The days of keeping pet rabbits in wire cages behind the garage are finally beginning to give way to the much more enlightened practice of keeping them in the home. Still, a lot of good things for rabbits can be found outdoors. Fresh air, rustic recreational opportunities, live greens to forage and, yes, dirt, are lacking in even the most Floppsy-friendly indoor environments. The solution? An outdoor “rabbitat”* for regular, supervised use of house rabbits.
Down and Dirty
There’s no such thing as a blueprint for the perfect rabbitat, but there are a few features for the do-it-yourselfer to consider.
Dirt - Domestic rabbits are descended from European rabbits, who live in groups in warrens, an underground network of interconnecting burrows and tunnels that they dig in the earth. Diggable dirt or ordinary garden soil should be high on the list of things you provide for your house rabbits’ happiness.
Fresh-cut greens - Greens should not be a major component of your rabbit’s diet, but access to a variety of fresh foliage has both dietary and emotional benefits for rabbits. The objective here is to offer cut greens and flowers in a natural upright manner so that rabbits can stand up and stretch to reach the succulent leaves on the tops of the branches.
Security - Your rabbitat must confine your rabbits while also providing shelter from the weather and protection from predators and the unwelcome attention of other animals and possibly unkind children. As prey animals, rabbits instinctively avoid open spaces where they feel unprotected, so locate your rabbitat in a shady corner of your yard, out of view of busy streets, neighbors’ dogs and overhanging tree branches where cats or birds of prey may hover. Even if secure inside an enclosure, a rabbit can die of fright if a predator is able to menace her at close range.
Access, convenience and aesthetics - An attractive structure that offers convenient handling, cleaning and maintenance will make the rabbit at an altogether happier place for both rabbits and caretakers.
The ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center (www.apcc.aspca.org) warns that overfeeding of certain greens can be harmful to rabbits, so keep a close watch on how much grazing your bunny does. Actual consumption should not exceed a small handful per day. Also, make sure that no pesticides are used on or near grasses that your rabbits may eat. For a long but still only partial list of plants to avoid, go to the House Rabbit Society San Diego Chapter’s website.
Heaven in Earth
Your rabbit will get the most out of a structure that allows ample digging, tunneling, grazing, exploring, climbing, chewing, hiding and “lookout” activities. This means that your structure must be large enough for you to provide multiple horizontal levels and lots of nooks, crannies and cul de sacs for exploring and hiding in, as well as earth to excavate and a place to rest and cool off after exertions in warm weather. The enclosre should be large enough so that you can join your bunnies inside their world (and clean it regularly).
As already mentioned, dirt is one of the basic elements of a rabbitat. Ordinary soil is generally quite safe and presents no particular hazards to rabbits who dig and play in it. (An exception is soil that has been exposed to raccoon feces, which can contain dangerous raccoon roundworm eggs or larvae.) Only ordinary soil, because of its clay content, will adhere firmly enough to support tunnels. Care must be taken to ensure that the rabbits cannot dig their way out of the rabbitat. For that reason, wire fencing must be buried beneath the dirt.
Scientists recognize that creatures whose lives consist of nothing but leisure do not fare as well psychologically as those whose days are filled with species-specific work. For rabbits, life’s most meaningful task (after eating and parenting) is the digging of tunnels. To make sure that your rabbits do not dig so deeply that you cannot extract them when play time is over, limit the soil depth in the digging area to 12 to 18 inches. Your rabbits’ tunnels may tend to collapse in earth this shallow, but they don’t seem to mind starting over the next time they’re put out to play.
In the wild, it is in deep, cool burrows that rabbits are able to escape from excessive heat and humidity. In a rabbitat, however, your design must include a way to offset the dangerous effects of summertime heat. A fairly easy solution to this problem is to install a few micro misting nozzles to one part of the enclosure. The most effective arrangement is to connect the misters to a live water line and mount them under a bench that has been built above a section of rocks or concrete that can act as a cold sink. Less permanent misters can be constructed by attaching a short, capped section of plastic irrigation pipe to a garden hose, then inserting a mister nozzle into the plastic pipe.
Danger, Danger, Danger
While heat causes the largest number of accidental deaths in outdoor rabbits, there are other hazards to keep in mind when you introduce your house bunnies to Mother Nature.
These include poisonous plants (do not trust Peter’s own instincts about what’s safe to nibble), insects that may transmit diseases and common parasites such as fleas and ticks. Fertilizers, pesticides, weed killers, snail and slug baits and other agricultural chemicals must be avoided, and the wood used to construct the rabbitat should be untreated or painted with nontoxic compounds. Bunnies with open wounds, or those who are unable to keep their fur free from urine or feces, may become targets for the parasitic larvae of the housefly and botfly-a veterinary emergency. [For detailed information on these and many other health and safety issues affecting rabbits, visit www.rabbit.org, the website of the House Rabbit Society. HRS partnered with the ASPCA's in this year's annual Adopt-a-Rescued-Rabbit Month campaign in February.]
In some areas of the United States, rabbit caretakers feel there are just too many risk factors to allow rabbits to go outdoors. Others live in apartments or tall buildings with no convenient outdoor access. This does not mean that their house rabbits must miss out on the pleasures that a rabbitat can provide. With a little ingenuity, many features of an outdoor facility can be re-created in smaller form and constructed on high-rise terraces or in the safety of interior rooms.
Ambitious caretakers can build an indoor sandbox for their bunnies, with high sides to prevent spillage and perhaps a foot or so of dirt brought in from outdoors. (Potting soil mixed with sand and moistened may be substiuted, but may still resist tunnel construction.) Cardboard tunnels and wooden baffles with passage holes cut in them to form “room” dividers will add interest, as will multiple levels for climbing and observing. To make the presentation of greens more realistic, use florists’ water tubes to stick in the soil or simple wooden boxes with holes drilled in the top and sides where cut grasses or flowers can be inserted in a natural, upright manner.
In recent years, our understanding of our stewardship of fellow beings has gone beyond according them civility and dignity. We are able to define not just survival, but also quality of existence. Building an outdoor playground is a blow against tedium for domesticated rabbits, and makes a deliberately extraordinary effort to provide a greater range of healthy activities and mental pleasures for these sensitive, social animals who are confined, even if lovingly, within an unnatural human environment. And if that weren’t reason enough, they’re delightfully dirty fun.
*Animal Watch is grateful to the Fund for Animals for permission to use its term “rabbitat” in describing a safe, behaviorally enriching outdoor environment where displaced and rescued rabbits can live in groups and pursue their innate desire to dig. For more information, visit www.fund.org/sanctuaries/n3_rabbits.asp.
Rick Gush is a nurseryman, writer and rabbit lover from California. He currently lives on the Italian Riviera under the supervision of Edith and Jimmy, his cats.
Reprinted from ASPCA Animal Watch, Spring 2004, Vol. 24, No. 1, with permission from The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 424 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128-6804