Rabbits As Companions

Rabbits are active, affectionate, playful, and social pets. They have the potential to be wonderful pets if you know what to expect and take the time to socialize them and learn about them. However, rabbits require a lot more care than people typically expect, so it’s important to be prepared before bringing home a new bunny.

My first experience of having a house rabbit was a choice. I made the decision to buy one from a small bunch of baby rabbits at a feed store in Oregon.

I remember thinking because he was a baby rabbit, I would keep him in the house. But, other than knowing that as a baby he should be kept in the house, I didn’t know much about rabbits. I grew up in Palo Alto, and like many people in my generation, when I was younger, my family kept a rabbit in a large hutch outdoors. We named the large white rabbit “Christopher.” Christopher received attention only when we fed him (or her—we didn’t know the gender). Eventually, Christopher made his way out of the hutch and lived freely in our back yard, which was large and fully fenced.

The little rabbit I chose at the feed store was a small brown rabbit we named Houdini, but his nickname was “Bunny.”  And that little rabbit changed my life.

I fell in love. While having a rabbit in the house, I discovered that he played, ran and jumped for fun, reacted to our voices, sat up for treats, and more. He had a sweet, curious personality. I did keep him in a cage, but I let him out every evening for several hours to explore. A few years later, he started to have some health issues. I read everything I could find concerning rabbit health care. I learned I hadn’t fed him properly; I had fed him pieces of dried plain toast, and only pellets and not free-choice hay. I changed his diet. I bought timothy hay. I found a rabbit-knowledgeable veterinarian. In the meantime, I discovered an organization dedicated to rabbit welfare, House Rabbit Society. I learned that most animal shelters had rabbits waiting for adoption, and many had a designated “rabbit room.”  And that rabbits should be spayed and neutered, just like cats and dogs.

Because of that one little rabbit, I eventually became a House Rabbit licensed Educator. I conducted adoptions, organized rescues and transport, and educated audiences of people interested in learning about rabbits, and these efforts often resulted in successful adoptions.

Maybe you are thinking about a rabbit. You’re curious—you’ve had a cat and/or a dog, but a rabbit? How would that work out in your household? I invite you to dig deeper . . . rabbits are charming, interactive beings who will enhance your life. I encourage you to read all you can about domestic rabbit welfare, including rescue and adoption. Maybe your life will change, too.

Click below for a printable handout:

Keeping Company With Rabbits
Pippin enjoying a pile of timothy hay

Pippin Enjoying a Pile of Timothy Hay

So you’re thinking about getting a rabbit. Did you know rabbits can live up to 10 years or longer? They need to live indoors as part of your family, be fed appropriate foods (more later on that), and have a rabbit knowledgeable veterinarian.

Rabbits need to spayed and neutered, just like cats and dogs. Even if you have just one rabbit, it’s still very important to spay or neuter, because your rabbit will benefit from avoiding health issues that could arise in unsterilized rabbits and their litter box habits will improve. Yes, rabbits use litter boxes! I use a paper-based litter in a large litter box, and I always add a handful of hay to one end of the box. Rabbits love to sit in their boxes and munch on hay.

Since I mentioned hay, please take note that hay is the most important part of your rabbit’s diet. Feed unlimited, free-choice Timothy hay, easily available at any pet supply store or online. Rabbits need the high fiber of long-stemmed hay to keep their digestive system functioning smoothly, and the constant chewing helps their teeth from overgrowth as well as relieving boredom.

Timothy Hay

Timothy Hay

oat hay

Oat Hay

Timothy Pellets

Timothy Pellets

Oat hay, orchard grass hay, and other grass hays are all good. Alfalfa hay is rich in calcium and should be fed only to rabbits under one year of age, or as your veterinarian recommends.

Timothy-based pellets may be fed in limited amounts; alfalfa-based pellets are appropriate for rabbits under one year of age. Do not feed pellets that include a mix of any kinds of nuts, corn, seeds, yogurt-coated “treats,” or any commercial treat that contains these ingredients.

Only feed hay, plain pellets, fresh vegetables, and a very small portion of fruit (or not at all, as fruits are very high in sugar) as a treat only.

Dandelions & Carrot Tops

apple very small bits

Very Small Bits of Apple

Do not change your rabbit’s diet or suddenly add new foods. Always transition any change in diet slowly over several days and/or consult your veterinarian before making any changes.

Click below to read more about feeding rabbits:

Feeding your rabbit

Here is a list of suggested vegetables and fruits:

Vegetables & Fruits

In my upcoming articles I’ll talk more about spay and neuter, litter boxes, and lots more!

