While rabbits are well-known for being cute and fuzzy creatures, they can also be very difficult to care for. Whether you’re an experienced rabbit farmer or building your first hutch for a pet bunny, The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver has answers to all of your most pressing questions. In a handy question-and-answer format Karen Patry expertly addresses every aspect of rabbit care, including housing, feeding, breeding, kindling, health, and behavior. This informative, easy-to-use guide has reliable, humane solutions that will keep your animals healthy and happy.
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About the Author
Karen Patry owns Aurora Rex Rabbit Ranch and runs the website, raising-rabbits.com. She is a member of the American Rabbit Breeder’s Association and the National Rex Rabbit Club. She lives in Port Angeles, Washington.
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THE NATURE OF THE BEAST
All animal species have an instinct for self-preservation, even those that have been domesticated for thousands of years. You can see that instinct in the behavior of prey animals such as rabbits, as well as in the behavior of the predators that chase them.
Predators are generally carnivorous — their bodies are designed primarily to digest protein. No prey, no eat; it's as simple as that. So predators spend countless hours hunting and stalking likely meals. When they attack, they claw and bite to prevent the prey from escaping, which happens more often than not.
Rabbits, however, are prey animals. They are surrounded by their food, delicious greenery, but their lives are hardly a walk in the park. Rabbits must skulk secretively, tiptoe quietly, hide constantly. So what are rabbits thinking?
When you first bring rabbits into your rabbitry (meaning the place you will be raising them, whether a house, a barn, or some other structure), even hand-reared rabbits that are used to humans will bring all their ancient survival instincts with them. Fearful and timid, they are alarmed at loud noises and startled by quick moves.
But after a few days or weeks, as they become familiar with their new environment, they start to welcome your face and gentle tone of voice. The family dog or cat might actually become a buddy. However, even though they learn to relax in their home, rabbits never lose the underlying caution that is inherent to their species.
Run, Rabbit, Run
Q: Why do rabbits thump their back feet?
A: A male rabbit (buck) frequently thumps after it has mated with a female (doe), most likely to signal dominance to other bucks. Both bucks and does thump warnings to nearby rabbits if they sense danger is afoot or on the wing.
Q: Why do rabbits have such enormous ears?
A: Rabbits' jumbo-sized ears serve at least two purposes. First, they function as air conditioners, helping the rabbit maintain its normal body temperature. Rabbits easily overheat as they cannot sweat. The ears contain large blood vessels very close to the surface of the skin. As the rabbit's temperature rises, excess body heat dissipates from those veins, cooling the rabbit.
Secondly, those big ears act like satellite dishes, swiveling every which way to intercept all the sounds around the rabbit. It's only fair that the world's consummate prey animal not be left completely defenseless against predators. While a rabbit has very little means of protecting itself, its keen hearing at least allows a head start on approaching predators.
Q: Do rabbits' noses get tired from wiggling all the time?
A: Those noses are rather busy, aren't they? The nostrils lift and flare every time an alert rabbit takes a breath. This motion appears to improve the animal's ability to analyze the smells in the air. During active times, typically several hours around dawn and again at dusk, rabbit noses pull in large amounts of oxygen and sample air currents for danger.
Rabbits do let their noses rest while they nap, nibble, and generally relax, which is actually quite a bit — about 16 hours per day, whether rabbits are in the wild or in a cage.
Q: Why do rabbits dig burrows?
A: European wild rabbits, Oryctolagus cuniculus, live in large underground burrows called warrens. All domestic rabbits, also classified as Oryctolagus cuniculus, are descended from these wild rabbits, so burrowing behavior is encoded in their DNA. With domestic rabbits, females are more likely to dig burrows than are males. In contrast, eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) and other species of wild rabbits found in North America do not burrow at all. Instead, they scrape indentations in the ground in areas with tall grass; these shelters are called forms.
Q: Why is my rabbit digging in her cage?
A: Digging burrows is instinctual, so whether pregnant or not, your rabbit is simply showing normal rabbit behavior. But if you bred the doe recently, then persistent digging, especially in the corners of the cage, could be a convincing sign of a successful pregnancy. If you didn't breed her, it might be a tip-off that she had accidental contact with a buck within the last couple weeks.
Digging in cage corners can also be a sign of a false pregnancy (seeFooled You! False Pregnancies).
