Pet Factsheets

House rabbits - rabbit proofing your home

Living with a house rabbit isn't something that happens with little or no preparation, and one of the most important things you need to do before moving a bunny into your home is to make the environment safe and appropriate for them. Remember that chewing and digging are natural behaviours for rabbits and if they don't have appropriate items to aim this behaviour, and they generally aren't fussy about what they test their teeth and claws on, so it is up to you to ensure your possessions are rabbit proofed.

Why do rabbits chew and dig?

Domestic rabbits have retained many of their wild ancestors' natural behavioural traits, including chewing and digging!

Wild rabbits chew on coarse material, such as tree bark to ensure that their continually growing teeth are kept at the correct length. Pet rabbits often don't have such means of keeping their teeth in tip-top condition, so rely upon other methods. Added to this, chewing is an enjoyable behaviour for rabbits and one they like to partake in.

In the wild rabbits dig extensive burrow systems, and again very few pet rabbits live in such a set-up, so find other methods of expressing this natural behaviour. Digging also burns calories as well as helping to keep the claws worn down and providing entertainment. Both digging and chewing are important behaviours that house rabbits need to be able to express to lead to fulfilled lives.

How can I stop my rabbit destroying my possessions?

You can't and shouldn't try and stop a rabbit from chewing or digging. These are natural behaviours and if you bring a rabbit into your home you must expect that there may be some wear and tear on your possessions. However, it isn't unreasonable to not want to have teeth marks or scratches over your entire house!

Firstly, always ensure that your rabbit has a constant supply of good quality, fresh hay to eat. Not only does hay provide the vital high-fibre diet, essential to keep a rabbit's digestive system working properly, but the abrasive texture of hay helps to ensure correct dental wear, as well as keeping the rabbit occupied and hopefully diverting their attention away from things they really shouldn't be chewing! Provide logs or twigs made from apple or willow which the rabbit can chew on. House rabbits should also be able to spend time outside, especially in the warmer months of the year. This should enable them to graze on fresh grass, spend time in the sun (shade must always be provided), and spend time lounging around. If the rabbit can dig and chew whilst outside, then this is all the better.

You can also give the rabbit a selection of toys, such as tough plastic baby rattles, balls, boxes of straw and hay to dig in, pine cones or any of the toys now on the market that are designed for rabbits. Rabbits enjoy tunnels to run through, boxes to sit on or in and to hide in too. Provide a large box filled with soil or sand so that the rabbit can dig safely in there. Rabbits also need places they can retreat to if they want some peace and quiet. 

What and how should I rabbit proof?

Rabbit proofing your home serves two main purposes; to protect the rabbit from dangerous situations and to protect your possessions.

Firstly, a look at what hazards our homes may hold for our pet rabbits:

Electric cables
All electric cables must be put out of your rabbit's reach (remembering how tall the rabbit is when they stand on their back legs and that rabbits are experts at getting into small spaces).

If this isn't possible then the wires must be protected. Rabbits have very sharp teeth, designed to slice through tough vegetation, and a wire is often too good to resist a nibble on, with potentially fatal consequences.

Cables can be protected by placing them inside tough, durable plastic tubing, these are usually available from aquatic stockists (used as tubing for ponds and fish tanks). If the plug comes off the appliance you can remove this and slide the wire into the tubing. If the appliance has a fixed plug, simply slit the tubing down one side so you can open it up to put the wire inside it. You must check tubing regularly as rabbits may still attempt to chew at it and it may need replacing from time to time. If possible, placing wires out of reach is the best option. 

Poisonous plants
A variety of plants and flowers kept as houseplants are deemed to be poisonous to rabbits to some degree or another, with possible consequences of ingestion ranging from: excessive dribbling from the mouth, fits, loss of balance/consciousness or even death. Rabbits are unable to vomit, so any toxic substance that is eaten, cannot be eliminated in this way and is therefore ingested and works its way through the rabbit's digestive system. 

Plants/flowers that may be toxic to rabbits if eaten include: Chrysanthemum, daffodil, tulip, hyacinth, lily, poppy and rhododendron. However, a wide variety of many other plants and flowers are also harmful, so all houseplants are best kept well out of the reach of rabbits.

Accidental injury
Rabbits like to run around your feet, as well as playing under tables, behind sofas and generally anywhere else they can gain access to and which looks fun!

It is all too easy to accidentally kick a rabbit or even shut a door on them, as they make little or no noise as they move. So, always ensure you tread very carefully, paying attention to what you are doing to make sure that there is no bunny in the way, before you shut doors, move chairs, open cupboards or make any movements.

