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Bunny Nutrition and Care

Facts every bunny parent (or parent to be) should know

Thank you for opening up your life and your heart to the unique love of a bunny. This page includes all of the information that you'll need for your bunny. This information has been gathered by bunny lovers and bunny doctors to help you give your bunny have a happy, healthy, long life.

Important Bunny Facts:

  • Life span: Typically 9-12 years (possibly longer)

  • Normal body temperature: 100.5-104 F

  • Bunnies are herbivores, so their physiology is closer to a horse or cow than to dogs or cats. If you keep the bunny's digestive tract healthy, you keep the bunny healthy.

  • Bunnies are very social animals and in nature, they live in groups. Like dogs and cats, they're affectionate and bond with people; therefore, they should be kept indoors as part of the family.

  • The bunnies' natural instinct is to be close to the ground and have access to a safe hiding place; this is because they are a prey species, which basically means that many other animals eat them. Thus, it is not safe for bunnies' to be left unsupervised with a dog or cat, or allowed outdoors in an unsecured enclosure.

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Tips for when you first bring your new bunny home:

  • Many bunnies are shy at first. Have the bunnies home ready in advance (containing hay, water, and a couple handfuls of pellets), so that you can bring the bunny home, place it in its new area (view handling below on this page), and let it get used to its new surroundings for two-three days. The bunny will be under a great deal of stress from changing homes, so allow the bunny to get used to its new surroundings with as little stress as possible in order to avoid illness.

 

  • Before bringing your bunny home, you have to decide where they'll live. Making your house a bunny-safe house will help to create a special bond between you and your bunny. Bunnies make terrific house pets and can be kept in a similar manner as we would keep an indoor cat. When you first bring your bunny home you should keep them in their new cage or pen so they can get familiar with any other pets or children that also live in the home. Keep reading to learn more about bunny homes and bunny proofing.

  • While there are many cages available at pet stores, they are truly too small to house an average-sized bunny. Wire bottoms are uncomfortable for bunny feet. Since cages are so limiting, a better purchase would be a pen, called a dog exercise pen or x-pen. Pens give your bunny a lot more room when he has to be caged, and easily allows bunny to come out to play. If you do use a cage, it should be kept on the floor and not on a table.  Bunnies are much more comfortable when they live on the floor.

  • Many bunnies do not like when people reach into their cage to drag them out, so it’s better to open the cage door and let the bunny walk out on its own to explore. Sit down, relax and watch your bunny check out the room and you. This allows the bunny to feel secure in its new home because it knows where to run to be safe and it can approach you and meet you as it would a friend. Allow the bunny increasing amounts of time out of its cage, under supervision. This method also encourages using the pen or cage as a place to pee and poop. It may take a few weeks for your new bunny to settle down and open up to bond with you; a calm environment and consistent behavior on your part will help your bunny adjust quickly.

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Bunny homes and bunny proofing:

  • All important papers and books should be kept out of reach. Make wires inaccessible (place wires behind furniture, attach wires to the wall out of bunny reach, or cover wires with plastic tubing from the hardware store).

  • Some bunnies will chew on wood furniture or wall edges. Cover the nibbled area and place old magazines, phonebooks, cardboard boxes, or a litter box with hay nearby for a more interesting chewing option.

  • Make sure that there is no rodent poison or other toxic chemicals accessible for your bunny to get into.

  • Since bunnies are so social, keep them in an area in which you spend most of your time. Be aware that an extremely busy and noisy area may be too stressful for some bunnies. When bunnies share our homes, their personality will blossom, and you will enjoy a rewarding relationship with an adorable critter that is smarter than you think!

Handling your bunny:

Being picked up is very scary and unnatural for bunnies; they feel like a predator has grabbed them for dinner. That's why many bunnies struggle when lifted, and when they kick out with their hind legs, they can fracture their spine. So it is very important to handle them properly - see House Rabbit Society handout "An Uplifting Experience".

Remember to always support their rear end, and hold them securely without squeezing. Never pick bunnies up by their ears, legs, or scruff. Since bunny handling requires a certain amount of manual dexterity, children under 8 years old are often unable to safely lift bunnies by themselves. Young children should always be monitored when handling and spending time with bunnies.

