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Small Mammal Medicine: Rabbit:
Basic Information for European Rabbits

European Rabbit—Oryctolagus cuniculus

By William Warby from Flickr Creative Commons

Natural history Originally from the Iberian peninsula, the rabbit was introduced to the Romans over 2000 years ago. Rabbits were fully domesticated by the 17th century, and they became popular as childrens pets during the Victorian era.
Taxonomy Class Mammalia
Order Lagomorpha
Family Leporidae
European rabbits belong to the same family as hares and cottontail rabbits.
Breeds There are at least 42 pet rabbit breeds. Popular breeds include the Dutch,
Netherland Dwarf (adults weigh 1 kg or less), and Rex rabbits.
Diet Hay is essential to a rabbit's health. Rabbits should also be fed a small amount of high fiber pellets (minimum 18% fiber), and a variety of vegetables including leafy green like cilantro and parsley as well as root vegetables.
Husbandry Rabbits are crepuscular, but they can adjust their schedule somewhat to that of their human family's schedule. Rabbits are also very social and
territorial animals.
House rabbits on solid flooring with recycled paper product or aspen shavings. If wire flooring must be used, cover at least a portion with carpet remnants, grass mats, synthetic sheepskin, or towels (monitor for chewing). Rabbits may be litter pan trained.
Bunny-proof the home (or a room) by preventing access to electrical cords and other dangerous items while providing safe, chewable items and toys. Rabbits should also be provided with visual security such as a hide box.
Normal physiologic values
Temperature 101.3-103 F 38.0-39.6 C
Pulse 180-325 bpm
Respiration 30-60 bpm
Mean life span 6-7 years
Sexual maturity 4-6 months smaller breeds 4-4.5 months
larger breeds 4.5-5 months
Gestation 30-33 days
Birth weight 40-50 g
Litter size 1-6 (average 2)
Weaning age 6-8 weeks
Target environmental temperature: 60-70 F 15.6-21.0 C
Daily h20 intake 120 ml/kg/day
Anatomy / physiology
  • Calcium metabolism is unique in rabbits. All ingested calcium is excreted by the kidneys. Therefore urine varies with diet, and may appear thick and creamy white in rabbits on a high-calcium diet.
  • Rabbit neutrophils are called heterophils.
  • The thymus lies ventral to the heart, and extends up into the thoracic inlet. The large thymus persists, even into adulthood.
  • Rabbits are obligate nasal breathers.
  • Dental formula: Incisors 2/1 Canines 0/0 Premolars 3/2 Molars 3/3
    The peg teeth are the second pair of maxillary incisors positioned behind the first pair. All teeth continuously erupt from the open root.
  • Rabbits produce cecotropes ("night feces"), which are regularly ingested. Cecotrophy provides vitamins B and K, amino acids, and fiber.
  • Indigestible fiber (cellulose, lignin) drives gastrointestinal motility.
  • Female rabbits are induced ovulators. The uterus consists of two uterine horns with no uterine body that communicates with two cervices. The oviducts are very long and coiled.
  • Does nurse their young once or twice daily for 3-5 minutes at a time (the milk is extremely rich).
  • The rabbit skeleton is relatively thin and lightweight, making up 6-8% of body weight.
Restraint Rabbits possess a relatively lightweight, delicate skeleton paired with extremely strong, well-developed back and leg muscles. With improper restraint, rabbits that struggle or kick run the risk of a broken back or leg. Always restrain rabbits on a non-slip surface such as a large, heavy towel or pad.
Preventative medicine
  • Castration is recommended to reduce the risk of urine spraying and improve pet quality.
  • Ovariohysterectomy is recommended to prevent uterine adenocarcinoma
    and improve pet quality. Spaying before 6 months of age is recommended to avoid excess fat.
Venipuncture Collect larger volumes from the jugular vein or lateral saphenous vein.
Smaller samples may be taken from the cephalic vein.
Important medical conditions Crystalluria, urolithiasis
Gastrointestinal stasis
Lumbosacral fracture, luxation
Uterine adenocarcinoma
Antibiotics to Avoid Avoid antimicrobials that attack only gram-positive bacteria such as beta-lactams.

  • Penicillin
  • Lincosamide, lincomycin
  • Amoxicillin, ampicillin
  • Cephalosporins, clindamycin
  • Erythromycin
References and further reading

Banks RE, Sharp JM, Doss SD, Vanderford DA. Exotic Small Mammal Care and Husbandry. Durham, NC: Wiley-Blackwell; 2010.

Bays TB, Lightfoot TL, Mayer J. Exotic Pet Behavior: Birds, Reptiles, and Small Mammals. WB Saunders, St. Louis, 2006.

Dyer SM, Cervasio EL. An overview of restraint and blood collection techniques in exotic pet practice. Vet Clin Exot Anim 11:423-443, 2008.

Harriman M. House Rabbit Handbook: How to Live with an Urban Rabbit, 4th ed. Alameda: Drollery Press; 2005.

House Rabbit Society. House Rabbit Society website. Available at

Mayer J. Natural history of the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Exotic Mammal Medicine and Surgery. p.6

Mitchell MA, Tully TN. Manual of Exotic Pet Practice. St. Louis, MO: Saunders Elsevier; 2009.

Quesenberry KE, Carpenter JW (eds). Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery, 2nd ed. Philadelphia, WB Saunders, 2004.

O’Malley B (ed). Clinical Anatomy and Physiology of Exotic Species. Saunders Elsevier. 2005. Pp. 173-195.

Author: Christal Pollock, DVM, Dipl. ABVP-Avian; Lafeber Company veterinary consultant

Date: March 31, 2010