Guidelines on Keeping Pet Rabbits

The following guidelines were developed by the Victorian Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, and have been approved by the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security.
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Introduction
Owning a rabbit requires a long term commitment financially and in terms of responsibility. The law requires that the needs of the rabbit must be met and all reasonable steps must be taken to ensure this.

A rabbit should have a suitable environment to provide:

- Protection against climate extremes
- An appropriate diet and water
- Protection from pain and suffering
- Freedom of movement

It is important to monitor any changes of behaviour which may indicate that the rabbit is distressed, ill or not coping with its environment (i.e. its needs are not being sufficiently met). Rabbits require an adult (18 years or older) as primary carer. It should be recognized that rabbits are not suitable pets for children under 8 years of age. For children 8 years and older, an adult should be the primary carer of the rabbits.

It is the owner's responsibility to read these guidelines and ensure that all requirements are met.

Environment
A rabbit's environment refers to any area the rabbit has access to, including where it eats, sleeps, exercises and excretes.

The environment should be sufficient to allow the rabbit to do all of the following:

- Rest/sleep
- Eat/drink
- Exercise and explore
- Interact with companions
- Play
- Chew
- Scent mark

Look out for danger and companions.
The environment should provide rabbits at all times with protection from predators (cats, dogs, foxes, birds of prey, etc.), extremes of temperature both indoors and outdoors and shelter from rain, wind and sun.

Rabbits should have access to appropriate hiding places at all times. There should be enough hiding places in the enclosure to allow all animals to hide at any given time. An appropriate hiding place should provide:

A suitable size for the rabbit
More than one entrance
Construction from non-toxic materials and contain no sharp edges.
Suitable hiding places include wooden boxes, paper sacks, drain pipes and shelves. Hiding places should provide suitable bedding such as hay, straw, untreated wood shavings or shredded paper.

Living area/housing
Indoors

Living areas should be in a cool room out of direct sunlight and be protected from draughts, loud noises and direct access to radiators. It is recommended that the area consist of two compartments, one involving a dark sheltered area for sleeping and another for eating, drinking, excreting and exploring. Living areas should be a secure area in which rabbits can be confined when unsupervised. The living area can be considered as a sleeping area which is housed within a larger enclosure or a run provided to allow for adequate space.
The living areas should be at least large enough for a rabbit to

  • Lie down and stretch out in all directions
  • Stand upright (without erect ears touching the top).Cages should be
    no less than 45cm high for rabbits
  • over 12 weeks of age.
  • Move around, to feed and to drink.
  • Take at least 3 hops in either direction from one end to the other.

Space allowance recommendations:

Space allowances should be adjusted relative to the size of the rabbit, i.e., larger rabbits require more space than smaller rabbits (Refer to Table 1 for recommendations on floor space allowance).

Flooring should be constructed and maintained to minimize injury or distress to rabbits. Material should ideally be a solid non-absorbent board and cover no less than 0.1m2 of the total floor space (or 1/3 of the total floor area in each cage). A plastic base or equivalent that is easy to clean and disinfect is recommended. Wooden or absorbent surfaces are not recommended. Flooring should be cleaned and disinfected regularly. Any wire mesh flooring should be woven or flat (this is preferable since it is easier to clean) although this is not considered ideal flooring.

Bedding should be clean and dry. Recommended bedding materials include newspaper or towels. A hay tray should be provided containing good quality hay that is changed daily. Does require a nesting area or nest box. Suitable nesting materials include hay, straw, untreated wood shavings and shredded paper.

Electrical switching should be of a non-sparking safety design or installed outside the animal holding area.

Outdoors

Rabbits should be provided with protection from predators at all times.

When housed outdoors, a large hutch safe from predators (e.g., cats, dogs, foxes, etc.) is recommended. This should be insect (mosquito) proof and protect rabbits from extreme weather. The hutch itself should be positioned such that it is also protected from weather (e.g., on a verandah) and in addition to being waterproof, sturdy and easy to clean, the hutch should be raised off the ground.

A metal hutch or shed is not recommended as overheating may occur and rabbits are prone to heat stress. It is recommended that the hutch be brought into a shed during the winter months in cold climates. The space allowance for housing rabbits outdoors is the same as for housing indoors.

