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First Pets: The Rabbit

All About a Good First Pet: The Rabbit

Next to dogs, rabbits are my favorite animals. Their shape, their little tails, the way they relax with their legs stretched out, their yawns...I love them so much that when my husband and I registered for wedding presents, I gushed "I love rabbits!" to the lady at the counter, who dutifully wrote "LOVES rabbits" on the registry form. You should have seen the gifts we got. But even a 4-foot-high porcelain rabbit meant as a "bathroom accent" couldn't steer me away from pet rabbits. I've just adopted the sixth bunny of my adult life, a gorgeous silvery female named Lily. Right now, Lily's a little freaked out at the sight of our two other rabbits; there's always a lot of drama when you bring a new bunny into the group. But in a few weeks I hope they'll all have settled down.

Poor rabbits. People always think of them as good starter pets — cheap, easy to care for, and uncomplicated. "No vet visits! No noise! They can live outdoors!" Talk to almost anyone, and you may get the impression that rabbits are so low maintenance they're almost glorified hamsters. But the truth is they need as much care as cats and dogs while being much more sensitive and delicate. They make wonderful companions and they love to play, but you'll need to be in charge of the family bunny if your kids are small. (What else is new?)

I'm not trying to be discouraging, just realistic. Here's a quick rundown of what you should know before we move on to the fun stuff,

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Rabbits need to live inside, which is where they'll be the most fun anyway. How else can they jump up beside your child on the sofa while she's watching TV, or suddenly spring into the air and do a 360 before they land? They're easy to housebreak, though the process may never be 100 percent effective. (Train yourself to think of rabbit droppings as decorations.) They love to chew things like wires and books and chair legs, so you'll have to rabbit-proof the part of the house they're living in and offer chew-toy alternatives. They need a lot of hay as both food and bedding; my three go through half a bale a month. They should be spayed or neutered, even if you own only one, and they need regular vet visits.

Some need extreme vet visits. For three years our rabbit Mojo required quarterly dental work — at $200 a pop — to keep his teeth from growing into his cheeks. And that was after a $500 operation on his jaw. Until I could slim her down, our bunny Crosby needed vet visits every 10 weeks for a hygiene problem. I'm sure Crosby wouldn't want me to go into details, but the word "caked" was part of the diagnosis.

And since rabbits are prey animals in the wild, many are skittish about being picked up. Some don't even like to be touched. This can be a problem for small children, many of whom believe that the perfect pet is one that can be dressed in doll clothes, lugged around, and chased all over the room if it resists. None of that will work with a rabbit, but it does give you the perfect chance to teach your kids what living with an animal should really be about.

The Fun Stuff
The way to make friends with a rabbit is to figure out how the rabbit wants to be treated. To observe the rabbit for a while until you get a sense of its personality. To wait until the rabbit approaches you — say, by yanking on your shoelace when she wants a treat. To put the rabbit's needs first.

Ideally, of course, you establish ground rules before the rabbit comes to live at your house. You explain that rabbits can be shy, just like some people, and that there will be no rabbit touching until you say it's okay. Then, when the rabbit arrives, you make her the focus of a family project. "For a couple of weeks," you say, "we're just going to watch Bun-Bun and get to know her. And she'll like watching us too."

"But I want to play with her!" your child may complain. (At 3, my daughter flew into a rage because we wouldn't let her take her new goldfish out of the tank to play with. "Then I want you to cook them!" she commanded.)

"Not all animals can be played with the way we want," you remind the child. "Puppies and kittens like to play in a different way from rabbits. We need to do what makes the rabbit happy. Let's just sit down on the floor and watch her. Pretend she's a zoo animal and see what she likes to do."

