by Dianne Cook, LVT
Rabbits have been domesticated for centuries, but the transition from farm to family member has been a more recent development. As more people learn that these intelligent, sensitive, charismatic little animals can make exceptional free roaming companions, pet parents around the world are ditching their outdoor (and indoor) hutches and cramped wire cages, opting instead to provide their bunnies with a free roaming existence. Allowing your rabbit to roam freely certainly has some substantial benefits, but before taking the leap, it’s important to consider all aspects of your home environment as well as the natural inclinations of your furry little friend to make sure the free roam lifestyle is pleasant and safe for everyone.
What Does “Free Roam” Mean?
Instead of spending most of their time in an enclosure, free roam rabbits are allowed to wander freely in the home or apartment, even when their pet parents aren’t present. Similar to the way many people share their homes with cats and dogs, free roam rabbits can explore, nap, and play wherever they please. While some folks allow their bunnies run of the entire home, others will restrict access by blocking off areas that are too dangerous or contain plants or furniture that would be best kept away from curious little mouths.
How Will a Free Roam Lifestyle Benefit My Bunny?
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
As with many animals, including humans, rabbits have a tendency to gain weight easily and can quickly become obese. Because life as a free roaming bunny naturally encourages frequent, daily exercise, the risk of obesity is mitigated.
Joint and Bone Health
In addition to maintaining their svelte figure, an active lifestyle helps encourage healthy joints and strong bones and will help your kiddo maintain muscle mass as they age.
Bladder Sludge and Stones – Shake it Up!
Additionally, as animals who excrete excess calcium through their kidneys, rabbits naturally have an increased risk of developing bladder sludge/stones. The movement and activity encouraged by a free roaming lifestyle shakes up the contents of their bladder and moves the calcium sediment around, thereby helping prevent sludge and stone formation.
Mental and Social Stimulation
A free roam lifestyle also tends to be more mentally and socially stimulating and all the extra one-on-one time together can help strengthen the special human-animal bond you share with your bunny while reducing the occurrence of boredom-based behaviors.
Keeping Your Free Roam Bunny Safe
Due to their naturally inquisitive dispositions, rabbits can easily get themselves into compromising situations. As a result, it’s imperative to take the appropriate steps to make sure you, your home, and your rabbit are properly prepared before allowing free roaming. This way you don’t have to worry about your fur baby every time you’re out for the day. The following considerations will make the free roam experience as safe as possible.
Get to Know Your Rabbit
Taking the time to view the world through the eyes of your rabbit will help you make the transition to a free roam lifestyle much smoother and less stressful for all involved. Familiarize yourself with your rabbit’s preferences, eccentricities, and mannerisms. Where do they like to hide? What do they prefer to chew on? What makes them happy? Listening to your rabbit in this way will help you determine which area(s) of the home would be best suited for your little one and which areas might be best kept off limits. Beyond gathering intel, this exercise will also establish the mutual trust and bonding that is essential for a successful free roam lifestyle and happy life together.
Get Your Rabbit Spayed or Neutered
Spayed or neutered rabbits tend to be more demonstrative and affectionate toward their pet parents and are typically easier to litter box train, both of which are significant benefits when considering free roaming. Because spaying and neutering changes their hormonal response and eliminates their deeply engrained desire to propagate, altered rabbits are less likely to exhibit unwanted behaviors (such as spraying, humping, and circling). Additionally, without the desire to constantly procreate, altered bunnies are also less inclined to become aggressive or develop territorial behavior challenges.
Litter Box Training Is a Must
Rabbits are naturally fastidious creatures and tend to have very particular bathroom habits. This combination, coupled with their intelligence, make rabbits the perfect candidates for litter training. As small, hind-gut fermenters, in order to keep their digestive tract running smoothly, rabbits must take in a high volume of fiber every day. This near constant intake naturally leads to a rather surprising daily volume of fecal production which, if your kiddo isn’t litter box trained, will be sprinkled throughout your home upon your return at the end of the day. For tips on the litter training process, read: How to Litter Train Your Rabbit.
Bunny Proof Your Home
Why is Bunny Proofing Important?
Just as baby proofing is essential to keeping young human children safe and healthy, similar precautions must be taken to keep your bunny safe. Before letting your fur baby “run wild,” you must take the time to properly and thoroughly bunny proof your home.
Keep Chewing in Check
As rabbit parents worldwide will attest, rabbits will instinctually chew on any hard or fibrous materials and can be quite destructive if their chewing habits are not redirected. For the safety of your beloved bunny (not to mention your baseboards), it is important to make sure anything you do not want your rabbit to chew on is properly protected. This can be achieved by blocking off access to certain rooms with metal play pens or baby gates, keeping loose wires and cords picked up and safely tucked away, or placing a sturdy rug or woven grass mat in the corners of the room to discourage digging.
Any wires that must remain plugged in should be protected by a durable cover to prevent chewing and the risk of electrocution. Play pens or wire fencing can be used to protect furniture legs and baseboard, while remaining sleek and low profile.
