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Genetics, Size and Color Selection
For our rabbits, it starts out fairly simple, if you breed a Pure Blooded color to the same color, you’ll typically get the same color babies. For New Zealands rabbits, they are Red, White, True Blue and Black. For Holland Lops and Lion Heads, there are dozens of combinations!
However, even if the parents are the same color, but they are not Pure Blooded, then you may be surprised to get different color babies. You might even get a blue baby by chance, called a “Lucky Blue”! Many rabbiters breed only for the assortment of colors, and find this unpredictability fascinating and entertaining. Like a box of chocolates. You’ll just never know what you’re going to get.
If you are really interested, read all about the science of rabbit genetics in these two books:
Spring Hill Rabbits, Rabbitry Tips
WATER is the most important. Always keep a large water bottle on your rabbit’s cage. We use 32 ounce bottles. A rabbit without water can die within 24 hours. We don’t use crocks because the rabbits will accidentally defecate in them.
FOOD: Today, rabbit pellets from a national brand are the most reliable, balanced and nutritious feed. They have truly perfected this food source in recent years. There are a number of choices. The best feed is found at "Feed Stores" not pet stores where you also pay 3-5 times as much. It’s best not to change a rabbit’s diet abruptly so you may want to have at least a small bag of our brand on hand. We can provide a bag to get you started! If switching to a new feed, start with 20% of the new and add an additional 20% per day so in five days you’re at 100%. So plan ahead. DO NOT feed iceberg lettuce (strange but true). DO NOT feed any greens to baby rabbits until 8 weeks old and then be very careful. They don’t have the flora in their digestive system and it can kill them. If you introduce any new food, even a corn cob or carrot (carrots are like cookies to rabbits, packed with sugar so it's only a treat), just start with a small piece. Word to the wise is to go slowly. Hay is not required since it is the primary ingredient in rabbit feed pellets. The hay companies will tell you to feed mostly hay. It’s a great treat however, and very good for digestion. Alfalfa and Timothy hay are considered to be the best, and are sold in pet and feed stores. More rabbiters are feeding fodder to their adult rabbits. That’s sprouted seeds, such as untreated barley or wheat.
Check it out on YouTube (keywords: rabbit fodder) and save 75% of your feed costs! If feeding fodder, we still recommend some high quality pellets for the additional minerals.
DO NOT OVERFEED: New rabbiters often make their rabbits very unhealthy and unhappy by making them fat butterballs. For adult New Zealand rabbits, we feed one cup of rabbit feed, once per day, in the late afternoon. For Dwarf Holland Lops and Lion Heads, feed one-half cup. Rabbits are most active as the sun goes down when all their systems are working best to enjoy and digest their daily meal. But every rabbit can be a bit different. Here’s a good rule: give your rabbit just enough feed for what she’ll clean up in two hours. However for a young rabbit, for the first 12 weeks, give her as much fresh feed as she wants (called free feeding). Perhaps feed twice daily, on a schedule. Then gradually cut back to whatever she can eat once a day in two hours.
GRAZING: While it seems like it would be the right thing to do, if you allow your rabbits to graze on the ground, you will have parasites (see Medical Care below). That is true for any animal eating off the ground. Fleas love all furry creatures, and there are also numerous worms and related parasites that will set up house inside your rabbits. So if you graze, and we wouldn’t blame you if you do, plan to deworm your rabbits periodically. Pet and feed stores have these dewormers and can tell you more. Warning: don’t graze or feed cut grass from lawns treated with chemicals!
GARDEN FOODS: Please be extremely careful when feeding anything other than proper rabbit food pellets. There are too many bad plants to mention here, but you can search Google. There are also many ornamental shrubs that are poisonous to rabbits. In America, we ship these shrubs in from all over the world and no animal has the instincts to stay away from all of the bad ones! At SpringHill, we keep it simple and feed only the best, balanced pellet food. But you decide what is best.
