Keep Your Rabbit in Good Health for Life

October 24, 2012

The pet rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is a fun, gentle, and cuddly family pet, and 14 distinct pet breeds are now commonly available. Soft haired angora types, dwarf breeds, and lop eared (dropped ear) varieties are favourites. They used to be considered rodents, but are now classified as Lagomorphs.

Basic Biology

The average age at maturity is about five months. Their weight at maturity depends on the breed. Dwarfs average 1.25 kg, medium breeds are about 3.5 kg, and large breeds such as Lop Ear may exceed 5 kg. Their lifespan is quite variable, with an average of 7 to 12 years (it's much shorter if they're not spayed or castrated). Note that the record lifespan is around 17 years!

The rabbit is an herbivore, and coprophagy (eating the night feces, or cecotropes) is an important part of their digestive process. High quality rabbit pellets are fed twice daily or free choice, and hay is offered free choice also. Additional fresh fruits and vegetables are offered in small quantities to round out the diet.


Though rabbit hutches can be located in a sheltered location outdoors, the pet rabbit needs to be protected from temperature extremes, dampness, and drafts. The most common indoor house is in a wire mesh cage, with partial mesh and partial solid floor. Allowing time out of the cage for exercise every day is important for mental and physical health, but the room should be well "rabbit-proofed" first because they can damage furniture, or chew on electric cords with serious consequences. Rabbits can be litter trained like a cat, but use recycled paper pellet type litter because regular clay or no-clump cat litter types cause digestive upsets. Water should be supplied in a wall bottle since floor bowls are apt to be tipped over and result in wet bedding.

Handling and Behaviour

Most rabbits are very docile if they have been handled consistently and gently from a young age. They are carried alongside the body usually, with their head tucked into the elbow area. It is essential that the hind end always be gently supported because if a rabbit twists suddenly or lets out a strong kick, the back can be injured; even broken. They have a very timid nature, and care should be taken to minimize stress. A frightened rabbit may swing the back legs out and release a very strong kick, so if they are being lifted or handled when stressed or in pain, care should be taken to protect the handler from a possible kick.

Health Considerations

Rabbits are particularly susceptible to bacterial Pasteurellosis, or "snuffles", a common respiratory system condition which can become progressive and system-wide. Supportive therapy and antibiotic treatment are both very important strategies to help prevent the serious complications that develop in some patients, so a "rabbit cold" should not be ignored; call your veterinarian when symptoms are first noted.

If the rabbit is allowed in a yard enclosure under supervision, make sure no predators are in the area!

Not every veterinary clinic handles this species, so when a rabbit first comes into the home, it is important to contact a clinic that does, so that everyone knows where to go should problems arise. The veterinary hospital is also a great source for general health care information.