Sophia Yin, DVM
Twas the week after Easter
And all through the house
A bunny was stirring
All quiet like a mouse
It tasted the carpet
It marked the new couch
It left little green presents
Which made Dad a grouch
Ask any rabbit fancier, and she’ll tell you what makes rabbits so great. These affectionate, high-spirited herbivores are full of mischief and games. Their amusing behavior coupled with their quiet nature and convenient size makes them wonderful house pets.
But as some unsuspecting Easter bunny recipients may soon discover, these feisty little lagomorphs can be a handful to house. In fact, their up-keep can be such a challenge that a handful of owners will call it quits and surrender their Easter pet to the pound. To help prevent such a grave mistake, here are some facts and tips that a potential rabbit owner should consider.
Bunny-proof the House
To start, the first challenge most bunny owners face is that of protecting the house. Bunnies love to chew—on your plants, on your books and especially on your electrical cords. It’s in their nature. Their wild counterparts spend most of the day foraging, which requires hours of chewing on often relatively low calorie foods to get the nutrition they need. They browse a few leaves on one plant and then hop over to the next and search through the vegetation to get to the parts they want. In contrast, the typical house rabbit tends to get a concentrated pellet meal, which takes way less time to chew. As a result, bunnies have all that extra time on their hands and a high desire to chew.
An on-the-ball owner will provide chew toys and hay at all times to help fulfill this chewing desire. In addition to these precautions you’ll need to bunny-proof the house. Make sure electrical cords are out of the way, and if you can’t elevate the cords put them in PVC piping.
Once you think the house is safe, you can start letting Bunny out, supervised at first. That way you can see how well you have bunny-proofed. You never quite know what she will take an inkling to do. Some youngsters even chew and swallow carpet, which can lead to intestinal blockage, a problem that requires surgery.
It’s important that rabbits get enough exercise. Spending their entire day in a cage is not adequate any more than you spending all your time in a room the size of a walk-in closet, and with no T.V., radio, or internet! So, Bunny will need some playtime every day outside her cage.
Bunny Poop and Potty Training
Even before you give Bunny the run of the room or even the house, there are a few other issues to consider. Assuming you don’t like little green pellets decorating your floor, your bunny’s first lesson should be in potty training. Limiting Bunny to her cage and adding a box filled with rabbit-safe litter plus samples of her No. 2 often does the trick. Additionally, adding hay to the corner of the box can help entice her in. For the occasional bunny who likes to hang out in her bathroom and poop in her cage, make the rest of the cage more comfortable so she’ll hang out there instead. Try placing a synthetic sheepskin rug in it.
Once you’re certain Bunny has the idea, you can let her out into a small play area. Be sure she still has easy access to her litter box, and add boxes as needed. By starting slowly, you’ll be able to increase her play area gradually and decrease the number of litter boxes.
An Interesting Fact About Rabbit Poop
By the way, since we’re talking about poop, you might want to know that rabbits regularly eat some of their poop. Rabbits are hindgut fermenters. That means that their vegetable-digesting system occurs in the latter half of the gut. No, rabbits don’t digest vegetable matter on their own. Food passes through the stomach and then is further digested, and the building blocks are absorbed from the intestines to the bloodstream. Animals can’t digest the coarse cell walls that make up vegetation. The have to rely on bacteria in their gut to ferment the products. Then they digest the bacteria and all the material they’ve made.
Because this bacterial digestion system occurs well down the road in the mid intestines (primarily a portion called the cecum) a lot of the digested material is wasted and leaves the body through the poop. In order to recover this important source of nutrition, rabbits tend to poop the cecal pellets at night and then eat this so-called night feces. In fact, they “get a special feeling,” when they release their night feces and they reach around and eat the feces right from their anus.
Urine Marking and Aggression
Next there’s the problem of urine. It’s hard to believe, but these cuddly creatures are unmistakably territorial. They’ll mark their area, and some will bite and scratch both two- and four-legged trespassers.
Getting Bunny spayed or neutered at 5 to 6 months old will eliminate most of the marking and can double or triple her life span by preventing fatal reproductive-tract cancers. Good socialization and rewarding for appropriate behavior can fix the rest. Regular, short, gentle handling sessions where the rabbit is well supported can turn a ho-hum pet into a wonderful, sociable companion—one that can even learn to greet you on cue or perform simple tricks.
This handling should start before she’s 3 months of age since the sensitive period for developing social bonds and learning to recognize that handling, people, and other pets are safe occurs in the early weeks. She should be handled by different people, including visitors, so that she learns that visitors are safe to be with too. She’ll learn even faster if you give her treats to nibble on while you’re handling her and putting her in new situations. Then she’ll associate the handling and new situations with good things. If she’s hungry but won’t eat, that indicates the situation is scary for her.
Besides these behavioral aspects, rabbits require additional considerations. Rabbits require lots of care, possibly more than a cat or a dog. They have dietary needs that are more specific than a dog’s, and husbandry is such a major issue that if you’re not paying attention, problems can arise before you even have any idea.
Veterinarians commonly see problems of benign neglect. Owners aren’t purposely neglecting their rabbits, they just don’t know.
Such problems include teeth so overgrown that Bunny can’t eat, urine burns on the tummy and malnutrition. Additionally, because rabbits are prey animals, without thorough socialization, they stress easily and, like cats, hide their diseases for a long time. That means that when we finally realize they’re sick, they’re pretty far along.
To prevent problems from sneaking up on your bunny, examine her daily for physical problems and bring her in yearly for veterinary checkups.
By now it’s clear that bunnies require unique care. And maybe an Easter bunny is not right for you. But for those owners who can meet their needs, bunnies can make unique companions.
For more information on rabbit care, check out “The House Rabbit Handbook: How to Live With an Urban Rabbit,” by Marinell Harriman (Drollery Press), or visit www.rabbit.org on the Internet.