The cartoon rabbits pictured on Easter cards might look cute and cuddly, but real rabbits have no place in the pet industry. These complex animals are often purchased on a whim, especially in the spring, and potential caretakers rarely understand the specific needs of their new companions. Once the novelty has worn off, many bunnies are neglected, relegated to outdoor cages, dumped at animal shelters, or simply turned loose in the wild, where they have little chance of surviving. Hundreds of organizations and animal shelters are trying to deal with this growing problem.
Rabbits are social creatures with gentle natures and individual personalities, and they need just as much attention as a dog or a cat. They are not suitable companions for young children as most rabbits resist being picked up and cuddled. Rabbits require specific foods, stimulating environments, and veterinarians who have specialized knowledge of their species.
How to Spot Neglect
Federal regulations apply only to those breeders or “bunny mills” that do at least $500 of business with a particular pet store or sell to wholesalers, and enforcement is lax. So the rabbits you see in the store might not have been properly transported or cared for.1
A runny nose, sneezing, head-tilt, listlessness, and diarrhea are all signs of a sick bunny. Rabbits have extremely delicate respiratory and digestive systems, and any change in the balance of these systems can result in death if they are not treated properly and quickly. Bare spots or scabs anywhere on the body suggest that the rabbit has parasites or has been fighting with other rabbits. Refer to PETA’s factsheet “Pet Shops: No Bargain for Animals” for more information about how to alert authorities to possible abuse at stores that sell live animals.
If—after careful consideration—you have decided to welcome a rabbit into your home, please adopt a rabbit from your local humane society or rabbit rescue group. Rabbits can live more than 10 years and require annual checkups by a veterinarian who is familiar with rabbits. Bunnies need a lot of company and can become withdrawn and depressed if they are not provided with plenty of love and companionship.
If you plan to adopt two rabbits, it is crucial to have your new companions spayed or neutered immediately. Otherwise, males mark their territory, females run a high risk of uterine cancer, and the already serious overpopulation crisis could become worse.
Rabbits are best suited as indoor companions. Outside they are subjected not only to weather extremes, but also to parasites like fleas and ticks, and industrious predators who will work hard to break into hutches to attack the terrified animals. Rabbits are much safer and happier inside, where they can participate in their caretaker’s everyday life.
But before you bring your new friend(s) into your home, there are a few things that you need to do to ensure his or her safety and happiness. Bunnies are natural chewers, and they love to play, so be sure to provide plenty of toys. Untreated wood, straw, wire cat balls, keys, paper towel rolls, and hard plastic baby toys work well, but even with all these fun toys to play with, bunnies are drawn to electrical and phone wires, books, baseboard molding, door jams, and plants. You’ll need to cover or redirect wires and move the rest of these items up and out of the way before taking your bunny home. You’ll also want to set up a large box or basket filled with shredded paper for your new companion to dig in. Not all rabbits are chronic diggers, but those who are will take their natural digging instincts out on your rugs and other furnishings unless you’ve supplied an alternate digging spot. And while you’re setting up, don’t forget that rabbits also need a safe, quiet haven such as a cardboard box or plastic carrier with a towel inside. Wire-bottomed cages are not suitable for bunnies.
Litter training is possible at any age, since rabbits like to relieve themselves in one place, and older rabbits tend to be quicker students than youngsters. Even if you plan on giving the bunny the run of the house, you’ll need to conduct litter training in a relatively confined space. Fill a litterbox with organic litter and put some hay on top. Do not use clay, as it is deadly if it gets in rabbits’ delicate digestive systems! Place the litterbox in the corner of the x-pen or room. Try encouraging your rabbit by putting some of his or her droppings into the box. Rabbits learn easily, and before long, you will be able to leave litterboxes in different locations around the house.
‘We’re Vegetarians, Thank You!’
The bulk of a rabbit’s diet should be grass, timothy or oat hay, and fresh vegetables, especially dark leafy greens. You may also give a limited amount of high-quality pellets, certain herbs and fruit, depending on the age and size of the bunny. All greens and fruits should be introduced into the diet slowly. Please visit the House Rabbit Society’s Website for an extensive list of appropriate foods for rabbits.
Like dogs or cats, rabbits might be prone to begging at the table. As tempting as it might be to give your rabbit a taste of whatever it is that you’re eating, rabbits have digestive systems that are easily disrupted, so you should stick to his or her normal diet. Check with your veterinarian before you add other treats.
Grooming and Handling
Although rabbits clean themselves in much the same way that cats do, rabbits do not have the ability to cough up hairballs, so it is imperative that you brush your rabbit a least once a week. Most rabbits love the attention, and brushing prevents digestive problems later in life.
Rabbits are instinctively nervous when lifted off the ground. Because of the delicate structure of their spines and the power of their leg muscles, struggling rabbits can actually break their own backbones. Never lift a rabbit by the ears or with just one hand under the stomach. Rabbits do not like to be carried around as cats or dogs might. It is best to get down on their level to interact with them, but if you must pick your rabbit up, support his or her hind legs and rump at all times and use your other hand to support his or her chest. Once acclimated to your home, bunnies will come to you, jump into your lap, and even sleep with you.
1 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal Welfare Act, 1 Jan. 2017.