Finding the correct cage is one of the most important factors of rabbit ownership. Providing your rabbit with a comfortable living space will help ensure a positive attitude in your rabbit.
Rabbits that are kept indoors need a familiar place that functions similar to a burrow. An indoor cage should be a place to rest and relax. Cages allow the rabbit to be unsupervised. When rabbits are allowed to roam freely around a house, they should be supervised at all times, but caging gives you and your rabbit time to invest in other important activities.
Indoor cages come in many shapes and sizes. The most popular type of indoor cage is one with a high-lipped, solid plastic bottom and a wire top covering. Solid-floored cages work best for owners who wish to train their rabbits to use a litter box. Another common type of cage is made entirely of wire. Generally the openings on the floor wire are smaller than those on the sides, but the floor wire should not have openings larger than one-half inch. With wire-floored cages, a lined slide-out tray is needed to catch waste material. Wooden rabbit hutches may also be kept indoors but are noticeably larger than the previous options. This bigger housing unit can create a problem for families with limited space. Traditional hutches usually have wire bottoms, so a lined slide-out tray is a must. These cages are also relatively expensive, so the first two options are preferred by many indoor rabbit owners.
A rabbit’s cage should allow enough room for it to turn around and take a few hops comfortably. Additionally, when a rabbit stands up on its hind legs, its ears should not touch the top of the cage. If you plan on litter training your rabbit, keep in mind that the litter box will take up a portion of the space available to your rabbit. The minimum recommended size for housing a rabbit is one square foot of space per pound of rabbit. In addition to the litter box (if applicable), you will also need to have room for a water bowl, a food bowl, a nest box, a hay rack, and toys, so it's important to provide the largest cage that your space allows.
Indoor cages can be purchased at a variety of pet stores, online, or from a small-animal product catalog. Many animal companies consider these guidelines when designing rabbit cages, so you will find many cage options.
If rabbits are housed in a cage with a wire floor, they need to be provided with a solid area to sit on. If a rabbit is forced to live on a wire-only surface, pododermatitis is likely to develop. Pododermatitis, also referred to as sore hocks, is a common illness in rabbits. Pododermatitis is a condition where the hind feet near the elbow area or hock of the rabbit begin to show signs of infection. Sore hocks can be prevented by providing a solid surface, such as wood, on one-third of the cage floor. Regular cleaning of a rabbit’s cage will also help prevent pododermatitis.
An important aspect of cage selection is the choice of bedding. As mentioned earlier, bedding will be used to line solid-bottomed cages and the slide-out trays of wire-bottomed cages. Suitable bedding includes any product that is made from paper, cellulose, or aspen. The main goal in choosing a type of bedding is to create a dry, comfortable environment for your rabbit. Shredded paper is a relatively cheap option for rabbit bedding, but it has limited absorbent qualities. On the other hand, pellets provide excellent absorption of moisture but are a more expensive option. Owners should avoid using cedar or pine bedding because the strong odors can present respiratory discomfort for some rabbits.
Food and Water Bowls
The design of food and water bowls greatly varies. For pelleted food, ceramic bowls work best. The weight of the bowl prevents rabbits from tipping over their food. Bowl tipping is a natural behavior that many rabbits exhibit. Ceramic bowls are also relatively easy to clean by hand but can also be placed in the dishwasher. Keep in mind that the bowl should not be too deep. This is especially true for young bunnies and smaller breeds such as dwarfs and lionheads. Pelleted food can also be placed in metal feeders that attach to the sides of the cage. This type of feeder also prevents rabbits from wasting food. Unfortunately, some metal feeders allow owners to provide rabbits more than a day’s portion of pellets. Ad libitum access to pelleted food can cause obesity in rabbits and related health problems. Continuous feeding strategies should only be used at the direction of your veterinarian.
Rabbits should always be supplied with a high-quality grass hay. The fiber in grass hay promotes proper digestion and also gives your rabbit something to nibble on throughout the day. To prevent hay from being dispersed and mixed with bedding, a hayrack is recommended. Rabbit hayracks are metal and can attach to the side of the cage, similar to metal feeders. To prevent a rabbit from getting its head caught while reaching for hay, the openings in the hayrack should be no larger than 1 x 2 inches.
