Rabbits have become one of the more common pets in the U.S. today. As recently as 25 years ago, rabbits were most popular around Easter (see www.MakeMineChocolate.org) and then relegated to the hutch in the backyard. No longer. Rabbits are now moving into the niche once occupied solely by cats – pets that are self-sufficient, can be litter trained, are relatively small and have a distinct personality. Of course, unlike cats, rabbits are not animals that are naturally aggressive and they rarely bite; their natural instinct is for flight when faced with potential danger.
Where Did Rabbits Originate?
Rabbits that we keep as pets are descended from the European wild rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculi. Wild rabbits native to the U.S. are in a totally different genus, Sylvilagus, whereas the wild jackrabbit (see picture, right) is in the hare genus, Lepus. Because pet rabbits in the U.S. are never in contact with their wild counterparts of the same species, they are not exposed to many of the diseases endemic to rabbits in Europe, such as myxomatosis and viral hemorrhagic disease.
How Many Breeds of Rabbits are There?
There are over 44 distinct rabbit breeds recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association, and other breeds are common in Europe. Rabbit breeds can be divided into 3 categories: small, medium and large. Small breeds include the Netherland Dwarf, Polish, Dutch, Mini Lop, Mini Rex and a newer breed, the Lion Head (see picture, left). In general, rabbits of these breeds weigh less than 5.5 lbs and tend to be quicker and sometimes a little more skittish than larger breeds. Medium breeds are the Dwarf Lop, Angora, Rex, Californian, Cinnamon, and New Zealand. These breeds generally weigh between 5.5 to 9 lbs. The very large breeds, such as the Flemish Giant and the British Giant, weigh over 9 lbs and are not as common in the U.S. as they are in Europe. Many of these breeds come in a variety of colors. In general, the lifespan of most pet rabbits ranges from 6-12 years, with the smaller breeds tending to live longer.
What Should I Feed My Rabbit?
Rabbits are easy to keep, but it is critical that they are fed a proper diet. There are 3 components to a healthy diet in pet rabbits: hay, vegetables and pellets. Hay is a necessary source of fiber, which is essential to normal rabbit digestion and gastrointestinal health. The grass hays, such as timothy, brome and orchard grass, are now widely available for pet rabbits and are preferred to legume hays such as alfalfa because of the lower calcium content in the grass hays. Leafy greens and other vegetables provide fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. Pellets should be fed as a balanced source of protein, fat and fiber and to provide essential minerals and vitamins that may be lacking in hay and vegetables. Timothy-based, high fiber pellets are now readily available in pet stores and online and are much healthier for adult pet rabbits than the alfalfa-based pellets formulated for commercial and laboratory rabbits. Avoid sugary treats such as yogurt drops; simple sugars are not good for rabbits and will upset the normal intestinal bacteria.
Do Rabbits Need Checkups?
All rabbits should have a routine annual health examination in which their teeth, ears, heart, lungs and abdomen are checked. Spaying female rabbits will prevent the development of uterine cancer, which is common in intact females older than 3 years of age. Similar to cats, male rabbits are often neutered for behavioral reasons to prevent marking and aggressive or sexual behavior. As rabbits age, many tend to develop problems with overgrown cheek teeth, and twice yearly examinations may be recommended.
Signs of illness in pet rabbits are a decreased appetite, loose stool, discharge from the eyes or nose, flaky skin, constant shaking of the ears, labored breathing, reluctance to move, weight loss and blood in the urine. If any of these signs are present, you should call your veterinarian. If your rabbit has not produced stool for 24 hours or more, this could be a true emergency and a veterinarian should see your rabbit as soon as possible.
About Katherine Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, ABVP
Since 1984, Dr. Quesenberry has been the Service Head of the Avian and Exotic Pet Service at the The Animal Medical Center. Dr. Quesenberry has co-edited several books, including Ferrets, Rabbits and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery, which is a best selling veterinary textbook, Avian Medicine and Surgery, and Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Pet Medicine I and II.
Dr. Quesenberry is the Scientific Editor for the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery, an international journal published by the Association of Avian Veterinarians. She has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe about the medicine of birds and exotic pets.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Quesenberry, please call 212.838.7053.