Last updated 4 May 2000: added paragraph on new communal hutch for rabbits
Rabbits belong to the mammalian Order Lagomorpha, an order that includes hares and pikas. Once they were classified as rodents, owing to their gnawing incisors in the front of their mouths that grow continually throughout their lives. However, they were reclassified as a result of a study of the many differences between them and the rodents: for a fuller explanation click here. Lagomorphs are important creatures, since they are abundant and fertile and provide food for many predators (eg foxes in the UK, large snakes in other regions). Rabbits were originally not indigenous to the British Isles, but were brought over by the Romans as a food source. It did not take long for the escaped few to become a vast multitude that were useful to the countryman as an additional source of food but later a burden to the farmer as a destructive pest. In the 1950s rabbits caused annually millions of pounds' worth of damage, a sum that in today's terms might be nearer half or even one billion. Myxamatosis subsequently ravaged the rabbit population in this and other countries, but it has since stabilised.
Rabbits are one of the most common pets in the UK, ranked along with fish, cats and dogs as the nation's top favourites. They are also tagged as a children's pet, although this is not wholly true: rabbits can be snappy and ready to bite, and to ask a child to take full responsibility for the regular feeding, watering and particularly cleaning of a rabbit is expecting rather a lot. There are also several different breeds of rabbit, whose suitability varies according to breed. It may strike people as surprising, but in fact the popular rabbit often suffers in captivity, sometimes as much as any reptile. All too often the young child loses its initial interest in the rabbit, and then it falls to the parents to do the daily chores. This often results in a lonely rabbit in a confining hutch, sitting in its own mess because it doesn't get regularly cleaned out. Again, a change in personal circumstances, particularly if you have other pets (not to mention children!) can result in insufficient time being available, or the rabbit coming lower on the list of priorities.
Rabbits in fact are social animals, as can be seen on an evening near a rabbit hole, when several sit together or bound about in the twilight. They normally have a social structure based around the burrow and the dominant buck, but they are not always antipathetic towards one another and indeed will often groom one another - something else that a solitary rabbit may miss. Again, although they take shelter in burrows, they do like to run about in the open, whereas captive rabbits are all too often kept cramped in their hutches for days on end.
Rabbit food and water are fairly easy to provide, and reasonable hutches can be purchased from most pet shops. The requirements that most owners seem to miss are the need for exercise and companionability. A good way around this is to obtain a pair of rabbits: two females (does) are usually a good bet, but males need not necessarily be ruled out. Of course, if a mixed pair is obtained, then unless you really want to breed rabbits, neutering or splaying should be undertaken. This makes rabbits (male and female) somewhat less aggressive. Unlike reptiles, which take persuasion and certain times of the year to breed, rabbits live up to their reputation for sexual frenzy, and an unneutered male will jump on any doe he can find. In fact even females will mount other females, as well as any companion guinea pigs, something that should be taken into consideration if you plan on having your pets share a hutch or cage. The need for exercise can be met by having a large enclosure, one that can be covered if necessary if your rabbits constantly try to escape. A friend of mine has kept rabbits successfully for many years and lets them run in his garden often, even outside the enclosure provided that they are supervised. This meets the demands of sociability and exercise, and they seem pretty healthy and contented as a result. I should mention however that some years ago he did have problems with the buck escaping, and ended up at one point with eighteen young rabbits before some went to the pet shop and others were taken by foxes. This last point brings me to the reason for hutches, ie the security of the rabbit. Apart from the fact that you don't want your pet escaping (and possibly devouring your neighbour's favourite plants or gnawing their apple tree), rabbits are prime victims of the huge population of urban foxes in this country. Make sure your hutch is secure. To make doubly sure we actually put padlocks on our old hutch doors so that the fox could not work the doors open.
Recently my wife and I decided that the two rabbits we had left after rehoming, the original pair that I bought her one Christmas, were not happy. They were living on their own in hutches which were now rather small even for Netherland dwarves and which my wife found hard to clean out. We therefore decided to shell out some money on a large two-storey hutch with a ramp connecting both floors and a closed off sleeping compartment. The additional cost, of course, was that of having Frey the buck neutered. This sounds harsh but it was actually fairly uncomplicated, although we had to keep them apart for a month afterwards until any possible remaining sperm had cleared out of his system. I should add that the operation didn't detract much from his sex drive, since when we first put them in together for the first time for probably two years he chased Iduma the doe and proceeded to mount her at least four times in ten minutes. Like humans the sex drive seems to calm down after the initial novelty, however, for in recent days I have not observed the usual mating frenzy. What we have noticed is that the two rabbits seem much more active, running up and down in the hutch and also, significantly, sitting together and grooming each other. In short the larger hutch seems to have reinforced their natural behaviour in a positive manner.
The hardest part of keeping rabbits is the constant cleaning that is required of their hutch, ideally once a week. Rabbits, being herbivorous, do produce a lot of faeces, usually in the form of pellets which they then consume to redigest. If not cleaned out then the combination of straw, faeces and uneaten food becomes a magnet for maggots and mice (to my shame I speak from first-hand experience here). Apart from being unpleasant for the rabbit, this also constitutes a nuisance to the neighbourhood and potentially a health hazard. Cleaning out once a week is quicker in the long run than spending hours trying to scrape out layers of encrusted muck. You may find that putting a layer of newspaper down first before the straw makes cleaning easier, as you can then simply pull out the paper with all the old mess on top of it.
A fairly recent development is that of the house rabbit, a rabbit which has the run of the house a bit like a dog or cat. My understanding is that not all breeds are suited to this, but at least some are and apparently adapt quite well to using a litter tray - not surprising, when you consider that they have to go back to redigest their pellets. The biggest danger with such a rabbit is that it may show a decided propensity for gnawing, in which case you may suffer damage to your furniture and skirting boards, or worse, that the rabbit may gnaw through a power cable with dire consequences for itself and maybe others. For that reason it is better to do a certain amount of research into the most appropriate breeds before selecting a rabbit to be a domestic pet.
Are they really children's pets? I would give a qualifed yes, provided a couple of things are taken into account. Firstly if you want a real child's rabbit, then select a breed such as the Netherlands Dwarf which will not grow too big and heavy. Secondly, seriously consider splaying or neutering as this reduces the tendency for rabbit aggression. Finally, if you want to handle the rabbit a lot, the claws should be kept trimmed as these can be sharp enough to cause cuts and scratches, particularly if the rabbit scrambles against you when you try to pick it up.
In sum, rabbits are more work and less easy than most people think, but I know at least two families who have kept a pair or more successfully and are still delighted with them. Below I have provided links to rabbit-orientated sites written by more knowledgeable keepers which it will be probably be worth your while checking out.
Critter Collection's Guide to Rabbits - recommended as it also includes a page on the many different breeds available.
Pet Centre - this business gives a fairly concise guide to rabbit requirements.
House Rabbit Society - guide to house rabbits, plus many links to other sites.
For children and teenagers:
Children's Stomping Ground - younger person's guide to rabbits.