Exercise
Rabbits require opportunity for daily exercise for a minimum of 4 hours per day. Exercise for rabbits consists of hopping, running, jumping on and off raised areas and doing 'binkies' (jumping into the air and twisting its head and body in opposite directions). Rabbit runs should be as large as possible to encourage the rabbits to perform the full repertoire of exercise behaviours. Runs should provide:

appropriate platforms
tunnels and hidey holes
outside access to grassy areas
enough area to provide sheltered areas for all animals to use and allow them to choose to be in contact or be alone.
Rabbits should be supervised at all times when exercising or exploring outdoors outside of the confinement of a rabbit run. Outdoor exercise areas should be rabbit-proofed to prevent escape.

Temperature and ventilation
RabbitRabbits should be provided with protection from extreme temperature and bad weather in all environments (including living areas and outdoor runs).

The recommended temperature range is 10°C – 25°C. Outdoor hutches should be covered with a blanket or carpet on cold nights (taking care not to block ventilation). Indoor living areas should be in a cool non-drafty room out of direct sunlight and enclosed buildings should be adequately ventilated.

Hygiene
It is the responsibility of the owner to ensure that the rabbit's environment remains clean and hygienic. Only good quality pet friendly disinfectants should be used in cleaning and this should be thoroughly rinsed off and dried before the rabbit is returned.

It is recommended that the living area should be cleaned daily, or no less than once per week and as often as necessary to ensure a clean healthy environment for the rabbit.

Cleaning should ensure:

Removal/replacement of wet and dirty bedding
Removal of uneaten fresh foods
Cleaning of water and food containers
The toilet area should be cleaned daily. Good quality hay is recommended in the toilet area and this can be provided in a litter tray to help with containment and cleaning. One hay tray per rabbit is recommended.

Run areas should be rotated regularly, or cleaned regularly.

Protection from hazards
Protection from predators and harassment by other animals should be provided. Living areas and runs should be maintained such that they are free of feral rabbits and rodents which may carry disease or cause stress to confined rabbits. Insect proofing is recommended to further protect against contraction of disease (e.g., myxomatosis). Care should be taken when using herbicides, pesticides or cleaning products. Always read the packaging prior to use in the rabbits environment. Household cleaning materials, medicines or other products not intended for use on or consumption by rabbits should be kept out of reach.

Electrical cabling should be kept out of reach or protected with rabbit proof casing, to deter the rabbit from chewing through them.

Rabbits should not be allowed access to flower beds or other areas where they may have access to poisonous plants. Veterinary advice should be sought immediately it is suspected that the rabbit has come into contact with anything that could harm it.

Transport
Rabbits should be restrained in a secure pet carrier/transport container when transporting by car or other vehicle. The pet carrier/transport container should:

Be of adequate size to allow the rabbit/s to turn around and lie down.
Have good ventilation
Allow rabbits to be put in and taken out without causing injury
During transport rabbits should be protected from wind, rain and extreme temperatures. The carrier should not be placed in direct sunlight, next to the car heater or in the boot of the car. Pet carriers/ transport containers should be secured inside the vehicle by either strapping them in place with a seat belt or wedging them in the foot well.

Rabbits should not be transported for more than 24 hours without provision of food and water. During long trips food and water should be offered regularly to the rabbit inside the pet carrier/transport container and only be offered once the vehicle has come to a complete stop.

Rabbits should not be left unattended in a car or other vehicle during warm weather when there is a possibility of heat stress occurring or during extreme cold. This is potentially life threatening and failure may be prosecutable under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986.

Owner Absent
It is the responsibility of the owner to ensure that their rabbit is cared for while they are away. When using a pet-sitter/carer, the owner should make sure that the carer has all necessary facilities to meet the rabbit's needs (including a suitable hutch or living area and run if they are caring for the rabbit at a different location to the rabbit's familiar home). The carer should be 18 years old or older and provided with all the information they require to understand the rabbit's needs, including these guidelines and recommendations on keeping pet rabbits. In the absence of the owner, the appointed carer is legally responsible for the welfare of the rabbit.

Boarding facilities where the rabbit can be monitored and cared for by an experienced rabbit caretaker is recommended.

Nutrition
Diet
Rabbits should be fed a balanced healthy diet at least once daily, with food such as good quality fresh hay always available. Uneaten food from the previous meal should be considered before offering more food. Any mouldy or contaminated food should be removed immediately.

