Cute young rabbit

With nearly 50 breeds recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association, rabbits come in all sizes and colors, and make terrific pets in the right circumstances. Although they do need exercise outside of their cages, they generally don’t need to be walked, don’t take up huge amounts of space and don’t make a lot of noise. They often love to interact and form close bonds with their owners. Rabbits can be loving companions in the right situations, but they aren’t right for everyone. Unfortunately, many people impulsively rush out and get pet rabbits without really knowing what they’re getting into. Consequently, owners become frustrated or disappointed when they can’t keep up with their rabbits’ care, and their bunnies end up abandoned in shelters.

This month is Adopt a Rescued Rabbit Month, so if you’ve done your research, and you’re sure you’re ready for a rabbit, check out the House Rabbit Society — a national, volunteer-based nonprofit organization with chapters in almost every state — which rescues abandoned rabbits and finds permanent homes for them. While there are hundreds of reputable rabbit adoption organizations in the U.S., the House Rabbit Society is a great place to start if you’re interested in adopting a rabbit, as its staff focuses not only on rabbit adoption but also on education of rabbit owners to help ensure they are providing proper care.

What Are Some Things You Should Know If You Are Considering Adopting a Pet Rabbit?

1. Rabbit personalities differ.

Just like people, some rabbits are shy and quiet, while others are mischievous and rambunctious. Potential rabbit owners should spend time with a bunny before taking it home to ensure the bunny is a good match with their family.

2. Bunnies can live a long time.

When properly cared for, rabbits can live eight to 12 years or more, so before you take a bunny home, be sure you are ready to provide appropriate pet care — including food, housing, daily attention and veterinary visits — for this length of time.

3. Socialization is essential.

Many rabbits can be reserved when they are first taken home, wanting to hide and resisting handling. That’s why it’s very important that when a bunny is brought into a new environment, a new owner is willing to spend time talking to it and working up to petting and handling it to ensure it becomes acclimated. New owners must also learn how to handle bunnies safely and gently. It is important to always support a rabbit’s rear legs.

4. Proper nutrition is key.

Rabbits are herbivores (vegetable eaters) and should be offered unlimited amounts of timothy or grass hay each day to help them wear down their continuously growing teeth. Alfalfa hay is not generally recommended for full-grown rabbits (those approaching one year of age) as it is too high in calcium and calories; it is appropriate for young, growing bunnies up to 1 year, and pregnant or nursing bunnies. Rabbits also should be offered dark green or yellow leafy vegetables, such as collard greens, beet or dandelion greens, romaine lettuce, carrot tops, endive, basil, kale, cabbage, radicchio, wheat grass, squash, Brussels sprouts, and pea pods (not loose peas).

Fruits should be limited to small amounts of high-fiber apple, pear, plum, peach or berries. Carrots also contain a fair amount of sugar and should be offered in small quantities. Some rabbits tolerate produce without any gastrointestinal (GI) disturbance, while others develop soft stools or diarrhea from small amounts.

Along with the hay and limited amounts of produce, rabbits also may be offered high-fiber, timothy hay-based pellets in limited quantities (no more than half a cup per four to five pounds of rabbit weight per day). Pellets should not be mixed with seeds, cereal, grains, corn or nuts, as rabbits will select these items out, and these foods can cause GI upset and weight gain. Bunnies also require fresh water daily to encourage drinking. Rabbits also normally eat the soft stool, called cecotropes, which they pass early in the morning or late at night; it contains important vitamins and nutrients, so don’t think it abnormal if you observe this behavior.

5. Bunnies are usually very clean.

Rabbits generally do not need to be bathed and will groom themselves frequently. Their cages should be lined with paper-based bedding (either shredded newspaper or a commercially manufactured recycled paper product). They can be trained to use a litter pan containing a different type of paper-based bedding in a corner of their cage. Their cages and litterboxes should be spot-cleaned (scooped) daily and completely cleaned out once a week. All rabbits, but especially long-haired breeds, such as the Angora, should be brushed weekly to prevent matting of hair with food, stool or bedding, and all require nail trimming every few months.

6. Exercise is important.

Though rabbits don’t need to be walked like dogs, they do need time every day out of their cages. Activity helps prevent weight gain and promotes healthy digestion. Many rabbits like to run around and hop on top of things, so a bunny-safe area should be penned off for them in which to exercise (see No. 8 below for some bunny-proofing tips). They should be left out only when supervised, as they are great escape artists and may get into trouble when not monitored.

7. Bunnies and extreme weather don’t mix.

With their thick and sometimes-long fur coats and lack of sweat glands, rabbits don’t tolerate heat well and overheat easily. Signs of overheating include lethargy, a loss of appetite and panting. If they are allowed outside, they should be provided with water and a shaded area. If the temperature is warm and/or humid, they should be brought inside to a cooler area. Conversely, some rabbits with sparsely haired skin on the bottoms of their feet and ears can become frostbitten in freezing temperatures, so limit playtime outside if temps are below freezing.

8. Chewing is a must.

Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously. They must not only have an endless supply of hay to nibble on, but also hard wooden toys and branches (such as commercially available apple wood sticks) to gnaw on to help keep their teeth worn down. Rabbits’ propensity for chewing isn’t very selective, and if given the chance, they will chew on wires, furniture, moldings, door frames and other inappropriate objects. Therefore, play areas must be bunny proofed by removing or securing such items out of reach, and they must be supervised at all times if they are out of their cages.

9. Never trust predators.

Rabbits are prey species, and other commonly kept pets, including cats, dogs and ferrets, are predators whose instincts are to catch prey. Even the most well-intentioned predatory pet raised with a bunny may not mean to inflict harm, but should the pet pick up the bunny, the predator’s sharp teeth and long claws may inadvertently injure the bunny. Therefore, dogs, cats and ferrets should never be left alone in the presence of a rabbit, no matter how gentle and sweet they are. Also be aware that the presence of such species may stress out your bunny.

10. Veterinary care is vital.

Bunnies, like dogs and cats, require regular, preventive veterinary care. While they do not typically require vaccines, they should have annual checkups and fecal examinations to check for parasites. They should also have new rabbit exams as soon as they are acquired. In addition, female rabbits not intended for breeding should be spayed, as after three years of age, 70 to 80 percent of un-spayed females get uterine cancer.

Adopting a rabbit is a big step. If you understand the care they require and are ready to take on the responsibility, contact your local shelter and see which bunnies are waiting to find great homes!

More on Vetstreet: