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Animal Care Information

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Rabbits

Friendly, fluffy & inquisitive, we love rabbits

Rabbits can make wonderful companions when kept correctly. Rabbits are generally a greatly misunderstood animal; they require significant time and investment to keep correctly. However that said, watching healthy, happy rabbits playing and having fun is a delight.

Caring for your Rabbits

Rabbits deserve their reputation as great animals – they are friendly, inquisitive, content to play with their owners and can happily be held and stroked. With the correct diet, care and handling you and your rabbits will have a long and happy time together. In the sections below we will introduce some of the most important things you need to know in order to enjoy the experience of being a rabbits owner to the full.

Quick Tip

Foraging and chewing will keep your rabbit physically and emotionally stimulated.

 

Housing

Whether your rabbits live indoors or outside, a hutch with a run permanently attached is the perfect home. The hutch itself is really only the rabbits bedroom. They should have access to a run at all times so they can choose to be inside or outside as they wish.

The hutch should be high enough for your rabbits to stand on their back legs, stretch out fully, and with enough floor area to allow a minimum of three to four hops in any direction. You’ll need to get a bigger hutch the more rabbits you have. There should be separate eating and toilet areas. If you have more than one rabbit, there should also be somewhere for them to be alone from each other – after all we all need our own space sometimes!

Line the floor with newspaper and cover the lining with bedding material such as straw or dust-free wood chippings. This helps to absorb urine and keep the hutch comfortable.

Rabbits are clean animals by nature, so make a separate litter area, deep-sided and lined with newspaper and hay, which you should change regularly.

The hutch should always be dry, well-ventilated and kept cool. Heat can be fatal to rabbits. Indoors, avoid sites next to radiators. Outside, avoid south-facing walls and direct sunlight. In the colder winter months, add extra bedding to an outdoor hutch and move it into a garage.

Did you know?

Rabbits require regular vaccinations and health checks.

Cleaning

Rabbits leave scent markings which extreme cleaning can remove. This may cause them stress, but hygiene is important. Spot clean soiled areas when needed, but change all bedding and clean thoroughly every two or three days – always leaving a small corner untouched so it smells familiar. It’s also important to consider the surroundings when your rabbits are out of the hutch.

House Rabbits

Rabbits love to chew and gnaw, so when they’re living indoors, the house needs to be rabbit-proofed. Wires are an easy target, so metal ducting may be useful to cover them up. Also, be aware of wooden and laminate floors which can easily cause your rabbits to slip, injuring the lower back.

Outdoor Rabbits

For outdoor rabbits, it’s important to rat-proof the area where they’re living. Fear of predators – like dogs, foxes and birds of prey – can cause stress, so try to minimise it. If a neighbour has a noisy dog, for example, house your rabbits as far away as possible. Ideally cover the hutch at night so that the rabbits cannot see outside should any predators enter the garden. You should also make sure the garden is free of plants that are poisonous to rabbits.

We know rabbits as ‘Fibrevores’, This is because rabbits need to keep their digestive systems busy with a mix of two kinds of fibre moving through the gut at all times (these types of fibre are called digestible fibre and indigestible fibre, and at Burgess Excel we collectively call them ‘Beneficial Fibre’). Rabbits can’t get enough nutrition from fibre when it passes through their gut the first time, so they pass it through a second time, by eating their poo!

Quick Tip

A hutch should only be used as a 'bedroom' for your rabbit.

 

Diet

You’ll be familiar with the words carnivore (a meat eater), omnivore (an eater of meat and plants) and herbivore (animal with a plant-based diet).

Rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas are all herbivores. But by far the most important elements of their diet, the one thing they absolutely must have to stay healthy and happy is fibre.

At Burgess Excel, we call them ‘Fibrevores’.

This is because rabbits need to keep their digestive systems busy with a mix of two kinds of fibre moving through the gut at all times (these types of fibre are called digestible fibre and indigestible fibre, and at Burgess Excel we collectively call them ‘Beneficial Fibre’.

