So you think you want a houserabbit?

by Linda Dykes MBBS (Hons)

(aided and abetted by Oakwood Jaffa)

What's it really like?

Living with a houserabbit is very much like living with a dog. Once you've tried it, you never want to go without again. They add something very special to your life. They're great company - I'm not kidding, Jaffa is as good as my dog at being a companion and much more amusing. Visitors love it when a rabbit jumps onto their lap and starts demanding fuss and attention. But remember that houserabbits can end up being expensive. Average running costs are much less than the average dog, but servicing bills can match a cat or dogs any day, and setting up home for your houserabbit can be an expensive proposition. You must also appreciate that whether you like it (or realise it!) or not, you will end up rearranging your entire life around your houserabbit.

Coming up to my Finals in June of 96, I worked at home rather than in the Medical school simply to ensure that Jaffa had time out of his cage with company. Then in the last few days (spent hurtling round hospitals all over the North looking for patients to practise on) poor Jaff didn't get a look in and my housemates reported that he was going nuts every time they went into my room to answer the phone. It's not only demands on time. Bunnyproofing could ruin your dream of a living room a la Rain Forest, especially if the chosen plants are toxic or the clever lighting involves lots of electrical wires on the floor!

Bunny proofing

It is possible to bunnyproof a computer, wires and all (I've done it), but leave things on the floor at your peril. You can teach rabbits not to chew furniture/walls/carpets, but it's not like training a dog and it takes time. Distraction, evasive measure, and providing alternative things to chew are the basic techniques. I'm a very untidy person, and as I lived in a shared houseat the time, that meant that my bedroom was also my living room. This was most unfortunate, because items as diverse as a brand new textbook (16), my best pair of jeans (40), and my lunch have all been Jaffa'd: he nicked my Ryvita and ran away with it leaving a trail of cottage cheese all over the floor.

He's also got a real thing about the BMJ(a medical journal) - he comes onto my bed every Saturday morning when I read it and tries to pull the cover off and take it back to his cage! His other recent fetish is for leather shoelaces - he's de-laced my boat shoes several times in the past month. Buying a futon made of undressed pine was a tactical error - but it's the only furniture he's ever chewed, and I can't really blame him: I provide him with offcuts of pine for toys, and it must all seem the same to him. He does know now that he's not supposed to chew the futon, and only does it when I'm on the phone. Which brings me to another point. A cordless phone is a great asset to a houserabbit owner. Believe me, Jaffa (like all other houserabbits I know) knows that when I'm tied to the wall talking into a telephone he can do what the heck he likes, just out of reach, and there's nothing I can do about it. His favourite trick when I'm on the phone is to go either under the futon, or behind the bed. Both places he can indulge in evil activities I can't stop. Anyone who calls me frequently is familiar with the way that conversation is interrupted by standard sequence of cries: "Jaffa, please don't do that" "Jaffa darling, that's very naughty" "Jaffa, no." "Oi, get off that" "JAFFA, I said GET OFF" "Look out poo-face" (thump, as pair of slippers flies across room in direction of said rabbit)

Taking things seriously for a moment - how much damage can you expect from a houserabbit? Well, most will do some minor damage: a few tassels off furniture, the odd tuft pulled out of the carpet, or a nibbled skirting board. If you leave books and records lying around they will get chewed, and wicker wastepaper baskets will be gleefully destroyed. Ditto with clothes on the floor. Really Really Bad Things are in the realm of stripping off a piece of wallpaper; ruining a favourite cushion; or nibbling the hem of floor-length curtains. If anything worse happens, it's probably because the owner has failed to take the appropriate steps to prevent it happening by way of bunnyproofing, training or supervision. Compare this to the destruction potential of the average gundog puppy, when three piece suites, fitted kitchens and car interiors are frequent casualties; or even kittens who scratch table legs and shred curtains and all of a sudden a few teethmarks left by a houserabbit pales into insignificance, except for the exceptionally houseproud.

How much does keeping a houserabbit cost?

Quite a lot, especially in the first year. Initial purchase of the rabbit may be anything from 5 to 25. A suitable cage costs up to 75; accessories such as food bowls, water bottle and toys another 5. Four large sacks of wood-based cat litter per year comes to nearly 30, then there's hay and rabbit food. Jaffa costs more to feed than all my show rabbits put together, because I have to buy things in small quantities rather than in bulk, making his food and hay bill about 40 per year. Neutering is absolutely essential - I was lucky and a vet friend castrated Jaffa in return for a bottle of very nice white wine, but you are looking at 20 -30 to castrate a buck, or 30 -50 to spay a doe. Then there's annual vaccinations: myxomatosis and VHD, typically totalling around 15. Plus any other visits to the vet: most will need at least one thing per year - such as a 10 visit to an ear infection - and if your bunny needs orthopaedic surgery to fix a fracture you are looking at hundreds of pounds. Unlikely, but possible, and don't think you'll be able to turn round and say "it's only a rabbit, put it down" because believe me, houserabbits really do become as much part of the family as dogs do.

So you are looking at up to 250 in the first year, and around 100 per year thereafter. You can cut this bill significantly by buying supplies in bulk and making a suitable cage, but even so you must be aware that things can go wrong. I know of one lady in the south of England who bought a baby rabbit from a pet shop, which subsequently scoured badly, and several months of nursing and veterinary treatment later the bill was well over 300. Had the rabbit been stuck in a hutch in the garden it would have died the first night, but houserabbits live as family and you know when they are ill. And this serves as another reminder to please, always buy your new pet from a reputable breeder, not an under-age stressed little baby from a petshop.

Can all rabbits be housetrained?

In theory, yes. Most rabbits quickly become reliable about peeing in their litter tray when encouraged correctly, but achieving control of droppings is more difficult and involves reinforcing to the rabbit that his territory is his own, as I've outlined in Living with a Houserabbit: First days indoors. It is possible to have a perfectly housetrained rabbit, but adolescent rabbits can be truly awful until they are neutered. I find the easiest way to housetrain a rabbit is to shut it in it's cage with a litter tray for a few days, so it learns where it should go in a secure environment. This seems more logical to me than putting a tray in the middle of the room and expecting a rabbit to automatically use it rather than the carpet. But both ways have their advocates! One problem that does crop up is an otherwise very clean rabbit (usually un-neutered) starts peeing on sofas and beds that combine a soft surface with a strong smell of human. It's a difficult habit to break, but neutering should help, and keep the rabbit off the areas for some time and hopefully the habit will have been forgotten. If not, hard luck - you'll have to get on the floor to snuggle up with your rabbit!

The first BHRA survey showed that 98% of castrated bucks had reliable or reasonable housetraining (and the lapses were generally of droppings), compared only 78% of unneutered does. Our sample of spayed does was only 6, but all were reliably or reasonably housetrained.

So you still want a houserabbit?

Go for it. I'm sitting writing this with Jaffa sprawled across my feet. Later on we'll go through the evening ritual of me rubbing his nose in return for him licking my hand. Then he'll run downstairs and look for the biscuit tin, prior to his evening mad dashes around the landing. A few chewed possessions is a small price to pay for the company of this rabbit who is a real friend.

This information is brought to you by the Rabbit Welfare Fund - the charitable wing of the Rabbit Welfare Association. If you love rabbits, please consider supporting the Rabbit Welfare Fund. You can make a donation, or you may like to join the RWA. The 17.50 adult subscription includes a subscription to "Rabbiting On", a fabulous quarterly magazine packed with health, behaviour and care advice to help you build a wonderful relationship with your bunny - whether s/he lives indoors or out.

Copyright BHRA 1996