Rabbits need not only good food, but also a proper environment to stay happy and healthy.
Cage Size and Type
The ideal rabbit cage is large enough for a full size rabbit to make three full-length hops in, and has multiple levels. Many rabbits will “burrow” in the bedding in the lower level of the cage, and will hop up ramps to higher levels in order to see what is happening in the rest of the house. Even “dwarf” rabbits can grow to a foot long, so they need plenty of room to exercise, run around, play with toys, and burrow in.
Most cages in pet shops are either metal or plastic. While plastic cages with wire tops are the easiest to clean and take care of, they are rarely large enough for a full-grown rabbit. Metal cages with wire bottoms and a thin layer of bedding that is changed often are the best for the rabbits. The alternative to metal or plastic cages is wooden cages, and many of the larger and outdoor cages are made of wood. Wooden cages that are placed outdoors should be waterproofed with a sloping roof, and may need to be replaced or fixed occasionally because the rabbits can chew on and through the wood. The wood will also soak up any urine that gets through the bedding, so they must be cleaned regularly to hinder staining and ammonia fumes. Glass or plastic terrariums should never be used for rabbits because they do not provide enough ventilation from the toxic ammonia fumes of the urine.
Outdoor cages will need some sort of closed-in area where the rabbit feels safe from the elements and predators. This can either be provided by building a section with full walls rather than wire strips, or through a “bunny house” that sits inside of the cage, allowing the rabbit to go in and out through a hole on one side. It must be big enough for the rabbit to comfortably stand up, turn around and lay down in, and should have plenty of comfortable bedding for them to sleep in. Check this bedding daily for urine – standing on wet bedding day after day can create sores on your rabbit’s feet. In South Carolina, rabbits can stay outside all winter long, but they will have to be brought inside for the summers.
An alternative to outdoor cages is to make a “grazing hutch” for your rabbit to go out in under your supervision. The hutch can be the top of a wire indoor cage, or can be made of a frame encased in mesh. Both types of cages should be pegged into the ground to make sure that the rabbit cannot flip it and get away, and should be placed in at least partial shade. If the rabbit gets too hot (over 84°F) it will stop drinking water and quickly overheat. The hutch should be moved to a new spot daily, and you must be sure that it has been at least two weeks since the last lawn treatment, which contain organophosphates that are toxic to rabbits.
Placement of the rabbit cage is important to your rabbit’s happiness and health. The cage should be out of direct sunlight; partial sunlight is okay, but make sure that your rabbit can get into a shaded area to prevent over heating. Try not to place the cage in drafty areas, such as doorways, windows, or air conditioner vents. Outside cages are subject to attack by cats, raccoons, dogs, and hawks, so be especially careful where you put them and make sure they are built well to stave off unwanted visitors.
Rabbits love to play; hopping over, under, and around bunny houses are always a favorite rabbit past-time, as are chewing and burrowing into bedding. Rabbits seem to prefer bunny houses that have two entrances rather than one and are made out of hard wood that can be chewed on to keep their teeth from growing too long. Chew toys can be purchased for your rabbit, or hardwood dowels like maple, oak and birch can be used. Long tubes to run through, hide in, and push around are also a fun toy for your rabbit. If you cannot find wooden tubes made specially for rabbits, you can use PVC pipes, but be careful to season them first by laying them out to bake in the warm sun for at least two weeks (if you can still smell them, they are not yet safe for the rabbit to play with). Electric cords should be kept away from your rabbit’s energetic chewing habits, and wicker furniture is also prone to a few teeth-marks. Rabbits in the wild will chew on roots and vines to create their trails, and when kept inside will actively seek out electric cords and other items that resemble these obstructions. Dumbcane, Oleander and other plants are toxic to rabbits, so keep your pets from chewing on them as well. Letting your rabbit out only while you can watch him, and only in areas clear of hazards, will keep him healthy and safe.
Other Husbandry Issues
One of the most commonly asked questions is whether or not to clip teeth. Rabbits in the wild are constantly chewing on hay and other substances to keep their teeth from growing too long; if you do not provide your rabbit with hay and chew toys, his teeth will grow too quickly and it may become uncomfortable, or impossible, for him to eat. For this reason, rabbit teeth should be trimmed as part of their maintenance, whenever they become too long.
Nail clipping is also desirable; it prevents nails from getting caught in clothing or on toys and prevents the handler’s skin from getting scratched. Nails may be filed with an emery board or clipped with nail trimmers. If you attempt this yourself, be sure that you have something on hand to stop the bleeding if you accidentally cut the quick; if bleeding does occur, you can use styptic powder (Kwik Stop), flour, or corn starch. If you are having a problem finding the quick, we recommend that you bring your rabbit to someone who is experienced in handling and clipping rabbit nails.