Site hosted by Build your free website today!

What can you expect of your first house rabbit?

Table of Contents


Probably the single most frequent question we get about rabbits as companions is, "Is a rabbit more like a cat or a dog?" The answer: neither. Dogs and cats have been bred for centuries to not be afraid of humans. Rabbits have been bred primarily for meat, fur and physical characteristics. That means that when you adopt a bunny, you adopt a lovely, domestic animal with the heart and spirit of a wild animal. It is much more challenging to win the trust of this sensitive, intelligent creature than it is to win the heart of a puppy or kitten, who has been bred to trust you from birth.

And the myth that certain rabbit breeds make better pets is just that: a myth. We have known aggressive lops (supposed to be gentle and friendly), super-affectionate dwarfs (supposedly hyper and mean) and every type of personality you can imagine in our hybrids. There are as many rabbit personalities as there are rabbits!

If we had to compare a rabbit to any other animal, we might say they have a temperament more like that of a parrot. Rabbits are highly intelligent, social and affectionate. They can also be bratty, willful, destructive and vengeful. They are very...rabbit. And it takes a special type of person to be able to live happily with such a complex, intelligent, demanding little soul!

One of the most common misconceptions people have about rabbits is that they like to be held and cuddled. This is probably because they look like plush toys. Unfortunately, many people buy rabbits without realizing the true nature of rabbits, and that's one of the main reason these lovely, intelligent creatures are "dumped" shortly after they reach sexual maturity and begin to assert their strong personalities.

Back to Table of Contents

Bunny Handling--and Not

Many people are disappointed to learn that their bunny does not like to be held. But consider for a moment the natural history of the rabbit. This is a ground-dwelling animal, and a prey item for many predators. It is completely against the nature of the rabbit to be held far above the ground where it cannot control its own motions and activities. When you force her to be held against her will, you reinforce her notion that you are a predator who is trying to restrain her. Holding her while she struggles and kicks is not only dangerous for the human (sharp claws!), but also for the rabbit. We wish we didn't know how many young rabbits come into our vet's office with broken legs, necks and spines because people (usually children) insisted on carrying them around and handling them against their will. If you love your bunny, you won't let this happen to him/her.

Back to Table of Contents

Thinking Like a Rabbit

To understand rabbit behavior, begin to think more like a rabbit! Here's a starter's guide...

  1. Buy a copy of The House Rabbit Handbook by Marinell Harriman. It's the most accurate, up-to-date book about rabbit care on the market.

  2. Remember that a rabbit, unlike a carnivorous, predatory dog or cat, evolved as a prey species. Hence, most rabbits are naturally shy. It is up to you, the flexible human, to compromise and alter your behavior so that the bunny understands that you are a friend. Once you have done this, you will have won the unending love and loyalty of one of the most special creatures in creation.

Back to Table of Contents

Here's the best way to win your rabbit's trust.

  1. Imagine what the world looks like to this bunny. She's surrounded by a new environment, and there's a big, strange-smelling animal that's always looming over her. She has no idea you're trying to be friendly. Her "hard wiring" says: "AAAAAAAA!!! It's going to EAT MEEEE!!!!" Imagine yourself in her bunny slippers: No one speaks her language, she has been taken from her family and maybe the only home she has ever known, and she has no idea whether you plan to love her, cage her forever, or eat her! You must gradually and patiently earn her trust. It can take an hour, a day or even weeks or months. It depends on the personality of the individual rabbit, and on your willingness to be patient and loving.

  2. You and bunny should be together in a private, quiet room. No other pets. No distractions.

  3. Have a little treat, such as a carrot or piece of apple, banana or a little pinch of oats in your hand.

  4. Lie on your tummy on the floor and let the bunny out of her hutch. (This should be at ground level, so that the bunny can come out and go into the hutch as she pleases. Having to grab the bunny every time you want her to come in or out can undo hours of patient trust-building!)

  5. Don't expect her to approach you right away. Remain quiet and patient, even if it takes an hour or more. Rabbits are naturally curious, and eventually, she will come over to sniff you.

  6. Resist the temptation to reach out and pet the bunny. Instead, let her sniff you, hop on you and just get to know your smell. This will teach her that you are not a threat.

  7. If the bunny finds the treat you have, hold it while she nibbles. Resist the urge to pet, if she's shy!

  8. Do this every day. Gradually, you can start to pet the bunny by giving her a gentle "scratch" on the forehead (bunnies love this!). Never force anything, and never chase the bunny. This, too, will only undo all the patient sitting you have done to gain her trust.

  9. Once the bunny learns that you are a friend, she will bond very strongly to you. It's important to have him neutered/ her spayed once s/he reaches sexual maturity, because otherwise s/he'll want to make love to everything. (See our other handouts for more information!)

