Bunny Basics: How to Care for a Pet Rabbit

Rabbits might be considered a popular “starter pet,” but the reality is that these animals need individualized, specialty care. Are rabbits the right fit for your lifestyle?

Oct 19, 2023By Chelsea Pinkham
how to care for pet rabbit

“Boring” or “dull” are words many adults would likely use to describe rabbits. These small, fragile creatures are most often considered children’s pets. But if you spend time alongside rabbits, a wonderful new world will be revealed to you. These special animals are intelligent, mischievous, playful, social, and affectionate. If you learn the needs of rabbits thoroughly before you decide to bring them into your life, they can be excellent companions. Still, rabbits are not for everyone. Here’s what you need to know about rabbits to make an informed decision.

Are Rabbits Right for You?

cute lop rabbit
Image credit: Canva

Bonding with rabbits offers caregivers the opportunity to view animals from a different perspective- one that requires patience, kind and gentle treatment, and close observation.

One key factor to keep in mind is a rabbit’s lifespan. Healthy, well-cared-for rabbits can easily live 10-12 years, some even living to 15+. It’s hard to envision where you might be a whole decade from now. If you tend to lose interest in new things over time, an animal with such a long lifespan is likely not the best choice.

Rabbits are deeply social animals, and absolutely cannot thrive without a companion of the same species. Rabbits will still bond with you as their caregiver but will be less likely to exhibit stress, aggression, and depressive behavior with a rabbit companion. Imagine living your entire life with someone who spoke a different language than you, never being able to have a conversation or communicate clearly. That’s what being a solo rabbit would feel like!

Well-socialized rabbits can be confident and friendly, but we can’t change their biology. As prey animals, most rabbits are frightened by sudden movements, loud noises, and fast handling. A chaotic, bustling household with frequently blaring music isn’t the best environment for a rabbit. Ensuring that your lifestyle aligns with an animal’s needs is crucial.

Rabbit Care and Maintenance

rabbits deeply social
Image credit: RSPCA

Like all animals, rabbits need individualized veterinary care and attention. Rabbits thrive as indoor animals, and can easily be taught to free-range your home safely, but potty training is extremely difficult if a rabbit is not spayed or neutered. This is because both male and female rabbits use their poop to mark their territory around the house. Intact rabbits are also at higher risk for a number of health issues.

Spaying and neutering rabbits can be expensive and is a risky surgery if not performed by a rabbit veterinary specialist. Luckily, reputable rescue groups will spay or neuter rabbits before they go home with their new families. This is yet another reason to choose adoption.

Rabbits will need their nails trimmed regularly. This can be a frightening experience for many rabbits. Learning about cooperative care and reinforcement-based animal training can help you acclimate your rabbit to nail trims. Moving slowly and introducing nail clippers paired with high-value treats can help a rabbit immensely. It’s best to start training long before it’s time to trim their nails!

Most bunnies are not fans of being picked up, but it’s essential to learn how to lift and hold a rabbit properly for their own safety. Lifting a rabbit is necessary if you need to move the animal quickly for their own safety, or in case of a medical emergency.

A Diet for a Healthy Rabbit

rabbit food puzzle
Image credit: Best Friends Animal Society

It’s common knowledge that rabbits love carrots! But these tasty treats are actually far too sugary to be the staple of a rabbit’s diet. Rabbits should always have access to grass hay. Wild rabbits spend most of their time grazing, and almost never stop nibbling on fresh grass. A diet mimicking this routine will help set your rabbits up for success. Alfalfa hay is healthy for growing rabbits but is too rich in protein for adult rabbits. Adult rabbits can enjoy timothy, orchard grass, or brome grass. Placing the hay in a hanging feeder will prevent it from being spilled or stepped on, ensuring the rabbits have constant access to this vital food.

A limited amount of grass-based rabbit food pellets should be fed daily, following the manufacturer’s recommendations. A small amount of fresh, leafy greens and herbs can also be given daily and this helps to keep rabbits hydrated since the rest of their food is typically dry.

