This primer is intended as an introduction to the idea of rabbit companionship, and the kinds of things you'll need to think about before you decide that a rabbit is right for you — or, if you already have one, the kinds of things you need to think about in order to figure out how to best care for your rabbit. This primer is in no way a one-stop shop; it's just a good place to begin your research.
Pet rabbits descend from the European Rabbit species, which is important to keep in mind because there may be wild rabbits where you live, and you may think of them as basically the same as pet rabbits. Assuming you live in North American, though, they're not. In many ways — behaviourally, biologically, and even psychologically — pet rabbits are very different from wild rabbits. If you're thinking of getting a pet rabbit, or you already have one, it's important that you do your research, because pet rabbits are a unique animal — they're very different from cats, dogs, humans, and wild rabbits, and you can't expect yourself to know what's best for them through common knowledge.
Also keep in mind that rabbits are individuals. For example, I talk below about how rabbits like to dig, and how they need a hidey-hole. This may or may not be true of your rabbit. In addition to researching general rabbit behaviour, pay attention to your bunny and get to know him, and make corresponding adjustments to the care you provide. Part of the fun of having a bunny is getting to know her as an individual!
Rabbits are herbivores. They don't eat meat, dairy, eggs, poultry, seafood, or any animal products or ingredients of any kind; they only eat vegetable products. That said, they don't eat all kinds of vegetable products. They don't eat nuts, for instance. Cooked or processed foods aren't good for them either, like bread and crackers, unless they're specifically made for rabbits. They shouldn't have any human treat foods, like chocolate, chips, or candy. Treat foods for a rabbit include fresh fruit or oat groats, but these should be fed in strict moderation.
To ensure a balanced diet, most rabbit experts recommend a mix of commercial rabbit pellets, fresh leafy greens, water, and hay.
It's important to find a high-quality pellet for your rabbit, because many rabbit foods sold at pet/feed stores are too high in fat and/or protein, and too low in fibre. Some rabbits can't eat commercial pellets (like how some people can't eat gluten or lactose), in which case a diet of greens, water, and hay is recommended.
Offering your rabbit a wide variety of greens is important, not just to ensure a balance of nutrients but also for the sake of mental health. After all, how would you feel eating the same meal every day?
Not all greens are healthy for rabbits, though; some are even toxic. Sudden changes in diet can also lead to digestive problems, even if the foods you're switching to are good. Always introduce new greens gradually and one at a time, and watch for signs of illness (such as gas, allergic response, or changes in litter behaviour). Always do a search online to find out of if a new green is safe for rabbits.
All rabbits should have unlimited access to hay. Hay not only supports healthy digestion, but also dental health (rabbit teeth grow continuously, so they need to continuously grind them down), and mental health (rabbits are naturally grazers, and having hay to nibble on throughout the day helps to avoid boredom, depression, anxiety, and destructive behaviours).
Most adult rabbits should only eat grass hay, such as timothy and orchard grass. Pregnant and nursing rabbits, baby rabbits, and in some cases adult rabbits (as advised by your rabbit-savvy vet) should have a mix of grass and legume hays (for example, alfalfa/lucerne and clover). Legume hay is high in protein and calcium, which most adult rabbits get plenty of in their pellets, and too much of which can lead to health problems.
Rabbits should have unlimited access to fresh water at all times. Some rabbits prefer bowls, while others prefer bottles. In relation to their size, rabbits need more water than cats, dogs, and humans do. Also, water keeps the digestive system lubricated and helps to avoid serious complications when other health problems arise. If your rabbit isn't drinking much water on her own, talk to your rabbit-savvy vet about ways to encourage her to drink more.
Rabbits are naturally grazers, which means they're built to hop around all day eating grass. They're also burrowers, which means they're built to dig. And they're prey animals, which means they're built to run away from predators at high speeds.
All of the things that rabbits are built to do, they enjoy doing. (Well, they don't enjoy being terrorized by a predator, but they do enjoy a good sprint now and then.) Your rabbit should have the opportunity and encouragement to engage in all of his natural behaviours regularly for the sake of physical and psychological health. This is a quality of life issue, and as the owner of a domesticated animal, you are responsible for providing it. See the Environment section below for more information.
Pet rabbits need medical care just as cats, dogs, and humans do. You should find a good rabbit-savvy vet before you even bring your bunny home. Your rabbit should be spayed/neutered, and should see the vet for annual checkups. When your rabbit is sick or injured, your rabbit must see the vet for help right away. Vet care can be expensive, but it's a necessary expense and should be factored into your decision-making about getting a bunny in the first place.
In addition to professional help, you should give your rabbit at-home check-ups regularly. If you wait for your rabbit to show obvious signs of ill-health, whatever the problem is may be so far progressed that treatment will likely be expensive and arduous — your best line of defence against illness and injury is to catch the problem early and to bring your rabbit the vet's as soon as you notice that something is wrong.