Vets recommend that a complete diet for fibrevores should cater for their dental, digestive and emotional health.

The Excel Feeding plan has been developed alongside leading academics and vets to ensure that it meets the needs dietary requirements of rabbits.

 

Indigestible Fibre

Indigestible fibre is moved through their digestive system and excreted as separate, round, hard droppings. This type of fibre keeps the digestive system moving and their appetite stimulated.

Digestible Fibre

Digestible fibre is moved up into an organ called the caecum – which is like a giant appendix.

Good bacteria in the caecum ferment the fibre, making it easy to digest. This emerges in the form of clumps of sticky droppings – we call these droppings caecotrophs. Rabbits then re-eat the caecotrophs directly from their bottom and the essential nutrients are then absorbed when the digestible fibre passes through for the second time. If rabbits don’t get the right amounts of both digestible and indigestible fibre, it can rapidly lead to serious health problems.

Sticking to The Excel Feeding Plan will ensure your bunnies get the right amounts of fibre in their diet. The Excel Feeding Plan was developed in conjunction with one of the world’s leading small-animal vets, to provide a perfect daily balance of fibre and nutrition.

 

As you may already know, rabbits cannot digest animal proteins and there are also a number of plants that can be considered poisonous to rabbits. Read our hints and tips below to find out more.

Quick Tip

A hutch should only be used as a 'bedroom' for your rabbit.

 

The Problems with Feeding Muesli

Rabbits fed on muesli-style foods will often selectively feed. This is where they pick out the high starch elements of the diet and leave the rest (typically the pellet /high fibre elements). Selective feeding leads to the consumption of an unbalanced diet. In addition, hay intake and water intake are lower when muesli is fed leading to other potential dental and digestive issues. Over 90% of vets do not believe muesli style foods should be sold for rabbits*.

If you are currently feeding a muesli style food to your rabbits you should gradually transfer your rabbits onto a hay and nugget based feeding plan over a period of between 14 and 28 days, by gradually reducing the amount of muesli and increasing the proportion of nuggets until they have completely replaced the mix. Remember that good quality hay and/or grass should make up the majority of your rabbits’ diet and should be available at all times. Rabbits should also be fed a small amount of leafy greens each day. Please talk to your vet for further information.

*Independent research, conducted by VetSurgeon.co.uk and VetNurse.co.uk, 2013.

Did you know?

Rabbits have complex digestive systems. Food is passed through their gut and this is how caecotrophs are produced, rabbits then eat the caecotrophs and the food is re-ingested.

Poisonous Plants

There are also several plants that are poisonous to your rabbits, so make sure you don’t feed and that there are none growing in your garden.

Some common plants that are harmful to rabbits: autumn crocus, begonia, black nightshade, busy lizzie, buttercup, carnation, chrysanthemum, clematis, cowslip, geranium, hemlock, laburnum, laurel, poison ivy, poppy and yucca. This is not and exhaustive list, if in doubt, don’t feed the plant to your rabbits.

Fresh Greens

Good: asparagus, basil, cauliflower leaves, celery, chicory, dill, fennel, green pepper, kale, mint, oregano, parsley, red leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, savoy cabbage, spinach, turnip, watercress, dandelion leaves.

Bad: Apple pips, avocado, carrots (whole), cucumber, iceberg lettuce, potato and potato tops, rhubarb (leaves and stalks), tomato leaves, locust pods and beans. This is not and exhaustive list, if in doubt, don’t feed the vegetable/fruit to your rabbits.

Training

Not many people know that rabbits can be trained, this is great for their physical and mental stimulation.

Quick Tip

Not many people know that rabbits can be trained, this is great for their physical and mental stimulation.

 

Clicker Training

Clicker training is a scientifically proven, hands free and initially voice free means of animal training. It uses a signal to give accurate information and feedback to your rabbits about the behaviour you want him/her to learn. Such training takes its name from the children’s toy that makes a ‘click’ noise, the noise being the signal.