Pippin sitting safely on a towel-covered sturdy box, from which she can easily jump down

National Poison Prevention Week:

Keeping Your Rabbits (and Other Pets) Safe from Common Household Items
March 20–26, 2021

This week is National Poison Prevention Week, so make sure chocolate, flowers, fertilizers, and pest control products are inaccessible to your rabbit (and all your pets). Check your houseplants and confirm that none are poisonous (see the link below). Make sure heavy potted plants can’t tip over if your rabbit investigates.

Keeping your rabbit indoors means that not only do you have more time to spend with him or her, but also that you need to “bunny-proof” any areas where your rabbit can roam freely.

Rabbits are inquisitive and will explore under furniture, jump up on the couch, run under your bed, and more. Block off any areas that you don’t want your rabbit to get into, both for his or her safety and your own peace of mind. All electrical cords must be either made inaccessible to the rabbit and/or securely covered to protect your rabbit from chewing on them.

Make sure nothing heavy is leaning on a wall or propped up against furniture that could possible tip over or fall and injure your rabbit. Be careful when opening and closing doors—your rabbit might be right there. If your rabbit likes to climb, make sure he or she can get down safely without going too high and/or accidentally falling.

Look around your living space and create a safe area so your rabbit can play, run, take a nap, or simply hang out with you!

Daisy Investigating

Courtesy of Action for Rabbits (not a complete list)

Click below for a list of poisonous plants:

Poisonous Plants

Click below for more on “bunny-proofing”:

Bunny Proofing

Special Thanks to Action for Rabbits in the UK. Posters about rabbits are available to download from their page at:

Action for Rabbits
Dr Gleeson examining Pippin

Dr Gleeson Examining Pippin

Veterinary Care:

When should you consult a veterinarian for your rabbit? The first answer is, before you need one. Veterinarians highly skilled with cat and dog care might not be trained to diagnose and administer medical care to rabbits. Considered an “exotic” species, rabbits are best cared for by a veterinarian with a history of successfully treating rabbits. Look for a vet who is recommended by a reputable rabbit rescue, adoption agency, or humane society.

Is your rabbit refusing food, stopped eliminating or has very small droppings, sitting hunched in a corner or under a sheltered area, grinding his/her teeth, and/or become lethargic? At the sign of any of these symptoms, call your vet right away. Gastrointestinal stasis, bloat, diarrhea, a urinary tract disorder, ear mites, an undetected infection… don’t delay! You need to find out what is wrong and have your rabbit treated. You could find yourself in the emergency clinic on a night or weekend; however, the alternative of waiting hours or days for a regular scheduled appointment could result in a sad outcome.

Other issues might not appear to be an immediate emergency, but have your rabbit examined for any kind of eye, ear, or nasal discharge, scratching (which could be a sign of fleas or mites), hair loss or any sore spots on the bottom of your rabbit’s feet, and possible dental issues. Likewise, if there is a change in your rabbit’s normal range of motion such as hopping, stretching, or sitting up, schedule a veterinary exam.

In conclusion, don’t wait. Be attentive to your rabbit’s behavior and watch for any change in appetite, elimination, movement, and general demeanor.

To read more about medical concerns, click this link:

Medical Concerns FAQ
Dr Gleeson Examining Pippin

Dr Gleeson Examining Pippin

Hard-sided pet carrier lined with towels for traction and absorbency

In these days of high fire danger, you should have an appropriately sized, hard-sided animal carrier ready. The carrier should be lined with a towel, big enough so that your rabbit won’t slip inside on the plastic floor, and sufficiently absorbent to keep bunny feet dry from urine.

If you do not have a hard-sided carrier, get one now before you need it. Do not use a cardboard carrier to transport your rabbit, unless it’s an emergency and you have nothing else. Rabbits will chew cardboard and/or wet the inside, and the cardboard will quickly deteriorate and become unsafe. Soft cloth and mesh bags are also inappropriate and unsafe. Think of the possibility that your rabbit could potentially spend hours in the carrier—he or she will be safer in a hard-sided carrier. Choose a carrier large enough so that your rabbit has some room to move, but not so large that it could be unsafe should you be involved in a vehicle incident. You should be able to easily lift and move the carrier with your rabbit inside, by yourself. Check the carrier regularly and make sure the door, latch, and all connecting parts are secure, clean, and in proper working order. Store the carrier in an easily accessed location, not buried in a closet or garage.

To put your rabbit in the carrier, place the carrier on the floor inside your rabbit’s pen. Working gently and talking to your rabbit, and without picking him (or her) up, direct your rabbit head first into the carrier. If your rabbit won’t go in, gently turn him around without lifting him; and push him very gently backwards (tail first) into the carrier, making sure not to hurt his feet. Practice with a stuffed animal a few times!

