Any architect will tell you that the shape, size, and location of your home, your neighborhood, your workplace all affect the way you feel. We offer this month some nuts-and-bolts ideas on housing your rabbit. In addition, we will discuss the effects of physical environment on social relationships and ways that you can shape behavior by some simple changes in living space.
CREATURES OF HABIT
Those of you whose rabbits love to be grabbed, lifted, and carried can skip this section. You don’t need suggestions for minimizing these events in your bunny’s daily life.
For many of us (and our rabbits), the daily transition from cage-time to running-time and back again is an exercise in frustration. A rabbit may be sweetness personified — until you try to pull or push him through a small cage-door, or chase her into a corner in order to make a grab for her.
If your rabbit runs away when you try to catch her, a smaller running area will mean a shorter chase. The less you have to chase her, the sooner she will learn that being picked up and taken to her cage (where numerous treats await her) is not so bad. Once she’s comfortable with that, she can have more running space. Now the environment is helping you to train your rabbit instead of hindering the process.
The running area, like the cage, should be bunny proofed and chock full of permitted chewables and toys. Place litterboxes in her favorite elimination spots. Here the environment allows your rabbit to acquire good habits and prevents her from developing bad ones.
For many rabbits, simply being able to get in and out of the cage on their own can have a dramatic positive effect on their temperament. You may need to move the cage to the floor or widen the cage door (as described later). Floor lures can also help to establish a pleasant routine. Remember Hansel and Gretel, who left a trail of crumbs in the forest? Show your bunny that the road back to his cage at bedtime is paved with rice cakes.
Another powerful lure is your lagomorph friend’s highly developed sense of curiosity. You may find that simply going over to her cage and moving the litterbox, putting in some hay, or just generally messing around her stuff will bring her hurrying over to investigate.
If her cage is in a different room from her running area, you may want to carry the entire cage and then open the door for her to hop in and out on her own. A portable cage also makes it easy to have her with you in a variety of locations. You can be socializing your shy rabbit while you’re on the phone or cooking dinner and even while you’re sleeping.
THE RIGHT BALANCE
Your rabbit’s living space can encourage a routine that includes both socialization and freedom. As you find the living arrangement that balances his individual needs for both these elements, you will be helping him to become a true house rabbit. Because so many rabbits have been consigned to life in a hutch or cage, it is natural for house rabbit people to want to liberate their pets from this depressing tradition. Certainly a house rabbit with no cage is better off than one with no time outside a cage; but many rabbits need a place to call their own, for their peace of mind and for yours.
BUY IT OR BUILD IT—OR BOTH
Your first consideration is size. That’s easy: bigger is better. Of course, bigger also costs more and takes up more space, so you may have some constraints. The more time your rabbit is outside her cage, the smaller the cage can be. A bunny who spends a good portion of her day or evening dashing around your apartment will use most of her cage time for naps.
On the other hand, a large cage is not a substitute for free-running time. When she’s in her large cage or habitat, she may be getting some physical exercise, but unless you’re in there with her, she’s not getting any social exercise.
When shopping for or designing a cage, placement of the door is an important consideration. As discussed in our previous issue’s behavior article, side doors bring out the worst in many rabbits. They feel threatened by hands reaching in at their eye level, and they may lunge at or bite the intruder. Some people prefer side doors because it’s easy for the rabbit to hop in and out on his own. You can make a top opening cage easy and safe for your rabbit to jump into and out of by draping a towel across the top when the cage is open. This gives them a fairly solid surface for takeoffs and landings, and prevents them from getting a toe or foot caught in wire.
The size of the door is also worth noting. Housetraining and cage cleaning are much easier if there’s a litter-box inside the cage, as well as one (or several) outside it. Many cages have doors that are too small to fit a litterbox. You can enlarge a door on a store-bought cage using wire cutters and crimpers.
Most cages have wire floors; a few have slatted floors. In general slatted floors are easier to clean and easier on your rabbit’s feet. Dwarf rabbits and very young rabbits sometimes have difficulty on slatted floors because their feet can become caught between the slats. A wire floor should be at least partly covered by newspaper, wood, cardboard, or a towel, to give the rabbit a chance to rest on some surface other than wire. A litterbox inside a wire cage also serves this purpose.
The bottom of the cage, beneath the wire or slats, may be a drawer that pulls out, or it may be a tray that is clipped to the cage. The entire cage must be lifted and moved in order for the tray to be cleaned. The pullout drawer is much easier on your back.
If you want to build a cage, the same issues apply. When I adopted my first rabbit, I bought a wire cage. She lived in it for several months, while I learned what features I liked (and which ones Trixie liked). Then I was ready to design one myself. If you already have a cage, you may want to make some notes about it as a way of starting to think about your preferences.
You can make a slatted floor using 3/4 inch wood molding covered with plastic shelf casings.
Other than your rabbit, what should you put inside the cage? As discussed above, a litterbox serves several purposes in the cage. Toys (see our November issue) help to pass the time for caged rabbits.
A cardboard box, or a towel draped over one corner of the cage, gives him a hiding or napping place. Your rabbit may enjoy pushing a towel around the cage. Rabbits are born rearrangers. Don’t expect the litterbox to stay in one place unless you secure it with clips or wire.
PRISON OR HOME?
We humans tend to view cages as synonymous with isolation, deprivation, and punishment. A rabbit who lives his whole life in a cage may feel the same. A house rabbit who is allowed at least a few hours of running time and also lives in a cage on her human companion’s desk or next to the bed is unlikely to dislike her cage.
If your rabbit is not fully house-trained, or if he has a craving for telephone cords, a cage is an educational necessity. In it, he can learn about litterboxes and permitted chewables and have a safe space during times that you can’t supervise.
The cage may not be a permanent feature in your rabbit’s life. You may find after a few months or a few years that the cage is no longer necessary. Your house rabbit has settled into a routine that no longer calls for it, and you can put it in the back closet —until you adopt/rescue a new buddy for your bunny.
Do you have a creative solution to your rabbit’s living/running-space? HRJ will begin frequent coverage of readers’ home built structures and adaptations of existing structures. All submissions, photos, drawings or text will be fully credited, but care should be taken to right-protect any ideas that could have manufacturing potential.
House Rabbit Journal Volume I 1989