This time of year rabbits hop to the center of attention as humane educators work to dispel the idea that bunnies and chicks make good gifts for children on Easter morning.
While most agree that rabbits and small children are not a good match, rabbit enthusiasts say these bundles of fur and personality can make great pets if prospective owners do research and commit to them like any family member.
Sheila Richardson, of Highland, and her family loves their pet rabbit, Coco. When her now 10-year-old son, Jaden, wanted to buy a rabbit with his birthday money two years ago, he did research first and checked different pet stores before finding a rabbit he loved.
“He loves that she’s so adorable,” Richardson said. “She’s black with small ears. She’s plump but small all at the same time with big brown eyes.” She also has a cute hop that resembles that of a kangaroo.
Richardson said some aspects of rabbit ownership were different than they expected in both positive and negative ways. Her son had thought the rabbit would be an instant cuddle bug, “but Coco was not as cuddly as he wanted her to be," she said. "She’s very energetic. She likes to run and be on her own.”
They were also surprised by how easy she was to care for, after being told that rabbits were a lot of work. They do clean her cage every day, but it’s a five-minute job, Richardson said, and while her son would love to add a dog to their family someday, he wouldn’t give Coco up for the world.
“He loves Coco. We all love her. She’s become part of our family.”
Veterinarian Jenny Herbert said although the practice of giving live rabbits and chicks for Easter seems to have to decreased, she and her colleagues at Arbor View Animal Hospital in Valparaiso still see it.
“It’s like puppies at Christmas. I don’t recommend it unless you’ve done your homework and know what you’re getting into,” said Herbert, who has several rabbits as patients. “It’s a commitment to an animal. Make sure you can provide care, provide adequate housing.”
Rabbits can have a lifespan of 10 years. Baby chicks need a lot of care and are typically just a few days old when they are sold. Some towns do not allow residents to have chickens, she said, and parents need to consider where the chicks will live as they grow.
Parents also need to think about what they will do with a rabbit or chick if their kids lose interest or do not take care of them.
Rabbits are also prone to back injuries and may be dropped by small children if the rabbit squirms or kicks.
As far as rabbit care, she recommended all rabbits be seen by a veterinarian within two weeks of adoption to catch health issues early and to receive proper education. After that, the recommendation is for the rabbit to come in for yearly wellness exams and blood work. Spaying and neutering is also recommended because if not fixed, most female rabbits will develop uterine cancer and male rabbits will start spraying and may become aggressive.
She advises owners to look for a vet who is comfortable with rabbits because those who only see rabbits occasionally may not recognize signs of certain diseases.
Like any pet, rabbits have housing, food and behavioral needs. They should not be kept in wire bottom cages, she said, and she recommends they live indoors. They can be litter box trained.
As far as diet, many owners over feed pellets and do not realize rabbits need a high fiber content including hay and roughage. Too many carrots and other carbs can cause damage to rabbits’ intestinal flooring and make them sick over time.
She recommended giving rabbits supervised playtime to keep them entertained and out of trouble.
"A rabbit is a good pet for certain types of people who have the time and understand the commitment. It’s not an animal that can sit in a cage its whole life. They’re more like dogs and cats in that they need more care, more interaction, more mental stimulation.”
Neisha Hawkins, of Glenwood, said her pet rabbit was likely an Easter gift that someone abandoned. About three years ago she was working at Glenwood Village Pet Hospital when the rabbit was brought in by a landlord whose tenants moved and left the rabbit behind.
“Originally I was just supposed to foster him because he had been at the animal hospital a long time. The shelters were full of bunnies because it was around Easter time. They didn’t have any room for him.
“I was really afraid of the rabbit,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do with him or how to hold him.” After some coaching from her co-workers, she took him home and fell in love.
Today, her rabbit enjoys cuddling with her on her bed and munching on favorite treats like cilantro and dill.
The rabbit is named Midnight but she calls Bunny Boy and said he responds to his name.
“He dances and does a little kick when I come in.”
That personality was one of the biggest surprises, she said.
“You definitely know a dog or cat has a personality. I didn’t expect that but he’s very smart. He looks at me intently when I’m talking to him.”
That personality also means rabbits may not be as easy to care for as some people think.
“They need a lot of attention,” she said. “He’s independent. He doesn’t really like to be picked up.”
She recommended training pet rabbits to use the litter box and keeping the cage clean “because they can be a little messy at times.”
When unhappy, rabbits can growl, grunt and head butt, she said. When happy, they run and jump and do flip kicks and rabbit “purr.”
Rabbits are available for adoption through the Indiana House Rabbit Society, indianahrs.org and through many local humane societies.