Dr. Laurie Hess is our resident exotics expert and contributes regularly on the Pet Health Network. For more from Dr. Hess, find her on Facebook!
There's no doubt: bunnies are adorable. In fact, they are maybe one of the most adorable animals there are – so cute and fuzzy. Some of them actually look like toys, which is perhaps why so many people want them as pets. Rabbits can be super pets when taken care of properly, but they are not right for everyone. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned pet owners learn this after they adopt or purchase bunnies that turn out not to be what they expected.
Before you get a rabbit, there are a few very important facts you need to know:
1. Bunnies need an herbivorous (vegetarian) diet.
They eat a lot of hay, a little bit of pelleted rabbit food, and a small amount of fresh vegetables every day. They need a high fiber diet, and they don’t eat grains (like oatmeal) or nuts. Feeding them isn’t as simple as opening a can of food into a bowl, as you would for a cat or dog. If you’re going to own a bunny, you have to be prepared to keep your cupboard well-stocked with these items and to shell out some money each week for fresh produce.
2. Bunnies need attention to be well-socialized.
People get rabbits to be able to hold and cuddle them, yet what they don’t realize is that rabbits are prey species and, as such, most are wired to be high-strung and skittish. With daily handling positively reinforced with food rewards, rabbits can get very used to being held, and many pet bunnies, in fact, come to enjoy it.
3. Bunnies poop a lot!
Rabbits have a high metabolism and are natural grazers. They don’t eat actual large meals but instead pick a little bit at a time over the course of a day. Since they are nearly always eating, they are also nearly always pooping. Rabbit owners have to expect that when their pets are out of the cage, they are going to poop, too. Making sure that bunnies are on a wipeable surface when they are out is important to prevent carpets and furniture from becoming soiled. Plus, since rabbits are constantly soiling their cages, their cage bedding (preferably paper-based and not wood shavings, corn cob, or other indigestible items) must be spot-scooped daily and fully replaced at a minimum weekly.
4. Bunnies need preventative medical care.
Just like dogs, cats, and other pets, rabbits need regular medical attention. This means a trip to the vet just after you get your new bunny to ensure that he/she is healthy and that you are doing all the right things to keep him/her so, plus annual check-ups to ensure he/she remains healthy. Rabbits should have a stool sample checked for intestinal parasites that can be easily treated if they are found, and all female rabbits should be spayed (have their uterus and ovaries removed) after 6 months of age so that they do not develop uterine cancer (which over 50-60% do if they are not spayed by age 3). Male rabbits may spray urine to mark their territory and may “hump” everything in sight – your legs, your furniture, your other pets – when they become sexually mature. These unpleasant behaviors can be eliminated by neutering them. Finally, unlike cats and dogs that can go a couple of days without eating, rabbits cannot. If they stop eating for even a day, regardless of the cause, they can develop a life threatening condition called gastrointestinal (GI) stasis in which they become dehydrated, their GI tracts do not move food through properly, the normal bacteria that help digest food in their GI tracts are overtaken by gas-producing bacteria, and the gas produced makes them more uncomfortable and not wanting to eat, thereby perpetuating the cycle. Rabbits with GI stasis must be treated immediately or may die.
5. Bunnies are not great pets for very young children.
Given that most rabbits are easily stressed and that young children (elementary school age and younger) move quickly and are frequently loud, bunnies and little children generally don’t mix. Very active kids may scare rabbits, causing them to jump and injure themselves. Plus, rabbits have very strong back legs, so their hind ends must always be supported when they are held, or they may kick and break their backs. Thus, children must always be supervised when holding bunnies.
6. Bunnies kept as pets are not the same as wild bunnies.
Domesticated rabbits are not the same species as the hares that live in your yard. Pet rabbits do not know how to protect themselves from predators or how to find food. They do not know how to fend for themselves and will likely die if left outside without food or shelter. Too many people don’t realize this and simply release pet bunnies (especially after Easter) back into “nature” when these animals don’t turn out to be what they expected. Unwanted rabbits should be rehomed or donated to shelters rather than released into the wilderness.
So, if you are considering getting a rabbit this Easter, educate yourself as thoroughly as possible about rabbit care by talking to rabbit-savvy veterinarians and bunny breeders, and read as much current information about rabbits as you can before bringing one into your home. After you’ve educated yourself, if you feel you can be a responsible bunny owner, then go for it. If not, maybe just enjoy a chocolate one.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.