VENTILATION: Next to food and water, good ventilation is key. Make sure your rabbit is not breathing the ammonia from the breakdown of its own feces and urine.
SECURITY: Whether you have rabbits for serious breeding, show, fur, homesteading, micro-farming or pets, your obligation is to keep them safe. Safety includes peace and quiet as rabbits stress easily. Keep them protected from dogs, cats, humans, loud noises including lawn mowers, rain, heat, extreme cold, wild predators, disease, insects and parasites.
SANITATION and HOUSING: These are absolutely key. About 50 years ago, wire cages were accepted as being the superior housing for rabbits. Since then, rabbit illnesses have plummeted. We hang our cages with small chain or with ½ inch “black pipe” that runs through the top sides of the cage, left to right, supported on the ends. Our pampered bunnies are kept out of the sun, but you might hang a cage for anything sturdy, even an old swing set. Be sure to have a good roof and keep the rain out. A tarp on top will do. It’s far better not to have wood as part of the cage, except maybe as an outside frame to hang the cage from and you can paint that wood with a high gloss exterior paint that washes off easily (but don’t paint the metal cages).
Do not paint wood if inside the cage where the rabbit can chew on it and don’t use chemically treated wood inside the cage. Realize that unpainted wood is a fibrous plant material that gradually fills up with bacteria and soaks up urine and feces. Fleas can jump 13” high, so make sure the bottom of the cage is above that. Make sure your rabbit stays dry and the surrounding ground is not a wet area where bacteria can breed. Provided you have an all-wire cage with a wire floor that is the typical 1"x1" or 1”x2” wire squares, then that is plenty of support for your bunny. Use either a 24”x24” or 30”x30” cage, or similar space if rectangular. For a wire bottom cage, don’t use any sort of bedding either except some straw for newborns or in extreme cold. The thick fur coats are comfy enough. Keep the area below the cage cleaned out of course, perhaps only needed once or twice a week. Wash the cage and spray with a bleach solution on at least a bi-weekly or monthly basis. Be sure to then rinse off the bleach. You can find a great deal more on housing on YouTube and the book, Rabbit Housing: Planning, Building and Equipping Facilities for Humanely Raising Healthy Rabbits, by Bob Bennett, our favorite Rabbit Guru.
TEMPERATURE: For rabbits, heat is a much bigger problem than the cold. Remember rabbits have fur coats, so they like it cool. Keep out of the summer sun. If protected from the wind and rain/snow (perhaps use a tarp), you don’t need to be concerned for mature rabbits until the temps drop to 25 degrees (except for frozen water), or when it goes over 85. For freezing, 32 degrees or below, perhaps add a tarp or blanket over the cage - but make sure your ventilation is good! See Ventilation notes above. Add a heat lamp or other heat source if truly needed, but DO NOT overdo it. Research shows that 50 degrees is the sweet spot for rabbits, so use a thermometer. We use a wireless thermometer to monitor our hutch temps from the comfort of our home. For over 85, please add a fan. For breeding, a buck must not be in 85+ degree heat. We have a Buck Building that is slightly air conditioned for the hottest part of the summer! We have pampered, happy bucks at SpringHill Rabbits.
NOTE: If the temps are below 45, we move our pregnant does inside, 24-48 hours before they are to give birth. This saves the naked newborns from the cold that may easily kill them otherwise. Caution: don’t abruptly move rabbits from hot to cold or vice versa if you can help it. Like humans, this can promote a respiratory infection (see Snuffles below).
MEDICAL CARE: Pure blooded rabbits are famous for being healthy and easy to care for. If you prefer when a problem arises, go to the vet. In our area we go to Dr. Randy Esbeck at Sawnee Animal Clinic. We don’t recommend any vaccinations but a vet may tell you differently. In any case of illness, act quickly. The smaller the animal, the faster it can expire. But for most ailments, it’s pretty simple. Rabbits have huge ears acting like big butterfly nets, so ear mites can strike anytime of year, regardless of how careful your sanitation, but they strike more often if you feed hay or grass where mites also live. Just like cats and dogs, you’ll see some crusting scab inside the ear. It may be light or dark color. Simply take some vegetable oil from the kitchen and liberally swab some inside the ear. DO NOT pick away the scab. It’s helping her. Gently drip a bit into the ear canal as well. All you’re doing is suffocating the mites. Do this twice a day for three days. If it still doesn't clear up, your vet has fast acting medicine.