To be effective, the signal needs to be short in duration, distinctive and easily applied. The sound made by a clicker (originally a children’s toy) is just that. Of course, the sound also has to be of significance to your rabbits, and this is done by making it mean ‘well done’, which we will explain shortly. Clicker training can be better than other forms of training as a way of communicating clearly to your bunny friend, or any other animal.

Of course, the clicker is initially meaningless to the rabbits but soon becomes significant when paired with something your rabbits really value, be that a pellet of food, or a tasty mouthful of dandelion or parsley. That is the rabbits learns that click means treat! The rabbits soon learns behaviours you want by the clicker sound effectively telling the rabbits “that’s right” and that s/he will get a treat.

Your rabbits do not understand human language and saying words actually takes quite a lot longer than making a single click sound with your fingers. Such a single short signal is an easy way for two different species to communicate clearly, enabling you to give faster and more accurate feedback to your rabbits. Because it is not voice dependent it is possible for more than one member of the family to successfully participate in training including both children and adults. As the signal is neutral, it is unemotional, so you are less likely to make your rabbits anxious during training because you are getting too excited (or a little frustrated!)

Clicker training is a pleasant and fun way for your rabbits to learn and for you to teach! It is communication and problem solving and both you and your rabbits will be working together as a team.

Did you know?

Rabbit’s teeth can grow at a rate of 3mm per week and this is why eating lots of grass and hay helps to wear their teeth down.

Pre-training Considerations

Before starting training with any animal there are several things you must be sure of. Firstly, you should be confident that your rabbits are fit and well and not suffering from any injury or illness. Training with animals who are under par is a sure way to lessen their motivation to train and in some cases could be a welfare issue.

It is important to recognise that not all animals will have the same likes and dislikes even though they may belong to the same species. Before starting to train it is important to establish what your rabbits consider to be a treat. These rewards form part of the motivation to continue learning and thus play a very important part in the training process. Try a variety of different herbs and also you can use some or all of his/her daily ration of concentrates as training rewards. Identify a variety of treats that s/he likes and always have a variety available for training sessions. The treats should be SMALL, taking a minimum time to eat. These are treats not meals. Think of it in proportion of giving an adult human a single ‘Smartie’ for each correct behaviour they have done and you have clicked. Big pieces are time consuming and disrupt the rhythm of the training.

Rabbits are sensitive animals, they are prey animals and easily frightened. Because of this it is important both to select a suitable marker with care and to introduce it in a non-threatening manner. The normal clicker designed for training dogs may be too loud and scare your rabbits. Rather it might be more appropriate to find a softer sounding signal. The use of a retractable ball point pen, a tongue click or a “bug clicker” is quieter and yet equally effective.

How do we start?

Before starting to train a behaviour, it is necessary to introduce your rabbits to the marker of your choice (hence forth called the clicker). This should be done in a quiet place where you are not likely to be disturbed.

Have your clicker and a good supply of the rabbit’s treats, remember small pieces!! J. Sound your clicker and after a very brief pause (the time it takes for you to say the word ‘treat’ silently to yourself) offer a small piece of the food to your bunny. Wait until it is eaten and repeat the process. Initially there needs to be that small gap between the click and the treat to ensure the rabbits have a chance to hear and notice the clicker. After several repetitions the animal will start to recognise that the sound of the clicker means that a food treat will follow and on hearing the sound will turn towards you expectantly. This indicates that an association has been made between the sound of the clicker and the reward.

Test your rabbits have really understood what the clicker means by waiting until s/he is doing some thing else, e.g. has hopped away, click the clicker and see if the rabbits turn back to you for the treat… do not forget the treat!!

It is important throughout all the rest of the training that if you click, a treat must follow. For the rabbits, the clicker must never lie.

Now you and your rabbits are ready to learn a new behaviour.

Please note, if you have rabbits that are very timid and shows that s/he is scared of the clicker you have used that you will have to find an alternative. Try and make it quieter, muffle the sound by having your hand in a glove, or in your pocket. Whatever you decide you will need to have patience and take as much time as your rabbits need.