Rabbits are herbivores. It is the owner's responsibility to ensure that the rabbit is fed an appropriate high fibre diet. The fibre helps to wear down their teeth and promotes healthy gut function. High fibre diets provide environmental enrichment. Inappropriate diets can cause obesity, teeth and gut problems in rabbits. The components of an appropriate high fibre diet include:

90% good quality hay (oaten or grass hay) or dried or fresh grass plucked from the ground (avoid lawn clippings, clover and grass which is dirty that may have been treated with pesticides or be contaminated with faeces)
10% green plants (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, parsley, watercress, celery leaves and kale) and wild plants (e.g. chickweed, bramble, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry leaves and dandelion). Twigs from safe trees (e.g. apple, pear) that have not been treated with pesticides may also be provided for the rabbit to chew on.
Small quantities of specialized rabbit food (pellets or nuggets) should be limited to 1 tablespoon per rabbit per day. Over-consumption of these foods may result in obesity. Be careful when feeding muesli type mixtures as rabbits are selective feeders and tend to pick out the tastier ingredients leading to a dietary imbalance.
Fruit may be fed but only occasionally due to the high sugar content
All green foods should be washed and dried prior to feeding. As many plants may be poisonous to rabbits, only those plants for which the identity is known and which have been confirmed as non-toxic to rabbits should be fed.

Hay should be readily available to the rabbit during both day and night.

Rabbits should not be fed too many specialist rabbit treats. Sugary treats should be avoided as they are harmful to a rabbit's teeth. Changes in the rabbit's eating habits should be monitored closely as it may be a sign of illness. Rabbits may have other dietary needs when pregnant or recovering from an illness. It is important that advice from veterinarians or qualified pet care specialists is sought.

When feeding more than one rabbit, food containers should be of sufficient size/number that all rabbits can comfortably feed at the same time.

A rabbit has a specialized digestive system and produces a grape-like faeces called cecotrophes which it re-digests to receive even more nutrients.

Any changes to the diet must be introduced gradually over 2-4 weeks, particularly when weaning or introducing green plants.

Weight

Rabbits that are over or under weight may suffer resulting health problems. Potential problems include:

Painful joints and feet
Decreased ability and willingness to exercise
Heat stress
Dietary deficiencies through the inability to re-ingest cecotrophes (soft pellet like faeces that it consumes directly from the anus)
Fly strike
Difficulty grooming
A rabbit is at an ideal weight when the ribs can be easily felt. The ribs should feel rounded with a thin layer of padding of soft tissue, not sharp. The lumbar vertebrae and pelvic bones should be easily felt but not prominent. The rabbit's feed should be adjusted such that it does not become over or under weight.

Water
Rabbits should have access to clean fresh water at all time. Metal tipped drinking bottles or drinking nipples should be positioned approximately 10cm from the floor (not too high for the rabbit to comfortably reach and not so low that it may be contaminated with urine, faeces or fur) and should not project more than 2.5cm into the hutch or cage of the rabbit. Automated drinkers are recommended and there should be a backup system in place to ensure the rabbits continue to have access to water should the automated system break down.

Feeding bottles or drinkers should be cleaned regularly and checked for leaks or air blocks. Water may also be provided in a water bowl, although this is not as hygienic as a bottle. Care should be taken to clean the water bowl regularly. A rabbit may refuse to drink if the water is presented in an unfamiliar way, which may lead to dehydration.

It is important in cold weather to ensure that the water has not frozen.

Behaviour
RabbitsRabbits are prey animals and are easily frightened. Fear is a survival mechanism, induced by a perceived threat, which enables the animal to avoid dangerous situations. However, if put in situations where they are constantly fearful the rabbit will become stressed which in turn affects both health and welfare.

Socialization and early experiences
Early experiences can have a large influence on the behavior of the rabbit. While some rabbits are naturally more confident than others, experience with people and rabbits (socialization) is essential during the first few weeks of life. Rabbits that have not had experience with people may find it difficult to cope and adapt to their environment as an adult. This can often lead to fear-related aggression towards people (including their owner) making it difficult to handle the rabbit and provide appropriate care.

It is the breeder's responsibility to ensure that the rabbit is well socialized at an early age and able to cope with most new situations and people confidently as an adult. Socialization involves introducing the rabbit appropriately to different people and important experiences for behavioural development include experiences with objects and sounds in a safe environment. The rabbit should not be forced to interact and should always be provided with a safe hiding place to which it can escape.

