Easter bunnies not the easiest pets

By Sue Manning

Looking after a pet rabbit is more difficult than some people think. Photo / Thinkstock
Looking after a pet rabbit is more difficult than some people think. Photo / Thinkstock

Every year in the weeks and months after Easter, a large number of rabbits turn up at animal shelters across the USA, abandoned by people who bought them for the holiday but later changed their minds.

While the problem is not as large in New Zealand - SPCA rabbit adoptions increase only marginally around Easter - the organisation's chief executive Bob Kerridge says it's important people know what they are signing up for when they choose a pet rabbit.

Kerridge says they are a popular choice with children and many adults see them as a good 'first pet' option but sometimes fail to realise they take just as much work to look after as any other animal.

"Adults do not tend to adopt [rabbits] for themselves... it's usually the kids that want them," Kerridge says.

"Although they're cute and cuddly, they're not easy to cuddle.

"You have to realise that you are making a commitment and that animal now depends on you for its care and sustenance."

If you're thinking about getting a pet rabbit - at Easter or any other time - here are a few things to keep in mind from Marc Morrone, host of Hallmark Channel's Petkeeping with Marc Morrone, where one of his sidekicks is a rabbit named Harvey, brought to him by police who found him abandoned 10 years ago.

* Rabbits can be trained to walk on a leash or harness, but you can't let them play freely outside; they are prey to hawks, owls, dogs, cats and people.

"Bunnies are an animal that the entire world eats," Morrone said.

"Bunnies live in a state of perpetual anxiety that somebody's going to eat them. Once they realise no one is going to eat them, they relax and you can see their true nature come out."

* You must be prepared to commit to pet care for about a decade. Rabbits usually live eight to 12 years and can only be called bunnies for about six months.

* Rabbits get nervous if you pick them up but let their feet dangle, and that can be a problem for children who like to carry around small pets. When a rabbit is being held in such a way that it feels nervous, it will kick, and that can upset some children. Mother rabbits don't pick up and carry their young, Morrone said, so nothing prepares them to be carted around.

* Rabbits are small, but their vet bills will be similar to those for dogs or cats. They have to be spayed or neutered, they get hairballs and diseases, and they need their nails trimmed by professionals, Morrone said.

* Rabbits are unhappy in cages and need room to romp, but the space has to be bunny-proofed because they are constantly chewing. If there are lots of wires, expensive moulding or rugs, letting them loose in the house can be dangerous to them and costly for you. They need alternatives like grass mats and wicker baskets.

* They shed and must be brushed daily, and while they are clean and can be trained to use a litter box, it can get smelly, like a cat's.

* They prefer air-conditioning and companion rabbits.

* Because a rabbit is not as expressive as a dog or as vocal as a cat, it takes time and understanding to get in tune with a rabbit, Morrone said.

But he added: "They are extremely affectionate. They have a complex communication system like foot-thumping and chin-rubbing."

Foot-thumping is a way of acknowledging something or someone.

"If I walk into a room, my rabbits will stamp their feet to let the other rabbits know, 'Hey, Daddy's here'," Morrone said.

Rabbits are usually mute, but in distress, they make a high-pitched scream, and if annoyed, they grunt.

If you do decide to get a rabbit, Morrone recommends adopting it from a shelter.

Bottom line, says Morrone: "Rabbits do make good pets but they are only good pets for the right people. The main issue is commitment."

* The New Zealand SPCA has a small number of rabbits available for adoption. Its brochure on rabbit care can be found here.

- with NZ HERALD STAFF

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