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Rabbits: House Rabbits

See also:
Rabbits: General care
Reviews of books on rabbits
News and research: Rabbits and rodents

 

What is a house rabbit?

House rabbits are rabbits that live indoors, and interact with their human families, rather than living outside with other rabbits or alone. They still have a hutch, but spend happy evenings exploring the human home.

Why keep your rabbit indoors?

There are lots of good reasons. Rabbits can be very entertaining, and can be good pets for people who come home from work, and may not want to go out in the cold with the dog, but would happily play with a rabbit in the comfort of their homes. Rabbits that live outside tend to have very boring lives, unless their owners make a lot of effort to ensure that their lives are interesting. One rabbit stuck in a hutch outside with nothing to watch but the wall opposite, has a pretty miserable life. Rabbits are social animals. They like to interact, preferably with other rabbits, but if you only want one rabbit, a human will do, so long as you treat your rabbit nicely. Rabbits also like to explore the world, and are likely to fall ill if they don't get enough exercise. It's difficult to give an outdoor rabbit enough space for its needs, unless you have a very secure garden, or enough room to build a very big enclosure, and there is often more room inside a house. Humans also tend to like to be in their 'burrows' rather than in the area outside the burrow (garden) when the weather is cold, so, by bringing rabbits into our 'burrows' we can enjoy their company all year round.

What are the downsides of keeping a house rabbit?

You do need to housetrain the rabbit, which isn't as difficult as you might think (see below). You also need to rabbit-proof your home so that the rabbit is not in danger, and doesn't destroy your possessions, and you need to make sure that the rabbit is safe from other pets, especially dogs. It's also worth giving your rabbit access to some grass grown in a tray, both as a distraction from your possessions, and to ensure that the rabbit eats properly.

Rabbits living mainly indoors are a bit like wild rabbits that are living in burrows, except that they interact with people, rather than other rabbits, and the burrows are bigger, and are lit, with light coming in at odd times. This 'artificial' environment may not be entirely good for the rabbit, despite being potentially better than being stuck in a cage outside. Rabbits do need to get out and nibble on grass, and their bio-rhythms could be grossly distorted if they are forced to cavort at odd hours of the night to entertain their owners. So, please respect your rabbit. Do remember to give it access to grass outside, as well as a living room floor, so that it can eat 'natural' food the way wild rabbits do, and so that it can see daylight, which is important for digestion and bone formation. Rabbits kept indoors will tend to feel the cold more, and their fur won't grow to be quite as thick as that of outdoor bunnies, if they are used to central heating, so it's safer to put them outside when the difference between the indoor and outdoor temperature is not very great. It's also kinder to the rabbit to put the hutch in a room where there is plenty of daylight, but not direct sunlight, which could overheat the cage, rather than in a dark room. Daylight gives the rabbit a sense of day and night, which is important for the rabbit's health. This is why it's also kinder to limit the time spent on forays in your living room using artificial light after it's dark outside. Let the bunny explore your living room in the day time, and for a couple of hours or so after dark, but always allow him or her access to a dark place to sleep, both during the day and at night, or he could get over-stressed. Try not to wake him up and make him come out to play under bright lights long after it's dark outside - it's kinder to keep the lights quite low for after-dark forays.

It's easier to train a young rabbit, of eight weeks old or a little older, to be a house rabbit than it is to train a bunny that has spent its life in a hutch. Young rabbits also adapt more easily to sights and sounds in your home that might frighten adult rabbits kept in a hutch, and it's easier to socialise a younger rabbit than an adult rabbit that isn't very used to being handled. However, there are adult house rabbits in rescue centres, which are already trained and used to people and living indoors. Young rabbits are also more likely than older rabbits to chew and nibble things they shouldn't, out of curiosity, and they tend to startle more easily than very tame adult rabbits. If you can find a nice rescue rabbit that has been handled a lot and is used to living indoors, this can save you a lot of work. You'll still need to rabbit-proof your home. So how do you do this, and what do habituation, socialisation and training involve?

Rabbit-proofing your home

Rabbit-proofing your home involves getting on all fours in your living room, or wherever your rabbit will be, and thinking like a rabbit. Your living room will be full of nice things to chew. As you are a rabbit, you won't know that electrical cords are dangerous, or that the rug was inherited from your human's ancestors, and is precious. They are just interesting things to chew. So you will then need to revert to being a human, and do something about all the things your rabbit may want to chew, either taking them out of the room, or making sure that the rabbit can't get to them. You will also need to supervise your rabbit at all times, especially if the rabbit is young. You can enclose a corner of the room if it's too complicated to rabbit-proof a whole room.

It also helps to give your rabbit safe things to chew, like small branches. You can take a cardboard box and cut a door in it, then put hay inside, so your rabbit has a safe place to hide, hay to nibble on, and the box to chew. Just say 'Pssst' very gently if you catch your rabbit starting to nibble something 'illegal', and then offer something else, a branch to chew, or a carrot. Your rabbit does need to chew something, to prevent overgrown teeth, so some 'legal' chewables are essential, and rabbits like to graze when they are out of their burrows, so if your rabbit grazes on your rug, hay is a much better substitute from the rabbit's point of view, as well as yours. Trays of home-sown grass are also appreciated, and please remember to let your bunny see the outside world as well as your burrow.

