Cute Bunny, Big Responsibility

Think twice before bringing home a live Easter rabbit — they take work!

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Photo by Lori Cheung

Rabbits are adorable but don't be fooled — these charming lagomorphs take alot of time and energy to care for.

Sweet precious faces, deep soulful eyes, unimaginably soft fur: If you've ever happened past a pet shop window and been charmed by the enclosure filled with adorable baby bunnies, and envisioned what a perfect Easter gift one of these enchanting creatures would make for your child, think again. It is imperative to know that there is much more to properly caring for a rabbit than meets the eye, and that, contrary to popular belief, rabbits are not necessarily suitable pets for children, and are definitely not good "starter pets."

Rabbits can live up to 10 years or more and, when given appropriate care, housing and attention, can make most wonderful companions. They can be quite affectionate, playful, inquisitive, and are, by their nature, extremely social and can form very strong bonds with their human friends. They are also fastidious groomers, and can easily learn to use a litter box. However, the tragic fact is that according to the ASPCA, rabbits are the third most-euthanized animals in U.S. shelters after cats and dogs. This is, in great part, the ultimate result of well-meaning individuals bringing rabbits home as pets for their children without thoroughly researching what is involved in their proper care.

Margo DeMello, administrative director of House Rabbit Society and co-author of the book Stories Rabbits Tell, says that her organization sees a spike in "dump calls" - i.e. phone calls from the public looking to find new homes for their rabbits in the summer months, after their baby Easter bunnies have grown into teenagers and have lost their "new bunny sheen."

"The biggest problem with bringing home rabbits for children at Easter is two-fold," she explains. "First, it gives children the impression that rabbits, or ducklings or chicks, are toys, to be purchased for a holiday with no real understanding of the life-long commitment that they entail. And second, given the lack of preparation devoted to bringing home an 'Easter bunny,' it's no surprise that many of these rabbits are abandoned at animal shelters, or in 'the wild,' a few months after Easter."

DeMello recommends that if a family is serious about bringing a rabbit into their lives, that they start by educating themselves about the needs and realities of living with a house rabbit by visiting the House Rabbit Society's Web site at www.rabbit.org. "If they find that a rabbit sounds like a suitable companion for them, then adopting from a shelter or HRS chapter or another rescue group could be a great choice."

In 2002, the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of the House Rabbit Society launched the "Make Mine Chocolate!" campaign. Their mission focuses on education, and on discouraging people from purchasing live rabbits as Easter gifts, and offers suggestions for humane alternatives such as chocolate or stuffed toy bunnies.

"We try to educate would-be purchasers on the commitment involved in rabbit ownership in the hope of discouraging impulsive decisions," says Terri Cook of "Make Mine Chocolate!" and vice president of Columbus House Rabbit Society. She explains that public response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. "Our biggest accomplishment has been acquiring the support of nationally recognized groups which include the House Rabbit Society, the ASPCA, HSUS, Best Friends Animal Society and Pets911. Having the support of these groups helps get our message to a national audience."

At www.makeminechocolate .org, you can learn more about their mission, shop the organization's online store (whose proceeds directly support their ongoing campaign), and download flyers and other educational materials at no charge.

To help you make the decision whether a rabbit will be the right companion pet for your family, it will be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

n Will you take the time to thoroughly research the proper care of rabbits so that you will be able to provide him a good diet, safe home and a healthy, happy life? There is currently excellent information online and in print. www.rabbit.org is an outstanding, comprehensive source of information, as is The House Rabbit Handbook by Marinell Harriman.

n Will you spay or neuter the rabbit? According to veterinary statistics, 80 percent of female rabbits will develop uterine cancer by age 4 if not spayed. Also, spaying and neutering will curb hormones that can lead to behavior issues such as digging and chewing, and territorial activities such as urine spraying and aggression.

n Will the rabbit live inside your home? Forget about the outdated concept of the backyard hutch. The best and safest place for a companion rabbit to live is inside the home. Besides giving the rabbit much more opportunity for attention and social interaction, it will be safe from temperature fluctuations and potentially deadly outdoor predators such as dogs, cats, foxes and raccoons.

n Are you willing to take over caring for the rabbit if your child loses interest? Children tend to start off being very excited about their new friend, but as time passes, the "newness" can wear off, and they may grow tired of the daily chores of feeding, cleaning up after, and spending time with the rabbit. At this point, it will be up to you to take over these duties.

n Are you willing to make the rabbit a member of your family, giving him daily time for exercise, play and social interaction outside his cage in a thoroughly rabbit-proofed area of your home? Attention and affection from family members and time spent outside the cage is imperative for a rabbit's physical and mental health, and rabbit-proofing can literally save his life. Rabbit-proofing consists of covering or hiding all electrical cords and putting toxic plants out of reach. It also includes covering baseboards to protect them from chewing, and blocking off potentially dangerous areas a rabbit could be tempted to explore, such as small spaces under furniture or couches.

n What is the general "vibe" of your household? Is it calm and peaceful, or noisy and frenetic? Rabbits feel most comfortable in a serene, tranquil environment. Households where noise and chaos abound, and where boisterous children constantly run through like wild banshees are very stressful for rabbits.

n Are you looking for a companion pet that can be picked up and carried around, or are you willing to interact with a pet mainly on the floor, on his own terms? Rabbits are prey animals, and generally feel most secure with all four paws on the ground. They are also quite fragile, and their delicate spines can be easily fractured if they are not lifted correctly. Most rabbits prefer to interact on the floor and sit side-by-side, and enjoy being petted by a favorite person.

n Will you respect and appreciate a rabbit for who he is? Each rabbit has his own individual personality, habits, likes and dislikes. Some are outgoing and friendly, some more shy and demure. For a rabbit to thrive and feel most comfortable, it is important to be in tune to these traits and to honor your rabbit's special and unique nature.

n Do you have the financial resources to provide proper veterinary care should your rabbit become ill? Veterinary care for rabbits is just as costly as care for cats and dogs. You will also need to find a rabbit-savvy vet with a good deal of experience, since rabbit medicine and treatment procedures are very specialized.

If you've answered these questions honestly, and have decided that a rabbit will be a good fit for your family, please consider adoption first, since there are many wonderful bunnies in need of homes at numerous shelters around the bay area. If you've decided that perhaps a rabbit is not the most appropriate pet for your household, you've made a wise and responsible decision, and maybe even saved a rabbit's life.

Tania Fardella can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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