DO YOU REALLY WANT RABBITS?
(and would rabbits want you?)
People can be rabbits’ worst nightmares, or their greatest blessings.
Likewise, rabbits can be a delight or a horror to the people who acquire them.
For both a rabbit and their person, what each will experience depends entirely on the person.
Please read the article below to proceed with the application process.
WHAT ARE RABBITS LIKE?
From a medical point of view, rabbits are an “exotic,” meaning that they can be treated ONLY by a veterinarian specializing in treating rabbits.
Vets who don’t know rabbits, but think they can treat them like a cat, will often inadvertently kill them, giving amoxicillin, for example, which cures the initial problem, but then causes death a week or two later, so they seldom know that they killed the rabbit.
People often look for the cutest rabbit, or a small, big, or medium sized rabbit, a particular color or breed of rabbit, or a baby bunny.
All of these are mistakes! What one will experience and love about a rabbit is the rabbit’s personality. Cuteness, size, color, and age are secondary to personality. In particular, you won’t know a baby rabbit’s personality until he or she is over six months of age.
ABOUT BABY BUNNIES
Baby bunnies chew on practically anything they can get their teeth on. There are two reasons for this.
Chewing helps build strong jaw muscles.
Chewing is how bunnies learn about their world. They are wondering, "What does it feel like? How does it taste?"
Adult rabbits usually don’t chew as much as youngsters do, and when they do, they chew primarily because it is fun or because something tastes good.
So young rabbits tend to be more destructive than adults.
Prior to puberty, most baby rabbits seem to be willing to let a person do almost anything with them, although they are, of course, high energy creatures, and will refuse to be held for very long. Puberty hits around 3-1/2 months.
At puberty, males may seem “aggressively friendly,” seeking out anything that moves…and even things that don’t…to vent their sexual frustrations on. This is often misinterpreted as friendliness, but it can also result in the surprise of teeth and claws buried in flesh so the rabbit can “hang on” while giving the object of his affection “what for.”
Some females become very grumpy when puberty hits. We think of this as “Bunny PMS.” Unfortunately, it tends to last until the female is either spayed or bred.
Rabbits should be spayed or neutered as early as is feasible if they are to be house rabbits. This is for both behavioral and health reasons. Males can be neutered as soon as their testicles descend, and females as soon as three-and-a-half months when they are big enough for the veterinarian to be able to do the surgery.
As teenagers, rabbits are highly energetic and have very definite ideas about what they want or don’t want people to do with them. Easily bored, they turn everything into an object of fun. Litter (and everything deposited in it) is thrown across the room as rabbits practice their digging skills. Fabrics, wood, and plastics are chewed up. Within minutes, a rabbit can turn a neat, clean bunny space into a shambles, and cover the area around their crate or pen with litter, pellets, and pills (droppings).
Unless you are familiar with the pitfalls and problems of a rabbit’s first year, and are willing to take them on, it is better to get adult rabbits who are already spayed or neutered. Unlike dogs, there are no advantages to getting young rabbits (except they are especially cute), and many disadvantages as we've described:
sudden changes in personality,
extreme urges to chew and dig,
the anxiety you will have when the rabbits are spayed or neutered,
not knowing the general health of the rabbit, etc.
THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE GETTING RABBITS
Some people are allergic to rabbits, even if they aren’t allergic to other animals, and many people are allergic to the hay that is the most important part of a rabbit’s diet. Many animals are left at shelters because people didn’t learn ahead of time whether anyone in the family was allergic to them.
Please don’t contribute to this problem! Before getting any animals, find out if anyone in the home is allergic to them.
You can determine your family’s allergic potential by visiting an allergist, or by spending time with rabbits. The adoption procedure of Rocky Mountain House Rabbit Rescue includes having family members spend plenty of time with rabbits and hay.
Note: There are different kinds of grass hays suitable for adult rabbits, and some are far less allergenic than others. So if someone is allergic to timothy hay, for example, they may not be to orchard grass, or some other grass hay.
DOGS & RABBITS
Terriers, dachshunds, and hounds often have strong instincts to kill small animals, because they were originally bred for this purpose. Any individual dog of any breed may be likely to kill a rabbit.
