Happy and healthy: Dwarf Rabbits
In natural conditions, dwarf rabbits live in groups, digging warrens where they spend most their time when not feeding. This is where they raise their young. Rabbits move by hopping, using their long and powerful hind legs.
They are very curious animals exploring their environment thoroughly and needing strong materials such as little trees or shrubs to help keep the rabbit’s teeth trim. Dwarf rabbits were bred from wild rabbits over many generations as pets and will still show these behavioural patterns if given the opportunity. The lifespan of a dwarf rabbit is 8 to 10 years. But to get to that age they need a lot of exercise and space in large runs.
All dwarf or pet rabbits are social animals. They need the contact to other rabbits. It is almost cruel to keep just one pet rabbit. Two males will get along only in the first two months of their life. Around the fourth month or so, rabbits will fight to establish the social order within the group and may be injured as a result. Two females will get along very well if they grew up together. Pairs of rabbits will continue to breed. To prevent unwanted breeding, keeping a neutered male and a female is ideal. They will lie closely together and groom each other’s head. A new arrival will be sniffed extensively to establish whether or not he is wanted. Rabbits can be kept together with other pets.
Friendships can spring up even between a dwarf rabbit and a cat. If you keep both guinea pigs and rabbits in the same cage, you must have at least a pair of each. The animals need at least another one of their own to communicate with and feel content.
Most behavioural problems such as gnawing the cage or biting come down to incorrect care. If you keep pet rabbits in small cages, possibly without a mate, it should come as no surprise that the extremely social animals get sick or develop behavioural problems. Rabbits should not be kept on their own or in small cages. If female rabbits continue to fight, it may be beneficial to introduce a neutered male into the group. Two males will be compatible only in the first few months. Heavy fighting resulting in injuries are not behavioural problems but normal behaviour establishing social order. Rabbits also can like or dislike each other. Introducing a new animal to an established group may take a lot of patience.
One look at the rabbit’s body can tell a lot. If the rabbit’s ears are flat and the body is flattened to the ground he is expressing fear. Be careful if the rabbit extends head and tail while the ears are flattened, this means he may nip or bite any time soon. As a rule you should never touch pet rabbits while they are eating or resting and allow them these periods of undisturbed privacy. Special rules apply in mating season and while raising young.
Communicating with Rabbits
If you want to understand why rabbits do what they do you will need to know their body language as they are not very vocal animals. Flat ears, stretched head and extended tail mean danger! The animal may bite any time. If the rabbit flattens himself to the ground he is looking for cover. Thumping with the hind legs can be a warning signal, threatening gesture or expression of fear. The rabbit warns others about potential dangers and all disappear like a flash to their hide-out. The periscoping rabbit, i.e. sitting on his hind legs, tries to get a better view of his surroundings or get a better sniff of the air. Dwarf rabbits will quickly get used to the smell and sound of voice of their owner allowing you to handle them. Animals communicate with their fellow animals through body and tail position, facial expression, sounds and many other signals. If the person must replace the companionship of other rabbits, the rabbit will need a lot of attention to make up for the lack of others of his species. One way is to calmly speak to the rabbits. Pet rabbits are capable of learning and will understand quickly the meaning of words or intonations.
Dwarf rabbits should not be allowed to run around in the house unsupervised as they tend to chew carpets, electrical cords and furniture causing damage and putting themselves in danger. The rabbit’s incisors keep growing all the time explaining the rabbits need to chew everything. A tough plastic cable is almost irresistible. The animals also deposit their faeces and urine in order to mark their territory. Sudden fear reactions and associated flight may also cause them to injure themselves. This type of undesired behaviour is therefore easy to prevent by the owner.
Having a rabbit race in your house? Admittedly, it is great fun to watch the smallies dart around the place chasing each other if you can make sure they cannot come to any harm as they need the exercise. But there is always some residual danger. The ideal solution is an outdoor run where the rabbits can get plenty of exercise in a safe environment.