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Educate Yourself About The Nature and Needs of Rabbits

As Easter approaches, hearts and minds naturally turn toward springtime and all that it entails. During this enchanting season, many of us feel the impulse to give colorful Easter baskets brimming with surprises for children. Too often, one such "surprise" is a velvet-eared, live baby bunny, adorably nestled among green plastic grass and pastel chocolate eggs. While it is often tempting to give those cuddly little creatures as pets at Easter, Marie Mead cautions that people must educate themselves about the nature and needs of rabbits before taking the bunny plunge.

"Rabbits are very misunderstood animals," says Mead, creator of celebratingrabbits.com and author of the upcoming book Rabbits: Gentle Hearts, Valiant Spirits – Inspirational Stories of Rescue, Triumph and Joy (Nova Maris Press, 2007). "They are extremely sensitive, intuitive and gentle creatures who require extensive attention and mature guardianship – something many people don't realize when they purchase a baby bunny. It's a very sad fact that most rabbits don't even enjoy a year of happiness with their new caretakers. Instead of living out their normal lifespan – eight to 12 years – they often die within the first year of life.

Many rabbits are injured or become ill due to improper handling and care and, as a result, either die painful deaths or are euthanized, Mead says. "Discarded bunnies overrun the animal shelters after Easter, resulting in many rabbits being euthanized due to space constraints and other factors," she says.

Equally discouraging, some people who decide their rabbits require too much attention simply abandon them in the wild, Mead says. "This means certain death for domesticated rabbits as they don't have the skills necessary to survive on their own," she says. "Many other rabbits are relegated to cramped outdoor hutches, where they languish alone and forgotten, their eyes losing all signs of joy and life."

Mead wants everyone to understand that while rabbits do make wonderful companions, potential "pet parents" should know exactly what to expect before adopting or purchasing a bunny. Her mission is to educate people everywhere on the importance of understanding and providing proper care for these animals.

Here are some basics you need to know before welcoming a rabbit into your home:

Great Pet Parenthood Begins Before Your Rabbit Enters Your Home

To ensure you are giving your rabbit the absolute best care from the get-go, research diet, health, behavior, socialization, housing, bunny-proofing and proximity to an appropriate vet before your pet comes home. Gather information by accessing reputable sites on the Internet and good books on domestic companion rabbits. Other helpful sources are rabbit rescue groups and rabbit-knowledgeable veterinarians.

Rabbits and Small Children Are Generally a Bad Combination

Although the new baby bunny tolerates being cuddled and small children love holding a cute little ball of fur, many rabbit injuries result when children mishandle or drop their new family member. Within weeks, when the rabbit reaches adolescence, he may begin running away from the youngsters. Although this is frustrating for the children, this behavior is perfectly normal for a prey animal. The rabbit flees the children as a deep-seated instinct to protect himself.

"As they get older, many rabbits don't like to be cuddled and held and, at that point, children often lose interest in the rabbit," Mead says. "It's important to remember that as your rabbit grows up, he will feel more comfortable if handled on the floor – at his level. To have a significant relationship with a rabbit, you must work daily to build trust with him, which can be a slow, methodical process. If parents understand what is involved in creating a good relationship with a rabbit, they might think twice before giving one to their small child. In my opinion, it's best when parents are the primary caregivers, overseeing child-rabbit interactions and all care."

Handle with Care!

Rabbit injuries can result from improper handling, especially by children. It's common for youngsters to hold rabbits too tightly or to pick them up by their ears (something that should never be done!). "When rabbits don't want to be picked up, they will often kick and struggle," Mead says. "Many children are not strong enough to hold them and often drop the bunnies, causing injuries such as fractured vertebrae or a damaged spinal cord. Being dropped or forced to jump from too high a place is likely to damage the legs and joints."

Pet Care Requires Chores

Children usually lose interest after the novelty of having a new pet wears off – in other words, when the pet-associated chores begin to pile up. Children are children, after all, and shouldn't be expected to show fully mature responsibility, long attention spans or quiet natures. And because kids often have so many other things going on, their young bunny is left caged and alone. The rabbit then grows depressed and loses its spirit – and becomes labeled incorrectly as "stupid" or "boring."

"If you're going to adopt or purchase a bunny for your child, you must be the one responsible for the companion animal," Mead says. "Parents should know what is involved in the general care of the bunny and use that knowledge to teach the child and consistently model appropriate care. Let children assist whenever possible and carefully supervise any care they provide independently. When parents faithfully give proper attention and care, children learn the important lessons of love and respect for animals."

Teach Your Children Well

"You don't want to teach your child that neglecting a rabbit or any pet is OK," Mead says. "If you decide to adopt or purchase a rabbit, use the opportunity to teach your child what it means to be a guardian for the companion animal's lifetime. Include your child in the new things you are learning about rabbits and their care. Monitor interactions to ensure both the beloved animal companion and child are safe and watch as a truly wonderful relationship blossoms between the two."

As Prey Animals, Rabbits Sometimes Display Behaviors People Don't Understand

Baby bunnies are definitely adorable, but they do grow up! And when they reach adolescence at approximately 3 1/2 months of age, the once-amiable creatures begin to display a strong will, a desire for autonomy and an innate need to chew and dig. These small prey animals will sometimes express their fears and dislikes by nipping or biting. Plus, a rabbit that is not neutered or spayed may become grouchy or aggressive. "When rabbits start to act out in this way, many guardians punish the animals or simply avoid them," Mead says. "What people should know is that rabbits are very social creatures and that they use these actions to communicate their needs – and fears – to their human guardians."

Bunny-proofing Is Required for the Protection of All

Rabbits present some challenges for people unfamiliar with the small creatures' natural instincts for chewing and digging. "What new rabbit parents must realize is that the need to chew is so strong that it will eclipse any training," Mead says. "Bunny-proofing is required to prevent injury or death to the rabbit and damage to personal property. Being proactive and taking preventive measures – such as making things inaccessible, using deterrents and providing safe items for chewing and digging – are essential and are another way to teach children what responsible pet guardianship is all about."

Rabbits Need Roomy Accommodations

Rabbits instinctively avoid relieving themselves in areas where they eat or sleep, which means your pet's condo should include enough space to accommodate a litter box away from those areas. That's right. Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box, though you must first get her spayed or him neutered by a rabbit-knowledgeable vet. It's easiest to litter-train a bunny after the age of 6 months.

With Proper Supervision, Rabbits Can Bond with Other Animals

Rabbits are exceptionally social creatures, expressing friendship and love in joyous and heartwarming ways. A rabbit's need and desire to be part of a couple or a group may result in the bunny's bonding with a human, dog, cat and/or guinea pig. "While these friendships can be very beneficial for the rabbit, human guardians should confirm the animals' temperamental compatibility before making careful introductions in a neutral space," Mead says. "It's important for parents to monitor the animals and ensure their safety."

To sum it all up, what are the two most important things you can do to stop the trend of rabbit neglect and abuse during this time of year? Quite simply, don't buy a baby bunny as an Easter gift unless you are a) thoroughly educated on rabbit behavior and care, and b) 100 percent committed to making the bunny a beloved member of your family for his or her lifetime.

"If you are a fellow animal lover, I hope you'll see it as your responsibility to educate others about the true nature and needs of rabbits," Mead says. "I want to inspire people everywhere to use the upcoming Easter holiday as a time to advocate for the rights and proper treatment of one of Mother Nature's sweetest, most extraordinary gifts. By working to ensure that these little companions enjoy happy lives, I hope to promote the peace, joy and respect for life for which this special season is known."

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