Try to avoid situations in which you are lifting (or lowering) your rabbit more than a few inches when loading him (or her) into the carrier. Rabbits can become frightened very quickly, and you absolutely do not want to drop your rabbit!

Always transport your rabbit in a carrier for veterinarian visits. Don’t walk into the office holding your rabbit in your arms. There could be several dogs in the lobby. The vet technician can then safely admit your rabbit to an examination room

Latch on door and connecting parts are clean and working correctly

Brownie safe in his carrier, getting ready for a trip to the vet (always check to be sure the door is latched securely before transport)

When I place the carrier in my vehicle, I put it on the back seat and run the seatbelt through the top handle.  Cover the top and side of the carrier that faces the car door with a towel or your jacket to shield your rabbit from the visual effects of the window, such as bright sunlight. Turn on the air conditioner if it is warm outside; the interior of your car will feel much warmer to your rabbit than to you. Heat stress is extremely harmful or deadly to rabbits so keep your car cool!

Place a handful of your rabbit’s favorite hay and some greens inside in case he/she wants to munch. If you are traveling long-distance, you’ll need to make sure your rabbit(s) stay hydrated so feed greens and offer water at frequent stops. Speak with your veterinarian about how to keep your rabbit healthy during a longer car ride.  And find out if you need a veterinarian’s certificate before traveling to another state.

In closing, always make sure you have a hard-sided carrier for every rabbit (also for cats and other small animals) in your house! Making sure you’re prepared now will always pay off in the future.

Daisy with her iced water bowl

Summers have become progressively hotter, and this year is no exception. Be mindful of the temperature of your rabbit’s environment—rabbits cannot tolerate excessive heat! Keep your home air conditioning on. If AC is not an option, use fans, but make sure your rabbit can move away from the blowing air whenever necessary. Keep your rabbit out of direct sunlight. Install shade covers over bright-light windows or hang light-blocking curtains in the interior of the room. Never wet down your rabbit, except for a very light misting or a damp towel to wipe his or her ears. Place a few ice cubes in your rabbit’s water bowl to provide a cooling area next to the bowl where your rabbit can rest. You should place one or two frozen plastic bottles of water on the floor of your rabbit’s living area to provide an additional cooling option. Make sure the water bottles are placed on their sides, not upright. This allows your rabbit to lie down comfortably next to the water bottle and remain cool. If you must travel with your rabbit and/or go to the veterinarian, keep your car very cool with the AC on.

For more information, click here:

Warm Weather Concerns

Adoption of domestic animals has thankfully become much more common. People are aware that animal shelters and rescue organizations house many animals for adoption and that adopting from shelters and rescue organizations, rather than buying from a breeder, can be a lifesaver. What is not always known, however, are the details of the rescue that occurred previously to save the lives of those animals. Here is Barry’s story—he owes his life to rescue.

BarryBarry is a rabbit who has been in sanctuary with me for several years. He was rescued from under an overpass in the East Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area. Barry was a domestic yet feral rabbit, having lived outdoors for his short life. Sadly, rabbits are often abandoned outdoors, as a result of unintentional (or not) breeding, and/or loss of interest.  Several of his siblings did not survive. A local rabbit rescue organization was able to trap him and thus save his life.

Barry at the time of rescue was a terrified rabbit, having never lived with people. The rescue organization reached out to me and asked if I could help Barry. He could not tolerate being shown at an adoption event. At that time, I had space for an additional rabbit and agreed to take him into sanctuary, meaning I would not re-home him. Barry was transported to me, and our journey began. His new home was a large, penned area in a spare room. He had a willow “house” to hide in, soft cotton towels and rugs to give him secure footing, a litter box and water bowl, some rabbit-safe toys, and, of course, plenty of hay.

Barry continued to be a very scared rabbit. He would hide in his house when I entered the room and would not tolerate any human touch. I never forced him to react either by touching him or trying to make him move. He would startle very easily at almost any sudden sound or movement. However, as months and then years went by, Barry became interested in his surroundings, came to look at me with bright eyes and ears up, and came out of his house when it was time for his greens.

Barry is still a timid rabbit, but now he loves to be petted gently, starting at his head and ears all the way down his back—he has the softest fur! It has been very gratifying to observe the change in his demeanor. Rabbits, just like feral cats, neglected dogs, and other animals and birds, can overcome their trauma when given plenty of time and a quiet space. Please consider these individuals when you are thinking of adoption.

About the Author


Susan Stienstra is our Community Outreach Manager at Palo Alto Humane. She has more than 20 years of experience working for several nonprofit organizations. She is also a licensed humane educator with House Rabbit Society, and in that capacity, has taught children and adults about rabbits and how to care for them. Her special passions are horses, rabbits, and wildlife. She is also an accomplished nature photographer.