- Rabbit hutches are a traditional way to house rabbits but make sure that if you are housing in hutches that you provide a place to get off of mesh (shelf or solid section of flooring) and provide a weather resistant nestbox or area of the hutch that the rabbit can enter for additional protection from the elements.
- Keeping rabbits in group housing situations can be challenging. Groups tend to be unstable and can have issues with aggression and injury. The most stable combination of a rabbit at group at the Philadelphia Zoo was a group of 5 neutered littermates which lasted 2 years before the exhibit was closed. Other combinations of fostered animals and intact females broke down to either trios or duos. Breed selection may have also been a factor – the most stable group consisted of lop eared rabbits which tend to have a more relaxed temperament. Our exhibit was pretty sizable with lots of places for rabbits to get away from one another, approximately 30 feet long and about 10-12 feet wide with multiple “houses” (some with upper and lower levels) so they had plenty of options for staying away from one another if needed. We tried not to pull rabbits for more than a day from this group but had to one time. The reintroduction via howdy was successful but it was unclear if we would have caused breakdown in the group if we would have had to do this more frequently.
- In the wild, rabbits eat grasses, clover, bark, and grains.
- In captivity, rabbits are fed rabbit pellets, carrots, lettuce, and hay.
- Rabbits that are not given adequate exercise tend to become overweight. Overweight rabbits are not able to groom their hind ends as well and can get fecal material stuck to their fur. Groom animals a minimum of once weekly to check for this condition and remove mats and fecal material stuck to fur gently with blunt end scissors or warm water soaks/bathing.
Notes on Enrichment & Training
- Untreated wood– Not painted, glued, stained, or treated in some other fashion. Parrot blocks are fine.
- Browse Apple, willow, aspen, pine (NOT redwood) including dried pine cones, mulberry, maple, manzanita, magnolia, rose, bamboo. Other fruit woods (peach, plum, etc.) OK after drying.
- Cardboard tubes Plain or stuffed with hay
- Cardboard boxes Be creative – cut holes, stack boxes inside one another, upside down, etc.
- Paper cups Not plastic coated
- Phone books Remove if they’re consuming a lot
- Crumpled bits of paper
- Baskets e.g. wicker laundry hamper
- Paper bags e.g. grocery sacks
- Wooden spoons
- Carpet off-cuts, towels, or blankets Sea-grass sisal, bamboo, jute, other natural fibers are best. When rabbits are given fabric for enrichment, their activity must be monitored closely because some rabbits will try to eat these items. Rabbits should NEVER be allowed to ingest fabric as a very small amount of fiber could cause bowel impaction.
- Rabbits respond well to positive reinforcement. Suggested behaviors include target, stand up on haunches, paws up (on box, ledge, etc.), jump up (on to box, etc.), crate, etc. Reinforcers include pieces of carrot and apple, cheerios, sunflower seeds, kale etc.
Colony or Breeding Management
Tips on Presentation
Tips on Handling
- Smaller rabbits may be held in the hands/arms for presentation. This is less feasible with larger breeds (e.g., Flemish Giant) which may be easier to present on a tabletop or cart.
- Rabbits are the third most dumped animal in the US, and are usually available for adoption from shelters.
- Be sure to select animals with calm temperaments as rabbits can be aggressive and challenging to handle with novice handlers.
Comments from the Rating System
- Children’s Zoo at Celebration Square: We have Flemish giant and lionhead rabbits. The lionheads are extremely high maintenance (grooming and aggression) and are not ideal. Only one of 4 was ever reliably well behaved for handling. The others were just squirmy, no biting. Our Flemish giants are large so handling can be difficult for smaller people and a couple of ours have been biters and were unable to be broken of the habit. They can go out on a leash and halter, but you can’t lead them anywhere. People are impressed with the giants since they are so big (and soft) and we had an albino lionhead, which the public loved. Most of our visitors have young children so the rabbits were nice for touching, but messaging was hard since they are domestic and common in the pet trade.
- Downtown Aquarium, Denver: Husbandry is time-consuming. USDA standards are much higher for rabbits than for other animals. However, they’re a good “touchable” species.
