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Your Friend, the House Rabbit

Tabitha and DJ RoombaWith Easter in the rearview mirror, now is a great time to talk about having a bunny in your life every day, not just once a year!  After cats and dogs, rabbits vie with fish and birds for the position of third most popular pet in America, with as many as three million living with families across the country.  In the last few decades, perception of rabbit ownership has changed considerably, from thinking about them as farm animals good for learning about breeding and responsibility to a long-term commitment as a family pet.  My wife and I have been “rabbit people” for about ten years now and have come to love and understand much more about how smart, fun, and loveable bunnies can be.

One of the first things that I learned was that pet rabbits are an entirely different species than the rabbits you see outside nibbling your lawn.  Native rabbits are eastern cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus) while domestic rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) come from Europe and are the product of centuries of selective breeding for show and consumption.  Just like your beloved pug dog or Persian cat, domestic rabbits really aren’t suited for living in the wild, especially through a New England winter!

One thing they do have in common is that they do, well, breed like rabbits!  So just like with dogs and cats, it makes sense to get your pet bunny spayed or neutered.  The procedure is very safe and affordable, and in addition to making sure you don’t end up with more bunnies than you planned on, it’s good for you pet’s health and behavior.  Fixed pets of all kinds are much less likely to develop reproductive tumors and this is particularly true of rabbits – unspayed females have a 60% chance of developing potentially fatal uterine cancer.  Spayed and neutered rabbits also are less inclined to mark their territory by spraying urine or to fight with other pets due to hormones.

Rabbits can be litter trained, just like cats, and can happily roam about your house and keep you company without making a mess.  However, like dogs, rabbits can be inclined to chew on things, particularly furniture legs or electrical cords, so it’s important to make sure that any rooms they have access to are “rabbit proofed” for safety.  While the older, farm-centered, model of keeping rabbits encouraged people to keep them in hutches, indoors or outdoors, this is not ideal for rabbits’ health or happiness.  They are very social animals and will be most friendly if you interact with them throughout the day, not just visit them to deliver food and water.

Outdoor caging doesn’t just leave rabbits vulnerable to boredom and the weather, but also to predators like foxes or raccoons, who can break into a hutch, and to the possibility of infection.  Fleas, ticks, and flies are a danger for any outdoor animal and can drastically shorten any pet’s life.  Rabbit hutches also typically have wire mesh floors so that they can be cleaned easily – but this wire can cause horrible pain to rabbits’ feet, leading to sore and deformities.  Farm rabbits, kept for show, breeding, or even meat, tend to live for only two to four years, whereas a rabbit kept indoors as a pet can live from seven to twelve years depending on their breed and care.

My wife and I joined the community of rabbit owners first as foster parents and then as foster “failures” when we ended up adopting one of our charges.  Because of rabbits’ tendency to breed quickly and because of misunderstandings about the level of commitment needed to become a rabbit owner, many would-be pets end up in animal shelters and rescue organizations across the country.  In addition to providing temporary homes for abandoned bunnies, these groups also help to educate the public about rabbits’ needs, promoting spay and neuter programs, dietary guidelines, and opposition to the stereotype that rabbits are “disposable” pets.

Rabbits typically eat a diet consisting mostly of grass hay, supplemented by fresh greens.  Feeding them large quantities of pellets can lead to obesity and health problems, and, while bunnies do love treats like carrots or bananas, these have way more sugar than their digestive systems can handle and should only be fed sparingly.  Rabbits are wonderful pets, but they need to be handled carefully and looked after just like any other member of your family!

The first rabbit that we adopted, Samatar, had long-term dental problems that needed regularly veterinary checkups.  She had come from a failed rabbit farm, where animals were bred for meat and illness or injuries often went unaddressed.  Many rabbit farms like this are launched without much planning, and due to lax regulations on care and housing, the rabbits in these situations can quickly become overcrowded, malnourished, and very sick. In a case last year, a farm in Westport had hundreds of animals, including dozens of rabbits, confiscated and many were already dead or needed to be euthanized.  However, many other rabbits made a full recovery and after being socialized with people were adopted into loving homes.

Our two current rabbits, Tabitha and DJ Roomba, also came to us as animal rescues.  Now, they love to hop and play with toys, and even sit on the couch and watch TV with us as we pet and groom them.  We help out with the House Rabbit Network ( based here in Massachusetts to foster other rabbits and participate in outreach and education efforts.  Bunnies can be great pets, but it’s important to learn as much as you can about any animal before they become a part of your family!

Jeff Hartman is the Senior Circulation Assistant, Paging Supervisor, and Graphics Designer at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read Jeff’s column in the May 25th issue of the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.


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