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Hoppin' along with rabbits: Do they make good pets?
Springtime is here and what makes a better sight than a little bunny hopping around? Do rabbits make good pets? I think so. However, before running out and buying a rabbit on impulse, here is a quick overview of them to insure a bunny is the right pet for you and your family.
Rabbits live pretty long but lifespan depends on breed. Breeds are categorized by size starting at small, medium, large, and giant. Smaller breeds will live longer and larger breeds will not. Expect a rabbit to live at least five to six years for the large to giant breeds and 10 to 11 years in the smaller and medium breeds. There are reports of rabbits as old as 15 years but these are the exception. The oldest bunny I have ever cared for was 11 years old.
Rabbits are prolific breeders and if you do get more than one rabbit make sure to have them altered (spayed or neutered) before they reach sexual maturity. Like dogs and cats, rabbits reach sexual maturity at about 4 to 6 months of age. If rabbits mate at this time the average duration of pregnancy is about 30 days. After the female delivers her litter (usually about 10 kits, or baby rabbits, to a litter) she takes a short break (about a month) and is ready to breed again. This pregnant for a month, off for a month cycle can make for a large family in a short period of time. Altering the rabbit also reduces the risk of certain diseases and unwanted behaviors (marking with urine, aggression, etc).
Rabbits are very social pets and you do not need to always get pairs. The smaller the breed of rabbit the more skittish its personality. The large and giant breeds are the "Labradors" of the rabbit world (a bit more mellow and willing to be handled), and the small to medium sized breeds are social but a bit more high energy and on the skittish side. If rabbits are purchased at a young age they can learn to interact with not only people, but also dogs and cats. That is not to say that any rabbit will do well with any dog or cat. There are certain predatory instincts that cannot be overcome. Therefore, if you do introduce a dog or cat to the rabbit you must not only monitor them during there first encounter, but also never leave the rabbit and other pet completely unattended. That way, if the dog or cat starts to exhibit predatory behavior, you can intervene immediately. If the rabbit is your only pet, make sure to talk to your veterinarian about appropriate toys to keep the rabbit occupied when you are not around. This will prevent obesity, as well as keep your rabbit from getting into trouble.
One of the main problems with rabbits as pets is obesity and diseases associated with obesity. Originally, most of the diets found at pet stores for pet rabbits were designed for commercial rabbits (those sold for their meat and fur) where the goal was to get the rabbit to market weight as quickly as possible. These high calorie diets were not designed for long-term use. Talk to your veterinarian about an appropriate long term diet that is higher in fiber and lower in calories. Make sure there is a certain amount of fresh greens and hay for fiber and stay away from sugary or starchy treats (Cheerios, raisins, bananas, etc). A high calorie diet can also lead to a decrease in the normal contractions of the gut. If the gut slows down certain bacteria overgrow which will lead to serious health problems and, in some cases, can be fatal.
Rabbits can be taught to use a litter pan so that one does not have to worry about finding surprises all over the house. There is a library of free information on this topic and many others through the House Rabbit Society at www.rabbit.org.
Dr. Kearns is a veterinarian with a special interest in emergency and critical care. He has been in practice for eight years. Dr. Kearns is pictured here with his son Matthew and his cat, The One Eyed Guy.