Pet Rabbit doesn’t have to be a Hare-raising Experience
By Dr. Anndrea Kapke
Spring and Easter bring to mind flowers, eggs, chicks, and bunnies. If you are considering making the Easter Bunny a permanent house guest, here is some information to help you negotiate the briar patch of rabbit care.
Rabbits will live from 5 to 12 years. Adult rabbits range in size from the dainty 4 pound American Fuzzy Lop to the 15 plus pound Flemish Giant which would likely get stuck in the magician’s hat.
Rabbits do not make good pets for young children. Rabbits are timid prey animals and they must be handled with care and calm -- not skills young children have in abundance. If rabbits are handled roughly they easily develop a fear of all humans and may start biting. I’m not saying you’ll end up with Monty Python’s Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, but a biting rabbit doesn’t make a good pet. Another reason rabbits need to be handled with skill is because they have fragile bones, but very strong muscles. If you lift a rabbit without supporting his hind legs, he can kick his legs hard enough to break his own back.
Pet rabbits should be kept indoors. They are sensitive to heat and do best at temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees. The rabbit’s cage should be at least four times as long as the stretched out body length of the rabbit. For example, 24 inches by 35 inches for a rabbit weighing less than eight pounds. A glass aquarium isn’t a good cage for a rabbit because the airflow isn’t adequate, leading to high humidity and increased risk of respiratory infections. Instead, wire mesh cages are commonly used. The wire mesh openings should be small enough that the rabbit can’t get his feet caught in them. Rabbits don’t have pads on the bottoms of their feet like cats and dogs so part of the wire bottom of the cage needs to be covered with wood, cardboard or straw to protect the rabbit’s feet. Rabbits can be litter trained by adding a litter box to the cage. Do not use pine or cedar shavings, clumping litter, or litter with deodorant crystals in it. You can use hay, straw, aspen bark, non-clumping unscented clay litter, or litter made from paper products. Give the rabbit a place for privacy in the cage such as an upside-down cardboard box with a door hole cut out. Give him bunny safe chew toys, wood to chew on, and ceramic bowls for food and water. Rabbits should not be let out of their cages to roam the house without being carefully watched. They love to chew -- especially electrical cords. Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously throughout life.
Feed your rabbit high quality rabbit pelleted food, timothy hay, and vegetables such as: collard greens, dandelion greens and flowers, and carrot tops. Iceberg lettuce or too much fruit may cause diarrhea. Rabbits have the unusual behavior of eating some of their own droppings called cecal pellets. This is not only normal but necessary for them to get all the nutrition they need from their diet.
Rabbits should see a veterinarian at least once a year. They are especially susceptible to parasites; nutritional diseases; ear, eye and respiratory disease; and tooth problems. If you plan to have more than one rabbit, keep in mind the saying “breed like bunnies” and get your bunnies spayed or neutered. Rabbits have a long breeding season and a short pregnancy length. In a single breeding season one doe can be responsible for up to 800 bunnies, grandbunnies, and great grandbunnies. Even if you only plan to have one rabbit, still have it spayed or neutered around six months of age. In both males and females, this will decrease aggression, decrease urine marking of territory, improve litter box use, decrease chewing activity, and decrease the risks of certain cancers.
This time of year it is common for people to find wild rabbit nests in their yards, uncovered by the lawn mower or family dog. Resist the temptation to bring the baby bunnies inside and “save” them. The best thing to do is leave them alone and keep the dog away from the nest. Parents spend most of their time away from the nest grazing. Because their milk is so nutritious, mothers only nurse the babies for a few minutes once or twice a day, so don’t expect to see them hovering nearby.
What about the superstition that carrying a rabbit’s foot will bring you good luck? Well, I don’t think that holds much water, considering it didn’t work out so well for the rabbit.