Q: After digging a hole, why do rabbits cover it up again?
A: To hide the burrow entrance from predators. Plus, if there are babies in that hole, it helps to keep the kits from wandering away. Does do this even when the burrow is part of a maze of colony tunnels serving as living space for the family group of rabbits.
Occasionally, domestic does will successfully cover a nest. This reflects good maternal instincts, not an attempt to smother the kits. One of my does once delivered her kits on time and then constructed such a complete cover to her burrow entrance — within the nest box — that she managed to fool me for more than 12 hours. The fur-lined nest containing the kits was completely covered by a mesh of entwined straw and hay pieces. It was a thing of beauty!
Q: What's the difference between a rabbit and a hare?
A: The difference is not always in the name: there is a domestic breed called the Belgian Hare and a species of hare known as the jackrabbit! While all rabbits and hares belong to the family Leporidae, they are divided into different genuses and species. Whatever their size, all domestic rabbits are the same species as the European wild rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, though they are sometimes designated Oryctolagus cuniculus domesticus.
Cottontails are the wild rabbits of the New World. They belong to the genus Sylvilagus, of which there are 16 species.
All hares are in the genus Lepus. Notable species are the antelope jackrabbits of the American west (Lepus alleni), which have gigantic ears and hind feet; the black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus), which can grow to 2 feet in length; and snowshoe hares (Lepus arctica), which live in arctic regions. Also called arctic hares, the snowshoe hares molt into snow-white coats for the long winter season and then molt into brown coats for the brief spring and summer seasons.
Hares tend to be larger than rabbits, with longer ears and legs. One of the main differences between the two is that rabbits are born blind and hairless, whereas hares are precocial, meaning the babies are born fully furred and can see and run shortly after birth.
Q: Which predators eat rabbits?
A: Rabbits exist on every continent except Antarctica, and their major function in every ecosystem is to reproduce in order to feed the many predator species around the globe.
Almost any predator will eat a rabbit if it can catch one. Wolves, foxes, coyotes, eagles, hawks, owls, lynx, bobcats, lions, cheetahs, leopards, domestic cats and dogs, weasels, stoats, and ferrets are among the many predators that hunt and eat rabbits.
Q: What are the rabbit's methods of survival?
A: Running, dodging, and hiding are important survival mechanisms for both wild and domestic rabbits. To protect their young, rabbits will stay away from a nest full of babies. They also have those long ears (the better to hear you with, my dear) and eyes situated on opposite sides of the head for a wide field of vision. (This is as opposed to having eyes in front of the face, like a human's, which is your clue that you are a predator and the rabbit is not.) Caution is built into rabbits' genetic code; they will run or hide in a heartbeat if they feel threatened by a loud noise or sudden movement.
Q: Have rabbits ever been considered a threatened or endangered species?
A: Certainly not in Australia or New Zealand, where government officials are racking their brains to find a way to kill off hundreds of millions of feral rabbits, the offspring of domestic rabbits that were released into the wild 150 years ago. Settlers introduced rabbits as a hardy, renewable food source, but the rabbits did not encounter enough natural predators to keep the population growth in check. Rabbit populations in both countries are raging out of control despite years of trapping, poisoning, diseases, and bounties.
The ecosystems in these two nations have been seriously affected by heavy overgrazing by these rabbits, leading to soil erosion and extensive loss of forage and water for sheep and cattle that cost the agriculture industry hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Around the world, feral rabbits are blamed for singlehandedly causing extensive species loss of both plants and animals throughout the reaches of their colonization.
In North America, hare and cottontail populations generally seem to be in balance with predator populations, although the tiny Columbia Basin Pygmy rabbit, found in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, is endangered, as is the volcano rabbit of Mexico.
Eat, Rabbit, Eat
Q: What do rabbits eat?
A: As herbivores, rabbits eat nothing but plant matter. The cellulose in the cell walls of plants is a highly complex molecule which the rabbit cannot digest. Herbivores, however, enjoy a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationship with a veritable army of billions of cecal bacteria that break down the cellulose molecules into bite-size carbohydrates. Some of that carbohydrate feeds the rabbit, but it also feeds the bacteria.
Q: Why do rabbits need fiber?
