For the past 12 years, the majority of Pet Wise columns have focused on cats and dogs. Today’s column will be the first in a series to provide information about other types of pets that have become cherished family members.
Are you considering getting a rabbit for yourself or your children? Rabbits traditionally are a popular pet during Easter, however, the novelty of rabbit ownership usually wears off when owners discover that they cannot meet the needs of these unique and sensitive creatures. This results in thousands of these “Easter” bunnies being surrendered to animal shelters and rabbit rescue groups every year.
Some people enjoy having “house” rabbits residing in their homes while others prefer to keep their rabbits outdoors in a hutch. Both types of living arrangements require owners to be proactive regarding the health needs, safety, and enrichment for these animals.
Rabbits come in sizes ranging from dwarf to giant and in a variety of colors, fur textures and ear types. When raised under ideal conditions, the life expectancy of a house rabbit is between 8-10 years (16 maximum).
Rabbits should dine on fresh vegetables, herbs, and quality pellets throughout their lives. A constant supply of fresh clean water and quality hay should be included in a rabbit’s diet (to prevent deadly gastrointestinal blockages). Owners must avoid giving treats containing sugar because it increases production of harmful intestinal bacteria that causes diarrhea and loss of appetite.
Rabbits can live comfortably indoors but not on wire floors of cages (or hutches for outdoor rabbits) because those surfaces can cause injury to the legs and feet. A metal exercise pen placed on a floor can serve as a bunny abode. Rabbits can be litter-box trained by placing a layer of litter (dust and clay-free, non-clumping) on the bottom of a large cat litter box with a thick layer of hay on top.
Rabbits naturally nibble and relieve themselves at the same time! If you plan to let a rabbit out of its enclosure, “bunny-proof” the house first and always provide constant supervision because rabbits chew as they explore! Therefore electrical wires must be enclosed in tubing, furniture legs, baseboards, and cabinets may need to be sprayed with a chewing deterrent like “Bitter Apple.” Chewing is essential for rabbits because their teeth grow continuously during their lives. Chewing also exercises their minds so owners are advised to provide rabbits with safe items like cardboard toilet and paper towel rolls (stuffed with hay), and boxes, or natural untreated wood, and cat toys like balls with bells that they can toss.
Because rabbits (like cats) self-groom and even groom each other, they constantly shed and easily swallow hairballs. Unlike cats, rabbits are unable to vomit these potentially deadly obstructions. A veterinarian may recommend a hairball prevention product.
Rabbits do require veterinary care and should be examined annually. The vet can trim excessively long teeth and nails as well as perform spay/neuter surgeries that can extend a rabbit’s life expectancy. Some 80-95 percent of unspayed females develop uterine or ovarian cancer between the ages of 2 and 5, and un-neutered males can develop testicular cancer. Altered rabbits are generally calmer, more affectionate, and may enjoy the company of other rabbits. The easiest bonding combination is between a neutered male and spayed female.
Owners who plan to house rabbits outdoors need to be aware of problems that may occur that could adversely affect outdoor rabbits’ health and safety. Veterinarian Dr. Joe Martins of Belle Meade Animal Hospital in New Jersey advises owners not to house outdoor rabbits in the same pen that houses chickens or goats because the most common intestinal microscopic parasite is Coccidia found in the animals’ stool and multiplies invisibly on the floor close to the ground in chicken floor spaces.
Dr. Martins states that when rabbits (especially young rabbits) get infected with Coccidia, they can develop growth retardation and stop eating. They can also experience diarrhea, constipation, liver failure and eventual death. He strongly feels that rabbits need clean living areas free from any manure and that they need hutches with good ventilation so they don’t get stressed and be at risk for respiratory infections.
If rabbits eat chicken food they are at risk to develop an intestinal blockage- an emergency situation. Dr. Martins recommends that outdoor rabbits may do better “in an elevated, mostly wire hutch with a section that is totally wood enclosed (top and bottom) where they can get in from the cold and hopefully hide from a fox or raccoon patrolling around at night.” The rabbit’s stool falls through the wire area of the hutch. A resting mat should be provided to keep the rabbit off the wire flooring.
According to Dr. Martins, rabbits are more susceptible to heat stroke from temperatures higher than 85 degrees. He suggests that the hutch be moved into a cool garage or under a tree for shade when temperatures rise. Placing a frozen water-filled plastic milk jug inside the hutch may keep rabbits cooler while the jug thaws. Rabbits also can get frostbite during severe cold weather. Martins recommends moving the hutch into a warm garage or shed on bitterly cold nights.
Rabbit owners are often enchanted by their bunny’s antics and body language. The “bunny hop/dance” (leaping/spinning) expresses joy. Thumping & foot stomping expresses fright or anger. Rabbits express contentment when they grind their teeth. Rabbits do like to push and toss objects, even to each other! They also vocalize and will grunt to express anger or to give a bite warning. Shrill screaming expresses pain or that the rabbit is dying.
Karen Baker, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County, shares her home and heart with a French Angora Rabbit named Louie.
“I love my house rabbit! He enjoys hopping up on the couch with me to be petted and comes running for treats when I call him,” she said. Louie’s favorite food rewards are dried papaya and freeze-dried strawberries that he receives for sitting nicely during his grooming sessions.
Baker wanted current and potential rabbit owners to be aware that rabbits do not travel well because they are susceptible to stress. If a vacation is being planned she recommends that the rabbit stay home and for owners to make arrangements to have someone to check up on the rabbit regularly.
Learn all you can before hopping into bunny ownership!
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For more information visit the House Rabbit Society at rabbit.org.