Physical and psychological needs of rabbits: a rabbit is not a cat
Rabbits can make good pets, provided that their basic needs are met. Rabbits are prey animals and are relatively fragile compared with cats or dogs; they require firm but gentle handling. Whether kept in the house or in a hutch, they need companionship, space for exercise, hiding and sleeping places, protection from rain, excess heat, and predators, and opportunities to gnaw and dig. Home hazards include electrical cables, poisonous plants and heavy objects which could be knocked over. Daily checking of the rabbit and cleaning of latrine areas is important to prevent fly strike. If not raised together, rabbits need to be introduced to each other gradually. Hospitalized rabbits need privacy, familiar smells and if possible their bonded buddy.
Two important factors which must be remembered in rabbit management are that, unlike cats and dogs, rabbits are prey animals, not predators, and also unlike cats and dogs, they have been domesticated for only a relatively short time. They remain very similar to their wild counterparts in their anatomy, physiology, behaviour and psychology, including their social requirements; they will tend to flee, hide or freeze in response to danger, and may sit very still rather than cry out if in pain (Magnus, 2002; Magnus, 2005) (Box 1)
Compared with cats and dogs, rabbits are fragile. They have very powerful hind limb muscles, but their skeleton makes up a relatively low proportion of their bodyweight. In the home, this means that a human tripping over a rabbit, accidentally kicking it, dropping something on it, or shutting it in a door, is much more likely to cause serious injury and fractures (Rich, 2002; Reusche, 2008). Additionally, a rabbit which is picked up and handled incorrectly might kick out with its hind legs and either fall a distance to the ground, which can cause serious injury, or, by kicking out with its powerful hind legs, even fracture its own spine (Keeble, 2002; Reusche, 2008). Rabbits need to be picked up firmly but gently, in a manner that ensures their bodyweight is supported from underneath at all times and so that they cannot kick out or jump away; they can be lifted out of a cage by the scruff but with the other hand under the rump. If placed on a table for examination, they should be given non-slip footing (e.g. a rubber mat, or a towel), and a hand kept on the rabbit's back pushing down slightly to prevent it from jumping off.