How to Give Your Rabbit a Great Life
As a responsible and loving rabbit owner you will be keen to give your pet rabbit or rabbits the best life possible. I have kept rabbits including beverans, dutch and angora rabbits for 28 years and currently have dwarf rabbits. These have been pets rather than show or breeding animals and I have always looked to provide the rabbits with a great life. I have done this by first looking at what rabbits like to do in the wild.
What do Rabbits do in the Wild?
Domestic rabbits are very similar in their behaviour patterns to wild rabbits. The main new behaviour that has been bred for in domestic rabbits is tolerance of humans. Otherwise given the chance domestic rabbits will enjoy most of the behaviours that wild rabbits carry out such as:
Eating/chewing - this takes up much of the wild rabbit's day. Their food doesn't come conveniently in a bowl so takes time to get to and eat. Also whilst eating they have to be very alert for predators and ready to run at the slightest hint of danger. A rabbit needs to chew a lot to keep wearing down their constantly growing teeth.
Digging - Wild rabbits live in burrows and they will spend time digging new burrows or extending old ones.
What is your rabbit's favourite activity?
Nest Building - Wild rabbits like to have a comfy nest to rear their babies in and to keep the burrow warm in winter. They will gather grass and hay for this. To keep their babies warm the female will pluck some of her own fur to line the nest with.
Grooming - wild rabbits keep their coats in good condition to protect themselves against the weather. They will also groom each other to form close bonds.
Communicating - as well as communicating with each other by grooming they use body language to communicate with each other and foot stamping to warn others of danger.
Breeding and rearing young - this is a time consuming activity for the female who has to eat enough to produce milk for her litter and plug up the nest burrow entrance when she leaves it to try to keep the young safe from predators.
Playing - wild rabbits don't have much time for playing because they have to be always alert to predators, but it is endearing watching the young ones jump about erratically getting to grips with their powerful back legs and practicing escape maneuvers.
Exercise - wild rabbits get plenty of exercise moving around in search of tasty food and herbs to nibble and running back to their burrows at the slightest hint of a predator.
If you don't have access to a supply of willow or apple wood this chew ball is a good alternative.
You can enrich the life of your pet rabbit by enabling it to do most of the behaviours it would do in the wild. The only one I would advise against is breeding. There are already a lot of unwanted rabbits in rescue centres. If you breed more you may add to the numbers of homeless rabbits.
Eating/chewing - you can make eating more fun for your rabbit by offering its pelleted food in a food ball which it has to roll around to get the food at. They should also have a constant supply of tasty meadow hay to chew at and blocks or logs of wood with the bark on such as willow or apple wood to wear their teeth down on.
Burrowing - Unless you have wire fencing well dug in to the ground it probably isn't safe to leave your rabbit with permanent access to the garden or a grass run because they might dig their way out. Not all rabbits enjoy burrowing but those that do will appreciate access to a grass run to have a dig. You will need to keep an eye on them and fill in borrows which are turning into escape tunnels!
For indoor rabbits who want to dig you can provide a burrowing box. This is just a wooden box filled with a mixture of earth, compost and perhaps a bit of sand which your rabbit can safely dig in. You can also get mats which a pet rabbit can scrabble at and pull about which could be a tidier alternative!
They will also appreciate having tunnels to run in and out of. It is usually easy to find tunnels for small and medium sized rabbits in the pet shop, but you may need to make you own tunnels out of wood if you have a larger breed like the beveren or English lop.
Nesting - Your rabbit will appreciate a bedding area filled with hay or straw that it can manipulate into a comfortable nest. You'll find that some rabbits are very keep on house keeping and arranging their bedding just so, whereas other rabbits seem to eat the bedding faster than you can supply it.
Company for grooming and communicating - Most rabbits will really appreciate the company of another rabbit. Ideally you might have a neutered male and female together. They can then enjoy grooming each other and communicating with each other and won't be lonely. Of course you should give your rabbit company too. If it is a single rabbit it will be totally reliant on you for company and you should spend time with it every day.
Space for exercise - If you have an outdoor rabbit, ideally you should have a hutch with a run attached on a concrete base which will give your pet some opportunity to stretch its legs, but won't give it the opportunity to burrow out.
You might even go for a two tiered hutch which gives it exercise jumping up and down the levels. It will also be nice for your rabbit to have access to a grass run or a fenced area of garden for part of the day so that they can explore, eat grass and dig if they want to.
If like me you are frustrated by the limited size of rabbit hutches on offer, you may choose to convert a shed into a rabbit hutch and make a pop hole through the side to a run as you can see in the photograph to the right. I specially bought a shed with two doors and split it into half for the rabbits house and half for storing hay, rabbit food and wood shavings in. Because buying these in bulk from an agricultural feed store is cheaper than buying small quantities from a pet shop.
If you have a house rabbit which lives inside and you have no garden, you may opt to train it to wear a harness and lead so that you can take it out for a run in the park. Beware of dogs though and keep to areas where they are kept on the lead.
Training a Rabbit
You might be surprised to find that it is possible to train rabbits to respond to commands. They are particularly responsive to clicker training with a favourite food as a reward. If you're worried that training a rabbit to do tricks is demeaning for the rabbit, bear in mind that all you are asking for are behaviours which your rabbit would naturally carry out such as standing up on its hind legs or jumping. The difference is it will be doing them when you ask it to.
Watch the video below and see what you think. It is a great way of spending time with your rabbit and preventing it from becoming bored.