Underweight or lack of vibrance: While you don’t want to overfeed, sometimes a young rabbit or lactating doe needs better nourishment. One solution is to feed a piece of sweet potato, not the vine, each evening, and/or a teaspoon or tablespoon of Calf Manna, available at a feed store. It’s nutrient packed and also helps with beautiful fur and strong nails. Raw nose or foot from rubbing: just put on a little antibiotic ointment, with no bandage, twice a day. Diarrhea: Did you feed anything that might upset the stomach, or has there been some new stress? We immediately take the bunny off the pellet feed and replace with Timothy hay, which usually works well. You can also add to the water bottle, a quarter teaspoon of Pepto Bismol or Keopectate.
Constipation and/or bloating can happen due to stress, like taking her home for the first time or barking dogs, or from a fur ball. Try some pineapple juice in the water right away. Mix it 30% juice to 70% water. You may need to use this for three days. But don’t do everything at once since that’s too many new items too quickly. If your rabbit is bloated, try a human baby’s dosage of simethicone for gas. Do this quickly as the bloating can be deadly. Snuffles, is the term commonly used for an upper or lower respiratory infection in a rabbit, characterized by sneezing, nasal drainage, watery eyes and/or matted paws. We rarely see it at our farm, but one common cause is the Pasturella Multocida bacteria. One university study showed 86% of domestic rabbits have this virus in their system.
As in humans, a respiratory infection often starts during an abrupt change in weather, such as a change of seasons, or if you move a rabbit from outside summer heat to air conditioned space or vice versa. It is also sometimes seen as a result of a stressful situation or getting exposed to new germs. Unfortunately this includes moving to a new home, like a child going to a new school. Bacteria and viruses are always around, so it uses these stressful circumstances to attack the host. Respiratory infections can be transmitted from one rabbit to another; therefore, isolation of the infected rabbit is important to stop the spread of illness.
Fortunately if treated early, it is usually curable with anti-biotics. The most popular broad spectrum anti-biotic is Baytril from your vet, oral or injection. Duramycin-10 which is Tetracycline Hydrochloride is another popular choice. It is a water soluble powder used on many farms for all sorts of animals. When even one rabbit gets sick, some rabbiters will treat all their rabbits for three or more days to make sure they protect the entire herd. You can also consider a prescription for Keflex, or the generic is Cephalexin, usually administered for ten days in a flavored oral suspension (liquid) which rabbits love. The first sign may be sneezing. However, when we hear even a single sneeze, we isolate that rabbit immediately and first give it three drops of banana flavored Kids Relief nasal medicine, treating for three days. It’s homeopathic so we prefer it as it's not a harsh pharmaceutical. We suggest you buy it ahead of time.
For fleas, treat like you would a cat. However, we suggest a non-chemical such as Vet's Best - Flea & Tick Home Spray, made with peppermint oil, available on Amazon. But test it on your bunny's sensative skin first. Worms and other internal parasites are rarely seen in our rabbits. But if you keep your bunny on the ground, you'll need to deworm like your cat. Look for signs in their droppings or unexplained weight loss, and use one of the various treatments from the store. Carefully follow instructions by weight for rabbits (or cats) on all the above remedies. Do not over-treat.