Rabbits instinctively fear other animals like dogs, cats and birds. Rabbits that are likely to come into contact with these species should be introduced gradually and always provided with the opportunity to avoid the interaction. A rabbit should never be left alone with a cat or a dog, even if familiar with them.

When bringing a rabbit home it should be introduced gradually to its new environment and to being handled.

Stress
It is important that the owner recognizes any changes in the rabbit's behavior or signs of stress. Relaxed and content rabbits will have a normal appetite, sit or lay outstretched and be content to approach or interact with people and familiar objects and other animals. In fearful situations a rabbit will seek quiet and hidden locations. This is normal behavior, but may be a cause for concern if it happens frequently.
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Situations which may cause stress to rabbits include:

Novelty (new environments, transport, strangers)
Sudden or loud noises
Inability to express natural behaviours (adequate exercise, lack of companionship or environmental enrichment, escape stressful events)
Pain, discomfort or illness
Boredom
Insufficient space
No access to food or water
Social stress through lack/loss of companionship or too many individuals in a confined space
Insufficient temperature control and/or ventilation.
Signs of stress in rabbits include:

Nervous behavior (flattened ears, hunched posture, freezing, agitated and jumpy)
Aggression towards people or other animals
Aggression when handled
Listless behaviour, lethargy and lack of interest in surroundings, food, etc.
Escape behaviour and hiding (excessively)
Rapid breathing or heavy breathing
Over grooming or not grooming
Changes in feeding or eliminative (toileting) behaviour
Stereotypical behaviour (repetitive purposeless movements e.g. biting pen fittings, biting the water bottle, circling or head bobbing).
Should any of these signs be detected the owner should seek veterinary advice promptly.

The owner should take all reasonable steps to ensure that their rabbit is protected from being stressed. For example, the owner should provide the rabbit with:

secure hiding places
environmental enrichment (e.g. boxes to climb on, PVC pipe tunnels, piles of newspaper, etc.)
suitable materials to enable the rabbit to dig, and scent mark its territory (with chin secretions, urine and droppings)
Companionship
As rabbits are social animals, it is recommended that they be kept with an appropriate companion (e.g., a neutered rabbit of a similar size). Rabbits that are socially isolated may become frustrated and display stress behaviours.

When keeping rabbits together it is recommended to:

Select neutered companions of similar size
If keeping rabbits of different sizes together, provide hiding places in which the smaller rabbit can avoid the attentions of the larger rabbit.
Ensure the size of the accommodation is sufficient for the number of rabbits
Carefully consider the gender of the rabbits. Same sex companions may fight even if desexed.
Avoid mixing established groups of unfamiliar rabbits
Introduce rabbit companions carefully in a safe neutral environment and supervise them to minimize fighting.
If the rabbits have been separated for a period of time, it is important to carefully re-introduce the rabbits.
Seek advice from a pet care specialist on how to introduce the rabbits in a way that minimizes risks of fighting and other welfare concerns.
Rabbits will accept guinea pigs as companions, however this is not recommended as a rabbit can inadvertently cause bodily harm to guinea pigs. Different dietary requirements also make the guinea pig a less ideal companion.

Handling
Rabbits instinctively do not like being picked up, particularly if not socialized appropriately, as they may associate this with an attack from a prey animal. It is important to handle rabbits gently from a young age to establish trust and a bond. If it is necessary to pick up the rabbit, it is recommended to always use both hands. One hand should support the weight of the rabbit under its rump while the other hand is placed around the chest. A rabbit should never be picked up by the ears or by a single limb, and 'scruffing' (holding by loose skin on back of the neck) an adult rabbit is not recommended.

Health
Rabbits are prone to a number of health problems, and are physiologically very fragile succumbing quickly to illness and disease. Regular veterinary health checks are essential for early detection of health problems and prevention of disease through vaccinations and administration of internal/external parasite control.