Back to Table of Contents

Rabbits and Children

In most cases, children and rabbits are not ideal companions. A rabbits delicate skeleton and prey-species nature predisposes him/her to be fearful of the attentions of most active, happy children, however well-meaning. It takes a very special, mature child, who is willing to follow all the above steps, to make a good companion for a rabbit.

Some people are disappointed that the rabbit is "not turning out to be the sort of pet we wanted for our kids." Rather than being disappointed that the rabbit is not what you expected (most rabbits never learn to like to be held and handled extensively), take this opportunity to teach children respect for a new kind of animal. If they really want something to carry around, they need a stuffed toy--not a live rabbit.

And of course, an adult should always be the primary caretaker of the rabbit. Young children don't have the sense of responsibility necessary to properly care for a rabbit, and the parents should be ready to take over the duties of the teenager who goes off to college, leaving Fluffy in their care.

Back to Table of Contents

She is a Sentient Being, not a Toy

Now look at your rabbit with new eyes. She is not a toy; she is a highly intelligent, potentially loving, loyal creature who can become a member of the family if you allow her to be what she is--a rabbit! If you can do that, you are in for the most delightful companionship of a lifetime!

Join the Family of the Rabbit!

Back to Table of Contents

Training Your Bunny

Obedience Training.

We have to be honest with you. Rabbits cannot generally be obedience trained the way dogs can. This does NOT mean rabbits are stupid! On the contrary; a rabbit may understand very clearly that you are trying to get him to do something, but will simply give you a baleful stare and continue doing his business as if to say, "Yeah, I hear you. But what's in it for *me*?" This irritates you until a minute later, when your adorably manipulative bunny comes running for kisses and cuddles. Are rabbits intelligent? You'd better believe it. Do they like to obey? Hahahahahaha.

Back to Table of Contents

Why is a Rabbit Not Like a Dog?

Let's compare a rabbit to a dog, that quintessential model of (potential) obedience. The ancestral dog was a cooperative pack animal. He was utterly submissive to his alpha dog: the chief of the pack. Humans took that characteristic and bred domestic dogs to have a very strong desire to please their *new* alpha, the Human Master. Most dogs have a puppy-like desire to please their perceived alpha, and this is what makes them so easy to train (at least in the hands of an experienced dog trainer who understands the way a dog's mind works).

Now consider the rabbit. The wild rabbits from which our domestic friends are descended are indeed social creatures--but they are herbivores who have not had the evolutionary pressure to be highly cooperative. The family group lives in a series of excavated tunnels (the warren) in the earth. There is a social hierarchy, but it is generally based on which rabbit is the strongest and toughest. Rabbits cooperate only in the sense their evolutionarily programmed alarm systems benefit the entire warren. Rabbits can certainly be extremely affectionate with one another, but they also have distinct likes and dislikes of other rabbits. It's often impossible for a human to guess which rabbits will fall in love, and which ones will hate each other from the start and never learn to get along. Surprisingly, it's often easier for a rabbit to get along with a human, cat, dog, guinea pig or other animal than with an unfamiliar member of hashes own species!

Unlike dogs, rabbits have no innate desire to please an alpha. If the human caregiver becomes so frustrated with the apparent disobedience of the rabbit that s/he becomes physically abusive, the rabbit will begin to consider the human as an enemy, and never forget the physical punishment. Hitting a rabbit is not only dangerous to the animal (the skeleton is extremely fragile), but unproductive. The rabbit subjected to physical punishment may become extremely aggressive, hopelessly fearful or--believe it or not--vindictive. With love and patience, the human caregiver can teach the bunny what is acceptable and what is not. The only effective way to train a rabbit away from undesirable behaviors is with positive reinforcement and very gentle negative reinforcement, such as a squirt with a water bottle and a firm "No!" when the bunny is being naughty.

Back to Table of Contents

Naughty is as Naughty Does

...Which brings us to the question, "What is "naughty" for a rabbit?"

The human caregiver must accept that certain behaviors we might consider objectionable (e.g., chewing furniture, digging carpet, marking with urine in a corner) are not naughty to the bunny, and are, in fact, extensions of the rabbits natural behavior. If the bunny is chewing furniture, you can dab some nail biting remedy on the problem areas--but don't forget to provide the bunny with chew toys (untreated wicker baskets, clean, tape and staple-free cardboard boxes, untreated pine molding, macaw-safe chew toys, etc.) as a substitute. If the bunny is digging carpet, and you don't have access to a safe, fenced area where the bunny can have some supervised digging time, cover the problem areas with 100% cotton bath mats and provide a large litterbox full of organic litter and shredded paper or a paper grocery bag filled with fresh grass hay. If the bunny is insistent about using a particular corner for urination, even after repeated warnings and white vinegar deodorizing, give in and put a color-coordinated litterbox in that corner.

