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Rabbit Care

Handling and Restraint: Improper handling may cause serious, life-threatening injuries. Fractures and dislocations of the back, most often resulting in paralysis of both rear legs, are the most common injuries. These injuries occur when rabbits are suddenly frightened and attempt to escape from a small enclosure. A rabbit's spine is relatively lightweight and fragile. When a rabbit becomes frightened, it violently struggles by powerfully kicking its back legs. The lightning-fast movements of the rear legs cause overextension of the lumbosacral (lower back) region of the spine, which frequently results in fractures or dislocations. One should never try to overpower a struggling rabbit. If a rabbit violently resists physical restraint, it should be immediately released and approached later when it has calmed down. A soft-spoken, relaxed approach with rabbits works well. Covering the eyes and lightly stroking a rabbit will usually result in a hypnotic-like trance that often renders them less prone to panic and injury.

Rabbits should never be picked up by their ears. If you are concerned about being scratched by the claws, place a towel over the rabbit's back and wrap it around the body to restrain all 4 feet before picking up the rabbit. An alternative method of picking up a rabbit involves sliding one hand under its breast bone and grasping both front legs between the fingers of this hand. The other hand is then gently worked under the rear quarters to fully support them as the rabbit is lifted upwards, in the same manner as cats are held.

Housing: Rabbits can be housed indoors or outdoors. Indoor rabbits should be confined to a suitable enclosure when their activity cannot be adequately supervised. A roomy wire cage with at least one-half of the floor's surface area covered with Plexiglas or washable towels is recommended. The Plexiglas or towels provide relief from constant and continual contact with the wire floor, helping to prevent hutch sores on the feet (see section on Hutch Sores or Sore Hocks). A water bottle or ceramic crock, food dish and a litterbox should be provided for the rabbit inside the enclosure. Under no circumstances should rabbits be allowed total freedom within the home. Rabbits love to chew and can be very destructive to household furnishings. Furthermore, they can be seriously injured by biting into telephone and electrical cords. Like cats, rabbits can be easily trained to use a littterbox in the home. If the rabbit has already selected an area for elimination, the litterbox should be placed in this location. It helps to place some of the rabbit's fecal pellets in the litterbox to encourage its use.

Rabbits housed outdoors should be confined in roomy wire cages with Plexiglas covering about one-half of the floor's surface area. The wire mesh should be just large enough to allow fecal pellets to drop through. A water bottle or ceramic crock and a heavy food dish should be provided. Adequate shade and a hiding spot should be provided as well. Rabbits are typically anxious, wary animals and are easily frightened. This is especially true of newly acquired pet rabbits and rabbits kept for reasons other than as pet. A concealed area into which these rabbits can retreat when they feel threatened is necessary to prevent injury that would result from excessive and futile efforts to escape from the cage. Hiding provides a safe alternative to useless and often injurious escape efforts. Shade must be provided to prevent heat stress or heat stroke. All rabbits, even those housed indoors, are especially sensitive to high environmental temperatures. Adequate shelter must also be provided against wind, rain, snow and ice.

Care of Orphaned Bunnies: Trying to raise orphaned wild rabbit species (cottontails, hares, etc.) is rarely a rewarding venture. Bunnies are often orphaned when people unknowingly disrupt a nest. Lactating does (females) nurse their young for only 3-5 minutes in the early morning hours of each day, giving the uninformed observer the impression that the new mother is neglecting her litter or that she has abandoned it altogether. This is how people mistakenly make orphans out of bunnies that are, in fact, being well and properly cared for by their mothers. Causes for abandonment of the nest include agalactia (doe with no milk), mastitis (doe with infection of the mammary glands), hypothermia (chilling) of the young, and physical disturbance of the nest itself. Whenever possible, orphaned bunnies should be placed with a doe nursing her own litter. Success is most likely if the orphans are less than 2 weeks of age and within 2 days of the age of the litter belonging to the foster doe. A drop of perfume or a pine oil-type scent applied to the nose of the foster doe helps to prevent rejection of the orphaned bunnies. Orphaned bunnies under 3 weeks of age can be fed warmed, supplemented, Esbilac Borden). Two alternative formulas are included in the Rabbit Feeding Section. Substitute milk formula should be given slowly 3 times daily. Up to 5 cc (1 teaspoon) can be given the first few days. The volume is increased slowly to 15 cc (1 tablespoon) the second week, and to 25 cc (nearly 1 ounce) by the third week. The anal area should be gently swabbed with a warm water-soaked cottonball to stimulate defecation and urination. Aspiration pneumonia, hypothermia and diarrhea are frequent consequences of hand-feeding orphaned bunnies.

Sterilization: Pet rabbits not intended for breeding should be sterilized at any time after 4 1/2 months of age. Male rabbits (especially of the dwarf varieties) have a tendency to become aggressive upon reaching sexual maturity. Neutering (castration) is the best way to reduce the severity of the problems (biting, urine-spraying) seen in sexually mature male rabbits. Female rabbits should be spayed (ovariohysterectomized) to prevent unwanted pregnancy and uterine cancer. Uterine tumors are the most common type in female rabbits and often are associated with serious blood loss. Spaying female rabbits may also help to prevent or reduce territorial aggression among females.