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Rabbits as Pets

What to Consider Before Bringing Home a Rabbit

You're relaxing on the couch with your favorite DVD, when suddenly you're surrounded by rabbits. That's a typical situation for Jill and Bob Mills and their daughter, Ashley, of Sacramento, Calif. The Mills family has four Dwarf Dutch rabbits who are litter box trained and have the run of the house. The bunnies spend their mornings frolicking in the backyard, afternoons napping under the beds and evenings snuggling and socializing with their human family.

Unfortunately, not all pet rabbits get to enjoy this kind of life. Caroline Charland receives around 30 phone calls a day from people trying to get rid of unwanted rabbits. Many of these animals are children's pets, says Charland, president and founder of the Bunny Bunch SPCR (www.bunnybunch.org), a rabbit rescue organization based in Southern California. Parents tend to buy their children rabbits on impulse, especially around Easter. But the new owners often haven't researched rabbit care or behavior, and before long, Charland says, the kids aren't interested anymore.

According to the House Rabbit Society (www.rabbit.org), an international rabbit rescue and education organization, thousands of rabbits are released outdoors or abandoned at animal shelters every year.

The Bunny Report

Considering a rabbit as your next family pet? Here are a few things to think about before buying that bunny:

  • The rabbit is going to be your rabbit. It's really important for parents to realize this, Charland says. Children simply don't have the maturity to provide everything a rabbit needs, and expecting them to be responsible for a rabbit – or any pet – is unfair to both animal and child.
  • Rabbits are a lot of work. "My top concern with families and rabbits is the amount of work that rabbits take," says Susan Davis, co-author of Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature (Lantern Books, 2003), and a national educator with the House Rabbit Society. "I would really advise families that are having a hard time holding it together in terms of time management to not go for a rabbit, because they're not really easy keepers." Although rabbits keep themselves impeccably clean, their litter boxes, food bowls and shedding hair can make for a housekeeping nightmare. "You should see our vacuum bag," says Jill Mills. "It's full of rabbit hair."
  • Rabbits are a serious commitment. A healthy rabbit can live for around seven to 10 years, and the things needed to keep bunny healthy – veterinary care, food, toys and household equipment – aren't cheap. In addition, rabbits have emotional needs that must be met, says Bob Mills. "They become depressed and worried if you don't give them copious amounts of attention on a daily basis," he says. "[You have to] be willing to devote some time every morning and evening to play with and cuddle your rabbit."
  • Rabbits are not long-eared dogs or cats. Rabbits are prey animals, explains Dr. Jeffery Jenkins of the Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital in San Diego, Calif. "They are from the bottom of the food chain, so they don't do well being handled as roughly as a dog or cat," Dr. Jenkins says. This is also why rabbits tend to be sensitive to loud noises and disruptions in their routines. Jill Mills agrees. "While bunnies are just as sweet and loving as a cat or a dog, they are a different type of animal altogether, one that we aren't as familiar with unless we make an effort to be," she says.
  • Not all families are suitable for all rabbits. Consider the maturity level and disposition of your children, Dr. Jenkins says. "If you have a really rough child, and you know he or she is not going to be gentle with the rabbit, it's probably not a good mix," he says. He notes that rabbits do best around children who are gentle, mature for their age and can take direction well.

No matter how calm your child, rabbits and children should never be together unsupervised. Rabbits are physically fragile, and many have suffered back and hip injuries while struggling to get away from a child who has picked them up. In addition, Davis says, a rabbit that hasn't been handled correctly may decide to express her displeasure with her teeth.

"I think that both rabbits and children get a lot out of co-existing, if the situation is right," says Davis, who currently has three rabbits, a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. When rabbits do thrive in a family with children, "it's [due to] the ability of the individual family to incorporate a rabbit with grace and humor, and it's also [due to] the personality of the individual rabbit," she says.

If you're in doubt, it's often better to wait a while – until children are older or life becomes more settled – and then reevaluate the desire for a rabbit.

Still Got Bunny Fever?

If the bunny bug just isn't going away, your next step is to think about where you're going to obtain your rabbit. A rabbit rescue group may be your best bet, Dr. Jenkins says. Typically, rabbit rescues have their rabbits spayed or neutered (a must for house rabbits) and ensure they are in good general health before offering them for adoption. By adopting a rescued rabbit, you're getting a bunny that's had his biggest expense taken care of. In addition, you're making room at the rescue for another rabbit – which would likely be euthanized if he stayed at a shelter.

"Bunny-proofing" your home is crucial because rabbits chew. "A house rabbit really wouldn't be a good match for someone who collects antiques," says Kathy Johnson of Cambridge, Vt. The Johnsons had their first rabbit, Susie-Bun, for nine "all too short" years, and have recently adopted Lily the Lop. Chewing is going to happen, Johnson says, and like children, rabbits always seem to chew on the things they aren't supposed to.

Before your new pet comes home, you'll need to have his essentials lined up. At the very least, rabbits need a good diet, a veterinarian experienced in caring for rabbits and, possibly, a roomy exercise pen. While most rabbits do best when they have free range in the house, unsupervised free range isn't always possible, Davis says, especially if the rabbit is a serious chewer.

Finally, watch out. If you do decide to adopt a rabbit, you may find yourself falling in love. "House rabbits get very close to you," Charland says.

Johnson agrees. "Rabbits are not a pet to adopt because they are 'easy,' but they do make wonderful pets."

A Hopping Good Time

Rabbits love to play – and watching them having fun is a treat for their owners as well. Try these tips with your bunny:

  • Pick up a few balloon-sized rubber balls the next time you're in a discount store. They're something your rabbit can push around!
  • Save your junk mail (and your old phone books, magazines and newspapers). Place in a large cardboard box and let your rabbit shred to his heart's content.
  • Provide your rabbit with a selection of tossable objects (try an old set of keys or a slinky, anything hard plastic or metal). Bunnies enjoy hurling things around, and if you start the game by gently tossing a toy to your rabbit, he may toss it back.

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