When people find out you keep pet rabbits, they typically respond one of two ways: utter confusion/curiosity or by saying they’re considering getting rabbits too. Now, we love our rabbits fiercely, and far be it from me to keep a bunny from being adopted into a good home, but there’s a reason that so many pet rabbits end up dying or abandoned in shelters: most people have no clue what they’re doing or what’s involved with proper rabbit care. Everything they think they know or assume about rabbits runs counter to the way rabbits actually think and act, so it can easily become a match made in hell for both parties. I don’t think a list of reasons why people should want rabbits as pets is necessary (they’re adorable–it sells itself), but any time someone tells us they might get a rabbit, we politely but firmly let them know that they should not get one if any of the following is true.
Please note, this list pertains to pet rabbits, not rabbits being raised for meat and fur, which I don’t have an issue with per se, it’s just totally different. Also, we keep ours outside in a shared living space–indoor rabbits come with their own unique set of pros and cons, though some of this stuff is true of them as well. A great resource to start with, whether you opt for indoor or outdoor, is the House Rabbit Society’s website. But let’s face it: there is no teacher better than experience, so hopefully our last few years of experience can help other folks. Here we go:
Don’t Get Rabbits if…
1. You want a low maintenance pet
Out of all the animals we keep, the rabbits are definitely the most challenging at times. They are an intermediate level pet. People who get rabbits for their kids as, like, a practice pet because they assume rabbits are somehow easier to take care of than cats and dogs either a) don’t know anything about rabbit care or b) figure that if things don’t work out, hey, it was just a rabbit, right? If the first one is true for you, I’m so glad you’ve taken the time to educate yourself first before making such a significant decision for yourself and your family. Hopefully, this list will illuminate some the challenges involved. If the second is true, then…well, I just hope for your sake God doesn’t turn out to be a giant rabbit (you jerk).
2. You plan to only get one
Rabbits are highly social animals, much like people are. They are miserable in isolation, much like people are. They bond with each other, communicate with each other and have a sophisticated social hierarchy in groups. Keeping a rabbit alone in a cage or hutch all the time for for its entire life is like keeping a person in solitary confinement for the rest of theirs. Even if your rabbit “bonds” with you, or even another pet, they will never be happy without another rabbit. I repeat: they will never love you like they love each other–if that thought turns you off, a rabbit is not the animal for you.
This presents some additional obligations/challenges, namely the spay/neuter issue (which I’ll get into later) and the bonding process. Let me just say this: if you can adopt an adult pair or group of rabbits that have already bonded–DO IT. It will save you a ton of time and energy; plus the rabbits want to stay together because they bond for life. Seriously…they will mourn the loss of their partner if one dies–it’s a fact. Anyway, if you’re not lucky enough to score that big, you’ll have to bond them, which can be a slow, frustrating process, depending on the rabbits’ personalities. You can find plenty of info on this process at the House Rabbit Society’s site, but there’s still a great deal of trial and error.
3. You don’t have or won’t make room for them to run around outside of a cage or hutch every single day
Rabbits need exercise and stimulation like all living creatures. But because people are used to seeing them sitting passively in a hutch or a cage, they think a rabbit is supposed to stay in one all the time and they’re content to do so. This is not true. Imagine keeping a small dog or a cat inside a carrier or small kennel all the time. Yeah, it’s basic needs are being met, such as food and water, but the thought of doing that is (hopefully) unimaginable to you. The difference is that rabbits can’t bark or whine or meow to let you know they’re unhappy, but once you see how they behave when given space to play with each other and explore, versus being stuck in a cage, it’s like seeing your toys come alive at night. It’s that magical.
Also, a bored rabbit is a bad rabbit. By that, I mean destructive and possibly even aggressive. The bad news is they get bored easily. The good news? It is absurdly easy to entertain them: all you have to do is rearrange their living space occasionally. I don’t even mean new stuff. You can literally take the same box they’ve had for years, move it to a different spot, and they will act like it’s godamned Christmas morning, swarming all over it like it’s a brand new box and the most exciting thing they’ve ever seen. It still amazes and amuses the hell out of me every time.
