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National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
This past Sunday, September 25th, was International Rabbit Day, an annual holiday celebrating the joy of bunnies, and also bringing attention and awareness to the many problems both wild and domestic rabbits face. Rabbits are the third most common creature in animal shelters after dogs and cats, yet it’s amazing how little-understood they still are. This is partially due to the fact that, unlike dogs and cats, rabbits are prey animals, the ones who are hunted instead of doing the hunting in the wild, and therefore have a completely different way of looking at the world than do our more common omnivorous companion animals.
Furthermore, there are a number of misconceptions about rabbits that still linger from our past treatment and interaction with them, despite more modern and correct knowledge that has recently come to light. Many people believe rabbits are good pets for children because they require low maintenance, prefer to reside outdoors in hutches, and don’t live very long. On the contrary: rabbits are fragile beings with complex social, medical, and dietary needs; they are incredibly vulnerable to temperature changes and wild predators, making it much safer to keep them indoors; and they have an average lifespan of 10-12 years. Rabbits are a long-term commitment, and no living thing should be taken in merely to provide a “lesson” to a young child who may not be ready for such a responsibility, leaving the animal to suffer.
Many cities still classify rabbits as farm animals, and therefore regulate their care and keeping differently than they do for dogs and cats. Still other places regard rabbits as “exotic” pets, making it hard to find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian. This can make keeping a rabbit difficult, as they do require regular medical care just like other companion animals, sometimes even more so. Their teeth and nails need regular trimming if they don’t have suitable surfaces to chew and dig, and they are very vulnerable to a condition known as gastrointestinal stasis, where their digestive systems spontaneously stop working and emergency care must be provided. People keeping a single rabbit may not see the necessity of having their animal spayed or neutered, but besides the obvious benefits of eliminating the threat of bunny overpopulation – the phrase “breed like rabbits” doesn’t just come out of thin air – there are a lot of other health and behavioral benefits to spaying and neutering as well. Female rabbits are especially vulnerable to reproductive cancers, and will have a drastically reduced lifespan if not spayed. Because rabbits are territorial animals, males can have extreme and often intolerable problems with aggression, destructiveness, and sanitation unless they are neutered.
Rabbits may sound like difficult pets, but they are definitely worth the effort. Like dogs and cats, some rabbits will bond with their human companions and become affectionate, playful, and can even be taught to do tricks. Some rabbits, however, will simply always prefer the company of other rabbits and want little or nothing to do with humans; each bunny’s personality is unique and shaped by their genetics and experiences. The good news, though, is that most rabbits take very well to litter box training. You read that right! If given a box of hay lined with newspaper, most rabbits will instinctively know to urinate in one side of the box and eat from the other. Feces, however, are another story, and even the best rabbits will leave pellets around the house as a territorial marker; fortunately these are dry and odorless, and can be swept or vacuumed up easily.
The House Rabbit Society, founded in 1988, advocates for companion rabbits to be kept indoors as free-range pets, just like dogs and cats. Their website is the most complete resource for companion rabbit information on the Internet. You might also be interested in visiting The Language of Lagomorphs, a remarkable compendium of rabbit quirks and behaviors and what they are meant to communicate – as well as how you can communicate back!