By Dr. Becker
What small animal is shy, has luxuriously soft fur and is surprisingly intelligent? One might add that it’s also one of the most popular 4-H project animals, and a wonderful critter for almost any kid — or adult — to enjoy. Those attributes could be true for many potential pets, but it fits the bill for bunnies.
There are many more reasons why a rabbit makes an excellent house pet. When well taken care of, they can live for 5 or even 15 years. They enjoy being around people and are very affectionate, playful, clean and can even be litter trained.
But if you’re interested in getting a rabbit as a family pet, it’s always important to take into consideration what’s good for the animal. It’s fun having such a cute and cuddly animal to hold, but knowing what to expect and how to keep your bunny happy and healthy as he gets bigger is crucial.
If you have expectations about what having a bunny (or any other pet) will look like without gathering the facts, you may be disappointed, and that’s one of the leading reasons why so many pets are surrendered back to shelters or just given away.
It’s also why, if you’re a first-time rabbit owner, your lifestyle is an important factor to consider, especially since rabbits tend to be more fragile than dogs and cats. In fact, they’re a whole ’nuther animal! Knowing how a rabbit will fit into your household space and family is important because like any other pet, rabbits have their own foibles, tendencies and personalities.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Rabbit as a Pet
Once you’ve decided that a rabbit would be a great pet for your family (or just you), it may come as a surprise to learn there are about 60 breeds to choose from. Size and color can vary widely, but in the U.S., the Dutch rabbit, usually either black and white or brown and white, is one of the most common. There are also dwarf varieties and the kind with droopy “lop” ears rather than the erect ears you typically think of in regard to rabbits.
Males (bucks) and females are both very tame and sociable, but if you decide on a pair (rabbits are social creatures who tend to be happier if they have a buddy), unless you want to start up a bunny factory (please don’t), you’ll want to adopt a same-sex pair or arrange for well-timed spaying/neutering before they are put together).
Angora rabbits with long fur should be groomed often, and loose hair can be an issue. Again, like many other pets, if they’re not used to having people and especially children around, socializing rabbits gradually, including with other pets, is good for everyone.
One thing to make sure of beforehand is if someone in your home has an allergy that a rabbit might make worse. While children seem to gravitate toward them, the fragility of rabbits whether they’re small or more mature is something to consider carefully if you have small children in the household. Some rabbits don’t like being picked up, carried around or held closely, and may respond by scratching, and in their struggle to get away, could be dropped.
Rabbits need to be picked up carefully so their back and hind legs aren’t injured. Ask your veterinarian about the best way to handle rabbits, especially large ones. One thing prospective rabbit owners should know is that they love to chew. While some may love the idea of giving their bunny free reign in the house or even the yard, it’s imperative that you keep an eye on them at all times.
Untreated grass and carrots might be fine for Snowball to nibble on, but keep in mind that electrical cords, furniture, indoor and outdoor plants and papers, magazines, books … if it’s on her level, it’s fair game! Instead, keep your rabbit corralled in a known environment for her own safety, and rotate appropriate, non-toxic chew toys.
What Should You Look for When Choosing Your Forever Bunny?
Speaking of eating, when you bring a pet home, one of the things families with children need to talk about and make clear is who will be responsible for feeding him or her. That’s also true if your new pet is a rabbit. A good diet assures that your bunny will have shiny, lush fur and bright eyes, and that’s what you should look for the first time you go looking for your forever bunny, ideally from a rescue organization near you.
When you take your fluffy bunny home, you should already be prepared for him, with hay ready, and pure, filtered water should be available to her at all times. Although it may take a little longer, you should start litter training your bunny the day you bring her home. My House Rabbit explains:
“Fresh hay should make up the bulk of your rabbit’s diet and needs to be readily available at all times. Adult rabbits can eat timothy, grass, and oat hays, while younger rabbits should be fed alfalfa. Alfalfa should not be given to adult rabbits because of the higher protein and sugar content.
Hay is important for rabbits because it provides the essential fiber needed for good digestive health and it helps wear down a rabbit’s teeth (which continuously grow) for good dental health. Placing hay at one end of a litter box will also encourage the use of the litter box, as rabbits tend to eat hay and poop at the same time.”1
Vegetables are another staple food for rabbits, such as celery, lettuce, bok choy and carrot tops (sparingly). Leafy greens and herbs are a definite prerequisite for rabbits to eat and can include a wide variety, including cilantro, dill, kale (sparingly), broccoli leaves, mustard, collard and dandelion greens. Treats like apples, raspberries, bananas, pineapples and strawberries are enjoyed by many rabbits, but organic is best, and limit the amount because too much sugar for rabbits isn’t good, either.
Don’t feed rabbits cabbage or the “trees” of broccoli because they can cause gas. As mentioned, like the veggies you feed your family, look for organic varieties and wash them thoroughly before letting Thumper eat. Fresh pellets are acceptable as a supplement for rabbits’ diet, especially if they’re low in protein and high in fiber, but processed pellets should not be fed as a sole food source.
Rabbits Have Special Needs, Too
There’s also shelter and exercise to think through, in addition to knowing what food is appropriate. Along those lines and according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA):
“As its owner, you will ultimately be responsible for your rabbit’s food, shelter, exercise, physical and mental health for the rest of its life. While families should involve their children in caring for a rabbit, youngsters need the help of an adult who is willing, able, and available to supervise the animal’s daily care.
Rabbits are well-known for their ability to produce large numbers of babies. Purchasing and breeding a rabbit for the purpose of allowing children to witness the birth process is not responsible rabbit ownership. If a female rabbit becomes pregnant, it is your responsibility to find good homes for the offspring.”
In regard to rabbit sizes, The Spruce lists several breeds, including dwarf bunnies, which can be as small as 2.5 pounds, and the largest ones (Flemish Giants), which can weigh 16 pounds or more. For comparison purposes, an American fuzzy lop will weigh in at 3.5 to 4 pounds, an American sable might be 7 to 10 pounds, a Flemish Giant 13 pounds and higher and a New Zealand from 9 to 12 pounds.2
Consider Where You’ll Keep Your Rabbit
Many people like the idea of placing their rabbit in an outdoor hutch, but knowledgeable rabbit guardians know that the safest place for their pet is indoors. While wild rabbits are accustomed to temperature extremes, domestic bunnies are not. In addition, rabbits are prey for many animals, so even in a safe outdoor enclosure your pet is vulnerable to predators. Sadly, just the presence of a wild animal nearby can cause so much stress in a rabbit that he may suffer a heart attack and die of fear. The AVMA emphasizes:
“Keeping a rabbit outdoors in a hutch may seem more ‘natural,’ but it can be harmful for the rabbit. An outdoor cage exposes it to weather extremes and predators such as cats, dogs, and foxes. Even if a predator cannot get access to the rabbit, the rabbit could die from the stress of an attempted attack.
Many condominium associations allow their residents to keep rabbits as pets since most no-pet clauses apply only to dogs or cats. However, be sure to consult your association bylaws before you decide to bring a rabbit into your unit.”3
Inside your house, a large cage or an area strewn with newspapers or with a low litter box and food and water bowls will work for your rabbit’s home, but she’ll need plenty of time outside of her cage, in a bunny-proofed area, for exercise and mental well-being. Once your bunny settles in, you’ll find she makes a good companion, and needs to have exercise, which gives you a chance to engage and interact with your new fluff ball. He will show how much he appreciates you, and the feeling will be mutual.