“The rabbits mingled naturally. They did not talk for talking’s sake, in the artificial manner that human beings — and sometimes even their dogs and cats — do. But this did not mean that they were not communicating; merely that they were not communicating by talking.”
— Richard Adams, Watership Down
Most children have wished, at one time or another, that Peter Rabbit might be nestled as a real, long-eared, furry friend into their Easter basket. Children gravitate to rabbits because of their soft fur, floppy ears, cute faces, and their kinship to that famous, candy-hauling celebrity, but parents may remain skeptical. In reality, rabbits are clever, curious, entertaining, and an especially good pet choice for those who prefer quiet and calm companions. They need only the right supplies, sensitivity, and some training to become a treasured member of the family.
As with every pet, supplies are an important first step in rabbit ownership. Rabbits need a cage to live in, one that is fully enclosed. The cage should have a door on the front or the side, rather than on top, because an owner who approaches their rabbit from above may unintentionally frighten it. The space should be easy to clean and carpeted with a bedding of wood pulp, aspen shavings, or paper pellets. Rabbits also need a nest box to hide in, sturdy food bowls, and a water source. If space permits, they appreciate the novelty of a pet tunnel or a bridge.
Rabbits love to eat, and they eat constantly. Like people, they enjoy variety in their food, and hay is the most important item on the menu. It is best to attach a hayrack to the side of the rabbit’s pen so the hay does not get wet or dirty. Rabbits also like broccoli, celery, fennel, and, of course, carrots. Favorite herbs include alfalfa, dandelion, dill, parsley, and peppermint. A piece of apple should be offered every day to aid the rabbit’s digestion. Occasionally, they can also have pieces of pear, blackberries, or melon. Snack kebobs hung from the top of the rabbit’s cage or bricks stuffed with pieces of chopped, raw vegetables serve a dual purpose of nutrition and intellectual stimulation. Gnawing on branches from apple, pear, beech, or willow trees provides rabbits with nutrients, keeps their teeth at a healthy length, and entertains them as they peel the bark and shred the wood.
Like cats, rabbits can be taught to use a litter box. To do so, choose a small area for training, such as a bathroom or utility room without carpeting. Use a plain, uncovered litter box filled 1 inch high with pellet or recycled paper litter. Cat litter is toxic to rabbits and should not be used. Cover the litter with hay, and sprinkle in a few rabbit droppings and pieces of urine-soaked bedding. Every 10 minutes, put the rabbit into the litter box and praise it, rewarding with a treat if it uses the litter box appropriately. When it uses the floor instead, place it immediately into the litter box along with any droppings it produced, and follow through with praise and petting. Clean accidents from the floor as soon as possible, and resist the urge to scold. Rabbits respond to positive reinforcement, while scolding frightens them. Additional litter box locations can be added, if desired, once the rabbit uses the litter box consistently.
Naturally clean animals, rabbits do not require bathing. Brushing is only necessary with long-haired breeds. Of course, any bunny enjoys a massage or a scratch, especially in hard-to-reach places. Claws should be trimmed regularly, a quick task best accomplished with a helper.
Rabbits require attention and exercise, and they benefit from a variety of sensory experiences. They love to dig and enjoy plundering in a box of sand or old rags. Whenever possible, rabbits should be allowed exercise time outside of their cages, supervised so that they do not nibble on electronics or poisonous plants. Because their teeth never stop growing, they will chew anything and everything. Playpens make ideal rabbit playgrounds, indoors or out.
With a little patience, a rabbit can become a wonderful pet. They are innately shy and easily frightened, so invest time bonding with them. Once comfortable, rabbits may follow their owners around, licking to show love and nudging for a caress. They stand on their hind legs when curious. Rabbits are smart and can be taught tricks, like hopping through a maze of objects. Very social animals, rabbits can have friendly, supervised visits with cats and dogs, but they especially enjoy the company of other rabbits.
So, should the Easter Bunny leave more than one lapin friend among the jelly beans, trust his judgment: two pet rabbits will definitely be happier than one. However, as with any pet, an impulse buy of a cute baby bunny is not recommended, as many Easter rabbits grow into adulthood only to be set free and abandoned when the reality of caring for them sets in. Research, plan, and commit to enjoy rabbit ownership for the life of your new furry friend.