Rabbits: House Rabbits
of books on rabbits
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
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
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
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
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
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.
of books on rabbits
and research: Rabbits and rodents