is how bored they can get. It's important to have lots of options for chewing, tossing, and digging to keep your rabbit safe and stimulated. I personally have had to replace roommates' books, two alarm clocks (due to exposed wires), and, most horrifying, a wall due to some creative drywall chewing--which also resulted in a trip to the emergency vet. There should always be something safe for the rabbit to chew, like apple sticks, willow items, and untreated cardboard and brown paper bags filled with hay, and some fun items to throw around like hard plastic cat toys with bells, baby keys, and commercially available ferret toys. A very popular rabbit toy is an old phone book. Rabbits are expert paper shredders and will delight in an old phone book for weeks.
Many shelters see a large influx of rabbits (the third most common shelter animal after cats and dogs) after Easter from unwanted Easter gifts. It's also fairly common for people to be allergic to rabbit dander. If you're looking for a companion who will happily greet you at the door, use a litter box rather than go outside, munch on your leftover veggies and carrot tops, and speed around the house for the sheer joy of it, look no further than the house rabbit.
If you think the house rabbit is for you, please check your local shelter first. Remember, rabbit cages are not meant to be permanent 24/7 homes. Just like cats and dogs are kept in too-small cages in shelters, so are the rabbits.
A few excellent websites for house rabbit enthusiasts:
- http://www.rabbit.org/ - the National House Rabbit website
- http://www.disapprovingrabbits.com/ - a blog of people's rabbits that never disappoints)
- http://www.rabbitron.com/ - a newish website with a very handy checklist if you're considering getting a rabbit
- http://www.makeminechocolate.org/ - a site promoting giving rabbit-themed gifts rather than live rabbits
~ Written by Etsy Rabbits Team member, Valerie of http://www.knitbyvalerie.etsy.com/