News & Politics

Love Your Pets: Bunny Basics

They’re cute and cuddly but also a lot of work.

Photograph courtesy of Flickr user picto:graphic.

Think a rabbit will make a low-maintenance alternative to a dog or cat? Think again.

Rabbits can be great companions, but they require special attention. “People need to know what they’re getting into,” says Mary Ellen Whitehouse, founder of Bunny Lu Adoptions, a rabbit-rescue facility in Haymarket.

Whitehouse started the rescue group after hearing too many stories about bunnies being given as gifts to kids and winding up neglected or abandoned. Many of the 55 or so rabbits now living on her property were surrendered by families who didn’t understand the challenges of caring for them. Other local shelters, such as the Washington Humane Society, also take in dozens of unwanted rabbits every year.

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Owners often don’t anticipate the animals’ living requirements. Bunnies need space. If they’re kept in small cages, they can get depressed. And because rabbits are used to being prey in the wild, life in an outdoor hutch can be stressful.

But bunnies can’t have free rein inside a home. The voracious chewers will gnaw on everything, including baseboards and computer cables.

Diana Foley, a senior volunteer trainer at the Washington Humane Society, recommends keeping a rabbit in an indoor exercise pen large enough for a puppy so that the animal has room to roam. She also suggests letting it hop around your home while supervised for a few hours each day. With enough space to explore, she says, the rabbit’s personality will shine through: “You don’t expect them to have individual personalities, but they do. They’re very affectionate and endearing.”

Rabbits need to eat plenty of hay throughout the day as well as nutritional pellets and fresh green vegetables. Without such a balanced diet, rabbits are prone to gastrointestinal stasis—a condition that keeps them from digesting their food and can be fatal. Hairballs can also be a problem because rabbits like to groom themselves but don’t have a cat’s coughing-up reflex. Hay helps them pass the hairballs.

The biggest sign of gastrointestinal stasis is if a rabbit stops eating. “If they haven’t eaten in a 24-hour period, that should be setting off alarm bells,” says Scott Medlin, a veterinarian with Stahl Exotic Animal Veterinary Services in Fairfax. “You should contact your vet and consider it an emergency.”

A 24-hour hunger lapse can be easy for a young child or less attentive owner to miss.

Rabbits have other health risks. They can injure their spines if they kick too hard while being held, and a wet bottom can be prone to infection. All rabbits must be spayed or neutered to prevent behavioral problems, even in single-bunny homes. Female rabbits are at high risk for uterine cancer if they don’t get fixed. Rabbits require yearly checkups with an exotic-animal vet, as most general veterinarians aren’t trained to treat them.

If you’ve settled on getting a floppy-eared friend, consider adopting one from a rescue group or shelter rather than buying one from a pet store. Foley says the Washington Humane Society’s two shelters are nearing a rabbit overpopulation problem.

When prospective owners contact Bunny Lu Adoptions, Whitehouse asks them to read Lucile Moore’s A House Rabbit Primer cover to cover before she’ll consider giving them a rabbit. She says the book is enough to scare off anyone who isn’t fully committed to caring for a rabbit.

Adopters who aren’t deterred, however, are in for a treat. Says Whitehouse: “The snuggles and companionship are well worth it.”

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.