A: Fiber is critical to a rabbit's health and survival. It keeps the rabbit's intestinal bacterial population balanced and healthy. Even with the help of bacteria, much of the fiber in a rabbit's diet remains undigested, an indication of just how important fiber is to rabbit health. As a point of comparison, cows, with their four stomachs, digest 44 percent of the cellulose they ingest, while rabbits digest a mere 14 percent.
Rather than solely providing nutrition, fiber contributes to the normal action and function of the intestines. Undigested fiber provides the bulk of the digesta that keeps the intestinal tract trucking along. Sufficient fiber helps increase intestinal transit times and eliminate blockages; it also reduces or controls the rate at which the fiber is broken into simple carb pieces (due to speed of transit), which is essential for keeping in check the populations of dangerous bacteria.
A good pelleted feed has enough fiber so that you probably don't need to offer supplemental hay, though rabbits do enjoy the extra nibbling. Note that the pelleted fiber needs to be long and fibrous rather than ground nearly to a powder. This is because fine pieces of fiber act less like fiber and more like sugar. In the cecum, muscle action segregates the larger pieces of fiber, which get excreted in the round fecal pellets. But the very fine fiber pieces remain in the cecum, where bacterial action can quickly reduce the fiber powder into sugars.
Fiber helps keep disease bacteria populations low. An abundance of simple sugars — either low complex fiber or too much powdery fiber — is exactly what the germs love. Their populations can suddenly proliferate, flooding the bloodstream with toxins. The result is enterotoxemia (severe diarrhea) ending in death unless the rabbit dies rapidly of septic shock before diarrhea can occur. (See alsoDigestive Tract Discussed.)
Q: When my rabbit sleeps, her stomach moves strangely. What's going on?
A: You're seeing the rhythmic rolling motions of the intestinal tract as the muscles lining the intestines contract and relax in order to move masses of nutrients and liquid toward their destination. This is normal unless your rabbit is acting oddly or seems uncomfortable.
Q: Why do rabbits chew on wood?
A: Rabbit teeth grow throughout the animal's life, so rabbits are hardwired to chew in order to keep their teeth worn down to correct lengths. The chewing motion grinds the teeth against one another, creating normal wear patterns that keep the teeth working effectively. Rabbits nibble on grass, bushes, twigs, and branches in summer, and on tree bark in winter. Bring them inside, and they will chew on baseboards, furniture legs, potted plants, and carpets. They may electrocute themselves when they start in on those delectable-looking electrical cords. Extensive rabbit-proofing must take place before rabbits can live indoors!
Rabbits in hutches may destroy their surroundings in their need to chew, so it's important to provide branches or nontoxic scrap wood as an alternative.
Q: Do rabbits store food in their mouths?
A: Unlike hamsters and chipmunks, rabbits do not carry food around in their mouths or cache it for later consumption. Instead, they chew well and swallow their food right where they are. Wild rabbits don't store food; rather than hibernating, they must eat all winter long.
Q: How many teeth does a rabbit have?
A: Rabbits are born with 16 baby teeth, which fall out within days of birth. These are replaced by 28 permanent teeth, some of them almost immediately and the remainder by around 4 weeks of age. The permanent teeth include the front incisors, the peg teeth (two small peg-shaped teeth located directly behind the front incisors that keep the lower incisor tips sharpened into wedges), and the cheek teeth in the back of the jaw.
All 28 teeth grow continually throughout the life of the rabbit at a rate of 1 to 5 mm per week. The constant chewing and grinding of fibrous plant material and the gnawing of branches or wood serve to keep all these teeth worn smoothly to correct lengths.
Family and Social Life
Q: Are female rabbits attentive mothers?
A: If by attentive you mean hanging out with the babies all the time, then no, rabbits are not attentive mothers. In the wild, the doe leaves her babies well secured in a burrow with the opening closed off by dirt and bedding. She doesn't continually check up on the kits because she knows they are safe in the burrow. When her teats fill with milk or night falls, she knows to feed the babies. Like their wild cousins, domestic does typically enter the nest every 12 to 24 hours and only long enough to feed the kits, approximately 5 to 10 minutes. That's not attentive by our standards, but it is normal maternal behavior for rabbits that are trying to ensure their offspring survive until they can fend for themselves. (SeeNot Peter Rabbit's Mother.)