Getting rabbits used to living with people

Habituation is just getting used to things, and a rabbit that comes to live in your home has to get used to different smells and sounds, like food cooking, and the washing machine. The rabbit needs a little peace at first, because it's a lot to take in, and if you try handling the rabbit straight away, it could get too stressed out. Gradually the sights, sounds, and smells of your house will become normal for the rabbit, and socialisation with humans will be easier.

Socialisation means getting used to other animals and their ways, whether it's rabbits getting used to other rabbits, rabbits getting used to humans, or humans getting used to humans. Rabbits are prey animals. They are the dinner of many species, from wolves and foxes to birds of prey, while they themselves eat mainly vegetable matter. Humans are potential predators, after all, some people hunt and eat rabbits. So it's not surprising that rabbits tend to be frightened of us, unless we show them that we are friendly. This means showing the rabbit that you aren't going to chase it at every opportunity - chasing is what predators do when they see a rabbit.

Start out by talking to your rabbit, and offering titbits, until the rabbit comes to get the titbits of its own accord. Then try gently stroking the rabbit. Wait until the rabbit is used to being stroked before you try picking it up. You can put the hutch in an enclosure with the hutch door open, if you want the rabbit to come out, and put food in the hutch if you want the rabbit to go back indoors. When you do first pick the rabbit up, just do this for a few seconds, not very far off the ground, so that the rabbit works out that being picked up is not very frightening, and before it gets a chance to struggle. Give the rabbit plenty of support when you do lift it up, so it doesn't wriggle free and hurt itself. When you first let your rabbit out into the living room, keep still, watching it from the corner of your eye. The rabbit will at first freeze or run away every time you make the slightest moment, but will eventually get used to you and work out that you are not dangerous. It helps to put food between you and the rabbit, and keep still while the rabbit approaches and eats the food. Then you can put the food a bit closer, until the rabbit comes close to you of its own accord, and you can offer the rabbit some food. The rabbit will eventually come to see you in the hope of cuddles and titbits.

Getting rabbits used to other rabbits

Young rabbits should get on quite well if they have plenty of space, though it's worth just letting them get used to each others' smells before they are allowed to meet. You will need to supervise them at all times for the first fortnight or so, in case they fight. They are quite likely to fight if they are both entire males. Neutered males and females tend to get on well. Entire males and females are likely to try to mate quite quickly, even if they are very young, so wait until they are neutered before putting them together. It takes a while for hormone levels to go down in male rabbits, so recently neutered males may behave like entire males. Rabbits often get on better if they meet away from their usual territory, so if you get a new rabbit, you could use a spare room that your existing rabbit has never been in, for their first meeting.

You may want more than two rabbits, but think carefully before you expand your household. Three rabbits do need a fair bit of cleaning and hutch space, and there are more likely to be accidents, which will need cleaning up. Three rabbits let out together in a house are also likely to find each other much more interesting than you, and will be less easy to tame, and the more there are, the more likely it is that you will have little scuffles between your bunnies.

Getting rabbits used to other pets

Many other pets that people keep are predators, and this includes cats, dogs, ferrets, and many reptiles. The problems are not so much with your rabbit, as controlling your other pets. Not all pets are controllable. Some breeds of dogs, for example, have a very strong prey drive, and this includes Jack Russells, Lurchers, and Huskies. Introductions between dogs and rabbits should be carried out very carefully, with the two separated by a barrier, so that the dog can't catch the rabbit. The dog should be able to ignore the rabbit, and obey your commands, before you think of having them both in the same room with no barrier. If your dog ignores you and just wants to get at the rabbit, this is not a good sign! Even if your rabbit and dog seem to get on fine, never leave them unsupervised in the same room. Dogs also often respect the rabbit they live with, but will still kill other rabbits, so be careful if you take your dog round to a friend with another house rabbit, there is no guarantee that your dog will respect this 'strange' rabbit.

Cats are less of a problem, but even so, give the cat and the rabbit time to get used to each other before you allow them to be loose together, and don't let your rabbit out if your cat is eying it up as dinner.

Large carnivorous reptiles and rabbits should be kept apart, preferably in different houses.

Housetraining

The most important part of training for many owners is housetraining, and it is not as difficult as you might think. Wild rabbits like to have one part of their territory as a toilet, and it's this 'instinct' that is so helpful when you want to housetrain a pet rabbit. However, you have to convince the rabbit to use the toilet where you choose, rather than where the rabbit might choose, left to its own devices.