Un-Embraceable You
It may take a few sessions, but even the shyest rabbit will get curious after a while, especially if you have a bit of spinach or kale in your hand or are playing with something on the floorwhere she can investigate. When Bun-Bun finally approaches, you can let your child try gently touching her nose. (My experience is that most rabbits would rather be patted on the face than on the body — again, that prey instinct against being grabbed.) If she runs away, you'll try another time. At some point, the rabbit will stick around to let you pat her. Once that's happened, you'll know that she's approaching you because she wants to — not because you've cowed her out of all resistance.

Rabbits haven't been domesticated for as many centuries as cats and dogs (although, with supervision, they often befriend both cats and dogs), so what you're really doing is taming your bunny. It can take a while, which is why an adult needs to be in charge of the process. Crosby took four years before she'd let me touch her. Luckily, she was fun to watch and liked hanging out with us as long as we didn't get too close. (Also luckily, our rabbit Stumper came lolloping up for head scratches and ear rubs from the minute we got him. He's the kind of bunny who ­follows you around like a puppy.) But there's nothing like knowing you've gotten a shy animal to like you. It makes you feel like a sorcerer — patient, wise, and tuned in to the ancient secrets of the natural world. That's a feeling most children don't get the chance to experience, and a lesson most children don't get the chance to learn.

A Good Read
Start with the House Rabbit Society. Here you'll find extensive articles and links about rabbit care, rabbits and children, rabbit vets, local adoption agencies, and much more. This site is required reading for anyone who wants to add a rabbit to the household. Lucile C. Moore's A House Rabbit Primer is a good reference book.

What will your rabbit cost?
Purebred bunnies can cost hundreds of dollars, just like purebred dogs. Shelter rabbits are sometimes free; "fostered" rabbits will generally require that you pay a spay or neuter fee of around $100. (It's nice to give shelters or rescuers a donation to help defray costs; most animal rescuers are volunteers.) Rabbits should have annual checkups and medical treatment for any health problems that may arise. The average house rabbit lives up to 12 years.

Timothy hay is the staple of a rabbit's diet. If you buy your hay online, as I do (oxbowhay.com and kmshayloft.com are good sources), bear in mind that shipping often costs more than the hay itself. On the other hand, the timothy will arrive in a nice neat bag instead of a big messy bale. I spend about $800 including shipping a year on hay (you can expect around $150 for a single bunny), but for me the shipping cost and convenience are well worth it. Rabbits also need small amounts of timothy-based pellets and a handful of greens daily, plus plenty of fresh water.

Keeping a rabbit in a pet store cage is like keeping it in a toilet. When it's not roaming around your house, a rabbit needs a pen at least 3 by 5 feet. (A bathroom can also make a good bunny home.) I have fenced off a room-sized area in my finished basement for my rabbits using puppy gates. Many rabbit owners use cube-and-coroplast (C&C) pens that are easy-ish to make at home; check out cavycages.com. An unassembled rabbit-sized C&C pen will cost around $100, including shipping. Most owners prefer to line their C&C pens with newspaper topped with either hay or pelleted newsprint, such as Carefresh, which is available at pet stores ($18 for a 46-quart bag, amazon.com)

Both in and out of its pen, a rabbit also will need a couple of newspaper-lined litter boxes filled with hay or aspen shavings.

Where should you get your rabbit from?

You'll be doing all rabbits a favor if you adopt a shelter bunny; sadly, there are thousands and thousands of abandoned rabbits in the U.S. Some of them are rescued by foster owners who will take the time to match a rabbit with a potential owner. A good place to start: petfinder.com. Note that some rescuers will not place rabbits in homes with small children. (Generally, it's fine to have a rabbit living in the same house as a cat or dog; you'll need to keep an eye on their interactions, but after a careful introduction, things should go well.) The good shelters will tell you a little about each available rabbit's personality, how friendly it is (or is likely to become), and what kind of household it's most likely to flourish in. If you feel you must have a purebred baby rabbit, get one from a reputable rabbit breeder — not from a pet store. Generally speaking, the larger rabbit breeds, such as Flemish Giants and New Zealands, are calmer and more mellow.

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