Choosing Your Pet Rabbit


Many things go into your selection of a pet rabbit — where to obtain it;
the kind of pets already in your home; your personal preferences with respect to
breed, size, color, age, and health; and personality. In all that follows, it is
assumed that the rabbit is to be an altered, litter-trained, house pet – the
only way a rabbit can really be a pet at all. 

Where to Get Your Pet
One of the best places to get a pet rabbit is from the House Rabbit Resource Network (512-444-3277).

This organization rescues rabbits from
shelters when their time is up, in many cases spays or neuters them, litterbox
trains them, socializes them, and works with adoptive families to guarantee the
success of the adoption. The House Rabbit Resource Network (HRRN) provides
assistance and care information for the life of the rabbit. A second possibility
is from a shelter. The following shelters in the Austin area often have rabbits
available for adoption: Austin Animal Center (City of Austin) and the Humane
Society of Williamson County. Check your phone book for numbers and

Why are rescued rabbits better choices than those available from
pet stores? One simple reason is the environment provided by the House Rabbit
Resource Network is second only to a good home. HRRN rabbits are placed only
after they have proven themselves well-adapted. Most foster rabbits have
survived stresses prior to their rescue that would have killed rabbits with
weaker constitutions. Also, shelters are able to provide a healthier (though not
necessarily a less stressful) environment for rabbits than pet stores are able
to do.

Be extremely wary of purchasing rabbits from pet stores. Many
stores purchase rabbits from breeders who have little concern for the animals
and sell them when they are barely four weeks old. Bunnies in pet stores are
usually subjected to the following stresses: early weaning at four to five
weeks, sudden changes in food pellets and diet, travel (to the store), crowding
in cages, noise, disruption of routine, over-handling, unclean store cages or
worse – aquariums. All of these lead to severe respiratory and intestinal
infections. The result is that they become seriously ill and often die. Most are
never taken for veterinary care. Additionally, many baby bunnies are incorrectly
sexed, which can lead to more than a few surprises for a new owner. Probably one
of the best reasons not to purchase from a pet store is means an unwanted rabbit
will lose its life and a chance to find a loving, adoptive home.

People in the House 
Rabbits are not, in general, good pets for young children (see “Getting a Rabbit for your Child“). They can be seriously hurt if not handled properly. For a
rabbit and a young child to coexist successfully in a home, the adults in the
family should be committed to being the rabbit’s primary caretaker. Care must be
taken to always supervise interactions and to provide a safe haven for the
rabbit – a place the child cannot get to. This is often more of a commitment
than most parents are able to make and keep. For older children, medium to large
sized rabbits are recommended but only if the child is mature enough to be
responsible. Larger rabbits are more capable of taking care of themselves when
they feel insecure. Older children are more capable of handling a rabbit
properly and are better able to understand and respect the needs of a rabbit.

People who are allergic to cats may or may not be allergic to
rabbits. Hay, being part of a rabbit’s diet, may also cause problems for a
family member with allergies. If you have concerns about allergies, you may want
to spend some time in close contact with a rabbit or have your allergist test
you for such an allergy before adopting a bunny. 

Other Pets in the Family
 Rabbits can get along with most cats and some dogs with some
obvious exceptions. If a cat is very large with respect to the rabbit and
especially if the cat is an outside cat with a penchant for hunting birds and
mice, a small rabbit should not be brought into the family. In general, a cat
and rabbit of approximately the same size will get along well, either ignoring
each other or becoming friends. If a dog is aggressive toward small animals, a
rabbit is not a good addition to the family. Additionally, the dog must respond
to and understand basic obedience commands. Kittens and puppies are not good
matches with rabbits due to the large amounts of time and attention required for
all concerned. Also, rambunctious play on the part of the puppy or kitten could
result in an injury to the rabbit (see “Introducing Your Rabbit to Other Pets”). 

Of the many breeds, the inexperienced person should seriously
reflect on the wisdom of getting one of two breeds which have special needs: 

  • English lops have enormously long ears that, because they drag on the
    ground, are prone to being torn, becoming infected, etc.;
  • Angoras, with their beautiful, long-haired coats, require serious daily
    grooming and a caregiver experienced in preventing, detecting, and treating

People often assume that a small rabbit is a good choice for a
child since it will be easier for the child to handle. However, rabbits don’t
like to be handled. They tend to struggle if picked up and should never be
picked up by a young child in any case. This puts both bunny and child in
danger. A large, calm rabbit is a better choice, as long as the adults in the
family carefully supervise all of the child’s interactions with the rabbit. Such
rabbits will sit beside a child for petting. 

The only other consideration with respect to the size of the
rabbit you choose (its adult size) is the size of the cage (the bunny’s home)
that you can provide. A good rule of thumb for rabbits who will spend
significant parts of each day in their cages is that the cage should provide at
least one square foot per pound of rabbit or cages should be at least twice the
length of the rabbit when the rabbit is fully stretched out and at least as wide
and high as the stretched out rabbit is long. For a second bunny, half again as
much space should be available. Additional space can be made available in a tall
cage by adding a shelf across one end of the cage. The less freedom your rabbit
has each day, the larger the cage needs to be. Cages can be expensive so
consider choosing your rabbit before purchasing or building a cage. Short of the
possibility of medical expense, the cage is the largest part of the cost of
keeping a rabbit. Pet stores often sell cages which are inadequate in terms of
size and construction. Before you Buy a Cage talk to a volunteer about purchasing a suitable cage from the HRRN.