BREEDING: Pure-blooded rabbits are known for their breeding prowess. A buck or doe might be productive as early as 4 months old or even earlier, so keep young bucks and does separated! The New Zealand doe can be bred as early as 5 months, and for the dwarf rabbits we prefer to wait until 7 months to ensure she has reached maturity. If she breeds too early, it can kill her, and pregnancy can stunt her remaining growth and rob her bones of calcium that her body uses instead for the babies. Don’t be surprised if her first litter doesn’t go well. First-time moms often have still-borns or miscarriage the first pregnancy, but then are successful the next time. Just wait a week or two and rebreed her. We breed our does twice, about 4-6 hours apart to give better results. There’s a lot more on breeding and nesting on YouTube and the book, Storey’s
Guide to Raising Rabbits, also by Bob Bennett.
For a good article on “line breeding” go to http://rabbitsmarties.com/2011/03/line-breeding-rabbits/.
RABBIT DROPPINGS: Droppings are excellent for gardens, vegetables, flowers and yards. You can even sell this stuff if you bag it up! We use it extensively on our farm. Contact us and we may have some we can sell you as well. It’s so ideal, you don’t need to compost it or mix with anything else, unless you want to.
HANDLING: Unfortunately we have so many rabbits that we don’t get enough time to handle each one daily. If your new rabbit is a pet, at first, your bunny should only be held 5-10 minutes at a time. It’s all fairly stressful for them and if they kick out with their feet, you can easily get scratched, so you might wear long sleeves. Then give her and hour of peace and quiet, then more gentle handling if you like. In about three days, you should have a gentle, docile and chilled out bunny.
The babies are already docile and will get even easier to hold and cuddle with increased handling. Snuggle bunnies are good for kids and adults alike. But be careful - a common reason for pet rabbit death is over handling. Kids sometimes don't know when to stop or understand that "Super Bunny" can't jump off high places and live to tell about it.
POTTY TRAINING: If your rabbit is a pet in the house, then you can set up a litter box just like a cat. Don’t be alarmed with deep cloudy yellow or orange urine, depending what you feed her. Whether the litter box is inside or outside her cage, with a paper towel, simply take some of the urine and feces from the cage, and put on the top of the litter. Then put your bunny on top. It may take a couple of days, but it’s usually a lot easier than a puppy! However, don’t move the litter box around. Rabbits are great creatures of habit and she might not find it in time. Another technique is to mount the food and water over the litter box. Rabbits actually poop and pee some while they’re eating. Kind of gross, but true. You can move the food and water away gradually.
NEUTER OR SPAY: Most people don’t get their rabbits fixed, but for a pet, it would be ideal. Did you know that a male New Zealand typically makes a better pet than a female? Females tend to get territorial as they get older and their nesting instincts kick in. But for our Dwarf breeds, Lion Heads and Holland Lops, both males and females stay very docile (chilled out). However, do not put two males in a small cage together. Sometimes they will fight. It's a guy thing.
BRUSHING: Just like a cat. Rabbits love attention.
BATHING: Many experts say to never wash your rabbit unless you truly need to and we agree. For young rabbits it can also put them into shock or get water in their lungs. So if you need to wash a rabbit, just wash that portion that needs it, such as their rear end. Never leave an even slightly wet rabbit in the cold or moving air. When needed, we use children’s shampoo, but you can buy expensive animal shampoo if you prefer. Unless your bunny has an upset stomach, she probably doesn’t need bathing very often. Rabbits are very clean like cats. For urine stains on fur, use a 50/50 vinegar/water solution. Gently towel dry her, then use a hair dryer on low. Also ideally wash your hands before and after handling your rabbit. They don’t need your microbes and you don’t need theirs. For an excellent article on carefully cleaning your rabbit, click here.
TOE NAILS: Your rabbit needs a quick trim every month or so, since she is not running wild, hopping over rocks and stones to wear them down. The purpose is to blunt the nail, not necessarily shorten the nail. Just use a nail trimmer like people use, or one of those big ones for dogs. For sanitation purposes, keep a nail trimmer dedicated only for your rabbits. ONLY trim the white ends. Some nails are black or will show almost no white so just trim the point off. It’s easiest to turn the rabbit upside down in your lap. They calm right down and are much easier than dogs and cats.