By Joanna Campbell
Every year around Easter, the cute bunny craze tempts many families into getting a rabbit. But before hopping on the bunny wagon, make sure you know what living with a rabbit is really like.
Rabbits have become increasingly popular as companion animals. And unfortunately, just like cats and dogs, rabbits frequently show up at shelters, rescue groups, and animal control facilities. In fact, rabbits are now the third most common animal in shelters nationwide, with more than 2,500 rabbits a year ending up unwanted or surrendered in the Chicago area alone.
The vast majority of these rabbits are given up because of misguided expectations. Some people believe their rabbit will live only a few years, but many house rabbits live eight to 12 years. Other people mistakenly assume rabbits are cuddly pets, but this isn’t always the case. “As prey animals, rabbits interact with their environment much differently than dogs or cats,” says Dawn Sailer, chapter manager of the Indiana House Rabbit Society. “Most rabbits do not feel comfortable being picked up off the ground. As prey animals, they feel like they are being whisked off to become someone’s dinner, which is scary,” Sailer explains. Some rabbits are indeed cuddly, but it is more common for rabbits to be spirited, independent, and much too busy to sit still and be cuddled.
Another misconception is that rabbits are low-maintenance pets. In fact, rabbits need a constant supply of grass hay and fresh water, a daily ration of pellets, and a generous daily serving of fresh, leafy greens. Most rabbits also need at least a couple of hours a day playing out of their cage. Many rabbits are even able to roam free in a bunny-proofed room. “The more freedom they have, the more personable they become,” says Marcia Coburn, president of Red Door Animal Shelter in Chicago, where rabbits happily hop around the office. “If you can’t bunny-proof an entire room, get an exercise pen and set it up in an area where the family spends time so the rabbit can be with you.”
Rabbits crave companionship and enjoy interacting with humans—as long as it’s not threatening. Most rabbits instinctively react to being picked up, or “captured,” by struggling to get away. “Rabbits are very affectionate when you meet them on their own terms. Try sitting on the floor with them rather than holding them on your lap,” Coburn says. In general, rabbits make better companions once spayed or neutered. Just like with cats and dogs, spaying or neutering has both health and behavioral benefits for rabbits. Sterilized rabbits are easier to litter box train, are less aggressive, and are significantly less likely to spray or mount. For females, sterilizing is especially important because it minimizes the high rate of uterine cancer. It is important to find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian to perform this procedure.
Rabbits also need to see a veterinarian at least once a year. While no vaccinations are required, rabbits often mask illnesses until they are severe, so checkups are important. In addition, rabbit teeth grow continuously, and a veterinarian can make sure they are wearing down properly over time.
Sailer has sound last words on adopting a rabbit: “Rabbits make excellent companions for families that provide a proper indoor living environment, healthy diet, appropriate out-of-cage exercise time, and love and attention on terms the rabbit can handle.”
For more information:
The House Rabbit Society, www.Rabbit.org.
“The House Rabbit Handbook,” by Marinell Harriman
“Rabbits For Dummies,” by Audrey Pavia