As an exotic animal veterinarian, I see many kinds of pets – from rodents to birds to reptiles – every day. But, perhaps the most popular pet I treat these days is the rabbit. Rabbits are generally affectionate, gentle, and bond closely with their owners. As any rabbit owner would tell you, these animals recognize their caretakers by voice and by sight, and they make wonderful companions. Living on average 8-12 years, these pets can thrive as single animals in a household or with other rabbits if they are raised together and introduced gradually. They also can live in homes with cats, dogs, and other pets, as long as these animals are not left out together unsupervised. Rabbits make great first pets for families with older (middle-school and up) age children or for older people who live alone and want a cuddly companion.
While bunnies, like other animals, are available for purchase from pet stores and breeders, if you are looking to bring one into your home, you should consider checking out local rabbit rescues. Rabbit rescues abound, as many people adopt these animals without knowing what they are getting into and are ultimately disappointed or frustrated with them, abandoning them at shelters to find second homes. A great source for rabbit adoption is the House Rabbit Society (www.rabbit.org), an international group with chapters in every state that fosters adoptable rabbits and educates people about rabbit care. Rabbits come in all sizes, colors, and fur lengths, plus they definitely have different personalities, from shy and quiet to mischievous and spunky. Before adopting a rabbit, you should spend time with it to ensure its personality matches yours and that you are comfortable handling it.
Rabbits are herbivores (vegetable eaters) requiring an unlimited supply of hay each day along with a smaller amount of commercially available rabbit pellets (about ¼ cup per 4-5 pounds of bunny weight per day) and some fresh produce (such as collard greens or beet or dandelion greens, romaine lettuce, carrot tops, endive, basil, kale, cabbage, radicchio, wheat grass, squash, Brussels sprouts, and pea pods, with lesser amounts of high fiber apple, pear, plum, peach, or berries). Their teeth grow continuously, so they need to gnaw on hay daily (plus toys such as wooden blocks) to keep their teeth worn down, or they will develop dental problems.
Ideally, rabbits should be housed indoors, at a temperature humans are comfortable with. Bunnies housed outdoors are sensitive to overheating when it is greater than 80°F and to frostbite in the cold; thus, they should be provided with shelter outside and should be brought inside during weather extremes. They should be housed in large cages lined with paper-based bedding and provided with both a water bottle and water bowl, as different rabbits have preferences for drinking. They can be trained to use a litter box containing shredded paper placed in the corner of their cage. Cages should be spot-cleaned daily and thoroughly cleaned every week. While they don’t need to be walked, bunnies need to spend a few hours a day out of their cages to run around and exercise, or they may become obese. Rabbits should be handled daily, too, to socialize them and to ensure they get used to their owners.
Like dogs and cats, rabbits require regular veterinary check-ups to stay healthy. While they don’t need vaccines, they should have an initial veterinary examination when they are first adopted and then annual check-ups after that. Their teeth should be checked thoroughly and their stools examined for parasites. They need their nails trimmed every few weeks and their fur brushed every few days or so, with the longer-haired breeds requiring grooming daily. Finally, since nearly 80% of female rabbits will develop uterine cancer after age three years, all female rabbits should be spayed after six months of age to prevent this fatal disease.
Rabbits can make terrific, loving pets in the right circumstances. However, potential bunny owners should be sure that they are ready to make the time, financial, and emotional commitment to a rabbit before bringing one home. If you’re thinking of a bunny as a pet, talk to other rabbit owners, veterinarians, rabbit breeders, and other rabbit-savvy individuals, and visit a rabbit rescue organization first to help ensure a bunny is the right choice for you.
Written by Dr. Laurie Hess, one of 125 avian specialists certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners and owns the only Animal Hospital Association of America-accredited exotic animal hospital in NY State - the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics – in Westchester County, NY. She is an exotic pet writer, a regular exotic pet expert on television, and a radio show host. Her book, Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor, is available now wherever books are sold.