Please don’t risk the lives and well-being of rabbits by taking them into your home if you have dogs unless you have determined that the dog is not a threat.
Sooner or later tragedy will strike, no matter how careful you are to keep the animals separate.
WILL RABBITS SNUGGLE YOU?
Rabbits are not cuddly, passive creatures (few like to be picked up), but intelligent, curious, creative, affectionate, entertaining, and self-willed animals -- you will be disappointed if you see them as “live, stuffed animals” that you can pick up and cuddle whenever it suits you.
But you will be enthralled if you are willing to learn from them who and what they are and treat them accordingly. When they develop trust, they may gladly come, even leap into your lap, for petting and cuddling.
RABBITS & CHILDREN
Rabbits are absolutely unsuitable for young children for three reasons:
Children haven’t the size or physical dexterity to handle rabbits safely, nor have they the maturity to remember always to handle them properly. As a result, rabbits handled by young children often suffer injuries, the most common being a broken back.
Most rabbits, after puberty occurs, dislike being held. Children’s rapid movements and sudden squeals of excitement may frighten them. Children may be bitterly disappointed when a bunny who accepted handling for several weeks, suddenly objects to it, as a teenager. If you want rabbits for the whole family and plan always to supervise children around the rabbits, it is better to get big adult rabbits who have demonstrated that they are willing to tolerate petting from children.
Rabbits can and will inflict painful bites and scratches if they are frightened or forced to do something they don’t like. Young children may be scratched or bitten by a terrified rabbit, struggling to feel secure and safe.
Rabbits are easily injured or killed by mishandling. Even adults must learn how to handle rabbits safely by always supporting the rump, above the tail, and young children should never be allowed to pick them up.
Never lift a rabbit by the ears–it is incredible, but some people actually do this–or by the scruff of the neck.
Scoop the rabbit up with one hand under the rib cage and one around the rump, above the tail.
If adults or older children have rabbits, and young children are present, a padlock on the rabbits’ home should be used and the younger children allowed to pet the rabbits only with adult supervision.
No child should be expected to stand up to peer pressure if friends insist on getting the rabbits out – the padlock takes care of the problem, protecting both the child and the rabbits.
However, it is vital that the key to the padlock be easily accessed in the event of an emergency, such as a fire.
Finally, be a role model to teach responsibility for living things to children. Say to a young child, “The rabbits are hungry. Let’s feed them.” Going with the parent makes it fun for children, especially when they are allowed to do more and more of the job themselves, with a parent helping, and praising their efforts, or commenting on how happy they have made the rabbits.
With an older child, use a reminder if required (“The rabbits need their dinner now”) with some consequence (“You can’t eat supper until the rabbits have had theirs”), followed by a check to be sure the job has been done right.
RABBITS -- PETS FOR LIFE
Rabbits can live 8-12 years or longer (we’ve known one to reach 18 years), but only with care that isn’t available from most books, pet stores, veterinarians, or breeders.
Never, under any circumstances, get living creatures on the basis that you will “get rid of them” if a child fails to care for them. No child—not even a teen—can live up to the promise of taking care of animals for an indefinite period of time.
It is cruel to animals to be “gotten rid of” as though their emotional pain, when separated from those they have bonded to, is of no concern. If anything, this teaches a child that you don’t take responsibility, and that the child doesn’t have to, either.
Such consequences should apply only to inanimate objects. (“We’ll get a book at the library, but if you don’t read it within two weeks, we’ll take it back and leave it.”) With living creatures, teach life-long commitment.
ALWAYS PAIR OR GROUP RABBITS
Rabbits are extremely social animals who need companions of their own kind–singles are very lonely. People usually don’t realize how lonely they are, because they’re so happy when their people show up. But when they’re alone, they’re miserable.
The male-female pairing is the most natural, but also the most complicated. When successful, it results in an emotionally deep bond. However, rabbits are picky about mates, and pairing is best left to people who understand the process.
Female-female pairing is a friendship, but since rabbits have a matriarchal society, both females must agree on which of them is to be “top bunny.” If both want this position, vicious fighting will occur, and the bonding won’t happen.
Male-male pairing is the easiest—either the two like each other, or they don’t. However, if a real fight ever occurs between them, they will probably never be able to live together again.