Teaching a behaviour

There are three basic techniques that are used in clicker training to teach a behaviour:

A – Capturing     B – Luring     C – Shaping

A – Capturing

This is a passive route that involves close observation of your rabbits to identify any behaviours or small parts of a behaviour that occur on a regular basis. Wait until the rabbits perform one of these behaviours e.g. sitting up on its hind legs and click and treat (C/T) as the behaviour you want occurs. Wait until it happens again and repeat the C/T. Continue to C/T the same behaviour until you can see that it is being offered on a regular basis and more frequently than any others.

B – Luring

This is a more active route and is often used to start a behaviour that may be less likely to occur naturally. A lure is used to guide the rabbits into a position or place which you then C/T. This is repeated a number of times. A lure can be anything that your animal is prepared to follow e.g. a food treat – your hand – a novel object such as a toy – you – a target stick. Sometimes the reward is the lure – as in food. Alternatively, the lure is not a reward in its own right. For example it may be your hand or a target stick and it is the rabbits touching the lure that results in the food being given. The lure is only used as an initial prompt to help your rabbits understand what you want him/her to do, and should be removed as soon as possible. If the lure is continually used to remind your rabbits of the behaviour, s/he will never learn to perform that behaviour when the lure is not present. S/he needs to learn to remember the behaviour that resulted in the food reward and to repeat that behaviour without help from the lure.

C – Shaping

Shaping is the process of teaching a behaviour by means of marking and rewarding a succession of behaviours, each of which moves you closer to the final desired behaviour you are teaching. Any behaviour that you wish to teach is broken down into a series of smaller parts.

The art of shaping lies in accurate observation of small movements made by your rabbits and knowing when to move from rewarding one part of a behaviour to rewarding the next stage (raising the criteria). Use only small steps in progressing so that the rabbits stand a good chance of being regularly rewarded. As you see that your rabbits has successfully mastered the criteria that you are currently working at, be prepared to wait while s/he repeats the behaviour but this time do not click/treat until something slightly better (i.e. nearer the target behaviour) is offered. Sometimes this moves along very quickly and sometimes it takes time, however, the longer that you remain on one criteria, the harder it may be to move on. Equally, if you try to increase the behaviour level too quickly your rabbits will become confused. If that happens, go back briefly to an easier stage, and move forward in smaller steps. Be content to take small steps forward, don’t hold out for a quantum leap (although sometimes your rabbits may produce one!)

At this stage, we have not had to say anything to our rabbits. All the training so far is done in silence!

It is a common mistake to talk to your rabbits while training, it just leads to confusion and lack of concentration. Think of yourself, it is much easier to learn in a quiet and peaceful environment.

Having said that, you may want to introduce a word that helps the rabbits learn, a “No Reward Marker” As explained above in shaping, if the rabbits offer a behaviour other than the one expected, initially withholding the C/T is enough to explain to it that that particular behaviour is not what is wanted and will not earn them a treat. The rabbits will learn to offer something else. As the rabbits gains experience, it can be useful to teach it a signal that means the same thing. You could say “too bad”; “try again”; “oops” for example. This is not a reprimand and should always be said in a pleasant quiet voice. It means for the rabbits “please try something different”. A bit like using ‘Hot’ and ‘Cold’ in the children’s find it game.

I am sure you have noticed, I have not said anything yet about a cue (inappropriately called ‘command’) for the behaviour you are teaching. You may be asking, how will the rabbits know what the cue word will be for the behaviour?

Well, before we get to that… how do you choose a cue word, and how do you say it?

Naming a Behaviour

Cues should be words that are easily identified by your animal. That is words that are not used by humans all the time in general conversation. Each behaviour you teach should have a distinct cue. Humans are not very good at this, and wonder why their animals seem to be ‘disobedient’ when actually they may simply be confused. Think of the dog who has been taught sit means ‘put your bottom on the ground’ and down means ‘lie with your belly touching the floor’. The owner then asks the dog to ‘Sit down”…. The poor dog is confused because the owner is not clearly communicating! Cues should be spoken quietly. Your rabbit’s, and dog’s, hearing is very acute – there is no need to raise your voice when the animal is right beside you. SHOUTING ENGLISH LOUDER will not help if the rabbits do not understand what the cue means! And will probably mean your rabbits will be frightened, run away and not want to train with you anymore!!