Now onto protecting your possessions - It has already been established why rabbits chew and dig and some methods on how you can try to stop them destroying some of your possessions. If rabbits are provided with items they can chew on, they are unlikely to chew on items you don't want them to. However, it is useful to know exactly what may be tempting for them to nibble on and other ways of trying to stop untoward behaviour.

Your furniture
Cupboards, sofas, chair legs, table legs, etc. may be targets for chewing. It is easiest to deny the rabbit access to these areas, or only allow them access under supervision.

If this isn't possible then you can try an anti-chewing repellent, which can be purchased from pet shops or your vet, however the majority of people report minimal success with anti-chewing repellents when used for rabbits, but some people have reported success with putting lemon juice onto paint or woodwork. Before spraying the whole area, be sure to do a sample test on a small area to ensure the product isn't going to damage your furniture.

Never leave any books or magazines lying around the place, unless you want nibbled corners or missing paragraphs! Having a house rabbit does force you and your family to pack things away when you have finished with them, otherwise they may not be in the same state you left them in when you come to find them again!

Electrical items (computers, TVs, washing machines, etc)
It has already been mentioned above, that any electrical item may cause a danger to your rabbit, unless all of the cables are placed out of the rabbits reach or protected, and it is also in your own best interests to adhere to this, to protect your electrical items, as well as your rabbit.

Telephone/internet cables
Although these don't pose an electrocution risk to rabbits, you may want to place them out of their way or protect them in the same way as suggested for electrical cables, otherwise you may be spending a small fortune on continually replacing them and many house rabbit owners have had their telephone conversations or internet connection abruptly ended by a bunny chewing through the wire!

Rabbits will often have one or two places which they will decide to use as a digging area, often much to an owner's annoyance!

A cheap and simple solution is to get hold of some carpet samples, which are frequently thrown out by carpet shops, and place these over the affected areas. Rabbits often choose corners that are dark and quiet so pay special attention to these areas. These are cheap and easy to replace, and the rabbit can use them to dig on to their hearts content. Plastic carpet covers are another useful solution to cover problem areas. Although neither may look pleasant to the eye if situated within a prominent area of the house, they will at least spare your carpet.

Chewing and swallowing pieces of carpet can be harmful to rabbits if the carpet accumulates in the digestive tract, it may cause the digestive system to slow down or cause a blockage which is a very serious health concern and requires immediate veterinary treatment. In some circumstances this can be fatal so if you notice your rabbit chewing the carpet and ingesting pieces you must not allow the behaviour to continue. 

Swallowing wallpaper can be just as dangerous, as wallpaper paste may contain chemicals that are harmful to rabbits, and there is also the possibility of the paper swelling up inside the rabbit.

You can try blocking off the rabbit's access to any problem areas, by relocating furniture over the area (which may also work with carpet chewing), although this may simply not be practical.

One solution, although this is often not a very attractive solution, is to cover the affected area of wallpaper with clear, plastic Perspex up to the stretching height of the rabbit and if all else fails you can try painting your walls instead of using wallpaper!

What other reasons are there for destructive behaviour?

By and large, the simple answer to destructive behaviour from rabbits is that they are bored or simply enjoy doing it as it satisfies their natural instincts, but excessive chewing may also be a sign of dental problems, so you should ensure that your rabbit has a thorough veterinary health check, paying special attention to the mouth and teeth (which may require sedation to get a proper look at the back teeth), to rule this out as a cause.

Catching them in the act!

You must never, ever shout or smack a rabbit. Rabbits are naturally timid animals with humans being one of their natural predators, so any behaviour that reinforces their belief that you are a threat to them will damage your relationship with your rabbit.

Equally, punishing the rabbit by clapping your hands or stamping your feet is very likely to cause fear to the rabbit. You should simply talk to the rabbit in a calm voice and move them carefully away from the situation. Remember that to the rabbit the behaviour is not a problem, it is natural. It is only a problem because you have brought the rabbit into a human environment, and we therefore need to find a solution that works for us, not by depriving the rabbit of access to the behaviour.

What if I really can't cope with my rabbit's destructive behaviour?

If you have tried all the possible solutions and have ruled out a health problem, you have two possible courses of action:

  • You can ask for a referral to a behaviourist who has specialist knowledge in rabbit behaviour and may be able to help you more on a one-to-one basis with advice aimed specifically at your rabbit. Your vet should be able to put you in touch with a suitable behaviourist, or the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund will be able to.
  • If you don't wish to pursue the option of further help, then having the rabbit as a house rabbit may not be the best option and it may be better for not only yourself, but also the rabbit if they moved from the house to a suitable outdoor enclosure with another rabbit for company. This also requires thought as you need to ensure the rabbit's accommodation outside is suitable and you will not be able to do this in winter when the change in temperature from inside to outside is too dramatic.

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