Rabbits: Real or Chocolate?
By Lauren Coates KPA-CTP
Around Easter time each year, many parents begin pondering the idea of surprising their children with a live Easter bunny of their own, and I get it! The thought of seeing the excitement on your child’s face as they discover their new furry friend can be quite a rewarding moment for yourself as the parent. Rabbits are often labeled as calm, snuggly animals that are easy to care for, and therefore sound like great starter pets for children learning the responsibility of caring for another living being. Unfortunately though, this assumption is far from the truth. Due to the lack of education often received from pet stores, many new rabbit owners are left ill-prepared for the extent of care required to keep their newest family member happy and healthy for the next 10-12 years (yes pet rabbits have a 10-12 year life expectancy). So what is involved in owning rabbits to ensure that they live long and healthy lives?
The Harsh Reality
Every year, within a couple months after Easter, shelters and rescues become flooded with abandoned and unwanted rabbits. Premature death in rabbits is unfortunately quite common due to the lack of education new owners receive about how to care for their new fluffy friend. As with any new pet, doing your research on the species is vital to ensure that you have the proper supplies and knowledge to care for them.
Kids and Rabbits
Let’s get straight to the point: rabbits are often viewed as a great pet for children, but are they really? The fact is, rabbits are prey animals. They startle easily and, contrary to popular belief, many do not enjoy being picked up and snuggled, as this feels a lot like being scooped up by a bird of prey. They require gentle handling, and are often skittish and territorial, “boxing” and lunging at any hands that reach into their personal space. Kids run and move around quickly. They scream, yell, and enjoy scooping things up and holding them in a not-so-gentle manner. So are rabbits perfect for children? In most cases, unfortunately no. Living with children can be highly stressful for rabbits, and therefore typically are not suitable for homes with young kids. There are, of course, exceptions to this if you have calmer children, a more outgoing rabbit, or a very experienced rabbit owner. In fact, prior to their retirement, both of my rabbits were once certified therapy rabbits and did numerous therapy visits involving children, but they definitely don’t make up the majority of rabbits, and even Heidi took a long time to get to the point of being comfortable enough to go on visits that involved kids.
Rabbits are most comfortable in a calmer living environment, so in most cases, you would be better off getting your children a stuffed or chocolate rabbit for Easter as opposed to a real one. However if you do go the route of a live rabbit, there are many things to consider to ensure they stay happy and healthy for the entirety of their 10-12 year lifespan.
An unlimited amount of good quality timothy hay is undoubtedly the most essential aspect of your rabbit's diet. Timothy hay is full of fiber, which helps keep their gut healthy for proper digestion. In addition, hay also contains long fibers which help to grind down their teeth, as just with our hair and fingernails, your rabbit's teeth grow constantly, and many rabbits suffer from dental issues due to a limited or complete lack of access to hay.
For the remainder of your rabbit's diet, dark leafy greens fed daily are fantastic for keeping them healthy. Pellets, on the other hand, should be fed in very limited amounts, as too many pellets can contribute to weight gain. In addition, it’s important to avoid pellets with the fancy fillers such as nuts, seeds, and colorful “kibble” pieces. While these pellets are pleasing to the eye, all of those extra fillers are unfortunately unhealthy for rabbits and can lead to health issues down the line.
When it comes to treats, the majority sold in pet stores, although labeled for rabbits, are in reality unsafe and could pose a health risk to your rabbit. As with pellets, any treats with seeds, nuts, or colorful kibble bits are a big no no, along with yogurt drops and anything that resembles an iced animal cookie. The best treats for rabbits are fruits and non-leafy veggies (this includes carrots!). These foods should be fed sparingly, as their high sugar content can contribute to weight gain and other potential health issues.
When it comes to living arrangements for your rabbit, many new owners immediately head to the pet store and pull a cage off the shelves, after all, there is a picture of a rabbit on the front. These cages however do not provide your rabbit with the ample space needed to move around (honestly just avoid pet stores for anything rabbit-related). Rabbits are social and active animals. Being cooped up in a cage all day can lead to behavioral issues, depression, obesity, and other health issues. Better options to replace traditional cages include x-pens (exercise pen or playpen), c&c caging, having a designated “bunny room,” or allowing free range of the home or select portions of the home.
Keep in mind that any area your rabbit has access to will need to be bunny-proofed, as rabbits are destructive and will chew everything! Anything from books, furniture, baseboards, carpet, and cables (AKA “spicy hay”) are highly attractive to young, mischievous rabbits. Because of their endlessly growing teeth, chewing is a requirement for rabbits, so teaching them not to chew is not an option. Blocking off areas you don’t want chewed, and providing your rabbit with appropriate chew items is your best course of action for preventing your house from being destroyed.
One worry folks may have about giving a rabbit the appropriate amount of space is the bathroom mess of a bunny outside of a confined cage. Fortunately, many rabbits are very reliably litter box trained. It takes a little bit of training but the pay off is a bunny who can free roam a large pen, a room, or several rooms without leaving extra potty clean up. It's important to note here that spaying and neutering your bunny improves the success of litter box training because the territorial nature of intact rabbits encourages scent marking bathroom behaviors.
As with dogs and cats, having annual wellness exams for your rabbit is strongly recommended. While vaccines in the U.S. are not as common for rabbits (with the exception of the RHDV vaccine growing in popularity), they are incredibly skilled at hiding pain and illnesses, and a knowledgeable vet is your best course of action for ensuring your rabbit stays healthy. Spaying and neutering is also highly recommended, as intact rabbits often have much shorter lifespans and are at a higher risk for health and behavioral issues. It’s important to note though that rabbits are considered an exotic species, and your typical dog and cat veterinarian is likely not equipped with the species-specific knowledge to treat rabbits, so finding an exotic and rabbit-savvy vet is crucial.
In the right home, rabbits make a fantastic addition to the family! With the people they’re comfortable with, they are often social, playful, and full of life. Many will greet you happily with “binkies” and kisses (really for some smiles, you should google bunny binkies videos), and will love a good head rub and ear massage from you. While they can be temperamental and territorial at times, this can often be improved through training, meeting their needs, and respecting their space. Getting them on the right diet is the key to keeping them healthy, along with providing them with space to roam and exercise daily. While it’s debatable as to whether or not a rabbit is suitable for a house with children, when in the right home, they truly do become members of the family.
If you do decide that your home is ready for a rabbit, I highly recommend visiting a local rescue or shelter and giving an unwanted rabbit a loving home.
For more information regarding rabbits, House Rabbit Society is a fantastic resource for all your bunny needs.