Beyond Cages: The Possibilities of Pen Living

Everybody’s seen them at the pet store. A cage 24 by 18 inches or smaller, containing a package of pine shavings, a water bottle, and a cardboard box of rabbit pellets. A “starter kit” designed to go with the spontaneous acquisition of a rabbit, probably a baby, who will fit through the small door. In 1989 HRJ printed “An Appeal to Cage Manufacturers,” with suggestions on improving the basic wire rabbit-cage. Since then we have regularly printed pictures of innovative cages or condos. However, these luxury cages can be expensive or time consuming to obtain or build. Bunny adoption counselors continue to face the challenge of how to make things easy for someone bringing home a first-time house rabbit.

The purchase of a cage is usually suggested to ease the transition of the rabbit to the home without frustration over litterbox failures or chewing of household items. The set up is perhaps, seen as temporary. But as I talk to rabbit caretakers, I find the cage often has become a permanent part of bunny’s life. Yes, for some rabbits the cage door is left open. But for many, the cage remains a place they are confined more hours than not.

As an HRS educator, I understand that a house rabbit may need part-time confinement for a variety of reasons. The most positive is to give bunny a place of his own and things of his own to play with and modify as he desires. However, most cages are limited in what they provide for the rabbit, and seem to limit the caretaker’s imagination too. While I continued to recommend cages to adopters, other volunteers were finding alternatives.

HRS volunteers in Orange County, CA were using and recommending puppy play pens to house-rabbit adopters. When rabbit rescuer Camilla Kulin donated some wire pens to my own foster home, I began to experiment. I was surprised how much stuff a 4 by 4 foot pen could hold: a giant hay-filled litterbox; a multi-level play house; a cardboard tunnel; throw toys and hanging toys. The pens, made of hinged mesh panels, could be reconfigured as different foster rabbits came through my apartment. I could include or exclude, furniture, corners, and walls. Best of all, the whole area could be dismantled on cleaning day, and any debris, swept up from my hardwood floors.

Now that my foster rabbits enjoyed more diversions than a cage could provide, I wanted this lifestyle to continue in their new homes-which typically have wall to wall carpet. A floorless pen leaves carpet vulnerable to bunny digging, chewing, and water or urine spills. This problem was solved by HRS educator and fosterer Karyne Cutler, who routinely houses rabbits in pens on her carpeted living room floor. Karyne buys hard plastic chairmats, sold to go under office chairs, to make floors for her pens. She tucks a bed sheet over the mat, and sets the pen walls inside the edge of the floor, so the edge is unavailable to the bunny. The result is a bunnyproof, waterproof play area that is easily cleaned. This setup has proved so successful that it’s now been several years since any of our bunny adopters have needed to buy a cage.

The cost is comparable to that of a good quality cage. Prices vary, but several pet supply catalogs offer a 36-inch- high pen of 8 two-foot-wide panels for under $70. A 48 by 53-inch chairmat costs about $20, and bed sheets can be purchased at a thrift store.

For those rare, usually young, rabbits determined to escape, a lid can be added; but generally a three-foot-high pen with no lid is sufficient. (Please note that neither a pen nor a cage protects a rabbit from predators.) A lower 24-inch-high pen gives you easier access to invalid or complacent bunnies. For stay-at-home rabbits, a double-story house, ramp or table can allow bunny to come to you for petting from inside the pen. Another benefit of pen living: a more complicated environment takes the “cabin fever” out of rabbit match-making: many bunny fights start in cages. Finally, a pen offers what no cage can: an opportunity to visit your rabbit in his own environment.

House Rabbit Journal Winter 2000: Volume IV, Number 4

(NOTE: Check out San Diego House Rabbit Society’s terrific recommendations on ex-pen living!)