Choosing a new pet is a very exciting time but you should take care not to make decisions about a new rabbit on impulse!
Pet shops are the traditional places to buy pet rabbits but, unfortunately, they are not always the best places. Rabbits in pet shops are often stressed and, as a result, are susceptible to disease. Also, you will be unlikely to have information about the rabbit’s parents, which is particularly important in breeds that are prone to inherited diseases.
A list of registered rabbit breeders is available from Pet Plan or the British Rabbit Council. For non-pedigree rabbits contact your local animal welfare charity, or look at the advertisement board in your veterinary practice, newspapers and your local post office or newsagents shop.
When choosing a baby rabbit (called a ‘kitten’) try to see it with its mother and littermates as it is easier to judge its temperament in a natural setting. Also ask about the health of the parents as this may alert you to potential problems.
If you get a rabbit which is already carrying a disease, it may never recover full health and the treatment may be expensive.
A healthy rabbit will have clear bright eyes, clean nostrils and ears and a shiny coat. If your rabbit has runny eyes, sneezing or a nasal discharge it probably has a severe respiratory infection. Being able to see the third eyelid (a membrane in the corner of its eyes nearest the nose) or a dull coat are also signs of ill health. Avoid taking on a rabbit with dirty ears which may be infected with bacteria or ear mites or an animal which is thin.
If you are in any doubt, ask to have the rabbit examined by your vet before agreeing to take it on. In any case make an appointment for any new rabbit to be examined by your vet on the second or third day in your care. Your vet will check that your rabbit is healthy, and give you advice on feeding your rabbit, vaccination and neutering.
Before taking a rabbit home find out about the type of care it was getting. Baby rabbits can leave their mothers from about eight weeks of age. Ask if it has received any vaccinations, if so, you should be given a vaccination record signed by a vet (with details of the rabbit’s identity). You also need to know what sort of food it has been eating. Feed the same food for a few days and reintroduce new foods very gradually over a period of at least 2 weeks (if you need to) so that your rabbit’s digestive system does not get too much of a shock.
Have all the necessary equipment ready before bringing a new rabbit home. You should have the following: a carrying box, food and water bowls, food (including rabbit mix, fresh vegetables and hay), a grooming brush and comb, nail clippers, rabbit toys, and a secure enclosed run. If your rabbit is going to live outside it will need an outdoor hutch with sawdust and straw bedding. If it is going to live inside it will need an indoor cage and a litter tray with rabbit litter.
The first days away from its mother and littermates are understandably stressful for most rabbits. Outdoor rabbits should be confined to their hutch for the first 2-3 days before allowing them out in the run. Indoor rabbits should be kept in their cage in a quiet room for the first few days. If there are young children in the house they must not become overexcited or treat the rabbit like a toy.
Once its first course of vaccinations are completed your rabbit will need two annual booster vaccinations. Regular daily grooming for long-haired rabbits is recommended to keep their coat in good condition and short-haired breeds will also benefit from grooming, particularly when they are moulting. Coat brushing is easier if your rabbit is used to it from an early age.
Rabbits are usually neutered between the ages of four and six months. Some female rabbits can be fertile from the age of four months so make sure you arrange to have your rabbit neutered promptly to avoid adding to the mountain of unwanted baby rabbits that are produced every year.
Register your new pet with your vet as soon as possible and visit the practice to get advice on routine health care and neutering before problems develop.