If you are very nervous picking up your bunny, he/she will get nervous as well, so try to be calm and confident. Here is a method of lifting for beginners that is very safe and easy. Get a large towel, sit on the floor, and pet your bunny on the head until it is relaxed. Do not hold your breath or tense up because the bunny will think that something bad is about to happen. Breathing calmly, place the towel over the bunny so that the bunny is in the middle with its head towards a long edge. Place your hands on either side of the bunny's midsection, and scoop the bunny up with the towel wrapped around it, to your chest region. Use both arms to support the bunny, holding the bunny with its head to one side, and its tail to the other.

 

Once you've stood up and are holding the bunny securely, make sure the bunny's face is exposed so that it is not smothered. You have just made a "bunny burrito". Don"t keep the bunny wrapped in a towel for very long, as it can get overheated. When you're done, carefully place all four bunny feet on the ground and lift the towel off, letting him/her walk away. Many bunnies from rescue groups are already experienced at being handled, and you may be pleasantly surprised to find a bunny that likes to cuddle in your lap, but most bunnies prefer to lie next to you to be petted.

What pet bunnies should eat:

Bunnies are herbivores. This means that they have a plant-based diet and do not eat meat. Their diets include grasses, clover, and some cruciferous plants, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts. They are opportunistic feeders and also eat fruits, seeds, roots, buds, and tree bark. Bunnies often eat their own excrement to access any remaining nourishment that their digestive system may have missed the first time.

For the first 5 months we recommend that you stick to the following meals:

  • Oats

  • Baby Pellets

  • Hay/Alfalfa

  • Dry Treats

Any time you decrease a food that your bunny is eating, you must do it SLOWLY or your bunny may get very sick. If you find that you're feeding your bunny too many pellets, slowly decrease the amount over 1-2 MONTHS!

Notes about Hay & Alfalfa:

 

Give your bunny large fresh handfuls of grass hay twice a day. Alfalfa is too rich in calcium, protein, and carbohydrates for healthy adult bunnies. Loose strands of hay are much healthier than pressed cubes or chopped hay. In the wild, bunnies, like horses, graze and browse continuously.

Give your bunny a limited amount of good quality pellets -

(Timothy pellets are ideal but Alfalfa is acceptable)

  • 1/8 -1/4 cup per 5lbs body weight each day

  • Get a plain green pellet, without any dried bananas, seeds, or puffs. Plain green pellets are higher in fiber

  • If pellets have a pungent odor that does not smell like hay, they may be rancid and should be discarded.

 DO NOT FEED: Rhubarb, Bread and bread products, Avocado, Chocolate, Chips, Pretzels


Why should bunnies eat a lot of hay?

The two easy things you can do to keep your bunny healthy: give your bunny a loving and low-stress environment and feed it lots of grass hay. bunnies rely on the good bacteria in their digestive tract for nutrients. If the environment changes in the digestive tract, (for example, more acidic) the good bacteria die, and bad bacteria proliferate and cause illness and death. It is very easy to kill off the good bacteria: a sudden change in diet or improper diet (like eating a large number of carbohydrates), stress from being at the shelter/pet store, stress from changing homes, stress from surgery, stress from rough handling or harassing dogs, and giving certain antibiotics. Stress is additive, so if your bunny has a low-stress home life and a good diet, it will be better able to deal with stressful situations, like a visit to the vet for a check-up.


Hay is important because the good bacteria digest the grass hay and fiber, and the long stems of hay keep the digestive tract moving normally. Hay is also very important to wear down bunny teeth. Unlike human teeth, bunny teeth are constantly growing; therefore, they need to eat tough, coarse, fibrous foods like hay, grass, leaves, and branches to wear down their teeth properly. Pellets are a very concentrated form of nutrition and are not tough and fibrous enough to wear down the teeth sufficiently. If a bunny eats only pellets, it will be prone to overgrown teeth, overgrowth of bad bacteria, slow digestion, and obesity. Basically, if you keep the digestive tract healthy, you keep the bunny healthy.

