This is a topic usually discussed around Easter, but it’s such an important one that it deserves attention year round. Many children receive little bundles of bunny joy along with their Easter baskets and no one in the family knows enough about their specific needs to properly care for them. Rabbits can make wonderful pets, but they are not the “starter pet” many people think they are. Sadly, rabbits have a high rate of surrender to shelters if not abandoned outright in a nearby field when those bunnies become too much to handle. But if you’re ready for a long commitment and have done your research, then you can have a loving, fluffy-tailed companion for years to come.
First, let’s talk about lifespan. Most of the time, I hear from people that rabbits only live a few years. In their minds, a few years means five at most. That may be true of wild rabbits, but the reality is that spayed or neutered domesticated rabbits have a lifespan of 8-12 years. The decision to bring home a rabbit should be considered with as much weight as that of adopting a dog or cat.
Another misconception is that they are easy and cheap to care for. Easy is certainly not a word I would use to describe our life with our little black Dutch rabbit, Oreo. He was certainly a handful in the beginning when we were learning how to share our small condo with a plucky, bossy rabbit. Bunnies need to be fed a diet of hay, leafy greens and other fresh vegetables instead of a diet of just pellets and this can get expensive. The amount of hay they eat helps keep their digestive system moving. Rabbits clean themselves much like cats, and they can’t throw up hairballs. Instead, a regular diet of hay will help clear blockages from their digestive system and prevent GI status – a potentially deadly condition in which food in the digestive system doesn’t move through as quickly as it should. Munching on hay also provides grinding action to wear down their ever growing teeth, which isn’t as effective with many other foods.
Speaking of those constantly growing teeth, rabbits also love to chew on things. They can be pretty destructive for cute little balls of fluff. In my first apartment, the bunny I had at the time was running around the kitchen and started chewing on the skirting boards. He chewed my furniture and books until I figured out what chew toys he liked and bought of bunch of those for him. Rabbits also like to dig, which can ruin carpets and other home furnishings. There are grass mats available just for those bunnies who enjoy this pastime, but you can also provide cardboard boxes which they can chew and dig at the same time!
Bunnies also poo a lot. I mean, a lot. Since they do a lot of grazing and have a pretty high metabolism, they are constantly pooping. They can be easily litter box trained, but you should either be prepared to clean the box out a couple times a day, or have several around the house he can use. And there will still be little surprises left for you along the way, even if your bun is litter trained.
As was mentioned earlier in this post, rabbits are often given to young children as pets. Most kids I know are loud, make sudden movements and love to pick bunnies up and squeeze them. The key to gaining a rabbit’s trust is to first realize that they are prey animals. They are terrified of loud noises and quick movements, which just convinces the bun that danger is looming. It causes them a good deal of stress to find themselves in these situations and they may react by scratching, running frantically to find a hiding place, and thumping their feet to spread the word to other bunnies that they may potentially become dinner if they don’t do the same. Again, since they need to feel safe from prey, many rabbits don’t like to be picked up or handled very much. Oreo would cuddle with us on the couch, but he would jump up and down when he wanted those cuddle times; he was not happy to be picked up, let alone hugged and squeezed. If picked up and a rabbit’s back legs are not supported, he can kick hard and end up hurting or even breaking his back. Some bunnies can get accustomed to gentle handling, but young children should be taught how to properly handle rabbits so as not to cause unintentional stress or harm.
Rabbits also need to have regular vet visits, just like dogs and cats. They should have annual checkups, they can be spayed or neutered and may occasionally have issues that need medical attention. Insurance is available, but you’ll still be responsible for the cost up front in many situations before getting reimbursed.
The little bunnies we have in our homes are not the same as the wild ones we see in our lawns and gardens. They are not as adept at protecting themselves or finding food. Sadly, many people who decide they can no longer deal with their bunny simply release him or her into the wild where they end up dying from lack of food or being eaten as prey. Before getting a rabbit for your little niece or nephew as a gift, maybe instead join in the “Make Mine Chocolate” campaign and stick to the candy bunnies in those baskets.