Important considerations for rabbit health and welfare:

Use only medications that have been specifically prescribed or recommended by a veterinarian. Some medicines developed for humans or other animals may be harmful to rabbits and should not be used.
Vaccinations against the disease Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) are recommended and should be administered by a veterinarian.
Unfortunately the vaccination against Myxomatosis is not legally available in Australia.
Rabbits should be prevented from having contact with wild rabbits or areas in which wild rabbits have been.
Rabbits should be provided with a healthy balanced diet
Rabbits should be provided with an environment that minimizes the risk of injury and disease
Rabbits should be checked daily, and prompt action should be taken if the rabbit becomes ill or any change from normal behaviour is noticed.
It is the owner's responsibility to be aware of the signs that indicate a rabbit is unwell. A veterinarian should be consulted should the rabbit show any of these signs of illness or changes in behaviour. Signs of illness include:

Changes in behaviour include:
hunched posture
inactive
lethargic
changes in eating/drinking habits (i.e. lack of appetite, excessive drinking)
Injury (e.g. swollen limbs, lameness or abnormal gait, open wounds)
Discharge from eyes, ears or nose.
Difficulty eliminating (defaecation and urination) going to the toilet or diarrhoea
Difficulty breathing (e.g. panting)
Grinding teeth
Redness on skin (particularly around the belly, bottom or underside of feet)
Signs of pain (flinching, not wanting to be touched).
Routine health checks should be conducted to detect signs of ill health. The rabbit should be examined daily to:

 - Detect changes in behaviour (eating and drinking etc)
 - Check the feet for bald patches and sores
 - Check the fur for parasites, dandruff, bald patches, sores, scaly patches and wounds.
 - Check the eyes and nose for abnormal discharges
 - Check the ears for excessive wax deposits
 - Check for abnormal faeces (e.g. diarrhoea).

Routine weekly checks should be conducted to:

Check the nails for excessive length or damage
Check the teeth for appropriate length/shape
Check the mouth for drooling or staining on their chest
Check weight. Loss of weight may indicate dental or other health problems, obesity can also cause health problems
Rabbits should be checked twice daily during warm weather for faeces underneath and around their rear end to prevent fly strike. Fly strike occurs when fly larvae or maggots infest the tissue. Flies lay their eggs in the rabbit's dirty fur and the hatched maggots burrow under the fur coat and into the skin. This condition may cause shock, severe illness and death if left untreated. Veterinarian advice should be sought immediately if maggots are detected on the rabbit.

Grooming
Many rabbits constantly moult (shed fur) and should be groomed regularly. Short haired rabbits should be groomed weekly to prevent ingestion of hair. Long haired rabbits should be groomed daily to prevent matting. If necessary, a long haired rabbit may also be clipped by a veterinarian or pet care specialist.

Rabbit nails continuously grow and are worn down naturally by exercise and digging. A rabbit's nails should be checked regularly and trimmed to an appropriate length taking care not to damage the sensitive tissue surround the nails. How often the nails need to be trimmed depends on the environment in which the rabbit is kept.

Dental care
A rabbit's teeth grow continuously throughout its life and are typically worn down by a diet high in roughage (e.g., hay and grasses). Access to hard, chewable items may also help to wear down the teeth and prevent overgrowing incisors. A rabbit's teeth should be checked regularly. Dental problems caused by overgrown or misaligned teeth can affect the rabbit's ability to eat and may also be painful. Poor appetite and drooling are often signs of dental problems, and veterinary advice should be sought promptly. Overgrown or misaligned teeth should be corrected by a veterinarian.

Breeding and Reproduction
When breeding rabbits, it is the responsibility of the owner to ensure that the welfare needs of both the parents and the offspring are met. Suitable homes should be secured for all the offspring arising from a pregnancy, planned or otherwise. A veterinarian should be consulted regularly prior to, during and after the pregnancy.

Female rabbits reach sexual maturity at 4 months of age. They can produce 4-12 kittens per litter and have up to 6 litters per year. If it is not intended to use a male or female rabbit for responsible breeding purposes, then they should be desexed by a veterinarian. Female rabbits can be desexed from 4 months of age and male rabbits may be desexed from as early as 3 months.

Desexing rabbits has positive health and welfare benefits aside from simply preventing them from breeding. The benefits of desexing include:

Reduced problematic behaviour such as aggression, nesting, spraying and mounting behaviour.
Prevention of the development of womb infections or cancer
Allowing companionship without unwanted pregnancies.
Identification
Permanent identification (such as with a microchip) is recommended as a precaution should the rabbit escape. The microchip should be implanted by a suitably qualified person and registered with the local council and pound to ensure that the chip is effective in locating the owner's contact details.

Euthanasia
Rabbits must be euthanased humanely by a veterinarian or a person who is appropriately trained in humane euthanasia.

Rabbits and kittens should not be poisoned, drowned or gassed. The recommended method of euthanasia is a lethal injection administered by a veterinarian, however when performed by a trained and competent person, cervical dislocation is also an acceptable method.

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