Rabbits & Guinea Pigs make wonderful pets, are full of personality and can be a joy to watch and share your life with. But if you house them in the wrong kind of enclosure you can end up with a bored, miserable animal as well as a constant chore of cleaning.
Rabbits and guinea pigs should generally not be housed together. As well as being different sizes rabbits and guinea pigs have different social habits and require slightly different food. Whilst mixed enclosures can work, as a general rule your pets will be happier apart.
Indoors or Outdoors?
The traditional rabbit and guinea pig hutch is a wood and wire hutch designed to go outside, but the best place to keep rabbits and guinea pigs is inside the house. Animals kept outside can be attacked by predators (and can be killed just from the shock of a dog or other predator outside the cage) are exposed to extremes of heat and cold, and are exposed to greater risk of disease. It is also much harder to interact with an animal kept outside, so you loose much of the joy of owning a pet.
If you must have an outdoor rabbit, make sure it is kept in a mosquito proof enclosure, as myxamatosis is a real threat to pet rabbits in Australia. You must also ensure that the hutch is strong enough to keep out any predators and that the hutch is located out of the extremes of weather - wind, rain and sun.
Type of enclosure
There are a number of different types of enclosures available for rabbits and guinea pigs. Features to avoid are:
Solid plastic: These enclosures do not allow enough air flow into the cage.
Wire floors: These enclosures are sold as being clean, but are very bad for your pet. The feet of guinea pigs and rabbits are soft, and standing on a wire floor can lead to sores and abrasions on the feet. There is also a risk of your pet getting a foot caught in the wire and being injured. See the section below on cleaning for better ways of dealing with cage cleaning.
Multiple levels (for guinea pigs): Guinea pig enclosures should not have multiple levels - the space should be vertical, not horizontal. The tall, multiple level cages are suitable for other animals such as ferrets, not guinea pigs.
Features to look for:
Size: This is one of the most important aspects - the bigger the better (see below for recommendations). Most cages sold are much too small - if you must buy one think about whether you can provide exercise runs outside the cage, or join multiple cages together.
Position and size of doors: You should be able to access the whole of the cage easily for cleaning, and for rabbits you should be able to fit a litter tray through the door. Doors on the side of the cage are better for lifting your animals in and out, and you should make sure that the door does not flip downwards, as this creates a risk of your pet getting caught in it when entering and leaving the cage.
Ease of cleaning: The cage should be as easy to clean as possible, with surfaces that can be wiped down and no areas where food and hay can get caught.
As stated above, solid plastic is not a suitable material. Plastic bases under a wire cage are however suitable, and are very easy to clean, although it can be difficult to find a cage large enough with this style. The wire cage is also easy to clean and provides good airflow for your pet.
Wood cages are an excellent material, but you should be aware that rabbits do chew on wood, so any exposed wooden surfaces will be slowly destroyed. You can place strips of wood over exposed areas which can be replaced periodically to save the cage framework.
What size enclosure?
Most cages sold for rabbits and guinea pigs are far too small, particularly if the animal is to be kept in the cage all the time. A pair of guinea pigs should have a minimum of 0.7 square meters floor space (70cm X 100cm) with an additional 0.3 square metres for each additional animal. Avoid cages with multiple levels - guinea pigs are not climbing animals, and whilst they can have some upstairs area accessible by a gentle ramp most of the space needs to be on one level.
The size of enclosure needed for rabbits depends on the size of the rabbit. If the rabbit is to spend most of its time in the cage a minimum of 1 square meter for 1 rabbit with an additional 0.5 square meters is advisable. Unlike guinea pigs rabbits will climb, so this space can be given on more thanone level. Rabbits can access higher levels via shelves and should not require ramps. For an average size rabbit this requires at least 45cm. For a larger rabbit such as a New Zealand White you should allow around 75cm.
Time out of the cage
Both rabbits and guinea pigs should be allowed time out of their cages every day to allow them greater exercise & play opportunities - this is particularly important if they are kept in smaller cages. Rabbits that have been de-sexed are particularly suitable to being allowed to run in the house, as they can be effectively litter trained.
Before allowing your pet out into the house make sure that the house is safe, and remember that rabbits and guinea pigs do chew - electrical wires can be a particular hazard.
You will need to clean the cage regularly to keep your pets healthy and to eliminate any odours. Guinea pigs should be kept on a layer of litter approx 3-5cm deep. It is best to spot clean any damp or soiled patches daily, and replace the entire bedding every week. This can just be scooped out with a dustpan and brush, and the waste composted in the garden.
Rabbits can be kept on a layer of litter, but can generally be litter trained to use a tray. This is most successful if the rabbit has been de-sexed, as otherwise the rabbit will be driven to mark its territory. If using a litter tray you should change the litter either every day, or spot clean the tray and replace litter entirely every few days or once a week.
For both rabbits and guinea pigs the entire cage should be cleaned weekly. The best cleaner is 50/50 mix of vinegar and water. This is both a mild antiseptic and neutralises the acid in the animals’ urine, and so is effective in cleaning up any residues.
Other things you should look into:
This is a brief guide only, and before you consider purchasing a rabbit or guinea pig you should also make sure you know how to look after your pet, what food and accessories are required, what toys to give your pet etc. If you are getting more than one animal you should find out about bonding your pets - introducing new pets can lead to fighting over territory, and needs to be handled correctly to ensure your pets can live happily together. You should also think about whether to have your animal desexed. As well as preventing unwanted breeding this can be a good idea for rabbits particularly, as it leads to better behaviour, improved litter training and an increased lifespan in female rabbits, who have a high incidence of uterine cancer. You should also think about whether to get your pet from a breeder, pet shop or animal shelters. Animal shelters can be a great place to get rabbits and guinea pigs - as well as saving a life you will get a pet which has been vet checked, desexed and vaccinated for little around the same cost as a pet shop animal.
The internet is a great source of information on all these topics, and there are also many good books around. Look for sites and books that cover keeping rabbits and guinea pigs inside and as part of the family - many of the older and more traditional information is based on the requirements of intensive rabbit farming, not on keeping a happy pet.