If you notice that your rabbit isn't eating or drinking, using the litter box, or moving around — or not doing these things as much as normal — you should consider it an emergency and bring your rabbit to the vet's immediately, even if that means taking a trip to the closest 24-hour emergency vet if your rabbit-savvy vet is closed. Rabbits cannot safely fast like humans can, or even like cats and dogs can — they need food moving through their digestive system at all times or else their digestive system will stop working. G.I. stasis (a.k.a. ileus) is deadly, painful, and — for rabbits — extremely fast-acting.
Pet rabbits are social animals. Like dogs, rabbits need a lot of social interaction. Talk to your rabbit. Play with her. Pet her. Don't leave her alone in a cage all day. Your rabbit needs to bond with someone — either with you, or with another rabbit or even an animal of a different species (e.g. a cat or dog). Bonding your rabbit with another animal isn't always easy, and there are many risks involved — never put your pets at risk of danger from each other! That said, if you aren't going to bond your rabbit with another animal, then be prepared to give her a lot of attention. You must be her best bud, because she needs a best bud in order to be happy and healthy.
Rabbits don't meow or bark, but that doesn't mean they don't communicate. Most rabbits do vocalize to one degree or another — they grunt, they purr, they growl — and each noise means something different. And all rabbits communicate with body language, in particular with ear positioning. Understanding how your rabbit communicates is an important part of relationship-building, but also an important part of taking good care of your bunny. For instance, if you don't know when your rabbit is afraid, how will you create a safe home for her? (See the Environment section below for more information.) If you don't know when he is in pain, how will you get her appropriate medical care when necessary? You can find information online and in books about how rabbits communicate generally, but you can also learn a lot by watching and interacting with your rabbit.
In order to be happy and healthy, rabbits need an environment that is safe and stimulating.
As described in the Nutrition section above, hay is an important part of creating a stimulating environment for a rabbit, but it's not enough. In order to encourage physical and mental activity, your pet rabbit needs an enriched environment that includes play structures and toys.
Not all rabbits respond to the same kinds of toys or like to play in the same kinds of ways. Some rabbits love climbing and hopping on things, so providing them with shelves and boxes is a great way to keep them active. Other rabbits love throwing small objects around, and will appreciate having a collection of throwing toys such as small woven grass balls, or the cardboard tubes found inside of paper towel rolls. Some rabbits love digging and will probably enjoy a bunch of blankets or old towels to play with. (Some rabbits, however, eat towels, blankets, carpets, and other textiles, which can lead to serious health problems.) Some rabbits love sprinting, and need the space and proper floor coverings to do so.
It's important to research the kinds of toys rabbits generally like, and then to do some experimentation to find out what kinds of toys your rabbit personally likes.
When thinking about safety, think about it from your perspective as well as your rabbit's. For example, if you have your rabbit in a cage, and in the room there is an aggressive dog, you may know that your rabbit is safe because there's no way the dog can get into the cage. However, your rabbit doesn't know that. In this situation, you may be keeping your rabbit from physical trauma, but you aren't keeping her from psychological trauma. Additionally, it's fairly obvious that an aggressive dog might scare a rabbit, but what about about a gentle dog? What about your rambunctious children? What about a bunch of friends you've invited over for a get-together? Perhaps none of these circumstances would present any physical harm to your rabbit even without the cage, but does your rabbit know that? To think about a safe environment, you have to get inside your rabbit's head.
To escape from perceived threats, your rabbit needs her own space: a hidey-hole of some kind. A hidey-hole can be as simple as a cardboard box with two small holes cut in the sides (two because it's always safest to have an alternate escape route), with some hay inside and a blanket (assuming she doesn't eat blankets). If your rabbit isn't free-range, then she will also need an enclosure: a "rabbit condo," dog crate, or exercise pen, for example, outfitted with everything she needs. Many of the rabbit cages sold at pet stores are simply too small, even for dwarf rabbits.
Whatever your rabbit's circumstances, she will at all times need access to hay, water, litter, a hidey-hole, comfortable resting surfaces, and enough room to hop around, stretch out to full length, and stand up to full height. If she is not free-range, then she will also need some time everyday outside of her enclosure to run and hop and play and socialize. If she is free-range, she will still need a few hours of your active company every day (see the Society section above for more information).
Whatever spaces your rabbit has access to have to be "rabbit-proofed." The degree to which you rabbit-proof your home depends on how investigative and playful your bunny is, and how unsupervised she is when she has access to those spaces. At the very least, bunny-proofing involves covering all electrical cords. There is something about cords that almost all rabbits love, and even under close supervision, you would be surprised how quickly a rabbit can snip through an electrical cord.