SPAYING AND NEUTERING IS A NECESSITY
Rabbits can be difficult to sex, since males can hide both testicles and penis. It is especially difficult when they are young, since the testicles don’t descend until puberty and the penis may not be easily externalized.
Pet stores, breeders, and even many veterinarians almost never get the sex of young rabbits right. Until spayed or neutered, rabbits must be separated from the age of three months until they are altered, to avoid the almost-certainty of a litter.
YOU will have to deal with a litter if THEY made a mistake sexing your rabbits.
(Actually, you will have to deal with two litters, since rabbits mate immediately after the first litter is delivered—so by the time you realize that you have a litter of babies, the female is already pregnant with the second litter. Of course, it is very hard on a little girl bunny to have one litter, and terribly hard on her to have two in a row!)
Rabbits must be altered to be good companion rabbits. Females who aren’t spayed may be cranky and hard to get along with, and have an 80% probability of developing uterine cancer by the age of five years.
Males may spray urine on floors, walls, people—anything within range, and hump anything that moves or seems the right size.
Spaying and neutering solve these problems usually within days. (Use only a veterinarian trained in the special techniques required for safe surgery on rabbits, and one who has a success rate of very nearly 100%.)
For any medical treatment of a rabbit, use only a vet who specializes in exotics and rabbits (vets who don’t know rabbits will often inadvertently kill them, giving amoxicillin which cures the initial problem, but then causes death from severe diarrhea a day later, so they seldom even know that the rabbit died.
You can get the names of a rabbit vets in your area by visiting our Rabbit Vets page.
HOUSE RABBITS CANNOT LIVE OUTSIDE
It is as cruel to keep a rabbit in an outdoor hutch as it would be to keep a dog (or a human) that way. They lack mental stimulation (which can cause them to become “furry vegetables,” living in a vegetative state not very different from being in a coma), usually receive very little affection, and may become psychotic (which people label as “mean rabbit”–wouldn’t you become vegetative or mean in a similar situation?)
If you plan to keep a rabbit in a hutch anyway, you would think about going out twice a day, no matter what the weather, to give food and fresh water, getting nothing in return. Such rabbits become nothing but a chore for their people. Why would anyone choose to take on another chore with no benefit to themselves and which inflicts such harm upon an animal?
People who keep rabbits in outdoor hutches usually end up asking a shelter or other people to take over their responsibilities. This is unfair to the rabbits and the shelters, alike!
It is extremely dangerous to let rabbits run freely in a fenced yard. Rabbits who have done so safely for years almost always end up as tragedies. The excuse “But they love it so much!” is like saying, “My three-year old loves playing in the street, so in spite of the danger, I’ll let her. Even if she gets killed, she will have had a lot of fun.”
If rabbits must be kept outdoors, or if you really want them to have the pleasure of running around outside, they should have a chain-link run (chicken wire will not protect them from predators, which include cats, dogs, coyotes, fox, raccoons (you may not see them, but they are literally everywhere, including downtown Denver and every suburb as well as the country), hawks, and eagles.
The chain-link should be buried a couple of feet to prevent rabbits digging out as well as predators digging in and the top of the run must be covered with chain-link or something strong.
There must be at least one sturdy wooden box with a small entrance for rabbits to run into should they be frightened, so they won’t go into shock when a predator appears. (In the winter, this box should be filled with straw or hay to keep the rabbits warm. Even with this, a single rabbit may not survive the cold.)It is far better to keep your rabbits in the house, preferably in a family room, or wherever the family is most likely to be most of the time, where they may have a home of their own (a crate or pen, where they feel safe).
Rabbits are easily trained to use a litter box and to behave well in the house, but because they have a psychology quite different from dogs and cats, most people have to learn the simple techniques needed to train them.
This is something we can help you learn.
While there is a lot to learn about rabbits -- and they are a lot of responsibility -- they make wonderful house companions.
They are entertaining, affectionate, have unique personalities, may have a fine sense of humor, and given time and patience, will become an integral part of the household.
Please continue to the next article in this series to access the adoption application, where we'll cover the requirements and procedures for adopting rabbits from Rocky Mountain House Rabbit Rescue.
We're a lot of work, but we're worth it!