Bunnies eat their own poop.. and that's normal!

Bunnies have a large cecum in their digestive tract that houses good bacteria. These bacteria ferment fiber to nutrients; some of the nutrients are absorbed in the cecum, and some of the nutrients are passed out of the anus as cecotrophs. Bunnies eat these cecotrophs directly from their anus, thus regaining the protein and vitamins contained within. You may occasionally see cecotrophs - they are soft and moist and look like a cluster of grapes. Cecotrophs are erroneously called "night feces" but bunnies may produce them anytime during the day or night, 4-8 hours after eating. More detailed information on how your bunnies gastrointestinal tract works can be found on rabbit rescue websites.

Litter box training:

Most bunnies pick this up very quickly, though there are occasional bunnies that never get it, or are not quite 100%. Place a litter box in the corner of the bunny's cage that he/she pees in. Place litter boxes in corners of the room(s) the bunny is allowed out in. You can put urine-soaked litter and poop in the litter boxes, but the best thing to entice bunnies to hang out in their litter boxes is to place hay in the litter box. Place about an inch of bunny safe litter in the box and cover it with a generous handful of hay. Dump the contents when soiled, daily, or every other day. Changing litter often and providing a clean-living area encourages bunnies to use their litter boxes.


DO NOT USE CLUMPING LITTER OR LITTER WITH ADDITIVES! These are dangerous to the bunny's health. Some bunnies will eat corn cob litter, which may cause a blockage.


Recommended Litters:

  • Aspen bedding (Pine and cedar have been proven to cause liver and lung problems in small mammals)

  • Yesterday's News -recycled newspaper pellets soak up and hold urine well

  • Carefresh - recycled newspaper pulp

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Many bunnies go through an adolescent phase somewhere around 3 months to 1 year old. They have a lot of energy and curiosity. Bunnies are constantly exploring and often getting into trouble. Like a two-year-old child, this phase is best dealt with by redirecting their energies. Instead of reprimanding, just remove the valuable/important item the bunny has discovered, and give him a box of tissues to rip up, or a box filled with magazines to tear apart. Spaying and neutering helps to calm adolescents to some degree, but be assured, they will grow out of their naughtiness. Bunnies adopted from rescue groups and shelters are often at the age where they are mellowing out of their adolescent stage.

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Let's talk bunny behavior:

Bunnies are quiet and peaceful animals that respond to attention and affection when treated with gentleness and love. They are intelligent animals that form adoring lifelong relationships. They love to be petted, like snuggling, enjoy jumping and leaping playfully for fun, live to chew, and will bring joy to your life. If you’ve never experienced bunny love, open your heart and mind, and lay down on the floor with your bunny roaming free. Watch your bunny and you’ll learn to recognize his body language: nervous, frisky, curious, loving, etc. See the world through your bunny’s eyes - how would it feel to be a bunny?


Bunnies like to be comfortable and happy, and as mentioned previously, they don’t deal well with stress. Gently and patiently work with your bunny to get it used to a carrying case, traveling, nail trimming, brushing, and being lifted. This training will decrease your bunny’s stress during these procedures.

Outdoor playtime tips:

Bunnies should have constant supervision when outdoors; predators can get into any yard and kill a bunny within seconds. Determined predators can rip open any enclosure, no matter how well it's built. Since it would be difficult to bunny proof an entire yard and closing up all the tiny fence openings -- it's better to create a small, secure play area. Build a strong wood and wire enclosure with a roof to discourage predators from just jumping in. Provide shade, water, food, and a hide box. An alternative is to train your bunny to wear a harness, and then you can hang out in the yard with your bunny on a leash. Some bunnies will even go for walks! Don’t let your bunny eat grass that has pesticides or has been fertilized. And don’t leave your bunny out for long during hot weather.

Bunnies LOVE toys!

Bunnies seem to prefer cheap toys, like cardboard boxes, magazines, newspapers, phone books, junk mail, important paper documents, paper bags, towels, wicker baskets, and toilet paper rolls (with and without toilet paper). Note the recurring theme - items that can be ripped up. Some bunnies like bird toys with bells and wood chunks. Slinkies also make a fun toy. Bunnies respond best when their toys are rotated, instead of staying with the same toy for weeks.