Fencing Considerations & More Tips
When choosing a fencing option, either to restrict room access or prevent your little one from sampling your new microfiber couch, make sure it is tall enough your rabbit cannot jump over it and put themselves in harm’s way. For more tips on bunny proofing your home, watch the following video presented by Lennon the Bunny.
As prey species, rabbits are incredibly sensitive to changes in their environment. Significant or abrupt adjustments in your little one’s home life and daily routine can be incredibly stressful, even if the changes are being made with your bunny’s best interest at heart. To limit stress, make small, gradual, thoughtful changes and closely observe your little one at every step.
Expand the Habitat with an X-Pen
Instead of abruptly discarding of your rabbit’s enclosure and allowing them access to the entire home in one fell swoop, leave the enclosure door open and surround the habitat with a play pen. This will allow your bunny the necessary time to get used to having more space to explore while still having the comfort of their familiar enclosure nearby for napping or hiding.
Add a Room for Roaming
Once they’ve proven they’re ready for more room, expand the area again by making the play pen bigger or allowing access to just one room of the home. Wait and observe after every change, gradually increasing the areas of the home to which your rabbit is allowed access room-by-room.
Start with Short Increments
Once your rabbit has gotten the hang of their new free roam lifestyle, you can start leaving them unattended. Begin with short increments and slowly increase their alone time. A full, eight-hour workday is not a safe option for your kiddo’s first time home alone. Instead, start with shorter trips away. If your bunny remains well-behaved after several hour-long absences, lengthen their next several times alone to 2 or 3 hours.
Each time you get home, explore the environment closely, looking for anything your bunny may have nibbled on or gotten into while you were away. If anything is found, make the appropriate environmental adjustments and forge on until you know you can trust your bunny to stay out of trouble for an entire workday.
Throughout this process, remember to be patient, not only with your bunny, but also yourself. Mistakes will be made. Accidents will happen. Free roaming is a learning experience for you both and will take some time to master.
A Bored Bunny is a Destructive Bunny
As you can likely imagine, living in an environment with the same things to do day-in-and-day-out, with very little change in scenery would get very boring rather quickly. The same is true for your rabbit.
Just Add Enrichment!
To best support your kiddo’s natural instincts, provide plenty of safe, species appropriate chews and activity centers throughout the rabbit accessible areas of your home. Not only will these items assist in redirecting your rabbit’s natural chewing behavior, they will also stimulate their mind and keep them sharp and mentally active. It is important to rotate these items frequently to help hold your rabbit’s interest and limit boredom-based behaviors.
Don’t Forget to Offer Hay All Day
Along the same lines, it is absolutely essential that your bunny has access to an unlimited quantity of grass hay daily. Beyond being your rabbit’s primary source of essential fiber, rabbits also use hay for playing and nesting, making it an incredibly versatile enrichment option. To keep your rabbit interested, offer a variety of hays in various forms.
Feeding Hay Can Be Enriching Too!
Instead of just offering hay in a hay manger every day, try switching things up. Put some hay in a bowl or alternate shallow, chew-resistant container. Try stuffing small handfuls of hay into empty toilet paper rolls or natural chews to make a fun, challenging game, or try your hand at one of the following fun, all-natural DIY projects: DIY Snack Wreath for Small Pets or DIY May Day Pet Basket.
What If I Can’t Allow My Pet to Free Roam?
The decision to free roam needs to be made on a case-by-case basis as it may not be appropriate or possible for all pets or pet parents. While many rabbits are perfectly content entertaining themselves for several hours out of the day, they are incredibly social creatures by nature and crave companionship.
Consider a Companion
If free roaming is not a good fit for your family, considering getting your bunny a friend as a companion to help meet their social needs and stimulate their need for interaction. It is also essential to consider other household pets before turning your bunny loose in the house. Rabbits should typically not be left to roam the home unsupervised with cats or dogs. Even if your kitty or pooch is typically a sweet-natured goofball, the instinctual desire to chase small, furry, fast-moving creatures is strong in many cats and dogs and could lead to an unsafe or life-threatening scenario for your bunny. Similarly, it is important to never let unbonded rabbits roam freely together as territorial squabbles or general disagreements can lead to altercations.
Bunny Safety First
If you live in an environment that would pose a risk to the safety of your bunny, it is best to keep your kiddo in an enclosure while you are out of the home. It is imperative that the enclosure you choose is appropriately sized for your rabbit (bigger is always better), and that your rabbit still has ample time every day to get out of their enclosure for supervised play time. Just because your bunny doesn’t always have access to the entire home, doesn’t mean they don’t need room to roam.
Living with a free roam bunny can be unbelievably rewarding for both you and your rabbit, but before you ditch your rabbit’s old habitat, make sure you’ve taken the necessary safety precautions and have allowed your bunny time to adapt to life outside an enclosure. It is also important to give yourself and your rabbit some grace as you settle into the new routine. Ultimately, the joy of being greeted at the door by your bunny after a long day or snuggling on the couch with your furry friend to watch your favorite show, is worth the learning curve.