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The different lifestages of a rabbit, how long they live, how age influences behaviour, and how to care for rabbits from youth to old age...

How long do rabbits live?

A rabbit's lifespan is influenced by breed, living conditions and healthcare but the average lifespan is likely to be around 8 to 9 years.  It can be helpful to think of one year in a rabbit's life as ten years in a human's life, so an 8 year old rabbit could be thought of as approximately 80 years old in human terms.  As with humans, improvements in rabbit medicine and healthcare are enabling rabbits to reach very old age, in some cases as much as 12 years old, or 120 in human terms.

How much influence does age have on a rabbit's behaviour?

Once other factors such as breed, neutering/spaying, living conditions and healthcare have been factored out, age is probably the greatest influence on a rabbit's behaviour.  While all rabbits have different personalities and may mature at different rates, this article aims to give a rough overview of the different lifestages of a rabbit.

0 - 3 months old: Babyhood

Baby rabbits, or 'kits', are born hairless and with closed eyes.  They are completely dependent on their mother, who usually feeds them once a day at most.  Their eyes open at around 10 days and they continue to nurse on their mother's very rich milk until weaning at around 3 to 4 weeks old, when they also start to move around and 'walk'.  Baby rabbits should be kept with their mother until they are at least 6 weeks old, preferably 8 weeks old.  Sudden changes in diet at this age may well lead to enteritis which is usually fatal and baby rabbits should always have access to fresh grass or hay and water, as well as dry food.

A rabbit's behaviour at this age is lively and playful and regular handling from the age of 4 or 5 weeks is important to socialise the rabbit.  Baby rabbits should be checked frequently for potential health problems as this is a particularly vulnerable age for them.  Regrettably, this is also the 'cute' phase when many are purchased on impulse.

3 - 6 months old: Adolescence

Male rabbits tend to reach sexual maturity at around 3 to 4 months old and females are a little later at around 5 to 6 months old.  This is nearly always accompanied by a marked change in behaviour, one which often leads to owners giving up their rabbits on the grounds of 'aggressive' behaviour.  Male rabbits will often spray urine as a sign of courtship, circle your feet and mount them.  Female rabbits tend to become very territorial over their personal space and may growl or lunge at you.  They may also start to go through phantom pregnancies, where they pull hair from their tummy to line a nest.  All this behaviour is distressing for rabbits, as well as their owners, but happily has a very simple solution.  Both males and females can be neutered / spayed as soon as they reach sexual maturity and this very often virtually eradicates the troublesome behaviour.

6 months - 1 year: Teenagers

Once rabbits have been de-sexed, they tend to exercise less and put on weight easier and we should begin to limit their dry food to about an eggcup a day.  At this age, rabbits are still fully maturing and 'filling out' and if a rabbit has hereditary dental problems they are likely to become apparent at this age, so set good habits young and ensure that their diet is at least 80% good quality hay or grass.

At this age, rabbits can be a little moody and less inclined to socialise with us.  They are trying to figure out their place in the hierarchy, whether this is with another rabbit or rabbits, other pets or with you.  Be patient with them and don't take it personally - just think of them as teenagers!

1 - 3 years: Young Adulthood

This is probably the most active phase of a rabbit's life.  They require plenty of exercise, preferably in a secure free roaming environment, and will often 'binky' (jump in the air and race around) to let off excess energy.  They like to dig, chew and explore and for house rabbit owners this can be a trying time!  Give them lots of attention, play with them and offer them plenty of toys, chewsticks, digging boxes and so on.

3 - 5 years old: Middle Age

At this age rabbits tend to slow down a little, sleep more and be generally less active.  They may also become more and more affectionate, particularly house rabbits who live closely with their owners.  Their level of trust in us has built up to the extent that they feel completely safe and secure in their home and able to truly relax and take it easy.  A very happy, peaceful time in a rabbit's life (health problems excluded).

5 - 7 years old: Late Middle Age

Age related health problems such as arthritis may start to creep in and a greater level of care is usually required.  Rabbits may require help with keeping their bottoms clean, their dewlaps clean and dry and may be more at risk of sore hocks due to a generally lower level of motility.  Regular healthchecks are important and you may find yourself subconsciously bracing for bad news.  Even very well cared for rabbits may develop tumours, respiratory problems, kidney failure and so on which is ultimately fatal.  Just as with humans, their bodies start to wear out.

7 - 9 years old: Old Age

Many rabbits can still be quite active at this age while others may slow right down to the point where they will need a different litter tray or access routes through their enclosures, due to an inability or disinclination to hop or jump.  A large proportion of rabbits at this age may be dealing with chronic illness and require regular medication and/or care.  This often leads to a very close bond between rabbit and owner and it is truly a privilege to care for a rabbit in its twilight years as so few of them make it this far due to poor care.  Rabbits of this age put a huge amount of trust in their owners.

It is perhaps one of the ironies of living with rabbits that the older they are and the more we are required to care for them, the more we love them.  Losing a rabbit at any age is hard, but despite the satisfaction of knowing you have given a rabbit the longest possible lifespan, the pain of losing them at a very old age is all the harder to cope with due to the very close bond which has formed.

Tags: behaviour

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