How to look after your pet rabbit

Rabbits have long been a family pet favourite and a fluffy bunny is many children's first experience of pet ownership. However, a recent survey found that three quarters of the two million pet rabbits in Britain are lacking the proper exercise, diet and stimulation necessary for a healthy, happy life.

Pet rabbits
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If you are considering buying a rabbit as a pet, here are the things you need to know before taking on the responsibility.

A suitable home
It is essential that your pet rabbit has enough space to exercise and a cosy home in which to hide. Your bunny's new home should be big enough that it can stretch out when lying down and stand upright on its back legs.

The hutch should be dry and draught-free, yet well ventilated, and contain a safe hiding place to which the rabbit can retreat. It must be secure at night in order to keep the bunny safe from predators. However, exercise is of the utmost important if your rabbit is to stay healthy and, if there is no run attached to the hutch, you should allow him to exercise regularly in a safe environment, ensuring that there is still an area in which he can be protected from predators and the elements.

Unlike Bugs Bunny, your rabbit can not exist on a diet of carrots - a mix of good quality rabbit pellets, hay and/or grass and leafy greens are essential. The largest part of the diet should be made up of hay or grass and this should be available at all times as it is also important in keeping your pet's teeth worn down.

Any owner should follow the manufacturer's instructions when it comes to pellets or cereal-based food. If the bowl is constantly topped up, the rabbit may not be getting the necessary amount of hay or grass so be careful not to over-feed.

Contrary to popular belief, root vegetables and fruits are not part of the rabbit's natural diet and, as such, should only be fed in small amounts. Too many treats of this kind can cause serious digestive problems and you should never feed your rabbit cut grass.

Fresh, washed leafy greens or weeds such as dandelions are healthy and safe but some plants can be poisonous for your rabbit so if you are in doubt, check with your vet.

Clean, fresh water should always be available.

Rabbits are sociable creatures and much prefer company so if you are considering getting a pet, it is advisable to get two. If brought up together they will usually get on fine (be sure neuter if you rabbits are not for breeding) but take great care if you are introducing a new rabbit to an existing pet as they may fight. Regular handling at a young age will ensure that your rabbit is easy to deal with but children should always be supervised when holding or handling a rabbit as they can very easily become distressed and try to escape or show aggression.

As intelligent and inquisitive animals, rabbits require stimulation or they will become bored. Pet shops now stock plenty of rabbit-friendly toys with which they can play and chew but even something as simple as cardboard tubing will keep them entertained. A sandbox will encourage natural digging behaviour while your rabbit's foraging instincts can be easily brought out by hiding food pellets or the odd treat amongst his hay.

When buying pet rabbits, do ask questions - find out how they have been bred, fed and whether they have displayed any health or behaviour problems. Once your rabbits have settled in, check them daily for signs of trouble - teeth and nails should be checked to ensure they are not overgrown, eating and drinking habits monitored (any changes may signal a problem) while urine stains or droppings stuck to the bottom and tail area could encourage flies, leading to the very unpleasant and often fatal "flystrike".

Ideally, your rabbit should be checked by a vet once a year to ensure that they stay in the best of health - with a good diet, plenty of exercise and the right environment, your pet will give you plenty of nose-twitching enjoyment.