Visiting Veterinarian

Hoppin' down the bunny trail

BeeBee
BeeBee eats a healthy meal as her owner snaps her picture. Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Michele Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - April 5, 2006

"C'mon, Mom. I'll take care of them. I promise," your child pleads. "Aren't they cute?" Even the most resolute parent may waiver before that irresistible twitching nose and floppy ears. Every spring countless baby bunnies are given as gifts to children, and every year many of last season's Easter bunnies, now grown to adult rabbits, are left to lead lives of caged boredom, given to animal shelters, or abandoned to fend for themselves in the wild.

Rabbits can make lovely pets. I highly recommend them to anyone who has a true interest and is willing to educate themselves and take good care of Peter. "It won't be much work, Mom," your kid argues. "All we need to do is put him in a cage and give him rabbit pellets." Wrong. To keep Peter happy and healthy requires a good deal of care and attention - for seven to 10 years. That's the average life span of a rabbit. So before you say yes to that adorable baby bunny, let's talk lagomorphs.

Peter needs a nice big cage, large enough for him to stand up on his hind legs without hitting his head, and to stretch out on his side. It should have room for a litter tray and a place to hide. In the wild, rabbits spend time snuggled in burrows where they feel safe and secure. Peter would appreciate a hidey-hole made of a box, basket, or cardboard tube. The cage floor can be solid or wire but should be made of material that can be cleaned. Pieces of washable fake fleece or blanket can also provide comfy resting spots.

Peter can live indoors or outdoors as long as you provide the proper set-up. His home must be well-ventilated and kept in a cool, dry place. Outside, Peter needs shelter from wind, cold, precipitation, sun, heat, insects, and predators. Never underestimate the cunning of a raccoon that wants a rabbit dinner. Rabbits are also very susceptible to heat stroke. If there's a really hot spell and you can't move him to a cool spot, put a plastic bottle of frozen water in his cage so he can lean against it to cool off. Indoors, make sure the environment is not too damp

No matter how elegant his cage, Peter should never spend all his time confined. Those bunny legs are made to run and jump. Wild rabbits have two-acre territories that they traverse regularly. If Peter is cooped up in a hutch all his life, he can develop problems including obesity, bone and muscle disease, poor digestion, sore feet, and behavioral issues from boredom. Peter can have an outdoors exercise pen, or play in the house, but take precautions to keep him safe. Always supervise playtime. Outside, check for poisonous plants. Never let him frolic on a lawn that has been treated with fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals. Inside, it is essential to "bunny-proof." Rabbits love to chew, and it is not uncommon for bunnies to electrocute themselves chomping on electrical cords. Wrap all cords in protective tubing. Remove poisonous houseplants, any other potentially toxic materials, and anything you don't want Peter to chew.

Most rabbits can be trained to use a litter box. Peter will naturally use a corner of his cage for a bathroom. Put a low, easily accessible litter box at that site, he will soon get the idea. Do not use clay or clumping kitty litter, which, if ingested, can lead to serious intestinal problems. Use nontoxic pelleted paper litter. Since rabbits tend to poop while they eat, putting a little hay in his litter box at first will help him catch on. Don't worry. He won't eat any soiled hay. Once he's litter-trained in his cage, put a litter box out in the house, too.

Now comes diet. Rabbit pellets were developed to feed bunnies being raised for meat, fur, or laboratory use. The goal was convenience, not optimum health, long life, or happiness. In fact, commercial pellets are not the ideal way to feed Peter. He needs a diet based on good quality grass hay and lots of fresh, organic, dark leafy greens. Hay has all sorts of benefits. Since rabbits' teeth grow continuously, the active chewing hay requires helps wear them down properly. The fiber keeps digestion healthy, and the chewing is fun, reducing boredom and the likelihood that Peter will chew other, less appropriate things (like your furniture). Buy good quality hay, not straw. Avoid the overly rich legume hays like alfalfa or clover. Ask the person at the feed store to help you. You want a fresh, dry bale of timothy, oat, rye, barley, meadow, or Bermuda grass hay.

Peter also needs greens. In the wild, he would munch on leaves and grass. Like hay, greens keep Peter busy, happy, and healthy. The water in the leaves helps keep him well hydrated. Iceberg lettuce is not a "dark, leafy green." You want veggies like field greens, broccoli, cabbage, dandelion greens, Swiss chard, parsley, kale, chicory. You get the idea. The same stuff that nutritionists recommend that we eat! Peter can also enjoy limited quantities of other fruits and vegetable, but think of these like cookies. Give only a little bit as a treat after a nice healthy meal. Avoid starchy, sugary, and processed foods altogether.

A bunny who eats enough greens will not drink a lot of additional water, but Peter still needs a dish or bottle of water. Keep it clean. Make sure it doesn't freeze. If he's eating a healthy diet, he does not need any vitamin or mineral supplements. You should not put any additives in his water. If you want to give him a handful of rabbit pellets, OK, but it's not necessary, and not a substitute for hay and greens. Improper nutrition is one of the leading causes of poor health in pet rabbits; so take this advice to heart.

So this all sounds doable. You're ready to buy the bunny for the kids. It is very important that you teach your children, and yourself, the proper way to handle Peter. If held incorrectly, Peter can actually break his back with one big kick. Never pick him up by the ears. Never allow his hind legs to dangle loosely. Always support his hind end when holding him. Encourage the kids to practice while sitting on the floor, so that if he squirms out of their grasp, he doesn't have a long way to fall. If Peter is badly injured as a result of a child's inappropriate handling, it can be as emotionally traumatic for that child as it is physically damaging to the rabbit.

Finally, a word about veterinary care. Yes, rabbits need it. Females should be spayed to prevent uterine cancer, which is extremely common in rabbits. Males should be neutered to prevent urine-spraying and aggressive behavior. Like any living thing, they may have medical problems ranging from dental issues to infections to cancer. For optimum care, select a veterinarian who has experience working with rabbits. For more bunny information, check out The House Rabbit Society at www.rabbit.org.

If you've decided against the live bunny but need an alternative Easter activity, I suggest Peeps. You know, those weird yellow and pink marshmallow chick things? They require no special care and can be endlessly entertaining. Put two peeps on a paper plate facing each other. Stick a toothpick in the front of each as though they are holding swords. Now pop 'em in the microwave. Jousting Peeps. For more weird Peep info, check out http://peepresearch.org/.