4. You expect them to enjoy being held and pet
Rabbits are not like dogs and cats, which both have coexisted with and evolved to meet the expectations of humans (displays of their devotion and affection toward us being a major one). Rabbits are prey animals and have been bred for fur and meat, so they don’t think that way at all. Some might enjoy being picked up, or at the very least tolerate it, but as prey animals, their instinct is to not get caught by bigger animals. We are bigger animals. Most are OK with some gentle petting, as long as you do it on their terms, which vary from rabbit to rabbit.
And then there are some that will run from your touch every single time and you need to just accept they don’t want what you’re selling, so you’ll just have be content to interact with them in other ways.
I remember talking to a woman who found out we keep bunnies. Here’s a basic transcript of the conversation:
Her: “We had a rabbit for a while, but he hated sitting in our laps and would grunt and scratch at us.”
Me: “Yeah…most rabbits aren’t huge fans of being held. Was he fixed?”
Her: “No, but we didn’t think it necessary since he lived alone.”
Me: “I can see why you would think that, but hormones are a significant source of male rabbit aggression, so getting them fixed can help a lot with that.”
Her: “Well, we never knew that. First we had his front claws removed but then he’d just kick us, which also scratched, so then we had his back claws removed. He never did come to love us though.”
Gee, I wonder why?
5. You are getting them for your kid or kids to take care of and play with
Again, Rabbits are prey animals and so naturally they hate the following: loud noises, sudden movements, and being grabbed at. Kids are notorious for all of those things. We genuinely love having our friends with kids bring them into the run to play with the bunnies–it’s cuteness overload. However, we always make sure to give kids (and parents) a Bunny 101 before allowing them into the run: things like “the bunnies don’t always like being touched because it scares them. The best way to make friends with bunnies is to bring them a snack, let them come to you and then be very patient and gentle.” Most older kids totally get it and respect those rules. Very young kids forget sometimes–I remember one of the sweetest toddlers I’ve ever known pinning one of the rabbits down, shoving clover into its face, and screaming “BUNNY!” repeatedly until we politely but firmly said it was the bunnies’ bedtime so visiting hours were over.
With the exception of a few kids who have visited enough times that we trust them to know the program, we never let children under the age of 7 play with the bunnies or hang out in the run unsupervised (even if it’s just an older or vetted kid who’s been put in charge). This is for both the rabbits and the kids: a pissed off or scared rabbit may bite, scratch, or kick, which hurts like hell for an adult (I have scars to prove it–see the image below), so just imagine what it can do to a kid. Also, in struggling to escape, rabbits can seriously injure themselves and possibly even die as a result. You really want to explain to your kid that Mr. Snuffles is in bunny heaven because she hugged him too hard, and he broke his little spine trying to escape her clutches?
6. You don’t plan to or can’t invest in any vet care for them
Rabbits are physically fragile creatures–because of this and their prey animal status, they are designed to breed very easily and often. But you want your bunny to be healthy and happy, right? Of course you do, and that involves vet care.
Let’s talk spay/neuter first: if you have more than one rabbit (regardless of the genders), you HAVE to spay/neuter. Male rabbits especially, but females too, become dangerously aggressive with each other if they’re not fixed. We learned this the hard way.
Females can also develop health problems, like reproductive cancers, if their reproductive organs are allowed to just hang out without being used for constant baby-makin’.
Besides that, thus far we’ve had two major incidents that necessitated vet visits: the first was a nasty ear mite infestation (which we now know how to identify earlier and treat holistically before it becomes a serious problem) and the other was when one of our bunnies had runny eyes, which was being caused by some kind of infection. We’re still not entirely sure what caused it, but antibiotics (injections, oral and cream in his eyes three times a day) didn’t help. He got progressively worse, despite the treatment, and he ended up having to be put to sleep. It’s still one of the saddest things that’s ever happened to us, and we still miss our lil’ “teeny Houdini” every day. He was truly one of a kind. Could we have saved him with earlier intervention? Maybe. It’s impossible to say. But we did our best, and that’s all the good rabbit Lord can ask of you.
Rabbit keeping is totally worth the effort (all great things are), but it’s essential to enter the situation with the correct expectations and a complete understanding of the potential challenges involved. If none of this list was a deal breaker for you, and you’re still up for heading on down the rabbit hole, let me be the first to say “Welcome.”