Which vet should my bunny see?

Many perfectly wonderful vets are willing to see bunnies but are not experienced with the bunny's unique requirements. Something as simple as giving the wrong antibiotics can kill a bunny (Amoxicillin, Ampicillin, Clindamycin, and Lincomycin are the most dangerous, but others can cause problems as well) therefore bunnies should always be treated by experienced bunny veterinarians. You can find information on recommendations for good bunny veterinarians in your area.

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Spay and neuter:

If you have a bunny that's not yet spayed or neutered, their health and emotional well-being will benefit greatly. Neutered male bunnies stop spraying, stop humping everything that moves, stop being aggressive, and become more cuddly and mellow. Spayed females will be less frustrated and less aggressive, and more calm and loving. Spaying females is extremely important because they have more than an 80% chance of getting uterine cancer, which can lead to death. If you've just adopted a bunny from a shelter or rescue group, he or she has most likely been spayed or neutered a few days before the adoption. It may take a few weeks to a few months after the surgery for your bunny to mellow out and the hormones to clear out of the system.


Bunnies can start breeding as early as 3-5 months of age; therefore males and females need to be kept separate until they are spayed or neutered. Male bunnies can be neutered as soon as their testicles descend, around 3-4 months old. Female bunnies can also be spayed at 3-4 months of age.

Health notes:

  • Monitor your bunny for signs of illness: decreased appetite, weight loss, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, soft poop.

  • ANY CHANGE IN APPETITE IS SIGNIFICANT. IF YOUR BUNNY STOPS EATING, IT NEEDS TO BE SEEN RIGHT AWAY (within a few hours) by an experienced bunny vet!!

  • If a bunny is not feeling well or is obese and has soft poop, it will not groom itself well in its genital and tail region. Urine and feces get matted in the fur, burn the bunny's skin, and attract flies to lay eggs, even indoors, which turn into maggots in the wound.

  • Bunnies can get fleas as well - contact your bunnies' vet for flea control. DO NOT EVER USE FRONTLINE OR OVER-THE-COUNTER FLEA PRODUCTS ON BUNNIES!

  • Monitor your bunny's front teeth. If they do not line up well and are growing long in strange directions, they need to be trimmed by your vet. If the bunny has a lot of drool and foodstuff stuck under its chin, and the bunny is reluctant to eat, it may have overgrown molars. Frequently feel the sides of your bunny's face, and under its jaw. Check for unusual lumps that could signal an abscess caused by abnormal teeth. See your vet asap if you find any of these abnormalities.

  • Trim your bunny's nails regularly. Long nails can get caught and the bunny can break a toe or nail.

  • Bunnies cannot sweat, and have a limited ability to cool themselves; in the wild, they spend the hot midday time in their burrows snoozing and come out at dusk and dawn. They cannot handle temperatures above 85-90 degrees and will go into heatstroke, so keep them out of the sun and in a comfortable environment. Also, bunnies kept in a warm and humid area with poor air circulation are more likely to get a respiratory disease.

  • If you have a bonded pair, and one gets sick - do not separate them. The other bunny has already been exposed, and parting them will cause a great deal of stress and anguish. The sick one will benefit from the love and support of its buddy and has a better chance at recovering. Along the same lines, if you need to take one bunny to the vet, bring the other bunny in the same carrier for emotional support. And if one bunny needs to be hospitalized, it will do much better if its buddy stays with it in the hospital.

  • To keep your bunny healthy, try to maintain a comfortable, secure, low-stress environment with lots of love and plenty of grass hay.

(This page is from a handout that was written by Dr. Sari Kanfer, veterinarian, bunny owner and lover, and active supporter of Bunny Bunch and Zooh Corner Rabbit Rescue in California. The information contained herein is based upon the rabbit literature available, advice from top rabbit vets, information from long-term rabbit rescuers, and research data. Feel free to photocopy and distribute this handout. Updated 3/28/10)

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