By Dr. Beth Leermakers
If your child is begging you for a baby bunny, you’re not alone. Rabbit sales pick up around Easter. Unfortunately, many of those adorable baby bunnies wind up being surrendered to animal shelters — or turned loose outside — a few weeks later. Misconceptions about rabbits, as well as their initial low cost (often less than $20) often lead to impulse purchases. If they haven’t done their research, people think rabbits live two or three years, spend most of their time in their cage, and are cuddly and low-maintenance — making them good “starter pets” for children.
In reality, well-cared-for rabbits can live 10 to 12 years, and they’re far from low maintenance. They require a lot of exercise and time out of their cage; The House Rabbit Society recommends several hours per day, or about 30 hours per week, of out-of-cage exercise time. Therefore, bunnies need to be trained to use a litter box, and that requires patience.
Because rabbits are considered exotic pets, medical care is typically more expensive than it is for a cat or dog.
Because bunnies are prey animals, and people are predators, rabbits don’t like to be picked up and cuddled. They prefer to be in control, with their feet on the ground. Bottom line: rabbits usually aren’t a good choice to be a child’s pet.
Having said that, rabbits make wonderful pets for the right people. Bunnies can be very affectionate and bond with their people. Some rabbits even come when called. Like cats, rabbits purr when they’re relaxed and content. According to a veterinarian who is a “rabbit parent” herself, a rabbit person is someone who enjoys observing animals as much as handling them, and who does not get overly upset by a rabbit’s natural tendencies, such as chewing and digging.
Fun Facts about Rabbits
Rabbits, known for producing many offspring, are symbols of fertility and new life. Mother rabbits are pregnant for 28-31 days, giving birth to up to 14 babies — called kittens — in a single litter.
The Easter bunny first arrived in the U.S. in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania, bringing their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase.” The settlers’ children made nests in which the Osterhase could lay its colored eggs. Eventually the rabbit’s Easter morning deliveries expanded to include chocolate and other candy and gifts, and baskets replaced the nests.
The world’s longest rabbit, according to Guinness, is Darius, a 4’4” long, 49-lb Flemish Giant rabbit that eats 2000 carrots and 700 apples per year, along with a bale of hay per week (to the tune of $7451 per year). Darius’ son Jeff is rapidly gaining on him and will soon break his father’s world record.
A rabbit’s big ears — up to 4” long — aren’t just for listening for predators. They also help regulate the rabbit’s body temperature. Blood vessels in the ears swell when it’s hot out and contract when it’s cold.
Known for their hopping, rabbits are also excellent high- and long-jumpers. They can jump more than three feet high and 10 feet long!
If you’re thinking about adding a rabbit to your family, do your research. Owning a rabbit requires the same commitment as adopting a puppy. Keep in mind that young children and rabbits don’t mix well. Small children want to “love” their pet by holding, cuddling and carrying it around. These behaviors frighten rabbits, making them feel as if they’re in the clutches of a predator. When they’re handled too roughly, rabbits will scratch or bite to protect themselves, putting them at risk for being euthanized for “bad behavior.” And they can wind up with broken legs and backs if they’re accidentally dropped by children.
Locate a skilled rabbit veterinarian. Although rabbits don’t require annual vaccinations, regular checkups are important to detect common health problems (dental abnormalities, gastrointestinal problems, and ear and upper respiratory infections).
Most vets don’t study rabbits in veterinary school. Vets who aren’t knowledgeable about rabbits may harm them instead of helping them. Adopt, don’t shop. Visit petfinder.com to find rabbits available for adoption through local shelters and rescue groups. Not sure if a rabbit is for you? Volunteer to foster a bunny for a shelter or rescue group.
Consider adopting a bonded pair. Bunnies are social creatures that live in groups. Most rabbits prefer to have a companion. Adopting more than one rabbit can be tricky. Not all rabbits get along, and serious injuries can occur quickly if they fight. Neutered male-female pairs tend to bond most easily, though same-sex pairs can also work — if both are neutered.