Color and Coat 
Color and coat type are definitely a matter of personal
preference. Perhaps the only serious considerations here are to be aware that
albino rabbits cannot tolerate bright light and angoras require constant

People inexperienced with pet rabbits usually assume that baby
bunnies are more easily trained to use the litter box than adults. However, like
puppies or young children, baby bunnies can’t be expected to have good control
of elimination. Even when such control is gained, they may be too busy to be
bothered to return to the litterbox – busy as they are exploring their new

Adult rabbits are typically easy to train. Instinctively, an adult
chooses one or two places for his/her waste, so he/she usually requires a
shorter amount of time to be taught to use a litterbox placed in a chosen spot.
Training is most easily accomplished by letting the rabbit “choose” his or her
spot and place the litterbox in that spot. Keep in mind that you and your pet
may have a difference of opinion about where that should be. A good rule of
thumb to follow when initiating litterbox training is more litterboxes, more
supervision, and less freedom. You will be able to reduce the number of
litterboxes as your rabbit develops the habit of using one. Praise, treats, and
patience are also essential during training. Additionally, spaying/neutering
improves litterbox habits. (see “The Litterbox.”.)

It is a myth that baby bunnies can be held frequently so that, as
adults, they won’t mind being held. To the contrary, they are so full of energy
and curiosity about the world that they often hate being restrained in someone’s

In the first year of life, most rabbits go through some personality changes. The precious bunny that was so cute the first few months
may suddenly become “the bunny from hell” as his or her hormones begin making
themselves felt. A growling, nipping, and apparently angry little beast may seem
to inhabit that soft and furry little body. You and your household may be
subjected to being sprayed or attacked as your bunny experiences the powerful
urges of sexual drive. Even worse, your rabbit may be so unpredictable that you
never know whether to expect warm kisses or painful nips. Litter training may
become a distant memory. Unless you are one of those special people willing to
put up with the turmoil of the first year without losing patience, willing to
replace or repair the damage inflicted on your home, and able to believe that
your bunny’s “worst” behavior is an expression of affection or at least not a
expression of dislike, it may be best to consider an older rabbit who has gone
through adolescence and even better, one who has been spayed or neutered. (See
Rebel with Paws – Rabbit Adolescence“.

Health is an important aspect of choosing a pet rabbit. The level
of stress to which the rabbit has been subjected prior to coming home with you
can mean the difference between starting with a healthy rabbit or one just
succumbing to an often fatal, stress-induced illness.

By nature, rabbits hide their stress and illness so as not to
appear vulnerable to predators. Most people are unable to rely on the appearance
of a rabbit when judging its level of stress unless they have a trained eye. To
determine whether the environment is stressful, ask yourself the following

  • are noise levels relatively quiet and conducive to normal conversation?
  • does the rabbit have a place to hide from all eyes when it chooses to?
  • does the temperature remain fairly constant, without fluctuating extremes?
  • does the rabbit have a place to run and exercise everyday?
  • does the rabbit have company of it’s own kind or other compatible animals
    and/or people?

If the answers to these questions are “yes” the environment is
probably non-stressful to a rabbit eight weeks old or more. Each “no” indicates
a potentially stressful situation for the rabbit. (see “Outdoor and Indoor Hazards to Companion Rabbits “or” Rabbits in the Classroom”.)

There are, of course, rabbits with medical problems who need homes
just as much as healthy ones do. This doesn’t mean that you should feel
obligated to adopt such a rabbit, but you should give some thought as to whether
you might enjoy providing a home for a “special needs” bunny. Whether you choose
to adopt a healthy rabbit or one with special needs, it is extremely important
to have access to a knowledgeable veterinarian experienced in treating rabbits.
Your rabbit’s life depends on it. (see “Vets” for references to
rabbit-knowledgable veterinarians in the Austin, Texas area.)

Probably the most important factor to consider when choosing a
bunny is his/her personality, for personality will determine your relationship
with and the pleasure you derive from your pet. There are no “mean” rabbits,
only rabbits who are reacting in a predictable manner to their environment and
past or present treatment. Nevertheless, there are definite differences in basic
personality and these need to be considered when choosing a rabbit who has the
potential to be with you for the next five to ten years. 

When looking for a rabbit, it’s wise to become familiar with a
variety of them. You can do this by visiting your local shelter or rescue group
such as the House Rabbit Resource Network, which is certain to have many rabbits
in foster care from which to choose. Handle the rabbits and note the differences
in the ways they react to you. Some will cower, others will rush to meet you.
Some may growl but warm up when you stroke their noses with the back of your
hand. Others may sprawl unconcerned while you pet them. By getting acquainted
with different rabbits you will come to appreciate the great variety of their
personalities and be better prepared to determine exactly which personality you
prefer. On the other hand, don’t be surprised if the very first rabbit
captivates your heart. They have a way of doing that.

by Amy Shapiro and Nancy LaRoche, House Rabbit Society

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