The cue should be given clearly and confidently.

The cue should sound the same each time it is given. Avoid sounding emotional or threatening if the rabbits do not respond immediately.

Through clear training, you should only need to give the cue once for your rabbits to response.

Are the rabbits ready to learn the cue?

A common mistake is to add the word too early in the training. That is before your rabbits really understands which behaviour you want. Adding the cue before the behaviour is well established will cause confusion to your rabbits. SO are YOU sure your RABBITS KNOW the RIGHT BEHAVIOUR, have YOU TAUGHT IT COMPLETELY.

Before we name a behaviour, the rabbits should be offering the behaviour you wanted to teach freely and confidently 95% of the time. If so, then you are ready to consider teaching the cue. Before using a cue out loud, ask yourself if the rabbits are going to offer the behaviour within 3 seconds. Try saying the cue silently to yourself on 10 of your rabbit’s repetitions of the behaviour. Did you accurately predict the moment when that behaviour was going to occur? If you are correct at least 9 times out of 10, then you can consider adding the cue out loud.

Please note that at this moment, you are not testing the rabbit’s ability to recognise or respond to the cue. Instead, you are timing the cue to come just before your rabbits offer the behaviour, in order that s/he makes the right association between the cue and the behaviour.

Teaching the rabbits the cue word

Say the cue just before the rabbits offer the behaviour and C/T immediately the animal responds. This will need to be repeated 40 – 60 times in a variety of different situations, such as different parts of the room, before the rabbits reliably associates the cue with the behaviour.

To make it really clear for the rabbits what the cue is we now put the behaviour under cue control. That is the behaviour is only rewarded if the cue is given. If your rabbits do the behaviour, but you have not asked for it (you did not say the cue) then DO NOT C/T. Only reward the behaviour if you have asked for it by name and if the response is satisfactory i.e. the behaviour is offered immediately, after one repetition of the cue.

Cue control also means that the rabbits can pick out the correct behaviour when the cue is used even when it is included in a sequence of other cues, all of which are known to the animal.

Lengthening and Strengthening

Once a behaviour has been learnt and is on cue, there are a number of techniques that can be used to develop the behaviour, giving it strength and reliability:

Lengthening a Behaviour

With many behaviours, the first priority is to teach an immediate response which is immediately rewarded with C/T. However, you may wish to teach your rabbits to continue with the same behaviour for longer, to extend the length of time that the behaviour is maintained, for example to sit up and to remain sitting up. To achieve this, do not click the initial offering of the behaviour. Delay the click for a second or two while the rabbits remains in position, then click to release your clever rabbits for his/her treat. By gradually increasing the length of time that you delay the click you can teach your rabbits to stay sitting up.

Rewarding The Best Examples

When your rabbits know the cue word and performs the behaviour, you can start to reward for excellence. Out of every 10 times your rabbits respond to the cue word, two will not be very good, five will be acceptable and three will be outstanding. Start to be more discriminating about which efforts you decide to reward. Only reward the behaviours which are acceptable or better. Ignore the rest.

To improve the standard of the behaviour, look at which aspects of it you need to tackle (the fastest, the longest or the straightest) and work through each aspect in turn e.g. you may choose to start with the speed at which the behaviour is offered, before continuing with the length of time that the behaviour can be maintained. Only work on one aspect at a time. For example, don’t confuse the rabbits by trying to improve both the speed and the length of the behaviour at the same time.

Variable Reinforcement

This technique is used to strengthen behaviour. Asking for more effort can be achieved either by reinforcing excellence as described above or by deciding to reinforce only every other time the behaviour is offered, or every third or fourth time. In an effort to persuade you to reward him, the rabbits will often repeat the behaviour harder and faster each time.

The Clicker is Not Magic and is Not Forever.