Q: How do rabbits say hello?
A: Rabbits greet each other by touching noses and sniffing, but there is so much more to rabbit communications than saying howdy. Along with encountering each other, rabbits also test or reinforce the dominance waters if they think they need to. Their vocal repertoire is limited, so they communicate more through body language than with sounds. (SeeWhat Is That Rabbit Saying?)
Q: How do rabbits show submission?
A: By crouching, running away, rolling to the side, pushing their head under the head of a more dominant animal, or allowing other rabbits to hump them or to lounge across their shoulders or backs. Another sign of submission is taking the last turn at the feed trough and water bowl. Some non-dominant rabbits groom the more dominant animals in their circle of acquaintance; however, dominant rabbits also groom submissive ones, sometimes extending to chewing away fur or whiskers. Sometimes a wannabe may turn a bit passive aggressive, sneakily nibbling off the fur of a dominant rabbit out of its direct line of vision!
Q: Why would a doe rabbit mount the buck?
A: She could be telling the buck to get his act together and breed her already. But mounting is also a dominance behavior; she may simply be throwing her weight around and letting the dude know who's boss. In an unaltered adult doe, however, I would put my money on the first reason.
Q: My rabbit is pulling out its sibling's fur. Is that normal behavior?
A: You should be concerned if you're finding tufts of fur in the cage or bald spots on either of the bunnies. Here are some possible reasons:
* They may be fighting for dominance. Such altercations (which can occur between two males, two females, or one of each) may result in pulled fur or even injuries.
* They may have fur mites or ringworm (seePrevention).
* They may lack fiber in their diet. Such a lack can cause rabbits to pull and eat each other's fur. Supplementing with extra fiber, such as grass hay, almost always solves this problem.
* They may be bored. Give the bunnies a branch to chew on, or a tin can or the metal ring from a canning jar to play with, and they may forget about pulling fur.
* If this is a brother-and-sister pair and you've left them together too long, the doe may be pregnant. She'll pull fur from herself or from a cage mate just before delivering the kits.
Excerpted from "The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver"
Copyright © 2014 Karen Patry.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 All About Rabbits: From Wild to Domestic
Chapter 1 The Nature of the Beast
Run, Rabbit, Run
Eat, Rabbit, Eat
Family and Social Life
Basic Bunny Biology
Chapter 2 The Rabbit as a Pet
Rabbit Care 101
What Kind of Rabbit?
Shopping for a Pet Rabbit
Bringing Your Bunny Home
Thinking Inside the (Litter) Box
The Playful Rabbit
Chapter 3 The Business of Raising Rabbits
Looking at Meat Breeds
Looking at Fiber Breeds
Let's Talk Genetics
Managing a Rabbitry
Part 2 Basic Care of Rabbits: Housing and Feeding
Chapter 4 Housing Rabbits: Inside or Out?
Hutch, Sweet Hutch
Bedding and Litter Options
Cleaning and Disinfecting Hutches
Chapter 5Feeding Rabbits
Digestive Tract Discussed
It's Not All Lettuce and Carrots
Hay: Not Just for Horses
Fats, Minerals, and Other Supplements
Water, Water, All the Time
What Rabbits Shouldn't Eat
Part 3 Making More Rabbits: Breeding and Kindling
Chapter 6 The Mechanics of Mating
Is the Time Right?
Introducing the Happy Couple
Spotting a Successful Mating
Trouble in Paradise
Back-to-Back (to Back) Litters
Chapter 7 The Pregnant Rabbit
Is My Rabbit Pregnant?
Care and Feeding of the Pregnant Doe
My Doe is Growling at Me!
Preparing for the Big Day
Day 28: Time for the Nest Box
Chapter 8 Kindling and Newborn Kit Care
Leave Mother Nature Alone
Pregnancy Problems and Kindling Glitches
Runts and Peanuts
Checking the Nest Box
Chapter 9 Managing the Nursery
Not Peter Rabbit's Mother
Is She Feeding Them Enough?
Nest Box Escapees and Dead Kits
Orphan Kits and Foster Does
Stages of Kit Development
Weaning the Kits
Part 4 In Sickness and in Health: Illness and Injury
Enteric Complexes (Intestinal Illnesses)
Ailments and Injuries
Less Common Health Issues