Rabbits should also be provided fresh water at all times. The best way to do this is to use a gravity water bottle. This type of waterer hooks onto the side of a rabbit’s cage and provides a continuous supply of water through a metal tip. By licking the metal tip, rabbits move a metal ball that releases pressure and allows water to flow. When choosing this watering system, owners need to remember to change the water in the bottle regularly. Algae can quickly build up within the bottle and metal tip. This accumulation of algae can restrict proper suction, leading to dripping, and can also prevent water flow when the rabbit attempts to drink.
Round ceramic bowls can also be used to provide water for a rabbit, but often there are a few issues with this method. First, bowls provide only a limited amount of water at a time. If a rabbit were to drink all of its water, the owner must check water levels regularly to ensure the rabbit does not get dehydrated. Second, female rabbits that have a large dewlap will have a tendency to get the skin under their necks wet. Moisture within the folds of the dewlap can lead to wet dermatitis. This dermatitis can be a precursor to a bacterial and/or fungal infection of the skin.
In the wild, it is necessary for rabbits to hide from predators. The fear of predators is still present in domestic rabbit breeds. Providing your rabbit a nesting box helps it alleviate this fear. Nest boxes should resemble the dark, small tunnels typical of wild rabbits. Nest boxes also provide a comfortable and safe environment for newborn bunnies and their mother. Generally, nest boxes are made out of wood, metal, or a mixture of the two. Rabbits have a tendency to nibble on any material that is placed in their cage, so metal boxes that deter chewing are recommended. The box should be small but allow the rabbit to enter, get comfortable, and exit freely. You should also place a small amount of bedding in the nest box. You can find a variety of different nest boxes and bedding options at your local rabbit supply store or in a rabbit catalog. Grass hay nests are also available that your rabbit can chew and eat as it wants.
If you wish to litter train your rabbit, a litter box is a must. Litter boxes should be small enough to fit in the cage without taking up too much room, but they should also be big enough so that a rabbit can relieve itself comfortably without making a mess. Small cat litter boxes are options for rabbits that have a relatively roomy cage. For more compact housing situations, a corner litter box works best. This triangular litter pan can be placed in the corner of the cage and allows optimum space use. Commercial pet stores provide corner litter boxes in multiple sizes, so you can easily get the right one for your rabbit. Choose one with a higher back so that the rabbit does not kick the bedding out of the litter pan.
Litter selection is similar to bedding selection, as many of the same rules apply. Moisture absorption is the most important factor in choosing litter. Excellent litter choices are pelleted bedding or shredded paper. It is important that you not use clay-based cat litter for rabbits. Clay-based litter contains dust that can irritate your rabbit's eyes and respiratory system. In addition, accidental ingestion can cause a compaction or gastrointestinal stasis in the digestive system of your rabbit. As a general rule, steer clear of litter that is produced from a nonorganic substance such as clay or nylon. Only a small amount of litter needs to be placed in the pan, as rabbits do not bury their stools as cats do.
It is important to provide enrichment or activities that stimulate your rabbit’s brain. Rabbit owners can provide toys for their rabbits. Rabbit toys can be either handmade or bought at pet stores. Owners should carefully examine any toys for parts that could be swallowed. Owners should also keep in mind that each rabbit is unique. Your rabbit may not like some toys but may love others. Finding your rabbit’s favorite toy will be a matter of trial and error. A few toys that are perfect for indoor rabbits include:
• Plastic or wire balls with bells typically made for cats
• Chew toys made of unfinished wood
• Cardboard toilet paper or paper towel rolls
• Large PVC or cardboard tubes
A rabbit’s teeth grow continuously throughout life. Because of this, it is important that they nibble on abrasive substances to prevent dental problems such as malocclusion. To accommodate this natural behavior in caged rabbits, it is important to provide appropriate objects for your rabbit to chew on. Cardboard pieces, untreated wood, and hay provide enrichment while promoting chewing behavior.
Regular cleaning is an important factor in responsible rabbit husbandry. Sanitation of a rabbit’s environment can help prevent diseases such as Pasteurella and ear mites. Cleaning your rabbit’s cage will also help keep odors down in your home. If a rabbit’s environment is not cleaned regularly, a buildup of bacteria and organic waste will begin to omit an unwanted odor. Certain tasks must be completed on a scheduled basis.
During cleaning, make sure that you avoid cross contamination with areas such as the kitchen sink or table. Germs from your rabbit can easily be transferred to human food that is then consumed by humans. It is best to clean your rabbit’s cage and accessories in a separate area of the home, such as a laundry room or bathroom.
Lisa Karr-Lilienthal, Ph.D. & Amanda Young - University of Nebraska-Lincoln