The clicker is a tool to help you teach your rabbits a new behaviour. Once the rabbits have learnt the behaviour and the cue word, the clicker can be dropped, but do not forget to reward your rabbits, with treats or a stroke.

However, if a behaviour begins to deteriorate, for example you have not done much practice with that behaviour for a while, or if you want to teach a new behaviour, bring out the clicker again. It is a training aid that your rabbits will learn to love and he will never lose that original association.

Teaching a Behaviour Can Be Fun and Useful

Do you have a problem getting your rabbits in a basket, or in his hutch? Well, we now give you one way of teaching your rabbits to go in happily and on cue.

Teaching your rabbits to go to his carry basket (or hutch or other safe place) This suggestion assumes that you already have a rabbits who understands that click means treat.

Planning – There are ways of teaching this behaviour using capturing, luring and shaping. I have decided to start using luring and also to include shaping.

Equipment – Your clicker (or equivalent), food treats. A small dish as a feeding station.

Place your feeding station on the ground in your rabbit’s exercise area with a small number of food treats within it. Place the rabbits within a short distance of the dish. If he looks at the dish click and hand treat. If he makes any movement towards the dish, C/T. If he moves up to the dish click just prior to him reaching the food.

Repeat the same process but with the rabbits a little further away. Gradually increase the distance that your rabbits will travel to the bowl. Make the increases in distance very small. Move the bowl about the area so that he can move to it from a variety of directions.

When you are very sure that he understands the behaviour of moving towards his bowl from anywhere, place it just inside his carry basket. Place the rabbits again very close to the basket and bowl and start again shaping to go to the bowl.

When he is going freely into the basket from a distance of about ten feet, consider adding a cue to the behaviour. Use a single sound or word, such as “Basket” or bed, and say it just before you know he is about to move to the bowl in the basket. This will possibly need to be repeated 40 – 60 times over a period of time before the connection between the word and the behaviour is fully known by your rabbits.

You can now fade the use of the bowl (i.e. remove the bowl), but still click and treat each time he goes into the hutch on cue.

Now try asking your rabbits to go to his basket on cue from different places in his exercise area, or even from different places, e.g. different rooms, from further away for example. You are ‘lengthening and strengthening the behaviour’.

Once the behaviour is reliable you can stop using the clicker for this behaviour.

Hopefully you are now interested in teaching your rabbits a range of tricks!! Fun for you both. For further information, see Orr, J and Lewin, T 2005 Getting Started: clicking with your rabbits Karen Pryor Publication

 

Handling

Rabbits need time to get used to their surroundings, so don’t try to pick your new rabbits up for the first few days.

Quick Tip

Not many people know that rabbits can be trained, this is great for their physical and mental stimulation.

 

Safe Handling

Instead, talk to your pets softly and try gentle stroking so you get to know each other. After a while, your rabbits should feel confident and comfortable enough in your company to let themselves be handled. It takes two hands to pick your rabbits up properly, one taking the majority of the weight under the bottom.

Rabbits are happy to be held, but can get jumpy if they don’t feel secure, so keep them close to your body and, especially for the first few times, not too far off the floor, in case they try to jump. It’s good to have a non-slip surface to handle them on, a towel or carpet for example.

Never pick your rabbits up by the ears or the scruff of the neck – it is extremely stressful and can be painful.

Did you know?

Rabbits require regular vaccinations and health checks.

Grooming

Some breeds of rabbits, particularly the long-haired varieties, need brushing daily to remove loose and matted hair.

Quick Tip

A hutch should only be used as a 'bedroom' for your rabbit.

This is important to reduce the risk of hairballs and flystrike. It also keeps your rabbits in good condition, and helps to improve the relationship between you. There are many different combs and brushes available – always ask which ones are suitable for your rabbits.

Be careful to be gentle when brushing long haired rabbits, as their skin can tear very easily if you pull on their fur too hard.

Did you know?

Rabbits have complex digestive systems. Food is passed through their gut and this is how caecotrophs are produced, rabbits then eat the caecotrophs and the food is re-ingested.

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