After cats and dogs, rabbits make Britain’s third most popular pets. They’ve been with us since Roman times when they were first used for [say it quietly] meat and fur. Nowadays, though rabbits come in all shapes, sizes and colours and are best known as family pets. The great thing is we can see their wild relatives around us in the countryside and understand what their ancestors looked like and how they behave in the wild. The wild European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus are a beautiful shade of grey/brown, and if you’re very lucky, you may see a pure black wild rabbit. These aren’t escaped pets, but actually rare naturally occurring colour variation called melanistic. By thinking about the way wild rabbits like to live, we can understand how to provide them with the things they need to live contented and healthy lives as your pets.
Part of the appeal of keeping rabbits used to be that they could be kept in a small space in the back yard; they were inexpensive to feed and grew quickly. That was of course as a back yard farm animal, especially during the lean years following the war, when people made gardens into farmland. Thankfully, now we don’t live in such times, the rabbit hutch in the back yard is more likely to be a furry friend. These days, we understand more about the best way to keep our pet rabbits happy and healthy. The hutch that they live in must keep them warm and dry, safe and clean where they can hop and stretch and hide. Rabbits don’t eat scraps but need a healthy balanced diet in the same way as wild rabbits living in the fields, with plenty of fresh hay and fresh water.
Rabbits are sociable and its best if they have the company of other rabbits and the attention of their owners. They need distractions to keep them occupied so they don’t get bored, like interesting food treats, or toys and different objects to explore, safe twigs to gnaw. Like all pets, looking after a rabbit takes time and commitment and although they aren’t very expensive to keep, good food costs money and owners need to be ready to buy essentials and prepared for any vets bills. They can be great pets for children, who can learn lots by taking care and responsibility for their pets. But they aren’t only for children and there must always be an adult to supervise that the rabbit is being well looked after. Also a parent needs to provide continuity, remembering that since a rabbit can expect to live for a decade, so a bunny bought for an excited 10 year old will still be the pet of a Uni bound teenager!
We are more enlightened now about how rabbits should be housed. In the past, the hutches we used to keep rabbits in were far too small. There are easy to understand guidelines produced by animal welfare experts from respected organisations such as the RSPCA/SSPCA. Simply, rabbits should be housed in the largest accommodation achievable.
Remember the rabbits in the fields and the freedom they have to stretch up, stretch out, hop and jump. The home pet rabbits live in should allow and even encourage all of these activities. Small, cheap hutches are available in some shops, but unless they’re used as part of a bigger enclosure, they just aren’t big enough in length or height. You can make more use of space by selecting a split level or two story hutch which also gives allows the rabbits to jump and climb. Whatever accommodation you chose, position it in a sheltered spot where it isn’t exposed to strong winds or driving rain, but catches some sunshine for part of the day. It may seem obvious, but put the hutch somewhere you can see it! It should be really easy to get to and open all the doors as you’ll need to be in there every day and frequently for a thorough clean.
Until recently, the standard image of Rabbit food would be a big bowl of muesli type rabbit mix and a bunch of carrots. Now, though we think more about the nutritional value of the food the rabbits take. There are some lovely muesli mixtures, but the problem with them is that Rabbits have tastes too and would tend to eat the items they enjoy most, possibly leading to a narrow and unbalanced diet. This is rather like giving a child a big portion of lunch and chocolate desert at the same time, while a balanced diet is available, it wouldn’t necessarily be eaten. In the cartoons, Bugs Bunny, Peter Rabbit and Peppa Pig’s friend Rebecca Rabbit are very fond of them, but too much carrot isn’t really good for Rabbits, only in moderation as an occasional treat. If you watch Rabbits in the fields, you notice that they eat lots of grass and green leaves. This is the best thing for pet rabbits too. Fresh grass can be hard to come by, but what pet Rabbits can eat all day long is plenty of fresh hay, and frequent greens like herbs, vegetables and weeds (if you know they’re safe). This can be supplemented by a good quality balanced Rabbit nugget, like Boris and Gloria Rabbit nuggets. Of course, your pets also need a constant supply of fresh water, changed every day. Bottles with metal drinking tubes are useful because they won’t get dirty; but to be safe, attach at least two bottles, so your pets won’t be left thirsty if one falls off or breaks.