Living with a rabbit can mean learning to compromise, but it tends to make us better, more tolerant people in the long run. We highly recommend it!

Back to Table of Contents

Learning to Use the Litterbox

Spay/Neuter: The First Step

The most important thing to remember is that your rabbit is very unlikely to retain reliable litterbox habits upon reaching sexual maturity unless she is spayed/he is neutered. Sex hormones give a rabbit an uncontrollable desire to mark the territory with urine and specially scented fecal pellets. Spay/neuter will eliminate/greatly reduce this drive, as well as eliminate the risk of uterine/ovarian cancer and unwanted pregnancy in females. And let's not forget the huge relief from endless sexual frustration that spayed/neutered animals enjoy.

Back to Table of Contents

Get the Right Box!

To train your rabbit to use a litterbox in a selected area, choose a litterbox that is the right size for the bunny. Don't force a tiny dwarf rabbit to leap into an enormous, high-sided box designed for a gigantic cat--and don't make your French Lop squeeze his big frame into a toaster-sized toilet. The litterbox should be comfortable, and located in a quiet, private place.

Back to Table of Contents

What Type of Litters are Safe for Rabbits?

Be sure to use ORGANIC litter in the box. Clay litters--especially clumping litters--are inexpensive, but very unhealthy for two reasons. First, the inhaled clay dust can cause respiratory problems. Second, when ingested as dust licked off paws or as a crunchy treat straight from the box (yes, some of them do it!), the highly dehydrated clay litter absorbs vital fluids from the intestine itself and can cause serious impactions and intestinal slowdowns. Clay litter is bad.

Organic litters include those made from recycled paper products (e.g. Carefresh, Nature Fresh), pelleted wood sawdust (e.g. Feline Pine, Aspen pellets) or other pelleted organic products. We strongly advise against the use of CatWorks organic litter, however. This particular brand of litter contains a binder with a very high zinc content. We know of at least one confirmed death due to zinc poisoning in a bunny who ingested CatWorks. Do NOT use cedar or pine shavings (even those cute, dyed green ones that supposedly contain active chlorophyll--which they don't), as these produce potent aromatic compounds which cause liver damage when inhaled!

Back to Table of Contents

Getting Bunny to Use the Box

Now that you have set up a safe, comfortable box, put it in an area where the bunny can be comfortably confined for a few days, except for brief excursions for run and play. You can place the box inside the indoor hutch, tuck it behind the john in the bathroom, or place it in a corner of the laundry room: whatever is convenient as well as attractive to the bunny.

Use a baby gate to enclose the bunny in the selected room with his litterbox, and be sure to provide plenty of toys, food, water and comfortable places to sleep. This will be bunny's home base and should be as inviting as you can make it. It may take a few days for the bunny to reliably use the box, as he may mark the area thoroughly as he settles in. It may help to soak or sweep up "accidents" (they're not accidents) with a bit of tissue and put the tissue in the box. He'll get the idea! Like cats, most rabbits prefer to do their biz in a nice, absorbent spot such as a clean litterbox.

It often helps to put a handful of timothy hay in a clean corner of the litterbox to encourage use of the box. A rabbit will often sit in the box, happily munching at one end, while the processed product comes out the other end. This may seem a bit disgusting to a human, but rabbits don't consider their feces to be dirty. Some rabbits will even nap in the litterbox! As long as the litterbox is changed regularly, this should pose no problem: rabbit fecal pellets are hard, dry and relatively odorless. In fact, rabbit litterbox leavings are just about the best natural, organic fertilizer you can get for your garden! Grow an herb garden, fertilize with bunny's litterbox leftovers (including the organic litter) and enjoy the ultimate in recycling!

Once your bunny is reliable about using the litterbox in his area, you can gradually increase his freedom. Be sure that he can always get back to his litterbox when he's free in the house. There's a possibility that he may pick a second area in the house as a toilet corner. If the behavior continues, even after squirt bottle and white vinegar, you may have to raise the white flag and provide another litterbox or two. But bunny's litterbox doesn't smell if it's changed regularly. Good luck!

Back to Table of Contents

For More Information

For more information, you may call or e-mail one of Rabbit Rescue's volunteers or visit the home page of the House Rabbit Society.

For more information on rabbit care, please refer to The House Rabbit Handbook by Marinell Harriman. It is available for less than $10 at most major bookstores. If your bookstore does not carry it, please ask them to order it for you: ISBN 0-940920-12-3.

by Dana Krempels, Ph.D.

Back to Table of Contents