The first thing to do when you get a new rabbit is to leave it alone! The bunny has to get used to new sights and sounds, so just leave your new pet in a hutch with food, water and bedding for a day or so. Put a litter tray in the corners of the hutch furthest away from the sleeping quarters, and your rabbit should start to use one of them as a toilet. You can use non-clumping cat litter in the litter trays. Then let your bunny out into a small enclosure, about three times as big as the hutch, and put litter trays in the corners of the enclosures furthest away from the hutch. Put some weed-on material from the hutch litter trays in the new litter trays in the enclosure, so your bunny gets the idea. You can make a movable enclosure with a wooden frame and netting, or improvise one, but do remember than rabbits can jump over fences, especially when they are frightened.

You need to clean the litter tray every day, so it doesn't get too full. Rabbits may go somewhere else if their litter trays look full! The tray shouldn't be cleaned every time it's used, however, because it's meant to smell a bit like a toilet, to remind the rabbit what it is.

Rabbits tend to eat and poo at the same time, so you can leave your rabbit a little carrot for when it is on the tray, to encourage it to stay and poo there. Rabbits that are still a bit wary of you might be frightened off the tray if you go up and offer a carrot, so spend a while making friends with your rabbit in the hutch, offering food through the wire, before you try this. Rabbits have two types of faeces (poo) and will tidy up their softer faeces themselves by eating it! Then it comes out again as harder pellets.

You can give your rabbit more freedom outside the enclosure once it has got used to using the litter tray in the enclosure, but always make sure there is a litter tray in easy reach. There will be accidents during the first stages of house-training, and you need to be careful how you clean these up. Some people use bleach and vinegar, but they are not recommended. Bleach can damage your furnishings, and it can actually encourage the rabbit to use the same area again, because it can smell a bit like urine to a rabbit. You can buy special deodorising cleaning products from pet stores, sold for cats and dogs as well as for rabbits, or even use a biological washing powder, well-dissolved in warm water, if it won't damage what the rabbit has urinated on. Then use clean, cold water for rinsing. It's safer to restrict access to carpets until your rabbit is house-trained, so that you can easily clean up any accidents, and don't let your rabbit on your bed or the sofa at first, because it's not easy to clean rabbit wee from these areas.

You may find your rabbit about to have a wee on the carpet, or having one. Try saying 'Psst', to distract the rabbit, and get it to its litter tray. If you shout at the rabbit, this will probably confirm its suspicions that you are a nasty predator, to be avoided. Just make a very gentle sound - rabbits have good hearing, so there is no need to shout!

The best way to stop rabbits choosing their own toilet areas is to keep them away from anywhere they have urinated where you don't want them to, and only let them go back there a couple of weeks or so after they have been using their trays where you want them to. You will find that the rabbit tends to use the same spot again, if you don't do this. You may not mind too much if a rabbit chooses a particular spot as a toilet, however, and could just put a litter tray there. This way, you and the rabbit are working together. Rabbits do need several litter trays in a large room, or they will tend to create a new toilet area rather than going a long way to find one.

Neutering house rabbits

Outside bunnies tend not to be neutered, but many people neuter house rabbits, and this is worth talking about with your vet. One reason for neutering rabbits (male or female) is that it's easier to housetrain them. Entire rabbits often mark their territory with both urine and faeces, while neutered rabbits are much less likely to do this. Neutered male rabbits also tend to be friendlier, both with other rabbits and with humans, and easier to handle. Neutered female rabbits are less likely to suffer from cancer. Neutering is usually carried out when the rabbit is between four and six months' old. You will need to find a vet who is used to doing this, so ring round to find the most rabbit-friendly vet in your area, if you don't already have a vet.

Rabbit training in general

Rabbits enjoy human company, once they have got used to you, and they like food, so there are tricks you can teach rabbits by rewarding them every time they do what you want them to. The first thing you may want to teach the rabbit is how to come to you when you call. Try this when the rabbit is used to you, and sit on the floor. Hold a carrot, keep still, and gently say 'come'. Your rabbit is likely to think you mean 'food' - that doesn't matter, so long as the rabbit comes to you. If you reward the rabbit, then it becomes worth the rabbit's while to come when called. You can play with your rabbit and see how many other things you can teach with food lures. Some rabbits like being stroked a lot, and that is a good reward too, if you have no food on you.

Rewards tend to work well when you are training rabbits, but they aren't always enough. Sometimes you may need to move, or distract the rabbit, or just prevent the rabbit from doing 'forbidden' things. For example, rabbits can be taught not to jump on sofas and beds, if you just pick them up and put them down on the ground every time they try it. You can also say 'Psst', to warn or distract the rabbit, when it looks like it is about to get on the sofa, or do something else you'd rather it didn't do. You will still have to make sure the rabbit can't get to forbidden areas when you aren't around, by keeping it in an enclosure or the hutch.

Rabbits tend to take more notice of their humans if they are only rabbits, and less notice if they have another rabbit for company. However, house rabbits are very entertaining companions whether you have one or two of them, and it's up to you whether you want a close relationship with one rabbit, or to watch two or more bunnies exploring your room.

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See also:
Rabbits: General care
Reviews of books on rabbits
News and research: Rabbits and rodents