Exercising Your Rabbit

Exercise is important for your rabbit.  It promotes good overall health and prevents obesity.  Providing your rabbit with exercise will ensure proper respiratory and cardiovascular function, as well as promote muscle development.  In addition, exercise aids in preventing boredom and unwanted behaviors.  Some experts recommend two hours a day of exercise time outside of the cage environment.  If your rabbit lives in a large cage, less exercise may be adequate.

Indoor versus outdoor exercise:

When exercising your rabbit indoors, ensure its play area is safe and free of potential hazards. Rabbits instinctively chew. Therefore, it is essential for your rabbit’s well-being to rabbit-proof all exercise areas.  Remove electrical cords, computer cables, houseplants, and other hazards from your rabbit’s exercise area. Pick up books, magazines, and anything your rabbit could destroy. Block off furniture from your rabbit’s reach. Examine the room carefully for tight spaces in which your rabbit could get stuck. 

When exercising your rabbit outdoors, ensure it is in a secure area and cannot escape through a small opening or hole or by digging.  The location should be free of potential predators, such as dogs, cats, birds of prey, and wild animals.  Do not exercise your rabbit in an area where he can nibble on poisonous plants or where the grass and foliage have been sprayed with pesticides or fertilizers.

A great way to ensure your rabbit’s safety is to use an exercise pen designed for dogs or small children to keep the rabbit away from hazards.  Always supervise time outside of the cage.

Types of activities: 

There are a variety of activities you can do with your rabbit.  When first taken to a new location, your rabbit may be more active as it explores its environment. Rabbits enjoy examining new objects and scent marking their new territory.  However, over time (generally one to two weeks), your rabbit may become bored with the environment and will be less active unless you add other activities.

One way to encourage activity is to provide toys and other items for your rabbit to explore.  Purchase toys at your local pet store or make ones on your own.  Rabbits enjoy exploring boxes, paper towel rolls, and other items. Set up your own toys for your rabbit to be more active.  Attach newspaper or paper towels to a low hanging clothes line to allow the rabbit to reach up and chew on or pull off.  More information about toys to provide your rabbit can be found in the article “Appropriate toys for rabbits.”  Changing the toys available to your rabbit regularly will help to maintain interest and activity level.

Some rabbits enjoy games of chase.  Always let the rabbit chase you so he doesn’t confuse you for a predator.  To get a rabbit to initiate a game of chase, try dragging a toy on a string or pulling around a towel.   

Another good activity for your rabbit is providing him with a chance to dig.  Build your own digging box. Provide a box that has enough loose dirt or sand for your rabbit to dig in but not so deep that he can’t get out.  Always supervise your rabbit while he has access to the digging box.

Training your rabbit to walk on a leash is a good way for him to exercise and explore the surroundings. Fit your rabbit with a harness prior to going on his first walk.  This allows the rabbit to become familiar with the harness. Harnesses designed for rabbits can be purchased at a pet store. Also, harnesses made for cats and small dogs work well. Harnesses that are soft and have wider straps are better than thin rope harnesses, as they are less likely to dig into your rabbit’s skin. 

Do not use a collar on your rabbit as this can pull on his neck and damage his trachea or throat.  Some rabbits need time adjusting to a harness.  Let your rabbit adapt gradually to the harness by wearing it around the house without a leash. After your rabbit becomes accustomed to the harness, attach the leash. Use a lightweight nylon leash or choose a more elastic leash that has “give” in it when your rabbit gets to the end of the leash, to prevent choking or injury.  Use lots of positive reinforcement in the form of treats and praise to help your rabbit adapt to the harness and leash.  When walking your rabbit, let him decide where he wants to go and lead you rather than you trying to walk him like a dog. Most rabbits will not walk on a leash like a dog. Also, be careful not to let your rabbit chew through its leash and escape.

Try teaching your rabbit some basic commands using treats as rewards. Some rabbits may learn to sit up, come, or jump up onto places.  These take time and patience to learn.  Encourage your rabbit to perform these tasks by providing lots of praise and treats as positive reinforcement. 

Two other fun ways rabbit owners exercise their rabbits is training and/or competing in rabbit hopping and rabbit agility.  Rabbit hopping is where rabbits go through a jumping course, similar to a horse in a steeplechase. The Rabbit Hopping Organization of America is a group that oversees rabbit hopping events and competitions.  There may be an organization in your area that can assist you with training your rabbit in rabbit hopping. The Iowa Hopping site provides a variety of information on how to get started and what to expect.

Rabbit agility is another competition where rabbits go through an obstacle course with jumps, tunnels, walks, etc., similar to dog agility. Information can be found at www.rabbitagility.com.

Providing your rabbit with a variety of supervised exercise will ensure its mental and physical well-being.  Activity prevents boredom and obesity.  It also is a way for you to interact and bond with your pet.

Lisa Karr-Lilienthal Ph.D. – University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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