Don’t Be A Silly Rabbit… The 411 On Bunny Care

By Dr. Nelson Bricker, Veterinarian

My first memory of interacting with a rabbit was walking up to a wild baby bunny as a child, and picking it up, as it was frozen at the edge of the yard by my home. This is a common defense mechanism for rabbits to try and blend into their surroundings, which did not work in this bunny’s favor. Being an inquisitive child, I picked up the bunny and showed it to my shocked parents, who were afraid it would give me rabies, or some other terrible disease. After learning a bit about rabbit care, and realizing a wild rabbit would not do well living in my room, we brought the bunny to a wildlife rehabilitator. They helped us understand that there was no problem putting a healthy rabbit back where we found it, and our smell would not affect them being accepted by their mom if they still relied on her for milk. This is probably one of the most widespread and harmful myths about wildlife, but that is a topic for another time. I learned a lot about rabbits through that experience, but have since found an ocean of information as I have cared for wild and pet rabbits. I thought I would share some of the things I have learned about rabbits over the years that may help our followers understand these animals better.

Rabbits do not just have one personality. My first experience with a wild rabbit led me to think that all rabbits are flighty, nervous balls of adrenaline that live in fight or flight mode. While I still come across the occasional rabbit that has not left behind its wild roots, most domestic rabbits are reasonably tame, and express themselves with a range of behaviors. Some rabbits are playful, running about their homes, binking and rolling around to get their owners to pay attention to them. Others are calmer, wanting to lie around more like a couch potato, enjoying their life of domestication. There are social rabbits that love playing or being with others, and some that just need their own space. I see rabbits that are aggressive and will box, bite, thump and grunt at you, and others that will sniff and lick you, even as a stranger. Undoubtedly, these behaviors can be endearing or frustrating to owners, but it is best to work to understand what kind of rabbit you have to help give it the best possible care.

Rabbits don’t just eat carrots. Reading Peter Rabbit and watching Bugs Bunny may have skewed my early perception of a rabbit’s diet, but I am not the only one. Dietary problems are responsible for a large number of health problems we see in rabbits. Unfortunately, unlike the pet carnivores we keep, it is not as simple as giving rabbits a nutritionally balanced diet. Rabbits’ teeth grow their entire life, and they depend on how they eat food to keep their teeth ground to a healthy level. If rabbits don’t chew roughage a certain amount each day, their teeth will begin to overgrow, causing pain, inability to eat, and injury to the mouth. This problem becomes worse because bone strength may be weakened because of the thin bones seen in some breeds of rabbits, and deficiency in vitamin D and lack of sunlight exposure. Many owners who depend on pelleted foods (often unhealthy pelleted foods) or too many vegetables as part of the diet come in with rabbits showing signs of tooth overgrowth, soft stools, or intestinal upset, which can turn into life-threatening gastrointestinal stasis.

Another misconception about rabbits is that they will die under anesthesia. However, in my experience, the vast majority of rabbits tolerate anesthesia very well. A big part of my job is preventative care for rabbits, which includes elective spays and castration. To a lesser degree, rabbits often need sedation or anesthesia for a number of medical procedures, including surgery. While rabbits are very sensitive to stress, and more prone to complications of anesthesia, it is often necessary for safe handling, or their health care in general. Just like anesthesia in people, dogs, cats and any other animal, it does come with risks, but these are usually going to occur in ill patients, or those undergoing prolonged procedures, and with use of certain anesthetics. While dogs and cats do tolerate anesthesia better, the risk is generally <1% in healthy rabbits and still <2% in most sick rabbits, which is much less than the 75-100% risk many owners and even veterinarians seem to think is the case. With the advances we have made in understanding anesthetics and drugs we have available, anesthesia and sedation have become incredibly safe and useful tools in my experience. Only the most sick or stressed animals seem to have problems, and it is generally safer to provide sedation to facilitate handling rather than try to forcefully restrain a nervous rabbit that may hurt itself.

Overall, rabbits have become popular pets because of their bold and diverse personalities, common availability, and aesthetic appeal. As we learn more about their care, many rabbits are living over ten years, and many owners find them loving and intriguing companions. They do require a lot of work, and tolerance, as they are inquisitive animals that tend to chew whatever is around, and can be quite stubborn. If you want to research care of a rabbit, or answer questions about your bunny, a good place to start is with the House Rabbit SocietyThis organization is dedicated to care and adoption of pet rabbits, and has a wealth of good information available and if you are looking for a new rabbit, they can often help you adopt. Bringing a new rabbit to a veterinarian experienced in rabbit care is often helpful, and can help identify any problems early on. 

And as always, feel free to contact us here at Rocky Gorge for any rabbit or exotic animal related questions.

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