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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

A bad year for rabbits

Rabbits and dos and don’ts of rearing them
CATS Classified In The Straits Times - January 30, 2011
By: Adele Ong
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A bad year for rabbits

When I was a child, my parents bought me a pair of rabbits. They got them for me because I had been asking for a dog, and they didn’t want a dog at that time. An uncle mentioned that rabbits were “good starter pets”, and “fuss-free”. My parents knew little about animals then, so they believed him. My mum and I went to a pet shop, picked out two white ones, and voila, I was a bunny owner.

I had little idea how to look after my new rabbits properly. The pet shop simply told my mum and I that the rabbits should eat dry “pellets”, a bag of which they pushed over to us. Imagining that rabbits lived on grass and could survive outdoors, I housed them in a large birdcage in our sheltered driveway, and let them out into the garden daily.

I slowly learnt how to care for them, through trial and error. I learnt that they were very far from being fuss-free pets. I gradually discovered that they needed plenty of indoor space, care, exercise, attention, good food and grooming. But it was too little, too slow. The rabbits, although they matured and grew big over the course of a year, eventually developed a serious skin problem. The chaotic vet’s clinic we took them to said they should be put down. I do not recall the clinic offering any treatment alternatives, and as a child, I was easily overawed by anyone in authority. But perhaps in the 1970s, some local vets didn’t know much about treating rabbits either?

Buying rabbits (or any pets) on impulse, especially to give to a child, is a very bad idea. Now that it’s the Year of the Rabbit, I fear that people will drop in at pet stores with little forethought, pick up the cutest bunny they see, and take it home with the notion that they can pop it into a cage and stuff a few vegetables through the bars once a day. But that would be a huge mistake. A rabbit is not an easy pet to look after, is a highly unsuitable pet for a child, and must not be locked up in a small cage – never mind how you may have seen friends, neighbours and relatives housing their own bunnies.

They deserve better than that.

Why children scare rabbits

What is the first thing a child wants to do when he or she spots a cute rabbit? Cuddle and hug it, of course. But rabbits are terrified when cuddled and hugged, because they instinctively associate it with being grabbed by a predator. They will kick and scratch and be greatly stressed when picked up by someone they don’t trust, or who doesn’t know how to handle them.

Because rabbits are physically fragile too, they must be handled securely, by someone with the experience to cradle them the right way. A child does not have that level of muscle control, and will drop a squirming rabbit, or hold it badly, or squeeze it too tightly – all of which could cause the rabbit serious spinal injury or even death.

Rabbits are not like dogs and cats, which are natural predators and know how to interact with humans when domesticated. Rabbits are prey animals, so it takes a lot of gentle handling, a calm approach, and patience to build up trust between a bunny and its human caretaker. Children, who tend to be excitable, boisterous and temperamental, make bad bunny guardians.

Children are also easily disillusioned when the fluffy, adorable bunny they bought from the pet shop turns out to be a creature that leaves poop and pee everywhere before it is toilet-trained, bites and scratches them when they try to hold it, hides from them, sheds lots of fur, and won’t just sit there looking pretty. As rabbits have a lifespan of about 10 years, a child (who cannot commit to a pet beyond a few months) will lose interest long before that, and the pet will be doomed to abandonment, death or a miserable life-sentence of neglect and bad treatment.

A rabbit should be primarily looked after by a responsible, well-informed adult. Children in the household can learn from watching their parents or adult siblings how to take good care of a pet. They can assist the adults in feeding the rabbit the right food, cleaning its living area, grooming it, and interacting calmly with it. Then ideally, they can mature into young people who will not make the mistake of impulse-buying bunnies for their own children in future.

No cages, please

Rabbits should not be caged, but most of them should live in an enclosure. To some people, the words “enclosure” and “cage” may be synonymous, but they are assuredly not.

A cage is a confined space, often with bar, grille or mesh flooring that hurts animals’ feet, with little room to move about, and no place to hide. An enclosure, in contrast, may be a corner of a living room fenced off to form a pen, large enough for freedom of movement, and spacious enough to hold boxes and niches in which the rabbits can hide and sleep. Or it could be an outdoor run protected by weatherproof mesh, one end leading into a fully sheltered hutch.

Rabbits are athletic creatures that need lots of exercise and space; pet rabbits also need gentle interaction with you. Caging them is cruel. Yet, leaving them to run wild in a garden is not a good idea, because they can be set upon by predators like cats. Besides, domestic rabbits are not like wild rabbits living in burrows on hillsides – they have more delicate constitutions and longer fur which is prone to fungal growths in humid weather. Therefore, they should mostly live indoors.

Some people let their rabbits roam free indoors, and this is fine once they have been toilet-trained. However, it is not always an ideal arrangement, because some homes are not sufficiently bunny-proofed to be safe. Rabbits will naturally bite through electrical cables, investigate dangerous electrical appliances and machinery, be killed by doors that slam shut with a gust of wind, and so on.

A spacious indoor pen is often the best solution for both the humans’ peace of mind and the bunnies’ security. You can purchase sturdy modular fencing from pet shops and fit two or three units of fencing together to screen off one corner of your home for the bunnies. Should your household also have a cat or dog, then you will need to build or buy a large enclosure that is closed on all sides, including the top. Your bunnies would become cat and dog snacks otherwise.

Diet

Rabbits’ dietary needs are not so easily met that you can simply throw them some veggies and be done with it. Firstly, fresh greens should not form the bulk of a pet rabbit’s diet – most of its diet should consist of unlimited quantities of Timothy hay or other grass hays. Unlimited access to clean drinking water is also vital.

Some fresh vegetables actually make rabbits sick, so you must know what they can and cannot eat safely. Never give rabbits iceberg lettuce or other light-coloured lettuce, as it can make them ill. Common local greens like kangkong, kailan and spinach should be given only sparingly, because they can be toxic to a rabbit if consumed in large quantities over time.

Alfafa sprouts, celery, bok choy, xiao bai cai and chye sim are safe to feed your bunny. Give a variety of them, along with one of these items high in Vitamin A: broccoli, carrot, watercress, parsley or romaine lettuce. Carrots should be given only once a week or so, as they are very sweet and can adversely affect a rabbit’s health if eaten in excess.

Restrict the feeding of pellets. Only very young rabbits should eat a lot of pellets, as this type of food helps them gain weight. Mature rabbits should consume fewer pellets, based on their body weight – talk to your vet about your individual pets.

Toilet training

Bunnies can be toilet-trained. Although as is the case with all individuals, some are easier to train than others, and much patience is required! The most common toilet-training method is to take some litter or newspaper that already has your bunny’s urine on it, and put it in the litter tray, while the rest of the bedding or flooring is refreshed and cleaned. This sends a message to the rabbit that its toilet is where the litter tray is.

This works best in playpens or in indoor free-roaming settings. A rabbit in a small cage is almost impossible to toilet-train, as the entire cage becomes its territory, and it has no room to separate a toilet area from a living area.

Dietary information provided by the House Rabbit Society (Singapore)

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