Top 5 Basics for Adopting a Rabbit

Bringing a new bunny home is fun and exciting, but it’s important to realize that this time can be quite intimidating for a rabbit. In order to keep stress to a minimum, prepare by gathering necessary items, arranging a living space, and rabbit-proofing the house. Here are a few key steps to help you prepare for your new friend:

1. Gather the necessities

Before bringing a rabbit home, purchase all necessary items and have everything set up in time for your rabbit’s arrival. The first shopping trip is not inexpensive, but once you have the basics, only items such as litter, hay, and food need to be purchased regularly.

The New-Bunny Shopping List:

  • Puppy exercise pen or dog crate (If you do purchase a rabbit cage, make sure it is roomy and has a flat bottom.)
  • A cat litter box or large plastic bin
  • Sturdy ceramic bowls for food and water
  • Toys, which can be as simple as a cardboard roll or phone book or as complex as a bird toy or cat tunnel
  • Rabbit-safe litter (Go for a recycled-paper product such as Yesterday’s News or Carefresh.)
  • Rabbit pellets (Look for a Timothy hay-based pellet for adult rabbits.)
  • Cat nail clippers
  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Timothy or other quality grass hays

Of the above items, Timothy's hay is the most important. A rabbit’s diet should be composed of approximately 70% grass hays to ensure sufficient fiber intake. Hay is important not just for proper digestion, but for dental health too, as chewing on the stalks wears down their continuously growing teeth and even has social and psychological benefits. Because hay is so essential for rabbit health, make extra efforts to ensure the hay you purchase is fresh, dust-free, and high quality.

This should be given fresh daily, in large quantities. Hay can be ordered over the internet from various companies (see Using hay as a litter box material is ideal; it cushions the rabbit’s feet so they stay dry, and encourages the rabbit to munch on hay while he’s doing his business. To supplement hay, feed a daily salad of dark green leafy vegetables. Rabbit pellets should be given only in very limited quantities. The unrestricted feeding of pellets leads to obesity and often to bladder sludge. If you use pellets, buy only perfectly plain ones; do not be tempted by the “fancier” pellets with their eye-catching seeds, nuts, corn, and other “tidbits.” These ingredients are simply not good for your rabbit over the long term, and some of them are downright dangerous.

Pine and cedar shavings are not recommended for use with rabbits and other small mammals. Inhaled phenols (the substances that make pine and cedar “smell good”) can cause liver changes in rabbits. Clay litters (clumping or non-clumping) are also not recommended. The “clumpers” can clump in the rabbit’s GI tract, and dust from plain clay litters can exacerbate respiratory problems.

2. Rabbit-proof your home

Rabbit-proofing is an essential part of introducing a rabbit to his or her new home. Rabbits love to chew, so your first job is to hide anything that could cause harm if chewed or ingested. This includes electrical wires, telephone cords, and poisonous plants. Expensive furniture or other delicate items should be moved so they are inaccessible. Rabbits love messing with paper and cardboard, so keep papers or books off the ground. Some rabbits like digging or biting carpet, so keep a watchful eye out for any destructive behaviors and use verbal corrections if needed.  Never attempt to “punish” or “discipline” a rabbit. These tactics will often create fear and defensive biting. If you need help with a behavior problem, contact your local HRS representative or visit the HRS website: Although many people keep rabbits outdoors, this is not recommended. Indoor rabbits live healthier, happier, longer (7-10 years or more) lives. A successfully rabbit-proofed room allows for greater freedom for the bun and a more relaxing experience for everyone!

3. Find a good rabbit vet

Set up an appointment for an initial check-up with a veterinarian and schedule a spay/neuter if necessary. Spaying and neutering are recommended for all rabbits. Spaying or neutering a rabbit prevents destructive and aggressive behaviors, loss of litter box habits, and unwanted pregnancies. Rabbits can have a litter every 30 days and can get pregnant within minutes after giving birth. Not only does spaying/neutering prevent unwanted litters, but it also protects female rabbits from uterine cancer (the rate as females grow older ranges from 50-80%), and permits male/female pairs to live happily together without being driven by their hormones.

Rabbits need to be seen by exotic-animal veterinarians as opposed to small animal clinicians. Some dog and cat vets will see rabbits, but check that they have enough exotic-animal experience to deal with complex rabbit issues. Many wonderful vets are experts with other species, but are not knowledgeable about rabbits, and may administer inappropriate or harmful drugs in their efforts to help. Anorexia and/or watery diarrhea in rabbits should be considered emergencies. Seek expert veterinary care immediately. To find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian in your area, contact your local HRS representative, or search the HRS web page:

The most common rabbit veterinary problems are:

  • Ear mites
  • Ear infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Abscesses
  • Tooth problems (incisor malocclusion and/or molar spurs)
  • Uterine cancer (in unspayed females)
  • Upper respiratory infections (watch for sneezing or runny eyes/nose)
  • Gastrointestinal slowdown or stasis
  • Changes in balance or gait

A skilled rabbit veterinarian should be consulted for any of these problems.

4. Get to know the rabbit

Now that you’ve knocked out the necessities, it’s time to understand how to care for your bunny. After letting them settle in, you can start interacting. Open the pen or cage door and sit on the ground. Wait for your bunny to emerge from the cage and come to you. When she does, don’t immediately reach out to her; let her jump around you and smell you as you sit still. When your bunny seems more comfortable, try petting her head and ears. Remember to pet her from above, and not by placing a hand in front of her nose as you would a dog — rabbits actually have a blind spot here and movement in the area can frighten them.

For shy rabbits, it’s important to get low to the ground and avoid sudden movements. Rabbits open up at varying rates, and it can take even a month for a rabbit to fully trust and befriend her human companions. Keep in mind, treats such as raisins, dried cranberries, and apple pieces are great friendship bribes and training tools!

Rabbits are not recommended for small children. Rabbits are prey animals by nature and are easily frightened by children’s handling. Rabbits are often dropped by children, resulting in broken legs and backs. An adult should always be the rabbit’s primary caretaker, and should carefully supervise any children interacting with the rabbit.

5. How to Litter Train a Rabbit

Rabbits can easily be litter box-trained—but you and the rabbit must “negotiate” this process. Start in a small area. Watch to see which corner the rabbit wants to use for urination, and place a litter box there. Some rabbits need several litter boxes to start.

Mary Lempert is the founder of The Rabbit Advocate, where this post originally appeared. She has served as a rabbit behavior and rehabilitation consultant for the House Rabbit Society, House Rabbit Network, and the MSPCA in Massachusetts and, most recently, for the Almost Home Humane Society in Lafayette, IN. She lives in West Lafayette, IN, with her rabbits Graysie and Willoughby and any number of foster bunnies.