- Henry Vilas Zoo: Not a very exciting species, but people (especially those with young kids) like them because they are soft and can be touched. They can be used to demonstrate attributes of mammals, herbivores, and prey species
- Maryland Zoo in Baltimore: Choose your breeds wisely. We prefer Flemish Giants and Lionheads. Flemish giants require care in handling – not for beginners, but not an expert-level handler either. They’re good for groups: size is impressive despite the fact that it is a domestic. Good temperament for contact situations.
- Natural Science Center of Greensboro: We especially use Flemish Giants. They are large, more laid back, and more “durable” for contact. They are prone to medical issues, though.
- Philadelphia Zoo: Popular for brushing interaction, but tougher than expected for novice handlers
- Seneca Park Zoo: Not super exciting, but young children and seniors love them.
Natural History Information
Range and Habitat
This is a domestic species, so it occurs nearly everywhere except Antarctica. The European rabbit, the species that the domestic rabbit is descended from, occurs in many places around the world as a result of escapes or deliberate introduction by man – it was very popular as a food source and game animal. In the wild, European rabbits will dig complex burrows called warrens. This is in contrast to the cottontail rabbit that is native to North America, which only uses burrows built by other animals, like woodchucks.
There are over 80 different breeds of rabbit, and many have distinct coloration, fur qualities, eye color, body shape, and overall body size. In general, the hind legs are relatively long, the feet are well furred, and the claws are long and straight. The toes are webbed to keep them from spreading apart when the rabbit jumps.
Rabbits have excellent senses of hearing and smell. Eyes are located on the side of the head, which gives the rabbit a wide visual range so it can more easily spot predators. However, this does create a blind spot directly in front of the animal.
The smallest breed of rabbit, the Netherland Dwarf, is 2 pounds in weight and 5 inches long. The largest breed, the Flemish giant, weighs 14 to 18 pounds and is 24 to 32 inches in length.
After a gestation period of 28 to 33 days, a litter of 1 to 9 young (called kittens) are born; the average litter size is 5 to 6. The kittens are born naked, blind, and helpless. The mother will leave her young in the nest when she goes to forage. She will only visit the kittens for a few minutes each day, but her milk is extremely rich, so the kittens can survive even with so few feedings.
Females enter into estrus just a few hours after giving birth, and will mate again soon. Females have the potential to produce 10 litters a year. Theoretically, if none of her kits died, one pregnant female can produce 140,552 rabbits in just three years (if you count her grandkids, greatgrandkids, etc.) One reason for the reproductive success of rabbits is induced ovulation, were eggs are released in response to copulation.
Average lifespan is 8 to 12 years.
Rabbits are essentially nocturnal, leaving burrows in the evening and returning in the early morning. Though generally silent, possible vocalizations include grunts, growls, screams, purrs, and honks. Most communication, however, is through scent cues and touch. If a rabbit feels its territory is being threatened, it tends to become aggressive towards the intruder.
Threats and Conservation Status
Common predators include canines, felines, large birds of prey, and humans. When fleeing a predator, rabbits will hop in a zigzag pattern to confuse the pursuit. When caught, a rabbit will scream loudly, hoping to startle the predator into letting go.
Domestic rabbits, being domestic, have no special conservation status. However, many wild species of rabbits are endangered.
Did you know…
- Rabbits are not rodents, they are lagomorphs. Both rodents and rabbits have incisors that continuously grow through the life of the animal, but rabbits have two sets of incisors and two sets of peg teeth behind them, while rodents only have the two sets of incisors. In fact, rabbits are more closely related to primates, tree shrews, and ungulates than they are to rodents.
- Oryctolagus cuniculus is the only species in its genus.
- Rabbits are the third most likely animal to be surrendered to animal shelters, after dogs and cats.
- The documented world record for high jumping in a rabbit is 39.2 inches.
- During the Age of Exploration (starting in 1492), rabbits were left on hundreds of islands as a food source for later voyages, often with devastating consequences for island ecologies.
- Australia, for example, has quite a problem with overpopulation of feral domestic rabbits.
Contributors and Citations
Top Photo: Lion Head Rabbit – Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Zoo
- The Philadelphia Zoo
- Happy Hollow Park & Zoo