The Basics of Caring for a Pet Rabbit

For our ‘Vet Of The Month’, we've collaborated with two seasoned veterinarians who bring a wealth of experience and expertise: Dr Emily Baxter from Ikhala Veterinary Clinic in Makhanda, and Dr Tessa Brouwer from Family Vet Clinic in Centurion.


What is considered to be a balanced diet for rabbits?

Dr Emily: “Domestic rabbits are herbivorous and require a variety of different plant foods to get a good nutritional mix. A balanced diet consists of roughly 80% hay or fresh grass, 10% leafy vegetables, and 5% rabbit pellets. Keep things interesting for your pet rabbit by mixing the types of vegetables that they get, and remember to only give small amounts of sweet vegetables.”

Dr Tessa: “Nutrition has a great influence on your rabbit’s health. High-quality fibre should make up 70-75% of the diet. We see far too many dental and intestinal tract diseases when rabbits do not eat enough fibre. High calcium intake can result in urinary tract problems, as rabbits have a much higher excretion of calcium in their urine. Lucerne has a high calcium content; therefore, it should only be given in moderation.”


What would be the ideal environment to keep a rabbit as a pet?

Dr Emily: “Rabbits need plenty of space for running, and binkying, not just hopping! Ideally, a rabbit enclosure should have two compartments, with a shelter to provide an area for sleeping and away from noise. The rabbit’s enclosure should be well-ventilated, dry, and draught-free. Please ensure your rabbits have adequate hiding places, enough bedding to stay warm, and a suitable toilet area.”

Dr Tessa: “The ideal environment is spacious, with a minimum total area required for two average-sized rabbits being 3m by 1.8m, and at least 90cm high. Rabbits must be able to jump, run, and show natural behaviour. The environment should be safe from predators and there should be a clean, dry area where they can rest and sleep in comfort, sheltered from wind, rain, and sun.”


Do rabbits need to be spayed/neutered?

Dr Emily: “It is important to sterilise rabbits in order to prevent reproduction and overpopulation! Sterilising rabbits also prevents destructive, aggressive, and dominant behaviours. Neutering male rabbits may reduce territorial behaviour. Spaying female rabbits will also reduce the risk of mammary cancer.”

Dr Tessa: “Yes, 80% of the unsterilised female rabbits will develop ovarian or uterine cancers, when they are five years of age. Males can also develop testicular cancers and testicular torsions (where the testicle rotates), which can be prevented. They also start breeding quite early. Therefore, I recommend sterilisation and castration from four to six months of age.”


Are there certain behavioural traits that people usually aren’t aware of before they get a rabbit?

Dr Emily: “Many people believe that rabbits are very cute and cuddly, while they are cute, rabbits are rarely cuddly! Rabbits are prey animals, which makes them nervous and they often don’t enjoy being picked up or cuddled.  Rabbits require patience and time to form bonds with their humans.”

Dr Tessa: “Rabbits love to dig and chew. So indoor rabbits should be prevented from chewing cables and getting electrocuted. Digging can sometimes result in the rabbit ending up on a neighbour’s property, where dogs or cats could attack them. Uncastrated males start to mark their territory and even start to urinate against their owners.”


Any last thoughts on the topic?

Dr Emily: “Looking after rabbits is a big commitment as they can live for up to 12 years! As pets, they need to live in pairs and need an environment to display their natural behaviours. They also need to visit the vet annually, for health checks, vaccinations, and treatments. Rabbits can make great pets, but they need gentle handling, a thorough understanding of their care needs, and plenty of attention!”

Dr Tessa: “Rabbits should be vaccinated on a yearly basis to prevent Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease, which is a deadly and very contagious viral disease. They have very powerful hind legs and a relatively fragile skeleton. So, when they suddenly kick without hind leg support, it can cause a fracture in the spinal cord. Rabbits are easily potty trained and can be taught various tricks, just like a dog. I personally don’t think a rabbit is suited for very small children.”


Learn more about our vets of the month!

Dr Emily graduated from the University of Bristol in 2013, and was drawn to Africa by its incredible wildlife. She spent 9 months volunteering for Ikhala Wildlife Veterinary Services and Amakhala Game Reserve, before returning to the UK to work in a mixed animal practice for 18 months. She treated everything from mice and snakes to cows and horses. She re-joined the Ikhala team in 2016, to pursue her passion for working with the wildlife and exotic animals that South Africa has to offer.

Currently the Practice Principle for Ikhala Veterinary Clinic, Emily is set on making the clinic an even more friendly, caring, and eco-conscious place. For her, being a vet is not just a career path, it’s who she is!

Emily has three dogs: Rupert the Great Dane, Inspector Morse the Basset Hound, and Rusty the Border Collie! She also has three cats: Dasher, Comet, and Pirate. As well as two horses: Danny and Savannah.


Dr Tessa was born and raised in the Netherlands, where she was able to work in zoos and wildlife rescue centres while studying as a veterinary nurse. When she earned her Animal Science degree, she moved to South Africa to study Veterinary Science. After graduating in 2014, she worked with various wildlife species in Lydenburg and Hoedspruit. In April 2018, Tessa opened the Family Vet Clinic in Centurion. In December 2020, she opened Family Vet Hazeldean, in Silverlakes.

Tessa loves the variety of working as a veterinarian, as you never know what will come through the door. She enjoys working with a variety of species, especially the small, furry, exotic animals. As a child, she always wanted to work with animals.

Tessa has a Rhodesian Ridgeback, two German Shorthair Pointers, a guinea pig, a rabbit, and a hamster (most of them are rescues).