March 18, 2012
Q. We are thinking about getting 2 cute little dwarf bunnies for the kids for Easter. We will put them in separate cages because we don’t want a bunch of baby bunnies. How much food should I give them and is it ok to just leave fresh food and water all the time?
A. When I get a question like this, I like to go in to my spiel about why and when to get a pet. In this case, it sounds like the kids fell in love with an adorable furry thing at the pet store. Fortunately, Mom has done the smart thing and has decided to research the situation before purchasing an animal on a whim. This is very important because these bunnies will not stay as little as they are in the pet store, and most kids outgrow their promises to feed, exercise and care for their new pet. The whole family must plan for a pet.
There are several things to consider as the family is discussing the addition of a new family member. In the case of rabbits, they do make a nice alternative to a dog or cat. They are usually not aggressive, they don’t require long walks, and they can be trained to use a litter box. However, their life span is a bit shorter than a dog or cat (5-10 years) and they do reproduce, well, like rabbits. (Do not trust the pet store employee’s guess about sex and do not put 2 rabbits together until you and your veterinarian are sure of their sex.)
Plan ahead for exercise and housing needs before you decide that a rabbit is for you. Obesity is a big problem with rabbits that get little exercise. They need daily, supervised exercise in fenced grassy areas (keep lawn chemicals off these areas) or in a safe room in the house. There are harnesses and leashes made specifically for rabbits that enable you to exercise them safely inside and outside. Rabbits should never be allowed to run around the house unsupervised. They love to chew on carpets and furniture and for some reason they love electrical cords. As you can imagine, serious injury can occur if they bite into a cord.
In between exercise sessions you will want to confine your rabbit. There are lots of cages made for rabbits, but most of them are ridiculously small. Be sure you get one that has both wire and smooth flooring because constantly standing on wire causes foot sores. There should be a hiding place and room for ceramic food and water bowls and a hanging water bottle. Feces should drop through a wire mesh or there should be a litter box available.
Charleston’s climate is not suitable for domestic rabbits to be kept outside. They are very sensitive to heat stroke and anything above 80 degrees can be dangerous.
Once you have decided that you can handle the exercise and housing requirements for a rabbit, you need to think about feeding. Timothy hay is the key to longevity and health for a rabbit and should be available at all times. Most people want to feed highly concentrated pellets. Although younger rabbits need this extra nutrition, after a year of age no more than ¼ cup of pellets per 5 pounds of weight should be offered once a day. Small amounts of alfalfa, grass and clover are a nice treat. Dark green leafy vegetables also can provide nutrition, moisture and variety to the diet but they should not comprise more than 20% of the diet.
Rabbits need to chew to control their ever growing front teeth. Some dog toys such as Nyla-bones are fine for rabbits and most pet stores offer wood chew sticks for this purpose. If they are not adequately shortening their teeth, then a trip to the veterinarian is warranted for sedation and proper filing of these teeth.
Rabbits also have sharp nails that can be trimmed. Rabbits cannot be declawed, so instead you must learn how to handle your rabbit properly so he doesn’t scratch you. You cannot pick up a rabbit by his ears and his back legs must always be supported. It is important to have your veterinarian show you and your children how to safely handle the rabbit.
And, here is something to consider. Rabbits, like dogs and cats, do need regular veterinary check-ups. At least annually they should have an exam of their teeth, nails, and ears. They should be assessed for obesity and have a fecal exam for parasites. Rabbits can carry some parasites that are contagious to people. These are easily controlled, but cannot be ignored. Rabbits do not need to have any vaccinations. Rabbits can and should be spayed or neutered to avoid both medical and behavioral problems.
Because many people don’t plan accordingly before they get a rabbit, there are often rabbits available for adoption at the Charleston Animal Society. I would recommend looking there first. If you do decide to buy from a pet store, be wary of pets that have been bred several states away and trucked to our area. These animals can be stressed by the trip and may have hidden illnesses.
If you truly plan for a rabbit to become a part of your family, you can expect years of a rewarding relationship with a different and fun pet.