Small amounts of finely chopped apples, carrots, bananas, and other safe fruits and veggies can be given as healthy treats. Use these high-value snacks to bond with and train your rabbits. Consult with a rabbit veterinarian about healthy amounts of food and treats to ensure your furry friends don’t become obese.

Setting up Your Rabbits’ Home

rabbit setup
Image credit: House Rabbit Society

In regions with moderate weather, constructing a well-insulated, predator-proof, outdoor enclosure is possible. But keeping rabbits as indoor companions tends to be safer, easier, and better for building a rabbit-caregiver bond.

All rabbits should have their own safe space inside the home. A sturdy X-pen can serve as the foundation for the rabbits’ home base. How large the rabbits’ enclosure should be depends on how much free-range time the rabbits have, what other pets live in the home, and how many rabbits are being housed.

Large litter boxes can be filled with paper-based bedding and then topped heavily with hay. This is a highly effective method of litter box training. The rabbits will snack on the hay as they use the bathroom! Being prey animals, rabbits should have plenty of places to hide in their enclosure. Large cardboard boxes with holes cut for entryways serve as both shelters and chew toys. Sturdier shelters can be purchased as well.

Enrichment items for rabbits, food puzzles, and chews can help make rabbits’ lives more enjoyable. These toys don’t have to be expensive. In fact, recycled toilet paper or paper towel rolls filled with treats and pinched shut from the outside can be a blast!

Indoor rabbits still greatly appreciate outdoor time, which can be done in a large X-pen on grass. Be sure to bring the rabbits’ shelters to help them feel safe.

Bonding With Rabbits

hand feeding rabbit
Image credit: Canva

Domestic rabbits are naturally curious and social animals. However, years of domestication cannot change the fact that these adorable beings are still prey animals. Have you ever experienced anxiety that was out of your own control, even if it seemed irrational? That is similar to how prey animals navigate and experience the world. Treating rabbits with empathy and compassion can help us connect with them.

When you first bring your new rabbit’s home, allow them at least one full day with their enclosed space completely to themselves. Speak softly, move slowly, and hand them treats from the other side of their enclosure barrier. Hand-feeding is a highly effective way to create a positive association for the rabbits. Read up on rabbit posture and body language to help you better understand how the rabbits are feeling.

When it’s clear that the rabbits are feeling safe and confident, enter their space gently and slowly. Do not pick the rabbits up. Instead, help them adjust to the sound of your voice, and encourage them to explore you by climbing onto your lap and sniffing you for treats. Only pet the rabbits for a few strokes at a time, then remove your hands to give the rabbits the option to retreat if they are feeling uncertain. Always pair physical contact with treats during early socialization stages.

Bringing Rabbits into Your Life

cute bunny friends
Image credit: Canva

Rabbits are extremely popular companion animals around the world. Sadly, most pet rabbits will either be abandoned or banished to an outdoor hut by their second birthday. This is because many people, especially children, simply lose interest. Rabbits are also purchased en masse for the Easter holiday and are often surrendered to shelters shortly after.

Additionally, most countries have little to no regulations on rabbit breeding facilities. Rabbit mills churn out baby bunnies without any concern for animal health or well-being. The overwhelming majority of baby rabbits sold in pet stores come from these crowded and inhumane operations.

As a result, there are so many rabbits of all ages who desperately need loving homes. Shelters and rescue groups in the United States are currently inundated with rabbits. From newborn kits to senior rabbits, there are endless rabbits awaiting adopters.

Choosing to adopt rabbits from a reputable rescue group comes with so many benefits. First, these rabbits will already be spayed or neutered, examined, and vetted. Additionally, the rescue group can serve as a willing resource to help you with everything from setting up your rabbits’ home to finding a veterinarian, training your rabbits, and more.

Adopt a pair of rescued rabbits and save lives!

Chelsea Pinkham
By Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!