It is no longer acceptable to keep rabbits confined in a hutch all, or even most of the time, as rabbits are sociable creatures needing stimulation and plenty of exercise. In confined rabbits, not only is their welfare poor but disease is the inevitable result. Kept in cramped conditions, they often suffer chronic stress resulting in serious debilitating
respiratory, eye, bone and skin conditions.
Access to a very large grass run that can preferably be moved around a lawn is essential, and keeping the animal free-range in the garden or even as a house rabbit is even better. Rabbits can be kept outside all year round if given adequate bedding and housing (preferably with a companion). If kept in a hutch for any period it is important to skip out the urine and faeces daily, to reduce the chance of sore hocks and breathing difficulties. Rabbits are by nature very tidy in their habits which means they will often use a litter tray, making this task easier.
Whatever the accommodation, it should be made as varied and interesting as possible, providing raised vantage points, chewable items, toys and hidey holes. Rabbits can be made to work for food by placing food in old washing powder balls or boxes. There are undoubtedly more risks with regards to predation, toxic plants, and escape with keeping a garden rabbit ( to say nothing of the loss of precious plants!) but organised carefully it can provide an excellent quality of life.
Alternatively, it is becoming increasingly popular to keep rabbits as house pets as they can be easily house-trained. They often receive more exercise and stimulation this way, and can even co-habit well with cats and dogs. If kept in this way rabbits should be neutered to avoid territorial urine marking. Precautions should be taken to protect wires in the house in particular as rabbits are notorious chewers.
It is very important to handle a young rabbit as much as possible early on in order for it to become tame. Socialisation is most important from 4 weeks of age, which is before rabbits generally go to a new home, but this process should be continued when the rabbit is homed (generally at 8 weeks old).
Rabbits should be lifted and carried carefully, supporting the back and tucking the head under the arm to calm them. They are otherwise liable to struggle violently and may even fracture their spine during attempts to escape. Rabbits often do not appreciate being restrained and may not be suitable for small children to handle, often inflicting scratches.
However, it is important that they get used to handling from an early age because this will facilitate important daily examinations later. Many diseases are treatable only in the early stages and a hands on examination is vital to detect early symptoms such as sore hocks, diarrhoea and skin problems. It is also important to carry out a daily visual check for to assess appetite, ensure suitable water provision and that there are good quantities of normal droppings being produced. Rabbits can live to 10 years of age so this is quite a commitment.
Introduction of a new rabbit:
Introduction of a new rabbit to an established rabbit’s enclosure is unlikely to be successful if done suddenly. A gradual introduction, allowing both to see and smell eachother for a period of time (e.g. in the same run but separated with wire mesh) is more likely to work. It may help to swap the bedding between the two as smell is very important.
When eventually introduced, the provision of an enclosure as large as possible, complete with hideyholes for escape, will reduce friction. A neutered rabbit of the opposite sex is more likely to be tolerated and two adult males are much more likely to fight.