By Michelle Leifer | vetstreet.com
ThinkstockWith Easter less than a week away, it can be tempting to buy a furry bunny to round out your child's holiday basket.
But, as adorable as they are, rabbits are more than just a seasonal decoration or a toy. When uninformed owners are faced with the reality of caring for their new pet, that cute bunny all too often ends up in a shelter.
Related: Biggest Misconceptions About Rabbits
To get a better sense of what to expect, Vetstreet asked Mary E. Cotter, Ed.D., who runs the New York City-area chapter of the House Rabbit Society (HRS) and serves as the vice president for the international HRS organization, to give us the lowdown on bunny ownership. Here are things to consider:1. Rabbits Have Long Lifespans
Bunnies can live seven to 10 years - and some even hit their teens. "This is not a quick fix for a lonely child," Cotter says. "You need to think long term and realize that a full-grown pet requires devotion and care."
And just like puppies and kittens, your little Easter bunny won't stay small for long. "Make sure your family won't lose interest in the rabbit as soon as the novelty wears off," Cotter adds.
In short: If you're looking for something to fill an Easter basket, you're better off with a bunny that's made of chocolate.2. Bunnies Aren't a Good Fit for Small Kids
Many parents see rabbits as great, low-maintenance starter pets for tykes, but Cotter stresses that nothing could be further from the truth. "Small children like to carry and cuddle their pets - precisely the things that frighten most rabbits," she says. "Many are also accidentally dropped by children, resulting in broken legs and backs."
If a child inadvertently hurts the rabbit by lifting him incorrectly, the results could be devastating. "Rabbits have no voice, so they can't cry out when distressed," she explains. Instead, they may scratch or bite to protect themselves. Thousands of rabbits are surrendered to shelters every year for this very reason.3. Certain Personalities Just Don't Mesh With Rabbits
It's not just children who make bad owners; many adults have expectations for pets that are incompatible with rabbit ownership. For example, if you're looking for a pet who will greet you at the door and snuggle up with you on the couch, opt for a puppy instead.
"People who enjoy observing animals as much as handling them tend to make the best owners," Cotter says. "If your needs are to have an animal do what you want it to do and obey you, then a rabbit isn't for you."
That's not to say that rabbits aren't trainable, but they still typically do their own thing. And Cotter says emphatically that you should never attempt to punish or discipline a rabbit, which only leads to fear and defensive biting.4. Caring for Bunnies Is Time-Consuming
You'll need to buy special food for a pet bunny and change the bedding in the cage frequently. "The primary component of a mature rabbit's diet should be grass hay that's given fresh daily, in large quantities," Cotter says. To supplement hay, she suggests a daily salad of dark green, leafy vegetables. Rabbit pellets should be given only in very limited quantities, since unrestricted feeding of pellets leads to obesity.
In terms of grooming, rabbits continually clean themselves, and they're notorious for developing hairballs. If the bunny is on a normal, high-fiber hay diet, the hair will pass, but it can build up for a rabbit on a poor diet. If a bunny ingests a small, hard mat of hair, it can get lodged in the intestine, so it's important to regularly brush rabbits, especially longhaired breeds.
See Also: 5 Steps to Clicker-Training Rabbits
Although an outdoor hutch has been the traditional form of housing for a rabbit, today we know better. Keep your bunny indoors, where he will be safe and can interact with the family.
"Be sure to get your pet a cage that allows him to move freely," Cotter says. It should be at least four feet wide, two feet deep and two feet tall. Although wire-bottom cages are common, solid bottoms are better for your pet's feet. And line the base with straw or hay to keep your bunny cozy.6. Bunnies Are Picky About Tidy Spaces
Cotter says rabbits are clean by nature and will do their best to keep their living area as such. "Rabbits can easily be litterbox-trained, but you and the rabbit must negotiate this process," she says.
Watch to see which corner of the cage the rabbit uses for urination. As soon as your rabbit's choice is clear, put a newspaper-lined litterbox in that corner. Fill it with timothy hay (or any other grass hay, except alfalfa) or pelleted-newspaper litter. If the litterbox is refreshed daily, your rabbit's home will stay odor-free.7. Rabbits Require Daily Exercise
Your bunny needs a safe exercise area, with lots of room to run and jump. "Never leave a rabbit alone outdoors - even for a few minutes," Cotter says. "Cats, dogs and predatory birds can easily get around fencing. Rabbits might also dig under fences and get lost. If you exercise your pet indoors, be sure to rabbit-proof by covering all electrical wires and anything else that your pet is likely to chew."8. Bunnies Need Specialty Vets
Like dogs and cats, rabbits need regular veterinary care, including checkups, dental exams and treatments for illness. But, as Cotter explains, not all veterinarians are knowledgeable about rabbits, so you need to find one with the proper training and expertise. To locate one in your area, search the House Rabbit Society's database.9. Rabbits Should Be Spayed or Neutered
You've probably heard the phrase "breeding like rabbits." Well, they got that reputation for a good reason. Bunnies can have a litter every 30 days and can get pregnant within minutes of giving birth. Spaying and neutering not only help prevent unwanted litters - the procedures also protect female rabbits from uterine cancer and allow male/female pairs to live happily together.10. If You Really Want a Bunny, Opt to Adopt
If you decide that rabbit ownership is for you, consider adoption. Thousands of rabbits, including purebreds, are surrendered to shelters each year. "Adopting from a shelter allows prospective owners to interact with rabbits of different breeds, ages, sizes and dispositions," Cotter says. "Shelters and rescue organizations can often match adopters with a rabbit whose personality will be a good fit."
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